Dark Desires
by John R. Plunkett

Officer Ron Haroldson watched with an appropriately detached, professional eye as the public shuffled past. Even after six months Te Papa's new Egyptian exhibit still drew crowds, particularly on the weekend. Ron moved unobtrusively along the back the exhibit area, watching the people but also glancing at the exhibit itself.

Intricately carved and lavishly decorated statues of Isis, Osiris, Anubis, and Bast- each about two and a half meters tall- stood in a semicircle facing the centerpiece of the exhibit, a mummy case placed almost vertically so visitors could see it clearly. Behind the statues massive stele, sandstone slabs carved with images and glyphs, lined the wall. Two chariots- one intact, the other in pieces- occupied glass cases beside and slightly behind the mummy. Freestanding display cases exhibited everything from brightly painted miniature statues to authentic jewelry to detailed reconstructions of ancient Egyptian clothing. And yet, though copious quantities of gold and precious gems decorated nearly every piece in the collection, it was the mummy in its plain linen wrappings which seemed to draw the most attention. There always seemed to be a group of people crowded around it, even during the off hours, and today was no exception. A group of primary school children watched in rapt fascination as their teacher explained the mummification process.

One observer was clearly neither a student nor a chaperone. She stood at the back of the group, close enough to be associated with them and apparently listening closely to the lecture, but- at least in Ron's mind- her demeanor set her apart. In ten years of security work Ron had seen many people. This woman was not the sort who shepherded kids around. She looked more like- like-

A sheepstealer. Ron allowed himself a hint of a smile. Folks from abroad sometimes asked how a person could tell the difference between an Australian and a New Zealander. Ron supposed that from a distant perspective the distinctions might seem subtle but to him, a Kiwi born and raised, they showed as clearly as night and day. The woman- a dingo, no less- came from Australia or he'd eat his hat. It remained only for her to speak, then he'd know from exactly where. If her clothing gave any indication it was the interior; a khaki safari jacket and trousers clothed her lean frame, heavy hiking boots protected her feet, and even in here a battered Akubra hat shaded her face. She looked fit and reasonably attractive but Ron couldn't fix her age. Her looks, ruggedly handsome rather than beautiful, were a sort that didn't change much over time and could belong to someone anywhere between twenty-five and forty.

Suddenly Ron noticed that the woman's dark eyes had shifted, looking not at the mummy or the lecturing teacher but at him. Quickly he revised his estimation; naturally he'd assumed her to be a faker. Damn Paul Hogan anyway, he thought grimly. Sure it was the Australians who got the worst of it but it was the principle of the thing. This woman wasn't a faker; her gear really did look worn and not in a flashy, ostentatious way either. More than that, the woman herself looked... hard. Like a desert flower, exotic and beautiful but tempered by searing heat, biting cold, driving wind, and bitter drought. Maybe, Ron found himself thinking, She really was a sheepstealer.

Deliberately Ron turned and resumed his slow walk. It wasn't appropriate to stare at visitors and anyone he suspected might be alerted by the attention. He kept the woman in the corner of his eye until he passed behind her, out of her line of sight. She returned her attention to the lecture.

Ron's left hand brushed something cold and metallic. He paused, glancing up and frowning. At the back of the hall- directly opposite the mummy, as a matter of fact- stood a figure that did not go with the rest of the exhibit. A Japanese Samurai warrior, cast in bronze and dressed in armor made of riveted iron plates, squatted in an aggressive stance with his hands upon the hilts of his swords. His face- a scowling mask with grotesquely distorted features- glared balefully with empty eyes at anyone who dared look at him. Ron wasn't an expert by any stretch but he'd picked up quite a bit during his time at Te Papa. Certainly enough to know that the figure- a sixteenth century Kamakura tomb guardian- came from a completely different era as well as the other side of the world. The only thing he saw connecting it to the Egyptian artifacts was that it, like the statues opposite, was meant to watch over the dead and keep them safe from grave robbers. Ron couldn't imagine what this fellow could do that Isis, Osiris, Anubis, and Bast couldn't. Besides, wouldn't the mummy prefer an Egyptian guardian? Wouldn't it be like having a stranger move into your house after you'd gotten it all arranged just how you wanted it?

While looking at the figure Ron had lost sight of the dingo woman. He quickly scanned the exhibit hall but caught no sight of her. He frowned, caressing the buttoned holster at his hip. He considered calling in the encounter but discarded the notion. The woman hadn't done anything... but Rod resolved to keep a sharp eye out for her nonetheless. She was trouble, that one. The teacher lectured on, oblivious to the drama playing out right in front of her.

A battered looking FN Fau 7.62 assault rifle lay across Alexsia's lap. She thumbed a final cartridge into the banana clip, then slapped it home into the well with the heel of her hand. When she drew back and released the charging handle the mechanism chambered a round with a quiet snick, metal sliding on metal with glass smooth precision. "Are you ready, Matilda?" she asked, glancing to her right.

Matilda licked her lips, her leather driving gloves creaking faintly as she worked her fingers on the Land Rover's steering wheel. She resembled an Australian shepherd: white fur coated her cheeks and throat, leaving the rest of her head black except for a jagged edged white patch on her forehead. Her short, flopped-over ears protruded through a dark, curly mane trimmed off at shoulder length and restrained by a hair net. The tunic, jacket, and trousers she wore were clearly men's styles but no one could possibly see the fleshy, full-figured body they clothed as anything but female. She inhaled sharply and exhaled through clenched teeth. "Yes," she pronounced.

"Jenny? Helen? Ruth?" Alexsia looked over her shoulder. Four racing style seats, with five point harnesses, were mounted against the sides of the bed, two on either side. In them sat three young women who were obviously sheep: fluffy, platinum blond fleeces bulged from their collars and cuffs, making them appear pudgy despite their trim, athletic figures. Their clothing matched Matilda's; in it they looked identical. Even without it they looked identical.

"Let's get it on." Ruth gave a thumb's up. Jenny and Helen, seated across from her, did the same. They put their fists together as if toasting.

"Right." Alexsia took the Fau off safe with her right thumb and slid her mask on with her left. "Masks on." She glanced around to make sure everyone complied, then took a deep breath, let it out, and focused her attention on a large mechanical clock fixed to the dash board. The second hand swept toward straight up. "Operation begins in... five. Four. Three. Two. One. Now."

Exhaust boomed from the Land Rover's dual pipes as Matilda stomped the accelerator. The vehicle crashed through the fence- previously unlocked- and onto a service road leading up to Te Papa's loading dock. At the last second Matilda swerved onto the walking path and drove behind the museum, around to the main entrance. People on the path gawked and dove out of the way as the Land Rover tore past at open road speeds. Just when it seemed they'd crash headlong into the bollards lining Cable Street Matilda stood on the brake; tires howled and smoked as the Land Rover decelerated hard. She swung around the end of the building and into the yard in front of the main entrance. Again her foot hit the floor; the Land rover charged the doors, its array of electric air horns blaring the opening bars of Waltzing Matilda. Alexsia jerked a lever with her left hand; a metal rack suspended over the cab dropped forward over the wind screen just as the vehicle slammed into the doors. A ram plate affixed to the truck's bow smashed the doors from their frames in a shower of broken glass and twisted metal. With a clash of gears, and steering only through a narrow slit in the armor, Matilda threw the Land Rover into four low and aimed for the stairs. The truck's shocks and springs took the worst of the punishment but the passengers would have been badly injured if they hadn't been securely strapped. The ram plate's flared edges tore away the stairway railings; bolted on armor sheets protected the truck's body panels. At the top of the stairs Matilda jerked the truck out of four wheel drive and threw it into a bootleg turn, reversing it and leaving ugly skid marks on the floor. Display cases and their contents shattered and flew as the Land Rover swept through them like a bulldozer.

Alexsia released her straps, kicked her door open, and leapt out. She fired five rounds into the ceiling to clear out any people who hadn't fled the initial cataclysm and strode briskly into the hall containing the Egyptian exhibit. She took a carefully selected position near the edge of the room where she could watch all the entrances. Ruth, Helen, and Jenny followed, pry bars in hand.

The Egyptians sure liked gold, Alexsia mused. This room alone surely contained enough to keep her and the girls going for years, if not decades, even at bullion prices. Enough that Te Papa felt obligated to post armed guards. Her job in the operation was to keep them off while the others did their jobs.

A flash of motion drew the muzzle of Alexsia's weapon before it consciously drew her attention. Three times she fired, once through a display case that shattered in a spray of glass. Three guards spun away with red stains spreading on their white uniform shirts. They didn't wear body armor, not that it would have mattered against Alexsia's Teflon coated bullets.

Helen smashed the glass case containing the mummy with a roundhouse sweep of her pry bar. All three of them reached in and- gently- lifted the mummy out. Slowly, carefully, they shuffled toward the Land Rover, supporting their burden as much as possible. Though much lighter than a normal body the mummy was fragile and could easily break if mishandled.

A guard stepped out from behind the Japanese statue across the hall, his pistol already raised and aimed.

Ron couldn't say what caused him to linger in Egyptian exhibit on this particular afternoon. The Kamakura guardian intrigued him, though by itself no more than any other item. Perhaps it was the juxtaposition, the odd clash of Egyptian and Japanese motifs. The figures seemed to be facing off, like gunfighters waiting for someone to make the first move. He'd always meant to ask Dr. Lathasar why she put the Kamakura figure here but never quite got around to it.

The alarms started a fraction of a second after something crashed through the museum's front doors with a noise like the Trump of Doom. Ron glanced toward the main hall, hand reaching for his pistol. Instead of going there he stepped behind the Japanese warrior, hidden from view by its dark bulk. When the Land Rover spun to a stop in the hall outside he knew he'd chosen correctly. He charged his pistol and flicked off the safety.

Even with the crocodile mask covering her face and the ridiculous okker getup she wore Ron instantly recognized the dingo woman. Her build was right, her tail was right... and those hard, dark eyes were absolutely right. Yet Ron did nothing, even as three sheep accomplices dashed by with tools in hand. The way she gripped the assault rifle, firmly but comfortably, convinced him that she knew how to use it. If he moved now-

Three shots rang out, deafening thunderclaps in the enclosed space. By an effort of supreme will Ron didn't flinch, remaining perfectly still. He couldn't see where the bullets went but he knew what he'd find. Those hard eyes wouldn't miss a target anywhere in front of them. The woman side-stepped, glancing over her shoulder then turning about to cover the main entrance. Ron couldn't suppress a feral grin. Even the best eyes in the world could only look one way at a time. He rose smoothly, his pistol gripped firmly in both hands. As he stepped sideways to get a clear shot his finger tightened on the trigger. He was supposed to always give criminals a chance to surrender before using deadly force but all that seemed to be a thousand years ago in another life. What existed between him and the dingo woman was something primal and violent, to whom the distinctions of civilization were utterly meaningless. Ron didn't realize it consciously but as he moved he let out a yell, a yell like the iron warrior beside him might have uttered as he charged into battle.

Alexsia threw herself aside, spinning and firing in one motion. She didn't care for killing, though she'd do it where necessary. The other guards she'd taken down with carefully placed shots; with prompt medical attention they should all be fine. With this one there wasn't time to be careful. Sharp pain tore her left bicep; behind her a display case shattered and a collection of jewelry went flying. In front of her the last guard stood with a look of shock and surprise on his face. blood soaked into his shirt from a wound in the center of his chest. He fell backwards against the Japanese statue; as he slumped to the ground he smeared a stain of blood on its arm and kirtle. Matilda drove back down the stairs. Helen, Jenny, and Ruth followed on foot, carrying the mummy. Alexsia went last, trying to look every way at once. She ignored the pain in her arm. Twice she fired to drive guards into cover.

At the foot of the stairs Jenny, Helen, and Ruth lay the mummy in a foam lined box bolted to the Land Rover's bed. "Clear!" Matilda shouted and pressed a button on the dash board. Charges fired with deafening reports; the Land Rover's armor panels fell away, including the ram plate. The windscreen shield slid down rails mounted over the bonnet; as it went over the nose it flipped the rails off behind it. Alexsia leapt in back with the triplets and all four of them strapped in hastily. Shed of its excess weight the Land Rover took off like a rocket but Matilda kept the speed down as she pulled out onto Jervois Quay. They'd been in and out of Te Papa in less than two minutes; police would only now be responding. Without its armor the Land Rover looked markedly different; hopefully that would buy them some time. Matilda turned sharply onto Harris, then up Victoria. She ran the light at Dixion because time was getting short. At Vivian she swerved briefly into the oncoming lane to pass a line of cars waiting to turn and floored the accelerator. The Land Rover roared up the entrance ramp onto the Wellington Urban Motorway.

Alexsia tore off her mask because she couldn't see well enough with the damn thing on. "Jettison!" she screamed. She and the three girls each slapped a release handle at a corner of the truck's bed and lifted. The top cover came loose; slipstream caught it and flipped it away. It crashed into the roadway, tumbling like a leaf. After that Alexsia and the girls held on very carefully; Matilda kept her foot hard on the floor and dodged violently around other vehicles. The speedometer needle crept inexorably around the dial until it pegged just past the marker indicating 200 km/h. The supercharged, performance conversion engine with dual tuned pipes was paying off; the police would be hard pressed to catch them now. Nevertheless Alexsia kept a firm grip on her rifle and continually scanned not only the road but the sky above. This was the most dangerous phase of the operation; the hills around Wellington sharply limited the number of possible egress routes. The Urban Motorway was fast but a well placed roadblock could put an end to things right quick.

A helicopter appeared. "Kerosene taxi!" Helen shouted, pointing with her arm.

Alexsia allowed herself a brief smile. At least the kids were watching. "Hold me!" she commanded, crouching in the Land Rover's bed. Helen and Ruth griped her torso so she wouldn't be thrown out. Without a doubt the helicopter was patrolling the motorway. Equally without a doubt it had spotted the fleeing Land Rover and was directing a police intercept. Alexsia thrust the Fau butt-first at Jenny, who took it and clipped it to the cab bulkhead. She took down the 12.7 Nitro Express, opened the breech, fed in a cartridge nearly as long as her hand, and passed the weapon to Alexsia. She raised it to her shoulder, carefully drawing a bead on the helicopter. As a precaution against ground fire police helicopters came with Kevlar armor plating their bellies. A bullet that could punch through the cranial vault of an African elephant would make little of that- assuming that a marksman could, using only iron sights, guide that bullet from the vibrating, pitching bed of a speeding Land Rover-

The rifle's report sounded like a bomb going off. A fierce muzzle flash lit the truck's bed, visible even in the afternoon sunshine. Recoil slammed Alexsia and Ruth against the bed wall, nearly pitching them out. Alexsia felt like she'd been kicked by a horse. But the helicopter turned away and vanished from sight. Even as one foe retired from the field others came forth; Helen shouted incoherently and pointed astern. In the distance flashing lights revealed the presence of pursuing police cars.

"Fau!" Alexsia commanded, holding out her hand. Ruth slammed a fresh clip into the Fau and exchanged it for the Nitro Express. Alexsia knelt, sighting directly aft. The police cars were occasional winks of light between other traffic; she wouldn't get a shot until they got closer or the road cleared. She didn't want them to get closer and clearing the road- well, that might not be too difficult after all. As the Land Rover roared past a semi truck Alexsia fired half a dozen rounds into its windscreen. She didn't hit the driver- she didn't think she hit the driver- but the tractor swerved, skidding and going over with a crash. The trailer jackknifed, sweeping the road. Half a dozen other vehicles piled into the semi, forming an impassable barricade. Ruth, Helen, and Jenny whooped excitedly. Alexsia resumed her seat, strapping down but holding the Fau in her lap. She didn't regret what she'd done but she didn't consider it anything to cheer about. She deemed it necessary to get the job done, no more and no less. Besides, they'd evaded but one of many dangers. Alexsia searched the eastern coast of the bay and finally spotted a tendril of smoke trailing into the sky from the vicinity of Eastbourne. She nodded; that meant the fire was still going. Which greatly increased their chances of getting away so long as the authorities- and others- remained distracted. Their doom would come down the Western Hutt Road; Alexsia looked ahead as much as possible but the roaring slip stream tore at her eyes. Not that it mattered; all she'd see was a flash of blue and gold-

The Land Rover heeled violently, its tires howling, as Matilda threw it violently onto the Johnsonville-Porirua Motorway turnoff. Their speed dropped considerably and even the performance enhanced engine labored as they attacked the punishing grade through Ngauranga Gorge. Alexsia flipped the Fau to full automatic and stitched the bonnets of several cars as the Land Rover barreled past them, leaving another accident blocking the motorway's lower entrance. Now all they had to do was get clear of the top end before the police set up a barricade ahead of them. She hid the Fau under her seat; Ruth did the same with the Nitro Express. Matilda kept the speed down to only moderately more than the traffic. Now, hopefully, they were just a bunch of hoons out on a joyride and not instantly recognizable as armed robbers.

Just above Porirua the motorway ended quite abruptly at a roundabout. Matilda joined the line of cars and eventually struggled through onto the Paramata Bridge. Alexsia still saw no sign of organized pursuit; perhaps they'd made it after all. At Otaki they left the motorway and headed into the mountains, taking back roads, dirt tracks, and even game trails. At a particular spot they stopped; the triplets refilled the Land Rover's fuel tanks from a two hundred liter drum hidden under a pile of brush and dead leaves, Matilda removed and replaced the license plate, and Alexsia retrieved an engine powered pressure washer from beneath a stained tarpaulin. The work of only a few minutes stripped away the Land Rover's battleship gray paint, exposing matte khaki beneath. The cache also produced a new top; Alexsia and the triplets installed it while Matilda completed the washing. Lastly, all five of them shed their shed their clothing and donned replacements. The triplets put on denim overalls, Matilda a long-sleeved blouse and pleated skirt. Alexsia couldn't help sighing as she pulled on her safari jacket and trousers. Settling her Akubra hat on her head felt like coming home. Disguised now as ordinary travellers they returned to the motorway and continued north, leaving their discards littering the ground. The police would find the cache eventually, hidden or no, and though no longer pressing time was still very much of the essence. Fifty hours hence, give or take a few, the container ship A. Bertram Chandler would leave Auckland harbor bound for Perth. If Alexsia and company weren't on board, well, that was just too bad.

The sun hung low in the sky when Matilda took them off State Route One north of Waiouru and turned east. Full dark had fallen by the time they arrived at the location of their second cache. Alexsia slung the Fau over her shoulder and jumped down into a sea of grass and scrub stirred by a sharp, southerly wind. In daylight gray, jagged mountains with white capped peaks rose in the distance; at night they could be seen only by where they blocked out the stars. The Land Rover would show for kilometers in the open plain but Alexsia wasn't concerned; this was, after all, the natural place for a four-by-four to be. Besides, they'd be on their way come first light. Several crates, hidden by coverings of sod, produced food, camping gear, and more fuel for the truck. While Matilda and the triplets set up tents, laid out sleeping bags, and assembled the camp stove, Alexsia retrieved a smaller, locked box, buried separately from the others. Out of it came several neatly typed pages, a flint knife with a bone handle, and a hand-carved mahogany figurine resembling a squatting ape. With these items in hand Alexsia checked on the sheep, four rather forlorn looking specimens occupying a temporary pen set up nearby. Using the stone knife Alexsia scraped a wide circle in the hard soil, then set to inscribing a sequence of complex designs around its periphery, pausing frequently to consult the printed instructions. Finally she sat back on her heels and dusted her hands on her thighs. "Fetch the guest of honor," she directed. Jenny, Helen, and Ruth carefully lifted the mummy out of its box and lay it in the center of the diagram. Alexsia used a pair of surgical scissors to open the wrappings.

"Cor," Ruth muttered, peering over Alexsia's shoulder. "She don't look like much, do she?"

"Being dead'll do that to a bloke," Alexsia replied.

The linen wrappings comprised most of the mummy's bulk. Stripped of them the corpse itself seemed to be little more than a skeleton with brittle, leathery flesh stretched tight over it. A pointed muzzle with sharp, predatory teeth suggested that it had been a canine of some sort; other than a few tufts of black fur clinging to equally dark skin little remained to suggest a species. It was female, judging from the flare of its hips and the of breasts laying flat against its chest like a pair of deflated hot water bottles.

"Take your places," Alexsia ordered, handing out sheets to Ruth, Jenny, and Helen. "Read the words exactly like we rehearsed them," Alexsia continued, fixing each of the girls in turn with a hard stare. "If you screw this up- well, let's just say there are fates worse than death. I'm sure she'd tell you all about them." She glanced briefly at the mummy and took a position by its head. The girls lined up near its feet. Alexsia cleared her throat and began, speaking loudly and clearly, as if delivering a sermon, though the words weren't English. They were of an ancient, secret language known only to a few and taught to Alexsia by a sickly old Aborigine medicine man in return for six kilos of Turkish hashish. Words that, when spoken with the correct pacing and inflection, would open a path to the spirit world.

A darkness somehow deeper than the mere absence of light could account for spread across the plateau, bringing with it a cold that chilled the soul rather than the body. The moaning of the wind seemed to cloak within it strange voices, whispering just beyond the threshold of hearing. Matilda shivered violently, unable to resist the urge to look around. No moon rose to relieve the darkness and a high overcast masked the stars. The wind in her fur felt like icy fingers plucking at her, waiting only for the moment when they would bear her away to unimaginable torments-

"Bring the first sheep!" Alexsia commanded while the girls continued chanting. In her haste Matilda stumbled but she managed to get ahold of the first animal's lead and cajole it over to the circle. Alexsia straddled the sheep, lifted its chin with her left hand, and slit its throat with one quick slash of the stone knife in her right. The sheep bleated and squalled, struggling against Alexsia's grip. Blood gushed from the wound, splashing on the mummy's face and chest.

Matilda whimpered in terror. The voices weren't illusions any more; she heard them, chattering obscenely in the darkness. She saw them, dark shapes jostling indistinctly in the wind like a shoal of minnows. Tendrils of vapor rose from the mummy's bed of blood soaked linen- and suddenly it burst into flame. Or rather something the exact opposite of flame. The tongues danced and crackled like one would expect but they were pale, icy blue around hearts as black as printer's ink. Instead of heat they radiated cold so intense that frost formed on the ground around them. Suddenly the chattering voices fell silent- and so did the girls; they'd reached the end of their chant and now stared in wide-eyed horror and the dark power they'd summoned. Something moaned, a sound like the creaky hinges of a thousand ancient tomb doors swinging ponderously shut. In the heart of the black fire something stirred- and a pair of bright, golden lights appeared.

"The next sheep, hurry!" Alexsia screamed, her voice twisted by fear.

Matilda already had the lead around her wrist. She jerked frantically, practically hauling the second animal by main force. In a fit of hysterical strength Alexsia picked it up and heaved it into the heart of the fire.

The sheep made a sound Matilda had never heard uttered by any living thing. It didn't die off but kept going and going. Matilda felt hot dampness dribbling down her leg as she wet herself. The sheep struggled, trying to leap out of the fire, but tendrils of darkness ensnared it. Its fleece turned black as the flames engulfed it. Suddenly the cries changed in character; the sheep's body seemed to turn liquid like metal melting in a crucible-

The flames vanished. All sound ceased. Even the wind seemed to pause for a moment before resuming its eternal march. Darkness pressed like a physical weight against Matilda's retinas.

Something moved where the sheep and the mummy lay. Alexsia switched on a torch. The mummy's linens, and the body itself, had disintegrated into fine white ash. A circle of thick, hoary frost surrounded it. The ewe... wasn't a ewe any more. Its fleece had changed to silky fur as impenetrably black as the flames had been. That fur coated the body of a voluptuously figured woman laying face down in the pile of ash. She resembled a fox, Matilda thought, with a pointed muzzle, tall, sharp ears, and a long, fluffy tail. She coughed, then vomited up what looked like partially digested grass. She pushed herself up and looked around with eyes as intensely gold as a cat's.

"Well, Kremmin, what have we here?" Inspector Tekukuni Samson inquired. He scuffed his foot around a piece of twisted metal as if contemplating kicking it.

Constable George Kremmin suppressed a yawn. It had been a long day and now it looked to be a long night as well. Dozens of constables manned hastily erected barricades, holding spectators and reporters at bay. Other officers sifted through the wreckage scattered around Te Papa's shattered main entrance, carefully cataloging everything they found. "Five females in a gray, heavily modified, 1983 Land Rover drove through the building's main entrance and up the stairs. Three of them were sheep, the other two canines, one light brown or tan, the other dark. All of them wore Crocodile Dundee costumes, complete with masks. At the top of the stairs they reversed the vehicle; the light-furred dog and the three sheep entered the Egyptian exhibit. The dog carried a Belgian Fau 7.62 assault rifle, with which she shot several museum guards while the sheep broke open the mummy's display case and took it."

Inspector Samson looked up suddenly. "They took the mummy?" he asked. "Anything else?"

Kremmin shook his head. "No sir. After their violent entrance and shooting it out with the guards there was gold and jewelry scattered all over the floor. They kicked it out of their way as they carried the mummy to their vehicle."

"Bloody Hell," Samson muttered. He thrust his hands into the pockets of his trench coat and paced back and forth in the lobby.

Kremmin's brow furrowed ever so slightly. Inspector Samson was a whippet: tall, skinny, and hyper-kinetic. That he'd only recently quit smoking made him even more nervous and impatient than usual. In place of a cigarette he gnawed on a rawhide chew toy. Kremmin had seen him go through one in less than a regular shift. The constable was a bulldog, with a bulldog's squat but powerful build. He also possessed something of a bulldog's mentality, believing firmly that slow and steady accomplished more than fits of hysterical activity. Likewise when he set his teeth into something, dislodging him was exceedingly difficult. Together, it was sometimes said, they resembled Mutt and Jeff.

"What about the guards?" Samson asked.

"Most are expected to recover," Kremmin said. "Except one. He took a round in the chest that grazed his heart. He's in critical condition after emergency surgery. The prognosis isn't good."

Samson hurried up the stairs. A bustle of activity filled the exhibit hall; officers and technicians photographed everything in sight, sprayed for fingerprints, or searched with magnifying glasses for fibers or footprints. In spite of the apparent chaos things proceeded in a very orderly fashion. Of the people present one was clearly neither a museum employee nor a police officer. She resembled a Sheltie collie, with a slim, pointed muzzle and ears that folded over at the tips. Golden orange fur covered much of her body, except for a white patch that started on the lower half of her face and ran all the way down the front of her body, continuing on the insides of her thighs to just short of her knees. A black saddle covered her back between the bottoms of her shoulder blades and the tops of her buttocks. The side edges didn't quite meet the white on her front; a narrow strip of orange separated them. A wavy, nut brown mane hung loose almost to the small of her back and a fluffy tail sprouted from the base of her spine, reaching to mid-calf. She wore nothing but a dark blue bikini-like garment with gold trim, plus a matching cape secured by a large, gold medallion, and knee-high boots. Gold bracelets circled her wrists and her left thigh; in her right hand she grasped a hook-headed staff, a shepherd's crook, slightly longer than her height. The costume didn't leave much to the imagination and she was, without a doubt, well worth looking at. A pair of large, firm breasts swelled her top, accenting an already nicely formed torso. From a trim but muscular waist her body flared out into shapely hips and meaty thighs, terminating with well developed calves and delicate feet. She stood nearly as tall as Inspector Samson, a hand's breath higher than Kremmin.

"And where were you while all this excitement was happening?" Samson demanded as he and Kremmin approached the oddly dressed woman. His tone sounded jocular rather than accusing, but only partly.

"Dealing with an apartment fire in Eastbourne," the woman replied. "I headed up to Porirua as quickly as I could but had to stop and assist with an accident in Ngauranga Gorge. By the time I finished with all that the criminals were long gone."

"It's not Super Collie's fault that the apartment fire drew her away," Kremmin pointed out. "She saved the lives of a dozen people and prevented the fire from spreading."

"Meanwhile, here in Wellington some people raid the national museum," Samson growled. "Coincidence?"

"The fire marshall's almost positive that the fire was started by an incendiary device," Super Collie replied. "So I'd be inclined to say no. The robbers could very well have planted it to draw me away."


Samson paused. A young woman, apparently in her late twenties or early thirties, came down the hall toward him. She was a feline, an Abyssinian, with golden brown fur and expressive gray eyes. She wore a blouse and tube skirt that technically conformed to the Business Casual dress standard but still managed to show her slender but artfully curved form to best advantage. "Dr. Lathasar," Samson said with a nod.

"You're certain that all they took was the mummy?" Dr. Lathasar asked.

"Yes," Kremmin replied. "An inventory's being taken but they didn't stay long enough to grab anything else. They came, took the mummy, and they left. In and out in seconds."

"Why George, you sound almost admiring," Samson commented.

"This operation was carefully planned and masterfully executed," Kremmin replied. "Not to mention well financed. They must have spent thousands on the Land Rover alone. They spared no expense, overlooked no detail. They came, took what they wanted, and did what was necessary to make sure they got away with it. So yes, you might say I admire them... but you may rest assured that I shan't be any less inclined to track them down and bring them to justice."

Samson opened his mouth to speak but hesitated, frowning in thought. "Doctor," he said, turning to her, "What could they hope to do with that mummy?"

Dr. Lathasar licked her lips. "They couldn't sell it, it'd be too easy to trace. Besides, it's not authentic. I made it myself, as you know, to replace the one we lost. But if they knew how... they could use it to resurrect Daughter Night."

Super Collie drew a shuddering breath. "Super Collie, what's wrong?" George asked, moving quickly to her side. She looked terrible: drawn, pale.... and frightened. Terrified, even.

"I just- I just-" Super Collie swallowed, leaning heavily on her staff. "I have to go!"

"Wait!" Samson shouted, but it was too late. Super Collie was gone, literally in a flash, a streak of blue and gold running out of the room and down the stairs. She went so quickly that lightweight debris swirled in her wake.

"Bloody great!" Samson spat. "What do we do now?"

"Pray," Dr. Lathasar replied. "Pray like you've never prayed before, to whatever god you worship, that Daughter Night doesn't decide to come back here and finish what she started."

George said nothing. In his mind he saw Wellington burning, seared by the Fire of Ra's Eye, as wielded by the self-proclaimed instrument of his divine wrath, the being who called herself Daughter Night.

Ron didn't know what it was about the figure that drew him. Every time he went through the exhibit he looked at the warrior who squatted with his hands upon his swords as if facing off against the might of ancient Egypt. In a way- though he'd never admit it- he empathized with the ancient warrior. After all, they had the same job: to protect ancient valuables from pilfering or abuse. As he lay in the hospital the warrior's grotesquely distorted features loomed in his fevered dreams.

The thing we were both set to guard has been stolen.

A machine measured Ron's breath in and out of his lungs so he couldn't gasp. The instrument monitoring his heart rate showed a sudden increase.

You are a guardian as well. You feel that failure as keenly as do I.

Ron's fingers twitched. His heart rate skyrocketed.

Come to me. Together we can do what neither can do alone. Only together can we set right what was torn asunder.

Ron's brow furrowed slightly. His head twitched. The line on his ECG became jagged and irregular as his heart went into fibrillation. Suddenly he relaxed, his features setting into an expression almost like... contentment. The line on his ECG went flat. A crash team arrived, summoned by the alarm, but all attempts at resuscitation failed.

Paul-Constandinos Ulysses stood behind his desk, facing an enormous picture window that filled one entire wall of his office. From his penthouse suite on the high end of The Terrace he could survey nearly all of Wellington's Central Business District and Lambton Harbour beyond. Other buildings screened Te Papa from his view but nevertheless his eyes drifted that way. Behind him the annunciator on his private lift chimed; the doors opened and a youngish man- early to middle thirties, perhaps- stepped out. He was a Siamese cat; dark, coffee colored fur on his hands, face, ears, and tail faded into a pale, coffee-with-cream on the rest of him. He wore a black slacks, matching shoes buffed to a high shine, a white, long sleeved, button-up shirt, a black tie, and a long leather jacket.

"Sit down, Daitakerou," Mr. Ulysses directed without turning around. The man nodded and settled himself into a chair facing Mr. Ulysses' desk. As he sat he drew from his belt an ornately decorated katana in a black lacquered sheath and lay it across his lap, the fingers of his right hand resting lightly on the hilt.

Finally Mr. Ulysses turned around. With the room lights off illumination from outside outlined him but otherwise left him in shadow. It did not matter; Daitakerou didn't need light to know that Mr. Ulysses was a gray wolf in his early fifties. He wore an impeccably tailored white on white suit but neither that nor his age in any way diminished the evident power in his large, lean, and thickly muscular body. Daitakerou was not a small man but the top of his head only reached the level of Mr Ulysses' broad shoulders. On top of all that, something in Mr. Ulysses' steel colored eyes suggested that he'd be as at home chasing down a troika on the Russian steppes as in his current opulent surroundings. He was not known as the Big Bad Wolf, ruler of an underground empire that reached to Australia, southeast Asia, and Japan, for nothing. "I assume you've heard the news," he began in a deep but smooth voice that many women had described as desperately sexy.

"I heard there was a burglary at Te Papa," Daitakerou replied. He spoke precise, well-formulated English though with a noticeably Japanese accent. He lacked Mr. Ulysses' honey-smooth delivery- at least in English- but he could do an almost flawless impression of Winston Churchill that, for reasons even he did not understand, somehow landed him more dates than anything save flashing a roll that would choke a horse. A stirring rendition of the "our finest hour" speech turned the ladies to putty in his hands. Especially the Japanese ones, interestingly enough. He'd long ago resolved not to try understanding it for fear of loosing the magic.

"They took the mummy," Mr. Ulysses said.

Daitakerou said nothing, though the news hit him like a punch in the gut. Some nine months ago Daughter Night had stood poised to rain firey destruction upon Wellington on the scale of God smiting Sodom and Gomorra. The police, even the Armed Offenders Squad, fell before her like wheat to the scythe. It wasn't even certain that the army could stop her. Before they got the chance to try Super Collie somehow persuaded her to abandon her mission of vengeance. She healed many who'd suffered during her attack and even brought the dead- several hundred of them- back to life. At the end of it she died, as a result of depleting her life force, Dr. Lathasar said. Dr. Lathasar took the body, mummified it, and placed it in the museum, though it wasn't commonly known that the mummy every one had been looking at for the last six months was, in fact, Daughter Night.

"Now ain't that a hoot," Mr. Ulysses mused. "After all that I never figured someone would steal her. I suppose I should have, considering that I stole her in the first place." His eyes narrowed, fixing on Daitakerou like gun barrels. "But I stole her accidentally. These people stole her deliberately... or if they didn't, it was because she wanted to be stolen. Daitakerou, we cannot take the chance that they night bring her back, deliberately or otherwise." He picked up a folder and handed it across the desk. "Here are the preliminary police reports. They used a heavily modified Land Rover to break into the museum; they must have built it and kept it somewhere close by. Question all the fixers until you find out who did this." He shook his head. "Never mind. You know what to do, Daitakerou. You have my permission to draw whatever resources are necessary. You will track these people down, no matter what it takes. You will make an example of them so that when I say that mummy is not to be touched no one will dare defy me."

Daitakerou rose to his feet and bowed from the waist. "Hai," he said. "It shall be as you say."

"Good." Mr. Ulysses turned back to the window, dismissing Daitakerou with a wave of the hand. Daitakerou retreated to the lift and departed.

It was said that the police had not merely a file but an entire cabinet on Paul-Constandinos Ulysses, whom they strongly suspected to be the Big Bad Wolf. Mr. Ulysses continued to occupy his luxurious penthouse because no case against him had ever been successfully prosecuted. In no small part this was because no one had ever testified against him. Daitakerou Sotohoji, also known as Katakana Kat, was the principle reason no one had ever testified.

Mr. Ulysses' eyes narrowed, his ears lay back, and he bared his teeth in an expression that had reduced the bravest of men to gibbering in hopeless terror. Daitakerou would find these misguided burglars even if he had to follow them to the ends of the earth. And then they would learn the price for defying the will of the Big Bad Wolf. It would be the very last thing they ever learned in this world.

The black furred woman tried pushing herself erect. Her limbs gave out and she fell in a heap, gasping for breath.

"Bloody Hell!" Ruth exclaimed. "We blew all that money and scared ourselves half to death for this?" She indicated the scene with a dismissive flick of the hand. "Alexsia, let's ditch this bludger and skin out of here."

"Shut it off," Alexsia said sharply. She knelt by the woman, gently gripping her shoulders- and starting in shock at how cold she felt. "What's wrong?" she asked. "The Abo shaman gave us this fetish, said it had to be charged by making blood sacrifices. We spent three months at the freezing works charging it up. Are you saying it didn't work?" Alexsia's eyes narrowed slightly. If so she and a certain old man would have words. Six keys of Turkish hashish didn't come cheap.

"It did," the woman gasped. "The... the souls you collected... opened the way... to the spirit world. The creatures... you sacrificed... just now... are what brought me through. You should have... used people."

"That wasn't practical," Alexsia said woodenly. Slaughtering sheep and hogs didn't bother her. Killing people... well, she didn't care for it and hadn't managed to convince herself it was necessary.

"So... you get... what you... pay for," the woman gasped. Her teeth started chattering. "You'd better... wrap me up... or I'll... die again."

Alexsia knew well the woman was going into shock from what felt like hypothermia. She cursed under her breath; thankfully they'd planned on spending the night. "Jenny, Helen, zip two of the sleeping bags together," she commanded. "Then take off all your clothes."

"What?" Helen straightened up suddenly.

"Strip!" Alexsia shouted. "She's freezing, you drongoes! If we all get in the bag with her and keep her warm she might recover. The alternative is I might just decide to see if sacrificing another jumbuk'll bring 'er around!"

All three of the girls glanced at the temporary pen. Two sheep still occupied it but strictly speaking they weren't the only ones available. The triplets muttered under their breath but they obeyed. By then the woman had fallen unconscious. At least she still lived; Alexsia felt her shivering. If she stopped, now that would be a problem. Alexsia fed the woman into the doubled sleeping bag and crammed the triplets in with her. "Rub her gently but don't squeeze too hard," Alexsia cautioned. "Above all, make sure she keeps breathing. If she dies, this is all for nothing."

The night passed slowly, with the wind moaning endlessly. The black woman seemed to suck up heat; every couple hours Alexsia or Matilda had to spell the triplets. At one point Alexsia and Matilda ended up together while the girls rested in their own bags.

"What if the cops catch us out here?" Matilda asked.

"We improvise," Alexsia replied. Under other circumstances she might have enjoyed this but tension put her off the mood. Not to mention that the black furred woman was, in Alexsia's opinion, rather too full figured. Alexsia preferred apples to melons, as the saying went; the black woman's gargantuan mammaries looked like more than a handful for her and Matilda combined. She didn't look distorted only because she had a huge ass to go with her tits.

"Alexsia, I'm worried," Matilda continued.

"So am I," Alexsia replied.

"Should we- I mean-" Matilda began.

"We've been over this," Alexsia cut in. "Are we going to spend the rest of our lives stealing livestock, robbing houses, and being petty thugs? This is our chance to make it into the big time. Black Bitch here has power. Like we never dreamed. So much that not even super heroes can stand against her. Since we brought her to life she's beholden to us."

"But Super Collie defeated her," Matilda pointed out. "That's why she was dead in the first place."

"Not in a real fight," Alexsia countered. "She used headology. Dirty tricks. If she tries that now then we'll be there to stop it."

Matilda said nothing. She snuggled closer against the woman's front; she rather liked the fleshy curves... but in her mind's eye she saw Wellington in flames, the streets littered with charred corpses. She couldn't bring herself to belive that such terrible power could be harnessed so easily.

Dawn broke cold and blustery, the prevailing winds driving a scattered overcast that occasionally sprinkled light but chilly rain on the high plateau. Matilda felt miserable; she hadn't slept hardly at all, what with the tension, switching places every couple hours, and being crammed into a sleeping bag with someone cold. The black woman slept... or, at least, lay unconscious. She seemed in much better shape; her breathing sounded normal and as Matilda explored portions of the woman's body she felt warm instead of cold-

Her eyes opened. "Good morning to you too," she said, rubbing Matilda's hand between her thighs. Matilda jerked her hand away self consciously; she'd only put her hand there to check the woman's temperature. Though if that were the only reason she might not have felt so guilty about it.

"Well, she's up," Helen said petulantly. "Does this mean we can leave now?"

"I need to eat," the woman said. "I feel like my belly's gonna gave in."

"What do we call you?" Alexsia asked. "Do you have a name?"

"Call me Zalika," the woman replied. "Where's the grub?"

"How 'come she talks like an American?" Jenny asked, soto voce.

"Because when I came to life- the first time, that is- I took over the body of an American archeologist," Zalika replied. "I took over his memories, too, which is how I could speak English. Naturally I speak like an American because he did. I hate to belabor a point but can we please get with the eating?"

"Right." Alexsia pulled on her trousers and a tunic. "Break out the rations," she told the girls, moving to the camp stove and turning on the fuel.

"Do we have to do this now?" Matilda asked tensely.

"Do you want me to be ready when the police, or whoever, tries to crash your party?" Zalika countered. Matilda made a face but said nothing.

The cache contained a box of MREs. While Ruth pulled some out Zalika climbed out of the tent. Though still naked the chilly air didn't seem to bother her in the least. "Ah," she exclaimed, noticing the sheep. "I'll have one of these, if you don't mind." She paused, studying the sheep Alexsia had slaughtered the night before. She even knelt and sniffed it. "I happen to be a jackal," she said, noticing Matilda looking at her. "Jackals aren't adverse to eating carrion. In fact, they tended to hang around graveyards and tombs, which is why the Tamerans- whom you call the ancient Egyptians- associated them with death. That's why Anpu, guide of the dead, whom you know as Anubis, is pictured as a black jackal. But however tasty this looks I need something more substantial." She looked at the live sheep; they bleated in fear and retreated to the far corner of the pen. Zalika gestured; the pen opened on its own. She beckoned; one of the sheep came hesitantly forward. It lifted its head, baring its neck. Zalika sank her teeth into the soft flesh. The sheep bleated, struggled, and finally succumbed. Zalika slurped greedily at the hot, arterial blood pouring from the wound she'd inflicted. Finally the blood stopped spurting; Zalika sat back on her heels, patting her visibly distended tummy, and belched loudly. Blood stained her muzzle; she licked it with evident relish. Then she lifted the sheep's head, opened its mouth, and put her own over it as if kissing it. Zalika swallowed- and the sheep shriveled up like an ant burned with an magnifying glass. In only a few seconds nothing remained of it but dried skin pulled tight over the bones beneath. It reminded Alexsia of nothing so much as a cane toad run over by a road train and left on the highway for a few weeks to dry under the fierce summer sun. She forced herself to eat her meal though Zalika's demonstration had crushed her appetite. They'd be driving all day and it wouldn't be practical to stop for food, not when they had to be in Auckland before dawn the day after tomorrow.

"I need to have sex now," Zalika announced.

Matilda spat out her coffee and coughed. Alexsia, who fortunately had just swallowed a bite and not yet taken another lowered her fork. "Say what?" she asked.

"To become fully functional I need to have sex," Zalika explained. "It's how I recharge my power."

"Well, go right ahead," Helen said around a mouthful of chicken with rice. "Don't let us stop you."

"It doesn't do any good for me to do it by myself," Zalika responded somewhat acerbically.

"If you find a man, let us know," Jenny quipped. "We could use a few ourselves."

"I don't need a man," Zalika pointed out. "I merely need to have sex."

Alexsia licked her lips. She'd zeroed in on Zalika's meaning right away, probably because she and Matilda were already lovers. But the episode with the sheep hadn't merely ruined her appetite for food.

"Don't look at us," Ruth said sharply. "We ain't poofters."

"Ever tried it?" Zalika inquired.

"Of course not!" Helen replied hotly.

"Then you don't know what you're missing." Zalika held her hand, palm up, before her, and flexed her middle finger as if rubbing it against something. Helen drew a shuddering breath, her eyelids flickering. She sank to her knees, then flopped over onto her back with her legs spread.

"What the Hell did you do to my sister?" Ruth demanded, jumping up and starting forward. A glance from Zalika froze her as if she'd been clouted in the face. Zalika extended her other hand and wiggled her middle finger. Ruth fell beside Helen. Jenny started forward but seeing the fate of her sisters lost her nerve. She took a step back but Zalika wasn't disposed to let her go. She flicked out her tongue and licked the air. Jenny landed on her face instead of her back.

"I don't see what you're so upset about anyway," Zalika commented, rising and moving to where the three sisters lay, gasping and moaning, on the ground. "Your pussy doesn't know whether it's a man's or a woman's hand that strokes her. Nor does she care. 'Gay' and 'straight' are just words. Made-up things. Lines drawn in the sand. The only real thing is pleasure. The pleasure you feel and the pleasure you share. Forget the words that confine you with arbitrary definitions. Surrender to the pleasure. How can it be unnatural if it feels so good?" Zalika sank to her knees directly in front of Jenny, who looked up at her timidly. Jenny dropped her gaze, but only so far as Zalika's crotch. She scooted forward and- timidly at first but with growing confidence- licked Zalika's vulva. Zalika leaned forward a little, slid her hands up Helen and Ruth's thighs, probing their vaginas gently with her index and middle fingers.

Alexsia forced herself to put down her meal before she spilled it. Zalika's sultry, sexy voice lent an irresistible power to her words. In spite of everything Alexsia's nipples felt so hard they ached. "How long is this going to take?" she demanded gruffly.

"An hour or two," Zalika replied. "May I use the tent?"

"Yes, go ahead." Alexsia didn't watch as Zalika herded Helen, Jenny, and Ruth into one of the tents and zipped up the flap. The thin walls didn't stop the sounds issuing from within.

"What do we do now?" Matilda asked.

"Police up," Alexsia replied. "When Zalika finishes we'll need to move fast."

Cleaning up and packing everything away didn't take long. Rather than sit on the ground watching the tent shake Alexsia climbed into the Land Rover's cab. Matilda joined her. "All I can think about is the police closing in on me," Alexsia groused. It was a lie; she knew it even before it came out of her mouth. All she could think about were Zalika's enormous breasts, with nipples as black as her fur. Zalika's fleshy buttocks. Zalika's exceptionally long, exceptionally dexterous tongue. "Screw it," she said, pulling Matilda close and kissing her fervently.

Esmerelda Braithwaite pulled into a modest parking lot near a small, peaked-roofed building made of hand-fitted stone. Bright morning sunshine slanted down across an intensely blue mountain lake surrounded by gray, snow-capped peaks. The building- obviously a church- sat on a spit of land thrust out into the water. Esmerelda switched off the car's engine and lay back in her seat for a moment. The stunning scenic beauty of the place hardly touched her; she was exhausted, physically and emotionally. She'd driven non-stop since yesterday night: from Petone to Wellington, across Cook strait on the Lynx fast ferry to Picton, along the coast to Christchurch, and finally up into the mountains of Canterbury. The end of her journey brought her to the sleepy township of Lake Tekapo, set at the southern tip of the lake of the same name. There she found this place: the Church of the Good Shepherd. But even that wasn't what she'd come all this way to see. She got out of the car and looked around; down near the water's edge stood a tall cairn capped by a heavy boulder. Atop the boulder stood a bronze statue of a sheepdog. Esmerelda walked toward it, unconsciously straightening and smoothing her Navy blue jacket and tube skirt. They really needed cleaning and pressing to make them presentable. For that matter Esmerelda herself desperately needed a bath. At the foot of the monument she paused, looking up at the bronze sheepdog's alert, attentive face. She half expected it to go bounding off in pursuit of strays. Her hand fished under the edge of her blouse, drawing out a pendant hanging on a fine, silver chain. It looked like a tiny shepherd's crook. She curled her fingers around it tightly.

"I... I feel kind of funny coming here," Esmerelda began in a halting voice. "But... I don't know where else to turn. I had... a dream last night, you see. The strange thing is I wasn't even asleep. One minute I'm talking to George and Cymbeline... the next I'm walking beside a line of sheep. But they were dead. Their foreheads had been smashed in and their throats slit. They led me up to a... a pool of black. One by one they hopped into it and... melted. Like snow in water. I stepped into the pool... and found myself in a tomb. It was Egyptian; I saw hieroglyphs and little figures painted on the walls. But... they moved. I saw it in the corners of my eyes... and I heard them, whispering to one another. In the middle of the room I saw her. Zalika- Daughter Night- laying on a slab. She wore a white gown, gold bracelets on her wrists and ankles, a big collar that covered her shoulders, and a black jackal mask. When I first arrived she looked... all dead and dried up. As I watched she... came back. Her skin filled out, her fur turned silky and smooth. Suddenly she sat up and shouted something at me. That's when I woke up." Esmerelda dabbed tears from her eyes. "I... I was so scared. I came straight here. I only barely defeated her last time. If she's come back..." Esmerelda gulped, unable to continue.

The sky turned gray. The mountains and lake softened, loosing color and definition. Only the monument remained vivid... and it seemed almost to absorb the color and detail drained from everything else. Suddenly the bronze sheepdog looked down at Esmerelda. "You are not alone, Sister," it said in a voice that sounded like hundreds of voices speaking in perfect synchrony. "It was the goodness in your heart, the strength of your love, that defeated the Dark One."

"But..." Esmerelda swallowed. "Is she back? Is that what the dream meant?"

"Yes," the sheepdog replied. "But those who brought her back into this world don't- can't- understand what they've unleashed. In a way they are victims as well."

Esmerelda nodded. "How do I find them?"

"I will show you where to begin," the statue continued. "Take my hand." It reached out its paw.

Esmerelda stood on tip-toe. Her fingertips touched the outstretched paw- and suddenly she found herself holding the hand of a young- about her own age- border collie man. He wore a denim trousers and a loose tunic of archaic style and a long, gray cloak. Esmerelda gasped; he was breathtakingly handsome. She stared; she couldn't help it.

He chuckled. "Come with me, lass." He stepped forward, gently pulling Esmerelda's hand. The sound of his voice, the warmth of his touch, made her heart pound fit to leapt out of her chest. She stepped forward- and suddenly found herself in another place. She gasped, pulling close to him.

Despite a clear sky and bright sunshine Esmerelda felt icy cold. She and her companion stood in a sea of grass; in the distance Mt. Ruapehu loomed above them. All around stood a flock of sheep, hundreds it seemed. Each and every one had been butchered: forehead smashed in, throat slit, eviscerated, and skinned. Nevertheless they stood, staring at Esmerelda with their glassy, dead eyes. Then, one by one, they faded away. Now Esmerelda saw that the grass had been crushed down, by vehicles, people walking, and probably a tent or two. She saw a circle of bare ground sprinkled with ash, as if someone had lit a fire there. Esmerelda frowned; they'd done it without clearing the ground properly or laying stones to contain it. They could easily have started a grass fire.

Dark, miasmic vapors oozed from the pile of ash. They lay close to the ground and gradually thickened, becoming liquid rather than vaporous. Esmerelda edged forward, looking down into what was now an impenetrably black puddle. She leapt back, shrieking in terror. The puddle wasn't opaque. It was a hole, a gateway opened onto the blackest pits of Hell.

"Esmerelda!" The border collie held her by the forearms. They stood atop the Sheepdog Monument where the statue should have been but wasn't. "Esmerelda, don't be afraid. The darkness can't touch you so long as you carry us with you."

"But-" Esmerelda slipped her arms around his torso, hugging him tightly. The sensation of his hard, muscular body pressed against hers and the rich, masculine smell of him in her nostrils intoxicated her. "How... where do I go from there?"

"I can't tell you that, Sister." He gently stroked Esmerelda's head and back. "We only see what's been, not what's to come. You are the Guardian. You must seek her." He gently lifted Esmerelda's chin. "Follow your instincts and heart, dear Sister. Remember that wherever you go we walk beside you. Let our eyes pierce the veil of lies the Dark One draws around herself." He leaned his head forward, gently brushing his nose against hers. "You're strong, dear Sister. Stronger than you know." He kissed her.

With a shuddering intake of breath Esmerelda woke up. She sat in her car, where she'd apparently dozed off. She saw two motorcycles parked nearby; a couple had laid out a picnic on the grass near the church. They watched quizzically as Esmerelda struggled out of her car. She felt stiff and sore, both from the drive and from falling asleep in an unnatural position. A decidedly cool breeze blew across the lake but Esmerelda felt hot. She wanted to strip off her clothes and run around on all fours-

No, running around wouldn't be necessary, Esmerelda decided. She'd be content to wait... on her hands and knees... with her tail hiked up... for that man she'd seen in her dream. She imagined him kneeling behind her, placing his hands gently on her hips-

Esmerelda shook her head violently to dislodge the image. She'd gotten what she came for and now the time was to act on it, not indulge idle sexual fantasies. But first she needed to loosen up. She commenced a circuit of the church, staying as close to the water as was reasonably possible. As she approached the Sheepdog Monument her hand strayed to her throat. She didn't actually fish out the pendant but she did caress it through the front of her blouse. She found herself wondering what the picnicking couple would think if they knew that this quiet, unassuming place was the focal point of Super Collie's power. What if they knew that the quiet, unassuming Esmerelda Braithwaite, software beta tester, actually was Super Collie? In spite of her physical and emotional depletion she giggled. Being Super Collie wasn't easy. At times it had cost her dearly. But she still felt an almost childish delight at having a secret. Unfortunately the secret wasn't entirely her own. Four others knew it... and one of them was Daughter Night. When she completed her circuit Esmerelda got back in the car, started the engine, and headed back toward Wellington. Her journey wasn't over, it had only just begun.


Alexsia blinked. She lay on her back in the Land Rover's bed, where the mummy box had been. She tightened her grip on Matilda's buttocks, lifting her shoulders to look past them. A uniformed police officer stood behind the truck; as was normal he carried only a club but it hardly mattered. Alexsia wouldn't be able to disentangle herself from Matilda and grab the Fau before he either dragged them both out of the truck or clubbed them unconscious. He grabbed Matilda's arm and hauled her out. She yelped as he threw her to the ground and cuffed her hands behind her. Another officer hauled Alexsia out by the feet. Alexsia felt sick; she hadn't even noticed them drive up. This is going to look great in the headlines, she thought darkly. Robbers caught in the midst of lesbian orgy.

Having seen to Matilda and Alexsia the constables moved up to the occupied tent. "Zalika, look out!" Alexsia shouted. The constables went in. The tent thrashed and shuddered, accompanied by a chorus of shrieks, cures, yells, and meaty smacking sounds. Jenny, Helen, and Ruth scrambled out on hands and knees, naked as jaybirds. Helen at least had the presence of mind to grab the Fau from the Land Rover and cover the tent, which had fallen ominously silent. Then the flap lifted... and Zalika emerged, looking immensely pleased with herself. "Luckily they weren't here for us, or they'd have come armed and in force," she commented. "They were looking for those sheep." She nodded toward the pen and its single remaining occupant. "Whoever you hired to steal them did a pissy job, I'm afraid." She nodded to Alexsia. "But it's okay now. They won't bother us and they won't be telling anyone they saw us." She knelt behind Alexsia and Matilda; Alexsia felt her grab the cuffs and pull sharply. Both Alexsia and Matilda yelped in surprise; Alexsia felt the metal slide through her wrists. She rubbed them, trying to banish the sensation, but failed. It lingered in her mind even after it faded from her wrists.

"Put that up before you accidentally shoot someone," Zalika said, wiggling a finger at Helen. The air around Zalika's hand shimmered as if with heat haze. So did that around the Fau as it plucked itself from Helen's grip and tucked itself back under the Land Rover's rear seats.

"We gotta get outta here," Alexsia said hoarsely, staggering to her feet, still rubbing her wrists. She and Matilda had already packed everything but he tents and sleeping bags. For a long moment she stared at the tent into which the officers had gone. With a sense of terrible foreboding she walked up to it and peeked inside. The two constables lay on their sides, naked, engaged in mutual fellatio. She shook her head, attempting to clear it of the sense of nightmarish unreality that had fallen over the scene. "Everyone get dressed," she ordered. "Pack the other tent and the sleeping bags. Leave that one."

"What do I wear?" Zalika asked. Matilda passed her a pair of camouflage patterned BDU trousers, a khaki tank top, a fatigue jacket, and combat boots. Zalika pulled them on; despite the garments' generally shapeless construction her fulsome, curvaceous form showed through so blatantly that she almost might as well have been naked. The outfit did not include under things; what Zalika's massive mammaries, unrestrained by a brassiere, did to the tank top was surely illegal. Though at least now she didn't look like an undead terror from beyond the grave. She looked like... an undead terror from beyond the grave in bush gear, an okker Dracula. Alexsia grimaced; in making her plans that was one thing she hadn't considered. Somehow she knew that no matter what Zalika wore her true nature would show through it. Maybe one of those full body things Muslim women wore... but no. That wouldn't cover her eyes. Those cat gold orbs were her most unsettling feature by far.

"Do you mind if I sit in front?" Zalika asked.

"What? No," Alexsia replied, shaking off her preoccupation. She felt more comfortable in back with the guns though with the Land Rover's top on there wouldn't be much she could do with them.

"Thanks." Zalika opened the passenger side door just as Helen leapt up onto the truck's bonnet and scrambled up to the roof. Jenny and Ruth started handing up the gear. Zalika watched this for a moment, then gestured. Helen let out a yelp as she was plucked from her perch and placed back upon the ground. The tent, sleeping bags, camp stove, rations, fuel cans, and everything else soared into the air and arranged itself neatly on the Land Rover's roof rack. The tie-downs secured themselves and the stowing was complete, in no more than about ten seconds.

"Good show with the gear," Alexsia commented as they drove off. "So what else do you do?"

"I'm super strong, super tough, I can walk through solid objects, I can read minds, control them, project illusions that look entirely real, shape flesh, and bring the dead back to life," Zalika replied. "I can also make myself immune to bullets and other projectiles, though doing so is draining. Where are we headed, by the way?"

"To a safe house in Waiouru," Alexsia replied. "There we dump the Rover and get a new car."

"And then?" Zalika prompted. "Hey, I'm part of the gang now, right?" she added when Alexsia didn't respond at once.

"Yeah, you are." Alexsia sighed. "We drive to Auckland, board a ship that takes us to Australia, and hide out in the Tanami Desert until the heat goes down."

"Hmm." Zalika rubbed her chin thoughtfully. "I hate to tell you this but the heat, as you say, isn't likely to go down soon. There is, for example, the fact that I'm sure the New Zealand government doesn't like me much after what I did to Wellington. Not to mention that I double crossed the Big Bad Wolf."

Matilda stood on the brake. The Land Rover slid to a stop; Alexsia slammed her face painfully against the bulkhead. "This is insane!" Matilda shrieked. "That creepy old Abo, the freezing works, that awful ritual and now this! The Big Bad Wolf never forgets a betrayal! We might as well drive off a cliff right now and get it over with!"

"Matilda!" Alexsia grabbed Matilda's shoulder to stop her from leaping out. "We have Zalika on our side now, remember?" She prayed that really meant as much as she made it sound like.

"What good does that do?" Helen demanded morosely. "By now the cops'll have our mugs flashed all over the country. Our only hope is going to ground! Now we can't even do that because the Big Bad Wolf's assassins will be waiting for us!"

"Shut up!" Alexsia slapped Helen across the face. "I do know one thing beyond any shadow of a doubt. Any one of us who runs without thinking will wind up dead, as sure as the sun rises." She looked around slowly, catching and briefly holding each person's gaze. "All right, Zalika. We resurrected you for your power. Now we find out if it's worth anything. We need a new car, money, a place to spend the night, and above all we need to do this without the police noticing."

"That last part I can handle," Zalika replied. "If you don't want the police to notice us they won't."

"What about Big Bad Wolf's people?" Jenny asked.

"They won't either," Zalika replied. "Except for Katakana Kat. He'll see us if he looks."

"But he's the worst of the lot!" Ruth wailed. "They say he's the Big Bad Wolf's personal enforcer!"

"Zalika," Alexsia said, "If we see Katakana Kat I want you to kill him."


Alexsia drew a deep breath to steady her nerves. She'd wanted to play the big stakes game and now she most definitely was, by God. "Matilda, take us to Ohakune," she said. "We'll find a new car there."

"Then we head back to Wellington," Zalika put in.

"What!" Matilda shrieked.

"We need money, passports, IDs, and access to international transport," Zalika pointed out. "We aren't going to find all that out here in East Moosefuck. That means we go to Auckland, Wellington, or Christchurch. Now the Big Bad Wolf is going to know everyone you worked with to set up this job. Hell, most of them probably work for him already. If they don't just tell him everything they know about your plan Daitakerou will persuade them. Meaning that Auckland is out because by now it'll be crawling with the Big Bad Wolf's foot soldiers. Unless you fancy a swim Christchurch is out. So Wellington it is. After all, it'll be the last place they think to look for us."

"But if you can make it so they don't see us, why does it matter?" Ruth asked.

"Because the Big Bad Wolf understands my powers," Zalika replied shortly. "He's had all this time while I was dead to figure out how to counter them. He will have a system in place to track me and he will have at his disposal an agency that he believes capable of defeating me. Simply assuming that whatever he's done won't work doesn't strike me as a prudent strategy."

"But then why won't he have covered Wellington too?" Matilda protested.

"Why don't we just sit here jawing until someone comes along and picks us up?" Zalika countered.

"Drive," Alexsia commanded. "Zalika's right about one thing. Sitting still is the same as turning ourselves in. If we get arrested and put in jail all it means is that we can't run away when the Big Bad Wolf's assassins come for us. We have to keep moving." She wasn't so sure that going to Wellington was the right thing to do but at the moment she couldn't come up with anything better. Then another thought caused her to frown at the back of Zalika's head. Exactly who was in charge of this gang anyway? Even as she thought it, though, she found that she wasn't so sure she really wanted to know the answer.

The aged ferret carefully placed a soda cracker on his plate. He topped it with a slice of summer sausage and a dollop of lumpfish caviar. He clapped his hands in eager anticipation, then scooped up his creation. Before he could bring it to his mouth the door of his flat- a steel reinforced panel secured by no less than four locks- swung open. In the doorway knelt a feline man with smoke gray fur and deep, blue eyes. He wore a Navy blue turtleneck and slacks and held an assortment of gleaming, metal tools. Behind him stood Daitakerou. The ferret stared. His eyes- ringed by dark markings like spectacles- grew wider and wider. His hand, still holding the snack, quivered.

"Mazlow, I know about the Land Rover with the performance enhanced engine," Daitakerou said, stepping into the room. "I know that you obtained detailed structural drawings of Te Papa's lobby, main stairs, and several exhibit halls." He flexed his knees, lowering himself to Mazlow's eye level. "All that remains is for me to find out who requested these items of you and where they plan to hole up."

Mazlow swallowed. "Look, Daitakerou," he began in a quavering voice, "I have a professional reputation. I'm no good as a fixer if words gets around that I rat out clients."

"Which my employer appreciates, to be sure," Daitakerou replied. "You're without a doubt one of the best fixers in the business. Which is why I'm here. Only you could have set up the hit on Te Papa." His fingers caressed the hilt of his sword. "Unfortunately the people who did that upset my boss terribly. He wants to know who they were." The blade slid noiselessly out of its sheath. "If it helps your professional reputation, I'd be more than happy to coerce you." He held the sword before his face; his intensely blue eyes looked over the gleaming metal.

"I- I- I-" Mazlow's hands shook so violently he gripped the edge of the table to stop it. "If I tell you I won't be able to work again!"

"I understand how it works," Daitakerou replied in a reasonable tone. With his left hand he waved his companion forward. That worthy presented an attache case and opened it. Neatly arranged stacks of hundred dollar bills filled it to the brim. "Don't take long to choose, Mazlow," Daitakerou warned. "I haven't the time."

Mazlow stared at the money. His whole body vibrated. "All right!" He sighed heavily, seeming almost to deflate. "I'll take your money. There's five of them, all sheilas. First two are Aussies." He made it sound like 'Ozzies.' "The boss lady's named Alexsia deHaviland. Her squeeze is Matilda Wollenston."

"Squeeze?" the gray cat inquired in a thickly Slavic accent.

"Yeah." Mazlow writhed in embarrassment. "They're- you know- girl poofters."

"Right." Daitakerou nodded. "And the others?"

"Kiwis," Mazlow continued. "Three sisters. Jenny, Helen, and Ruth Romney."

"What are they planning to do with the mummy they stole?" Daitakerou asked.

"Don't know." Mazlow shrugged. "They never said, I never asked. Not my business. They had a stash or two somewhere out near Waiouru. I don't know where their safe house is. They didn't arrange it through me."

The ghost of a smile quirked Daitakerou's lips. "Smart of them," he commented. "Now tell me all the people you worked with on this project and who you suggested they go see to handle the rest of their arrangements."

"Pull over," Alexsia directed as the Land Rover approached the outskirts of Ohakune. "I'll drive for a while."

"Do we have time for a snack?" Zalika inquired.

Alexsia frowned. "What, the sheep wasn't enough?"

"Coming back to life is hard work."

"Sure, whatever." Alexsia opened the back and jumped down. Then an idea lit her face; she got out the camp stove, a loaf of bread, a tub of butter, and a jar of dark paste with a red and yellow label. "You want a snack, here's something that'll make a man out you," she declared. "Metaphorically speaking, of course."

"Indeed." Zalika watched while Alexsia toasted several slices of bread, then spread butter upon them. Lastly she applied just a dab of the dark paste to each slice. "What is that stuff?" Zalika inquired.

"Vegemite," Alexsia replied, passing a slice of treated toast to Matilda, who consumed it with evident appreciation. "Here, try some." She offered a slice to Zalika.

"Looks like worm shit," Zalika commented, taking the toast. After studying it for a moment she ate it. "Tastes like it too."

"Well, you sorta have to grow up with it, I guess," Alexsia said, rather tensely.

"Bloody Yank," Helen muttered.

"Where else in the world do people eat this wonderful substance?" Zalika inquired.

"Vegemite itself is mainly used in New Zealand and Australia," Alexsia replied. "It's based on a product sold in England and Canada."

"Figures," Zalika said. "Only the people who brought us chutney would have the cheek to market such a revolting substance as food. Though I suppose I shouldn't be surprised; it's a well known fact that English cuisine is a contradiction in terms. What is it anyway?" She took the jar and studied the label. "'Yeast extract?'" she read. "What, pray tell, is that?"

"Stuff that's left over from brewing beer," Alexsia replied.

Zalika's eyes widened, then narrowed. "You do realize that this is nothing but cleverly marketed industrial waste, right?" she inquired.

Alexsia shrugged. "Beer is spoiled grain. Honey is bee vomit. Cheese is spoiled milk. Cottage cheese is partially digested milk. So what?"

Zalika wrinkled her nose, then relaxed. "Point taken," she sighed, fluttering her fingers. The stove and foodstuffs- disputed or otherwise- packed themselves away.

"How are we going to find a replacement car?" Matilda wanted to know.

"If Darth here is making us invisible, we could go to a dealer and take whatever one we liked," Helen suggested out.

"No." Alexsia shook her head emphatically. "They may not notice us take the car but I'm betting they'll notice that its gone. It'll be reported stolen... and a car disappearing right out from under everyone's noses is just the sort of thing the people who are searching for us will be looking for."

"Besides," Zalika added, "The car's only invisible so long as I'm sitting in it and concentrating."

"So someone could come along and see it while we're sleeping," Alexsia concluded. "We need... at the very least a car that won't be missed right away."

"Why not buy one?" Zalika inquired.

"With what?" Ruth demanded acidly. "The money you make turning tricks?"

"Is prostitution legal in New Zealand?" Zalika replied without so much as batting an eye.

"Not technically, no," Alexsia explained. "It's illegal to ask someone to pay for sex but it isn't illegal to offer money for it."

"So if I go up to someone and say 'I'll have sex with you if you pay me a hundred dollars' it's a crime," Zalika began. "But if someone comes up to me and says 'I'll pay a hundred dollars if you'll have sex with me' it's not?"

"Right." Alexsia nodded.

"Really think you're worth a hundred bucks a throw?" Helen quipped.

"I find your lack of faith disturbing." Zalika gestured; Helen doubled over, yelping in pain.

"Zalika, stop it!" Alexsia took a step forward, her hand dropping to the hilt of her survival knife, in a sheath strapped to her right thigh.

Zalika's head turned. Alexsia found herself looking straight into those golden eyes... and then falling into them as they seemed to grow, and keep growing, until everything else faded out. Not like gone but... pushed away. Displaced.

Alexsia screamed. Zalika's eyes were gold because they were full of fire, as searingly bright and mercilessly hot as the sun's heart. Alexsia screamed and screamed as she found herself immersed in it, every part of her burning at its touch, all at once, inside and out-

The world returned suddenly. Alexsia found herself face down in the dirt at the edge of the road, her tongue laying in a patch of mud formed by spittle that had dribbled out of her mouth. The pain had left but even its memory hurt more than she cared to think about. She planted her hands and raised her shoulders, spitting out some dirt, and lifted her eyes. First they saw only Zalika's boots. Travelling upward, they passed over Zalika's BDU clad legs and hips to her torso, which so obscenely filled her tank top, and finally arrived at her face. Whereupon Alexsia realized something: Zalika's fur was really black. Not blue-black, as many blacks tended to look in bright light, but black black. Nor did the individual hairs of her pelt reflect much light. Net result was that the exposed parts of her body sometimes looked flat, lacking depth or definition. Having the bright sky behind her only enhanced the impression. Just then, to Alexsia, Zalika looked like impenetrable shadow compressed into a human shape. Not a person at all but the absence of one, a hole cut in reality, through which Alexsia saw whatever unimaginable emptiness lay beyond. Except for those eyes, which gleamed like stars in that empty infinity. Alexsia swallowed; for the first time she felt the scope of the dreadful power she'd awoken. Against that, all her visions of wealth were nothing but childish fantasies. Not even childish fantasies.

"And that wasn't even the two-bit scare," Zalika said, as if reading Alexsia's mind. She gestured, and Alexsia found herself suddenly upright... and Zalika, somehow, just a woman with black fur and golden eyes. "If I really went postal on your ass there wouldn't be enough left of it to stain a piece of blotting paper."

The most terrifying part of Zalika's statement, Alexsia decided, was that she didn't make it as a threat or even a promise. It was a simple observation of patently obvious reality, like saying that the sky was blue.

Zalika gestured again. Alexsia's clothes removed themselves from her body and deposited themselves in the Land Rover. Alexsia clutched at the hilt of her knife, which had reattached itself to her thigh after her trousers and undergarments went away. Not threateningly, as she had at first, but as a child might cling to a favorite toy: as a way of comforting herself in the face of almost overwhelming fear. No part of her mind seriously believed that mere steel would be of any use against Zalika.

"You three, up." Zalika pointed at the triplets and they bounced to their feet as if pulled by strings. Not figuratively, either; some force external to their bodies jerked them upright. Exactly like marionettes being lifted by their strings.

Alexsia gulped. The triplets weren't themselves any more. They were still triplets, yes, and still female... but no longer sheep. Somehow they'd become goats instead.

"You asked if I thought I was really worth a hundred bucks a throw," Zalika interjected just as Ruth noticed the change in herself and opened her mouth to comment. "In response I say this: for what I have to offer, people would give up all the money they had. They would give up their homes. All their worldly goods. Their spouses. Their children. Their souls." She turned toward the truck. The spare fuel cans detached themselves from their holders and decanted their contents over the Land Rover's interior. Zalika raised both hands, like a conductor calling for the first beat of a symphony, and the truck lifted into the air, turning around and setting down on the highway facing the opposite direction. It rolled onto the shoulder as if its driver had decided to pull over while driving that way. "After all, that's why you resurrected me, isn't it?" She tossed the comment over her shoulder, arching an eyebrow at Alexsia. Before Alexsia could think of anything to say Zalika turned back to the Land Rover and glared. Beams of golden light erupted from her eyes, as dazzlingly bright as the noonday sun. They lasted only a fraction of an instant, like a camera flash, but nevertheless Alexsia staggered back from their sheer intensity, blinking to clear pulsating after-images from her vision. She heard the Land Rover burst into flame as if Zalika had soaked it with napalm, and felt the searing heat. The fuel tank burst with a flat report, spilling a river of fire across the dirt. With the dry grass it would start a brush fire for sure.

"Here is the plan," Zalika announced, turning her back on the destruction she'd wrought. "We're very close to Ohakune. No more than twelve kilometers. We walk into town, find you all new clothing, and a place to spend the night. In the morning we arrange some form of alternate transportation to take us to Wellington." Her gaze focused on Alexsia. "Is there a problem, Ms. deHaviland?"

"No-" Alexsia began, but the deep, masculine sound of her own voice shocked her into silence. She clenched her hands and teeth, desperately wanting to know what Zalika had made her but equally afraid to look. Rather to her surprise she found that she was still a dingo. And yet... certain prominent portions of her anatomy were missing. To wit, her breasts. Continuing down, she found something added. In short, she wasn't a woman any more. Zalika had made her into a man. On the verge of panic she looked around for Matilda, whom she found standing beside her. Matilda at least was still female... and still recognizable, even, to someone who knew her intimately... but no longer an Australian shepherd. She'd become a rough collie, with an orange base fur color instead of black. At least Zalika had left her luscious figure intact, and even perhaps improved it a little.

"Good." Zalika nodded. "I'm sure I don't have to explain that this whole damn country's gonna be looking for five women, one dingo, one shepherd, and three sheep. Now you're just a young couple returning home with their new babies."

"Babies?" Ruth asked, her voice cracking slightly in the middle of the word.

"Yes, babies." Zalika gestured. The triplets flinched but didn't fall down. Instead, they... melted. Flesh dripped off them like wax from a candle. When the process finally stopped each of them sat in the center of an uneven ring of skin wrapped meat. And they were babies, or at least small children, each one no more than half a meter tall.

Jenny stared in wide-eyed horror at the shapeless pile of flesh that had, until seconds ago, been part of her body. Hesitantly she reached out, but jerked her hand back before making contact.

"But-" Alexsia head herself say.

"Yes, we'll have to carry them," Zalika interrupted. "But once we get to town, disposing of the excess mass could be problematical." She pointed and the rings of meat flung themselves into the burning Land Rover. "Now I suggest we get moving. That fire is going to attract attention."

In sort of a daze Alexia scooped up Helen and nestled her in the crook of her- his- arm. Zalika made to pick up Ruth but she scurried away, so Matilda took her up in addition to Jenny.

Zalika took the lead, setting a brisk but easy pace. Alexsia (Alex?) followed, with Matilda bringing up the rear. As an experiment of sorts Alexsia- Alex- let his gaze settle on Zalika's buttocks, which swayed in a most interesting manner when she walked. Despite that, he felt not even the slightest stirring of interest. He understood now that Zalika's body, however striking it might be, was nothing but a construct, built entirely for effect. Like expensive clothes, makeup, and fur styling taken to its logical conclusion. In point of fact, now that he thought about it, it occurred to Alex that whatever Zalika truly was had donned this body just as an ordinary person might don a suit of clothing. Which brought yet another thought to mind: putting on a uniform did not, in itself, make one a soldier. What, then, did that say about Zalika? Did putting on a human body make her human?

Alex's free hand absently caressed his now flat hip. Too late indeed.

Constable Kremmin carried a sheaf of papers as he entered Inspector Samson's office in the Wellington Central Police Station. "Inspector," he said, "You'll never guess what came in on the fax today." He laid the papers on the inspector's desk.

"Good Christ," the inspector breathed, picking up several of the sheets. The remains of a chew toy dangled in the corner of his mouth but didn't fall. "Are these authentic?"

"Yes," Kremmin replied. "Interpol confirms it and so does our own records department."

Inspector Samson flipped through the sheets one at a time. They included the complete police records of five individuals, all women. Three of them were sheep: Jenny, Helen, and Ruth Romney, identical triplets. Another was a border collie, Matilda Wollenston. Last was a dingo, Alexsia deHaviland. "Where did these come from?"

"A Kinko's on Taranaki Street," Kremmin replied. "No one saw anything."

Samson divided the papers into five stacks. "Have you looked at these?"

"Glanced through them," Kremmin allowed.

"Are they the ones?"

Kremmin considered for some moments before responding. "I believe so. They fit with what we've uncovered so far and they were given to us just when we needed them."

"By whom?"

"The Big Bad Wolf, of course."

Now Inspector Samson sat in thought for a time. "Why?" he asked.

"Big Bad Wolf has at least as much interest in keeping Daughter Night under wraps as we do," Kremmin replied. "His organization probably did most of the support work for the robbery and his investigative efforts are not hampered by points of law."

"Then why give us the information?" Samson wanted to know. "Why not use it himself?"

"I'm sure he is," Kremmin replied. "However, I doubt even he has the manpower for a nationwide manhunt. He figures to have us do his legwork for him."

Samson picked up two of the dossiers, the ones for Alexsia deHaviland and Matilda Wollenston. "Pity he couldn't just lay out the whole scheme while he was at it."

"I imagine he figures the Constabulary needs to do something to justify the tax dollars spent on it," Kremmin commented dryly. "For what it's worth, an investigation is already underway. Dr. Lathasar is conducting inquiries."

Samson grimaced. "I hope to Hell the press never finds out that we're using witchcraft to solve cases. We'll never hear the end of it."

"What Dr. Lathasar does is not witchcraft," Kremmin pointed out with a hint of an edge in his voice.

"Then how do you explain it, Constable?" Samson countered testily.

"How do you explain what Super Collie does?" Kremmin riposted.

Samson spat out the remains of his chew toy and sighed heavily. He pulled open a drawer in his desk- filled to the brim with chew toys- and selected a fresh one. "Why don't you just admit that you're in love with her, George?" he inquired.

Constable Kremmin said nothing. His face might as well have turned to granite for all it revealed... which in itself could be considered an answer.

"George, your 'fling' has been going on for six months," Samson pointed out sternly. "And-" his expression softened. "Every time you come back from spending the evening with her you look ten years younger." His expression hardened once more. "Paddy-Ann isn't coming back, George. The only way you'll be with her again is if you go back to England. If you were going to do that you would have already. Cymbeline's one Hell of a dish. She's mad about you and you're mad about her. What more do you need?"

Again George said nothing. Inspector Samson meant well but he didn't understand George and Cymbeline's relationship. George didn't care to explain it and wasn't so sure he could. He and Cymbeline were such different people, with different backgrounds and interests. What drew them together were shared experiences still too painful to talk about. The relationship worked because George and Cymbeline kept it free of emotional loading. They came together, had their pleasure, and parted without expectations or commitments. They were both doing it to bounce back and fully expected to part ways. Yet, as Inspector Samson pointed out, it somehow kept happening. Nor could he deny that Cymbeline's warm presence intoxicated him. Maybe it was time to take a step.

"What is our captivating Egyptologist doing right now?" Samson inquired.

"Running down-" Kremmin began. He'd been about to say clues. "Traces," he finally said. "Things that only... someone of her unique perspective would notice."

"Hm." Samson shifted his chew toy to the other side of his mouth. "I like to think of myself as a cosmopolitan man, firmly grounded in modern thought. I've comforted myself with the knowledge that New Age mysticism is so much hooey. Which means that Daughter Night scares the crap out of me, as much for what her existence implies as her demonstrated antisocial tendencies. I'd sleep a lot easier knowing that she's safely dead."

"Amen." George nodded gravely. All too clearly he recalled the terrible destruction and loss of life Daughter Night had inflicted upon the city of Wellington and its residents. "I'll get started on these," he announced, scooping up the dossiers. "There's bound to be something here we can use."

"I just pray to God those idiots didn't bring her back to life," Inspector Samson muttered darkly.

"Amen," George repeated, much more fervently. Daughter Night's defeat had been a very narrow thing. When he thought about what could have happened-

The Inspector's phone rang. "Samson," he replied, putting the receiver to his ear. A sequence of odd expressions flicked across his face. "I see," he said. "Thank you. 'Bye." He hung up. "Colonel Bathsfield of the Special Anti-Super Villain Squad is on his way up," he announced.

George rubbed his chin. The squad had been formed on the basis that leaving the nation's entire super defense to a single super hero wasn't prudent. He agreed fundamentally, but there seemed to be those who felt it could replace Super Collie. He didn't think that would be a good idea. Mobilizing to deal with Daughter Night had been the squad's first actual mission. Unfortunately that led to a highly publicized super battle in the Auckland Sky Tower- from which Daughter Night escaped, apparently unharmed, leaving two of the squad's battle suits moderately damaged. That the squad's anti-Super-Power Electronic Warfare modules had functioned exactly as planned, blocking many of Daughter Night's attacks, was not, regrettably, generally mentioned. The squad's second engagement with Daughter Night- which would have been a pitched battle between her and the entire unit in the streets of downtown Wellington- was averted by Super Collie, who defeated Daughter Night by exploiting a psychological weakness Dr. Lathasar had uncovered. There were some who said that Super Collie had denied the squad its chance to recover its honor, never mind that the battle would have resulted in tremendous collateral damage.

Someone knocked, then entered without waiting for a reply. It was a somewhat more than middle aged rhinoceros dressed in an Army of New Zealand uniform and with a pair of bottle bottom spectacles perched on his massive nose. "Good afternoon, gentlemen," he boomed. "I came as soon as I heard the news. Terrible thing, that." He shook his head, though he didn't look or sound particularly sorrowful. In fact, he seemed to be on the verge of capering with glee.

"Colonel." George nodded solemnly. The colonel hadn't approved of how Dr. Lathasar had planned to deal with Daughter Night: that is, mummifying her body and placing it in the Egyptian exhibit. He'd wanted to lock the body in a security vault, or better yet, destroy it. Cymbeline said that either course would anger Daughter Night's spirit, making her more likely to return and seek vengeance, should the opportunity arise. Fortunately she, with Super Collie's help, managed to convince the government that her solution was most sensible. It helped immensely that the mummy, as part of the exhibit, generated revenue and favorable publicity.

"You may be assured that the SASVS is taking this matter very seriously," the colonel briskly declared. "Our combat unit is standing by, ready for action, our science department is fully manned, and our investigative staff hard at work." Something in his eyes suggested that he felt the Wellington Constabulary might not be. "Do you have any idea how the robbers found out that mummy on display was, in fact, Daughter Night?"

Inspector Samson grimaced. To cover, he picked at his teeth with his chew toy. He wanted to say there wasn't any evidence that they did know. But then why steal only the mummy when there was so much other loot to be had? "We don't have any leads on that at this time," he said. "I would point out that, since the robbery only happened three days ago, we're still sorting through evidence."

The colonel glowered. "We can't have Daughter Night running around loose in this country, Inspector!"

Samson found himself longing to bite the colonel's leg. As if that thought never occurred to me, he thought darkly. "Have SASVS investigators discovered something?" he inquired.

"As a matter of fact they have." The colonel opened his briefcase and laid a folder on the inspector's desk. The inspector opened it. The very top page looked quite familiar. It was the top sheet of the Alexsia deHaviland dossier.

"I'm sorry, Colonel, but anonymous faxes don't count," the inspector announced.

"What?" The colonel glowered, he gave the impression being of a man it would be very dangerous to anger.

"At least, not when we got the same one," Samson continued. Kremmin turned up the stack he held, showing the identical top page.

Colonel Bathsfield's jaw dropped in shock. It was too much; the inspector burst out laughing.

Esmerelda dozed fitfully in the passenger seat as Cymbeline's Mitsubishi Pajero sped north along State Highway One. From behind the wheel Cymbeline spared a glance at her companion and frowned. She didn't like this one bit; Esmerelda looked like she hadn't slept in days. The robbers of themselves were armed and dangerous; they'd shot half a dozen security guards, one of whom had died. If they had resurrected Daughter Night-

"Slow down," Esmerelda said suddenly. Cymbeline flinched; she'd pushed the Pajero's speed to well above the open road limit. Esmerelda's sense of driving urgency had infected her more than she'd realized.

"More," Esmerelda added. "We'll be turning off soon."

"Where?" Cymbeline glanced quickly left and right. The central plateau wasn't exactly built up. There wasn't much to see other than rolling grassland. Now, with the sun set, there wasn't even so much of that visible except what the Pajero's head lamps illuminated.

"There." Esmerelda pointed.

Cymbeline would have missed the turning had not Esmerelda pointed it out. She probably would have missed it in total daylight. She pulled off- and after a moment's consideration switched to four wheel drive. Where Esmerelda wanted to go wasn't really a road at all, just a track through the wilderness. "Any idea how much farther?" she inquired.

Esmerelda shook her head. "No. Not really."

The Pajero had extra lights on the fender and a row of them across the top of the cab in addition to headlights but even with all that driving the track at night proved treacherous. Several times, despite Cymbeline's best efforts, the truck went off the track and into a hole. Each time she managed to wiggle out, though at the cost of one light and some minor body damage. An hour and a half after leaving the main road her luck ran out. She turned to avoid what looked like a ditch- and found that the track had washed out. She hit the brakes but the dirt gave way. The truck slid nose-first into a shallow ravine.

"I'll take care of it," Esmerelda announced, opening her door and scrambling out. It looked bad; both sides of the ravine were too steep for the truck to climb. They'd either have to dig or winch out. Since the Pajero lacked a winch that left digging. She took off her shepherd's crook pendant and raised it above her head. "By the Mystic Power of the Shepherd I am transformed," she said.

Light streamed between Esmerelda's fingers. The pendant suddenly grew into a full sized staff of wood. The light flowed down her arm and across her body; her clothes seemed to melt and reform into the blue and gold costume of Super Collie. Only her glasses remained; she took them off and tucked them into the top of her right boot. She pulled out the ribbon holding her mane in a bun; it spilled loose down across her shoulders. The ribbon went into the top of her other boot. Then she studied the ravine's far side. She propped her staff against the ridge of dirt and started tearing at it with her fingers the way a dog would dig for a bone. Dirt and stones flew; dust filled the air. In no more than a minute or so she'd excavated a ramp and filled the ravine's bottom. She leapt up behind the truck- in a single, casual bound- and hoisted it by the rear fender, scooting it forward and lowering it into the ditch. Cymbeline drove easily up the ramp; Super Collie completed her work by cutting a ramp in the opposite direction. After dusting her hands and shaking out her fur she resumed her place beside Cymbeline.

"I think I'd better change into my outfit too," Cymbeline commented, reaching behind her and retrieving a case.

"Are you sure?" Super Collie asked.

Cymbeline nodded. "If I don't need it, the worst that'll happen is I'll be embarrassed. If I do need it..." she let the thought trail off. She took the case around behind the truck and got in back. She stripped off all her clothing, folding and stacking it neatly. From the case she extracted a white linen sheath dress; it fit snugly over her body and left her breasts bare. She accessorized it with arm bands, bracelets, and a large necklace supporting a pendant in the form of two S-shaped rods gripping a gold disk between them. She used eyeliner pencil to draw dark lines around both her eyes, including prominent tear lines at the corners. Lastly she donned a black wig; the hair had been braided into dreadlocks and decorated with beads.

"Is that how a priestess of Isis would dress?" Super Collie inquired when Cymbeline climbed back into the driver's seat.

Cymbeline shook her head. "Not historically, no. This outfit is... an amalgam of things, designed to exploit various effects. It's fair, I think; after all, Daughter Night did it first."

"But she doesn't need trinkets to call the spirits into herself," Super Collie pointed out.

"She's had three thousand years to integrate the spirits into herself," Cymbeline replied. "I've only been working on it for a year. And, I would point out, look what it cost her. There's really nothing left of the woman she was in ancient Egypt. Only spirits, mashed together into something like the shape of a human soul."

Super Collie gazed out into the darkness. Cymbeline had explained Daughter Night as being something like a fossil. Just as stone gradually replaced bone to become a counterfeit of something once alive inhuman powers had infused Daughter Night, replacing her living force with their own, creating a thing that looked and acted like a human being but wasn't, really. Because the powers were eternal, existing outside of any individual life, Daughter Night was, theoretically, eternal as well. The only way to banish her forever would be to unbind the powers locked within her. Cymbeline had learned a great deal by poring over the writings of ancient Egyptian wizards but sorcery of such magnitude wasn't a thing that could be mastered in a short time. Sometimes Super Collie wondered if even a lifetime would be enough. She had a vision of her descendants, generation after generation of Guardian Shepherds, fighting Daughter Night over and over again into eternity. She shivered.

Forty minutes later Cymbeline slammed the truck to a halt. Super Collie started; she'd dozed. She glanced at Cymbeline, meaning to ask what was wrong, but the expression on Cymbeline's face stopped her cold. Her whole body quivered and her face was drawn. She wasn't merely afraid, she was absolutely terrified. Super Collie looked around quickly. She saw nothing but grass and scrub but she felt a strange chill that had nothing to do with the night air. She felt the presence of something terrible and dark. Now, for the first time, she wondered at the wisdom of coming at night. But after communing with the spirits of shepherd past she'd felt a terrible urgency and this was the only place she knew where their investigation could begin. "Cymbeline," Super Collie said, gently squeezing Cymbeline's upper arm. "We're here. It's time."

Cymbeline nodded. Her fingers shook as she opened the driver's door and climbed out. She switched off the lights and darkness fell. She whispered words and made gestures that left trails of eerie silver fire in the air. The design vanished- and all around a pale, ethereal glow sprang up, clinging to the rocks and grass like St. Elmo's Fire. In one area, though, no light formed. It seemed to be a pool of impenetrable darkness laying in a shallow depression. Super Collie swallowed hard and stepped up to it. She found herself at the edge of a circle drawn in the dirt; in it lay a smear of fine ash, now dispersed by the wind. The grass around it was dead and dry.

"We're too late," Cymbeline said. "They've already brought her back to life."

Super Collie only nodded. Somehow she'd known that all along.

Cymbeline knelt. She made a gesture and a ball of light appeared in her palm. She inspected the circle, paying close attention to the designs scraped in the soil around its periphery. "Well well," she commented.

"What is it?" Super Collie inquired.

"The ceremony they used to resurrect her wasn't Egyptian," Cymbeline replied. "Australian Aborigine, by the look of it." She peered at a small, black ape statue sitting amid the ash. When she tried to pick it up it crumbled into dust.

"Is that important?" Super Collie asked.

Cymbeline frowned. "I'm not sure yet. I'd say probably so. I think they might have introduced some new spirits into the equation."

"Great," Super Collie muttered.

"Maybe not so bad," Cymbeline temporized. She whispered more words and gestured; golden light filled the lines like liquid welling up from the ground. Then the light itself lifted into the air, swirling and dancing like leaves on the wind. Super Collie heard a strange sound- like a digiridoo, almost- and a voice. She couldn't hear it well enough to make out words, or even the language spoken, but she head a laugh at the end of it. the lights vanished, like embers of a fire carried away by the wind. Cymbeline sat back on her heels and rubbed her chin thoughtfully.

"Did it tell you something?" Super Collie asked.

"Yes and no," Cymbeline replied. "It spoke to me, yes, but I don't know the language." She opened her case and put several spoonfuls of ash into a medicine bottle. "I'll have to have it translated." She got out a heavy gold disk; a design like an eye was inscribed in its surface and filled with blue enamel. She poured a spoonful of ash onto the iris and began chanting. The air above the disk shimmered. An image began to form-

Something roared. A black jackal face with blazing golden eyes appeared, is mouth open impossibly wide. It snapped its jaws shut on the still coalescing image, shattering it into a spray of sparkling light, then vanished in a puff of inky blackness.

"What happened?" Super Collie demanded.

Cymbeline sighed, putting away the disk. "Daughter Night broke the spell," she replied. "And now she knows someone's looking for her."

"Hmm." Super Collie looked around. "Magic is all well and good but let's not forget good old fashioned police work. Shine your light around; I want to take a look at the scene."

In the process of her investigation Super Collie discovered several pairs of discarded handcuffs. When she picked one up she yelped and dropped it immediately. "Cymbeline, it burned me!" she exclaimed.

Cymbeline inspected the handcuffs. She tested their temperature by holding her fingers just above them. They felt as cold as one would expect of metal laid out at night. She whispered the words to another spell; her fingers glowed with a pale, yellowish light that seemed to shine right through the metal as if it were transparent. It revealed an eerie, swirling blackness. "I think I know what happened," she said. "There's a strong residue of Daughter Night's power on these cuffs. I think that's what you felt."

Super Collie waved her hand over the cuffs without actually touching them. She felt the sensation again, not quite so intensely, and shivered. It wasn't burning, as she'd first thought, but cold. She inspected her fingers, half expecting to find them frostbitten, but the residue seemed to have no physical effect. She glanced uneasily at the circle and decided to stay away from it. "I can tell you what probably happened," she announced. "A truck arrived. Several people, all female, got out and set up a camp. They killed two sheep, which were penned over there. They cooked dinner on a gas stove. Later, two other vehicles arrived. Two people, both male, got out. They- um-" Super Collie shifted uneasily- "found the women having, ah, sex. Two in the back of the truck, the rest in the tent. They handcuffed the women, then abandoned them, stripped, and engaged in sex. The women took off their handcuffs without unlocking them. The women packed up their gear and left. Some time later the men packed up what remained and left."

"Now that definitely puts an interesting spin on things," Cymbeline commented.

"How so?" Super Collie wanted to know.

"They brought Daughter Night to life using the spirit of a sheep."

"Does that matter?" Super Collie wanted to know.

"Where spirits are concerned everything matters," Cymbeline insisted. "Now they've infused her with the spirit of a sheep on top of everything else."

Super Collie shrugged. "Maybe that's a good thing. Sheep aren't exactly known for their violent, anti-social tendencies."

Cymbeline laughed. "You are right about that. And I think this may be the first break we've had so far." She looked at Super Collie, her eyes sparkling mischievously. "If our robbers expected the ravening beast of destruction that laid waste to Wellington last year they may be in for a bit of a surprise."

Constable Hardiman paced slowly through the exhibit hall. All the broken glass, damaged display cases, and spilled artifacts had been swept up. Looking only here, and not at the building's shattered entryway, one might almost think there had never been a robbery. Except that the missing mummy, more than anything else, left a hole in the exhibit over which the eye tended to stumble. Even that wasn't the most obvious thing to Constable Hardiman. What irresistibly drew his eye every time he crossed the room was a dark stain on the arm and skirt of the incongruously placed samurai warrior. He'd seen his fair share of motorway accidents, fights, and other mishaps; he knew what dried blood looked like, even though it barely showed against dark bronze and iron. Far worse in Hardiman's eyes, that blood belonged to a dead man, though he hadn't died right there. A dead man who was only a step removed from being a police officer. Somehow that made it infinitely worse.

As he completed his walk and turned at the end of it a sound drew the constable's attention. He whirled- and saw nothing. It had sounded like... a faint squeak. Vaguely metallic, somehow. He held perfectly still, scanning the room with his eyes. He saw no movement, nothing out of place. Still, now wasn't the time to take chances. "Hardiman to base," he reported, keying his radio. "Investigating possible disturbance." He wasn't especially concerned; there were more constables and museum guards scattered throughout the building. If anything happened backup would arrive in seconds. Slowly, carefully, he paced through the entire hall, checking every nook and cranny. Some might say he took this assignment too seriously but he would disagree. Te Papa wasn't merely a museum, it was the nation's museum. The name said it all: in Maori it meant Our Place. The theft of the mummy and violation of the building itself weren't merely crimes. They were an affront to the very people of New Zealand.

Again Hardiman heard the squeak, more clearly this time. He whirled. He still couldn't see anything different. He lifted his radio, debating with himself wether or not he should call for backup. He did feel silly yelling for help against strange noises that could have an entirely innocuous explanation-

The radio slipped from Hardiman's fingers and clattered to the floor. He finally noticed the change. He'd seen it before but his mind rejected it. Now it was too extreme; he couldn't pretend that it hadn't happened. The Kamakura tomb guardian stood erect, his hands at his sides. Up until now he'd been crouching, his hands upon the hilts of his swords.

Constable Hardiman stood frozen, unable to move or speak. He'd gladly face down an armed criminal but this was something for which neither his training nor experience prepared him. He found himself unable to look away from the guardian's face, with its empty eyes and grotesquely grimacing mouth. They weren't empty any more; he saw something there. A pale glow, barely visible even in the turned down lighting.

The guardian's gauntleted right hand rose to the hilt of his katana, or long sword, and drew it from the sheath. It slid with a faint rasping sound. Intricate engraving coated the gray, iron blade, highlighted by the same eerie glow as the eyes. With a casual flick of the wrist he cut the velvet ropes surrounding his pedestal. It did occur to Hardiman that no blade made of iron should be able to hold an edge that sharp, especially not one several hundred years old. The warrior stepped down from the pedestal and walked forward, sword still in hand. He halted face to face with the constable, looking slightly upward because he wasn't very tall, in spite of his bulk. Hardiman found himself looking straight into those empty eyes. The glow behind them showed more brightly now; instead of originating within the helmet it seemed more like a window into strange, infinite depths. They seemed to grow, swelling into lakes of cold, blue fire. Constable Hardiman felt himself plunge into them and disappear.

Zalika sat up suddenly, drawing a sharp breath. Alex, in the other bed, snapped awake and sat up. "What happened?" he asked.

"I- I felt- I felt-" Zalika began.

"A disturbance in the Force?" Jenny suggested. "Like a million voices cried out in terror, then were silenced?"

"No." Zalika flung off the covers and rose to her feet. "Like someone walked over my grave." She opened the curtains on the room's front window and looked into the night. It didn't seem to bother her in the least that she was exhibiting her nakedness for all to see. "Someone found where you raised me and tried to divine my location through sorcery."

Matilda, who lay at Alex's side, gasped. "Did they succeed?"

"No," Zalika replied. "I deflected the attempt. But it would seem that Dr. Lathasar has grown considerably in power and ability since I encountered her last."

"You're sure it was Dr. Lathasar?" Alex inquired.

"No," Zalika replied. "But it was a woman using an Egyptian spell. I'd say that narrows the possibilities significantly."

"Should we leave?" Matilda asked worriedly.

For a long time Zalika said nothing, continuing to stare out the hotel window. "No," she finally said. "They won't find us before morning. They're... on our trail but far behind. If we're careful they'll lose us."

Alex nodded, though Zalika faced away from him. Matilda put her head against his shoulder; he slipped an arm around her and drew her close.

Zalika remained by the window. There was something else, too. Something she couldn't place... but which felt somehow familiar. She didn't mention it because she didn't know what it was and had no idea how to counter it. A response would have to wait until additional information became available. Her companions, meanwhile, would only worry themselves unnecessarily. Frankly, she found them somewhat perplexing. They worried about a lot of things Zalika didn't see as particularly important.

"Zalika, are you going back to bed?" Alex inquired. Seeing her standing there made him nervous. The idea of something Zalika considered worrisome wasn't exactly conducive to restful sleep.

Zalika's eyes narrowed, her hand tightening on the curtains. She'd selected her spirits based on the abilities they gave her. Unfortunately they also came with behavioral inclinations that were not especially compatible. She felt them pulling at her, this way and that, until she seemed to be coming apart at the seams. Then Esmerelda- Super Collie- showed it as a serious weakness. But even then it hadn't bothered her until now. Last year in Wellington she'd looked into Esmerelda's mind. She'd glimpsed a person who, despite setbacks and distractions, knew who she was and what she was about. Until that point it never occurred to Zalika that she didn't know, or even that it mattered. But it did matter. During her entire existence she'd been nothing but a spectator to her own life, bobbing along like a stick in a stream. Everything she'd ever done had been to serve others, be they people or her own spirits. She wanted to serve herself for once- but how to do that when she didn't know who she was? "No," she declared suddenly. "I'm going to take a walk. I'll be back before sunup. If anything happens-" She hesitated. What did she really owe these people? They'd brought her to life, sure, but for their own selfish- and short sighted- purposes. "If anything happens I'll get you out, one way or another." Saying that felt extraordinarily satisfying and at first she didn't know why. Then she did: because she'd done it. By herself and for herself. In that instant she felt something she hadn't experienced in a long time, if ever. She felt happy.

"What if they kill us?" Matilda squeaked.

Zalika rolled her eyes. They still didn't get it. "Then I'll bring you back to life." Her outline blurred and she walked into the hotel room's front wall. The darkness around her seemed to soak into the wall like water into a sponge; she passed through it with no more impediment than through air. The black puddle remained for an instant before shrinking away and vanishing.

"All that means is we can't get away, even in death," Helen muttered. She, Jenny, and Ruth bedded with Alex and Matilda, even though that left a whole bed for Zalika alone.

"Put a sock in it, will you?" Alex snapped. More sharply than necessary, perhaps... but the comment paralleled his own thoughts.

"They're afraid, that's all," Matilda whispered.

And you suppose I'm not? Alex wanted to say but didn't. What would be the use of starting an argument? He sighed, putting a hand on Matilda's cheek. She nuzzled it. Alex looked down at her and smiled wanly. Matilda licked Alex's muzzle. The playful lick Alex offered in return became something more serious even as he gave it. The tension of the fast few days demanded an out. Besides, it felt entirely natural and proper to hold Matilda, to kiss her, to caress her, to-

The feeling of his erection pressing against Matilda's thigh brought Alex up short. That wasn't familiar at all.

Matilda bit her lip. Then, very deliberately, she put her leg over Alex's hip and shifted herself into a sitting position, straddling his pelvis.

"I-" Alex stammered.

"Sh," Matilda interrupted, silencing Alex with a finger on his lips. "You're still my friend. My lover. That's all that matters." She reached between her legs, guiding Alex's shaft as she lowered herself onto it.

Arguments flashed through Alex's mind. They were on the lam. Zalika might come back at any moment. They were sharing their conjugal bed with three other people. And he was a man, for heaven's sake. But none of them reached his lips. As Matilda's hips thrust against his own all that came out of his mouth was a sigh.

On the TV monitor Constable Hardiman entered the exhibit hall. He looked at the Kamakura guardian, then at everything else. At the far side of the room he stopped suddenly, glancing over his shoulder. He spoke into his radio then went over the room again, more thoroughly this time. Halfway through he stopped again and looked straight at the bronze statue. An expression of indescribable horror spread across his features. His radio dropped from his hand. His eyes rolled up and he fell in an untidy heap. The tape ended.

"What happened to the security cameras?" Inspector Samson wanted to know. He kept fingering the left breast pocket of his trench coat. It was where he used to keep his cigarettes.

"According to the power company, a transformer shorted out," Constable Nordenfelt reported. "It caused a voltage transient that damaged a lot of the museum's security electronics as well as knocking out line power."

"All that money for cameras with battery backup and they're fucking useless," Samson snarled. Unable to contain himself any longer he leapt to his feet and paced savagely. He reminded Kremmin of Al Pacino in Dog Day Afternoon. His expression and demeanor reminded Kremmin of Al Pacino in Scarface.

"Who arrived first on the scene?" Kremmin asked in an effort to bring the investigation back on track.

"I did." Constable Satterwood raised her hand. "I saw just what you did: Hardiman and the statue were gone, with no trace of where they went. I called a security alert and ordered the building closed. We searched the entire area and found nothing."

"Fuck!" Samson tore the chew toy from his mouth and dashed it across the room. It skipped off the conference table, missing Constable Fry's head only because he flinched out of the way. "First the mummy, now this. It doesn't matter what the Hell we did or what really happened. No one will belive this wasn't the result of gross incompetence. Once again the Constabulary takes it right in the arse." He stormed out of the room, smashing the door open as he went. Several constables flinched but the door didn't slam shut. Someone caught it at the last moment and swung it open gently. Colonel Bathsfield entered.

"Before I say what I must, I wish to emphasize that in no way is it to be construed as a lack of faith in the Constabulary in general or the fine officers involved," the colonel began. "It is obvious to myself and everyone in the government that the Constabulary has done everything within its power to deal with the situation. Nor has any individual officer behaved in anything less than an exemplary fashion. However, it is regrettably apparent that the situation has moved beyond what our constables, however dedicated, are prepared to handle. As such, the Prime Minister has ordered me to place the Special Anti-Super Villain Squad on alert and assume operational control of this investigation."

The colonel went on but Constable Kremmin paid no mind. He found himself staring at the colonel's eyes. Though the colonel gave the impression of taking over reluctantly, only at the direct command of his superiors, there burned in his eyes something that Kremmin could only call an unholy glee. I hope Esmerelda and Cymbeline turn up something, he thought despairingly. If so there might still be a chance to resolve the situation peacefully. If not... he felt events rushing forward at an ever more frenetic pace. He couldn't shake the feeling that a disastrous crack-up waited at the end of it.

Ohakune did not appear to have much of a night life. As Zalika strolled along the road, seemingly unaffected by the night chill in spite of her lack of dress, she saw very little activity. But she felt a great deal: the thoughts, dreams, fears, neuroses, and dark desires of an entire community swirled around her. Eventually she arrived at a public house; upon entering she found herself assaulted by tobacco smoke and noise from two different televisions. One showed a football match, the other news. An announcer talked, his voice unintelligible against the background noise. Then he disappeared, replaced by... a scene from Hell. Thick black smoke and dark red flames billowed from partially collapsed buildings. Cars and trucks burned, their fuel creating rivulets of fire across the roadway. If one knew where to look there were bodies too, charred, blackened things that looked more like crumbs out of a deep fryer than anything that might once have been human. One year ago, the caption read. Zalika shivered; it didn't seem like a year to her. But then being dead affected one's sense of time. As the camera picked out details of the destruction Zalika stared, unable to tear her eyes away. She remembered doing this, unleashing the Fire of Ra's Eye to burn all it touched, but these images were new to her. She hadn't paid any attention to what she'd wrought. Not until afterward, at any rate. She found an empty table and sat down. Zalika hadn't ever actually seen an American bar. However, the American archeologist whose mind and body she'd taken over had. From his memories she drew a comparison: most notably the pub lacked bar stools and pool tables. In their place were several well used dart boards, one of them in use by four youngish men.

"What c'n I getcha?" a waitress asked, coming up to Zalika's table.

"Guinness," Zalika replied. By slightly relaxing her avoidance power she could interact with people, but it was dangerous.

One of the men playing darts turned suddenly and gave Zalika a thorough looking over. He slapped his buddies and pointed her out; they gathered into a clump, whispering to one other. That was one of the dangers: once the door was opened, so to speak, someone might notice more than she wanted. In this particular case the young man didn't realize that Zalika was naked but he had noticed her curvaceous construction. Naturally he fantasized about her without clothes... and that mental image coincided closely enough with the truth that he actually saw partially through the illusion. Thus he and his friends found her intensely interesting though they couldn't consciously have said why. They abandoned their darts game and came over.

"G'day, Miss," the young man who'd noticed first declared, flashing a charming smile. He seemed to be part border collie and part Australian shepherd, with a touch of dingo thrown in for good measure. "Waiting for someone?" He pulled out a chair and sat. His friends sat as well.

Zalika studied the four young men. Next to the mixed breed dog sat a white fleeced ram with a black face and hands. Across from him sat a red fox, and on the end a lean, gray jackrabbit. They all wore jeans, boots, and plaid shirts. Without needing to scan their thoughts she knew them to be farm workers: they had the weathered look of people who spent a great deal of time outdoors and a faint odor of the countryside clung to their clothing and fur. Physical labor had roughened their hands and hardened their physiques. She knew too that nothing she did short of outright violence would drive them away. Their subconscious minds had locked onto the presence of a naked woman, who also happened to be gorgeous and exotic. "No," she replied. "I'm on my own tonight."

"We can't have that!" the ram exclaimed. "This here's a wild country, y'see. A person like yourself might fall into bad company."

Under the circumstances that statement was so patently absurd that Zalika couldn't help laughing. The young men took that as a good sign and laughed with her. The waitress brought Zalika's Guinness; the fox boy promptly paid the tab and requested a round for his mates. Zalika took a few sips and decided that while Dr. Columbarnus might have liked the brew she did not. In any case she generally avoided alcohol; she didn't like how it dulled her sensitivity. "Actually, I think you've got that backwards," she said. "You shouldn't be out alone. You might... run into someone like me."

The men laughed. They would have laughed no matter what Zalika said, even if she'd called them a pack of stinking wogs. They were young men who desperately wanted to get laid and they'd spotted a potentially receptive female; they'd put up with absolutely anything she said or did if there seemed to be even the remotest chance of some nookie at the end of it. Zalika found that oddly touching; they saw her only as a potential sex partner. She glanced at the news and saw a shot of Te Papa's main entrance, shattered by the passage of Alexsia's Land Rover. They didn't see her as something unspeakably evil from beyond the grave, a monster spreading terror and death in her wake. Alexsia, Matilda, and the triplets were all afraid of her, even though they thought they controlled her. The more they understood what she was and what she could do the more they feared her. Never mind that those abilities were why they'd resurrected her in the first place. How typical; they thought only of the rewards without any regard for the price they'd have to pay.

Zalika shivered. That same argument could apply to her, and in a much more fundamental way.

"Are you all right?" the fox asked, laying a hand on Zalika's forearm.

"Yes." Zalika dabbed at her face with a napkin; belatedly all four of the young men offered them. "I... broke up with my boyfriend today."

"That's terrible!" the jackrabbit exclaimed. He managed to sound appropriately sympathetic though inside he exulted.

Zalika rose to her feet. She'd decided that she would fuck these four reasonably attractive and very eager young men to within an inch of their lives. She felt strangely grateful to them, though she wasn't entirely sure why. "I'm glad I met you gentlemen," she announced. "I've been hanging around in pubs all day and it hasn't made me feel any better. Do you know a quiet place where we can... sit and talk?" She'd almost said go and fuck but caught herself. It didn't pay to be too direct even when everyone knew what was going on.

"Sure," the mixed breed replied promptly, offering his hand. "We know a great place out by the river. We've been going there since we were kids. It's great for getting away from it all."

"I can't wait." Zalika pulled the mixed collie forward and kissed him on the cheek, then slipped an arm around the ram. "I grew up by water too. On the banks of a mighty river, flowing through a beautiful and exotic land..." She faltered for a moment but none of the boys noticed. It suddenly occurred to her that all her memories of Egypt were modern and mostly from the experience of Dr. Columbarnus, the American archeologist. She knew that she'd lived three thousand years ago... but when she tried calling up images of that time she couldn't. It was as if, over the centuries, her memories had melted away, leaving behind only a shell of emotion. That alarmed her more than anything else that had happened recently, because everything she'd done since coming back the first time had been predicated on her being the woman who'd crawled into a tomb three thousand years ago. But even though she thought of herself as that woman she couldn't remember anything about her. Not even... not even her name. She'd called herself Zalika Corby because a modern sounding name made certain things simpler... but also because she couldn't recall her original one.

The four young men had apparently arrived in a pickup truck that looked only slightly younger than them. Zalika, of course, got in the cab, sitting between Collie, who drove, and Ram. Fox and Jackrabbit got in back.

"Where are you from?" Collie asked as they pulled out.

"Oyster Bay, Long Island," Zalika replied. It was easier to tell them Dr. Columbarnus' history than to make something up on the spot. Telling them her real history didn't seem prudent... and suddenly it didn't seem nearly so real in any case. "That's in the United States," she added.

"Ah." Ram nodded. "You sound like an American. What brings you to New Zealand?"

Zalika hesitated. To steal Super Collie's power and lay the Wrath of Ra upon the land, she thought- and realized that her actions hadn't anything to do with Ra or any other god. She'd done it only and entirely to assuage her own pain and loss. "My boyfriend brought me," she said. "He's in the importing business. He'd made some new contacts here." They came upon the hotel Zalika and the gang had checked into earlier. "Stop here," she directed. Collie looked at her quizzically but complied. "Now rent a room," she continued. "I've no doubt that your secret place is beautiful and I'd love to see it... but I have to leave in the morning. Time is short."

"Sure thing." Collie stopped the truck and bailed out. He and his mates held a quick conference while Zalika waited in the cab. Between the four of them they came up with the rental fee; Ram filled out the paperwork and came out with the keys. Collie drove around and parked, just three doors down from where Alexsia and the gang slept.

Inside, the room looked exactly like the other one: two double beds, a night stand between them, a dresser against the wall, a closet, and a bathroom. "Take the covers off the beds and push them together," Zalika directed, applying just a touch of pressure to their minds. She didn't want any argument now. She needn't have worried; the promise of sex made them eager to please. "Now strip and stand in line abreast," she continued. Again they complied. Zalika walked along the line, inspecting them. She liked her men trim but not necessarily lean; the right amount of fat made them cuddly. They all fell within acceptable parameters except Fox, who needed to lose some weight. She grabbed his belly and a glob of flesh came away in her hand. The rest of him reapportioned itself to cover the loss; now he looked quite handsome. She tossed the lump of fat wrapped in skin into a waste basket and turned her attention to their genitals. For optimum pleasure a penis needed to be just the right length: long enough for good penetration but not too long. And of a thickness to stretch and stimulate the labia without straining them. Ram and Collie required lengthening and Fox thickening. Jackrabbit's organ kinked oddly due to scarring in the erectile tissue; Zalika straightened it. They gasped and grimaced as she worked on them; her flesh shaping power inflicted a certain amount of pain as it did its work. "Now we're ready to begin," she announced, rubbing her hands together. For starters she placed Fox on the floor at the foot of the bed, with Ram and Collie to either side of him, on the floor with their backs against the bed. Jackrabbit she placed on the bed. She knelt before him; that placed her crotch directly above Fox's face and Jackrabbit's crotch directly before her face. Ram could conveniently reach her right breast and Collie her left. Zalika chuckled, then eagerly set to work. This was going to be a very interesting night.

Constable Hardiman drove his police car along Highway One at much higher than the open road limit. It was a dangerous thing to do, and even more so at night with the car loaded as it was, but he didn't care. A force that would not be denied impelled him. He didn't know where he was going but took every turning with certainty. The force knew where it was going; it only needed Hardiman to get it there. He dodged around a slower moving vehicle; the police car wallowed dangerously but stayed on the road. He never could have done it had not he been completely divorced from any thought of himself; fear would have caused him to make a mistake. As it was he drove like a machine, with every iota of his skill in perfect alignment. He never even thought about the figure in the car's rear seat, in the middle to distribute its weight more effectively. He thought only about driving; at the moment it was the only thing that mattered.

Near dawn they stopped for petrol. No one paid any attention to the police car, its driver, or the figure in back. That, again, was the force's doing, deflecting anything that might side-track the mission. Constable Hardiman went to the bathroom and ate a box of pastries while the car's tank filled; he too needed fueling. Once free of the traffic around Palmerston North he gradually eased the accelerator down to the floor. Between Taihape and Waiouru he noticed an Intercity coach coming the opposite way.

There is the foe we seek. That vehicle must be stopped.

Without the slightest hesitation Hardiman swerved into the oncoming lane. His patrol car struck the coach head on at a combined velocity of around two hundred and forty kilometers per hour.

As the sun peeked over the horizon and dawn's early light filled the sky Zalika finished toweling off after her shower. She paused a moment, looking at the young men sprawled on the beds. Collie and Ram slept with their arms around one another. In that position they looked like little boys, not men. Zalika could imagine them as babies, sharing a cradle, sleeping in exactly the same position. The vision wasn't at all inconceivable; Zalika knew, from sensing the boys' surface thoughts, that their families had been friends for generations. Would probably still be friends when these two were grandfathers. Zalika blinked as her eyes filled with tears. These young men had a place in the great sweep of history. A modest one, perhaps, but even that amounted to more than she had. She was a wanderer, drifting through time but with no place in it. That hurt, far more than she liked to admit.

"Time to get going," Zalika announced in an effort to dispel her funk. It helped, to an extent. She didn't feel the least bit tired, despite not having slept much. She'd absorbed a tremendous amount of sexual energy, which banished fatigue. On the other hand, the young men- not to mention the beds- looked rather the worse for wear. She'd worked them hard; they'd probably sleep all day. Still she hesitated, gazing at them and distractedly stroking her belly. Traces of their semen remained inside her but nothing would come of it; though she felt warm and alive no man's seed would ever take root in her flesh. The powers that kept her from death also closed off the source of new life. All at once that knowledge depressed her terribly. How could she ever have a place in the span of history if she couldn't leave descendants? She left the room and hurried to the other, putting the thought firmly out of her mind. Now wasn't he time to think about such things; more immediate problems presented themselves. She'd taken a grave risk to have her dalliance with so many forces seeking her out.

Alex, Matilda, and the triplets were still there when Zalika entered. Alex awoke and sat up. "I told you I'd be back," Zalika said. "Let's get moving."

"Do you expect us to walk to Wellington?" Jenny demanded grumpily.

"No," Zalika replied. "There's a pickup parked outside. Its owner will drive us to the bus terminal. We'll take the first one headed south."

Alex rubbed her eyes, got up, and dressed. Obtaining new clothing had been simplicity itself; upon reaching town yesterday they'd stopped at a Salvation Army store. No one paid the slightest attention while Zalika and five naked people walked in, picked out a selection of gear including luggage, and walked out without paying. On that basis Alex wasn't the least bit surprised when the hotel clerk checked them in without the need for any kind of identification or payment.

The dusty, battered pickup to which Zalika led the way looked older and definitely the worse for wear than the young canine fellow standing beside it. "This is Caius," Zalika said, climbing into the truck's passenger seat. Caius said nothing; he gazed only at Zalika with an expression of desperate longing the way a starving man might regard a banquet. Alex and the gang piled in back. Caius drove briskly but discreetly to the motor coach terminal. Along the way a police car passed by going the opposite direction. It continued on, the constables paying no mind to the pickup or its occupants.

"Matilda, go check the schedule," Zalika said when the pickup stopped in front of the terminal. "I need to give Caius his payment for helping us." While Matilda went into the station Zalika opened the front of Caius' trousers and scooped out his penis. It sprang instantly erect at her touch; she bent over and took it into her mouth.

Alex resolved not to watch but found himself unable not to. Caius slumped back, his breath coming in short gasps, his eyes fluttering and rolled back. At the moment of orgasm he shuddered and groaned. Zalika straightened up, licking flecks of semen from her muzzle. Alex, much to his dismay, found that he'd developed a stiffy of his own and couldn't help wondering what it would feel like to have Zalika suck on it.

"Next bus south leaves in twenty minutes," Matilda reported. She'd returned earlier but waited until Zalika finished.

"Bugger," Jenny muttered. "I'd hoped we'd at least have time for breakfast."

"Are there vending machines with sandwiches?" Zalika inquired.

"On one wall, yes," Matilda replied.

"They'll have to do. We can't afford to wait around." Zalika climbed out; Alex handed down the triplets and the luggage from the truck's bed and vaulted out. Zalika looked intently at Caius through the windscreen and gestured; without a word he started the engine and pulled out.

"Why are we in such a hurry?" Matilda wanted to know as they entered the terminal building, a small corner shop with a couple rows of plastic seats for waiting passengers.

"Remember I said that Super Collie was on our trail?" Zalika replied. "She's way behind but she'll catch up if we don't keep moving."

Alex's eyes narrowed. He was pretty sure Zalika wasn't telling them the whole story. But when he thought about it, the notion of something that could discomfit Daughter Night wasn't something he cared to contemplate.

Zalika inspected the row of vending machines. Two dispensed candy, one drinks, and the last sandwiches. She lay her hand on the glass front of the sandwich machine; the racks within twitched and stirred but did not release any product. "Screw it," she announced, turning away. A few other travellers waited for the early morning coach; she asked each person for spare change and every single one gave her something, if only a few coins. The total bought sandwiches, sodas, and candy bars all around with enough to spare for a snack later on.

"Why don't you ask for a credit card while you're at it?" Matilda wanted to know.

"Because no one'll miss a few bucks in cash," Alex replied. "A credit card, especially one with a lot of charges run up on it, will be noticed."

"And tracked," Zalika added.

The coach arrived. Some passengers debarked; Zalika and the gang lined up with a few others to board. The driver waved then aboard without asking for tickets. Alex selected a block of seats near the back where they could all sit together but separate from other travellers. To that end Zalika encouraged several people to move. The coach pulled out, wound its way through Ohakune, then accelerated to open road speed on the highway out of town. It traversed the same stretch of road Alex and the others had walked the previous day; Alex scanned the roadside but nothing remained of the Land Rover but a burned patch. From the look of things it had been towed away. He let his head settle against the window and felt his eyelids droop; the sound of the coach's engine and its gentle motion lulled him.

Alex's eyes snapped open when the driver screamed. Passengers screamed as the driver swerved violently to the left. Alex looked forward just in time to see a patrol car smash head on into the coach's nose. He didn't have time to scream.

The laws of physics doomed Constable Hardiman's patrol car. A contest between a compact sedan and a twelve meter motor coach could have only one outcome. The car ricocheted from the impact, disintegrating as it spun away into the brush lining the roadway. Alas, despite its mass and size the coach could not shrug off such a strike; the driver and three rows of passengers died instantly as the coach's front end telescoped. Torn metal jammed the right front wheel; off-center force from the collision drove the coach's nose to the left but drag from the shattered wheel threw it back to the right. It swerved across the road; an estate wagon coming the other way, unable to stop or turn aside in time, smashed into its side. The coach flipped over, landing atop the hapless vehicle, and spun off the road into the scrub. It stopped in the ditch, nearly inverted.

"Bloody Hell," Zalika muttered. She lay on the coach's roof under a pile of bleeding, broken bodies. She turned insubstantial and crawled out. When she turned solid she hissed in pain; her left arm and right leg dragged behind her at unnatural angles. She grimaced, twisting the broken limbs. Bit by bit they snapped back into shape. She struggled to her feet, taking stock of the situation. From within the coach came an unholy chorus of screams, moans, and sobs. She waved her hand; the near side windows burst from their frames. Several passengers dragged themselves out, their clothes and bodies torn and bloody. Many more could only writhe weakly and sob. One by one Zalika grabbed them and dragged them out, laying them in the dust by the roadside. Once they were all out she went along the line, straightening broken or dislocated limbs and massaging cuts, scrapes, and contusions. Silvery light flickered around her fingers; torn flesh and shattered bone knit back together.

A white Toyota estate wagon with camping gear piled on its roof braked to a stop. Two people- a short, chubby mouse woman and a slender chipmunk fellow- scrambled out and hurried over.

"Cor blimey," the chipmunk breathed. Zalika looked up suddenly, noticing him for the first time. He drew a sharp breath and recoiled. "Y- y- you-" he stammered, eyes wide. "You're Daughter Night!"

Zalika's eye's flicked to the mouse. She held a cell phone in her hand; it sank slowly away from her face. Zalika gestured; the phone leapt from the mouse's hand into Zalika's. The woman yelped and fell backward onto her bottom. "Hello? Hello?" asked someone from the other end of the connection. Zalika switched off the phone and thrust it into her pocket, then knelt by Matilda. A piece of sharp metal had torn a ragged gash in one side of her scalp; blood soaked her head and shoulders. Zalika pressed the loose flap of skin back into place and healed the wound. Matilda drew a shuddering breath and sat up suddenly.

"What... what are you doing?" the chipmunk asked.

"Saving lives," Zalika replied shortly, rolling Helen onto her belly and realigning her pelvis with her rib cage. She pressed her fingers into the small of Helen's back and felt the shattered spine reform itself. "Get some of those blankets down and start covering people. If you don't they'll go into shock."

"Why are you doing this?" the mouse asked as she came up with a sleeping bag draped over her arm.

Zalika glanced along the line of survivors. "Because I tried the other way and it didn't get me what I wanted," she replied.

At the sound of tearing metal everyone turned. Zalika jogged around the end of the coach and looked across the road. "That's a fine howdy do," she muttered.

"What?" the chipmunk came up beside her.

"There." Zalika pointed.

A twisted mass of metal that had once been a car stirred. A flap pushed outward and something struggled free. It stood; it appeared to be a Japanese samurai warrior in black iron armor. It drew both its long katana and short wakizashi. With blades in hand it shambled forward at a fast walk.

"What the bloody Hell is that?" Alex demanded, coming up on Zalika's other side.

Zalika's eyes narrowed. She gestured; air around the figure shimmered. Bright discharges like electric sparks flashed all over its armor. It hesitated, but only for a second. "It's a revenant," Zalika pronounced.

"What the Hell is a revenant?" Alex demanded crossly.

"A form of undead," the chipmunk replied. "It's either a corpse or an object animated by the life force of someone who came back from the dead to accomplish something they couldn't do in life."

"That's right," Zalika exclaimed, eyes widening in surprise. "May I ask how you knew?"

"I used to play Dungeons and Dragons," the chipmunk replied with a self deprecating shrug.

"He still plays Dungeons and Dragons," the mouse interjected. "He says he's out drinking with his mates but I never smell anything on his breath when he comes home. Just the other day I found a dice bag in the car."

"Fine," Alex cut in sharply. "Zalika, could you kindly get rid of it? I don't like the way it's coming at us with drawn weapons."

"I can't," Zalika replied. "It doesn't have a mind I can affect and its armor shields it from my other powers."

"Are we going to stand around debating about it?" Matilda demanded, an edge of hysteria coming into her voice. The warrior didn't seem to be moving very quickly but already he'd closed more than half his original distance.

Zalika gestured. A fragment of the disintegrated patrol car spun into the air, striking at the warrior from behind. He spun, slashing with his blades. They cut steel body panels as easily and they'd cut velvet ropes, evoking great showers of sparks in the process. But the mass of metal still struck him, bowling him over onto his back. He slashed and struggled, cutting the wreckage into confetti, but it continued to writhe around him, eventually trapping his arms so he couldn't effectively use his swords. He used his mailed hands instead; metal screamed as he pushed and twisted at it but he couldn't simply burst or tear it.

"That isn't going to hold him long," Ruth muttered, shifting uneasily from foot to foot.

"Yes, I know." Zalika gestured with both hands. The overturned coach soared into the air, twirling majestically. The warrior saw it and skittered aside but his massive bronze and iron body weighed him down. He crossed his arms and hunched over just as the coach crashed down on top of him.

A red Miata headed north screeched to a halt just in time to avoid colliding with the wreck. The driver, a middle aged elk in an expensively cut business suit, stared in mute shock. The other coach passengers, many of whom had regained their feet, also stared. One, a heavyset vixen of somewhat more than middle age, turned toward Zalika. "Oh my God!" the woman screamed, clutching hands to her face. "It's Daughter Night!" A general hue and cry arose; the passengers, many still bloody from wounds Zalika had healed, fled in all directions.

Zalika spared a quick glance for the fleeing passengers then focused her attention on the mouse and chipmunk, who hadn't moved. "Why aren't you two running?" she inquired.

"It wouldn't do any good if you really wanted to kill us, would it?" the chipmunk responded, slipping an arm around the mouse's shoulders and pulling her tight against him. She responded in kind.

"Why can everyone suddenly see us?" Matilda wanted to know.

"Healing people- not to mention throwing a bus- takes a certain amount of concentration," Zalika replied.

A bang from the vicinity of the coach drew everyone's attention. A mailed hand groped from beneath it. The business elk let out a frightened squeak, bailed out of his car, and ran.

"Jesus Christ!" Helen shrieked. "You mean that thing's still alive?"

"No," Zalika replied. "Because it never was alive. It can't be destroyed except by magic. In the meantime it exists only to fulfill its purpose, which it will pursue unswervingly." She rounded on Helen, her eyes narrowing. "I also strongly suggest that you not use- that person's name in that fashion. You're invoking power you can't possibly understand or control." She turned to Alex. "You've seen that thing before. It might be in all our best interests if you told me all about it."

Alex swallowed. Interestingly enough it wasn't Zalika that unnerved her. It was the Japanese warrior... and more to the point, the implications of his existence. "It was in the hall at Te Papa where you were kept," Alex explained, facing Zalika but with her eyes on the groping hand. "I always wondered why they put a Japanese figure in an Egyptian exhibit."

Zalika looked at the hand. "It was placed there to keep me there," She said. "Since I'm not there now I suspect it's come to take me back. Since it's Japanese I'd guess that it was placed by Katakana Kat at the direction of his master, the Big Bad Wolf."

"But- but- but-" Matilda stammered. "That's- that's sorcery!"

"Obviously," Zalika replied. "Matilda, anyone can practice magic. All it takes is... a willingness to adopt a particular mind set. Daitakerou's sword is a magic item. He is himself a sorcerer of some ability, though his discipline is relatively focused. The reason magic's not widely practiced today is because it contradicts the notion of rational enlightenment. And that the Catholic and Muslim churches have both made great efforts to stamp it out."

"Can you destroy it?" Matilda wanted to know.

"Yes, but I need access to certain magical texts which are, at the moment, in the possession of Dr. Cymbeline Lathasar," Zalika responded.

The mouse gasped. "You mean Dr. Lathasar the Egyptologist?"

"She isn't just an Egyptologist, at least not any more," Zalika corrected. "She's also a powerful sorceress and avatar of Aset- Isis- the patron goddess of sorcerers."

"All very interesting, but shouldn't we be getting the- ah, fuck out of here?" Alex demanded. He'd been about to say Hell until Zalika's stern gaze fell upon her.

"Fucking oath," Helen growled, moving up to the chipmunk in a determined fashion. She stopped when it occurred to her that she came only to his knee.

"No need for that," Zalika said. "While we've talked I've learned quite a bit about our new friends. Your name-" she indicated the chipmunk- "is Todd Hayfield. Yours-" she turned to the mouse- "is Sally Ann Henstridge. The two of you were married two weeks ago and are returning home from your honeymoon. Sally, you'll no doubt be glad to know that you're pregnant. Unfortunately your daughter's inherited from you a predisposition for breast cancer, which will kill her just as it's now killing your mother. I propose to you this: if you convey me and my friends to Wellington I will not only make good any expenses incurred during the journey I'll cure Sally, her unborn daughter, and her mother. If you decline I'll do nothing; it wouldn't be worth my time to take pointless revenge. But either way decide quickly. We haven't time to waste."

"Yes," Sally said, looking up at Zalika if not unflinchingly that at least more or less steadily.

"Dear-" Todd began, gripping Sally's shoulder.

"Todd, I can't," Sally sobbed, grabbing his face. "I'm watching my mother die because no one can help her! I- I can't watch my daughter die too!" She buried his face against his shoulder.

Todd stroked Sally's back, looking at Zalika over it. "I know," he mumbled. "But... is it worth it? To- to-"

"Make a deal with the devil?" Zalika suggested. Todd nodded.

Sally looked up, at Todd, briefly at Zalika, then back at Todd. "I can't," she whispered in a broken voice.

Todd swallowed. "All right," he muttered.

"Clear the car," Alex ordered. He and Matilda set to work.

"Pile it in the roadway," Zalika amplified. She stepped up to Todd and Sally, laid a hand on each of their shoulders, and gently steered them toward the Toyota. By the time they reached it Alex and Matilda had finished their work. "Matilda, you drive," Zalika directed, opening the front passenger door. "Sally, Todd, and Alex take the rear seat. Jenny, Helen, Ruth, you get the back." Zalika waited until everyone boarded, then turned her eye beams upon the pile of discarded luggage, which burned as furiously as had the Land Rover. Zalika looked up; her eyes still glowed like the vent holes in a furnace and plumes of golden fire trailed from them. She blinked and became normal, or at least as normal as she ever was. Of the luggage nothing remained but a light sprinkling of ash. The pavement smoked and bubbled.

"What was that?" Sally asked as Zalika took her seat and closed the door.

"The Fire of Ra's Eye," Zalika replied, buckling her seat belt. "Drive," she commanded, pointing ahead. Matilda put the Toyota in gear and pulled out.

"Bugger me," Cymbeline muttered as she came down Jervois Quay. The Pajero drove properly but something in the front end rattled faintly. Dropping into that ditch had done a number on the body work. Which, considering that she'd borrowed the vehicle on the promise that nothing would happen to it, didn't bode well at all. She strongly suspected that it would take a lot more than just a blow job to smooth this over.

Because of her preoccupation Cymbeline did not, at first, notice the soldiers in full battle dress patrolling Te Papa's grounds. Then she entered the parking structure and encountered several army lorries. She hit the brakes and would have pulled out had not a group of soldiers intercepted her. A tall, muscular, and breathtakingly handsome spotted hyena rapped lightly on the Pajero's window. Cymbeline rolled it down.

"Good morning Dr. Lathasar," the hyena said in a voice as perfectly masculine and sexy as his body. "I'm Captain Wilkes of the Special Anti-Super Villain Squad. I've been assigned as your bodyguard. Also, Colonel Bathsfield would like to see you. This way, if you please."

"Uh... okay." Cymbeline rubbed her eyes. She hadn't slept since yesterday; the trip up to Waiouru and back, plus the investigation, had taken all night. After dropping off Esmerelda, showering, changing, and grabbing a quick breakfast, she'd only just had time to make it downtown. She left the Pajero and followed Captain Wilkes. She found herself wishing that his fatigue trousers were tighter, or better yet not there at all. If his hips and legs weren't perfect then they were pretty damn close.

As she passed behind one of the lorries Cymbeline saw something that looked like a colossal metal gorilla. It crouched, leaning forward on its massive knuckles. A raised bump on its broad shoulders served as a head, a single horizontal slit as features. Metal panels on its back stood open, revealing a cavity into which a person might fit, but not if they were the least bit claustrophobic. Non-reflective dark gray paint coated the machine's exterior; even in the well lit garage the eye had difficulty resolving details of the figure's form.

"Is that one of your battle suits?" Cymbeline inquired.

"Yes," Captain Wilkes replied. "One platoon- that's four suits- will remain here at all times. The rest of the unit is deployed at staging points around the city."

Beyond the suit Cymbeline came to a small area marked off by racks of electronic equipment. Soldiers with headsets tended the gear and arranged counters on large maps spread out on tables. At one of the tables sat Colonel Bathsfield, going over some papers. Captain Wilkes braced to attention and saluted crisply.

"Ah, you found her at last," the colonel exclaimed, looking up and adjusting his glasses. "We've had a devil of a time tracking you down, Dr. Lathasar," he added sternly, shifting the focus of his attention. "May I ask where you've been?"

"Away on personal business," Cymbeline replied. For all that she admired the SASVS's goals, she did not like Colonel Bathsfield one bit. He said publicly that his squad's mission was to assist Super Collie, and always spoke of her reverently, but he also always managed to get in some comment about relieving the nation's dependency on "unknown elements" and "addressing the lack of public oversight." To Cymbeline this suggested that the colonel either wanted to replace Super Collie outright or make her subordinate to his own organization. As someone who'd been rescued by Super Collie and subsequently become a close friend of hers, Cymbeline found both notions utterly reprehensible. Therefore she wasn't about to tell the colonel something that might possibly lead to her also telling him that she was Super Collie's personal friend, or even that she knew Super Collie's secret identity.

"You couldn't at least take your cell phone?" The colonel inquired, arching an eyebrow. Cymbeline shrugged. The colonel frowned. "I think you of all people should appreciate the danger of Daughter Night potentially getting loose."

"Believe me, I do," Cymbeline replied. In fact she'd come primarily to do some research: analyzing the ash, translating what the spirits had told her, and performing a more powerful divination that hopefully could pierce or bypass Daughter Night's defenses. Unfortunately, in the process of developing her powers she'd done things whose ethical standing ranged from rather questionable to unequivocally criminal. With Daughter Night breathing down her neck the legal implications of her actions had, to say the least, diminished in importance. After all, the worst the courts could do was put her in jail. But as a result of it all Cymbeline had developed exceptional abilities. Interpreted charitably that made her a super hero, therefore another rival to the squad. Interpreted uncharitably it made her a super villain, the very thing the squad was charged to destroy. Neither outcome left much potential for being friends with the colonel.

"Then you can see that if Daughter Night does come back it's likely that she'll seek revenge on those who she feels wronged her, and your name is right at the top of the list," the colonel said shortly. "As such, I feel that the potential risk to your person is of sufficient severity that I've assigned Captain Wilkes as your bodyguard. He'll attend you at all times and insure that no harm comes to you."

"I see." Cymbeline nodded but felt as if she'd been punched in the gut. She couldn't possibly do her research with Captain Wilkes looking over her shoulder. But not only were SASVS troopers selected for strength of will, they received extensive, highly specialized training. On top of that, it was said that their battle suits could detect- and block- the use of certain super powers. That might or might not include Cymbeline's mind-affecting abilities, but the penalties for guessing wrong would be dire. Considering what Daughter Night had done to Wellington the colonel would be well within his rights to shoot first and ask questions later. At the very least she needed to get Captain Wilkes away where she could work on him in private- but in a way that wouldn't arouse suspicion. "Do I have to stay here?" she inquired archly.

"No Ma'am." Captain Wilkes shook his head. "We're under strict orders to disrupt normal operations as little as possible."

Cymbeline resisted the urge to laugh. Daughter Night on the loose and the museum in shambles. It's a wonder he can even say the word 'normal' with a straight face. "In that case, let me grab a few things from my office and you can guard my body while we're having breakfast at a nice little place I know." She spoke in a lighthearted tone but threw in a smoking 'come hither' glance. I don't need no stinkin' super powers to net me a man.

"It would be my pleasure, Doctor." Captain Wilkes smiled warmly and offered his arm.

Got you now, suckah. Cymbeline smiled up at the captain as she lay her hand on his elbow and snuggled up against him. The top of her head came only to his shoulder but she didn't mind at all. It placed his lean, exquisitely sculpted chest at a height where she could admire it comfortably. She caught his eyes roving briefly from her face to her cleavage and suppressed a giggle. She'd dressed in a coffee colored mini-skirt, a cream colored short sleeved blouse, and high heeled shoes. As usual she wore the top three buttons on her blouse open and a Wonderbra beneath it. Sure it cost a bundle but not only was it incredibly comfortable, it made her breasts look about twice their actual size.

"You'll no doubt be glad to know that the repair work on the exhibit hall is running smoothly," Captain Wilkes commented as he and Cymbeline headed for the museum's staff areas.

"I am," Cymbeline replied seriously, her eyes narrowing. The robbers had damaged countless precious artifacts as well as inflicting grievous harm on the museum building itself. Bloody Philistines.

"In fact, I wondered if you might be willing to answer a small question for me," the captain continued, smiling self-consciously. "I realize it's probably such a meaningless thing to someone like you-"

"No, please," Cymbeline cut in, squeezing the captain's arm. "To answer questions is why we're here."

"Ah." The captain brightened. "Thank you ever so much, Doctor. I saw something in the exhibit hall and it piqued my curiosity." He guided her toward the main stairs.

"Cymbeline, please," Cymbeline insisted.

"Oh?" The captain arched an eyebrow. "Then you must call me Haimar."

"Done." Cymbeline reached across to shake Haimar's free hand. It gave her the opportunity to explore the side of his chest, which felt as deliciously hard as it looked. I really must endeavor to get you out of that stuffy uniform, she thought to herself. Preferably with nothing to replace it.

With the mess cleaned up workmen labored to repair damage to the building itself. Cymbeline sighed; fixing everything would take weeks. After that it would be months- or years- before all the exhibits themselves could be restored and put back on display. At that moment what bothered Cymbeline the most was not the possibility of Daughter Night running loose but how a pack of working class thugs had so casually desecrated what was, at least to Cymbeline, almost a holy place. If she got her hands on them-

Haimar cleared his throat and pried Cymbeline's fingers loose from his arm with his other hand. "Sorry," she said sheepishly, relaxing her grip. Because of that distraction she happened to be looking up at Haimar's face when she entered the Egyptian exhibit. "Now what-" she began, glancing around the room.

One thing grabbed Cymbeline's attention and held it, to the exclusion of all else. The Kamakura guardian was gone.

For what felt like minutes Cymbeline couldn't move, couldn't tear her eyes away from the empty pedestal, couldn't speak, couldn't even breathe. Finally her stunned diaphragm sprang into action and she drew a shuddering breath.

"Where did it go, Dr. Lathasar?" Haimar inquired. Suddenly he wasn't a young man flirting with a pretty girl. He sounded like a police officer questioning a suspicious person. "For that matter, why did you decide to place it here? And where did it come from originally?"

Cymbeline looked up. Haimar looked down, his expression hard and dispassionate, like a surgeon about to perform a necessary amputation. His arm trapped her hand against his side.

"I... uh..." Cymbeline swallowed.

From his back pocket Haimar produced a thing that looked something like a calculator. When he waved it in front of Cymbeline's face LEDs flashed and the device emitted a sharp buzz. "I wonder too why your psion emissions are more than ten times that of an average person."

Cymbeline licked her lips, which felt suddenly dry. Room temperature seemed to have dropped precipitously; she resisted the urge to shiver. "I could show you the provenance," she offered, smiling weakly.

"I've no doubt it's every bit as authentic as the stolen mummy," Haimar replied.

A sudden thought sprang into Cymbeline's mind, offering a ray of hope. "Why aren't I having this conversation with Colonel Bathsfield? Or is that next?"

For a subjective eternity Haimar said nothing, his face as expressionless as those of the statues framing where the mummy had once stood. "I'll tell you about it while we have breakfast at that place you mentioned. But only if you promise to answer my questions as well."

"Deal." Cymbeline thrust out her hand. Haimar took it; he didn't squeeze but Cymbeline felt the power in his grip.

"Not going to your office?" Haimar inquired as Cymbeline turned them about and headed for the stairs.

"No." Cymbeline shook her head. "That can wait 'till after breakfast."

"Where is this place?" Haimar inquired as they crossed Cable Street and headed up Tory.

"Courtenay Place," Cymbeline replied, taking the opportunity to glance briefly at Haimar's face. It had not escaped her notice that he was offering her the chance to nail him once they got away from Te Papa. But while he seemed entirely at ease- once again a young man taking a pretty girl out to eat- something in his eyes made her more than a little uneasy. If he'd really figured out as much as he appeared to have then he had to know he was taking a risk by letting her get him alone. Which meant... that he was testing her. He'd have a contingency if she tried anything.

At the cafe Haimar ordered a light continental breakfast. Cymbeline requested eggs, toast, sausage, and potatoes. Sorcery really took it out of a person.

"Do you eat like this all the time?" Haimar inquired.

"As a matter of fact yes," Cymbeline responded. "Lately weight hasn't been a problem for me. In fact, if I don't eat I lean out alarmingly." She took a bite of sausage. "Why didn't you tell Colonel Bathsfield about me?"

"You may recall that confronting Daughter Night in the Sky Tower last year was the squad's first operational mission," Haimar replied. "You may also recall that it wasn't exactly a shining moment for us."

Cymbeline nodded. The encounter had ended with a spectacular battle on the Sky Tower's observation deck- from which Daughter Night escaped, apparently unharmed, leaving the observation deck and one of the squad's powered suits heavily damaged. Worse yet, from the standpoint of spin control, the whole thing went out live on national television.

"The colonel has invested a great deal into the squad," Haimar continued. "Time, energy, the government's money... and his personal reputation. He wasn't very happy with how the Sky Tower encounter turned out, not the least because it's presentation in the media made us look like a pack of fools and Super Collie the hero, even though she didn't do much. In fact we saved Super Collie from being seduced by Daughter Night but other than us no one knows or cares." He shrugged. "Then came the big showdown. Daughter Night shows up in Wellington, rampaging through the city, sowing death and destruction... with Super Collie nowhere in sight. It was no less than the moment the colonel had waited for. He gets to demonstrate the squad's worth, recover its tarnished reputation, and get in a dig at unreliable super heroes to boot." Haimar took a sip of tea and spent a moment savoring it before continuing. "Then, just as the squad's about to deploy, Super Collie arrives. Somehow she managed to defeat Daughter Night, not by fighting her but by exploiting a psychological weakness." His eyes seemed to bore into Cymbeline's. "Afterward I often wondered why, if it was so simple, Super Collie hadn't done it already. The answer, I suspect, is that it wasn't. There was more to that final encounter than showed on the TV screens... and Super Collie had help. Someone showed her the way to proceed. In any case, even though Super Collie appeared to be succeeding the colonel ordered us to attack."

"Why didn't you?" Cymbeline asked.

"I countermanded the order," Haimar replied. "I wasn't so sure we could have defeated Daughter Night in a straight-out fight. Even if we won we'd have ended up causing more death and destruction." His eyes narrowed. "I'm not afraid to risk my life, or even expend it if necessary. But though I won't hesitate to kill if required, my duty is first and foremost to protect. I decided that more lives would be saved by us not acting." He smiled grimly. "That I turned out to be right only made things worse in the end. Now as you might imagine the colonel wasn't very happy. Once again Super Collie had stolen away what should have been the SASVS's glory. He spent the next nine months in front of government panels, desperately explaining why the squad wasn't a big waste of taxpayer money."

"Why are you still in the squad then?" Cymbeline ventured.

"The colonel couldn't bring charges against me without calling unwanted attention to his own actions," Haimar explained. "But he's done everything he can to marginalize me. He assigned me to be your bodyguard but gave me no equipment, no backup, and strict instructions not to impede your movements in any way. He expects you to be attacked and me to conspicuously fail in defending you. Then he will ride to the rescue with the rest of the squad." He took another sip of tea. "Your turn, Doctor. Where did you go that kept you out all of last night and left your Pajero in such a deplorable condition?"

"Ah." Cymbeline fiddled with her fork. "If you don't mind, Captain, I'd... rather go somewhere more private to discuss that."

"Is being overhead a problem?" Haimar inquired.

Cymbeline's tail twitched. "Should I be worried about how the SASVS might react?"

Haimar pulled the electronic device from his pocket, switched it off, and laid it on the table. "No."

"Very well, then." Cymbeline closed her eyes for a moment. Casting the spell of avoidance had become almost second nature; she'd used it extensively, most often to conceal her illicit activities at Te Papa. "I located the place where our mummy bandits resurrected Daughter Night."

"She is alive, then?" Haimar inquired.

"Absolutely." Cymbeline nodded. "The bandits used a Australian Aborigine spirit calling ritual to bring her back."

"Do you know where she is now?"

Cymbeline shook her head. "I looked for her but she resisted me. I haven't tried again; if I'm not careful she might be able to attack me."

"Is there a way you could find her without exposing yourself to undue risk?"

"Yes. If I had the proper tools."

"Are they here?"

"Yes. All the... equipment I need is in Te Papa's Egyptian collection right now."

"How does all this connect to the Japanese statue?"

"I put the Kamakura guardian in there as a... backup to the Egyptian ones," Cymbeline explained. "The Egyptian guardians would protect Daughter Night's spirit against attack- and take revenge against anyone who defiled the tomb, of course- but wouldn't prevent her from wandering off. If all else failed the Kamakura guardian would, I was told, keep her spirit bottled up in the exhibit."

"I can't imagine it would be a good thing to have Daughter Night's restless spirit loose in Te Papa," Haimar commented.

"It wouldn't," Cymbeline replied flatly. "It'd be like- like The Shining, Poltergeist, and The Amityville Horror all rolled into one."

"Why wasn't it?" Haimar wanted to know.

Cymbeline ate in stolid silence for a couple minutes before responding. "I don't know," she finally admitted. "I expected Daughter Night to... become angry if I didn't handle her remains delicately. That's why I mummified her and put her on display. The Egyptians built tombs so they wouldn't be forgotten. I thought that making Daughter Night the center of attention would appease her. If so it worked better than I ever imagined. I monitored her closely for the first couple months but never got so much as a peep out of her. I admit that afterward I... slacked off. I had other work to do." She scrubbed her face. "I keep- I keep wondering if there wasn't something I would have seen if I'd watched more closely."

"Perhaps." Haimar reached across the table, gently taking Cymbeline's hands and drawing them away from her face. "Perhaps not. In any case, nothing's gained by worrying about the past."

Cymbeline sighed heavily. "The Big Bad Wolf gave me the Kamakura guardian and the spell to activate it. Daughter Night had injured him, too. Apparently some of his men stole her by mistake when they broke into a shipment of artifacts bound for Te Papa. Whatever the reason, he really, really wanted her to stay dead. I took it because- because, frankly, I was scared to death. Daughter Night came after me twice, once in Egypt and again here in New Zealand. I only barely escaped, and more from luck than anything else." She shivered violently.

"Where do you think the statue's gone, Dr. Lathasar?" Haimar asked, gently caressing the backs of her hands.

"To hunt down Daughter Night, the people who stole her, or both," Cymbeline replied.

Haimar frowned. "You mean it came alive and marched away on its own?"

"Is that such a remarkable thing, under the circumstances?" Cymbeline countered.

"I suppose not," Haimar allowed. "Why didn't anyone see it leave?"

"Magic to cloud peoples' minds isn't all that difficult, really." Cymbeline found herself not wishing to let go of Haimar's fingers. In fact, she wanted to touch a great deal more of him. "Most people's minds are pretty cloudy already. They have an idea of what the world's like and ignore anything that doesn't agree with it. You just... reach into their subconscious and tell it that whatever they're seeing is supposed to be there. Their brain replaces the non-conforming image with something comfortable. Or, at least, in keeping with their world view."

"The perfect disguise," Haimar commented. "Everyone sees something different, and it's exactly what they should see, under the circumstances."

"Exactly." Cymbeline nodded. "Daughter Night did it all the time. She was so good you'd never even remember that someone had been there, and she could mask whole groups of people, not just herself. The Kamakura statue already had enchantments on it when it arrived, and then there's what happened to poor Ron." She cast her eyes down. "Fresh blood is an amazing source of power for those with the stomach to use it."

"How does it plan to find the robbers when you, the constabulary, and the army have failed?" Haimar asked.

"I wish I knew." Cymbeline shook her head sadly. "Then I might be able to track them myself. Or at least track the guardian and let it lead us to the robbers."

"What would you need?"

Cymbeline considered carefully before answering. "At the very least I'd need to perform some divinations. Unfortunately-" she suppressed a yawn- "casting spells drains you just as much as physical labor. More, in some ways. That's why I eat so much. But after everything that's happened I need to... recharge my mana, as it were." She smiled in a decidedly predatory fashion and caressed Haimar's palms. "And, as a matter of fact, there happens to be something you could do for me that would aid greatly in that endeavor."

Mr. Ulysses sat down at his desk. His breakfast had already been laid out for him on silver service. Several thick folders, the latest from his police informants, awaited his attention. After applying blueberry jam to his scone he opened the first and leafed through it.

The Land Rover used in the Te Papa robbery had turned up. Police found it on the side of the road outside Ohakune. It had caught fire; smoke from the conflagration drew fire fighters, who called in police investigators. By then the truck had burned down to shell, leaving very little to investigate. Forensic analysis suggested that there might have been a body on board, but no more than one and even then the evidence wasn't conclusive. No tracks leading to or from the site were found except the vehicles's own, which suggested that it had been headed east along Route 49.

The second report- far and away the thickest- spoke of a serious motorway accident on Route One, a dozen kilometers north of Taihape. An Intercity coach headed south had collided head on with a police car headed north. Marks on the highway and on the coach itself showed clearly where it had gone over on its side... but police found it upright in the middle of the roadway with no indication of how it got there. Despite the apparent severity of the accident no passenger suffered more than minor injuries, though quite a few were found in torn, bloody clothing. Some survivors claimed they'd seen Daughter Night. Of those a number said they'd seen her murdering people and stealing their souls. No one noticed her arrive at or depart from the scene and no one knew if she'd come alone or in company. The car had been one assigned to Constable James Hardiman, which along with the Constable himself and the Kamakura tomb guardian had gone missing from Te Papa yesterday evening. Both car and constable disintegrated on impact, leaving nothing but mangled scraps. And yet something massive had torn its way out of the car's back seat, leaving smears of iron and bronze on wreckage. Analyses were pending but for the moment no one could offer any explanation of why the constable had apparently decided to commit suicide by ramming an Intercity coach.

The third folder contained an apparently unrelated report. Two constables sent to investigate a livestock theft apparently disappeared without a trace. The next day another pair of constables, while searching for the first pair, came across an abandoned campsite east of Waiouru. They found the missing constables and two of the missing sheep. The animals had been slaughtered, one by a knife wound to the neck and the other by what appeared to be a wild animal bite. The missing constables were alive but sickly, suffering from exposure and malnutrition. They were both naked and disoriented; when questioned neither could remember what had happened to them. Another vehicle, a four-by-four of some sort, had arrived overland from the south. It had carried somewhere between four and six individuals, some or all of whom were thought to be female on the basis of the footprints they left. They camped, possibly overnight, then got in their truck and departed in the general direction of Ohakune.

Mr. Ulysses laid the last folder aside and touched a control on his desk. The curtains over his office window whirred open. No bright sunshine greeted him this morning; a heavy, leaden overcast blocked it out, leaving the city bathed in pale, anemic light. He didn't need a map or additional forensic reports to put everything together; he knew that the bandits had been headed for a safe house in Waiouru. Then, for some reason, they'd changed their minds.

"Why would they abandon their carefully laid plans, after putting so much time and money into them?" Paul wondered aloud, stroking his chin. He glanced at the folders; the answer was right in front of him. The third sheep, which the police hadn't found because Ms. deHaviland and her gang had taken it away with them. But it wasn't a sheep anymore. It had become the new vessel for the malevolent spirit of Daughter Night. She'd warned Ms. deHaviland that if she stayed the course she'd find the Big Bad Wolf waiting for her.

A smile spread slowly across Mr. Ulysses' face. No one seeing it would mistake it for an expression of mirth; when the Big Bad Wolf smiled brave men trembled in fear. And with good reason, too. He picked up his phone and dialed a number. "Ms. Poundsaver," he began, "Please inform Daitakerou that I require him back in Wellington immediately. Tell him also that he is to bring with him not only his entire team but all the personnel he can from our northern field offices. And please inform the good doctor that I need him to be standing by. I expect an opportunity for him to demonstrate his invention will come upon us in no more than a few days. Thank you." He hung up, then rose and went to stand before the penthouse window.

Alexsia's Land Rover had left the camp headed toward Ohakune. The Intercity coach had been headed south from Ohakune. Constable Hardiman had been headed north... and the massive object in the rear seat of his patrol car had, without a doubt, been the Kamakura guardian. No one would have noticed Zalika arrive at or depart the scene unless she wished it- or happened to be distracted by other considerations. Such as fighting for her life against a creature that couldn't be killed and her powers couldn't affect. Since none of the gang's bodies showed up at the scene of the accident Paul had to presume they'd escaped... but since the guardian hadn't turned up either it was, presumably, still hot on their trail.

Paul's smile broadened into a hideous, feral grin. Zalika was coming to Wellington, just as he'd known she would. She had to. She and he had unfinished business. She wasn't the sort to leave such things lie any more than he was. But this time would be different. This time implacable doom pursued her... and doom just as unstoppable waited for her. Daughter Night, and anyone foolish enough to ally with her, would be crushed as between the hammer and the anvil.

"Sir, I'm sorry to disturb you," a cultured, feminine voice said from Paul's Speakerphone. "Mr. Yune from Hong Kong responded to your message. He said that he'd be more than happy to grant your request but he can't meet the timetable you specified."

"Tell Mr. Yune that if he does not meet the timetable then Daitakerou will deliver my next request," Paul replied. Despite the content of his words he didn't sound angry. In fact, his voice took on a lilting, almost sensual tone.

Ms. Poundsaver, in the office one floor down, did not respond. She didn't trust herself to speak. Mr. Ulysses could order an execution with the cold dispassion of a judge passing sentence. When his voice took on that lilting tone, though, it meant he was thinking of doing the job himself.

Up in the penthouse Mr. Ulysses' hands clenched spasmodically into fists. "I'm not gonna roll over for you this time, bitch," he hissed, his whole body trembling with rage. "Do you hear me, bitch?" he screamed, slamming his fists into the window again and again. "I don't belong to you any more!"

The Lexan pane bowed alarmingly but did not break. Paul's knuckles left smears of blood on it. He drew a shuddering breath, letting his arms fall to his sides. It only proved how much Daughter Night had affected him that he could lose control like that.

"No more," Paul whispered, as quiet and tender as if to a lover. "It ends here, Zalika. Even if I have to expend every asset my empire has. Even if I have to burn Wellington to the ground and plow salt into the ashes. On my life, Zalika, it ends here."

"What the-" Inspector Samson exclaimed as Constable Kremmin barged into his office carrying a stack of folders. When George dropped them on the inspector's desk they landed with a thud. The topmost slipped off the pile, fanning its contents across the desktop. They seemed to be nothing but glossy mug shots; Samson picked one out and examined it. "What's this?" he asked. "Cleaning out the mug files?"

"In the last twenty-four hours, every one of these individuals was turned away by Customs and Immigration at Auckland International Airport," Kremmin replied.

Samson froze in the act of picking up another photo. The chew stick shifted from the left to the right side of his mouth, then back. "Every one of these?"

"Every one," Kremmin averred.

"Bloody Hell," Samson breathed, sinking heavily into his chair. He picked out another photo. "Manilla," he said, glancing at the attached information sheet. "Hong Kong, Sydney, Nagasaki, Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok, Port Moresby..." He leafed through the pile, selecting photos at random. "You know, Kremmin, it looks like the scum of the earth from all over southeast Asia suddenly decided to drop by."

"It does," Kremmin agreed. But that wasn't the half of it, as he and Samson both well knew. For every one turned away by Customs a dozen more probably made it through. This wasn't ordinary smuggling or gang activity. An underworld army of staggering proportions was invading New Zealand.

"Interesting that this happens at the same time Daughter Night decides to take a walk," Samson continued.

"Indeed." Kremmin nodded. "Big Bad Wolf must be pulling in all his markers."

"That he is." Samson slapped the photos down on his desk. "I'd say he wants these robbers in the worst possible way."

Kremmin said nothing. Super Collie had called him that morning and told him that Daughter Night was, without a doubt, alive once more. Meaning that when Big Bad Wolf and his legion of thugs finally caught up to Ms. deHaviland and her gang Zalika would be with them. And wherever this encounter occurred, the countryside would bleed and burn on a scale New Zealand hadn't seen since the nineteenth century.

"God help all of us," Samson muttered as if he'd overhead Kremmin's thoughts.

"Amen," George replied, with feeling. For the first time in his career as her liaison with the police force he couldn't help wondering if even Super Collie was up to the task of salvaging the situation. Which brought up an even more unpleasant thought: if she failed, who else could help?

"Cheezuz aitch," Bradley Felton muttered as he brought his wrecker to a stop. A constable waved him past a line of stopped cars; apparently the road was completely blocked. He continued on, arriving at a cluster of emergency vehicles. Just past them he saw a motor coach, sitting slantways across the roadway, obstructing both lanes. The side toward him looked badly damaged, as if it had rolled. Bradley couldn't help wondering why, if that were the case, it was now upright. None of the wrecking gear currently on site could have lifted it.

A constable came up as Bradley brought his truck to a halt. "Take that one there," the constable directed, indicating a car that seemed to have ran into the coach's side. "The forensics teams are done with it for now and want a better look at the bus."

"Okay," Bradley replied, brushing hair away from his eyes. Being a sheepdog, he did that a lot. The car he'd been directed to collect had obviously struck after the coach arrived in its current position. He found himself wondering how that could have happened; from what he'd heard the accident had taken place in broad daylight. It wasn't as if a motor coach could just drop out of the sky, was it?

As he maneuvered his wrecker around Bradley glanced surreptitiously upward. He'd heard rumors about this accident. Very disturbing ones, in fact. Still, nothing untoward happened as he lowered the wrecker's ramp and attached tow hooks to the car's rear axle. He started the winch; the car detached itself from the coach's side with a pop and bang. After that it rolled easily up onto the wrecker's bed. Bradley retracted the bed and set the tie-down chains.

"Where are you taking this vehicle?"

"Palmerston North," Bradley replied without looking up. He thumped the last chain with a baton to check its tension, then turned toward the voice. When his eyes fell upon the figure he gasped and shied away, banging his side painfully against the edge of the wrecker's bed.

"Are you all right?"

"I- I-" Bradley didn't want to look up but couldn't help it. His gaze arrived at the figure's face in a series of jerky steps. Then Bradley felt foolish. It was just another constable. As he looked into the man's eyes, memory of what had frightened him evaporated from his mind. "Yeah," he said quickly. "Can I help you, officer?"

"Yes," the figure replied. "I will ride with you."

Bradley's mouth opened, then shut. There was something about the constable's eyes. Something against which disagreement simply wasn't a possibility. "Sure," he said. "I was just heading out anyway."

"Once you're done in Palmerston North, you must take me to Wellington," the officer continued. His tone never changed.

Bradley licked his lips. The constable's eyes, and his whole expression, looked as cold and merciless as a winter wind straight off Antarctica. "S- sure," Bradley stammered. He felt cold in spite of the bright sunshine. He hurried to the wrecker's cab and climbed in. The constable climbed up onto the bed. Bradley refused to let himself think about that, just as he refused to notice how the wrecker's springs compressed noticeably under the constable's weight.

Super Collie found herself dozing fitfully as the helicopter sped north. Normally sleep wouldn't even be a possibility with all the noise and vibration around her but now she felt... stretched. As if she were being pulled tighter and tighter, like a rubber band, until she felt ready to break. First there'd been the trip to Lake Tekapo, then the late night expedition with Cymbeline, and now this, flying off to look at a motorway accident. George had asked her to come because Daughter Night had been reported seen. How could she refuse?

When someone rapped on the window against which she'd laid her head, Super Collie started upright. Because, primarily, whoever knocked was outside the aircraft. She blinked and looked out the window.

Outside stood Daughter Night. She wore a khaki tank top but no bra; the outline of her nipples showed clearly through the fabric. A pair of jungle camouflage BDU trousers clothed her ample hips and meaty thighs.

For what felt like a very long time Super Collie could only stare. She turned to her left; George sat beside her, his hands upon his thighs, looking forward. Inspector Samson rode in front with the pilot. She tried to speak but while she felt her mouth moving- slightly- she couldn't seem to produce any sound. Only then did she realize that there didn't seem to be any sound. Everything looked normal. She even saw cabin walls vibrating slightly. But she heard nothing at all. Until Zalika knocked on the window once more. Slowly Super Collie turned and looked out. Zalika seemed to be standing the ground beside the helicopter... which would have made more sense if the helicopter had been on the ground. Now it was- it was-

Super Collie frowned. All she could see through the windows, other than Zalika, was bright whiteness as if the aircraft had flown into a cloud. In which nothing made a sound except for Zalika herself. Slowly, hesitantly, Super Collie put her hand on the door latch and pushed it. She wasn't at all sure that opening the door would be a good idea but she had to know upon what Zalika stood. As the door swung open Zalika stepped back. Her feet, covered by black combat boots, stood on... nothing. Indeterminate whiteness the same as everywhere else.

"Come with me," Zalika said, offering her hand.

Super Collie glanced at George. He, Samson, and the pilot sat in their chairs, apparently unaware of anything out of the ordinary. Super Collie plucked hesitantly at George's sleeve. He didn't react, even in the slightest.

"They can't see or hear," Zalika said. "What happens here is for you alone, Esmerelda."

"Why?" Esmerelda demanded bluntly. The sound of her own voice started her as much as Zalika's assertion. Being addressed as Esmerelda while in the form of Super Collie shocked her profoundly because, well, it had never happened before. She'd imagined it many times, but hearing the words spoken aloud somehow changed the thought in a fundamental way that she couldn't clearly articulate.

"Why do some see and some not?" Zalika countered. "Because of who we are, we do. Because of who they are, they don't."

"What do you want me to see?" Esmerelda asked hesitantly. Glancing up she saw the helicopter's rotors whirling around. They made no more sound than anything else in this strange, white limbo. Neither did she feel the wind of their passing.

"This way," Zalika said, half turning and offering her hand.

Esmerelda put one foot on a step attached to the helicopter's skid but hesitated with her hand partially outstretched. "Why should I trust you?" she asked.

Zalika turned back, facing Esmerelda squarely. "We are more alike than sisters, you and I," she said. "Closer than lovers. We are yin and yang, each existing because of, and given definition by, the other. If I hurt you I'd be hurting myself." She slipped her hand into Esmerelda's.

Esmerelda gasped. Zalika's flesh felt warm, soft, and very much alive. Zalika tugged gently, impelling Esmerelda out of the cabin. Almost unconsciously she stepped down; only after following Zalika for half a dozen steps did occur to her to look down. Her feet seemed to be resting on something solid but all she saw was glowing whiteness. "Zalika, why are you doing this?" Esmerelda blurted suddenly, the words forced out of her by a swirl of emotion that didn't make sense even to her. "I mean... you could be a hero, couldn't you? Like you told me that night at the Sky Tower."

"I wish I could," Zalika replied. She stepped close, until her hip brushed against Esmerelda's. "There's nothing I'd like more than to... be with you for all eternity." She stroked Esmerelda's cheek with her free hand. The longing in her eyes and the gentleness of her touch awoke a sympathetic reaction in Esmerelda so intense that it closed her throat up tight. "Esmerelda, you're a hero because you believe in the goodness of all people." Somehow they'd ended up face to face; Esmerelda felt Zalika's body pressed up against her own. "Even someone like me," Zalika continued, gently nuzzling Esmerelda's cheek. She flicked out her tongue- just the tip- and licked the hollow of Esmerelda's jaw. Then, with infinite reluctance, she pulled away. "You showed me what love was, Esmerelda. Real, true, pure love, given freely, without hindrance or condition." She blinked; tears leaked from the corners of her eyes. "It burned me, Esmerelda. Like the Fire of Ra's Eye burned those poor souls in Wellington. It damaged me. Under its terrible light I saw that I couldn't go back to what I was. But also I couldn't go forward. I couldn't ever be what you are because... I don't believe. I can't. In the light of your love... all I can see is how truly evil I really am." Somehow, during that exchange, they'd moved apart. Now Zalika held Esmerelda's hand at arm's length.

"Wait!" Esmerelda called despairingly, but Zalika's fingers slipped out of her grip. Esmerelda stumbled forward, flailing wildly with her arms, but Zalika melted away into the white mist. Esmerelda fell to her knees, sobbing piteously. "Zalika!" she screamed. "Please! Don't- don't leave me!"

A dark shape loomed out of the fog. Esmerelda's mouth opened to call but the words died on her lips. It wasn't Zalika. This new shape loomed over Esmerelda, and even in this place of directionless illumination it seemed to cast her in shadow. Esmerelda scrambled to her feet, shivering. The figure's presence felt as cold as a sou'wester in July.

The figure came into focus. It was a Japanese warrior in full armor made of black iron plates. A bronze mask, its features twisted into a hideous caricature of a face, covered the front of its head. Hellish blue light blazed from within. He advanced carefully and implacably, his long sword gripped tightly in both hands and raised up over his right shoulder. As he moved his form seemed to shimmer; other aspects flickered in and out of existence as suddenly as dancing flames. With a start Esmerelda recognized Officer Haroldson, the museum guard. And another man, this one in a constable's uniform. And yet another, a feline in a long, black leather jacket. Esmerelda drew a shuddering breath, whole body quaking with fear. She recognized this third aspect too: Daitakerou Sotohoji, also known as Katakana Kat.

The sword came down in a blur, no more visible than the chopper's whirling rotors. Esmerelda threw up her arms and screamed.

"Holy shit!" someone screamed. Esmerelda screamed too because she was falling. She caught something hard and held on. Wind and noise tore at her. She shook her head to clear it but it didn't help. Her mane whipped around her face like the branches of a tree in a hurricane. She yanked it back with her free hand. She found herself dangling out the helicopter's door, one foot on the skid and one hand on the door frame. Far below sunlight winked from the door she'd kicked off as it spun away into infinity. Esmerelda stared with a sort of detached amazement; she wasn't afraid because her mind simply refused to accept the reality of the situation. When someone grabbed her from behind and tried to pull her back she clutched desperately at the door frame and refused to move. She didn't fear falling nearly so much as not being sure whether or not this was real or a dream. The pilot had thrown the aircraft into a dizzying dive; the land rose up beneath them with terrifying speed. Fortunately there was a road; the pilot pulled up hard at what seemed like the last second. The helicopter's skids hit hard; Esmerelda lost her grip and fell on her face.

"Are you all right, Super Collie?" George asked, climbing out and laying a hand on her shoulder.

"Ah..." Esmerelda looked up at George, then down at herself. Yes, she was Super Collie, in costume and everything. George carried her staff. "Yes, I'm okay," she said, picking herself up.

"Would you mind telling us what exactly in blue blazes happened?" Inspector Samson demanded in a tone that sounded like a violin string about to snap.

"Z-" Super Collie began, but caught herself. "Daughter Night came to me," she said. Now didn't seem like the time to explain how it was she knew Daughter Night's "real" name.

"Is she here now?" Samson asked, looking around.

"No." Super Collie brushed the hair back from her face. Behind her a car came to a stop; the driver gaped in shock for a moment at the helicopter landed in the middle of the road, then activated his four way flashers.

"What did she want?" George asked.

"To-" Super Collie began. How could she explain? It didn't even make sense to her.

A wrecker with a badly damaged car on its bed came up behind the vehicle already stopped. Instead of stopping it pulled onto the shoulder and carefully edged past the parked helicopter. As it pulled abreast of her Super Collie saw a figure seated on the bed just behind the cab. It was a Japanese warrior, made of bronze and clothed in black iron armor.

"Are we going to have any trouble flying without that door?" Inspector Samson inquired.

"Ah, no, other than it there's nothing wrong," the pilot replied. "But I can't say it's very safe."

"George?" Super Collie asked in a voice so quiet she barely heard it herself.

"Yes?" Constable Kremmin turned toward her, a worried expression on his face. Behind him the wrecker pulled back onto the road and accelerated.

"George, did you see a wrecker go by?" Super Collie asked.

"Where?" George responded.

I must still be dreaming, Super Collie thought. The whole situation was just too bizarre for any other explanation to make sense. Her eyes flicked past George and the chopper to the wrecker no one but she seemed to notice. She snatched her staff from George's hand and lit out at a dead run. Her feet kicked up a rooster tail of dust until she got back onto the blacktop.

"Wait!" George screamed, spinning about and taking off himself. He didn't have a chance; flat out Super Collie could outrun practically anything that moved on land, be it creature or vehicle. George knew this but he kept running anyway and he'd keep going until he dropped. Super Collie had done this once before and it had delivered her straight into the jaws of Daughter Night. All too clearly he remembered the sick lump in the pit of his stomach when he thought he'd lost her forever. He wouldn't go through that again. He couldn't go through that again. He'd rather die.

"George!" Samson tackled the constable from behind; George went down heavily on his face. "George, listen!" Samson shouted as George twisted around and locked his powerful hands around the inspector's neck. "The- haak- ack-" he gagged as George cut off his air. He let go of George to tear at the fingers constricting his throat. He might as profitably have tried prying open a vise.

George let go suddenly as his senses returned. Samson threw himself aside and lay on the pavement, his chest heaving as he struggled for air. "Sir, I- I-" George stammered.

"George, we've got the helicopter," Samson grated, glaring balefully.

"The chopper!" George smacked himself on the forehead and ran back. The pilot saw him coming and couldn't seem to decide wether to meet him or run away. "Get this thing off the ground, now!" he roared in a voice that had caused even officers to jump in that long ago time when he'd been in the British Army. The chopper pilot practically leapt right out of his skin. But he got into the cockpit without another word.

Super Collie came up on the wrecker from directly behind. A mighty leapt deposited her on the bed, just behind the car secured there. Through the windows she saw the truck driver's head and shoulders... and the helmet of the Japanese warrior.

The driver twisted around. He saw Super Collie hanging there and cursed loudly. Obviously she couldn't hear anything but she saw his lips move. He slammed on the brakes, throwing Super Collie against the back of the wrecked car and almost breaking her grip. He stopped, right in the middle of the roadway, and got out. "What the Sam Hell do you think you're doing?" he bellowed.

For the moment Super Collie ignored him. It wasn't inconceivable that he simply didn't see the warrior, just as George and Inspector Samson hadn't. She moved quickly up the left side of the wrecker's bed; that way the warrior would have to reach across to attack her. Then she suddenly felt ridiculous. It was just a statue, a thing made of iron and bronze. Surely it couldn't-

The warrior's head turned. Eerie blue light, somehow visible even in the bright sunshine blazed from its empty eyes and mouth.

Why are you doing this? You of all people should be helping me.

"I- I-" Super Collie stammered. She felt her will dissolving in that Hellish blue light. Without moving the warrior seemed to grow, looming over her until its shadow eclipsed her. When its shadow covered her completely she'd be lost, she knew. But even with all her considerable strength she couldn't move. Those empty eyes held her. There was no escape.

Katana Strike!

Suddenly Super Collie felt a warm touch upon her arm. And against her shoulder and back, even though anyone standing behind her would have to be extremely tall or on stilts. "I'm with you, sister," Zalika's voice whispered. Super Collie felt the breath against her face. Zalika's warm presence drove back the icy cold freezing her will.

"N- no!" Super Collie stammered. "I- I respect what you're doing but I- I can't-"

At some point the warrior had drawn his short sword. It flashed toward Super Collie in a lightning quick backhand stroke. She let out a yell and leapt back but not quite quickly enough. The blade struck just under her right breast. The Mystic Power of the Shepherd, which had never failed to turn aside an attack, didn't even slow it down. Super Collie landed on her side, then rolled onto her belly, hacking and gagging. Blood sprayed from her mouth and nose as well as pouring from the horrendous wound in her side. She spasmed a few times, then lay still. Blood soaked the fur on her torso and arm and formed a dark pool on the pavement.

Bradley stared, his mouth working. He'd pissed in his trousers and his knees wobbled like Jello. "S- s-" he stammered. He'd just seen New Zealand's greatest- well, only- super hero struck down as casually as swatting a fly. And even through the weight of force crushing his will he sensed that he'd allowed it to happen. He took a step forward, tears streaming from his eyes.


Bradley glanced up. The warrior held his short blade up so the gray metal gleamed in the sunlight. It should have been stained dark with blood but it wasn't. In fact, the blood simply ran off as if the metal were coated with Teflon. Once clean the warrior shot the blade home in its scabbard. Bradley's mouth worked, then he shambled to the wrecker's cab and climbed in. Whatever terrible force moved this warrior of bronze and iron, Bradley- merely an ordinary man- lacked the strength to oppose it. But as he drove south he sobbed uncontrollably.

"There," George exclaimed, pointing. He sat in front with the pilot. Up ahead he saw a car stopped in the road. Someone beside it started waving frantically.

"Looks like an accident," Samson commented from the back seat. No one responded; wind and noise roaring through the open doorway made conversation nearly impossible even with the intercom headsets.

"Set us down!" George commanded. The pilot glanced at him and aimed the chopper toward a landing spot just short of the stopped car. Even if he didn't hear Kremmin's words the expression on his face spoke volumes. Even before the skids touched George was out the door and running.

Samson took his time, unfastening his seatbelt and exiting through the open doorway. He jogged up, noting the gray Jeep Grand Cherokee and the middle aged couple standing beside it. Something lay on the road in front of it, something they'd covered with a blanket. Kremmin knelt beside it, lifting a corner of the blanket. Samson saw a tangle of auburn hair and an arm flung out toward him, a gold bracelet around the wrist. Samson's nose twitched; even from here he could smell fresh blood. For that to happen there must be a lot of it, which didn't bode well for the victim. Kremmin checked for a pulse at the neck, then lifted the hand, caressing it gently with his own.

All at once the scene snapped into context. It hit Samson like a punch in the gut; he almost choked. Super Collie had bled so much that the blanket covering her was soaked around the edges. Stains turned the beautiful blue of her cloak to an ugly, muddy brown. Her mouth and eyes hung half open, her tongue lolling out on the ground. It and her gums looked purple-gray, almost white, except where runnels of blood covered them. Samson swallowed, fumbling for the pack of cigarettes that wasn't in his pocket anymore. His eyes saw but his heart refused to believe. He hadn't much liked Super Collie at first. He agreed, more or less, with Colonel Bathsfield: Super heroes made his job harder, not easier. But over time- and almost without him realizing- his feelings toward her had changed. Now-

Samson gritted his teeth so he wouldn't start blubbering. Super Collie had fought crooks, gangsters, super villains, and even Daughter Night. How could it end here, like this? Though he'd not been to a church in more years than he cared to remember, Samson crossed himself. Then his eyes narrowed. "Even if you didn't do it yourself, Zalika, it happened because of you," he hissed in an almost inaudible but deadly voice. "As God is my witness I swear I'll track you down. To the ends of the earth, to the depths of Hell. Whatever it takes, whatever it costs, I'll find you. And when I do you'll pay for this. By, God, you'll pay."

"George?" Esmerelda asked in a quavering voice. She looked down at him, leaning over-

A body. Her body.

"George?" Esmerelda repeated. She leaned forward to touch his head. Though they looked solid her fingers passed right through him with a hot, prickly sensation like pins and needles.

"I'm sorry, sister."

Esmerelda turned. He stood by the side of the road. The man she'd met at the Sheepdog Monument. "W... who are you?" she stammered.

"My name was Friday McKenzie," he replied.

"F..." Esmerelda swallowed convulsively. "I... I thought you were a myth."

"I was real," Friday averred. "I was there at the Battle of McKenzie Pass. Donaldson had armed a mob of conscripts. Then he came down toward Fairlie with a machine he'd built, a naval gun mounted on a steam powered traction engine." Friday's eyes unfocused as he looked away to another time and place. "Funny thing, missie, is that I didn't have any trouble with Donaldson and his gang of thugs. Or his infernal machine, for that matter. But when the boiler exploded..." He shook his head sadly. "The Spirit of the Shepherd deflected the flying bits but didn't protect me so well from the scalding steam. The pain got so bad I couldn't run. Then night fell... the rain came... and I'd lost my tinderbox. So I settled down-"

"In the shelter of some rocks," Esmerelda cut in. "Not a cave exactly, but a place where two boulders leaned together. They looked sort of like praying hands."

Friday nodded. "Aye. Where you found me, and my staff, where we'd lain for a hundred years."

Esmerelda looked at George. He hadn't moved; he still held her hand in his, stroking it gently. Tears streamed so thickly down his cheeks they looked almost like a continuous stream. On his face was an expression of such complete and utter despair that just looking at it made Esmerelda want to break down and cry. But she couldn't; In this- this place, wherever she'd gone now, her flesh was just an illusion. Her body lay at George's feet in a pool of blood.

"But- I-" Esmerelda stuttered.

"I'm sorry, sister. I really am." Friday caressed Esmerelda's cheeks. He felt warm, alive, and very real. As real as Zalika had been. "I know how you feel. I felt the same way. I didn't want to go. I had a wife and son. But this is the way of it. The spirit is eternal but we're only mortal. Each one of us who took up the mantle of Guardian Shepherd faced this moment. When the time came to... step aside and pass the duty on to another."

"But-" If she'd still had a stomach Esmerelda would have been sick to it. The terrible loss she saw in George's face tore at her heart with demon claws. And what about John? Her parents? Her friends?

"They'll cry," Friday said as if he'd heard Esmerelda's thoughts. "They always do. But in the end they'll move on. As will you, when you join your brothers and sisters who've come before you."

Esmerelda looked around. On the road and in the grass stood an array of silent figures. Some wore simple robes, other fancy dress. They seemed to come from all places, all times, all walks of life, without any particular pattern. They all stood perfectly still, in a loose ring, looking at her. The ones in front stood far enough apart that she could see many more behind them.

"Some of us served all our lives," Friday said. "Some of us only for a moment. But we are all here to welcome you home, dear sister."

Esmerelda turned back to George. Her staff lay where it had fallen, just beyond her outstretched hand. George ran his fingers over the smooth, dark wood as if caressing a lover. Esmerelda felt a pull, a small but steady force drawing her toward him.

"Let it go," Friday whispered.

"Is... is he the one?" Esmerelda asked.

"That's for you to say," Friday replied. "Your final duty as Guardian is to name your successor."

"You... you chose me?" Esmerelda exclaimed, her eyes widening.

"I looked into your heart and saw someone brave and strong, but also loyal and loving," Friday said. "And the spirit was already strong in you."

"Already?" Esmerelda blinked.

Friday grinned, his tail wagging. "Wasn't your mother's maiden name McKenzie?"

Esmerelda gaped in shock. "But- it was just a coincidence that I found the staff! Wasn't it?"

"Was it?" Friday echoed, laying a hand on Esmerelda's shoulder and turning her back toward George.

"How... how do I know?" Esmerelda asked in a quavering voice. Being faced with the task of actively choosing a replacement brought home the terrifying reality of the situation like nothing else. She'd come to the end of all things; with this final act she would bring her existence to a close.

"Don't be afraid, sister." Friday lay his hands on Esmerelda's shoulders, massaging them gently. "Passing on is the natural and normal end of life. And you won't be gone. You'll be with us, at one with the Guardian Spirit."

Esmerelda swallowed. Her body might have been an illusion but the lump in her throat sure felt real. "Oh George," she whispered in a cracking voice. He'd been her most loyal friend. He'd never failed to stand up for her, even at grave risk to himself. She didn't have to look at him now; she knew he'd be a faithful guardian and a stalwart defender. She couldn't imagine a better person to take her place. Except-

Except for the terrible, gut-wrenching pain Esmerelda saw reflected in George's eyes. If offered he'd accept; he'd regard it as his duty. But for the rest of his life he'd know that the task fell to him because he'd failed in another duty: to protect Esmerelda. That it wasn't his fault, that there wasn't anything he could have done, wouldn't make the slightest difference.

"No," Esmerelda whispered. "It- it can't end like this."

"It has," Friday pointed out. "Rightly or wrongly you're dead, Esmerelda. There's isn't anything to be done about that."

Inspiration struck Esmerelda's mind like a bolt of lighting. Friday retreated in shock when she burst out laughing. "Actually, that's not entirely true," she responded, then took off running.

"I'm coming, I'm coming," Cymbeline muttered, struggling out of bed. She'd let the machine take it once but whoever it was called again and wouldn't give up. She pulled a sheet around herself and hurried to the dresser. "Hello?" she asked, putting the phone to her ear.

From the bed Haimar watched, moving only his eyes. He wasn't sure he could move anything else. Cymbeline had worked him hard, harder than he'd ever worked outside of training. But it felt damn good. Still, he couldn't help wonder. Even after being up all night and making love ferociously all morning she still looked as fresh as a daisy. If anything she looked more energetic than when he'd met her that morning.

The sheet flipped from Cymbeline's grasp and fell in a heap at her feet. Haimar appreciated the view, certainly, but he knew something was wrong. He saw the muscles in her back tense. Finally, ever so slowly, she lowered the phone and set it back on the dresser. "She's dead," she whispered in a quavering voice.

"Who?" Haimar asked, levering himself upright.

"Super Collie."

"How?" Haimar continued after only the briefest of pauses. In his profession a person couldn't afford to be paralyzed by shock, though the news hit him like a truncheon to the head.

"G- George and I- Inspector Samson found h- her on the- the highway," Cymbeline stammered, hunching forward and leaning heavily on the dresser. "She- she'd been cut. With- with a knife or- or something."

"How's that possible?" Haimar asked, frowning. "I thought she was invulnerable."

"Just very tough," Cymbeline replied, sniffing and dabbing at her face. Though she still faced away Haimar saw tears drip from her cheeks. "Except-"

Cymbeline straightened up so abruptly that she knocked over the telephone. "Except to something specifically designed to pierce spirit protection," she growled.

"What does that mean?" Haimar wanted to know.

Cymbeline rushed to the closet and tore out a white linen tube dress. From a drawer in the dresser she dug out a handful of fancy gold bracelets and other trinkets. "That I need to have a friendly chat with Mr. Ulysses about a certain statue." She slithered into the dress- which left her breasts bare- and started donning the jewelry.

"I can't let you do that, Dr. Lathasar," Haimar said.

Cymbeline whirled, her eyes blazed like the Fire of Ra's Eye. "And just what do you think you're gonna do to stop me?" she demanded icily.

"Nothing," Haimar replied, apparently unfazed. "But I'd be remiss in my duty if I let you go in without proper backup."

As she strode briskly up Vivian street Cymbeline reflected that probably she should have showered. Haimar's fluids, as well as her own, matted the fur on the insides of her thighs and made it sticky. On the other hand, she found the sensation of Haimar's seed inside her oddly comforting. It reminded her of his warm presence and resolute strength. A rather acute pang of guilt caused her step to falter; not too long ago she'd had those very same thoughts about George. Now she'd leapt into bed with Haimar for no other reason than that he was handsome and available. She'd never worried about how the powers she channeled changed her; more important concerns- like staying alive- had generally eclipsed that particular thought. But the power had changed her, and quite drastically. It made her fifty year old body look half its actual age... and even when she'd actually been twenty-five she'd never looked this good. Nor had she ever, even as a teenager, had such a fierce libido. Over the past year her skill and power had grown considerably... and so had her appetite for sex. Maybe it was time to have a serious think about where this path led.

But not right now. At the moment Cymbeline definitely had more important matters on her mind.

Paul-Constandinos Ulysses lived in a penthouse suite in one of the swank, upscale buildings lining The Terrace. His business offices occupied the floors immediately below. From those offices he ran both his legitimate import/export company and his much vaster criminal empire, which engaged in activities ranging from bookmaking and prostitution all the way up to insider trading of stocks and bonds. He continued to occupy his posh suite because no case against him had ever stuck. Witnesses and evidence had a way of turning up missing... and even when they didn't he bribed or blackmailed officials to drop or alter the charges. By maintaining a scrupulously honest public persona and moving carefully with his criminal activities he managed to always stay just beyond the law's reach.

Cymbeline walked through the building's main entrance into the fancy, tastefully decorated lobby. Right now she didn't give a damn about law. Justice, yes, but not law. She chose a place from which she could watch both the private lift and the front entrance; her ride to the top should be arriving any minute now. No one paid her the slightest attention, despite her risque mode of dress and rather disheveled appearance. Which was just as well; she wasn't in the mood to answer stupid questions.

After only a handful of minutes a van pulled up. From it emerged an impeccably coiffured poodle in white gloves and a black swallowtail jacket along with several less well dressed individuals. They unloaded a wheeled cart and stocked it with trays and plates with ornate silver covers. The associates remained by the van while the poodle pushed the cart and waited expectantly by the private lift. Cymbeline left her post and hurried up behind him. This was the most difficult part of this operation; the waiter didn't have a key for the lift, he was recognized and admitted by a remote operator on the office level. Cymbeline couldn't fool the security camera; her power only worked on living beings. But there was a living being watching what the camera saw. If she could somehow reach through the link-

The lift door opened, though under normal circumstances the operator must have seen Cymbeline standing behind the waiter. Without hesitation she followed him in, then skittered aside as he turned his cart around.

At the penthouse level the lift stopped and the doors opened. The poodle started out like an actor making his grand entrance. "Good evening, sir," he began. "For dinner this evening we have a lovely veal parmigiana, a dinner salad, with Bleu cheese dressing on the side, a loaf of garlic bread, a side order of meatballs, and of course your antipasto." The waiter uncovered each item in turn and set the plates upon the table. "For dessert we have a lovely spumoni and a shot of coffee liquor."

"Excellent." Mr. Ulysses spread a napkin in his lap to protect his charcoal gray suit and tie. He sat at a table, complete with linen and silver service, which seemed to have been set up in the suite's front room specifically for his personal dining pleasure. Behind him Vyacheslav slouched on a leather sofa, watching the proceedings with mild interest. Daitakerou stood in front and to one side, his coat thrown back to clear the hilt of his sword.

Cymbeline felt a spurt of icy fear. This was the moment of truth, when she found out if her skill and power were as great as she thought them to be. If they weren't-

Daitakerou's head turned slightly. His eyes moved quickly but Cymbeline never doubted that they noticed everything they passed over... but they passed over her without the slightest hesitation, and nothing about Daitakerou's body language suggested that he'd noticed anything unusual. His attention shifted to the poodle and his cart, following them as they approached Mr. Ulysses' table. Cymbeline opened her mouth wide, forcing herself to exhale the breath she'd taken and held. She'd gotten in. All that remained now was to figure out where Mr. Ulysses might keep a codex of ancient Japanese sorcery. A divination cast over packing material in which the Kamakura guardian had come revealed the codex, is close association with the statue, and its general location on this floor of this building. Now that she knew her spell of avoidance worked she might try another to zero in-

Daitakerou turned, his sword flashing from its sheath in a silvery blur. Cymbeline gasped sharply; the chisel point ended its flight in the hollow of her throat, pressed almost hard enough to break the skin. "Yes, I see you, Dr. Lathasar," Daitakerou said calmly. "After all, what use would my employer have for an ordinary swordsman in this age of firearms?"

Vyacheslav let out a yelp and jumped to his feet. The poodle whirled and almost dropped the spumoni. Mr. Ulysses glanced up but continued eating, composed as ever.

"Come here, Vyacheslav," Daitakerou ordered. "Put your hand in the air just beyond where my sword is." His eyes never left Cymbeline's. Vyacheslav rose and approached, groping in front of him like a blind man. He yelped when his hand touched Cymbeline's shoulder. "Find her arms," Daitakerou continued. "She'll have rings and bracelets. You must remove them all." Vyacheslav explored Cymbeline's shoulders and arms, quickly and expertly locating and removing her jewelry, apparently by touch alone. He did so much faster than Cymbeline could have done sighted and with good light. Once done with her arms he removed her necklace and worked his way down her body. He flinched when his hand encountered her bare breast but continued on. Once he'd stripped her down to her tube dress he stepped back. After a moment he frowned and sniffed his fingers.

"She's still invisible, Daitakerou," Mr. Ulysses commented, picking up a slice of garlic bread. From his tone one might think he supervised the stripping of invisible intruders every day.

"Take her clothes," Daitakerou instructed.

Vyacheslav grimaced but set to work without any other comment. He found the clasps holding the tube dress but also that it would not go over her hips. Nor could it go over her head unless Daitakerou moved his sword. "Cut it off," Daitakerou said when Vyacheslav glanced at him questioningly. Vyacheslav produced a lock blade and slit the dress from top to bottom. He let it fall at her feet as he had all the jewelry.

"Whatever it is, you haven't found it yet," Mr. Ulysses said.

"Search her again," Daitakerou ordered.

Vyacheslav complied, thoroughly exploring Cymbeline from head to toe. He grimaced as he felt between her buttocks and thighs. "She's wearing nothing but her fur," he reported, wiping his hands.

"Then she must be wearing it under her fur," Daitakerou concluded.

"But-" Vyacheslav began. "Oh, all right," he sighed. First he grabbed Cymbeline's muzzle and explored her mouth. Then he probed her vagina. His fingers emerged clasping a golden figure of a cat.

"That's done it," Mr Ulysses declared. The poodle gasped.

"Search in back, too," Daitakerou instructed. "We wouldn't want the good doctor to spring any surprises on us."

With a fixed expression on his face Vyacheslav parted Cymbeline's buttocks and probed her anus. "Nothing," he reported. "Unless you'd like me to get a speculum?"

"I don't think that'll be necessary," Mr. Ulysses decided, taking a sip of wine. "Now that we can talk face to face, I'd like to know why you decided to drop by, Dr. Lathasar." Daitakerou stepped to one side. Pressure on the point of the sword forced Cymbeline to turn, facing Mr. Ulysses squarely. Despite her state of undress his eyes never left her face.

"You killed her," Cymbeline replied.

"Who?" Mr. Ulysses asked.

"Super Collie," Cymbeline said.

"I did?" Mr. Ulysses' eyebrows rose.

"Your creature did," Cymbeline clarified. "That- that thing you gave me to guard Daughter Night."

"Which you accepted, as I recall," Mr. Ulysses pointed out. "Is that why you're here? To take revenge on me?"

Cymbeline swallowed. Since the point of Daitakerou's sword didn't move her neck muscles pressed painfully against it. "I want to know more about the guardian," she said.

"Why?" Mr. Ulysses speared a piece of veal and conveyed it to his mouth. "Is it doing something undesirable?"

Hot rage flared in Cymbeline's mind. She almost threw herself at Mr. Ulysses, intending to claw out his eyes and tear out his throat with her teeth but a sharp prod from Daitakerou caught her up short.

"Forgive me, Dr. Lathasar, but I fail to see how any of this is a problem," Mr. Ulysses continued. "The guardian is hunting down the people who stole Zalika, is it not? Exactly what it is meant to do. I admit I hadn't known about Super Collie... but in my position, I'd have to say that's merely... icing on the cake."

Cymbeline's vision turned red and hazy. Before she knew it she was flying through the air, snarling like a wildcat. She landed on the table- and fetched up violently short as Mr. Ulysses' hand caught her neck. She gaped like a landed fish and made no more sound; she couldn't get any air at all. She plucked at his fingers to absolutely no effect. The hideously expensive Armani suit- now spattered with parmigiana- covered thick, powerful arms and shoulders.

"Dear dear." Mr Ulysses clucked his tongue and shook his head sadly. "First trespassing and now assault? You seem to be a person of particularly loose ethics, Dr. Lathasar."

Cymbeline looked at Mr. Ulysses' face because she really had no choice; she couldn't move her head. She looked into his eyes.. and suddenly understood the truth. Daitakerou could have killed her at any time. He hadn't because he'd chosen- or been instructed- to leave that pleasure for his master.

Something sharp dug at Cymbeline's right breast. It was a fork, she realized. She let go of Mr. Ulysses' hands, grabbed up the fork, and stabbed at those terrible, hateful eyes. Mr. Ulysses caught her wrist with his other hand and squeezed; the fork dropped from her numbed fingers. Even if she weren't being strangled she would never have had the strength to overcome him. She relaxed, her vision graying out. There wasn't any point in fighting now. Besides, she'd almost exhausted her strength anyway-

The phone on Mr. Ulysses' desk chimed. "I'm sorry to interrupt your dinner, sir, but there's a Captain Wilkes from the Special Anti-Super Villain Squad who insists on speaking to Dr. Lathasar," Ms. Poundsaver reported. "He... he says if you don't produce Dr. Lathasar at once he'll climb up the outside of the building."

Mr. Ulysses frowned. His grip on Cymbeline's throat relaxed. "How is he dressed?"

"He- he's wearing a power suit, sir. He's right here in the lobby!"

"I see." Mr. Ulysses stroked his chin. He released Cymbeline; her head dropped to the table like a rag doll's. "Please tell him not to worry, that I'll have Dr. Lathasar down to him momentarily." He rose, lifting Cymbeline from the table and laying her on the floor on her back. Her lips and gums looked decidedly cyanotic and she wasn't breathing. He checked for a pulse at her neck then commenced mouth to mouth resuscitation. After a minute or so she recovered with a feeble gasp. "Collect her things, Vyacheslav," he ordered as he carried her to the elevator. Vyacheslav hurriedly scooped up all the jewelry and bundled it into the remains of Cymbeline's gown. Mr. Ulysses took the bundle, shifting Cymbeline to his left arm. Supporting the entire weight of her body on his off hand didn't seem to discommodate him in the least. He lay her in the elevator and tossed the bundle beside her. "She's on her way down now," he called. "And please advise Captain Wilkes that if there are any more disturbances of this nature I shall be forced to take the matter up with his superiors."

"S- sir?" Vyacheslav stammered, eyes wide.

Mr. Ulysses chuckled. "Captain Wilkes is on the outs with the squad," he said. "I rather doubt he obtained his suit through... strictly legitimate channels. If he had he would have come in force, not by himself. Besides, how do you think Colonel Bathsfield mustered the political support to form the squad in the first place? A little bribery here, a touch of blackmail there. Of course the colonel couldn't dirty his own hands, so being the kind soul I am I did it for him. Thus if the captain continues to be a problem-" he flicked his hand as if brushing away a fly- "I will arrange for him to go away."

When the elevator doors opened Cymbeline was conscious, more or less. She stirred a little but didn't get up; her neck felt like someone had tried to twist her head off. Which wasn't so very far from the truth.

Something huge and dark loomed into Cymbeline's field of vision. She instantly recognized the massive, metal shoulders and dome-like head with its single, slitted eye. An SASVS power suit.

"Cymbeline?" it said in an electronically distorted analog of Haimar's voice. "Are you all right?"

Do I look all right? she wanted to scream. Instead she emitted a strangled croak, which was all she could manage right then.

The suit knelt and reached into the elevator. It wouldn't fit inside even if the mechanism could take its weight, which Cymbeline doubted. With amazing gentleness the thick fingers scooped her up and cradled her like a baby against the armored chest. It even managed the bundle of jewelry.

People stopped and stared as Haimar moved briskly down the street. As well they should, seeing a power suit carrying a naked woman, Cymbeline thought. She couldn't muster enough will to care about it, though. The only thing that mattered to her at the moment was Haimar's noble spirit, which shone through his technological carapace like a searchlight. Which had plucked her from the very brink of ultimate darkness. She clung to the suit's shoulder- his shoulder- and sobbed.

"Can we please stop for a while?" Helen asked. "I'm tired, I'm hungry, and I gotta go potty."

"Where are we, anyway?" Ruth wanted to know.

"Palmerston North," Matilda replied.

Alex glanced at Zalika, who sat staring straight ahead, apparently oblivious to everything. "Is there any reason we shouldn't stop here?" Alex inquired.

Zalika didn't reply. In fact, she didn't seem to have heard the question. Suddenly she made a sound somewhere between a gasp and a sob, recoiling back and clutching at her side. She twisted around, looking back though she couldn't possibly see with so many people in the car. Sally Ann yelped and pressed away, clutching Todd's hand and squeezing him between herself and Alex.

"What's wrong?" Alex demanded, leaning forward.

"Nothing that any of you can do anything about," Zalika replied, turning back around. "Nothing I can do anything about either, at least not right here. I need to find a costumer and a tit bar, in that order."

"What, don't you ever get enough?" Helen demanded.

"No," Zalika replied. "But that's beside the point. I intend to perform, not watch."

"Why do you need to do that?" Todd asked.

"We need money," Zalika stated. "And I need... energy."

"What does dancing in a strip club have to do with getting energy?" Sally Ann wanted to know, frowning.

"For me, everything," Zalika replied. "I gain power from sex. Performing in front of an audience is not unlike having sex with all of them at once." She glanced over her shoulder. "Or we could have a big orgy."

"That wasn't part of our agreement," Sally Ann pointed out sharply.

"I know," Zalika replied. "That's why I decided to visit a strip bar."

Matilda pulled off the road and stopped by a phone. Zalika got out and hurried to it. Alex got out because he didn't care to stay in the car. He watched Zalika because there wasn't anything else to do. Zalika leafed through the phone book and finally located an entry she liked. "Give me some change," she directed. "I need to make a call." Alex handed over some coins and Zalika punched in a number. "Hello," Zalika said after a short pause. "Do you have any Egyptian costumes? No? Thank you very much." She hung up and tried again. The fourth shop had Egyptian costumes but not the right jewelry. Two more attempts netted a more favorable response. Then Zalika moved to a different part of the book. This time it took much longer to get what she wanted; only after calling more than a dozen clubs did she finally step away from the phone. She kept ahold of the phone book; her outline blurred momentarily and the book came away in her hand while the empty cover dropped back under the phone.

"I thought you didn't want to be too obvious about using your powers," Alex commented.

"It doesn't matter any more," Zalika replied. "Come on."

Back in the car Zalika directed Matilda to the first costume shop. "How did you know where to find it?" Alex asked as they pulled up out front.

"I searched telepathically for the person I talked to on the phone," Zalika replied. "You and Matilda come with me. Todd, Sally, and the triplets, you can stay or come as you see fit." They elected to stay so Zalika went into the store.

"Aren't you worried they might take off and leave us?" Alex inquired.

"No," Zalika responded. "If they do Sally's mother dies."

The shop's proprietress, a short, pudgy European badger, hurried up. Zalika fired off a string of requests; the woman nodded and hurried back among the racks of clothing. "You two, strip," Zalika ordered, gesturing at Alex and Matilda. "I'll need your help with the routine so you'll need costumes as well."

Alex stripped without comment. This new body didn't emotionally feel like his, so the idea of baring it didn't unduly disturb him. Besides, it wasn't half bad to look at, he reflected, admiring himself in a mirror. He made a pretty darn sharp looking fellow.

The badger returned with a massive armload of clothing. Zalika picked out a selection of items, dressing Matilda in a filmy, diaphanous costume that looked like what a belly dancer might wear. Alex became a guard, complete with headdress, kilt, sandals, and fake sword. For herself Zalika chose a white sheath dress, a fancy necklace, and a black wig. The dress really wasn't large enough but Alex didn't suppose that Zalika would be wearing it long. Nor could he say that the sight of Zalika crammed into it wasn't interesting, to say the least.

Todd appeared at the door. "Yes?"

"Pay the woman," Zalika instructed. "We'll pay you back from what we make at the club." While Todd did as directed Zalika turned to Alex and Matilda. "Don't forget your original clothes. We'll need them later." Without another word she returned to the car.

Visiting two more costumers completed the outfits to Zalika's satisfaction so they proceeded to the club. Jenny, Helen, and Ruth groused as usual but neither Alex nor Matilda said even a single word.

A sign in front of the Fox Hole Tavern showed a chesty vixen wearing a helmet and a camouflage bikini reclining in a crater. Zalika directed Matilda to park in back.

"Do we have to wait for you?" Todd asked as everyone got out.

"No," Zalika replied. "We'll probably be here all evening. If I need you earlier I'll call."

"Okay, thanks," Sally Ann replied. She and Todd got into the car and drove away.

Zalika entered the club through a door marked "Employees Only." An enormous bouncer- a Rotweiler- heard the door open and turned. "Hey!" he shouted.

"Take me to Mr. Hammerstein," Zalika said, staring the bouncer straight in the eye.

The bouncer blinked, his mouth working. "Ah... yes. Right this way."

The club's staff areas looked plain and not very clean. The bouncer waved them into a gaudily decorated office that didn't look much cleaner. Behind a desk sat a corpulent fellow who was- appropriately, in Alex's opinion- a pig. "Mr. Hammerstein, I'd like to work your club this evening," Zalika announced.

"Just a sec, Sal, I'll call you back," the pig said and hung up the phone. "You would, huh?" He looked Zalika up and down. "Why should I let you?"

"Because I'll earn you more than all your other dancers combined," Zalika replied.

"Oh really." Mr. Hammerstein crossed his arm. "Prove it."

"You want a command performance?" Zalika purred, rolling her hips as she stepped forward. Surely only a snake- or someone without a skeleton- could move with such incredible, sinuous grace. "But of course." She gestured.

The air over Mr. Hammerstein's desk seemed to shimmer. He drew a sharp, shuddering breath and surged back in his chair. His face colored and sweat broke out all over his body. For close to a minute he sat there, moaning and shuddering, his eyes rolled back and his eyelids flickering. When Zalika lowered her arm he slumped down in his chair as if deflating. "O- okay," he gasped. "W... how many slots you want?"

"All of them," Zalika replied.

Some of the hard, calculating avarice returned to Mr. Hammerstein's face. "All right," he said. "But you'll have to buy out the other girls as well as paying the booking fee yourself."

"How much?" Zalika wanted to know.

"Five hundred dollars," Mr. Hammerstein replied.

"What!" Alex couldn't help exclaiming, taking a step forward.

"Can it, mate," Mr. Hammerstein snapped. "I'm talking to your boss." His eyes snapped back to Zalika. "That's for buying out the other girls and your whole troupe. If they're part of the show they pay the fee, take it or leave it."

Zalika stroked her chin. The look in her eyes, Alex thought, resembled that of a snake contemplating a bird on the ground with a broken wing. "You'll let us use your facilities for the entire evening for five hundred dollars?"

"Yep." Mr. Hammerstein nodded.

"We get to keep all the tips," Zalika said. It wasn't a question.

Mr. Hammerstein shrugged. "Standard arrangement."

"Very good." Zalika nodded. "Here you are." From somewhere in her costume Zalika produced a single one dollar bill and handed it over.

Mr. Hammerstein admired the dollar lovingly for a moment before putting it away in a locked drawer in his desk. "Okay, Chuckie, show them to the dressing room," he instructed. "And tell the other girls to take off. This chick here has the stage all night. Send them in here and I'll refund their booking fees." He frowned. "What's your name anyway?"

"Zalika," Zalika replied.

Chuckie turned out to be the Rotweiler bouncer. "This way," he said, gesturing.

Several girls waited in the changing room. Two wore street clothes, one a robe, and the last sat in front of a mirror, applying makeup to her breasts. "Okay, ladies, you can take off," Chuckie said. "All scheduled performances are cancelled."

"What!" the woman dabbing rouge on her nipples leapt to her feet. She was a cow, with short, nut brown hair and rather more slender than one might expect from the breed though nevertheless full figured. "You can't do this to us, you bastard!"

"I'm sorry, I really am," Zalika interjected, stepping forward. "Missing one night won't kill you, but for me there are lives at stake." She grabbed the woman's face; the cow whined, struggling futilely as her body reformed. She was still a cow but gorgeous instead of merely attractive. "Go be a model like you always wanted. Or at least go to work in a better class of place than this. And dump your boyfriend. If he really loved you he wouldn't hit you." She let go and stepped back.

The cow blinked, looking down at herself, then at herself in the mirror. She stared in amazement, fingering her cheeks, throat, and chest.

"Hey, what about us?" the robed dander demanded. She was a gray-brown rat, not skinny exactly but definitely lean compared to the cow.

Zalika beckoned. The rat came up without hesitation. Zalika gripped her face. The woman moaned, her body quivering as it reformed. Her breasts swelled, her hips broadened, her whole body fleshing out. Conservation of mass cost her a hand's breath of height. Her fur changed to pure, snowy white.

The last two girls rushed forward. Zalika caught them, one in each hand. The one on the right- a Siamese cat- became a buff snow tigress. The one on the left- a golden retriever- became a slim, red vixen.

"Take your things and go," Zalika ordered as the women stood around marvelling at their new bodies. "You don't want to be around here tonight and I am definitely not your friend." The rat opened her mouth to protest but closed it without speaking when she saw the look in Zalika's eyes. She gathered her clothes and hurried out without even bothering to dress.

"Chuckie, please bring us a round of meals," Zalika said once the dancers left. "We'll take them after the first set. I'll pay you back from my tips."

"Screw that," Chuckie replied. "Give me what you gave them and you can have whatever you want. I always thought Mr. Hammerstein was an idiot. Now I know it if he'd settle for money from you."

Zalika smiled, extending her arm. "Happy to oblige."

Chuckie put his face against Zalika's hand. He whimpered as his flesh reformed. Like the cow he became an idealized version of himself: muscular, perfectly proportioned, and breathtakingly beautiful. He shook his head, looked at himself, and laughed. "I could be a dancer now, couldn't I?" he mused.

"Sure," Zalika replied. "But you could have before, too."

Chuckie turned to go then looked back over his shoulder. "Should I stay, Zalika?"

For a moment Zalika actually looked troubled. "Not if you don't want to," she finally said. "I... don't need bouncers."

Chuckie laughed. "I wouldn't have thought you did." His expression turned serious. "Things're gonna get ugly tonight, aren't they?"

"Probably," Zalika allowed.

Chuckie nodded. "Good." He glanced down at the triplets. "Need someone to look after the wee ones?"

"Yes," Zalika replied. "Don't wander far, though. We may be leaving suddenly."

"You got it." Chuckie nodded and sank to a crouch. "Evening, ladies," he said to the triplets. "What's your pleasure?"

"Tom Cruise, naked, in a tub of tapioca pudding," Helen responded promptly.

"A fifth of Jack Daniel's," Ruth added.

"A nickel bag of your best weed," Jenny concluded.

Chuckie laughed. "I don't know about Tom Cruise, but there may be something we can do about the rest of it." He gathered the girls up in his arms and withdrew.

Almost immediately someone knocked on the door. "Shake a leg in there," the knocker called. "You got five minutes, Millie."

Zalika opened the door, revealing a small, weedy looking rodent of some sort holding a clip board. He blinked in shock at her. "I have some musical requests," Zalika began, taking the clipboard and a pen from the rodent's shirt pocket. "Make sure these selections are queued up." She jotted them on the board. "You have five minutes." She pushed the board back into his hands. "Move." He scampered away.

"What is going to happen?" Alex demanded.

"The men in this club are going to give me all their money," Zalika replied. "More importantly, they are going to give me their sexual energy."

"I've never done this before," Matilda blurted.

"I know," Zalika replied. "Don't worry about it. I have. I'll direct you. Just relax and don't fight it."

In the last few minutes Zalika twitched everyone's costumes into order and smoothed down rumpled fur. She didn't bother with makeup; if fur or flesh didn't look right she changed it.

The rodent returned. "Time," he called through the door.

Alex found himself side by side with Matilda, following Zalika out onto the stage. He took a position at the rightmost edge while Matilda took the left. He felt- something, a gentle pressure of sorts. It was like- like sliding down a slide. Resisting the force would be possible but not easy... and so long as he didn't resist, going with the flow wasn't uncomfortable at all.

Zalika bowed to the crowd. The first song began: Black Magic Woman by Santana. If not for the directing energy Alex would have laughed. How very, very appropriate.

Zalika began undulating slowly, rolling her shoulders and hips in time with the music. As it swelled gradually she range of her motions increased; she drifted across the stage, waving her arms, flexing her legs, and turning slowly. She stroked her thighs, her belly, and her chest, letting her head fall back and her tongue loll out. She hiked up her tail, lifting the hem of her gown to show her buttocks. From there she gradually worked the dress off, not so much taking it off as oozing out of it. The audience- about a quarter of the club's capacity, Alex guessed- watched in rapt fascination.

Once free of the dress Zalika faced the audience and slid her feet apart, keeping her legs straight, until her hips touched the floor. She leaned forward and arched her back so her nipples pointed straight up. She kept going back, onto her shoulders, then over completely onto her belly. She reached out toward the audience, thrusting her buttocks upward by sliding her knees up against her belly, and rose up without using her arms. She slid her knees apart, lifting one breast so she could lick the nipple and fingering herself between the legs with the other. After that she worked the pole for a while. In the bottom half of the song, after the vocals where the pace picked up, Zalika increased her tempo as well, moving along the stage shaking her bracelets so they rattled. She bestowed personal attention upon each man seated along the stage, couching and shaking either her breasts or bottom at him before moving on. Several men produced bills- fives and tens, Alex noted- to entice her back but Zalika ignored them. When the song ended she sank down onto one knee and bowed until her chin touched her leg. The crowd cheered and hooted wildly.

The next song- Season of the Witch by Donovan- began. Alex felt himself impelled forward; he came up and plucked a ten from an outstretched hand. Zalika then lavished personal attention on the giver, moving her hands over him so close they almost touched, thrusting her nipples at him so that his eyes crossed when he tried looking at them. When she started to rise he hastily offered another bill, a twenty this time. Alex took it- and all the other bills he offered- until he was reduced to offering handfuls of coin. Zalika ignored them and moved on; the first patron produced a credit card and rushed to an ATM back by the bar. Thee other men took his place, gleefully waving bills, none smaller than a ten. the songs continued: Voodoo Goddess of Love followed by Wild boys (by Duran Duran) and the theme to A Fistful of Dollars. Alex found herself wondering at the choice of music but the patrons didn't seem to care. They waved their bills, Alex and Matilda collected them. Alex couldn't hold them all so he passed them through the curtain.

When the music faded out and didn't return Alex realized that the set had ended. Zalika bowed, blowing kisses to the audience, and backed out through the curtain. Alex and Matilda followed, gathering up the remaining tips. In the dressing room they found Helen, Jenny, and Ruth seated on the floor in a pile of cash. Ruth counted, Jenny sorted denominations, and Helen giggled while rubbing bills against her face.

"How much is there?" Alex exclaimed.

"I'll have a count in a bit," Ruth replied. "At least two, three hundred dollars."

Alex blinked. "Damn," he mumbled. "I'm in the wrong business."

"That's true," Zalika agreed, touching up her fur with a brush. Alex started, not at the comment but how Zalika looked. Her fur seemed to have taken on an almost silky sheen... and her eyes practically glowed.

"Dinner's here," Chuckie announced. Matilda opened the door. "Hope you like Thai," he added, entering with an armload of paper cartons. "Better than burgers, at least."

"Damn straight," Helen said with a firm nod. "Gimme."

"Holy jumping jehospehat," Chuckie exclaimed, looking at the money littering the floor.

"And that's just the first set," Ruth giggled. "We're gonna clean up, baby." She gave Helen a high five.

Chuckie nodded though he looked only at Zalika. She'd taken a box- apparently at random- and consumed its contents methodically, like a stoker feeding a furnace. "You're Daughter Night," he said.

Zalika glanced up. "Does that bother you?" she inquired.

Chuckie's mouth worked. "If I'd noticed earlier, maybe yeah," he admitted. "But I can't really complain now, can I?" He flexed his arm, fingering his bicep.

"There are people who would anyway," Zalika pointed out. Her eyes narrowed slightly. "You said anything I wanted was mine?"

"Absolutely," Chuckie replied.

"Then once your new dancing career takes off I expect you to look after your daughter," Zalika replied. "Her mother isn't fit to care for her and you know it."

Chuckie started, his expression turning wooden. He wanted to break eye contact but couldn't. "O- okay," he stammered.

"Very good." Zalika nodded. "Thank you for the food. If I need anything else I'll call." Chuckie nodded and withdrew, considerably subdued.

"Really think he'll follow through?" Alex asked. He more than half knew the likely answer but wanted to hear it anyway.

"Wouldn't you?" Zalika countered.

Alex swallowed. Zalika nodded; Alex's silence was an answer and they both knew it.

After eating Zalika, Matilda, and Alex returned to the stage. The place had filled considerably during the relatively short break; though still only early afternoon the place was nearly full. Patrons crowded eagerly along the stage, waving their bills. The music started and Zalika danced. Matilda danced with her, as perfectly as if they'd rehearsed for months. Better, even. As if- as Matilda was merely extension of Zalika. A chill ran down Alex's spine but nothing showed in his outward appearance. As before Zalika did a group number, then offered individual performances. She sent Matilda to work other parts of the stage. Alex collected tips.

Through the afternoon and into the evening it continued. Working back to back sets like that- especially given the level of physical exertion Zalika put out- would have killed anyone else, or quickly reduced them to a quivering lump. If anything Zalika grew fresher and more sensual with each one. Matilda, on the other hand, looked like Hell after only three. Zalika let her rest while she worked three sets alone, then brought her out again on the fourth. At that point Zalika did most of the work herself, with Matilda merely supporting her. Alex collected tips and tossed them into the changing room. A part of his mind marvelled that he could regard money- so much money- so callously, but the rest of him understood that the money really didn't matter. It was the reason Zalika used to justify this exercise to those who wouldn't- couldn't- understand the real reason. The men outside gave up their money, yes... but more importantly they offered their throats while Zalika sucked the life force out of them like a spider sucking the meat out of its victims.

"Pack up the money," Zalika ordered as they retired to the dressing room after a set. "We're out of time."

"But-" Alex began, glancing at the clock. They'd been working for hours.

"The revenant's caught up to us," Zalika explained as Helen and Ruth shoveled cash into a gym bag they'd found somewhere. "I need to deal with it before we move on."

"You can kill it now?" Alex asked.

"No." Zalika shook her head. "As before, I can only delay it a while. But it'll be enough to give us a head start."

Alex glanced at the clock again. "What about Todd and Sally Ann? They won't be back for hours."

"We aren't taking them," Zalika replied.

"You aren't going to cure Sally Ann's mother?" Alex inquired.

"I am," Zalika corrected. "But there's no need for Todd and Sally Ann to be along while I do it. It'll be trouble enough just protecting you lot." She opened the dressing room door; Chuckie waited outside. "We need a car," she said.

"Just a sec." Chuckie vanished. He returned just as Alex finished changing back into his street clothes. In one hand Chuckie held a set of keys; across the other arm lay an unconscious ferret with an impressive shiner.

"What happened to him?" Matilda asked.

"He had an accident," Chuckie replied.

"His face ran into your fist?" Alex suggested.

"Is that a problem?" Chuckie inquired.

"It doesn't matter." Zalika took the keys and brushed her hand across the ferret's face, wiping away all evidence of injury. Chuckie dropped the fellow, still unconscious, on the floor. "Give this to Todd and Sally Ann," Zalika continued, pulling a large stack of bills from one of the gym bags. "That's the mouse woman and squirrel guy who brought us. Here's their address." She scribbled it on a piece of paper. "And... thanks for everything." She stroked Chuckie's cheek. "Most especially for staying when you didn't have to. But now you need to leave. I don't need your protection... and you'd be putting yourself in danger needlessly."

"I know." Chuckie lay a hand over Zalika's a squeezed it gently. "Take care of yourself." He gave Zalika a lingering kiss, then hurried away.

Out front the crowd noise had taken on an unpleasant undertone. Glass shattered. "What are they going to do when you skin out on them?" Alex asked.

"Riot," Zalika replied. "That's one reason we need to be on our way now." She took a step-

Mr. Hammerstein came thundering down the hallway. "Do you know what they're doing to my club, you bitch?" he screamed. "You owe me a Hell of a lot more than five hundred dollars!"

"No I don't," Zalika replied, utterly unfazed. "I paid what you asked for the use of your stage. Since no other considerations were mentioned, I must assume that all other costs are absorbed by the club."

"Bitch!" Mr. Hammerstein screamed and swung. Zalika caught his arm before it contacted her face. He staggered from the shock; she didn't. With a casual flick of the wrist Zalika twisted his arm; he screamed and fell to his knees as his forearm bones snapped.

"The only reason your tried to hit me is because I'm a woman," Zalika said in a conversational tone, twisting Mr. Hammerstein's hand back and forth. Alex heard the bone ends grating together. Mr. Hammerstein sobbed and wailed from the pain. "Let me give you some advice," Zalika continued. "You shouldn't hit people who are weaker than you. It marks you as a coward. You shouldn't hit me because I might forget that I shouldn't hurt people who are weaker than me. If that happens I swear by Heru, whose eye shines down upon us all, that you will suffer as no one on this side of the grave can even begin to imagine."

Alex watched, his face impassive. Briefly he debated with himself: was Mr. Hammerstein smart enough to appreciate his position? Probably not, or he wouldn't have come in the first place. Alex shook his head in wonder; how could that fat idiot not see the truth of his situation? On the other hand, people seemed to have a remarkable ability to ignore what they didn't want to believe, even with the evidence of it staring them in the face. Alex herself had done that. He'd done it with Daughter Night even as Mr. Hammerstein was right now, though over a longer time frame and in a less acute fashion. He couldn't help wondering, though, if the lesson would end being any less fatal.

Mr. Hammerstein plucked a tiny pistol from his pocket with his left hand and fired it into Zalika's chest. At that range he could hardly miss. The bullet tore a hole through the front and back of Zalika's tank top, then thudded into the ceiling. Beneath the holes her flesh and fur looked completely unaffected. "I'm really sorry you did that," Zalika said, grabbing the pistol. His finger bones snapped as she twisted it out of his hand. "I didn't want to waste time teaching you a lesson you'd ignore anyway but I swore I would, so oh well." She dropped his right arm and raised his left hand to her mouth. He struggled but couldn't stop her. She bit down, hard. He screamed. She let go and stepped back. Her teeth had left a neat pattern of punctures across his broken fingers. He stared at them- then his eyes widened in shock and terror as the wounds festered. In a matter of seconds the flesh around the holes swelled, turned angry red, then black. Angry red marks raced up his arm. The flesh on his fingers turned liquid and dripped off, leaving only bare bones. He screamed, beating his hand against the wall. It didn't do any good; the rot spread like wildfire. The flesh on his arm sloughed off, falling into stinking piles on the floor. It raced across his chest and head; his face melted like that of a wax statue in a furnace. Skin slid from his chest, leaving his ribs bare. The organs inside swelled, oozing out through his neck and clavicle. His belly swelled to three times its already prodigious size, then burst in a spray of noisome filth that nearly knocked Alex flat from the smell alone. Coils of grotesquely distended intestine spilled across the floor; as they rotted through the fluids and gasses trapped within spurted out. He slumped against the wall because nothing remained of him but bones hooked together by bits of cartilage... and his eyes. While everything else rotted the eyes remained, wide and staring.

"Would it be worth five hundred dollars to you for me to let you die, Mr. Hammerstein?" Zalika asked, leaning over him until their faces almost touched. "Or maybe I should just leave you. If you're lucky you'll be cremated. It not... your bones'll turn to dust in a hundred years or so. Just imagine that. Laying in your cold, dark coffin for all that time." She snorted. "Faugh. You aren't worth the effort. Here's your money." She straightened up and turned away, grabbing a handful of money from the gym bag and tossed it disdainfully over her shoulder. The pool of rotting flesh disappeared; Mr. Hammerstein lay against the wall, alive and whole... except for his eyes, which stared glassily at nothing. His mouth hung open, spittle drooling down his chin. He'd voided both bladder and bowels in his trousers.

"Come on," Zalika said, stepping over Mr. Hammerstein and hurrying toward the back door. "We have to go now."

Matilda doubled over and vomited. Alex caught her but didn't grimace. Compared to what he'd just seen- even if it was an illusion- half digested Thai food seemed almost wholesome. Rather than wait he half carried, half dragged Matilda to the door while she still retched. Rather to Alex's surprise it was still light out. He didn't see Zalika so he hurried around to the front of the club. A crowd of people struggled to enter through the front door; inside it sounded like the crowd didn't like the delay at all. Alex figured that the police would be around momentarily.

Zalika stood on the sidewalk, looking down the street. A wrecker with a car on its bed came around the corner. She stepped out into the street almost directly in front of another vehicle. The driver slammed on the brakes, laying on the horn. Zalika flicked her hand; the car flipped out of her way, landing on its roof. She glared down the street and the Fire of Ra's Eye burst forth. Alex had to shield her eyes from the glare. The wrecker didn't explode, not like they do in the movies, but the tires popped, the windows shattered, and the fuel tanks burst, spreading a lake of flaming Diesel across the street. The driver didn't even have time to scream; the Hellish light charred him to cinder instantly.

A dark figure rose up behind the cab. Flames wreathed it but didn't seem to touch it. It held drawn blades, one in each hand. Zalika clenched her fist; the wrecker folded in half but the figure leapt clear. It landed at a run, charging with its swords raised. Zalika flicked her finger; the cover from a fire hydrant snapped off. A jet of water knocked the warrior sprawling. The flaming remains of the wrecker leapt into the air and crashed down atop him, wrapping around him like a housewife picking up a spider with a tissue. Water from the hydrant doused the flames and cooled the metal, which hissed loudly and discharged gouts of vapor.

"This way," Chuckie said. Alex started; he hadn't heard him approach. "I parked your car around back where it wouldn't be damaged."

Angry patrons were in the process of tearing the Fox Hole apart. They'd smashed the front windows and seemed to be working on the furniture. Occasionally bits of debris came sailing out. Nevertheless Zalika, Chuckie, Alex, and Matilda walked past them without incident. "Your chariot, ma'am," Chuckie said, gesturing to a red Mazda MPV and bowing deeply.

"Thank you, Chuckie." Zalika took his hand and kissed. "Now get out of here. I won't warn you again."

He sighed. "If you insist." He opened the door and handed her in.

"I do," Zalika averred. She reached out and caressed Chuckie's cheek. "You're too good a man to be hanging out with someone like me."

"No I'm not," he replied grimly.

"Go spend time with your daughter," Zalika instructed. "Matilda, drive."

Matilda climbed in, took the keys, and started the engine. Alex got in back beside Helen. Jenny and Ruth occupied the removable rear seat.

"Where to now?" Alex asked as Matilda pulled out onto the street.

"Wellington," Zalika replied. "And no more delays. We drive straight through until we arrive." As the Mazda drove off down the street she looked back over her shoulder at Chuckie.

Esmerelda slowed to less than a walking pace but didn't quite stop. She wasn't sure how far- or how long- she'd run or where she was. She didn't recognize the land, not the least because the scrubby, wiry plants growing along the roadside were black. Completely black, that is, branch and leaf alike. Above her blue-white clouds scudded across a dark red sky. In the distance... she couldn't tell. Details blurred out like a living Monet painting. Things moved in that indeterminate distance, though. Esmerelda saw them looking at her. Saw their eyes, at least. Every time she looked there seemed to be more of them... and they seemed to be closer. She pulled her cloak tighter; it did nothing to dispel the chill. Her hand cramped as she tried gripping her staff but she didn't have it. She picked up her pace but couldn't help wondering what difference it could possibly make. No matter how far she ran the endless highway still stretched away ahead of her... and the shadows continued to close in. Part of her wanted to stop, to just get it over with. But she never quite did it. In her heart of hearts she knew that it wasn't love or duty that drove her on. It was fear, fear of the terrible, ultimate darkness closing in on her. And the closer it came the more frightened she became. She picked up her pace.

Suddenly Esmerelda saw a figure on the road ahead. Her step faltered but she kept walking. Though in the far distance it wasn't blurred. At first she thought it was Zalika but it couldn't be. It was a man. A tall, trim, muscular jackal man with fur as black as night. He wore a simple kilt secured by a nicely crafted but not ostentatious belt. A wide necklace made of gold and inlaid with precious stones lay across his shoulders and throat. And he was tall. Esmerelda, hardly a shrimp, came only to the middle of his chest. In spite of herself Esmerelda stopped. Somehow she'd gone from seeing him in the distance to standing right in front of him without noticing the intervening journey. "W... who are you?" she stammered.

"You already know," he replied, offering his hand.

Esmerelda took it. Being alone in this- this place frightened her more than anything else. "You're Anubis," she whispered.

"That's one of my names," he agreed, turning around and starting along. Esmerelda fell in beside him so she wouldn't have to release his hand. "I existed before and after those whom you call the ancient Egyptians came and went. Over the ages I've been given many names and many faces."

"I.. I never really believed you were real," Esmerelda mumbled.

"Is your friend Friday real?" he countered. "Are you?"

Esmerelda didn't reply. She didn't have a quick answer and she feared to examine the question too deeply. "Why are you here?" she tried.

"You called me."

"But-" Esmerelda found herself walking beside him, her hand in his. "How?"

"My spirit is with you."

"But-" Esmerelda gritted her teeth; she felt like a broken record. "Where did I get it?"

"From my daughter."

Esmerelda blinked. "You mean Zalika?"

"Whom you call Zalika, yes."

Esmerelda looked around. The shadows seemed to have receded, though they weren't gone. "What... what is this place?"

"This isn't a place," he corrected. "This is a way of being."

"Is... is this where Zalika lives?" Esmerelda asked hesitantly.

"No. This journey is for you alone, Esmerelda."

For what felt like a long time Esmerelda walked in silence. "I... I thought you'd be more frightening."


"Well-" Esmerelda frowned, finding herself unable to clearly articulate what had, up until that moment, seemed self evident. "You- I mean- the end of life is, is frightening."

"The end of life is the end of life, no more and no less," he replied. "Are you afraid of the dark?"

"Ah-" Esmerelda remembered being afraid of the dark when she was very young. She didn't fear monsters under the bed but couldn't help wondering if she hadn't just replaced them with more genteel bugbears.

"I exist only to do what I am right now," he continued. "I guide those who come here to the next stage of their journey. If you fear me then yes, I am terrifying. But I'm also the end to pain, the end of suffering. I wipe away the sins and sorrows of life so that you may enter clean into your next world."

Esmerelda swallowed. "Is.. is that where you're taking me?"

"Yes." He stopped.

Esmerelda found herself standing beside a red Mazda MPV parked in the middle of the road. Part of her mind wondered how it could have appeared right in front of her without her noticing. The rest of her understood that in this place- this state- things didn't work that way. "What-" she began, but the man was gone.

Zalika sat in the Mazda's front passenger seat. Three others occupied the car's rearmost seats but Esmerelda couldn't tell what they were, much less who. Their forms shimmered in and out of focus like desert mirages.

"I'm sorry about this," Zalika said. Tears stained her cheeks. "I didn't think the revenant would be able to hurt you."

Esmerelda lay a hand on the car's door. Both hand and door seemed completely real. A thousand questions pressed at her lips; the one which forced its way to the head of the line had the virtue of not treading on sensitive, personal territory. "I saw a bunch of people when I looked at it," she said. "The museum guard, the constable who disappeared... and Daitakerou. Does that mean he's dead too?"

"Daitakerou isn't dead." Zalika reached through the window- through the glass- and caressed Esmerelda's cheek. "I don't offhand know how that could be. With Cymbeline's artifacts and codices I'm sure I could find out. But somehow I don't think that's why you sought me out."

"Um-" Esmerelda shifted uncomfortably. The sensation of Zalika's soft but powerful fingers in the fur on her face and throat was distracting, to say the least. But she couldn't bring herself to pull away. In fact, she longed to feel those hands on other parts of her body. "Can you help me?" she asked in a tiny, quavering voice.

"I can." Zalika stepped through the car door. Her clothing remained hanging in place, neither coming with her nor collapsing. As her breasts and belly pressed against Esmerelda's they felt completely real. With her hands on Esmerelda's cheeks Zalika held Esmerelda's head and kissed her passionately.

Closer than Sisters

Esmerelda raised her arms. She may have meant to fend Zalika off but ended up embracing her instead. Zalika's questing hands and probing tongue lit off a firestorm of lust in Esmerelda's heart. She squeezed hard, her left arm around Zalika's chest, her right on Zalika's rump. She pressed her thigh against Zalika's crotch, pressing her own crotch against Zalika's thigh. But the feeling of flesh against flesh lessened instead of increasing. Frustration finally drove Esmerelda to break the kiss and look down. She almost fainted when she saw that Zalika had passed through her, at least partially. From neck to crotch their bodies had merged. Esmerelda tried to let go but couldn't. She didn't have a left arm or leg any more; the left half of Zalika's body had replaced the left half of Esmerelda's. Their heads remained separate, mounted side by side on a single pair of shoulders. From there down the right side of their shared body was white and golden brown, the left solid black. Esmerelda looked over her shoulder; they had two tails, the right one Esmerelda's and the left Zalika's.

"I told you we were closer even than sisters," Zalika murmured, licking Esmerelda's cheek and reaching across to fondle Esmerelda's breast. Esmerelda felt what she thought of as her diaphragm moving as Zalika spoke.

"Zalika-" Esmerelda exclaimed.

"You asked me if I could help," Zalika cut in, shaking her index finger in an admonitory fashion. "The problem is that your body is dead. Without it your spirit will gradually dissolve. I have a body but for your spirit to benefit I have to make you a part of me. Or me a part of you." She lay her hand upon her crotch, massaging her clitoris with the tip of her middle finger. Esmerelda gasped; it was her clit too. "Besides, this isn't physical," Zalika continued. "Though it could be, if you wanted." She nuzzled Esmerelda's throat.

"Let's worry about that later, shall we?" Esmerelda said hurriedly. She put her hand on her belly so she wouldn't be tempted to fend Zalika off. Besides, how do you fend off someone who's a part of you? She also did it because a part of her didn't want to fend Zalika off. She found herself exploring Zalika's side of the belly button; rather to her surprise she retained full sensation all the way across. Suddenly an image sprang into her mind: her and Zalika in a half-and-half costume, Super Collie on the right and Egyptian on the left. She imagined Squid snapping their picture... and Zalika turning him into a toad. Esmerelda couldn't help giggling. Then she imagined her and Zalika on their back, without a costume or clothes of any sort. John lay atop them, his hips thrusting rhythmically, while Zalika and Esmerelda simultaneously kissed him. Esmerelda shuddered; that mental picture excited her rather more than she cared to admit.

"On the other hand, maybe the world isn't ready for a two-headed super heroine," Zalika mused.

"What do we do now?" Esmerelda asked in a desperate attempt to steer things in a more neutral direction.

"We get to Wellington," Zalika replied. "I'm afraid the only practical way to stop this revenant is ask Paul to call it off. Cymbeline doesn't have the skill or power to deal with it and I'd need time for research, which I rather doubt it'll give us."

Esmerelda found herself wanting to ask what happened then. There was the small matter of outstanding warrants for burglary, assault, murder, vandalism, causing accidents, carrying unlicensed firearms, discharging said firearms, and of course flight to evade prosecution. Those being only the things which came readily to mind; if the matter ever went to trial an argument could be made to proffer charges from Zalika's previous incarnation. The legal snarl alone might take years to unravel. What if something happened to prevent Esmerelda from going back into her original body? Even if Zalika grew another head would anyone believe that it was really Super Collie? Would John believe it?

"We're not there yet," Zalika said, gently but firmly, patting Esmerelda's cheek. "Let's not invent problems. The ones we already have are more than enough, I should think. Now let's get back before Alex starts wondering what happened."

"Who are they?" Esmerelda asked as Zalika took a step toward the car. Just as Esmerelda's sense of touch extended through their entire lower body, Zalika's motor control apparently did as well.

"Them?" Zalika glanced at the Mazda's rear seats. "That's Jenny, Helen, and Ruth. The reason you can see them is because they're becoming wraiths."

"Why is that?" Esmerelda demanded, resisting when Zalika attempted to take another step.

"My power is fundamentally necromantic," Zalika explained. "The more I use it on someone the more it replaces their life force with... undead force, for lack of a better word. If I sent them away they'd eventually recover. If I don't they'll become undead."

"Are you going to?" Esmerelda wanted to know.

"If I can," Zalika replied. "It's too dangerous for them to be around me. But I'd rather keep them with me and watch them become wraiths than have Paul or his revenant kill them."

Esmerelda said nothing. She didn't care for the idea of people becoming wraiths but Zalika was trying to protect them... and Esmerelda didn't see herself in a position to point fingers.

"Come along, Esmerelda." Zalika walked into the car's door. To Esmerelda it felt like stepping into cool water. They sat down in Zalika's clothes... and suddenly the spirit world dissolved around them. Esmerelda knew that she didn't really have a voice but nevertheless she screamed as she fell.

"Captain," Colonel Bathsfield began in a voice only slightly louder than normal, "Can you explain to me just what the Hell you thought you were doing?" He finished at a full bellow.

"Sir, I decided that I needed my suit to properly protect Dr. Lathasar," Haimar replied. He stood, stiffly at attention, before the colonel's desk.

"You think that protecting Dr. Lathasar involves letting her break into Mr. Ulysses' penthouse?" the colonel demanded, slamming his fist down on his desk. "You seem to have a very interesting view of your duty, Captain!" He leveled a thick finger at Haimar's chest. "You are hereby relieved of duty and confined to quarters pending a formal investigation. In the meantime, I'll appoint someone competent to protect Dr. Lathasar. Dismissed."

"Sir." Haimar saluted crisply and withdrew.

The colonel cursed, then picked up a phone. "Assign Team Three to Wellington Hospital," he said. "Yes, full kit and warload. This isn't a drill, son!"

Cymbeline lay awake despite the late hour and her physical condition. Her nurse had left the curtains open but it didn't help much; with the bulky brace and bandages around her neck she couldn't turn her head far enough to look. So she watched the play of light across the ceiling and wall. After staring at it for hours she found that she could see a lot of subtle patterns in what had first appeared to be nothing but random noise. She couldn't say what they meant, but at least she saw them.

The door to Cymbeline's room opened. A surge of hope flashed through her; maybe Haimar had gotten away after all-

George entered. He looked like Hell; his uniform was dusty, dirty... and, in a few places, smeared with dried blood. He carried a wooden staff with a hooked head; he transferred it to his left hand as he approached Cymbeline's bed so that he could offer his right.

"Oh, George," Cymbeline croaked. Her throat ached, and only partially from the damage it had sustained. Tears pooled in her eyes.

"Cymbeline, what you did was exceedingly brave," George said, taking her hand and massaging it gently. "And maybe exceedingly foolish, too, but I don't see myself one to judge." He looked down; Cymbeline felt him shiver. "If I'd been... here instead of there when I heard the news... I might have done something like it. Or worse. I... I'm just glad that Captain Wilkes was there to help you."

"Oh, George!" Cymbeline closed her eyes; she would have looked away but her neck brace didn't allow that much motion. Mention of Haimar evoked an image of his naked body sliding against hers. It excited her... and with George standing right here it also wracked her with guilt. George was a good man; during Daughter Night's first rampage he'd protected her unfailingly, at great risk to himself. Afterward he'd given of himself selflessly when Cymbeline needed, without so much as a word of complaint. And she'd tossed him aside for a pretty face- and body- just because Haimar happened to be there.

George looked up. His cheeks were wet. He shifted the staff to the crook of his arm so he could lay his other hand over Cymbeline's. He squeezed, not painfully but still very tightly. "Cymbeline-" his voice caught; he swallowed. "I know how your magic works," he continued. "I worked it with you more than a few times." The ghost of a smile played across his face. "I never complained, though I suspected that some of the time you only did it to power spells."

"I- I may have," Cymbeline stammered, squeezing George's hand as hard as she could. "But- but I enjoyed it too! I swear!"

George lay a finger gently on Cymbeline's mouth. "Don't apologize," he said. "I... I never asked you to be mine alone. I never expected you to be mine alone. It felt... so good just to be needed."

"George-" Cymbeline couldn't continue. Her body shook with sobs. That he could forgive her so easily only made it hurt more.

"Cymbeline, listen to me." George leaned forward; his hand tightened to an almost painful grip. "I wasn't there. Captain Wilkes was. I'm not going to ask why... because it doesn't matter. You-" He looked away, clenching his teeth, his whole body shivering with tension. He gulped several short breaths, all of them sounding like they might have erupted into full-blown sobs. "You aren't dead," he said tightly, struggling to keep control of himself. "You aren't dead." He stroked her face and cheek with a quivering hand. Tears ran freely on his face.

Despite the pain in her neck Cymbeline pressed her head against George's hand. He was everything he'd been when they first met: brave, loyal, kind... and gentle. How could she even hope to find a better man? And if she failed to recognize his merits then some other woman would.

Cymbeline gasped. Suddenly a fundamental truth about George came into her mind. He'd been married once; his wife had left him and returned to England. He hadn't remarried. She'd wondered why other women hadn't pursued him. They probably had, but he'd rebuffed them. Because he already had a woman in his life.

Super Collie.

Now Super Collie was gone. And George had come here, to Cymbeline. "George?" she whispered, gripping his hand and forearm. "I... I'll live. I promise."

George leaned forward and nuzzled Cymbeline's face. He smelled rather strongly, his own scent mingling with that of oil... and death. It didn't matter; right then Cymbeline would have held him if he'd just climbed out of a cesspool.

After a time George straightened up. While still holding Cymbeline's hand he reached into his pocket with his left and came up with a small golden ankh. It looked like a cross with a loop for a head. "I'm glad you're still with us, Cymbeline," he said in something like his normal voice. "But there's still work to do."

"Yes, I know." Cymbeline took the ankh and gripped it tightly, concentrating to call up the spirit of Isis. For a moment nothing happened... then it flooded into her. She gasped; it felt hot and cool, pleasant and painful, all at once. When it faded away her neck didn't hurt anymore. She tore off the brace and sat up. "Did you bring the rest of my gear?"

"Tell me what you need," George replied, producing his notepad.

Cymbeline smiled. "It's good to have you back, George."

George smiled in return. "It's good to be back." His smile widened into a diabolical grin. "We are going to kick ass."

"You got that right." Cymbeline nodded emphatically. "Most of the stuff is at my house but there are a few items I'll need from Te Papa..."

Esmerelda drew a shuddering breath. She felt as if she'd just surfaced after spending too long under water. She clutched at her chest; after a moment the significance of having one to grab finally sank in. Blood pounded in her ears, breath rasped in her throat. Her spirit once again resided in warm, living flesh. She laughed hysterically. Then it occurred to her that while her bosom had always been fairly well developed her breasts had never been this large. On top of that, they were black. As were her hands, arms, and as much of her nose as she could see without a mirror. She looked quickly left and right; much to her relief she had only one head. But she wasn't alone. She sat in a vehicle, some sort of minivan by the look of it. A full figured collie woman drove; behind her sat a slender Dingo man. Behind Esmerelda sat three little goat children.

"Zalika, is something wrong?" the dingo asked.

"I was scouting ahead," Esmerelda heard herself reply. "Leaving and coming back to my body is stressful."

"You can do that?" one of the goats demanded incredulously.

"Yes," Esmerelda replied flatly. Ain't it cool?

"Z-" Esmerelda began, but cut it off. It couldn't be good to be seen talking to herself. Zalika, could you please explain to me just what the Hell is going on here? She tried to sound stern but it came off as hysterical, even in her own ears.

I'm sorry, Esmerelda. It's one of the consequences of sharing a body. Esmerelda would swear that Zalika giggled.

A number of angry retorts flashed through Esmerelda's mind. She bit them back; she wasn't really in a position to complain, considering the alternative. Then she couldn't help wondering: did not "speaking" even matter with both of them in the same head?

No, not really.

But then- Esmerelda grimaced- why don't I hear your thoughts?

You do. You think they're your own, so you don't notice.

"But-" Esmerelda turned the exclamation into a cough. Bringing a hand up to her face reminded her how large her- Zalika's- breasts were. Which only discomfited her more because it brought home- once again- that this wasn't her body. How can that be? she concluded.

Because you're in it, it is your body, Zalika replied. Your mind assumes that whatever body it occupies is yours. Likewise, it assumes that any thoughts, feelings, and memories it has are its own. We- or most of us, at any rate- aren't built to interface on this level.

A sudden thought came to Esmerelda. Does that mean that all those people I saw in the- the revenant- don't know what they're doing?

Yes and no, Zalika replied after a short pause. They know what they're doing. But they think it's normal and natural.

Do they know they're... dead? Esmerelda ventured.

Zalika hesitated much longer before responding. Quite possibly not. Left to their own they'd notice, just like you did. But the compulsion that drives them would keep them from thinking about it.

We have to help them, Zalika, Esmerelda stated. Even... even death would be better than life like that.

Do you understand what you're asking? Zalika countered.

I know you have power, Zalika. Maybe you can make them new bodies... or at least set them free to- to go wherever they need to go. I also know that you're stuck with me just like I'm stuck with you.

True, Zalika conceded. But there is the minor issue of how we keep it from killing us while I work on it. Not to mention that the police and Paul are both looking for us and neither wants to give us a pat on the back.

And the army too, Esmerelda admitted. The SASVS is in Wellington.

I rather doubt that any of those people will be in the mood to listen to explanations, Zalika observed. To unbind the revenant we have to deactivate it. The only way to do that is use whatever spells Cymbeline- or Paul- used to activate it in the first place.

Could Cymbeline do it? Esmerelda asked.

No, Zalika replied. Not only does she lack experience, she gets her power from the spirit of Aset. Aset's domain is sorcery, motherhood, and healing. She needs the domain of death, too, which is Anpu's.

And to reach her we have to fight through the constabulary, the army, and whatever goons the Big Bad Wolf sends, while at the same time keeping the revenant from killing us, Esmerelda commented.

In a nutshell. Esmerelda felt herself nod.

Esmerelda sighed. Oh well. No one ever said being a super hero was easy.

That's for sure, Zalika concurred. But... I have to say I enjoy it rather more than I thought I would.

Esmerelda said nothing. Tears pooled in her eyes. The others might have thought it strange when she hugged herself but she didn't care.

Thank you, Esmerelda, Zalika said after a long pause. I... I can't tell you how much that means to me.

Esmerelda's throat tightened. She felt an intense upsurge of love and affection for Zalika. But no, she realized suddenly. She felt Zalika's affection and love for her. "That's okay," Esmerelda whispered. I... I think you just did.

Come along, sister. Esmerelda felt someone tug at her hand. Suddenly the world dissolved... and she found herself back in the spirit realm, standing beside the parked Mazda. Once again she was half Esmerelda, half Zalika.

"Does it always look like this?" Esmerelda asked, glancing around. The highway stretched on, perfectly straight, through the infinite, strange colored prairie.

"This isn't a place," Zalika replied, starting forward. "What you see here is... a product of your own mind. You see whatever you choose to see."

"Then why does it look like this?" Esmerelda countered.

"Like what?" Zalika came back.

"Like-" Esmerelda frowned. "You don't see a highway running through the prairie under a red sky?"

"No." Zalika shook her head.

"What do you see?" Esmerelda ventured.

"You wouldn't understand," Zalika responded after a pause. "And you wouldn't like it if you did."

"Then... why does it look the way it does?" Esmerelda asked hesitantly. "To me, I mean?"

"It's something your subconscious has chosen as the most comfortable representation of what it's experiencing," Zalika explained. "Or the least uncomfortable, depending on how you look at it."

"Where are we going?" Esmerelda inquired.

"Here." Zalika stopped.

A man stood by the side of the road. Or maybe "stood" wasn't the right word. He hovered in the air, his body angled as if he were sitting, but there wasn't anything around him. Just behind his back hung a crackling ball of blue-white energy; streamers of light snapped from it, forming a gigantic funnel of swirling, crackling energy. Within the area Esmerelda saw people lined up on the highway, their bodies angled as if sitting but hovering, unsupported, above the pavement. People in army fatigues and constabulary uniforms approached each individual, couple, or group; she saw a tiny Fennec woman look at the constable who came up on her right, then move as if cranking something by her right knee. The constable leaned forward and asked her something. She reached to her left, fumbled for a bit, then seemed to pass something over. Esmerelda realized suddenly that the seated people were riding in cars, but the cars were invisible. The constables stopped each car, checking ID and registration before sending them on. "It's a checkpoint," Esmerelda said.

Zalika nodded. "That soldier hanging in the air is wearing a powered suit equipped with an Anti-Super Power Electronic Warfare Module, which is generating the field you see. The cars and the suit are invisible because they're inanimate and don't have spirits."

"Can... can they see us?" Esmerelda asked hesitantly.

"Only if we step into the field," Zalika replied. "They'll see us if we step into the sensing field in our bodies, too."

"Can we go around it?" Esmerelda wanted to know.

"Yes," Zalika replied. "The sensing range of the ASPEW pack seems to be limited."

Esmerelda thought about the terrain leading up to Wellington. The Tararua Range severely restricted access; it wouldn't be hard at all for the police and army to put checkpoints on every road and railway. "I think we'll have to walk," she suggested.

"If we do the revenant will catch up," Zalika pointed out. "It never gets tired." She turned her head so she could look more or less directly at Esmerelda. "We need a distraction."

"What did you have in mind?" Esmerelda asked suspiciously.

"We find a graveyard-" Zalika began.

"Zalika-" Esmerelda cut in.

"Do you have a better idea?" Zalika riposted sharply. "It would be easy if we left Alex and the others to fend for themselves. The dead are dead; it won't matter to them if we borrow their bodies for a bit. Alex, Matilda, Jenny, Helen, and Ruth are alive. They won't stay that way if we don't protect them."

"Um." Esmerelda swallowed. "All right," she grumbled. "What do we do?"

"Like I said," Zalika replied. The spirit world dissolved; Esmerelda found herself back in the car. We find a graveyard.

Alex looked up at the sky. Night had long since fallen. He arched his back, stretching as much as he could. It felt damn good to get out of the car.

"What are we doing here?" Matilda wanted to know. Behind them the structures of Kenepuru General Hospital rose up against the night sky. In front of them lay a field of stone markers.

"The SASVS has a roadblock set up at the Tawa / Grenada North interchange," Zalika replied. "If we drive up to it they'll detect me. We can't go around because there isn't time. The revenant's coming up fast behind us. So we're gonna give the boys in green something else to think about for a bit." A wrought iron fence surrounded the cemetery; Zalika gestured and the metal crosspieces snapped with a loud bang. A section four meters wide fell over into the grass. Zalika stepped over the stone coping onto the cemetery grounds.

"What are you going to do?" Matilda demanded sharply.

"What do you think I'm going to do?" Zalika glanced back; her eyes blazed. "You raised me for my power. Now I'm using it to save your sorry asses." She lifted her hands and began to speak.

Matilda opened her mouth. Alex grabbed her and pulled her back. "Don't interfere," he hissed sharply into Matilda's ear.

Alex could not understand the words Zalika spoke but as she spoke them they seemed to grow, echoing back from the very sky itself. A chill stole over him, a hundred times worse than what he'd felt raising Zalika. Matilda buried her face against Alex's shoulder and shivered violently. Dark shadows crept from the edges and angles of the tombstones even though the light hadn't changed. They peeled loose from the surfaces on which they lay and leapt into the air, chattering excitedly. More and more joined in until they formed an impenetrable, black maelstrom. Alex covered her ears but it didn't help; the noise of the shadows crashed in her mind like thunder. But even so Zalika's voice boomed through, dominating everything else. The spinning vortex of blackness contracted, accelerating as it did so. The smaller it became the faster it went, smaller and faster-

And then it was gone. Zalika dropped her arms and sighed heavily, as if she'd just dropped a heavy load. Cars drove along the road and people walked, apparently oblivious to the terrible power that had been released. Alex licked his lips; they were bone dry. His trousers weren't; he'd peed in them.

Helen let out a shriek. A shadow reached across the grass. Alex's heart leapt into his mouth. The headstone that cast the shadow tottered and fell over. The grass before it humped up, then burst. A skeletal arm, with bits of desiccated flesh still clinging to it, groped out. All across the cemetery the dead awoke from their eternal sleep and arose from their beds of earth. The sight didn't terrify Alex only because events had so far surpassed his mind's ability to feel fear that the sensation ceased to have any meaning. He could only stare as the army of zombies came forward, shuffling through the hole Zalika had made in the fence. They didn't look at all like movie zombies, he noticed. Most of them were intact and not decayed. Even their clothes looked nice, the formal garments in which they'd been buried. But not one could ever mistake them for people. The sickly, gray pallor to their skin, the sunken, hollow flesh, the glassy, empty eyes... and the shambling, mechanical movements spoke all too clearly of what they really were.

Rubber howled. A car smashed into something. Alex turned. The first the zombies were out in the road. Cars swerved violently away from them, irrespective of what might be in the way. Pedestrians screamed and fled. The zombies ignored everything; even when a car accidentally hit one it just picked itself up and continued on. If they could, that is; if they couldn't walk they crawled or dragged themselves.

"That ought to do it," Zalika said with a nod. "Back in the car."

Alex went without a word. Arguing would require thought and right then that simply wasn't possible.

Lieutenant Hokianga yawned hugely. He'd been on duty all night and by the look of things would be on all day, too. His unit- Check Station Five- consisted of three power suits, fifteen odd support personnel, and about twice that many constables. He'd positioned the suits to cover the Johnsonville-Porirua Motorway, Willowbank Road, and the North Island Main Trunk Railway. Ground units covered every approach to Wellington and air units swept the land in between. Daughter Night wouldn't be able to get by without someone noticing. Of course the most likely way for that to happen would be when she destroyed one of the sentry units. Lieutenant Hokianga chuckled grimly. If you want to die in bed, don't join the army, soldiers said. Often they laughed afterward so civilians thought it was a joke. It wasn't.

"Sir?" Corporal Jenkins looked up. "I just heard from Constabulary that there's a mob of zombies coming down Main Road toward our position."

Lieutenant Hokianga's mouth twitched. Exactly when did my life turn into a cheap horror movie? he wanted to ask, but he already knew the answer. As soon as Daughter Night had come into it. "We hold position," he said, raising his voice so everyone heard.

"Did he say zombies?" a young constable asked. She looked terrified.

Lieutenant Hokianga felt a rush of sympathy. The Constabulary wasn't trained for this. They didn't even carry firearms, for chrissake. Knocking an unruly drunk on the head wasn't anything like facing down an army of the dead. Not that Lieutenant Hokianga claimed any great experience in such matters... but it was his duty to fight, and if necessary, die. "This checkpoint is now closed!" he bellowed. "Everyone who's waiting, turn them back! Route the vehicles from Main road onto the motorway! I want this front clear now!"

The SASVS troopers leapt to. So did the constables, probably more from the ring of command in the lieutenants's voice. He resolved to send the constables away with the civilians. Taking care of them was the constables' job, after all. And that would get them out of the way so the lieutenant could do his job.

"Sir!" Corporal Jenkins looked up again. "Orders from Special Alpha. We are to hold position. We are authorized to go hot."

Lieutenant Hokianga nodded. He drew his sidearm, chambered a round, put on the safety, and re-holstered it. "You heard the man!" he bellowed. "Heat 'em up!"

All across the checkpoint the troopers paused to load and check their weapons. Constables and civilians paused, then set off again with greater haste. Lieutenant Hokianga nodded; they were beginning to understand what was about to happen. To their credit the constables cleared things out quickly and with a minimum of trouble. When civilians inevitably panicked and clogged the roadway constables cleared the jam ruthlessly, dragging people from their cars and rolling the vehicles into the ditch if necessary. Finally the flow of people down from Porirua petered out. A few still came up from Wellington but the police seemed to have that under control.

"Sir, Constabulary reports that the zombie lead elements are in Redwood," Corporal Jenkins reported.

Lieutenant Hokianga nodded. "The enemy should be coming in sight any minute now," he called. All his troopers had moved up to the barricades blocking the roadway. Enormous flood lights mounted on poles bathed the scene in icy, white light. It also meant that beyond the illuminated range nothing much could be seen but darkness. "Hold your fire until we have confirmed sighting," he added. "There could still be civilians on foot."

A woman came running into the light. Lieutenant Hokianga's hand flinched, reaching for his pistol. He'd left it holstered precisely so he wouldn't be tempted to fire at motion. Thankfully no one else did either. The woman tripped and fell on her face. She tried to get up but couldn't coordinate; she shrieked and screamed, begging for help. "Hold position!" Lieutenant Hokianga bellowed. The zombies couldn't be far behind her; when they appeared he couldn't afford to have his line of fire obstructed. Of course that left the woman out there... but the alternative was to risk letting his unit be overrun and the zombies get past into Wellington.

A loose line of figures shambled out of the darkness. At first glance they looked like civilians... but they weren't. At the very least they were ghoulish caricatures of living creatures. The woman shrieked and thrashed as if having a seizure. At least on the ground she exposed herself the least. "Fire!" the lieutenant shouted.

The suttering roar of automatic weapon fire shattered the stillness of the night. Zombies reeled in an obscene dance as a hail of bullets tore into them. But even after they'd been shot to pieces they kept coming, dragging themselves with shattered limbs, leaving trails of fluid and internal organs behind them. The troopers fired, reloaded, and kept firing. Zombies fell like wheat before the scythe, until their obscenely twitching remains lay piled three deep in the roadway... but still they came, climbing over the mound of corpses. Lieutenant Hokianga drew his pistol and started firing. Each and every round struck a zombie in the face. When he'd shot out the clip he slapped in a new one. It didn't make the slightest difference; shooting zombies didn't do any good at all. They had to be smashed. The suited troopers, with their twenty millimeter guns, made a much better show. The heavy dual-purpose shells smashed undead bodies into paste, then scattered the remains like jackstraws when they exploded. But Lieutenant Hokianga knew how much ammunition the suits carried, and it wouldn't be enough. The line of moving zombies crept inexorably toward the barricades, like the tide rising on a lonely beach. Then his hand fell to his waist and came up empty. He'd shot off all his pistol ammunition. Along the barricades only about half the troopers were firing; the rest were reloading or searching for more ammo. The lieutenant blinked because his vision blurred. He was crying. He ran to the communications desk. "Check five actual to Special Alpha," he said, grabbing up the mike. "We cannot hold, repeat, cannot hold. We must withdraw or be overrun!"

"Negative, Check five alpha," the radio responded. "Hold position. Support is on its way."

Someone wrenched the mike from the lieutenant's hand. It was the young constable. "Are you totally fucking nuts?" she shrieked. "If we don't leave now they're gonna get us all!"

Lieutenant Hokianga cursed, grabbing the constable's arm and twisting it around. He did not need this right now! She yelped and staggered, flinging out her arm and legs as she overbalanced. Her toe caught the edge of the desk and flipped it over. The radio hit the pavement with a crash. The voice of SASVS Command cut off with a squak.

For a fraction of an instant Lieutenant Hokianga dithered. Now wasn't the time to be out of communication. But he wouldn't be any sort of a commander if he couldn't take care of himself- and his unit- without the colonel holding his hand. "Fall back!" he bellowed. "All units, fall back! Reinforcements are on their way up from Wellington!" He waited until he saw that his men were falling back in reasonable order, then tucked the constable under his arm and joined them.

"Wow," Ruth said as they approached Kaiwaharawahara Station. "I never thought we'd make it this far."

"Shut up," Helen growled, threatening her sister with a raised hand. Ruth flinched and fell silent.

"My ass hurts," Jenny grumbled.

Alex sympathized with that. Zalika had set the car on the railroad tracks and they'd driven all the way down from Porirua, bumping over the sleepers. Alex felt like he'd been worked over with a meat tenderizing hammer. On the highway, to their left, he saw several army vehicles and many more constabulary ones roar past in the opposite direction. No one seemed to notice the Mazda bumping along.

"The line's blocked," Matilda reported. Alex looked ahead; a train stood in the station, obstructing the way forward. Zalika raised her hand; the Mazda soared up off the railroad and came down on the highway. It wobbled erratically until Matilda recovered from the shock and got it under control.

"So we've made it to Wellington," Alex observed as the Interislander Ferry terminal came up on the left. "What now?"

"We go see Paul," Zalika replied. "Head up The Terrace. I'll tell you where to stop."

"We're just gonna stroll into the Big Bad Wolf's stronghold and say hi?" Helen demanded.

"Yes," Zalika replied in a silky, lilting voice. "We are."

Alex giggled. He couldn't help it. The others looked at him as if he was nuts. He didn't care; it didn't matter any more. Matilda had been right all along. They were all going to die.

Mr. Ulysses' limousine pulled up in front of a dilapidated warehouse at the edge of the Thompson Container Terminal. He didn't wait for the door to be opened, he got right out. The police weren't tailing him; apparently they had other things on their mind. He walked up to a door, swiped a card, and punched in a code. The door unlocked. He pushed it open gently; it was far too massive to shove. Daitakerou slipped in behind him; the door closed and locked by itself.

"Ah, Mr. Ulysses," a voice called from within. "Always a pleasure to see you. Come to watch our little darling do her thing?"

"Is it ready to go?" Paul replied shortly, looking past the approaching figure. With the work lights off all he saw was a huge, metallic mass.

"Ach, you insult me!" the other exclaimed, his tone switching in a heartbeat to sharp anger. "You've given me exactly what you promised. I've given you exactly what I promised." He held up a device that resembled a cellular phone. "She quivers in anticipation, waiting only your word."

Mr Ulysses nodded. "Please accept my apologies, Herr Doktor. The last few days have been... trying for me. And it is a rare thing to meet a man who does only and exactly what he promises."

"Ach, it is at that." The figure turned around, looking up at the infernal machine he'd created at Mr. Ulysses' behest. "I guarantee that you will be satisfied with her performance."

"I don't doubt that in the least, Herr Doktor," Mr. Ulysses replied, and he didn't. People said that Doktor Catlove was insane. That may have been, but criminals, terrorists, and even governments lined up to buy his devices. His price reflected that; his fee had nearly broken the back of even Mr. Ulysses' mighty empire... but Paul did not for a moment think that the machine would not do exactly what the doctor claimed it would. He grinned savagely; Doktor Catlove had, through a front company, designed the ASPEW packs used by the SASVS. Since then he'd improved them considerably. Zalika's powers wouldn't touch this machine... and it didn't have a mind she could twist. Nor could she delay it with cute tricks like she'd done with the Kamakura guardian.

"Something amuses you, sir?" the doctor inquired. He wore goggles with dark red lenses, making it very difficult to read his expression.

"I bet the army would pay a lot to own something like this," Mr. Ulysses mused.

"They would," Doktor Catlove replied, grinning to reveal jagged, yellowed teeth. "But others would pay so that they not have it. I make out like a robber baron and don't have to do anything at all."

"Other than be your inestimable self," Mr. Ulysses pointed out.

Doktor Catlove laughed. He laughed until he doubled over and had to dab at his face under his goggles. But he turned away when he did it. "I'm so glad we could work together," he said, straightening up slowly. "Your wit is a rare and precious thing. So many I work with have absolutely no sense of humor." He chuckled.

"What about the other project?" Mr. Ulysses inquired.

"Same as ever." Doktor Catlove shrugged. "If I may, I don't see why you put your faith in such things."

"They work," Mr. Ulysses replied. "Daughter Night is proof of that. Not to mention that she's already defeated people who put too much faith in technology."

The doctor's lips drew back from his teeth in a feral snarl. His tail lashed. Mr. Ulysses merely put his fingers together as if praying. He and Doktor Catlove stood about the same height but Mr. Ulysses weighed considerably more. "All I care about is winning," Mr. Ulysses said, as calm and polite as ever. "It doesn't matter what I have to do to achieve it."

The doctor's expression morphed into something almost like a smile. "Yes," he said, stroking his chin. "Which is why you asked me for help. And why I chose to accept. Would you like to have a look at her?"

"I'll take your word for it, Herr Doktor." Mr. Ulysses removed his coat, tie, shirt, and undershirt. Age had dimmed the sleek gray of his pelt but had not in any way diminished the sculpted perfection of his musculature. Not for the first time Daitakerou found himself wishing that he could teach his master the sword. Mr. Ulysses' combination of power and precise control would make him absolutely unbeatable. On the other hand, it could be said that he already was... and for those very reasons. He wielded his tremendous strength with surgical precision and ruthless determination. Which, in turn, was why Daitakerou chose to serve him. Mr. Ulysses was beautiful, deadly, and perfect, just like a sword made by one of the ancient Japanese masters. Daitakerou would never say- not even to himself- that he loved Mr. Ulysses, but the word summed up pretty closely how being in Mr. Ulysses' presence made him feel.

Mr. Ulysses finished stripping, then pulled on a black wet suit. "You know what to do, Daitakerou?" he inquired as he closed the zipper.

"Hai." Daitakerou nodded.

"Good." Mr. Ulysses walked to a corner of the warehouse. In it stood a powered suit. It looked superficially like those worn by the SASVS but it was larger, sleeker, and equipped with two additional limbs. Mr. Ulysses climbed in; the suit closed around him. It straightened up, flexed its arms, and lifted a panel set into the floor. It opened onto a storm sewer running beneath the complex. The suit climbed down into it and disappeared.

Daitakerou scooped up Mr. Ulysses' clothes. The ensemble had cost close to a thousand dollars; Daitakerou popped it into a safe and tossed in a Thermite grenade. By the time the grenade burned out the safe's walls glowed sullenly. No matter what happened, there wouldn't be any evidence for the police to find. That done Daitakerou strode briskly to another part of the room. Spotlights illuminated a... thing. Within a cylinder of clear glass, supported by thick fluid and a network of fine wires, hung something that was obviously organic. Blood vessels pumped gently within fans of pinkish tissue. Daitakerou keyed instructions into a pad; the fluid began to drain away. The fans of tissue lay down like wet fur, clinging to what lay beneath. With a little imagination that could almost be a person, with grotesquely distorted features and stunted, underdeveloped limbs. Daitakerou stepped forward, looking at what might have been a face. He looked it over carefully, then shook his head. Whatever this thing was, it didn't look anything like him. He stepped back, sliding his sword out of his belt and laying it on a wooden rack. Just beyond the rack, in front of the glass cylinder, stood a ding, an intricately decorated three-legged bronze cauldron. It was Chinese instead of Japanese but that hardly mattered. As Mr. Ulysses said, whatever it took. Daitakerou picked up a white band decorated with Japanese characters and tied it around his brow. As he knelt before the rack holding his sword he couldn't help glancing over his shoulder. Doktor Catlove's technological terror machine looked impressive, no doubt about it... but it would be he, Daitakerou Sotohoji, who defeated Mr. Ulysses' enemies. He took his cell phone from the pocket of his jacket and lay it beside his sword. When the time came he would invoke the Shadow Clan... and then anyone who opposed him would be sent straight to Hell.

Vyacheslav sat at Mr. Ulysses' desk. In his right hand he held a pistol grip, keeping the trigger down with his index finger. A wire connected the grip to an electronic gadget sitting on the desk. A tangle of other wires ran from the machine to electrodes attached to various parts of Vyacheslav's body. One of them even attached to his penis. This is, his new penis, the extra one Daughter Night had installed. He watched a wiggling line drawn on an flat-panel display on the machine's face. When it reached a certain level he was supposed to release the plunger. He did not know what the plunger did or what the scale represented; no one had bothered explaining it. Nor had it escaped him that he would also release the plunger if Daughter Night came crashing through the window and turned him inside out. His future prospects looked about as rosy as those of a canary in a coal mine. That both Daitakerou and Mr. Ulysses had gone away only reinforced that impression. Nevertheless, he never even considered the possibility of shirking his duty. He could wonder what Daughter Night might do to him, but he knew what Mr. Ulysses would do to him. And besides, double penises aside, Daughter Night had treated him rather shabbily, no less than she had Daitakerou or Mr. Ulysses. If this was the best way he could get back at her, well-

The line jumped. It pegged right at the top of the scale. Vyacheslav saw it but he did not release the plunger. He couldn't move, he couldn't even think.

Quickly as it came, the paralysis passed. He slumped forward, gasping for breath. The grip slipped from his hand and fell to the floor.

"Shit," Zalika said just as Matilda was about to park in front of Mr. Ulysses' building.

"What?" Alex asked. He sounded more bored than anything else, which he was. The only advantage he could see of having arrived was that the end was near and he wouldn't have long to wait.

"We've been made," Zalika replied.

"How?" Matilda almost shrieked. Alex wanted to laugh; Matilda still thought they might actually survive.

"They left Vyacheslav as bait for the trap," Zalika replied, chuckling. "How so like you, Paul." She pointed. "Drive. To Wellington Hospital."

"What's the point of going there?" Matilda demanded, crossing her arms over her chest.

"To save Sally Ann's mother," Zalika replied. "Now drive." Her eyes flashed.

Matilda started as if struck. She slammed the car in gear and pulled out so abruptly that the tires squealed.

"What happens then?" Alex asked.

"Hmm." Zalika rubbed her chin. "I suspect things will get very interesting. Paul knows we're in Wellington now. As soon as he makes his move the constabulary and the SASVS will know we're here too."

"At least the zombies will have thinned them out a bit," Helen commented.

"No." Zalika shook her head.

"What do you mean no?" Ruth demanded, frowning.

"I told the zombies to go to Frank Kitts Park," Zalika replied. "They won't attack anyone."

"Then how'd you know they'd do the job?" Alex wanted to know.

"If you saw an army of undead shambling toward you, would you ask them what they wanted?" Zalika countered.

"Good point," Alex admitted. He settled back in his chair but a question forced its way to his lips. "Are we going to survive?"

"You're asking the wrong person," Zalika replied. "I've already died twice."

Alex lay her head against the window. Wellington looked remarkably normal for a city braced for a super hero showdown. Of course it being in the wee hours of the morning probably had something to do with it. It also meant that the drive across town went quickly and easily. Alex found himself scanning the cars and buildings they passed. When would it come? Would the Big Bad wolf's agents try and sneak up, or just launch a frontal assault?

Matilda pulled into one of the hospital's parking areas and stopped. She shut off the engine and gasped. She rounded on Zalika but Zalika had already opened her door and climbed out. The triplets scrambled out after her.

"Wait," Matilda said as Alex opened her door. Zalika headed straight for the elevators without pausing or looking back. "Now's our chance-"

"Matilda, the minute we leave her we die," Alex said. "If the police, the army, or Big Bad wolf's goons don't catch us the revenant will. Frankly, I'm tired of running." He tugged Matilda out and hustled her toward the elevators. "If they're gonna kill me they're gonna kill me. At least I know Zalika'll make 'em pay for it."

Matilda sobbed. She lifted her face; her expression was stricken. "I... I don't want to die," she said in a quavering voice. "I... I wanna stay with you."

Alex's throat tightened. His mouth worked but he didn't trust himself to speak. So he did what he should have done a long time ago: He lifted Matilda's face and kissed her soundly. "We'll be together," he promised, nuzzling Matilda's face. "One way or another. I swear it." Because he focused on Matilda he didn't notice the look Zalika gave him. It might have alarmed him, even in his current state of mind.

"What's going on here?" A nurse demanded, opening he door to Cymbeline's room. George had moved the bed out of the way and Cymbeline had drawn hieroglyphics all over the floor with a grease pencil.

George grabbed the nurse, dragged him into the room, and pinned him with a lock. "Just hold up a moment," he said soothingly. "I don't have time to explain right now but what Dr. Lathasar is doing is very important."

Cymbeline knelt in the middle of the pattern she'd drawn. She held a golden ewer filled with water; she poured it out, intoning words in ancient Egyptian. The water spattered on the floor and ran across the tiles, but not randomly as one might expect. It formed definite patterns. She concluded her spell, then set the ewer aside to study the water. "She's here," she said quietly.

"In Wellington, you mean?" George asked.


Cymbeline looked up. She'd taken off her hospital gown because it smeared the designs. "No. I mean right here in the hospital."

"You mean to say that Daughter Night is in this hospital, right now?" George asked.

Cymbeline nodded. The nurse squeaked. "Go to sleep!" Cymbeline commanded; the nurse went limp.

George lay the nurse down gently. "Cymbeline, is there anything you can do to protect me?"

Cymbeline hesitated, but only for a moment. "Take off your shirt," she ordered. He complied at once. She took up the grease pencil and started drawing on his chest. Because of their proximity he saw the tears in her eyes and her hand shake.

"Cymbeline." George caught her face and turned it up. "I'm not afraid. I know I'll be okay because you'll be with me. She'll be with me." He picked up the staff.

Cymbeline's mouth worked. Tears ran freely down her cheeks. "I love you, George," she said in a broken voice.

George enfolded Cymbeline in his arms and kissed her fiercely. "I love you too," he replied. "And when this is over-"

"George," Cymbeline interrupted, "Please. Don't... don't make promises you may not be able to keep."

George's face tightened. His grip on the staff tightened until his hand shook. "I'm not going to fail again, Cymbeline. I'm not."

Cymbeline caressed his cheeks. "I know you aren't." she pulled away, took up the pencil, and resumed drawing. "I won't let you."

George smiled, stroking the top of Cymbeline's head. "I never doubted it for a moment."

The phone rang. Daitakerou's eyes snapped open. He checked the number and nodded. Exactly what he'd expected. He pressed a button; the glass cylinder retracted. The- the creature- smelled somehow musty. Daitakerou rose, drawing his sword and pushing the ding with his toe so it lay right under the wad of flesh. He raised his sword, gripping it firmly in both hands. Then he struck, cutting horizontally through what would have been the abdomen in a real person. The creature spasmed; it's head went back, it's mouth opening wide, but no sound came out. Its blood and entrails spilled into the ding and overflowed, filling the intricate bronze patterning with fresh, bright blood. Summoned by the sacrifice, and bound by it, the Shadow Clan rose up from the darkest pits of the netherworld. Daitakerou shuddered as they entered him, agony and ecstasy at the same time. He threw back his head and screamed just as had the creature, grown from samples of his own flesh.

At the lobby level Zalika left the elevator and went straight to the desk. "I'd like to know where to find a patient named Glenda Sue Henstridge," she announced.

The receptionist looked up. Whatever she'd been about to say died on her lips. "Yes, of course," she replied, turning to her computer. "She's in the Wellington Cancer Center, ward 2. That's out those doors, across the street, and up to the third floor."

"Thanks." Zalika set off. Alex fell in beside her, keeping an arm around Matilda.

"Are they coming?" Matilda asked.

"I'm sure they are but I don't sense any specific threats," Zalika replied. "Don't worry about it. When they show up I'll deal with them."

"How can you say that?" Matilda shrieked, stopping in the middle of the street. "They're going to kill us!"

Zalika turned around. Her face twitched as if she'd developed a sudden tic. Then she stepped up and dropped to one knee, reaching up to caress Matilda's cheeks gently. "Don't be afraid," she said in a gentle, soothing voice. "Death... isn't the terrible thing you think it is. I mean, I should know right?" She smiled warmly, gently wiping away Matilda's tears. "I know this hasn't exactly turned out like you expected." She grimaced. "It certainly didn't turn out like I expected. But I won't let anything happen to you. I swear it."

Matilda's face worked. Suddenly she broke down, collapsing in Zalika's arms. Zalika cooed gently to her, stroking her face and back.

Alex's face worked. Oddly enough, the sudden change in Zalika's demeanor alarmed him more than anything else that had happened, even the zombies. That thought reminded him that he hadn't had the opportunity to change his trousers. On the other hand, in the face of everything that had happened in the last few days it didn't matter nearly so much as it might have at another time in his life. He knelt, putting an arm around Matilda's shoulders. "We'll be all right," he said- and realized with a shock that he actually meant it. Another shock came when he felt Zalika's hand on his side. He looked up... and found herself looking straight into Zalika's eyes from a range only a bit more than the length of his own nose. They were the same eerily golden orbs they'd always been... but there seemed to be something else in them. Something... new? Different? A quality they'd never had before, at least not as Alex had noticed.

"Why did you do it?" Zalika asked, caressing Alex's cheek.

Alex blinked. "Do what?"

"Bring me back to life."

Alex licked his lips. Images flashed through his mind: a run down shack outside Curtain Springs... a mother made old long before her time by care and hard life... a father who was little more than a dim memory, who'd gone to prison for shooting an opal prospector when little Alexsia was only eight years old. A gangly, gawky little dingo girl, too plain, too wild, and too violent to get along well with the other little girls, completely aside from the difficult family situation. Mom called her the son Daddy had always wanted, and only half jokingly. But the boys wouldn't play with her because she was a girl. Then she had an epiphany: the people who worked for a living, who strove to stay within the law, they ended up dirt poor and suffering until the weight of their dreary lives finally crushed them to death. At the tender age of thirteen Alexsia joined her first gang, and committed her first burglary. Later in that year she committed her first murder, silencing one of her erstwhile companions so he couldn't implicate her. A string of petty crimes eventually led her to Sydney, at a time when she was blossoming from a scrawny, scrappy little girl into a slender but nevertheless strikingly attractive young woman. This fact did not escape the notice of the leader of a gang she ran with. He sent her on a mission, and arranged for a couple of his men to ambush her. The three of them took turns at her in a dark alley, then clubbed her unconscious and left her for dead. But she didn't die... and she paid them back by tossing a firebomb into the club they frequented and barricading the door. After that she decided she wouldn't kill indiscriminately; the stink of burning meat still haunted her dreams. Then she found herself pregnant. She couldn't go to a clinic for an abortion, she had outstanding warrants. A drugged-out quack did the job in his back room... and Alex almost died. She would have died if a friendly stranger hadn't happened along. A stranger who turned out to be Matilda Wollenston. Alexsia hadn't ever thought of herself as a homosexual, but it wasn't so distasteful as she'd feared... and it made Matilda happy. Besides, the alternative was to risk the sort of treatment Romy and his thugs had given her.

Zalika straightened slowly, leaving one hand on Matilda's shoulder and one on Alex's. "I suppose I should have known it wouldn't be that simple," she sighed. Her expression firmed. "We do need to be moving along, though. I don't know how long it'll take to cure Mrs. Henstridge." She gently lifted Alex and Matilda to their feet and impelled them forward. They walked arm in arm.

As usual no one paid any attention to the group, despite their disheveled- and conspicuously unwashed- seeming. On the third floor Zalika asked for directions to the correct room. At her request a night duty doctor escorted them there personally.

The only reason Alex recognized the woman laying on the bed as a mouse was because he'd seen Sally Ann. Comparing this wasted, skeletal form to Sally Ann's plump fullness made Alex's stomach turn. He decided that Zalika had done the right thing by electing to heal this woman. But he couldn't help wondering if even Zalika could repair this body, wasted by disease and hooked to dozens of machines.

"Take those sensors off and put them on him," Zalika ordered, pointing to Alex. "I don't want any alarms going off while I work."

The doctor nodded. He removed Alex's jacket and shirt. One by one he detached the electrodes from Mrs. Henstridge and attached them to Alex. Alex frowned; he wasn't a doctor but even he could tell that his heartbeat was stronger than Mrs. Henstridge's. No one came running in, though.

Zalika uncovered Mrs. Henstridge and removed her gown. Matilda slipped an arm around Alex's torso. The instruments registered an increase in blood pressure and heart rate.

"Here goes," Zalika announced, gesturing. Mrs. Henstridge's skin split, right down the middle, and peeled back. Matilda gagged and Alex almost did too. Mrs. Henstridge's entire chest seemed to be nothing but a fibrous mass of cancer tissue. Zalika slipped her fingers into the putrid mass and gently lifted; the tendrils unwound themselves and came free. She tossed them away with a flick of the wrist; they landed on the floor with a splat. She explored a moment, then picked out another clump. The pile on the floor grew at an alarming rate and Alex began to see a problem: as Zalika unwound strings of cancer from Mrs. Henstridge's chest, belly, arms, legs, and head, the removal left gaps. Alex couldn't help but wonder how much of the woman would be left when it was all over.

Zalika stepped back. Mrs. Henstridge's skin closed as if it had never been opened. On the surface she looked worse than before; she'd lost so much from her chest and upper arms in particular that they weren't the right shape any more. From her time in the freezing works Alex guessed the pile on the floor to be around ten kilos.

"Is it done?" Matilda asked.

"No." Zalika shook her head. "I don't dare take any more flesh. I need to replace what's missing."

"Can you do that?" Alex inquired.

"If there's somewhere I can find donor tissue then yes," Zalika replied. "Since this is a cancer ward..." she looked around. "Ah." She left the room. Alex remained; Matilda remained with him. The triplets and the doctor followed.

"Does the tissue have to be alive?" Helen asked.

"No, but if it isn't she'll become undead," Zalika replied. "I don't think that would be a good thing under the circumstances." She opened the door to a room and entered.

The woman on the bed turned her face and looked. "Oh, thank God you've come," she sighed.

Esmerelda blinked. The woman had as many machines hooked to her as Mrs. Henstridge. How could she be awake? For that matter, how could she talk with the ventilator tube in her mouth?

She can't, Zalika replied. What you're looking at is her spirit.

"But-" Esmerelda swallowed. She's still alive!

For now, yes, Zalika observed.

"Zalika, you can save her," Esmerelda insisted. She didn't care any more if people saw her talking to herself.

No I can't. Not without making her undead.

But what about those people you brought back to life last time? she demanded. Are they undead?

No. But it's because their spirits were strong and they'd only been dead a short time. Lana here has been dying for a very long time.

"I'd like to hold my grandson again," Lana said. "I want to see him grow up and get married. But... I want my son and daughter in law to stop crying. It.. hurts me to see them worried about me. And... I want the pain to stop. I know it's selfish... but just existing hurts so much now." She smiled sadly. "I never expected to survive this. No one ever does."

"You did, Zalika," Esmerelda pointed out.

I may be here now but I paid a terrible price for it, Zalika pointed out. A price Lana may not be willing to pay. "Do you know who I am, Lana?"

Lana nodded slowly. "Yes."

"Are you ready to become like me?" Zalika continued.

Lana bit her lip. "No," she finally replied. "My family wouldn't understand. And... I'd just have to watch them die, wouldn't I?"

"Yes." Zalika nodded. "But your flesh could save someone's life. Will you let me have some?"

"Take it with my blessing," Lana replied. "It's not doing me any good."

"But-" Esmerelda began.

"Please!" Lana interrupted. "I've thought about this a lot. I couldn't do anything but think about it. I'm here because I thought that living mattered more than anything else. Now... I know better but I can't tell anyone. You're the only one who can set me free."

Go ahead, Zalika prompted. It's what she wants. It's what she needs.

"H- how?" Esmerelda stammered.

Take her hand and pull gently.

Esmerelda reached out. Lana couldn't move her hand so Esmerelda picked it up. Then gasped as her fingers slipped right through the wasted flesh. But Lana's hand- or something like Lana's hand, made of warm, rosy light- came away. Esmerelda stepped back; she felt a mild tension but the being of light slid out of the body without much difficulty.

"This is Lana, not that pile of meat," Zalika said. "Isn't she beautiful?"

Lana smiled. She put her hands on Esmerelda's cheeks and kissed her. But even as Esmerelda felt her touch Lana dissolved. The light, apparently all that remained of her, faded away. "W- where did she go?" Esmerelda demanded.

"To her next world," Zalika replied. "Where we all go when this life's over." She gestured the doctor over. "Hook those instruments up to yourself. I don't want Lana to turn up dead just yet. She scooped Lana's body up, threw it over her shoulder, and carried it back to Glenda Sue's room.

"Will that be enough?" Matilda asked as Zalika placed Lana's remains beside Ms. Henstridge.

"It should be," Zalika replied. "I only need to make her healthy. After that she'll come back on her own."

"Will she be... like Sally Ann?" Alex asked.

"She was, once," Zalika replied. She opened Lana and started picking pieces out, which she placed in Mrs. Henstridge. "She will be again, once I've cleaned all the sickness out of her. That's where Sally Ann got it, after all."

As Zalika added more bits Mrs. Henstridge gradually filled out. Finally Alex began to see the similarity between this woman and Sally Ann. She couldn't help smiling; at that age Mrs. Henstridge must have been just as cute and roly-poly as her daughter.

"You like her, don't you?" Matilda asked.

"Yes," Alex admitted. He gathered Matilda against him, nuzzling her cheek. "That's why I like you. You're so... soft and cuddly."

"I think that'll do it," Zalika announced, closing Mrs. Henstridge. She scooped up the pile of cancer and put it in Lana. "No need to leave a mess," she added, wiping her hands on the bedclothes. "Take her back, won't you?" But when Alex stepped forward Zalika halted him with a gesture. She looked away, her ears pricking up.

"What is it?" Matilda demanded, suddenly alarmed.

"They've found us," Zalika replied.

Alex's hand fell to his waist. All he had was his survival knife. The thirty centimeter blade would easily put paid to any one- or several- who came after him, but if they had guns-

"They don't have guns," Zalika said. "But it won't matter. You can't hurt them with that." She flexed her fingers. "Only I can. Get out into the hall and whatever happens stay close. It's the only chance you'll have of coming through with your soul intact."

Alex followed Zalika out into the hall, keeping Matilda behind him. He kept the knife in his hand anyway. Looking left and right he saw nothing out of the ordinary. Until a nurse looked their way and dropped the tray she carried. "Omigod, it's Daughter Night!" she shrieked.

"They see us?" Alex asked.

"I've more important things to do with my power," Zalika replied shortly.

Some of the staff fled. Some stayed at their posts. Alex noticed an intern talking rapidly on a phone. Zalika kept her eyes on a set of doors at the end of the hall.

The doors opened. Daitakerou stepped through. When he saw Zalika his face split in a demonic grin. He strode forward boldly, shaking back his coat. He drew his sword slowly, presenting rather than readying it. Shadows like black flame flickered from the blade.

"I thought you said you were gonna kill him," Helen said in a tiny, quavering voice.

"That won't be so easy now," Zalika replied. "He's a lot more powerful than when we last met."

Daitakerou swung his sword in a languid arc. It slung shadows as if they were liquid; they splattered on the walls, floor, and ceiling. An instant after landing they twitched... and grew. Into strange, twisted caricatures of human form. They moved along surfaces as if cast by real figures... but there weren't any, except Daitakerou himself.

"W- w- what are those?" Jenny stammered. The triplets clung to one another, staring in wide-eyed terror at Daitakerou.

"Wraiths," Zalika replied. "It's time for you to go, Esmerelda. George needs your help."

"What?" Alex frowned. Zalika shivered... and changed. Not overtly, but noticeably. Her fur seemed darker, her eyes brighter, and her whole seeming more... menacing. She seemed much more akin to the shadows around Daitakerou than the person who'd comforted Matilda.

Daitakerou angled his blade into a ready position and started forward. The shadows moved with him. Alex heard them chattering, like the night they'd resurrected Zalika, and when she'd raised the zombies.

"Blast 'em!" Jenny begged. "Use the Fire of Ra's Eye!"

"She can't," Matilda replied. "She'll set the whole building on fire."

Though still ten meters away Daitakerou lunged, thrusting with his sword. The shadows pounced. Zalika let out a tremendous bellow and charged into them, punching, kicking, and even biting. Every blow slung sprays of greasy blackness that splattered, then evaporated like smoke. Shadows withered and dissolved as she struck at them... but for every one dispatched more sprang from Daitakerou's outstretched blade.

Matilda buried her face against Alex's shoulder and wept. Alex, knife in hand, maneuvered as best he could to keep them where Zalika could cover them. If Zalika's actions were any indication the wraiths had definable shape and volume... but Alex couldn't see them except for the strange, twisted shadows they cast. They seemed to carry weapons, too... or maybe their limbs just grew like that. Either way, Alex didn't doubt for an instant that something awful would happen if one got past Zalika. She'd never lied, after all. Probably, Alex figured, because she simply didn't see any point to it.

The triplets broke and ran, scattering in three different directions.

"No!" Alex screamed. He would have lunged after them but Matilda held her.

Daitakerou swung his sword. It tore a black rent, as if in cloth, except that it hung in empty air. He flipped through it and Jenny screamed. Not like a person but like the pigs in the freezing works just before the spiked hammer smashed their skulls. Another tear had opened in the air behind them; Daitakerou came out of it, rolling gracefully out of his fall and coming up in a crouch. As an extension of that same motion he swept his sword in a shimmering arc. Jenny's scream ended when her head flew off. Her body tumbled backward with bright, arterial blood spurting from the severed neck. His return stroke opened Helen's belly almost all the way back to her spine. She tripped on her own intestines as they spilled out on the floor. Ruth managed exactly one step before Daitakerou got to his feet. He didn't bother turning; he reversed his blade and struck backwards. The point slammed through Ruth's spine and out her sternum. She gagged, spitting blood from her mouth and nose, and fell to her knees. Daitakerou freed the blade with a deft twist. Ruth went over on her face.

"No!" Alex screamed, shoving Matilda away. Gristly death had come to the triplets in hardly more than the blink of an eye. Intellectually Alex knew that he'd never have stood a chance against Daitakerou even without whatever dark power he'd called into himself. He didn't care. He'd cut that smarmy grin off Daitakerou's face even if it took his last breath.

Daitakerou readied his blade and waited for Alex to come. His blue eyes flashed, as cold and deadly as the polished steel, now running with fresh blood. He chuckled.

The wraith came up on Alex's left. In a feat of agility he never could have achieved consciously he dove and twisted, striking upward. If the wraith had been physical Alex's knife would have come in right under its guard and opened its belly just as Daitakerou's blade had opened Helen's. But it wasn't physical. The knife- and Alex's arm- passed right through with no resistance at all. Then a strange thing happened. Alex screamed; cold so intense it burned enveloped his hand and forearm. The pain was so severe he couldn't move, couldn't think. Then an even stranger thing happened. He saw his hand, still holding the knife, sag. He also saw his hand rise, in a continuation of his strike, without the knife. Moreover, it was a female hand. Somehow she'd become Alexsia again. She rolled, coming to her feet. She felt... strange. Somehow... lighter.

The wraith turned. With a sick feeling in her gut Alexsia realized that she saw it. It was a Siamese cat, shorter even than Daitakerou, dressed in a gray tabi. Its face, hands, and tail, the only parts she saw, were deathly white. Except the eyes, which were black. In its hand it held a short, straight sword with a blade as black as midnight at the bottom of a coal mine.

Alexsia's hand clenched. She didn't have her knife any more. She didn't have clothes any more.

Her body, fully clothed and with the knife still in its hand, lay at the wraith's feet. The wraith stepped over it, raising its sword to strike.

A ray of light as dazzlingly bright as the noonday sun blasted the wraith into a spray of smoke. Daitakerou slashed another rent in the air and dove through it. Whatever the light had touched burst into flame and burned as if splashed with petrol; alarms shrilled up and down the hallway and sprinklers came on. Those staff members who hadn't fled either moved patients out of their rooms or grabbed fire extinguishers.

Alexsia turned. Zalika stood alone in a dissipating cloud of smoke. She wore a gold mask, a headdress fringed with tassels, a white linen dress decorated with intricate, brightly colored embroidery, and a bronze breastplate chased with hieroglyphs and repeating hawk motifs. Bracelets and bands of gold circled her wrists and arms. In each hand she held a weapon like an axe with a half-circle blade. They'd been decorated as ornately as the rest of her garb.

"Come on!" With no apparent effort Zalika tucked Alexsia under her arm. She felt completely real. Of course Alexsia's own form also felt completely real, even though she saw her body laying on the floor. Matilda knelt over it, wailing piteously. Zalika grabbed her up as well and ducked back into Ms. Henstridge's room. She barked and the window shattered; in a single bound she mounted the now empty frame and leapt, sailing through the air and crashing through a seventh story window on an adjacent building. Zalika dropped Alexsia and Matilda, whirled, and slashed with her axes. Two more wraiths flashed into smoke. One of them dropped its sword before dissolving. Alexsia didn't hesitate; she snatched it up and leapt to her feet. The hilt felt burning cold in her hands but she didn't care. A dozen more wraiths materialized, oozing from angles and cracks in the walls, floor, and ceiling. Again Alexsia didn't hesitate; with a scream of white hot rage she threw herself at them, striking and slashing with blinding speed. When blades met they struck pale, blue-black sparks; where Alexsia's met what she would have called flesh in a real person it cut through with only mild resistance, as if through warm butter. Wraiths so struck didn't flash into smoke but rather sagged and melted like wax statues in a furnace. Alexsia laughed as she spun through their ranks, her sword nothing but a dark blur.

Suddenly Daitakerou appeared directly in Alexsia's path. Instead of merely a shirt and jacket he wore black iron armor. In it he looked very much like the revenant. Without a thought Alexsia struck at him. He blocked- and Alexsia reeled back, her blade ringing like a bell, her hands stinging. She felt as if she'd hit a stone wall. Daitakerou lunged while she was still off balance; she managed to twist aside so his blade didn't slash through her heart but it did catch her right arm just below the elbow. The severed limb didn't fly away, it simply... ceased to exist. The stump turned white and crumbled into dust. Alexsia screamed in terror; she felt herself dissolving-

The world went yellow-white. Alexsia screamed, this time in pain. The light burned; her whole body, inside and out, seemed to be on fire. Daitakerou threw up his blade- and the light splashed aside. But the sword glowed, first red then white hot. He shuddered, gritting his teeth. His hands smoked and the fur on them withered but he maintained his grip. His armor glowed, brighter and brighter... and suddenly exploded. He fell back, the sword flying from his grip. Alexsia's sword dissolved, along with what remained of the wraiths.

Alexsia moaned. Every part of her hurt. Except for her right arm and the right side of her chest. They didn't hurt. In fact, she didn't feel them at all. She opened her eyes and looked. Her right arm, shoulder, and about three quarters of her chest just... weren't there. Her head, left arm, and head dangled from a tag of flesh attached to her hips.

"That was an incredibly foolish thing to do," Zalika commented, looking down at Alexsia. Her armor was scratched and dented, her flesh nicked and scarred. One of her axes had a large nick in the blade. "Incredibly brave, yes, but also incredibly foolish." She holstered her axes and gently scooped Alexsia up.

Daitakerou moaned. He wore only his normal clothes now... which had burned on his body. Unless it was under him he had no fur left and every visible bit of his skin was cracked and bleeding. "Can you kill him now?" Alexsia asked.

"Yes," Zalika replied. "But I'm not going to."

"Why?" Alexsia demanded.

"Because then I'll lose our only chance of getting Jenny, Helen, and Ruth back."

Matilda sat on the floor, cradling something in her arms. It was Jenny's head.

"Matilda." Zalika gripped her chin and lifted her face. "What would you do to have Alexsia back?"

"Anything," Matilda whispered. She'd cried so much that the fur on her cheeks was matted.

"Good." Zalika pried the head from Matilda's grasp and juggled it in her hand. It reformed... into Alexsia's.

"Zalika, what are you doing?" Alexsia demanded.

"Saving your miserable hide," Zalika replied shortly. "Daitakerou's sword is a life drinker. Whenever it cuts someone it tears out a piece of their soul. The wraiths use the energy to manifest in this world. If I don't get you into a living body right away you'll disintegrate." She grabbed Matilda and twisted her head to one side. A wound opened at the base of her neck; her chest and shoulders melted and reformed. With her other hand Zalika planted the extra head in the hole. Blood vessels, bones, sinews, and nerves spun out from either end and wove together.

"Zalika, stop it!" Alexsia shouted. She tried to rise but couldn't; she didn't have a spine anymore.

Muscles and skin joined and Matilda's new head looked as if it had always been there, except that it belonged to a dingo. Zalika glanced down; the left side of Matilda's body turned gold and the right resumed its original appearance, so she was half dingo and half Australian shepherd. Zalika didn't make the body itself half and half, that would have looked funny. Instead she more or less averaged the two builds: both sides retained Matilda's fleshy curves but also gained Alexsia's wiry strength. Zalika glanced at Alexsia and beckoned; Alexsia flew into her hand- and fit there. She seemed to be only seven or eight centimeters tall. Zalika grinned, then popped Alexsia in her mouth. She opened the mouth of Matilda's new head, put her own over it, and exhaled.

Alexsia's eyes flew open and she drew a shuddering breath. She felt like she'd been suffocating in her sleep. She coughed; the air was thick with smoke. In the process she knocked her head against something. "Ow!" she exclaimed. For some reason she couldn't seem to move her right arm so she rubbed the offended anatomy with her left. In the process her fingers encountered what she'd struck. She glanced to her right. She'd bumped against Matilda's head, which attached to the same shoulders as her own.

For what felt like an eternity Alexsia could only stare. Then the shock of everything that had happened in the last few minutes caught up to her and she fainted.

Cymbeline yelped when the door to her room flew open suddenly, revealing an SASVS trooper in battle dress. "Doctor, we have to leave at once," he declared. "We've received confirmation that Daughter Night is in the area."

"I know Daughter Night's in the area!" Cymbeline snapped, throwing down her grease pencil and rising to her feet. She'd donned an assortment of golden bracelets, arm bands, and medallions but no clothing.

"We have the situation well in hand," George said with far more assurance than he felt. He'd stripped down to his boots; in place of everything else he wore an improvised nemes headdress and shenti kilt cut from bed sheets. Egyptian designs in grease pencil decorated his chest and arms. Around his neck he wore a gold medallion with an eye on it. Except for the medallion his outfit resembled nothing so much as a child's improvised Halloween costume.

The trooper took in the scene with a quick glance that nevertheless missed nothing. "I'm sorry, Doctor, Constable, but I have strict orders. I have to remove both of you to a safe location immediately."

Two orderlies with a stretcher appeared behind the trooper. They gasped in surprise when they saw Cymbeline on her feet. "Doctor, you shouldn't be up-" he began, pushing past the trooper.

George caught the fellow before he could step on Cymbeline's designs. "That wouldn't be prudent," he warned, thrusting the orderly back through the door. "Corporal," he said to the trooper, "Dr. Lathasar's been studying Daughter Night for a long time. She may have developed a way to block some or all of Daughter Night's powers."

"I'm sorry, sir, ma'am. I have my orders." The trooper moved forward. Another trooper came up behind him.

Cymbeline rose to her feet. "I appreciate your zeal in protecting me, I really do. But you don't understand. There's nowhere you can take me that Daughter Night can't reach. Nowhere." She raised her hands and spoke. A ball of golden yellow light appeared between her palms. Tendrils of yellow fire snapped out from her feet, racing through the grease pencil patterns.

In a heartbeat the trooper had his weapon in his hand but he stepped back, keeping the muzzle raised. A device on his belt shrilled an alarm. He drew it with his left hand, glancing at it without turning away from Cymbeline. "Now we know where those anomalous readings were coming from," he mused.

George gasped. He felt as if- as if a warm breeze had passed him. Super Collie's staff suddenly felt hot in his grasp.

Look out the window, George.

Without really understanding why, George skirted around Cymbeline's design and peered through the curtains. He saw more than half a dozen vans and other large passenger vehicles pull into the hospital's driveway. They stopped right in the roadway and the passengers, a good twenty or thirty, dismounted. They wore an eclectic lot of outfits but over each and every one went a bulky armor vest. For accessories they carried assault rifles, submachine guns, and grenade launchers.

"Holy jumping Jesus," the trooper breathed. He'd come up beside George.

"They've come for the same reason you have," George said. "To fight Daughter Night."

"If they do that in the hospital-" the trooper began.

The floor shook. Brilliant, yellow light reflected from the faces of nearby structures. An enormous gout of smoke and flame erupted from somewhere lower in the building. Fire alarms shrilled. The trooper grabbed his radio and listened for a moment before acknowledging. "Constable," he said, "The cancer ward is on fire and so is this building, three floors down. We can't stay here."

"I know." George faced the trooper. "We have to stop them."

"We have to stop them," the trooper replied. "You and Dr. Lathasar have to get to safety."

"No, we have to stop them," George corrected, raising the staff over his head. "By the mystic power of the shepherd, I am transformed."

George couldn't imagine why he'd done that. What could he hope to accomplish? But the staff seemed to jump in his hand. Energy, like an electric charge, raced through him. Silvery light burst between his fingers and enveloped him. He shouted, almost but not quite screaming. He felt himself changing-

The light faded. George lowered the staff and leaned heavily against it. He felt... strange. Somehow... different.

"G- George?" Cymbeline stuttered. Light, like pale blue flames, hung in the air around her. Yet she stared in wide-eyed shock at him.

"Can anyone do that?" the trooper asked. He'd stepped back and drawn the shrilling device from his belt. He glanced at the display and his eyes widened.

"Do what?" George asked- then realized that his clothes had changed. Instead of faux Egyptian garb, he wore-

Super Collie's costume.

"I think it looked better on her, George," Cymbeline said and let out a hysterical sounding chuckle. Then she raised her hands again and spoke a few words. The blue light suddenly collapsed into her, compressing into an intensely bright spark... which exploded with a thunderclap. The grease marks on the floor hissed and bubbled as if they lay on red hot metal. Cymbeline let out a shriek and dropped to her hands and knees. George took a step toward her but the trooper caught his arm. Cymbeline's voice deepened suddenly as her chest- and her whole body- expanded. She thrashed and spasmed as bright, actinic discharges raced through her fur. Then, as suddenly as it started, the transformation ended. The stink of burned wax filled the air; nothing remained of Cymbeline's design but random stains on the floor. She moaned, then pushed herself up.

"Jesus Christ," the trooper exclaimed. He gripped his weapon with both hands, not pointed at Cymbeline exactly but definitely in her direction.

"Jesus has nothing to do with this," George said, gripping the soldier's weapon by the barrel and gently but firmly aiming it upward. "The spirit of Sekhmet, I'm guessing?"

"Yes." Cymbeline rose. She'd gained a meter in height and at least a hundred kilos of mass. She retained the markings of an Abyssinian but the body beneath it- heavy boned and wrapped in sheets of thick, ropy muscle- was that of a lioness. Her eyes glowed bright gold. "Let's go kick some butt, shall we?" She grabbed George in one arm, the trooper in the other, and jumped through the window. That it hadn't been open beforehand didn't concern her in the slightest. She landed- after falling ten stories- with a tremendous jolt that crazed the pavement.

Even more thugs had arrived since George first looked out the window. A few of them paused to gape. Cymbeline dropped George and the corporal and gestured. A bolt of lighting flashed from her fingers, slashing through the mob and striking one of the vehicles, which burst into flame. The remaining thugs opened fire; George leapt in front of Cymbeline but he couldn't possibly screen her. Bullets coming at him stopped a couple centimeters short of his skin, exploding in sprays of silvery light. They hit Cymbeline but didn't seem to affect her. In fact, George felt them dropping on his head. Her skin must have been as tough as Kevlar body armor. Since she could obviously take care of herself George charged. The speed at which he closed shocked him; thugs flew from his path like pins before a bowling ball but he tripped, going down among them. Several thugs turned to cover him; he swung the staff backhand. The head snapped out and knocked all four of them sprawling. The others fled as the trooper opened fire and Cymbeline charged, not as fast perhaps but roaring like an avalanche. George picked himself up and, without thinking, leapt atop one of the trucks. At least two of the hospital's buildings were on fire and automatic weapons rattled from at least a dozen different places. The deeper, heavier sound of a power suit's cannon hammered briefly. Some patients and staff had come out; mostly they huddled in imagined shelter. Others fled into the night. "Cor," George muttered. "This is a bleeding war zone." He looked up and down the drive. "Cymbeline, get these cars out of the way!" Emergency vehicles would need unrestricted access.

"Right!" Cymbeline grabbed the running board of a Suburban and lifted. It flipped right over onto its roof in the grass. George, not feeling quite so confident, grabbed the fender of a van and walked it out of the way like a wheelbarrow. In the time it took him to do that Cymbeline had flipped three more cars. He left her to finish and ran to the trooper.

"There's fighting up there, on the fourth floor," the trooper called, pointing up at the building they'd just vacated.

George swallowed nervously when he realized just how far he'd fallen. "Do you have a suit?" he asked.

"We had two," the trooper replied. "The thugs have demo packs and RPG's. They caught Briarson in the stairwell. Jasper's relieving some men pinned down in the cancer ward."

"Then it's up to us," George said. "Cymbeline! Come on!"

"Coming!" Cymbeline picked up one last car and hurled it like a shot put. It came down nose first several lengths distant. She vaulted over another and jogged up.

"We ride to the sound of the guns," George announced, spinning the staff two handed over his head. It felt as natural as breathing.

"Yes sir!" the trooper shouted, slapping a fresh clip into his weapon.

"So long as it's not 'into the valley of death rode the six hundred,'" Cymbeline commented, scooping up the trooper and loping along beside George. He found himself having to slow down considerably to stay with her, despite her tremendous strength and long legs.

"It is," the trooper corrected. "Only we're the Russians."

Patients and staff were evacuating the building as George, Cymbeline, and the trooper approached. Quite a number of the people screamed and fled or threw themselves down and begged for mercy. George opened his mouth to reassure them but hesitated. What would he do in a similar situation if he encountered a middle aged bulldog man in a Super Collie costume, a giant, massively muscled, naked cat woman covered with hieroglyphs, and a soldier in full battle dress? The thought of trying to explain made his head ache.

"How do we get through this mob?" the trooper demanded.

"We don't." Cymbeline grabbed George and leapt. The three of them sailed through the air and crashed through a second story window. Cymbeline stumbled on the landing and fell; her, George, and the trooper went different directions. George crashed headfirst into a wall; for a moment brilliant fireworks blotted out his vision. When they cleared he noted that the wall had shattered, not his head. He got up-

At the of the hall stood an SASVS power suit and six troopers. As George opened his mouth to address them Cymbeline rose up behind him, shaking her head. Bits of broken glass cascaded out of her fur. As one the troopers turned and opened fire. Cymbeline reeled back, shuddering under the impact of dozens of bullets and the heavy shells thrown by the suit's 20mm cannon.

"No!" George screamed. He didn't remember running but suddenly he was there, at the end of the hall. His shoulder hit the powered suit right on the plastron. Reaction to the impact blasted the suit through two walls and out the side of the building. George rode it down, screaming like a maniac. Unfortunately the suit tumbled as it fell. George had just enough time to notice that the suit was above him.

Then they hit.

From where his power suit floated, just below the surface of Lambton Harbor, Mr. Ulysses could look up at Te Papa. He couldn't help smiling; Colonel Bathsfield had set up his command post there too. But why not? It was the center of things, both physically and metaphorically.

One of the indicators on Paul's heads-up display went out. He shook his head sadly; he really had hoped that Daitakerou might prevail. But while he didn't doubt the Shadow Clan's power, using it had always seemed too much like fighting Zalika on her own territory. That's why he'd contracted Doktor Catlove as well. Sure it had cost, but now he saw that the investment had paid off. Zalika had failed to notice the trap for which Vyacheslav was the bait: not the plunger in his hand, the electrodes attached to his body, nor even the instrument he watched. The real trap was built into the chair. Doktor Catlove had postulated that when Zalika controlled someone's mind it produced a physiological reaction that could be identified. Having Vyacheslav think about the plunger, the electrodes, and the display was nothing but a distraction meant to hide the truth- and it worked. Zalika failed to notice the electronic devices monitoring Vyacheslav, but they noticed when she seized his mind. So it was demonstrated that Zalika couldn't affect, or detect, electronics. Meaning that Doktor Catlove's robot monster was immune to her mind powers. The improved ASPEW system would protect it from her physical ones as well.

A whole string of other indicators went off the display in quick succession. Paul sighed; that was unfortunate but hardly surprising. Ordinary thugs, no matter how well equipped, didn't stand a chance. But they served their purpose, by keeping Zalika distracted and off balance. Though he didn't understand why she'd been so relatively gentle with them so far. And why had she chosen to make her stand at Wellington Hospital? What could be there that would be of any interest to her?

No matter. "This is Wolf One Alpha," Paul said aloud. "Execute 'go cat go.'"

"Code 'go cat go' acknowledged," the suit's AI replied. "Please confirm."

"This is Wolf One Alpha," Paul said. "Confirm 'go cat go.'"

"Confirmation acknowledged," the AI responded. A new indicator appeared on the HUD.

Paul grinned. I almost wish I could meet you, Zalika, so you could tell me what you think of my latest little toy. Then he laughed.

Doktor Catlove watched on three televisions at once, each showing a live feed from Wellington Hospital on different channels. A cell phone laying on the table rang. He picked it up, noted the number from whence the call originated, nodded, and switched off the phone without answering. "It's time for your coming out, my darling," he purred, taking up a device that looked like a TV remote control. He punched in a code; on the display a sequence of indicators changed from amber to green. Ties holding the tarp down snapped as the machine rose to its feet. Doktor Catlove sighed; it was a thing of such sublime beauty he hated to leave it here, hidden from view. Well not any more. Now everyone would see.

It looked like an enormous mechanical jaguar, armored with plates of gray ceramic and bright iridium. From nose to tail it measured sixteen meters; from ground to shoulder it stood almost four. The massive head quested back and forth as if seeking a scent; the whiskers- actually sensors for the ASPEW system- quivered. The tail lashed, and it set off at a brisk walk. It made hardly a sound but the floor shook; it weighed forty-five tons. At the warehouse door it merely put his head down and continued; sheet metal walls tore like paper. As his creation stalked out into the night Doktor Catlove blew it a kiss, then lifted a hatch set in the floor and climbed down. Even before he'd shut it behind him the Thermite bombs went off. By the time he'd walked under the terminal to his mini sub the whole warehouse complex was a blazing inferno. He didn't particularly care if Mr. Ulysses got caught but he had a reputation to uphold. Which was why he'd taken this contract even though what Mr. Ulysses paid him, while considerable, hadn't even covered construction of the robot. People needed to be reminded that Herr Doctor Catlove was first in his field... and that while he might sell his inventions he did not belong to anyone. The best way to do that, he'd discovered, was to let people see his handiwork in action. It helped them to appreciate the true scope of his genius... and induced them to pay more. For the inventions themselves, or for assurances that the inventions would not fall into the hands of their enemies. Besides, it wouldn't do to be too consistent. People might think he'd gotten into a rut. And, at the heart of it, he loved his work. As he motored out into Cook Strait he whistled happily to himself. The name of Doktor Catlove would not be forgotten in New Zealand, not for a very, very long time.

Colonel Bathsfield fumed. He'd detached most of his headquarters command- which comprised the unit's reserve- and sent it up to Southgate. They'd arrived only to find that the zombie invasion had already begun to peter out. Then the Constabulary had wanted them to stay and help clean up. The zombies apparently hadn't done much damage themselves but they'd caused a lot of panic. Seeing the SASVS on the scene would, it was reasoned, help calm people down. The colonel understood the reasoning but he didn't want the bulk of his force pinned down by something that was not its primary mission. Then all Hell broke loose at Wellington Hospital. At least no one could say that the SASVS wasn't correct in rushing to respond. But they had to come from the opposite end of town, whereas if they'd stayed at Te Papa- or at least got back in a reasonable time- they'd have been on the scene by now. And yet, even in the face of what could only be called a colossal cluster fuck, the colonel couldn't help smiling. There would be no Super Collie to steal away his glory this time. The Constabulary had decided to keep news of her death secret so as to avoid general panic but he knew.

"Sir!" the colonel's driver shouted. "Ten o'clock!"

The colonel glanced to his left. They were passing the Westpac Trust stadium. A giant mechanical cat stalked through the rail yards. Beyond, from the container terminal, sullen flames licked at the sky. At that very instant the radio came to life. It was the constabulary, screaming for help with this latest disaster. The colonel cut them off, switching to the unit command frequency. "All units halt and deploy left!" he ordered. The transport vehicles weren't armored; his men needed to dismount to fight effectively. But halfway through his sentence a howl of static from the radio drowned him out. Nevertheless the convoy stopped in reasonably good order; some or all of the drivers had heard that much, at least. Those that hadn't stopped with the others. The men were highly disciplined and competent. Unfortunately their police escort wasn't, at least not in the same way. As the army trucks halted most of the constables drove on. At the tail end one of them failed to stop in time and rear-ended the last truck. Even before his own vehicle had completely stopped the colonel bailed from it and ran back along the line. "All units deploy in assault formation!" he bellowed at the top of his lungs. Occasionally he heard snatches from the radio on his belt as the frequency-agile system struggled to penetrate the jamming, but it never quite succeeded. That the mechanical cat was the source of his trouble he did not doubt. What else could it be?

The squad was deploying but slowly, much too slowly. Some had seen the cat and deployed on their own. Others hadn't and had to be told. Some- like the last truck, for instance- had been discommodated by the sudden stop and had to be sorted out. The colonel didn't doubt that his men could handle this situation, but if they were caught flat-footed-

The cat looked up, turning toward the convoy stopped on the highway. Hatches on its flanks opened; rotary launchers ripped off a barrage of 210mm rockets. Then it charged, for all its size moving as fast as a pouncing leopard. Some of the men opened fire; others dove for cover. One made as little difference as the other; there wasn't anywhere to hide on the roadway and hand weapons wouldn't have been effective against infantry at that range. Even the suits' 20mm shells had only minimal effect. For this the team needed antitank weapons and armored vehicles. But they would fight anyway, because that was what they'd been trained to do.

Colonel Bathsfield did not dive for cover. He would not be seen showing cowardice in the face of the enemy-

A 210mm rocket hit a truck just as the colonel passed it. The rocket's iridium-tungsten penetrator was designed to punch through the bow armor of a main battle tank; it would have gone right through the thin-skinned vehicle like a needle through paper... and with as little damage done to the truck. But it was a dual purpose warhead, sheathed in high explosive laced with shrapnel. The proximity fuse detonated it right inside the truck, which erupted in a blossom of orange flame. In quick succession five other vehicles exploded. Pieces of the trucks and eruptions of flaming fuel only added to the carnage wrought by the missiles themselves. Despite this quite a number of troopers survived, having taken shelter beneath trucks that didn't get hit or behind police cars. Most of the suits survived as well; their armor resisted the shrapnel unless they'd been in or near one of the missile strikes. But even as they climbed out of the wreckage and prepared for battle the cat monster crossed the intervening ground in a series of prodigious bounds, all the while peppering the defenders with a 40mm rotary cannon mounted in its nose. That would punch through a suit's armor. Then it was among the wreckage, leaping and pouncing just like a real cat. Its weight alone could crush a battle suit and even metal-ceramic layered armor shattered under its tungsten-iridium claws. Then, very like a real cat, it seemed to suddenly lose interest in the battle. It looked away to the south, its whiskers quivering, its ears questing. It took off at a run, it's feet tearing divots from the roadway.

As the sound of the monster's footsteps faded Corporal Eva Sanders emerged slowly from the shadow of an overturned police car. Her whole body shook with adrenaline reaction; she could taste it in her mouth. Being a feline herself- a tiger, to be precise- she'd known at once what to do. She dropped behind the police car and held perfectly still. The cat monster had stepped right over her to strike down a policeman who'd tried to run. The temptation to shoot at the cat's belly as it passed had been overwhelming but she'd restrained herself. It wouldn't have done any good; her 7.62mm bullets would have struck pretty sparks from the cat's armor, then it would have turned and stomped her into paste just it had so many of her teammates. She needed a rocket propelled grenade, or better yet an antitank missile. But her team's support weapons had been in one of the trucks that blew up. So she could only sit and watch... or join her friends in death. The decision had been more difficult than she ever could have imagined. Only duty kept her alive: knowing that someone had to tell Command what had happened. She felt at her belt but she'd lost her radio. Holding her weapon at the ready- slinging it was too much like admitting her powerlessness- she jogged up the line toward the colonel's command vehicle. Along the way she climbed over and around vehicles the cat monster had scattered like jackstraws. She also climbed over and around the dead and dying. Some had been so horrifically mutilated it turned her stomach... and some of those were still alive, at least for the moment. She paused briefly to put the worst of them out of their misery. It was all she could do for them.

The colonel's command car lay upside down in the ditch. The driver had tried to run and the cat monster had stepped on him. Corporal Sanders pried the car's door open with her survival knife and crawled inside. Thankfully the cat monster had only batted the car aside instead of stepping on it. The radios still worked. Operating them upside down proved difficult but she managed. When someone from Command finally responded she reported the situation with calm dispassion but her body still shook, and not from adrenaline. Finally she could no longer hold back the weight of what had happened and dropped the microphone. The operator on the other end heard her sobbing.


Captain Wilkes sat up. He'd been dozing in his tent, set up in one of Te Papa's parking garages. The speaker was the guard stationed outside to make sure the captain obeyed the terms of his house arrest. "Yes?" Haimar replied.

"Sir, Lieutenant Jamison requires you in the communications center at once."

"Understood." Captain Wilkes sat up, pulling on his tunic. He'd left his boots and trousers on. After smoothing down his uniform and giving his mane a quick brush he emerged. Probably the colonel had decided what to do with him. Though why he should announce that in the wee hours of the morning was a puzzle, to be sure. As soon as he entered the command center, though- a loose circle of tables with equipment set up upon them- he knew that something was very, very wrong. He saw it in the expressions- or lack thereof- of the troopers and equipment operators. Moreover, everyone was looking at him.

Lieutenant Jamison drew himself up and saluted smartly. He resembled an African wild dog and came only to Haimar's shoulder. Nevertheless he was a thick, solidly built fellow. Haimar returned the salute just as crisply.

"Sir, we understand that you weren't exactly mates with the colonel," Lieutenant Jamison began, remaining at attention. He stared fixedly at Haimar's clavicle. "However, the men respect you... and you are the senior ranking officer."

"Where is the colonel?" Haimar asked, his eyes narrowing slightly.

"The colonel's column was ambushed on its way back from Southgate," Lt. Jamison replied. "It was destroyed utterly."

Haimar just managed to keep his expression composed. The colonel had taken with him over half the squad's total strength: twelve battle suits, fifty troopers, and assorted support weapons. Overcoming all that would take- would take-

Something impinged on Haimar's awareness. He turned; somewhere in the distance he heard a rhythmic pounding that grew steadily louder. He dashed to the edge of the parking structure just in time to see a giant mechanical cat go loping down Jervois Quay. Now that he was here he saw flames curling into the sky from the container terminal, just across the harbor.

"That's what happened to them, sir," Lt. Jamison explained. He'd come up beside Haimar.

"Where the devil did it come from?" Haimar demanded.

"Apparently it was hidden somewhere in the container terminal," Lt. Jamison replied.

"What's the situation?" Haimar demanded.

"Daughter Night was reported at Wellington Hospital," Lt. Jamison reported. "Our sentries there haven't seen her but they have engaged a body of armed men storming the complex. The colonel was on his way to relieve them."

Haimar's guts turned to ice. Cymbeline was there. And the cat monster was headed that way. "Order all sentry units to Rugby League Park," he commanded. "The units in place are to remain in contact but fall back if threatened. I need them to provide intelligence. And warm up my suit."

"Sir?" Lt. Jamison jogged alongside as Haimar returned to the command center.

"A good commander leads from the front," Haimar replied.

"Sir!" Lt. Jamison saluted and started belting out orders.

Haimar left the command center and hurried down to where his suit was parked. With the squad's resources depleted it stood to reason that every available unit should take part in the assault. Despite what it portended Haimar was relieved. The current situation meant that he didn't have to abandon his duty and go after Cymbeline alone.

"Wake up!" Zalika slapped Alexsia on the cheek. Alexsia yelped; Zalika's hands, which looked so soft, felt as hard as cured leather. "You will do exactly what I tell you," she continued, her eyes flashing. Alexsia gaped, staring like a deer caught by a car's headlights. The light not only banished all thought from her mind, it eliminated even the possibility of thought. "Now pick him up-" Zalika pointed at Daitakerou- "and follow me." She picked up his sword and tucked it into her belt. Alexsia and Matilda grabbed Daitakerou. His skin felt hot, slimy, and sticky from all the fluid oozing through it. With him over their shoulder they jogged after Zalika. Flames filled the hall behind them, roaring out through shattered windows. Black smoke cut visibility down to less than a meter and scalding hot water rained down from the sprinklers. The air was so hot it singed Alexsia's fur and felt like acid in her throat but under Zalika's compulsion the pain didn't touch her. She still felt it, it just didn't matter. She didn't know how she managed to stay with Zalika but somehow she did. Finally the smoke thinned and the air cooled; they turned a corner-

A crowd of heavily armed men were coming the opposite direction. They opened fire without hesitation. Fortunately they saw Zalika first; a hail of gunfire tore her clothes to shreds but otherwise didn't seem to affect her. Alexsia noticed bullets whipping through the air around her but, like the smoke and flames, it didn't mean anything to her. Zalika gestured; the men flew back as if a bomb had gone off. A section of wall tore loose and fell into the hallway, blocking it. "Wake up!" Zalika ordered, snapping her fingers.

Alexsia gasped, then screamed. She'd been shot: twice in the chest, once in the belly, once in the arm, and twice in the hip. Zalika pushed her down and wiggled her hand; bullets popped out of the holes and the wounds closed.

"Zalika, what-" Matilda began. Then she noticed Alexsia. Her eyes widened and her jaw dropped. "You- you're alive!" she shrieked, grabbing Alexsia's face and kissing her fiercely. Alexsia made one half-hearted attempt to fend Matilda off, then returned the kisses as ardently as Matilda gave them. It felt damn good to be alive.

Zalika turned her attention to Daitakerou. The horrible third degree burns faded away but he still didn't look exactly healthy. "Zalika, look out!" Alexsia screamed, pointing. Another group of armed men had appeared at the other end of the hallway. Zalika gestured and another wall collapsed. Alexsia coughed; the hole admitted a burst of smoke and flame.

"What're we gonna do?" Matilda wailed.

"Can't you take us through the wall?" Alexsia demanded.

"Only if you're dead," Zalika replied. "If I do that now you'll both turn into wraiths."

"Then blast them!" Matilda shouted. "Use the Fire of Ra's Eye!"

"That takes a lot of energy," Zalika said. "I've already done it twice and burned a lot of power healing you two, not to mention Ms. Henstridge. The whole hospital is crawling with thugs; they can't hurt me but they can force me to waste time and energy I'll desperately want when the Sunday punch arrives."

"Sunday punch?" Matilda asked worriedly.

"Paul isn't the sort to risk everything on a single throw of the dice," Zalika replied. "He'll have a backup plan in case Daitakerou fails. Not to mention that the revenant's still out there somewhere."

Daitakerou screamed. He arched his back... then went limp.

"What happened?" Alexsia demanded. "Is he dead?"

"No." Zalika's eyes narrowed. "But his spirit's gone."

"Gone where?" Matilda wanted to know.

"I don't know but I have an idea," Zalika replied.

Several hand grenades came sailing through gaps in the rubble. Zalika gestured and they all flew back to whence they came. When they went off the rubble shifted and bits of shrapnel whizzed through the air like bumblebees on crack. Concussion drove the smoke back momentarily, then it returned thicker than ever. The temperature had risen too; the flames were closing in. "Zalika, I don't care how you do it, just get us the Hell out of here!" Alexsia screamed.

"You sure about that?" Zalika asked.

"Yes!" Matilda shrieked.

"All right." Zalika got to her feet. "Keep your heads down. Bullets that pass through me will still kill you." She flipped her hand; the rubble choking the hallway flew out the window. The thugs were still there; one of them held a demo pack which he'd been about to place. He threw it instead. Zalika gestured and it went out the window too. When it exploded the whole building shook. Then she drew a deep breath and roared. The sound started more or less normal but it dropped in pitch and grew in volume until it sounded like an avalanche and the windows rattled in their frames. Her mouth opened and kept opening until it spanned twice or three times what should be possible. From it, like water from a fire hose, erupted a stream of vermin. Scorpions, ants, beetles, centipedes, hornets, and a thousand other things. They piled up so quickly that the thugs were buried under them. Alexsia saw the carpet of insects heave and thugs scream as they struggled... but not for long. She saw a hand burst free... and she saw it stripped of flesh as fast a tubful of piranhas could have done. Zalika waved her hands and the carpet of vermin seemed to melt away. The thugs lay on the floor, apparently unharmed but unquestionably dead, their faces and bodies twisted into expressions of grotesque, unspeakable horror. But that wasn't the end. Each body twitched, and the mouth opened. A bird crawled out of each one. They looked like hawks... with the faces of whoever they'd come from. Zalika walked quickly around, snatching up each bird and swallowing it. After each one she shuddered and moaned, her color becoming more intense: her fur blacker and her eyes brighter.

That was too much. Alexsia doubled over and threw up. Matilda threw up too, because they only had one diaphragm.

Zalika spoke a command and raised her hand. The dead bodies got up. She turned about, flicked her hand, and the rubble blocking the other end of the hall flew out the window. The thugs on that side were still in the process of clearing debris before planting their charges. Zalika pointed and the zombies rushed them. They didn't shamble like before, they moved as fast as living people. The living thugs screamed and opened fire but bullets had no effect other than to make the zombies more unpleasant looking. Then the zombies fell on them, bearing them down and chewing on their faces. Again a bird emerged from each dead mouth; again Zalika ate them... and again Zalika commanded the dead to rise.

Alexsia's stomach twitched but she'd exhausted herself retching. These zombies looked like movie undead: bloody, mutilated, and grotesque.

"Is this what you wanted?" Zalika asked, tearing off the remains of her clothing and tossing it away. "Is this what you had in mind when you brought me back to life?" Black shadows hissed and rustled in her fur and golden fire trailed from her eyes.

Alexsia didn't reply. If she opened her mouth she'd start spewing again. For her own part she didn't much care but she couldn't subject Matilda to it. "Zalika," she managed to gasp, "You... you're doing what Daitakerou did, aren't you? Stealing their souls."

"Yes," Zalika replied.

"Why?" Matilda demanded.

"Because taking souls is a quick way to gain tremendous power, if you've the stomach for it," Zalika replied. "When Paul's backup plan kicks in, or the revenant appears, or both, I'll need every bit I can get."

A question forced its way to Alexsia's lips. "Why... why don't you just leave? Leave us to our fate?"

Zalika brought her hands up before her face, tapping the fingertips together one at a time. "If I were willing to do that we wouldn't be having this conversation. I'd have killed you as soon as you brought me to life."

"But-" Matilda began.

"That Abo shaman sold you a load of snake oil," Zalika cut in. "The spell he gave you brought me to life, yes, but nothing in it bound me to your will."

"But- but-" Matilda stammered.

"Why?" Alexsia demanded. "Why did you go along with this- this charade?"

"Because I've seen where this road leads and hoped I could persuade you to change your minds before it was too late," Zalika responded. "But back then you wouldn't have believed me, even I came right out and told you."

"It's too late now, isn't it?" Alexsia asked softly.

Zalika snorted. "Not a long shot. You're alive, you have each other. It's not even too late for them." She gestured at the zombies. "I could renounce the power they've given me and let their souls go free. Too late is when you're trapped forever in the crack between life and death, unable to go forward or back, listening to the screams of the lost and the damned for all eternity. Too late is when you become me."

Then the world exploded.

"George!" Something caught his arm as he brought it back to pound once more on the suit's face. "Stop! Please!"

George twisted around. Cymbeline stood over him. The fur had been seared from the left side of her chest and the skin beneath was cracked and bleeding but she was alive. He tried to control himself but he couldn't. He clung to her, sobbing uncontrollably. He'd lost Esmerelda, he wouldn't lose Cymbeline. He couldn't. He wouldn't be able to live.

I'm here, George.

"What?" George blinked. He couldn't see though his own tears.

I'm with you, George. I wouldn't leave you.

"Esmerelda?" he mumbled. How could it be?

I... I don't know how. But I'm here. Didn't you wonder why you were wearing my costume?

"I- I-" George stammered. He hadn't even thought about it.

Cymbeline stroked George's head. "I... I miss her too," she mumbled.

"I'm here, Cymbeline," George heard himself say. "My body died... but I'm still here."

Cymbeline recoiled in shock. "How?" she demanded.

"Zalika showed me the way," George replied. "I... found my way to her. She... kept me with her until... I could come here to you."

Cymbeline frowned. "How do I know you're really-" she glanced around- "her?"

"I remember," George said. "I remember... growing up in Albury. Mother and Father... Tom and Jeanette. I remember how I felt when I graduated from university and landed a position at ELB. It was the proudest day of my life. I remember... the first time I saw one of John's paintings. I remember how it made me feel."

"How did it make you feel?" Cymbeline wanted to know.

George smiled sheepishly. "It gave me a headache."

Cymbeline's eyes widened. "It really is you," she whispered. "But... how did you... get into George?"

"I let her in," George replied. "I... I didn't really notice at the time... but somehow I knew it was her, even then."

Tears welled up in Cymbeline's eyes and spilled down her cheeks. "I- I'm so glad," she stammered, gently stroking George's face with her right hand. "When I heard the news... it hurt so much. Like... like to a knife to the heart. But if it had been I would have died and it would be over. But it wasn't... so I just kept hurting." Her hand trembled.

George gripped Cymbeline's hand and squeezed. "I know," he said. "It... I felt the same way watching George kneeling over me." He brought Cymbeline's hand before his face and kissed it tenderly. "I love you."

"Who?" Cymbeline asked. "George or- or Super Collie?"

"Both of us," George replied, gently massaging Cymbeline's fingers. "Both of us."


Cymbeline started. George restrained her, then turned slowly, raising his hands above his head. Six SASVS troopers covered them from ten or so meters away, one armed with an automatic grenade launcher. "On your face, now!" a sergeant ordered.

George tugged Cymbeline's hand. She resisted a moment, then reluctantly lay down on her belly. George remained standing. "I'm sorry about the suit," he said. "He attacked Dr. Lathasar."

"Down!" the sergeant bellowed. George did not move. The troopers opened fire; bullet impacts rocked George back but a blast from the grenade launcher threw him on his back. The troopers approached. George sat up. The attack didn't seem to have affected him in the slightest.

"You'll need more than that to hurt me," George commented. "But it might be better if I helped you take care of Daughter Night."

"Who the Hell are you?" the sergeant demanded.

"Super Collie," George replied.

"But-" the sergeant began. His radio beeped; he drew it and listened for a moment. "Well shit," he spat. "Corporal Kahlil says you're good guys. I wish we coulda worked this out before you beat the crap outa Lindstrom, there."

"Is he all right?" Cymbeline asked, lifting her head.

"Yeah." The sergeant slung his weapon and came forward. "The fighting compartment's in the chest. But the hatch is jammed pretty good." George's furious blows had pounded the suit's head right down into its shoulders.

"I think I can help with that." George flipped the suit over. It occurred to him, in a distracted way, that he'd just casually picked up something weighing as much as a car. Thanks, Esmerelda, he thought.

Anytime, George.

"Grab here, Cymbeline," George directed, setting his own hands on curled plates. They pulled; metal groaned, then snapped. The suit's rear hatches came off and a trooper scrambled out. He brought a short barreled submachine gun, which he loaded and charged. Up on the face of the hospital a series of explosions blew out windows.

"Shit, shit, shit." The sergeant looked up, lifting the brim of his helmet. He was a dog, probably a beagle. "This whole scene is one big cl-"

"What's that?" Cymbeline cut in. The troopers spun, leveling their weapons.

George heard it too. A rhythmic pounding, growing steadily louder. It almost sounded like-

The quality and pacing of the noise changed. Suddenly George saw it, looming over the fire trucks, ambulances, and police cars surrounding the hospital. It looked like- like a giant mechanical cat. Its head snapped back and forth as people fled, screaming in panic. A policeman fired a pistol; the round sparked from the cat's face. The cat's left forepaw flashed out, coming down so hard that blood splashed on the pavement.

"Down!" the sergeant bellowed. His men went down as if scythed. George too was on his face before his mind had consciously assimilated what he saw. Though he'd been a policeman for many years his Army reflexes were still strong. Then he noticed Cymbeline still standing. He hooked her ankle with the staff and tripped her.

The cat machine stalked through the hospital grounds, its head questing back and forth, mostly ignoring the patients, staff, and emergency workers that scattered from its path. Then it looked up, apparently searching the face of the building. Its whiskers twitched. Hatches on its flanks opened and a barrage of rockets roared out. They struck along the seventh floor; enormous gouts of smoke, flame, and debris erupted from the structure as the rockets detonated. Then, with a tremendous, horrific roar, the whole seventh floor sagged, then collapsed. The floors above dropped down onto it... and continued falling, hammering the structure down. Smoke, flame, debris, and dust spurted from each floor as it collapsed, building into a wave that blasted out along the ground.

George picked himself up, coughing to clear his lungs. Dust and soot covered him from head to toe. Bits of debris, flung out of the building by the speed of its fall, pattered down like hail. The cloud of dust and smoke subsided slowly, revealing a pile of smoldering rubble where the hospital's Clinical Services Block had stood... and the cat monster, apparently unaffected by the destruction it had wrought. It walked up to the wreckage, its whiskers twitching, and started digging with its forepaws.

"What's it doing?" Cymbeline asked, shaking her head to dislodge a coating of dust.

"Searching for something," George observed, rubbing his chin.

The sergeant drew his radio. From the speaker came nothing but static. He tried several channels with no better results. "Leave it until the rest of the squad arrives," he said. "Rifles and grenades won't do a bloody thing other than get us all killed."

It's hunting for Zalika!

George quivered violently. Esmerelda's sense of urgency almost overwhelmed him. She's why were all here in the first place, he pointed out.

She came here to save a woman dying of cancer. She saved me, too. If she hadn't I'd have... gone away. For good.

George gritted his teeth, his hands working on the staff. All too clearly he remembered the wrack and ruin Daughter Night had left behind her a year ago. Now things were turning out just as bad. Worse, even.

It's not her, don't you see? It's the people chasing her.

"But-" George gnashed his teeth. Daughter Night was a criminal. Worse, a villain.

Would I give up Esmerelda to put Zalika away?

For an instant George wondered if the thought had been his or Esmerelda's. Then he dismissed the question. She'd never put him in a spot like that. He wanted to think she would, though... because it would relieve him of having to confront his own feelings. He'd been a policeman for many years and a soldier before that. Always his duty had been to the greater good. Now all he had to do to rid the world of a great evil was stand back and do nothing. But in so doing he'd have to lose Esmerelda. Again. He let his head fall against his chest, the staff slipping from his fingers. Tears left dark lines in the dust on his face. "I can't," he whispered in a quaking voice. "God help me, I can't." He swallowed, then took up the staff again. In any case, he needed to get that thing away from the hospital. "Cymbeline, get ready to go in once I distract it."

Cymbeline hesitated only for an instant. "Got it," she replied, rising to a crouch.

"Hey!" one of the troopers called, raising his weapon.

The sergeant slapped it down. "Won't do any good," he growled. "Let' em go. The idiots."

George judged his moment, then took off at a dead run. He overshot his mark by a considerable margin but it saved him in the end; the cat turned with incredible speed for something that size. A barrage of 40mm shells chased George across the lawn, blowing enormous craters in the grass. He passed behind the cat; it stopped firing when it couldn't turn its head any more. It spun completely around as it struggled to draw a bead; that gave George time to reach cover behind another building. The cat took a step forward but glanced back as Cymbeline hurried toward the other side of the rubble pile. "Hey!" George shouted, leaping out and waving his arms. Esmerelda's reflexes sent him into a diving roll but the cat didn't fire its cannon, it launched a missile instead. George dove headfirst through a window into the Children's Hospital; the rocket struck at an angle, blasting out a section of wall. Thankfully the explosion didn't penetrate too deeply. Then the cat opened up with it's cannon, peppering the building with shells that would punch through an armored personnel carrier. George ran as shells and explosions tore the air around him. He daren't stop; the cat elevated and depressed its gun as well as traversing it; dropping to the floor wouldn't save him.

A nurse carrying a baby appeared in the hall. George took her down in a flying tackle. A shell struck him that would have struck her. When the haze of pain cleared George found himself carrying the baby without remembering how he'd obtained it. The nurse was nowhere to be seen. The cat started tearing at the building with its claws. George cursed; this wasn't what he had in mind at all. With the baby still in his arms he put his shoulder down and charged right through a wall, running out between the cat's legs. A forepaw came down like a pile driver, missing narrowly. George darted around the end of the 210 block; the cat leapt, attempting to jump over, but fell short and went crashing through the roof. George tucked and rolled; shells aimed at him tore through the first floor of the cancer center instead. He cursed, realizing that he'd dangerously underestimated his opponent. He needed to ditch the baby but in such a way that the cat wouldn't kill it or the person to whom he gave it.

A piece of wreckage spun out of the darkness like a Frisbee, striking the cat on the flank. It looked but didn't fire. George ran, cursing venomously. Just a second ago, it seemed, there'd been patients, staff, and rescue workers everywhere. Now- when he needed someone- the place seemed to be deserted. He ducked around a fire truck just in time to see someone dive under it. He dragged the fellow out, thrust the baby into his arms, and continued on. When he looked the cat had turned back to the rubble. He needed to get its attention and hold it-

The idea which popped into George's mind was surely one only Esmerelda could have imagined, being the impulsive, headstrong person she was. It was also the only one he had. He let Esmerelda's reflexes set him in motion because he knew that if he stopped to think he'd never do it. At a dead run he circled the 210 block and entered through a wall on the far side. He streaked up the stairs and smashed through a door onto the roof. He set his foot against the coping and took off. By the time he arrived at where the roof had fallen in he'd reached full speed. The cat faced almost directly away from him, pawing at the remains of the Clinical Services block. The roof of the three-story 210 block put him above it. His feet left the roof and he sailed out into space. Somehow the cat sensed him and started turning but not soon enough. He came down just behind its haunches. He grabbed onto its tail and hung on for dear life.

The cat went absolutely nuts. It slammed through buildings and scattered vehicles. It threw itself down, rolling and thrashing on the ground. George set his teeth and tightened his grip. He'd seen those gleaming metal claws shear through steel and concrete; surely the Mystic Power of the Shepherd would endure but he didn't care to test that hypothesis. Its cannon and missiles would definitely leave a mark. He was riding the tiger; to jump off now would be worse than to hang on. He hoped.

Something struck the cat's left shoulder hard enough to stagger it. George caught a glimpse of an SASVS battle suit holding a TOW launcher. It stepped back toward cover but not quickly enough; the cat spun, its cannon hammering. A barrage of hypervelocity shells smashed the suit's plastron and threw it backwards. It fell in a twitching heap, its chest torn open and scooped out like the remains of a shelled crab. Two more suits appeared on the opposite side; one fired a rocket and the other its 20mm cannon. The missile struck the cover over the cat's right side rocket launcher and tore it away. The cannon shells shredded its ear. The cat spun, striking with its claws. One suit escaped; the other caught a glancing blow that tore away its left arm and sent it cartwheeling down the street. All around, from windows, alleys, and even manholes, suits popped out, took shots, and ducked away. Some- far too many, in George's estimation- paid for their audacity with their lives. The cat couldn't use its rockets in such close quarters but its claws and cannon still worked fine. But while the harm one suit could do might not amount to much, in total it added up. The cat was taking damage. George noted that its ears were shredded, it had lost about half its whiskers, its armor was cracked and pitted, and some of its joints didn't seem to function quite so well anymore. But it wasn't out of the fight... and it seemed to appreciate its predicament. Quite suddenly it leapt to its feet and took off at a dead run. It tore down the hill, through the Central Business District... and flew, in a mighty bound, into Lambton Harbor. George hung on, but as black water closed over him he realized that doing so might have been a mistake. The cat sank like a stone; the force of its impact combined with the speed of its descent punished him brutally. Even worse was the rapidly mounting pressure. The Mystic Power of the Shepherd didn't protect him from it... and it didn't give him any special ability to survive underwater. He let go and started paddling but he hadn't the faintest idea which way was up. Currents from the cat's passage spun him around. He expelled some air but couldn't see which way the bubbles went. He swam and swam, hoping to God he was going the right direction. If he wasn't then things would get awfully unpleasant. More so than they already were, that is.

George knew he was in trouble when he started seeing blobs of color that pulsated in time with his heartbeat. His lungs felt like they were on fire. He wanted desperately to take a breath but there wasn't anything around him but icy, black water. The cold sapped even his spirit enhanced strength until his limbs felt numb and leaden. He wanted to laugh; he'd berated Esmerelda for being headstrong and look where he'd ended up. He stopped swimming, letting himself drift on the currents. I'm so sorry, Esmerelda, he thought. At least I'll be with you soon. His tears mingled with the ocean.

No you won't. It's not your time yet.

What can I possibly do? George wondered.

Swim, George. It's only a little farther. Please, George. Don't leave me. There's... no guarantee that we'll be together on the other side.

Though his limbs felt like blocks of ice George started swimming. If it had been possible he would have sobbed. He'd failed her once; he wouldn't fail her again. No matter what. Suddenly his head broke the surface. He drew a mighty gasp that must have been about half water but at this point he didn't care. He wasn't dead after all.

A deep rumble impressed itself on George's awareness. He looked up, floating more or less on his back. The Wellington skyline filled the night around him. Up in the sky above he saw... strange little lights? The rumble grew to a shattering roar; the lights moved. What could be-

Bright plumes burst from the lights and suddenly George understood. The lights were jet fighters, streaking in low over the harbor from the northeast. The bright plumes were the exhaust trails of their missiles. Each fighter in line launched its missiles and pulled away in the opposite direction of the previous one. George turned and saw the cat struggling out of the water just north of Te Papa. It twisted, spitting death into the sky from its 40mm cannon. One of the retreating fighters sprouted a trail of fire; the pilot ejected and the stricken aircraft rolled onto its back, plunging into the harbor up by Petone. But the cat, hampered by the water, the steep climb, and damage inflicted upon it by the SASVS, could not effectively dodge. It struggled futilely as missile after missile slammed into it. Light from the explosions lit the waterfront with a Hellish, strobing orange, the staccato reports echoing across the water like thunder. Against that backdrop of flash and flame George saw bits of the cat's armor flying away into the night. Finally the last of the jets had gone; looking over his shoulder George saw them circling around for another run. A sound drew his attention back to the waterfront. The cat wasn't dead; its armor had been shattered and scaled away in a dozen places, frayed cables and broken beams trailed from it in a dozen more, and dark fluid- lubricant, fuel, who knew- poured down its flanks to splash on the pier but still it moved. It turned to the left, clinging to the dock with its right forepaw. The left hung, twisted and useless, at its side. It seemed to watch the approaching fighters, though both its eyes were destroyed. Maybe it had other sensors... or perhaps those weren't really eyes. Its cannon spat streams of fire into the night; somewhere out over the harbor a fighter exploded in a ball of flame. The fighters returned fire, their tracers seeming to hang lazily in the air because of the shallow angle. Then, in a flash, the shells hit, tearing through the cat's damaged armor and shredding its complex musculature. It shuddered and spasmed like a living thing, its claws ripping enormous gashes in the pier. This time when the jets passed it didn't move, except to sink slowly backwards into the water. Smoke and fire streamed from it, punctuated by dazzlingly bright electric flashes. Water hissed and steamed; George still saw the flashes even through the water. Then, as the last of the monster vanished from sight, he saw a flash a hundred times brighter, even through the water. He felt the shock wave, like a sledgehammer to his chest. A second later he heard a mighty roar, like an erupting volcano. The water humped up, then exploded in a spray of steam and vapor. As it subsided George heard bits of metal pattering down into the water all around him.

You did good, George. Better than I did the first time.

George smiled. He found himself wanting to hug her, there wasn't anything to hug. I had you to show me the way.

Thanks. In his mind's eye George saw her smile, tears running down her cheeks. I... I can't say how much that means to me.

I think you just did, George pointed out.

I love you, George. You've always been there for me.

I love you too, Esmerelda. I... I've come to think of you as... as the daughter I never had.

Esmerelda didn't reply, at least not in words. Instead George felt her response, as if with his own emotions. In a way they were: he felt the same way about her.

I've loved being with you, George, but... I'd like to get back to my own body.

George couldn't help laughing. "Your young man ought to appreciate that." He laughed again when he felt her flash of embarrassment. But is that possible?

Yes, she replied after a long pause. But only Zalika can do it.

"Bloody Hell," George growled.

You have no idea.

"I bet," George replied, starting out toward the pier. But he was staring to get one. They'd managed to defeat the cat monster... but the only person who could bring Esmerelda back to life was their bitterest enemy.

She isn't that bad, actually. Something... something's different this time around. She's tried very hard not to hurt people, even the ones hunting her. She came to Welling to heal a woman dying of cancer.

"Why?" George demanded.

I... I don't know. But she did it.

"Great," George growled. "Now that the cat monster's out of the way maybe we can sit down and have a nice chat over a cup of tea."

Um... not quite. There's still the revenant.

"The what?" George frowned.

Well, you see, it's like this...

The light vanished from Mr. Ulysses' HUD a fraction of an instant before he felt the shock wave crashing through the water. He didn't curse because no invective existed that could even begin to do justice to what he felt. Both Daitakerou and Doktor Catlove's hideously expensive robot had been defeated... and the ASPEW sensors in his penthouse still registered a suspicious signature. Daughter Night still wasn't dead.

Paul flexed his fingers one at a time. The Kamakura guardian still hadn't put in an appearance; for all he knew it might be hiking across country somewhere. Which left only one agency through which his vengeance could be executed: himself and his suit, which Doktor Catlove had tricked out with a great many special features. "So be it," he whispered, directing the suit upward through the water and toward the vicinity of Te Papa. It might have been some years since he'd taken a direct hand in the rougher aspects of his business but he hadn't forgotten how. Nor had he forgotten how much he enjoyed it.

Two SASVS troopers guarded the entrance to the parking structure. Paul almost laughed; a pair of soldiers could keep casual intruders away but they wouldn't even inconvenience someone like Daughter Night. Or him. He considered using his cannon but decided against it; he might need the ammunition later. Besides, he didn't care to announce his attack with a lot of flash and noise. "Hotel two six," he said. His suit's skin shimmered faintly and changed color, matching those the SASVS used. An alert eye would notice that his suit wasn't the proper make and model but darkness and the element of surprise would reduce that chance. He strode up to the entrance as if he had every right to be there. The troopers challenged him, but not until he'd come right up to them. Paul grabbed them, one in each hand, and broke their necks. He vaulted over the security barrier and hurried inside.

The command post amounted to a collection of tables loaded with electronic gear inside a quadrangle of tents, with an assortment of vehicles parked around it. Soldiers patrolled the area but Paul saw no power suits, operational or otherwise. He lobbed a bunker buster into the quadrangle and dove out of the parking structure, landing on his face in the drive. The bunker buster bounced across the floor, spraying a thick, oily liquid into the air. After a second or two it stopped spraying and emitted a fat spark.

The ground rippled, throwing Paul onto his back. Flame jetted into the night, propelling a wave of debris. Paul struggled to his feet; his suit protected him from the concussion but it still left him momentarily dazed. The parking structure groaned and rumbled as parts of it fell in but the building as a whole remained standing, albeit with inky black smoke and ruddy flame boiling out of it. Paul nodded in satisfaction and set off at a jog; without its command post the SASVS would find it impossible- or at least very difficult- to coordinate itself or call for help. Hopefully, then, they wouldn't come between Paul and his prey. But if they did... well, it would be just too bad for them.

Cymbeline grabbed a slab of concrete and slid it out of the way. She paused a moment to recover; the slab weighed many tons, taxing even her considerably enhanced strength. Beneath it, trapped between two beams, lay a young man. She gently pulled him out then held him in her arms, stroking him tenderly. The sigils on her body flickered and his wounds healed. She passed him to a rescue worker and moved on. Around her rescue workers, SASVS troopers, and a number of battle suits pored over the wreckage, searching for survivors. Fortunately the building had been mostly evacuated before it collapsed, but not completely.

As she struggled past a tangle of reinforcing rods Cymbeline paused. Inky blackness boiled up out of the wreckage ahead of her. Instead of flowing across the surface it humped up, forming an outline. It solidified... and there stood Daughter Night.

Cymbeline dropped into a combat crouch, but though she towered over Daughter Night her hands shook. She might be larger and stronger but Daughter Night totally outclassed her in terms of sorcerous power and range of ability. The troopers and battle suits leveled their weapons but didn't fire. They knew well that bullets wouldn't harm Daughter Night but they could harm innocent bystanders.

"I'm not here to fight, Cymbeline," Daughter Night said, slowly raising her hands. "I need your help."

"Why?" Cymbeline demanded suspiciously.

"Some people I promised to protect are buried in this rubble," Daughter Night replied.

"Why don't you just- bring them out with you?" Cymbeline asked.

"I can't do that while they're alive," Daughter Night replied. "If I killed them, I'd only be able to bring one of them back to life."

Cymbeline frowned. "Why should you care at all?"

Daughter Night sighed. "I've been asking myself that question all along." Her expression hardened. "Please don't think about it too long, Dr. Lathasar. There's people dying under this wreckage. I can find them, heal them, and clear the wreckage faster and more precisely than any of you could."

One of the battle suits stepped forward. The cat monster's claws had torn a row of horrendous gashes across its chest plate. "What happens after we rescue your friends?" it asked in Haimar's voice.

Cymbeline almost fainted. She'd heard the combat as the SASVS fought the cat monster. She'd heard rumors that a disturbing number of suits had been lost. Since then, with rescue efforts going full tilt, there hadn't been time to ask, and all the suits looked the same. She hadn't known Haimar was all right until that very moment. Then she felt a stab of guilt. George, who'd risked his life no less than Haimar, was still missing.

"My friends and I leave," Daughter Night replied.

"There are some who won't approve of that," Haimar pointed out.

"Something's after us," Daughter Night said. "If we stay here we'll have to fight it here. With all these people around that wouldn't be a good thing."

"Perhaps I'd be doing the world a favor by letting it catch you," Haimar observed.

"You're probably right," Daughter Night replied. "But if I die there won't be anyone to bring Super Collie back, not to mention all the others who've died during this awful mess."

"You're saying you can bring all the people who died tonight back to life?" Haimar asked.

"Within certain limits, yes," Daughter Night affirmed.

"What limits?" Haimar wanted to know.

"First, they have to want to come back," Daughter Night explained. "Second, there has to be something left. If the body's been completely destroyed there isn't any way for me to locate the right spirit. Guessing would be a bad idea; there are things in the sprit world you do not want to let out. Third... I'll need power. Lots and lots of it."

"Where would this power come from?" Haimar asked.

Daughter Night started to speak but hesitated. "If you could get a large number of people to each donate a small bit of life force... I could do it without hurting anyone. Like giving blood, the missing spirit eventually grows back."

"You didn't need that last time," Haimar commented.

"I had Super Collie's power," Daughter Night responded. "And I expended my own life force."

Haimar didn't respond at once. "I'm not sure that even bringing everyone back to life is going to square things. It will be argued that if you hadn't come back to life none of this would have happened."

Daughter Night smiled crookedly. "I'd hate to think of all those lawyers with nothing to do."

"You're willing to chance our criminal justice system?" Haimar said.

"I tried being dead," Zalika replied. "I didn't care for it."

"Right, then." Haimar slung his weapon. "Show us where to dig."

"I'll do better than that." Daughter Night turned, extending her hands over the wreckage. Slabs stirred, then lifted away. Coils of wire and reinforcing rod snaked their way free. Rescue workers didn't even wait for the debris to come down before diving in. More survivors came from the cracks and crevices uncovered... and bodies, too. "Look there, Cymbeline," Daughter Night instructed, pointing with one hand while guiding a slab away with the other.

"Okay." Cymbeline stepped down and saw what she first thought was two people. As she lifted them out she realized that it was actually one person with two heads. Or was it two people with one body?

"Zalika?" the one on the left called, worriedly.

"It's all right," Zalika said over her shoulder while she lifted a slab, revealing a bed of glowing coals. Firemen doused them.

"My my," Haimar commented, leaning forward to examine the pair. They shied back as the suit loomed over them. "Alexsia deHaviland and Matilda Wollenston, I presume? These two are wanted felons."

"If you arrest them or detain them in any way, they'll be assassinated," Zalika said, untangling a mass of reinforcing rods so that a young boy could be freed. One of the rods had gone through his thigh; his flesh separated, then reformed, pushing the rod out. "They'll die as surely as if you put a gun to their heads right now."

"Let us help," Alexsia said. "We'll... do whatever we can."

"Keep them close to you, Cymbeline," Zalika said. "You'll feel the revenant coming."

"Okay." Cymbeline set them down. They didn't appear to be injured in any way, just dirty. They went back into the hole and pulled out another survivor. Cymbeline gasped.

"He's still alive," Alexsia reported as she and Matilda passed Daitakerou into the hands of waiting rescue workers.

"Good." Zalika gestured; Daitakerou's sword floated up out of the hole. "Keep him that way. He's the key to this whole mess."

Haimar caught the sword out of the air. It looked like a toy in his massive, metal fist. "How is that?" he wanted to know.

"Super Collie told me that his spirit was in the revenant," Zalika explained.

"How can he still be alive if that's so?" Cymbeline asked.

"I don't know." Zalika shook her head. "He summoned an army of wraiths to fight me, which also should have killed him. As if-" she frowned- "he had extra life force. But it was his, not someone else's that he'd taken."

Haimar opened his hand, looking at the sword. "What if he cloned himself?"

Zalika opened her mouth, then shut it. "I don't know," she admitted. "That wasn't something the ancient sorcerers ever thought of."

"What do you plan to do with this?" Haimar gestured with the sword.

"It's a powerful magic item in its own right," Zalika explained. "Plus, everything else- the revenant and the wraiths- are all bound to it."

"Why not destroy it?" Haimar set his fingers, preparing to snap the blade in half.

"That wouldn't be prudent," Cymbeline said quickly. "With the amount of power tied up in it... the results could be disastrous."

"Not to mention that the triplets, and anyone else killed by it, would become wraiths," Zalika added.

Haimar lofted the sword to a trooper, who caught it easily. "We'll worry about that later," he decided. "Right now-" He stopped suddenly, turning toward the Central Business District. A rumble like distant thunder echoed up the hills. "The command post's off line," he said.

"It's been destroyed," Zalika said. "They're all dead."

"How do you know?" Captain Wilkes demanded, rounding on Zalika.

"I felt it," Zalika replied.

"Like a million voices cried out in terror, then were silenced?" Matilda suggested.

"Only a few dozen, actually," Zalika corrected. "But otherwise very much like that, yes."

Cymbeline whirled, her attention drawn by something she couldn't consciously articulate. A blue Scania semi tractor without a trailer rolled up, squeezing past a row of fire trucks.

"Sir, the ASPEW sensors are registering a big Goddamn spike," a trooper reported.

"Yes, I see it," Captain Wilkes replied, checking his rifle. Blue coronas formed around the antennae protruding from the ASPEW pack attached to his back. He raised his weapon to his shoulder; other suits and troopers did the same.

"It won't do any good," Zalika commented.

"Shouldn't we be running?" Matilda asked in a quavering voice.

"That won't do any good either," Zalika responded.

Someone jumped down from the catwalk behind the semi's cab. It was Daitakerou; he shook back his coat, his left hand hovering near but not quite touching the hilts of the swords sheathed at his waist.

"You there, halt!" Haimar shouted, his electronically amplified voice booming out. "Stop or we'll open fire!"

"Didn't we pull him out of the rubble just a moment ago?" Cymbeline asked.

"Yes," Zalika replied. "That over there isn't really him. It's the revenant."

Daitakerou did not stop. His face split in a savage grin and he drew his swords so rapidly they seemed to leap into his hands. Haimar shouted something but it drowned in a fusillade of gunfire as all the troopers and a few police officers opened up. Daitakerou fell, but after the firing stopped he got up again, apparently unharmed. The storm of lead he'd weathered hadn't even scuffed his jacket. "You can't hurt him except with spirit weapons," Zalika said as the troopers reloaded.

"Let's try this, then," Cymbeline growled, clenching her fists. Power surged into her, causing the glyphs on her body to blaze bright red. She thrust out her hand and a bolt of lightning blasted from her fingertips. It struck Daitakerou square in the chest, directly over his heart.

A few seconds passed while purple after-images cleared from eyes dazzled by the flash and echoes of the thunder bounced back from the hills. Daitakerou still stood, at the point of a fan of charred grass. The blast hadn't even knocked him down.

"He's immune to spirit powers," Zalika said.

"Oh, yeah?" Cymbeline clenched her fists even tighter, his lips drawing back in a snarl. She drew a breath-

"No." Zalika grabbed Cymbeline's crotch, reaching between her legs from behind. Cymbeline screamed- more in shock than pain- as the spirit of Sekhmet deserted her. She fell in a heap, her body quickly shrinking back to its normal size and shape. "Don't look at me like that," Zalika added in the face of Cymbeline's glare. "You taught me that trick, remember?" She opened her hand and the first Daitakerou's sword leapt into it. Haimar turned, catching motion in his peripheral vision. The new Daitakerou also noticed and his face contorted in fury. He leapt, slashing at the air. Cymbeline screamed because Zalika leapt at Alexsia and Matilda, sword raised. Alexsia and Matilda screamed because Daitakerou appeared right beside them, his own swords raised to slash them apart. Somehow Zalika managed to block the strokes; steel rang on steel and sheets of blue-black fire erupted from the points of contact. Daitakerou broke the clench and shifted sideways, probing past Zalika's guard. She moved with him, blocking his way forward. Alexsia and Matilda scrambled away on hands and knees. Haimar lumbered forward, clearly intending to grapple. In a lightning fast move Daitakerou slipped under the lunge, striking up and forward simultaneously. His blades stabbed through the suit's composite armor as easily as through flesh, driving into the neck and hip. Cymbeline screamed again, though intellectually she knew that the operator sat entirely within the suit's chest. Nevertheless the blows seemed to be telling; Haimar staggered and pitched forward on his face with the ponderous weight of a tree falling. Daitakerou ducked aside and reversed his katana for a strike down into the center of Haimar's back.

Cymbeline wasn't conscious of leaping but suddenly she was, swinging her leg in a short, vicious arc that terminated against Daitakerou's left cheek. She didn't remember calling on the spirit of Sekhmet but it was there, at least in part, infusing her with a savage skill that no merely human master of the martial arts could hope to match. Daitakerou didn't even try; he just stood there. When her blow landed Cymbeline understood why: instead of soft flesh she struck solid bronze. Her blow would have shattered a normal man's skull but in this case her foot failed instead. Her scream changed to one of agony as pain from her smashed metetarsal bones slammed through her like the shock wave from an explosion. Then Daitakerou moved, stepping toward her and launching a dazzlingly quick one-two, his katana and wakizashi sweeping in opposite directions. Cymbeline fell heavily on her back; she tried getting to her feet or at least rolling out of the way but couldn't; there seemed to be something wrong with her legs-

Daitakerou stepped up and struck again, his katana aimed to take Cymbeline's head from her shoulders. In desperation she threw up her hand; the glyphs on her body flashed and a ball of energy formed in her palm. Before it could take flight Daitakerou's blow landed, but he'd shifted it mid-swing to meet the new threat. Cymbeline could only watch as her forearm spun away, severed just below the elbow. The ball of light exploded with a brilliant flash, vaporizing the severed limb.

Zalika lunged at Daitakerou's back. He spun, blocking with the wakizashi, but her blade tore a gash along the back of his arm and across his shoulders, cutting through his coat, shirt, and the skin underneath. Instead of blood the wound dripped pale blue fire, and instead of muscles and bones the gaping lips of the cut revealed dark bronze. Daitakerou struck aggressively; Zalika parried and dodged back but he scored a hit that cut deeply into her left breast, just above the nipple. He pressed hard and she fell back; every so often she slipped one past his guard and opened another tear but she paid for it by suffering a number of serious strikes in return.

Cymbeline managed to push herself up into a sitting position. Her arm had been cut so cleanly it didn't even hurt, and the arteries had shrunk closed instead of pumping her life out on the ground. Looking down she almost fainted from shock; her legs were gone too, hacked off about halfway between knee and crotch. Just because her stumps weren't spurting didn't mean they weren't bleeding at all, or that she wouldn't die of blood loss if she didn't stop it. With her left hand she grabbed the stump of her right arm; feeling hot blood, slimy, naked muscle, and sharp-edged bone under her fingers brought the reality of her situation home in a way that merely seeing it hadn't. Never mind that she'd pulled more seriously mutilated bodies out of the wreckage without batting an eye. None of them had been her mutilated body. The world grayed as she wavered on the edge of unconsciousness, but she fought it back by sheer willpower. She mouthed the ancient words of power to make sure she got them right; the hieroglyphs on her body flashed and her shock, pain, and fatigue faded away. But her arm and legs were still gone; shiny pink keloid covered the stumps.

Haimar's suit spasmed as a sequence of explosions wracked it. The hatch sprung open and Haimar struggled out. He glanced at Zalika and Daitakerou, furiously trading blows, then down at Cymbeline. His eyes widened. "Cymbeline," he exclaimed, "What... do we do to stop this?"

Cymbeline twisted around. Zalika and Daitakerou still traded blows but Zalika looked pretty bad, bleeding from at least half a dozen minor to moderate cuts. Daitakerou had suffered some as well but his wounds didn't seem to affect his fighting ability any. Moreover, Zalika seemed to be tiring while Daitakerou wasn't. It didn't take an expert to see that, in time, Zalika would loose. For what felt like an eternity she wondered if that wouldn't be the best thing all around; in light of what Zalika had done last year, coupled with what she'd done this time around, she'd be facing some pretty stiff penalties. Even if by some chance the matter went to trial, how could the authorities hope to impose sentence? What sort of jail would hold a person who could walk through walls?

Suddenly Cymbeline recalled the feeling of Mr. Ulysses' hand on her throat, of Daitakerou's sword pricking her neck. However much she feared and disliked Daughter Night, letting Paul and Daitakerou kill Zalika meant letting them get away with orchestrating all this suffering and destruction. She didn't remember casting the spell but suddenly the spirit of Sekhmet filled her, boiling up inside her like magma. She leapt to her feet, only then realizing that she had feet upon which to leap. As the avatar of Sekhmet she had all her limbs. She put the thought aside for later, grabbing up Haimar's rifle, chambering a round, and opening fire. She'd never touched a firearm in her life but not only did she hit she managed to hold the muzzle down as it tried to walk up and to one side. The spirit of Sekhmet apparently granted her knowledge of the tools of violence as well as the skill and power to inflict it barehanded. The shells didn't affect Daitakerou any more than they had the first time but they staggered him, giving Zalika a chance to score another hit. Daitakerou cursed and slashed at the air; Cymbeline spun and dove, throwing the rifle up vertically in front of her. Daitakerou's katana cut into the receiver as he burst from the air right beside her. A blow from the wakizashi would have opened Cymbeline's belly if she hadn't dodged away in the nick of time. Daitakerou came after her, his swords nothing but a blur. Only superhuman dexterity kept her ahead of him, and just barely at that. Zalika seemed to have disappeared... until she popped up out of the ground behind Daitakerou. Somehow he sensed her, blocking in front and behind at the same time. He caught Zalika's blade but Cymbeline's claws struck home, tearing the skin from one entire half of his face. She expected to see bronze, as on the rest of him, but she didn't. She saw another face, belonging to someone else.

Belonging to officer Ron Haroldson.

Recognition almost cost Cymbeline dearly. Daitakerou exploited her hesitation, lunging in. "Ron!" she screamed, falling back in panic.

Daitakerou's sword stopped two centimeters short of stabbing through Cymbeline's left breast and into her rib cage. "D- Doc?" he stammered.

"Yes, it's me," Cymbeline gasped, rolling away and bouncing to her feet.

"No!" Daitakerou screamed, lunging. But his attack lacked the speed and coordination of earlier; Cymbeline dodged it easily. She lined up a blow of her own-

"Wait!" Zalika caught Cymbeline's arm.

Rage at being denied her kill flared in Cymbeline's mind. With a snarl she slashed at Zalika's face. Zalika's features blurred and Cymbeline's hand passed right through it with a eerie, chill sensation that considerably dampened her hot emotions. She opened her mouth to apologize but before she could Zalika grabbed Cymbeline's face and turned it toward Daitakerou. He stood as he had, his whole body quivering with tension. "But she's the enemy!" he shouted, his lips drawn back in a feral snarl. "Yes, but not Cymbeline!" he insisted in reply. "Her, then!" he concluded, shifting his attention to Zalika. He struck past Cymbeline, close enough he could almost have kissed her. He seemed to have recovered his original speed... and Zalika hadn't. She barely had her sword up by the time Daitakerou's punched through her chest, right between her breasts. She gagged, spitting blood, and slumped to the ground in a heap.

Emotion of every sort roiled in Cymbeline, threatening to burst out at any moment. Sekhmet was not a goddess given to quiet contemplation, after all. Fortunately the spirit magnified all her emotions: including fear that if she attacked, or even moved, Daitakerou might notice her again. Even with Sekhmet boosting her speed- and her confidence- she didn't think she could escape at this range.

"All right, she's gone," Daitakerou insisted petulantly. "Can we go now?" He turned, surveying the scene, ignoring Cymbeline. "Not yet," he answered himself. "The other two are still around here somewhere." He frowned. "But-"

"Ron," Cymbeline cut in, "Why did you kill Super Collie?"

"What?" Daitakerou spun, glaring. Cymbeline would have felt his breath except that he wasn't breathing. He didn't smell, either.

"Why did you kill Super Collie?" Cymbeline repeated, her eyes narrowing slightly. Fear couldn't hold Sekhmet at bay for long.

"I-" Daitakerou quivered, his face hard with tension. "She- got in the way." His katana came up slowly.

"Are you here to kill me?" Cymbeline asked.

Daitakerou's sword froze. His expression relaxed. "No," he said, and turned away. "Only the bitch." He marched off toward the line of ambulances.

"Ain't that interesting," mused a voice at Cymbeline's elbow.

Cymbeline yelped and spun. Zalika stood there, completely naked. Cymbeline gaped, staring at the corpse on the ground, then at the woman beside her.

"I animated a corpse with my spirit, then abandoned it just before the revenant struck," Zalika explained. "The point is, he should know I'm not dead. He probably does, he just doesn't care. As with you, I'm not the one he's here to kill."

"Who is he here to kill?" Cymbeline wanted to know.

"The only one of five robbers who hasn't died already," Zalika replied. "Matilda."

"So what happens now?" Cymbeline inquired.

"Simple," Zalika replied. "Matilda has to die."

As Alexsia and Matilda scrambled out from under an ambulance they slipped in something wet and sticky. Because of her time in the freezing works Alexsia recognized it: the contents of a ruptured body cavity. Some poor bugger had been squashed flat and torn open at the same time.

"You know," Matilda commented, "After what happened to Mr. Hammerstein, this doesn't seem like much at all."

"I know what you mean," Alexsia muttered. The unfortunate constable- a few unstained tatters of uniform remained- had carried a 9mm automatic. Alexsia scooped it up.

"Alexsia, the money we made at the club is still in the car," Matilda pointed out.

"So?" Alexsia didn't think she had time to clean the pistol properly so she worked the slide a few times to clear the spattered blood, then reloaded the ejected shells. "What good will it do us now?"

"I'd give it up if it'd make this stop," Matilda said. "I... I'd give up having money ever again."

"I have to agree," Alexsia responded. Right then, Curtain Springs didn't seem so bad. Her childhood seemed almost idyllic by comparison. Hell, getting raped by Romy and his thugs wasn't so bad, and that was something she never thought she'd say. She chuckled grimly; she could say it now because she knew what real Hell was.

In the grass beyond the line of emergency vehicles Zalika, Cymbeline, and Daitakerou fought. Cymbeline tore off one side of Daitakerou's face... revealing another face, someone else's face. Alexsia frowned; it seemed familiar-

"What's happening?" Matilda asked.

"Quiet!" Alexsia hissed. They'd stopped fighting. Zalika was gone. Cymbeline was talking to Daitakerou... but she called him Ron. Suddenly Alexsia remembered: that guard at Te Papa. She almost laughed; the robbery seemed so long ago as to have been in another life. It was in another life, she realized with a start. That thought almost did what the sight of mere gore hadn't. Fortunately dinner in Wanganui had been so long ago that she hadn't anything to throw up. Not that it mattered; her dinner occupied the intestines of her original body, laying somewhere in the cancer ward... which, she noticed, was now completely enveloped in flames from top to bottom. A sudden flurry of motion drew her back to the fight just in time to see Zalika fall, stabbed through the heart. Her guts turned to ice. Without Zalika, what chance did she and Matilda have? "Get him!" Alexsia hissed at Cymbeline, who stood there motionless while Daitakerou stared at Zalika and muttered to himself. Even Matilda could have knifed him from that range and position. Suddenly Daitakerou looked up and started forward, directly toward Alexsia's and Matilda's hiding place. He would have seen Alexsia peeking out if he hadn't turned to shout back at Cymbeline. Alexsia caught the last part: only the bitch. She started to duck back but hesitated when she saw Zalika come up out of the ground and speak to Cymbeline.

Suddenly, in a flash, the whole situation made sense. Alexsia dropped back behind the ambulance and thumbed back the hammer of the automatic. "We have to die," she said.

"What?" Matilda shrieked.

"If Daitakerou kills us our souls will be lost," Alexsia replied. "If we kill ourselves Zalika can bring us back, and the revenant's mission is over. If we don't he keeps following us until we do die, one way or another." She put the muzzle of the automatic in her mouth, then realized the fallacy in that. Instead she put it between her breasts. Or, more properly, between her breast and Matilda's. Their communal heart thudded, as if aware of its danger.

"Do it quickly," Matilda begged in a tiny, shuddering voice. "Before I- I loose my nerve!"

Alexsia gritted her teeth. Even having gone through what she'd experienced with the wraith and Zalika, even knowing it was her and Matilda's only chance, putting her finger through the automatic's trigger guard was the hardest thing she'd ever done. "I love you!" she screamed and pulled the trigger. She didn't hear Matilda's reply, if Matilda even gave one.

At the sound of a pistol shot Cymbeline yelped. Daitakerou froze mid-motion, his arms falling to his sides. His hands shook violently as he fed his swords back into their sheaths, as if he didn't want to but couldn't help doing it. The blue light leaking from his wounds flared up; his skin caught fire and burned like gun cotton. As the shell of Daitakerou peeled away it revealed Officer Ron Haroldson, the museum guard, underneath. Then he too burned away, revealing a heavyset sheepdog in overalls, then a constable. Constable Hardiman, Cymbeline recalled suddenly. Beneath him yet another person came to light: a Siamese cat boy no more than five or six years old. Unlike the others he wore no clothing... and resembled nothing so much as a younger version of Daitakerou. Also unlike the others, he showed not the slightest trace of emotion as he burned away. Where he'd been stood a bronze statue of a Japanese warrior in full armor, in a ready crouch with his hands poised to draw his swords. Hellish blue light blazed from the eyes and mouth of the twisted mask he wore in place of a face... but like cooling embers the light faded away. The statue's feet sank into the turf, then the whole thing tipped forward onto its face.

"Is it over?" Haimar asked. His fatigues looked like he'd worn them as long as his skin, and hadn't washed them in at least that long. Odor radiated from him in palpable waves. Part of Cymbeline felt it should have revolted her. Instead, in some strange way, it excited her.

Zalika looked over her shoulder. Not at Haimar, Cymbeline realized, but past him. "No," she said. "There's still one card left in play."

"Right." Haimar rose to his feet. "Clear the casualties!" he bellowed. "Establish a perimeter-"

"Captain, wait, please," Zalika interrupted, rising herself. "I... let me try solving this without violence."

"Can you?" Haimar countered.

"I don't know," Zalika admitted. "But... I have to try. Too many people have suffered because of me already." Her expression turned distant. "Also... this is the sort of thing that can go on and on. Forever and ever. I've seen that... and I don't care for it."

Haimar looked around at the wreckage, the survivors, the rescue workers, his troopers... and finally Cymbeline. "What do you say?" he asked. "Should I believe her?"

Cymbeline looked at Haimar, Zalika, the statue, and what remained of Wellington Hospital. Incredibly, she realized that things could have been worse... and Zalika had actually done quite a bit to make sure they didn't turn out that way. "Yes," Cymbeline said.

"Very well." Haimar nodded, then barked out a string of orders. Cymbeline noticed that policemen, paramedics, and firefighters rushed to obey as readily as did his own troopers. But that hardly surprised her; he radiated an aura of command that brooked no possibility of disobedience.

"Sir!" someone shouted. Two troopers emerged from behind an ambulance, carrying Alexsia and Matilda. Blood soaked the front of their blouse and they looked quite dead.

"Them dying is what unbound the revenant, isn't it?" Cymbeline asked.

"It was." Zalika nodded.

"I suppose you could bring them back to life?" Haimar inquired.

"I could." Zalika nodded again.

"We'll discuss that after you bring Super Collie back to life," Haimar declared. "Her body's on its way here from the police morgue downtown. I sent for it before... all the fun started."

Zalika concentrated a moment. "I'm afraid that won't help. Our last opponent has already found it."


The call jerked Esmerelda right out of George's body. He took one step and fell on his face; he'd pressed himself far beyond his limits and without her to sustain him there just wasn't anything left. She knelt beside him-

I'm sorry, but there isn't time for that.

George, Wellington, and the whole waking world faded away. Once again Esmerelda found herself on the spirit highway under the strange, ruddy sky. Zalika stood before her; Alexsia and Matilda, joined as Esmerelda and Zalika had briefly been, stood off to one side. In the distance Daitakerou lay sprawled on his back. Two identical boys, who could have been his sons, leaned over him.

"Esmerelda, Paul has found your body," Zalika said. "If he destroys it I may not be able to bring you back."

Esmerelda looked down. George lay at her feet; he looked... partially transparent, and faded as she watched. "Help him," she said.

Zalika knelt, laying her hand on George's back. He shimmered, then turned solid. When Zalika took her hand away a golden outline of an eye showed briefly, then faded.

"You still have your body, I presume?" Esmerelda inquired.

"I do." Zalika nodded.

"Well then, what are we waiting for?" Esmerelda put her arms around Zalika and merged into her.

"What-" Cymbeline began. Zalika interrupted with a sharp gasp; shimmering, silvery light filled the air around her. After a moment it passed, leaving her clothed in Super Collie's costume. In place of a shepherd's staff she carried Daitakerou's katana.

"Stop her!" Haimar shouted, but even as his troopers started moving Zalika took off running. She evaded them all and quickly vanished from sight, nothing but a blue, gold, and black blur.

"What are you all waiting for?" Cymbeline bellowed, grabbing Haimar and sprinting to the nearest ambulance. "Get after her!"

The combined police and SASVS convoy caught Paul by surprise, coming up from behind at high speed with sirens blaring. Paul spun, firing his 20mm cannon. The convoy didn't seem to expect trouble either; it consisted of thin skinned police vehicles and Army trucks. Moreover, they were driving too fast and too close; all the vehicles save two at the end piled up in a massive chain reaction accident. Since he'd attained the upper hand through surprise Paul decided to press it home, charging up to the wreck and blazing away with his 7.62mm machine gun and antipersonnel grenades. Hopefully they didn't have antitank weapons or power suits or he'd be in a right pickle. Fortunately it didn't seem that they did; return fire came exclusively from small arms, which Paul's armor easily repelled. Nevertheless they could have caused him serious trouble but didn't; when he leapt into the wreckage the SASVS troopers stood and fought, though clearly outmatched, but the constables broke and ran. With the defenders divided and in disarray, Paul mopped them up without difficulty. Even so, he wasn't pleased with the encounter. He'd expended ammunition he might need later and without accomplishing anything useful. More to justify his effort than anything else he opened the back of a police van that seemed to have been the convoy's centerpiece. "Well, bugger me," he breathed. In the truck's bed lay a corpse wrapped in a sheet and strapped to a gurney. Curiosity piqued, he pulled the sheet from the body's face.

It was Super Collie.

"Unbelievable," Paul muttered. Why the Hell would anyone be shipping Super Collie's stiff as if it were the Prime Minister? Suddenly his ASPEW sensors pinged. They detected a signal that matched the signatures of Daughter Night and Super Collie. Since Super Collie lay here, dead as a dodo, that could only mean that Zalika had managed to take Super Collie's power, as she had a year ago. The bearing on the signal remained constant while the strength grew, suggesting that its source moved toward him.

For the first time in quite a few years Paul-Constandinos Ulysses felt something akin to fear. Between Dr. Catlove's monster, Daitakerou, the Shadow Clan, the Kamakura guardian, and himself, he'd figured that at least one of them would get close enough to punch Zalika's ticket. All those hands seemed to have lost; Zalika obviously still existed and she'd grown in strength. He spent a moment monitoring police and military frequencies. Despite his destruction of the SASVS command post the authorities were organizing rapidly. All the remaining SASVS units and quite a number of police seemed to be on their way to see about the convoy. Trouble spots dotted the city but only relating to the convoy did he hear combat mentioned. There was talk of regular army, air force, and naval units headed for Wellington. In very short order this whole region would get very, very hot. Escape would be impossible... and no amount of influence of money would shield him from the consequences of what he'd done here. He glanced at his heads-up display, noting the icon which Dr. Catlove had appropriately marked with a skull and crossbones. Activating it would cause the suit's fission bottle to build pressure until it went super-critical. It wasn't a patch on the big hydrogen bombs but Dr. Catlove guaranteed a yield of at least six kilotons. Though less than half the power of Little Boy, the bomb which had destroyed Hiroshima, the doctor predicted 85% destruction of the central Wellington area and immediate casualties in excess of sixty thousand. The mountains and harbor would serve to confine and channel the blast, focusing it to best effect. Surely not even Zalika could survive that.

I swore I'd burn Wellington to the ground and plow salt into the soil if that's what it took, Paul thought to himself. This would accomplish that and right quick, too. He imagined the blast, a thousand times brighter than the sun. It would fade into an enormous, flame-shot cloud soaring up into the sky. Prevailing winds would drive it to the northeast; black rain would fall on Lambton Harbour and Hutt Valley, delivering a deadly cargo of radioactive fallout. Within a hundred or so meters around where Paul now stood the ground would be fused solid by the unimaginable heat of nuclear fusion. Out to around two kilometers everything flammable would be on fire, lit by the heat pulse. Any people within that zone not killed instantly would suffer horrible burns. Then a tremendous shock wave would surge out from the detonation point, smashing everything in its path. Concrete structures within four hundred or so meters would shatter; within a bit less than two kilometers wooden or lighter buildings would fall. Even beyond that windows would break and doors fly off their hinges. Collapsing buildings and flying debris would finish what the heat pulse started, inflicting the lion's share of deaths.

Paul scraped the tips of his metal fingers across the breastplate of his suit. He wasn't afraid of dying; he'd spend his life to accomplish his goal. He'd spent everything else, after all. He stepped out of the van and looked in the direction of Wellington Hospital. He couldn't see directly but leaping flames lit the sky. A ruddy yellow glow also lit the opposite horizon as well, in the direction of the container terminal. "No," he whispered. "This is personal, Zalika. Between you and me." He turned to go but hesitated. Why was Zalika coming here? Was she coming for him or... something else? He turned and had another look at the corpse. The convoy had been headed in the general direction of Wellington Hospital. Zalika seemed to be coming from there.

"No!" Paul snarled, scooping the body up one handed, leaping out of the van, and triggering his jump jets. Where Zalika was concerned, death wasn't necessarily the end. He couldn't imagine her wanting to bring Super Collie back to life but why take the chance?

All that remained was to find a way out Wellington. Preferably into an area devoid of people. "Ah, just the thing," Paul exclaimed after a quick review of contingencies. With Super Collie's body over his shoulder he bounded off toward the harbor, leaping from rooftop to rooftop. He slanted his course toward Point Jerningham, east of the Central Business district; he wanted to reach the water but stay away from Te Papa and the container terminal. The SASVS wasn't about to be caught by the same trick twice; even with everything going on they'd positioned a detachment to guard the command post. After a glance at his ASPEW sensors he nudged jet power to one hundred percent, then one hundred ten. He wasn't worried about the SASVS catching him but Zalika was closing in awfully damn fast. By the time he caught sight of the shore his suit's jet throat temperatures had redlined. He angled to the left, going for closest water. Fortunately the sea bottom dropped off quickly, so he didn't have to get too far out. His jump jets cut out halfway through his final leap, leaving no way to slow down before impact. He didn't hit bottom but even through his suit hitting the water was like getting run over by a bus. It surely didn't do Super Collie any good but what the Hell, she was dead already, a condition Paul hoped to avoid- at least until a point where it might do some good. He activated his hydrojets and motored out into the harbor; his ride should be along any minute now.

"My goodness!" Esmerelda exclaimed as she coasted to a stop by the wrecked convoy. Several police officers and a handful of SASVS troopers were aiding the wounded; the police froze in shock but the troopers leveled weapons. "Wait!" Esmerelda shouted, flinging out her hands-

Suddenly the world changed. Buildings, cars, and other objects turned blurry and indistinct, darkening and loosing their color as if seen thorough deep, cloudy water. People and other living creatures stood out, their forms indistinct but limed in pale light. The sky above lightened, turning deep red. The troopers opened fire; muzzle flashes from their weapons shadowed but didn't completely obscure the glow of their bodies. Esmerelda felt the bullets passing through her, tugging gently at her flesh. She strode forward, ignoring the sensation, passing through cars and even troopers. Inanimate objects felt cool; living ones felt hot and prickly. Inside the van she looked around, then ran her hands over the interior. "There isn't any body here," she said aloud- or what felt like aloud, at any rate. She stepped out of the van and looked around. A sea if lights surrounded her, shining through the hazy, insubstantial landscape. She concentrated; the lights faded... and a silvery thread came into being. One end connected to her heart. The other stretched away into the distance. She aligned herself with it and started running.

A deep rumbling in Paul's hydrophones signaled the arrival of his target. He kicked the hydrojets up to full power and slanted upwards in a line calculated to intercept the noise. At the surface he switched to jump jets and blasted into the air like a submarine launched missile.

The Lynx fast ferry, returning in from its second daily run to Picton, loomed out of the darkness. Paul came down hard on the high fore deck; he'd cracked a jet throat hitting the water. Still, the middling thrust remaining would do for now. He dropped Super Collie and bounded up onto the roof of the main deck, landing beside the narrow bridge. A single round of 20mm blew out one of the windows; he leaned up against the hole- his suit wouldn't fit through- and turned his speakers up to full volume. "Turn the ship around!" he commanded. For emphasis he let loose a round from his machine gun; one of the officers picking himself up after the window exploded fell prone again, screaming and clutching his thigh. Not because Paul cared a whit for the fellow's life but because he felt that the man's screams would make a more poignant statement than his dead body.

It worked. the young woman at the helm put it hard over; the ferry heeled as it swung into a sharp turn. "Very good," Paul continued, turning his speakers down to a more reasonable volume. "Now, a few points I wish to make clear. First and foremost, I am now in command of this vessel. The penalty for disobedience, for usurping my authority in any way, is death." He paused a moment to let that sink in. "You will not send any form of communication, nor acknowledge any, without my express permission. You will maintain course for Picton, at best possible speed, unless I specifically tell you otherwise. You may think that if I kill too many of you that I shan't be able to operate the ship. If that becomes an issue, I'll select a stand-in from among the passengers. One of you will now accompany me to the lounge deck while I explain matters to them. Oh, and one of you will go up onto the fore deck and retrieve someone I dropped there. Bring her to the lounge and set her in one of the nice chairs. She's a celebrity, after all." Paul grinned behind his helmet. Now that the preliminaries had been disposed of, it remained only to await the guest of honor.

Haimar sped past the wrecked convoy and took the next corner so hard the ambulance's inside wheels left the ground. "What are you doing?" Cymbeline shouted.

"Someone's hijacked the Lynx fast ferry," Haimar replied. "Besides, Zalika isn't here anymore. She's headed for the harbor."

After escaping more than half a dozen serious accidents by less than a hair's breadth the ambulance skidded to a halt in front of Te Papa. An SASVS truck waited there, along with half a dozen troopers and a powered suit, its fighting compartment standing open. Haimar leapt from the ambulance and into the suit; once it had sealed around him he checked his cannon. A trooper handed him a rocket launcher, which he slung on his shoulder. "What's the situation?" he asked.

"There's a suit on board the ferry, with jump jets, a 20mm cannon, and a small caliber machine gun," one of the troopers replied. "The ferry's headed for the harbor mouth and working up to cruising speed."

"What's our options?" Haimar asked, slinging the cannon and checking the rocket launcher.

"Slim," the trooper continued. "There's no surface vessel that can catch the ferry in a stern chase. It's aircraft or nothing."

"Blast!" Cymbeline shouted, stamping her foot and glaring out across the harbor. It didn't impinge on her conscious mind that her field of vision seemed to be framed at the edges with blood red fire. Nor did she stop to consider that the spirit of Sekhmet didn't really give her any more power, it only made her less concerned about the implications of summoning the power she knew was available. "Into the truck!" she bellowed, and leapt onto the bonnet. The trooper glanced at Haimar, who gestured for them to comply. A dozen troopers piled into the bed; Haimar held onto the back. Cymbeline stood, her hands raised above her head, eyes closed, concentrating. It should have given her pause that she was casting a spell she'd never studied; she should have realized it meant that the spirit of Sekhmet was subsuming more and more of her being. But as with so many other things in this eternal, terrible night, there wasn't time to stop and think about it. Even if she had noticed, the person she was becoming wasn't the sort to worry overmuch about it. She spoke the words of power; the glyphs on her body flashed and blazed. Coronas of eldritch energy blossomed around her hands, hissing and spitting like hot grease.

Haimar's ASPEW sensors chimed warnings. He frowned, hastily activating his layer one shields. Cymbeline was channeling power on a scale Daughter Night had a year ago. She'd grown in strength, sure, but this much? He hoped to Hell she understood what she was doing-

Cymbeline thrust her right hand at the sky. A bolt of lightning cracked from it, striking up into the night and sending a peal of thunder crashing across the city. But it didn't vanish the way normal lightning did. It seemed to have... cracked the vault of the sky. A network of fine, glowing lines spread across the firmament directly overhead. Suddenly the crack opened into a great, blazing tear... and something came through. At first it was nothing but a dark silhouette against the blazing light of the tear; then the tear closed, cutting off the light. The thing remained visible, this time from the fire trailing from its wings and body. As it circled down Haimar suddenly recognized it: a hawk. But hawks were small birds; one could perch on a person's forearm. This one swooped down and caught the truck in its claws as easily as an ordinary hawk might grab a vole. With a great thrust of its mighty wings it soared up and out across the harbor, banking toward Point Halswell. Ahead Haimar caught sight of the Lynx, already headed for Chaffers Passage at a good clip. The hawk would catch up with it, he judged... but he couldn't help wondering what would happen then.

Two crew members gingerly arranged Super Collie's sodden corpse in one of the chairs on the lounge deck. A trail of stained carpet marked where they'd carried her from the fore deck. Passengers, huddled in chairs of crouched on the floor, gasped in shock. A few of them vomited noisily.

"Yes," Paul announced, gesturing with one hand. "That is- was- Super Collie. As you can see, it's rather unlikely that she'll be along to save you. But if you do exactly what I say, you will live." For a time, at any rate. He didn't feel any need to mention that aloud, however.

The ASPEW sensors suddenly registered a new contact. Paul cursed and dashed aft to the stern. From a vantage point just above the auto deck he could see the hawk climbing out above Lambton Harbor and turning his way. A bit of zoom revealed that the object clutched in its talons was an army truck. Paul rechecked the sensors; the hawk represented an expression of power comparable to Zalika's but it wasn't Zalika. It was... a completely new signature. But who-

Realization struck like lightning. "Dr. Lathasar," Paul muttered. It seemed impossible, but who else could it be? He ducked back inside and opened a compartment on his suit's flank. From it he removed an object resembling an oversized rifle grenade and fitted it to the muzzle of his 20mm cannon. Due to the size and expense of these objects he carried only four; he'd best make this one count. His suit's computer interfaced with one in the warhead; all tests came back green. The air around him hissed and flickered as his ASPEW pack built up to full power. Instead of shielding him, though, the energy flowed into the warhead. What to do about Zalika's sorcery was a question he'd considered at length over the past year. Doktor Catlove had modified the ASPEW circuits; the warhead could store a tremendous amount of energy... but it would short out spectacularly if not fired in a minute or two. With the grenade charged he shut down everything but passive sensors and programmed his suit for maximum stealth. The grenade itself would show as clearly to SASVS sensors as to his own, but he bet on the fact that riding so close to the hawk would make scanning difficult. He waited, while the signal grew in strength. He needed them to be close, but not so close they might actually succeed in boarding.

Now. Paul leapt out. The hawk, as big as a small jetliner, filled the sky. Fire trailing from its feathers painted the sea in flickering gold. Its eyes blazed like the sun. Paul launched his grenade right down its throat.

The hawk's head exploded in a dazzling flash. The body reared back, dissolving in a burst of flame and a shower of sparks. The truck plunged into the sea hardly a dozen meters from the ferry's stern.

As she tore up Oriental Parade toward Snapper Point Esmerelda noticed a bright flash from behind and above on her left. She slid to a stop and turned around just in time to see the sky open up and the Horizon of Horus drop through. It swooped down, scooped something up from the waterfront, and swept out across the harbor.

"Dear oh dear," Esmerelda muttered. That could only be Cymbeline, and wielding far more power than she could possibly control. Esmerelda reached out with her thoughts but a flash of white hot rage drove her back. The spirit of Sekhmet had worked its influence into Cymbeline's being, like tree roots cracking a boulder. If things continued as they were Cymbeline would cease to exist entirely. Esmerelda sat, concentrating on the thread connecting her to her body. After a momentary disorientation she found herself gazing upward at an Art Deco ceiling made of reflective metallic tiles. In it she saw a field of wide, comfortable armchairs with red arm and headrests, interspersed with round, wooden tables. People sat in some of the chairs, though apparently none close to her. She almost lifted her head for a look around; her body's eyes weren't in good shape and the mirrored ceiling only made things worse. She restrained herself; seeing her body moving around would no doubt alarm people, not to mention tipping her hand. Now, at least, things made sense: her body was on board the Lynx fast ferry. So, presumably, was her quarry... and Cymbeline, rushing heedlessly headlong, as one would expect from the avatar of Sekhmet.

Esmerelda jumped to her feet. In this place she could pass through water as easily as air or buildings but if she ran after the Lynx she'd be on the sea floor, with the ship far above her head and no way to reach it. She needed a boat of her own. She jumped into the water and ran across the harbor bed, then leapt up onto the wharf of the Overseas Passenger Terminal. At which point she realized suddenly that she wasn't alone.

A line of people shambled along the wharf. They moved slowly, staring blankly at the ground before them, their expressions empty. They were not vague, glowing forms such as Esmerelda had seen earlier. They looked completely normal and solid. They were also, to a one, naked. They all seemed to be about the same age, too: pre-teens, just before puberty. At the foot of the wharf they dispersed, apparently coming from all over the city. At the head-

At the head of the wharf the line went up a gangway into the side of a ship. Not a modern cruise liner but an old one, from the 1920's or 30's. Esmerelda found herself moving toward the gangway, walking beside the shuffling figures. At one point she passed one that looked older; he actually glanced at her as she went by. Then she came face to face with a towering figure. She couldn't help taking a step back; she knew she wasn't short but this person nevertheless loomed over her. He wore a cowl and robe of midnight black... and in one hand he carried a scythe, which somehow gleamed in the non-light. The fingers wrapped around the wooden shaft were nothing but naked, bleached bones.

"Why are you afraid?" the figure asked in a voice like dry bones scraping together. "Are we not old friends, you and I?" He changed suddenly, into an angel in flowing white... with eyes as black as night and holding a sword wreathed in flame. He changed again... and he was Anpu, holding an ankh.

Esmerelda swallowed. All this seemed... familiar and strange, at the same time. "I need... to catch a boat," she said. Best stick with the simple, straightforward things. "Can you help me?"

"Of course," he replied. "No place or time is barred to me." He once again became grim Death, transferring the scythe to his left hand and gesturing expansively with his right. As the black robe rolled back Esmerelda saw the naked bones of his forearm and caught a glimpse of his empty rib cage. His skeletal fingers seemed to stir the air... and suddenly a great horse stood there. Unlike its master it seemed quite alive... until one looked at its eyes. They stared, as glassy and empty as those of a head on a taxidermist's wall. It's coat was white, but it was the white of something that had drowned in dark, cold water. With an easy motion Death mounted his pale horse and offered his hand.

Esmerelda shivered. Anpu had felt... comforting, somehow, despite what he represented. Death, on the other hand, seemed to be the very font from which terror flowed. Knowing that they were the different aspects of the same entity didn't help in the slightest. She tried lifting her arm but found herself taking a step backward instead. Having Zalika's knowledge only made it so much worse; she understood the awful bargain she was making by taking Death's hand. There, in that moment, it suddenly all made sense. Zalika had gained her terrible power by making this very same bargain... but the price she'd paid for it was that her soul remained here, trapped forever in this place of terror and shadow. Esmerelda whimpered, her knees buckling. She realized now that her own impulsiveness had protected her; it kept her from dwelling on things. But it could not help her here; she had to make a cold and deliberate choice, fully aware of the consequences. She tried to think of John but the icy touch of fear drove even him away. She was completely and utterly alone now, with only Death as a companion.

Something clattered nearby. Esmerelda looked up... and saw Daitakerou's sword. She blinked; she'd forgotten that she had it. The blade gleamed with the same pale, Hellish light as Death's scythe. It pooled and pulsed in the runes carved into the metal. Which itself seemed almost... transparent. It was transparent; the glowing runes hung in space, in a sword-shaped window into some other place. Esmerelda felt her eyes drawn to it... and she saw them. Dark figures, hardly more than shadows. Except only their faces, turned toward Esmerelda. Not in hope; theirs were the expressions of those to whom all hope is lost. Even the hope that Death would deliver them from their torment.

Esmerelda drew a shuddering breath and lifted herself on shaking hands. She looked over her shoulder at the departed souls boarding the ghostly ship. They'd died, yes... but they'd go on, to be reborn in another world. The souls trapped in the sword wouldn't be reborn. They'd stay in there forever; not even Death could set them free.

"I can," Esmerelda whispered. She took up the sword, gripping it tightly in both hands.

"You can," a voice said. Esmerelda turned; Friday stood there, surrounded by a warm, silvery glow. "You can," he repeated. "You're the Guardian Shepherd." He nodded toward Death. "Even he is, in his own way. He guides the souls on their way to the next life. Keeps 'em from going astray."

Tears stung Esmerelda's eyes. She opened her mouth to thank Friday but couldn't speak.

"There's no time anyway," Friday said as if he heard Esmerelda's thoughts. "There's people that need your help... and only you can go where's needed to reach them in time."

Esmerelda straightened. She took Friday's hand, gripping it tightly, then let go and took the one offered by Death. He swung her up onto the saddle before him as if she weighed nothing. His horse turned and leapt onto the water, across which it ran as if it were a solid as earth. Esmerelda clutched the sword in one hand, the saddle with the other; Death's horse flew across the water with dizzying speed. They cut across the base of Point Jerningham and turned south, straight toward Wellington Airport. The runaways and terminals flashed by and they took to the water again at Lyall Bay. By then the Lynx has cleared Chaffers Passage and was well out into Cook Strait.

Esmerelda gasped. Cymbeline was still in pursuit... but she'd exchanged the Horizon of Horus for a much more dangerous mount.

Paul nodded in satisfaction as the truck and everyone on it vanished into the dark water. Even the splash was quickly erased by the Lynx's turbulent wake. He turned to go-

A brilliant flash lit the water, for an instant turning the waves to pale, scintillating green. Paul's ASPEW sensors shrilled an alarm. The ocean erupted as if a bomb had gone off; vapor and spume fountained skyward, lit from within by what seemed to be dancing flames. Something dark writhed at the center of the column of water... and burst forth as it dissipated.

Paul swallowed convulsively. Fear, to his way of thinking, was something that happened to other people. Nevertheless he had to grip the rail tightly to keep his hand from shaking. What he saw some out of the explosion was the head of a snake. A head several times larger than the truck the hawk had been carrying. It's body, as big around as a subway train, trailed out behind it for what must have been a couple hundred meters. It swam after the fashion of its kind, so rapidly that its neck threw up a plume of white water. Paul didn't need his laser range finder to know that it was closing; it would catch up to the Lynx in no more than a few minutes.

Lightning flickered in the sky and thunder boomed. Jagged bolts struck down from the heavens, apparently upon the snake's head... but they never connected. A figure stood there, a figure wreathed in yellow flame, her body covered in glyphs that blazed as bright as the sun. The lightning fell into her open palms... and remained there, twisting around her hands and forearms like a nest of vipers. She cocked her right arm and let fly; a dozen lighting bolts exploded from her fingertips, striking in the open auto deck. The Lynx shuddered and staggered as bolt after bolt tore through it, tossing cars and trucks about like jackstraws, scoring bulkheads, and setting everything flammable alight. Fuel spilled from wrecked vehicles lit with a roar, turning the deck into a seething lake of fire. Paul's suit switched automatically to internal air as thick, oily smoke boiled up through the hatchways and out the stern. Alarms shrilled as the ferry's fire control system struggled to contain the blaze.

It was a change in the Lynx's engine note, conducted to him through the deck under his feet, that brought Paul back to his senses. The ferry was slowing. "Bloody Hell!" he screamed, triggering his jump jets. Lighting bolts split the sky all around him; he evaded them with unconscious grace until the bulk of the Lynx's superstructure once again shielded him. He landed by the bridge and thrust his arm through the shattered window. "Did I tell you bastards to stop?" he screamed at maximum volume. When the captain turned Paul shot him in the face. He'd forgotten to switch weapons so he used the 20mm cannon accidentally. The captain's head exploded in a spray of gore simply from being struck; his flesh didn't offer enough resistance to trigger the shell's explosive charge. Slamming into a row of consoles on the opposite side of the bridge did; the consoles exploded, spraying the bridge with shrapnel. The radio operator went down with a scream, her fur seared by the blast and her flesh cut to ribbons by the jagged fragments. She convulsed once and lay still. By some strange happenstance the fellow at the helm remained completely unscathed, except only that he'd wet his trousers. He opened his mouth as if to speak but he shoved the throttles hard against their stops. Paul activated his machine gun and shot the coxswain three times in the face; the bridge crew had outlived its usefulness in any case. Without anyone steering they'd eventually crash into the South Island coast... but Paul didn't seriously belive that the ferry- or he- would be around long enough for that to be a problem. That taken care of he dropped through the foredeck hatch onto the auto deck, which had become a foreshadowing of Hell. Despite roaring flames on every side smoke filled the air so thickly that he couldn't see except on infra-red. Every so often the fire reached another fuel tank, which would explode with a roar and a shower of flaming petrol. Paul felt the searing heat even through his suit; warnings flashed on his HUD, advising him that his ammo would start cooking off in a few minutes. He grabbed one of his special grenades and fitted it to his cannon; even on infra-red he couldn't see the far end of the auto deck... but he didn't doubt for a moment that his adversary would be there. Less than halfway along he met her, striding forward from the stern. She walked through burning petrol without seeming to be aware of it; flames wreathed her body as if she herself were on fire but left her unscathed. Her eyes blazed like twin suns. Paul's ASPEW sensors shrilled constantly, every reading pegged at the top end of the scale. He raised his cannon, carefully took aim-

In the very instant Paul pulled the trigger the deck heaved violently, tilting by at least thirty degrees. The grenade missed, sailing past the woman and out into the night. Vehicles tipped and slid to the low side of the deck; Paul triggered his jump jets and whanged off the ceiling, barely under control, but he managed to get past the avalanche of wreckage without being buried. The lioness jumped from car to car like a lumberjack riding logs in a stream, not only avoiding being crushed but gaining some ground in the process. Then the deck tipped just as violently the other way, and all the cars came back. Paul leapt, and more by luck than skill managed to escape through the foredeck hatch. In the middle of what should have been open air he slammed into something that sent him spinning; he crashed into the roof of the passenger deck hard enough to dent it but still would have gone over the side if he hadn't managed to launch a magnetic grapple. Even then he found himself dangling toward the bow of the ferry instead of the side, as he would have expected. He flipped onto his back and sat up, at which point he understood the depth of the problem. The giant snake had gotten a coil around the Lynx's bow, which would explain what he'd hit after coming through the hatch. The snake's weight dragged the bow down, forcing the stern up into the air. While Paul watched a second coil rose from the water and threw itself around the ferry's superstructure, smashing the bridge and part of the passenger deck. The stern rose even higher and the bow sank deeper; Paul guessed that if the snake kept wrapping itself around the bow the ferry would eventually stand right up on its nose. Of course then seawater would pour in through the foredeck hatch and the shattered windows along the passenger deck. Paul used another grapple to haul himself to the stern; he dropped over the edge of the passenger deck roof onto the walkway above the auto deck. A sheet of flame curled out of the auto deck right in front of him; the metal was already so hot that paint smoked and bubbled. He wondered briefly how long it would take the fire to burn through into the passenger deck. Through his boots he felt metal groaning under thermal stress- and mechanical; the snake's coils tightened, crushing the ferry's hull like a python it's prey. "Blast!" Paul snarled, pounding the rail with his fist. Wouldn't it just figure if this damn snake destroyed the ferry before Zalika arrived? He tore open a hatch and hurried forward along the passenger deck. Carefully, since the extreme tilt made walking dangerous.

Smoke filled the passenger area. Heat coming through the deck set the carpet to smoldering. Fortunately for the passengers there, clinging to chairs and sobbing with fear, fresh air from the shattered windows farther down carried the smoke away, leaving a narrow zone where it was still possible to breathe. Until the fire broke through, at which point the very same draft would send it blasting through like a colossal blowtorch. As Paul worked his way forward partially melted carpeting tore under his feet; padding underneath sizzled as if on a grill. A woman threw herself at him, oblivious to the fact that her fur sizzled when it touched the hull of his suit. He absently tossed her away; the passengers didn't matter any more. As he approached the spot where Super Collie's corpse had been laid the ceiling above him sagged, the mirrored panels shattering and falling. Lights flickered and went out. Not much time left, Paul though grimly, reaching out to grab Super Collie's foot-

A fire door a bit forward and to Paul's left swung open. A jet of flame ten meters long erupted through the passenger deck, incinerating everything in its path. Paul screamed; with so much vaporized material in the air the whole deck would light off if it were soaked in petrol.

The lioness stepped through the door and gestured. All the flames vanished is if they'd never been. Paul looked up; he could see the white-hot conflagration behind her but it didn't come through the open hatchway. She stepped forward and pushed the door shut; her fingertips left glowing red marks on the metal. "Well well," she commented, cracking her knuckles. "Looks like it's just you and me, buddy."

From the back of the truck Haimar didn't see the grenade coming. He did hear one of his men shout something... then an explosion of light seemed to erupt right in his face. The suit's flare compensators should have blocked it but it seemed almost like the light came right through the metal. He was falling.... and hit the ocean with a tremendous crash. He saw the hawk dissolve in a shower of sparks, then the water closed over him and he sank like a stone. The suits could swim if equipped with floatation packs and hydrojets but the attachments were too cumbersome to lug around on land. Even without them he could walk on the sea floor... except that the environmental seals on the fighting compartment would fail long before he reached it. The suit's internal air supply wouldn't last long enough in any case. Haimar muttered a curse and released the hatch.

Icy water slammed into the fighting compartment, but pressure held the hatch closed. Haimar pushed as hard as he could; finally the hatch swung open. He remembered to exhale steadily as he struck for the surface so his lungs wouldn't rupture from the pressure change, but as he swam on, encountering nothing but more water, he wondered if it would matter. He didn't have an ocean survival kit, which would have included a life vest, torch, and chemical glow strips. Without light he couldn't even follow his own bubbles. He struck on anyway, while his lungs burned, his extremities froze, and explosions of illusory color burst in his vision. When his hand slapped wood he didn't realize it at first because the frigid water had sapped all feeling from his fingers. Then his head broke the surface; he sucked a gulp of air that nevertheless contained more than a bit of water but just then he considered that a minor inconvenience. Of more immediate concern was that his numbed hands couldn't grip the slick sides of the craft against which he'd bumped. Nor could his legs continue to hold him up; rigorous physical training left him lean and exceptionally fit, which meant he didn't float worth a damn. He sank back into the water.

A hand caught Haimar's wrist. It was a soft, female hand, coated with silky black fur. An exceptionally strong hand, as it hoisted him from the water and dragged him over the rail. He lay on the deck, shivering violently and gasping for breath. The hand shifted to his shoulder, another settling on his hip. Soothing warmth flowed from the contact, banishing pain, numbness, and fatigue. Haimar pushed himself up, gathering his legs beneath him. For the first time he looked at his rescuer. It was Daughter Night.

Haimar wasn't consciously aware of his muscles tensing, of minutely shifting his weight for a strike, but Daughter Night read the motions as clearly as if she'd picked his intent right out of his mind. She shifted to counter and Haimar paused; even discounting her previously observed powers, the strength and skill she'd exhibited right here meant he hadn't a hope of touching her, training or no.

"Please don't, Haimar," Daughter Night said. "We don't have time for it. We have to stop Cymbeline."

Haimar's eyes narrowed slightly. The voice sounded right- he'd watched the news tapes made during Daughter Night's previous rampage- but it lacked the arrogant disdain he recalled so clearly. In its place he heard... something else. Tenderness, he would have said, were such a thing not utterly out of place in the person of someone like Daughter Night.

"Haimar, look," Daughter Night said, pointing.

Haimar hesitated, not wanting to turn his back. Then he noticed the glint of yellow light on her costume. He turned and looked.

The Lynx had stopped. Flames leaked from portholes along its flank and roared from the stern, which tilted sharply upward. The bow had been forced down almost to the water by the body of a gigantic serpent. While Haimar watched another loop took hold, this one just aft of the bridge. The ferry settled back on a more even keel now that the weight wasn't all forward but Haimar could see the superstructure collapsing under the crushing coils.

"She's summoned Apep the Devourer," Daughter Night explained. "That's the snake that tries to eat the sun every night while it passes through the Underwould. It would, too, if Ra and Osiris didn't fight it off."

At the moment Apep seemed to have his heart set on devouring the Lynx. He kept trying to put his mouth over the bow, but it was as yet still too wide. The coils continued their inexorable crushing, gradually collapsing the ferry in on itself. Haimar guessed that the ferry would probably sink before Apep got it down to where he could swallow it... but that wouldn't make any difference to the people trapped on board. "Why is she doing this?" he asked.

"She called the spirit of Sekhmet into herself," Daughter Night explained. "Sekhmet is the goddess of vengeance and destruction. Ra created her from the fire of His eye to punish the world for its lack of reverence to Him. But she was so terrible she threatened to destroy everything, and even Ra couldn't stop her."

"Then what stopped her from destroying the world?" Haimar wanted to know.

"Ra changed the blood of the slain into wine," Daughter Night continued. "When Sekhmet lapped it up she got drunk passed out. While she was unconscious Ra re-made her into Bast, goddess of love and pleasure."

"Can you get rid of the snake?" Haimar asked.

"No." Daughter Night shook her head. "Only Cymbeline can do that now."

"And she's gone mad with bloodlust," Haimar muttered.

"Yes." Daughter Night nodded.

"Can you change blood into wine?" Haimar inquired.

"Not for real." Daughter Night shook her head sadly.

"What's her weakness, then?" Haimar demanded. "How is she vulnerable?"

"Bast and Sekhmet are opposite faces of the same entity," Daughter Night said. "If we could touch the spirit of Bast in her then it would drive Sekhmet back."

"How do we do that?"

"You made love to her recently, didn't you?" Daughter Night inquired.

"What has that to do with anything?" Haimar demanded.

"It gives you a connection. You may be able to reach her, to... get her to think about things other than death and destruction."

"Will that be enough?" Haimar frowned.

"It'd better be," Daughter Night replied. "It's all we have."

A tremendous gout of smoke, fire, and steam erupted from the Lynx's foredeck hatch. The ferry had settled noticeably lower in the water too. "We don't have much time," Haimar muttered. "What do I have to do?"

"Anything at all you can to get Cymbeline thinking about love and pleasure," Daughter Night replied. "Bring us in," she added over her shoulder.

For the first time Haimar noticed the other person in the boat, a tall figure robed all in black. He held a single oar, which he began sculling. The boat pulled up to the Lynx's side... but even with the catwalk over the entrance to the auto deck. Haimar looked down and saw the water far below. Directly in front of him a curtain of fire roared out of the Lynx's interior but Haimar felt not the faintest trace of heat. No matter; he set his foot on the boat's gunwale-

"One moment, please." Daughter Night stepped up to Haimar's side. "I know you're brave, Haimar, but there's no reason to send you in without any weapons at all." She caught him by the neck and kissed him on the mouth.

Paul leapt, firing a blast from his machine gun while grabbing one of his two remaining ASPEW grenades. The lioness didn't even bother to dodge; the bullets walked across her chest but vanished in little puffs of flame before ever touching her. She flung out her arm; a bolt of lighting leapt from her palm, striking Paul square in the chest and knocking him head over heels. When Paul came to rest he'd lost the grenade and brilliant colors flashed in his vision. Half of them were in his head and faded out; the other half were in his HUD. That one blast had inflicted serious damage and nearly overloaded his shields. He wouldn't last long in a stand-up fight at this rate. That is if there was even anything he could fight with. If the machine gun didn't work he didn't figure the 20mm cannon would either. Likewise the torpedoes, which only worked in the water anyway, and the 40mm grenade launcher. This, quite obviously, was a super-power fight; conventional weapons were nothing but so much dead weight. He jettisoned them, along with their ammo packs, which lightened him considerably. He popped his claws, a set of 20cm blades mounted on each hand, and leapt at the lioness, using his jump jets to propel him even faster.

The lioness laughed. She obviously didn't think that mere blades would be any more use than the other weapons Paul had discarded. But the claws were made of the same material as the charge coils in the ASPEW grenades; they drew energy from his shields, channeling and focusing it. The lioness twisted aside, throwing out a hand to block Paul's strike... and the blades on his left hand slammed right through her forearm. She screamed, throwing a punch with her other hand. It connected on Paul's shoulder; his whole suit rang and he stumbled backwards, tripping over a chair. His blade tore out of the lioness' arm, dripping blood that glowed like hot iron. It might as well have been hot iron; everything flammable it touched burst into flame. The lioness slammed the chair out of the way with her foot and moved in but she kept her injured arm tight against her side. Paul gave ground, blocking a flurry of kicks and punches. Unfortunately his suit, good as it was, couldn't match her speed and dexterity; she landed a kick on the side of his helmet that, even through the shock webbing, left his mouth gashed and bleeding. He back-flipped over a row of couches and leapt aft, using his jump jets to propel him up the sloping deck. The lioness cleared the way by loosing a lightening bolt that blew all the chairs and tables into kindling.

"Stop!" Paul shouted, grabbing a passenger and pressing his claws against the person's throat. He wasn't sure if the hostage was male or female, not that it mattered one way or the other.

"Or what?" the lioness demanded, loosing another lighting bolt. Paul kept ahold of the hostage while he dodged because there simply wasn't time to do anything else; thus his armored body protected the person from what surely would have been mortal damage. Paul flung the useless hostage away and dropped to his belly, triggering his jump jets. He rocketed up the slope, flinging up a spray of broken chairs and tables in his wake. The lioness let loose with a storm of lightning bolts which mostly vaporized furniture and blew out windows.

At a moment chosen more by luck and instinct than anything else Paul tucked into a roll. A lightning bolt slammed into the deck right beside him. Then he unrolled and leapt, jets on full. Again he'd managed to get above the lioness and she'd obligingly cleared his line of approach. With only one arm she couldn't block as effectively; both of Paul's claw sets slammed into her chest. The force of impact knocked her backwards; she and Paul tumbled down the slanting deck, locked together. Through more luck than skill Paul landed on top when they crashed to a stop in a pile of wreckage against the forward bulkhead. The lioness coughed, spraying blood on the face of Paul's helmet. Then she bit him. Incredibly, her teeth actually began to punch through his armor. He tore his left hand free from her chest and punched at her head; she managed to catch his wrist. He strained with all his might, driving his servos to full power and then some, but nevertheless she pushed him slowly back. He worked his right arm free but instead of stabbing he grabbed his last ASPEW grenade. Just then she brought her knee up into his crotch; his displays fuzzed out for a second and he almost lost the grenade. He shifted his feet quickly so she couldn't get leverage. It only bought him time; her right arm was still pushing him away. Shortly she'd have him far enough away that she could throw him off... if she let go with her teeth, at any rate. Which might not be necessary; already two of Paul's screens had shattered as his helmet bent under the pressure. Not much more and she'd either tear his helmet off or crush his skull. At least she wasn't using lighting, so Paul elected to take a chance: he shunted power from his shields to the grenade so it would charge faster. She seemed to grow stronger; another screen cracked. But gamble paid off; the grenade read all green. Paul shoved it between their bodies, right up against her chest, and set it off.

Paul's suit bounced. The grenade's power lay not in the physical force of its detonation but in the energy pulse it released. Paul's shields tamped the blast just as sandbags concentrated the force of dynamite, focusing it all into the lioness. Of course it blew every breaker in Paul's suit as well; his HUD indicated that only 14% of his shield capacity remained. But she wasn't biting through his helmet any more. Slowly he pushed himself up; his servos weren't operating at full efficiency either. She lay on her back, spasming as if in the grip of seizure. Paul drew back his arm and plunged his blades straight into her heart... except that when the points touched her sternum they stopped as if he'd tried to punch them through concrete. One of them broke. For several precious seconds Paul's mind reeled, unable to grasp what had gone wrong. Then he understood: when his shields went down the blades lost power as well. Ordinary knives, even high quality ones, couldn't overcome whatever mystic defenses she'd erected around herself. He shunted all power to the blades and struck again.

It was enough. The blades slammed home, right through the lioness' heart. Paul twisted his hand... and felt the blades snap off in the wound. He jerked his hand away and saw the blades dissolve in the glowing pulmonary blood spurting from her chest. With a shock he realized that his gauntlet was dissolving as well. Spatters were eating through the plastron of his suit. He threw himself aside, shunting power back to his shields. That stopped the erosion, but significant damage had been done. He's lost his right hand blades, and while he could still punch the fingers weren't capable of gripping. The armor on the front of his suit hadn't been penetrated but it had been weakened. He struggled to his feet... and noticed suddenly that he was standing ankle deep in water. He glanced out the windows and saw water pouring in. The Lynx's bow had gone completely under; from below he heard roaring and crashing as compartments flooded. Time was very nearly up. He glanced at the lioness and saw water close over her, hissing and frothing as it mingled with her blood. Time was very short; already the water had risen to his knees. He triggered his jump jets but all he got was a bang that almost knocked him over. Cold water in the jet throats had cracked the nozzles. He grabbed a handful of frayed carpeting and hauled himself up.

Paul's ASPEW sensors pinged. Zalika had arrived.

Haimar jumped. He passed through the curtain of flame and landed on the catwalk behind it. A small part of his mind commented that he shouldn't have survived, but at the moment that wasn't important. He tried to open the door into the passenger deck but it was jammed. Absently he wiped scorched and melted paint off his hand and noted, in a distant way, that his boots were on fire. He took the sword in both hands, positioned himself, and lunged. The silver-black blade sheared through steel as if it were cardboard, throwing up a rooster tail of blue-black sparks. Haimar kicked the door out of the way and stepped through, wising he had a scabbard for the sword so he could use both hands while he negotiated the treacherous, steeply tilted passages. Part of him wondered where he'd gotten the sword in the first place; he recognized it as Daitakerou's but he'd thought Daughter Night had carried it away. That didn't matter either; there were passengers to rescue... and Cymbeline as well.

Screams and wails greeted Haimar as he finally entered the passenger area. Passengers, and some crew, huddled at the aft end of the compartment, near a row of broken windows, as far from the ravening flames as they could get... and the battle going on below.

Save them! the thought burst suddenly into Haimar's mind. He actually transferred the sword to his left hand and turned to the nearest of the wailing passengers before catching himself. There wasn't anything he could do for them; getting them off the Lynx wouldn't do a bit of good if they were promptly destroyed by whomever won the fight at the other end of the compartment. He had to put an end to that first. He took the sword in both hands and shifted to where he could get a better view.

So far as Haimar could see no trace of Cymbeline remained in the lioness who roared and slung lightning bolts with no regard for where they might land if the missed their target. Her opponent was much larger, in an obviously custom made power suit, but it didn't help him much. Only barely was he keeping ahead of Cymbeline's ferocious assault and his suit had suffered grievous damage even so.

Stop them! the impulsive thought commanded and Haimar almost leapt right them. He forced the thought back; leaping into the middle of the battle would be a mistake. He had to disable both opponents at once; he couldn't afford to be tied down with one while leaving the other free.

The suit leapt, dozing through chairs and tables. Cymbeline fired wildly. The suit did what looked like a back-flip and roared back down at her. They crashed together and went tumbling down to the very front of the room. When Haimar saw the suit lift its arm, blades gleaming evilly, he knew it was over.

No! the impulsive voice screamed, but now Haimar resisted it easily. War was about hard choices. The suited figure had done half of Haimar's work for him, taking out Cymbeline. With luck Haimar would manage to strike a telling blow before the suited person noticing him coming.

But Cymbeline might die, the impulsive thought interjected.

That's the way of it, Haimar thought back, shifting his stance and raising the sword. There's more than her life at stake. Any moment now-

Do you understand the cost? a different thought inquired. This one felt... colder. More calculating and ruthless. More like Haimar himself, in fact.

"Yes," Haimar replied. He wasn't consciously aware of all the aspects of the plan that formed in his mind but he knew that in implementing it he would, most likely, perish. Which, at that moment, didn't matter any more to him than Cymbeline's death. Not that it didn't sadden him, it merely wouldn't affect his decision to act. The possibility of having to trade his life for victory was one a soldier lived with every day of his life.

The moment came. Haimar leapt, without the slightest hesitation.

Paul whirled... and saw Captain Wilkes flying down at him, with Daitakerou's sword in hand. Without a thought Paul flung his left arm up, blades extended. Captain Wilkes wore only his Army fatigues and he wasn't even a super; Paul's blades punched right through the center of his chest. But even as Paul flung his arm out to cast the body aside the captain seemed to split in half. The other half was Zalika, in Super Collie's costume, with the sword in her hands. In flinging the captain away Paul left himself open; he punched with his right hand but it was already too late. Zalika drove the blade straight into his face. His helmet, already weakened by the lioness' ferocious attack, popped off. He drew a breath to complete the Alpha-Omega code-

"Stop!" Zalika commanded. Paul's shields were still up, and even at their reduced capacity they could have blocked a telepathic command... except that loosing his helmet had broken the shield's integrity. He went limp, the words unspoken.

Esmerelda drew a shuddering breath. Now that she could see into Paul's mind she understood how very near a thing it had been. In a way she'd been lucky; without Cymbeline to distract him and soften him up she never would have gotten close enough strike without him blowing them all to kingdom come. Then the deck shuddered beneath her and water surged up; they weren't out of the woods yet, not by a long shot. She commanded Paul to gather all the passengers and crew he could find at the stern and rushed to Captain Wilkes.

Haimar was dead. Paul's blades had turned his chest into so much hamburger. Esmerelda's mouth worked, tears filling her eyes. "Zalika!" she screamed, pounding the deck with her fists. "You knew this would happen! You sacrificed him!"

Suddenly the room spun crazily. Esmerelda gagged and fell over on her side. The disorientation passed... and she found herself floating in the air, looking down at Haimar and herself.

Not herself. Zalika. Whose soul had separated from Esmerelda's and resumed control of its body.

"Yes, I knew," Zalika replied, getting to her feet and sliding down the deck. "I also knew you won't do it, no matter what the cost. Which would have been Paul blowing us all to bits and letting Apep loose on the world. A fusion bomb couldn't kill him any more than ordinary bullets could kill Cymbeline. You can't kill him at all; he's a force of nature." She slid into the water; a mass of chairs, tables, and other debris bobbed in it.

Zalika rooted around in the water and dragged something out. Only when its head flopped back did Esmerelda recognize it as Cymbeline. She wasn't Sekhmet any more... but the wounds inflicted by Paul's blades remained. Likewise the limbs she'd lost to Daitakerou's sword were gone again, the stumps capped by masses of ugly, purple-black scar tissue. She flopped bonelessly as Zalika dragged her by the one remaining arm to a clear spot on the deck. "Is- is she-" Esmerelda stammered.

"Yes, she's dead," Zalika interrupted, touching Cymbeline's chest. The wounds closed but no life returned to the body.

"Then, bring her back!" Esmerelda shrieked.

"I can't," Zalika replied. "She's a spirit power now. I can't make her come if she doesn't want to."

"What the Hell are you blathering about?" Esmerelda screamed.

"Do not invoke that place in vain!" Zalika snarled, her eyes- literally- blazing with anger. "Right now you're very close to ending up there for real! Now quit screwing around and come on!" She grabbed Esmerelda and pulled. The world smeared, as if it were a still-wet painting over which someone had laid a sheet of glass, then slid it to one side. Then it happened again in reverse, but the scene that came into focus was somewhere else. Esmerelda looked around at an enormous hypostyle hall, from a narrow corridor running down the center of a forest of columns. Which were inscribed, from foot to capital, with brightly painted Egyptian designs. Looking the other way she saw Zalika; they'd become half-and-half without Esmerelda even noticing. They wore Super Collie's costume, except that Zalika also wore gold circlet with a snake head crest over a square cut black wig, an ankh pendant on a chain around her neck, and several extra bracelets on her wrist and ankle, many of which seemed to employ a snake motif. She led Captain Wilkes by the arm. Esmerelda carried Daitakerou's sword. The spirits within whispered and jostled one another, apparently trying to see out.

Esmerelda found herself walking forward... and her attention focused suddenly upon what it was toward which she walked. At the end of the hall a towering figure sat on an enormous throne. Esmerelda thought of pictures she'd seen, of statues of Egyptian kings. This wasn't a statue, though; the figure was real, for all that he would have been ten or twelve meters tall standing up. He was a canine of some sort, with the same lean, powerful frame she recalled in Anpu. This one's muzzle wasn't quite so pointed and his ears not so tall, though still sharp and erect. His pelt was very short and colored an almost uniform dark, sandy brown. He wore the accoutrements of a great king: headdress, kilt, and fancy sandals. In one hand he held a shepherd's crook, in the other a flail. His entire body, except his face, was swathed in linen.

"That's Asar- Osiris- god of the underworld," Zalika whispered.

A sound drew Esmerelda's eyes. On the stone floor at Asar's feet lay a naked feline woman, hunched into a ball and sobbing.

"That's Cymbeline," Zalika said.

"But-" Esmerelda exclaimed but cut herself off. Voices carried remarkably well in the stone hall, and she found herself not wishing to attract attention. Nevertheless, the woman on the floor looked nothing like Cymbeline. She was too old- by twenty or thirty years- and too heavy by a good ten or fifteen kilos. Her pelt was at least approximately tan colored but overlaid with a dark tabby pattern.

"When you first met her she was already the avatar of Bast," Zalika explained. "This is her true form, or at least her original one. She's fifty years old, overweight, plain, and near-sighted."

"Why... why is she here?" Esmerelda whispered.

"To be judged," Zalika replied.

Esmerelda suddenly noticed an old fashioned balance scale standing on the floor beside Asar's throne. Beside it stood a normal sized woman holding a feather. Some kind of bird, with a short, pointed bill and hairy, mottled brown feathers.

"That's Maat," Zalika explained. "She's an ostrich. Only the males have black and white feathers. Asar is going to place Cymbeline's heart on one side of the balance, and Maat will put her feather on the other. If the feather is heavier, Cymbeline will be admitted to the Underworld."

"What if it isn't?" Haimar asked.

Esmerelda jumped. She'd forgotten about him.

"Then Asar feeds Cymbeline's heart to the Devourer of Souls," Zalika said.

Esmerelda gulped. Something lurked in the shadow of Asar's throne, something misshapen that had narrow, glowing red eyes. "What happens then?" she asked in a barely audible voice.

"Then Cymbeline's soul is destroyed, and she's lost to us," Zalika concluded.

Haimar shook off Zalika's grip marched forward. For the first time Asar acknowledged the newcomers, his eyes flicking to Haimar. He gestured with one finger and Haimar recoiled as if he'd walked into a wall.

"What happens here is for her alone," a voice behind Esmerelda announced. "You may observe, but not interfere."

Esmerelda looked over her shoulder. Anpu stood behind her. "You!" she exclaimed, realization striking like lightning. "You brought her here!"

"Yes," Anpu replied.

"Why?" Esmerelda demanded.

"Because it's my duty," Anpu replied. "Because she asked."

"But- but-" Esmerelda stammered. "She's gonna be destroyed!"

"Only if her heart is heavier than a feather," Anpu pointed out.

Esmerelda turned back to Cymbeline, biting her lip. That didn't look likely, under the circumstances.

"Cymbeline!" Haimar shouted, plastering himself against the invisible barrier stopping his further progress. "Cymbeline, don't do this! We need you! Don't do this, God damn it!"

Asar frowned slightly, glancing at Haimar, but otherwise ignored the outburst. Cymbeline gulped, her sobs momentarily interrupted. She glanced back... then wailed even louder, covering her face with her hands. "Don't look at me!" she shrieked, huddling tighter and trying to cover her face and body with her arms at the same time.

"Cymbeline, we need you to put that snake back where it came from," Haimar continued in a quieter but no less intense tone.

"Oh, God," Cymbeline sobbed. "I'm so sorry! I never should have let him out in the first place but I was so angry-"

"Cymbeline, it doesn't matter how it happened," Haimar cut in. "As things turned out it's better that you did. But the job's only half over. We need to finish it now." He waited a moment but Cymbeline only sobbed. "It's... not just that," he added, in a completely different tone. "I need you. I'd be lost without you. We... we were lovers once, weren't we?"

"No!" Cymbeline shrieked. "Don't you see? That wasn't me! It was- it was whatever the Hell it was I'd picked up in Egypt! I'm just an ugly fat cow who's never done anything important! All I've done is mess up, making things worse when I tried to make them better... using people and hurting them..." she looked up at Asar's feet. "But soon it'll be over." She started crawling. "This is what I deserve, Haimar. I'm sorry."

"Cymbeline!" Haimar bellowed. "Get back here!" He pounded on the barrier, letting fly with a barrage of absolutely vile sounded curses in Afrikaans.

Esmerelda opened her mouth to call out but froze mid-motion. Inspiration struck like a flash. "He isn't the one," she said urgently.

Zalika glanced at Esmerelda. Neither spoke and no direct thoughts passed between them, but Esmerelda saw realization appear in Zalika's eyes. It was the simpatico of two minds who'd come to think alike and now shared a common base of knowledge. The hypostyle hall blurred out, replaced by a much smaller and considerably more crowded one in a hospital. George lay on a gurney, covered by sheets and a blanket and with an IV drip attached to his arm but otherwise apparently in good health; he slept peacefully and had no visible injuries. Esmerelda handed the katana to Zalika, took ahold of George's wrist, and pulled. He sat up, blinking in surprise. "Es-" he began, looking at her. Then he caught himself, his attention shifting to Zalika.

"I'm sorry, George, there isn't time to explain," Esmerelda said, pulling George off the cot. He staggered a bit but got to his feet handily enough. He glanced back... and saw his body, still laying peacefully on the cot. The hospital vanished and the hypostyle hall returned. "George, it's like this," Esmerelda began quickly. "That's Cymbeline, what she was before all this started. She thinks she's made a terrible mess of things and she's gonna be judged by Osiris. If her heart isn't lighter than a feather she'll be fed to the Soul Eater."

"Even if she isn't, she'll go on into the Land of the Dead," Zalika added. "Either way we'll never see her again."

George gasped. His mouth worked; he glanced at Cymbeline, back at Esmerelda, to Cymbeline again... and his gaze remained fixed. Resolve stiffed his features. Without a word he released Esmerelda's hand and started walking. The barrier that stopped Haimar didn't affect him in the least; he continued on until he arrived at Cymbeline's side. She'd almost reached Asar's feet. George didn't speak but Cymbeline became aware of his presence. She looked up, her eyes and mouth widening in horror. She tried to scramble away but couldn't coordinate her limbs. Nothing came out of her mouth but inarticulate gobbles.

"Shh." George silenced Cymbeline with a gentle finger on her mouth. "There's nothing you can say to change my mind, Cymbeline. The fact is-" he dropped to one knee, taking her hand and lifting it. "I love you. First and foremost because of your bravery. Not once but twice you stood up and fought, even though you didn't think you'd any hope of winning and even though the consequences of failure were worse than death." He kissed her hand. "I love you because you where there when I needed someone, giving of yourself just to make me happy. Your body may have attracted my attention at first... but its your beautiful soul that made me love you." He caressed her face with his other hand. "And now..." his expression hardened. "Twice before I've stood by while people I loved left me behind. Paddy Ann, then-" He glanced over his shoulder at Esmerelda. "I can't bear doing it again," he continued, blinking back tears. "I won't." Taking Cymbeline's hand in both of his he lifted her to her feet. "This time... where you go I go with you. Then... whatever happens, we're still together." He pulled her close and kissed her tenderly.

Cymbeline shivered violently. After a lengthy delay she pushed George back. "But- George-" she stammered, glancing at Esmerelda. "How can you leave her?"

"She's like a daughter to me," George replied, gently wiping the tears from Cymbeline's cheeks. "It hurts, I'll not deny... but she doesn't need me, Cymbeline. She's a great soul. A hero." He smiled warmly. "She's become everything I could have hoped, and so much more."

Esmerelda couldn't take any more. "George!" she shouted, leaping forward, but the barrier which stopped Haimar also stopped her.

"Esmerelda, listen to me," George said sternly. "I'm just an old copper. If I go away there'll be a crowd of fresh-faced youngsters to take my place. If you go away, a whole nation looses its hero. That's what being Super Collie really means. You give hope and confidence to people, simply because they know you're there, looking out for them. You will go back because you have a job to do. I'm trusting you to take care of that for me, Zalika."

Zalika nodded. "I will, George. I promise."

"George..." Esmerelda whispered. The only reason she didn't fall was because Zalika held her up.

"Goodbye, Esmerelda." George bowed. "Perhaps we'll meet again, some sunny day." He blew Esmerelda a kiss and turned back around, keeping ahold of Cymbeline's hand and slipping an arm around her waist.

"George, what are you doing?" Cymbeline demanded, pounding on his chest with her free hand. "I- I-" her face broke. "I can't let you do this," she sobbed.

George drew Cymbeline to him, hugging her and stroking her back. "I'm sorry, Cymbeline," he said sadly. "But... as I said earlier. I won't stand by while someone else I love goes away. I'd rather follow her into oblivion. Because... life without her wouldn't be worth living. Maybe... maybe it means I'm weak. I don't know. I don't care. All I know is... I want to be with you. Now and forever."

For a subjective eternity Cymbeline said nothing. She couldn't seem to tear her eyes away from George. Then it seemed as if a realization struck her. She glanced up at Asar, who gazed stonily back. She gave a weak smile and small bow, then spun George around and gave him a shove toward the back of the room. "Will you kindly get your ass moving?" she hissed when he hesitated, and tugged frantically at his arm. By the time they reached Esmerelda, Haimar, and Zalika, they were both nearly at a dead run.

Esmerelda glanced nervously at Asar but he merely watched, supremely indifferent. "Why is he letting us go?" she whispered.

"His job's to judge those who wish entrance into the Underworld," Zalika replied. "Those that don't aren't his problem, so why worry about them? 'Sides, most who come here don't have the option of going back." Esmerelda found herself throwing her arms around George and Cymbeline, which suited her just fine.

When the Lynx's passenger deck materialized around her Esmerelda gasped, in no small part because George, Cymbeline, and Haimar had disappeared. Also because being here reminded her that they weren't out of the woods yet, not by a long shot. She looked down and found a sodden mass of fur at her feet. At first she didn't even recognize it as a body; the context, combined with the loss of one arm and both legs distorted the familiar lines so much she didn't register then. And then, only when she knelt and took the body's head in her hands did she realize that it was Cymbeline's body. She would have recoiled in shock except that she had no motor control at all. Zalika was in the driver's seat and Esmerelda only a passenger. Probably a good thing, or Esmerelda would have gagged when she found herself putting her mouth over Cymbeline's and exhaling deeply, as if giving her artificial respiration. Then she would have gasped, for a sensation suffused her that felt like intense pleasure and pain all at the same time. Even more amazing, Cymbeline spasmed and coughed, spitting out blood and water.

"This is what you have to do, Cymbeline," Esmerelda heard herself say, and put her hand on Cymbeline's forehead. She reeled in shock- mentally, at least- as knowledge swirled through her mind like a whirlwind. Judging by how she thrashed and spasmed the experience was much the same for Cymbeline. "Now cast the spell," Esmerelda concluded. "There's isn't time to explain. Many people are in danger and only you can save them, and only by doing this." She stepped back.

Cymbeline panted, scrubbing her face with her remaining hand. Glancing down she found water creeping up over her hips. The deck shuddered as more compartments flooded and the roof rippled as Apep crushed it. She squeezed her eyes shut, raised her hand, and spoke the words.

An intensely bright flash of silvery light dazzled Esmerelda's eyes. When the afterimages cleared Cymbeline was gone. In her place was... someone else. A woman, with the new Cymbeline's sleek, sexy curves, but as tall as Cymbeline had been as the avatar of Sekhmet and with fur as black as night. Her eyes gleamed like stars.

"Please, send Apep back, Mistress," Esmerelda asked. She wasn't speaking English, Esmerelda realized, but somehow she understood anyway.

Cymbeline- or what had been Cymbeline a moment ago- rose to her feet. She had all her limbs too. She towered over Esmerelda by at least a meter; if not for the slanting roof she wouldn't be able to stand upright. "You're responsible as much as she is," she said.

"I know," Esmerelda replied. "All I can do is what can to set things right."

The black furred woman raised her arms and started speaking. The very universe seemed to quiver in response to her words.

She's the avatar of Aset- Isis- now, Zalika explained. She's invoking the true name of Ptah.

Who? Esmerelda responded, baffled.

Ptah, who created the heavens, the earth, and the bodies of men. Aset- Isis- knows his true name, which gives her the power to change reality. That's why she's the goddess of sorcerers.

Electric blue fire flashed from Cymbeline's- or Aset's- fingertips. It crawled along the deck, the ceiling, and the walls, even travelling under water. It ran around window frames and into piles of rubble. Some of those piles stirred, and slid up the canted deck. along the way they came apart... and went back to being whatever they'd been before. Chairs and tables reassembled themselves, carpet relaid itself. Things that had burned reconstituted from clouds of smoke that gathered for the purpose, drawn by tongues of blue fire. The ceiling popped back into shape, shards of mirror rising into the air and seamlessly rejoining. Windows reformed the same way. Advancing sea water retreated, leaving dry deck behind it. The deck itself slowly leveled. The blue fire faded out... and everything was as it had been before, as if none of the horrors of the evening had ever happened. Including the people; they stood around, gaping at their restored environment. And themselves, like as not; they'd stared in gape-mouthed shock as torn flesh and clothing mended itself, bloodstains shrank away, and burns vanished. Even the dead ones came back, sitting up and looking around in wonder.

Aset had to stoop now. She looked around, nodded in satisfaction, and slashed at the air with her hand. Her nails tore a rent in it, just as Daitakerou's sword had. She stepped through; Esmerelda jumped after her and found herself at Wellington hospital. Again the blue fire raced forth... and with a tremendous roar the fallen building un-collapsed, like watching a film in reverse. But not completely; the clinical services block restored itself- mostly- but the cancer center quivered and fell in on itself after reforming only partway. Aset fell to her knees, gasping, while blue lightning crawled all over her body. In places it left terrible burns, searing right through her skin and baring the muscle beneath.

No, Zalika said as Esmerelda tried to step forward. There's a price to be paid for wielding the power of Ptah. I'm sorry, but there's nothing you can do about it.

In time the blue fire faded. Aset struggled onto her knees, gasping for breath. Esmerelda moved forward, helping her up, and offering her Daitakerou's sword. She nodded in thanks, took the sword, and cut the air. Another rent opened; she and Esmerelda stepped through and found themselves in a hospital. Bodies lay everywhere; some in bags, others covered by sheets, some not covered at all. Most by far were soldiers in fatigues. Aset raised her hands, the fire came forth... and people sat up, blinking in surprise at bodies that were miraculously restored. Others threw off their sheets or struggled out of their bags.

To Esmerelda it didn't seem like so much, especially after restoring the Lynx and Wellington Hospital, but it was quite apparent that Aset was nearing the end of her strength. She fell to her knees while still repairing the bodies, wreathed in blue fire as if she were burning alive. She threw back her head and screamed as the fire consumed her completely. As she burned away Cymbeline was revealed underneath, trim and beautiful again but still missing the limbs Daitakerou, as the revenant, had cut off. She collapsed on the floor, alive but insensible.

No again, I'm afraid, Zalika said when Esmerelda tried to move forward. She'll be all right now. She cut the air with Daitakerou's sword and stepped back aboard the Lynx.

The revenant's swords are anti-magic weapons, Zalika explained, marching briskly to the front of the passenger deck. The damage they do can't be healed magically. The power of Ptah could do it, but only if she'd given up on restoring all the people in that room.

Esmerelda's body lay sprawled in a chair. The power of Ptah had restored it... after a fashion. It wasn't battered and sodden any more. The blood soaking its fur and clothing was fresh and bright instead of dried black.

It's time for you to go back now, Zalika thought, taking Esmerelda's head in one had and opening her mouth with the other.

But you said magic couldn't heal wounds inflicted by the revenant's sword, Esmerelda pointed out.

It can't, Zalika replied. I can't. But don't worry. You'll be fine. She put her mouth over Esmerelda's and exhaled.

Esmerelda awoke with a shriek, her whole body spasming violently. She felt like- like someone had tried to suffocate her while she slept. Her hand flew to the spot just below her breast... and felt only unbroken skin. Blood still soaked the fur but it was what had been there before. She looked up, and found Zalika standing over her, smiling beatifically. I love you, she said silently. But when she opened her mouth, instead of words bright blood gushed forth, splashing on Esmerelda's chest and face. It also poured from a gash under her breast, soaking one whole side of her body. While Esmerelda watched the golden light went out of her eyes, leaving only black emptiness. She toppled over on her side, her last breath escaping as a frothy rattle. Blood drained out of her mouth, staining the carpet.

"No!" Esmerelda screamed, flying out of the chair. "Oh God please it can't end like this!" she wailed, grabbing Zalika and shaking her violently. "Come back, oh please come back!" She collapsed in a heap, wailing piteously. I love you, Esmerelda's mouth said, though she couldn't form coherent words while the wracking sobs convulsed her body. My dearest sister.

Paul watched all this from inside his suit, which was completely restored and fully loaded. His shields were down, even though a visual alarm from his ASPEW sensors flashed on his HUD. He'd already deactivated the audible alarm; it didn't matter any more. He activated a control and his suit's access panel swung open. No one noticed; they were all gathered around Super Collie, blocking her line of sight even if she'd been in a state to notice anything. He climbed out, moving soundlessly in his bare feet on the carpeted deck, walking right up to the edge of the crowd. Carefully he knelt and picked up Daitakerou's sword, which Zalika had dropped immediately after returning. With it in hand he returned to his suit, transferred the weapon to his suit's hand, and climbed inside. As discreetly as he could he left the passenger deck; needless to say it wasn't especially practical for a bulky powered suit to do such a thing but no one paid him any mind. He stepped out onto the catwalk over the stern, looking out across the ocean. The snake was gone; the ferry floated on quiet waters turned silver by a bright moon. In the distance he saw the lights from several vessels, but they were police and coastal patrol craft, not navy. He jumped over the rail and vanished into the dark water.

Some time later Paul climbed out of the water just north of Te Papa. He shimmied up a piling and looked around; the police had cordoned off Frank Kitts Park because there were still zombies wandering around. Needless to say there wasn't anyone nearby, at least no one living. He opened the access hatch and climbed up to the waterfront sidewalk, then spoke a command. The suit resealed itself and vanished into the water; it would swim out into the middle of the ocean and sink the floor where no one would ever find it. Paul slipped past the police barricades and hurried into the park. The zombies paused in their aimless shuffling, looking at him in a way that might be called expectant. "Go back to sleep," he said, waving his hand. Like marionettes with their strings cut, every zombie present collapsed on the ground, lifeless things once more.

Southern Cross Hospital was only a couple blocks from Wellington Hospital and a couple kilometers from the Central Business District but Paul made the trip on foot without difficulty. Skirting around areas that had been cordoned off by police, firefighters, or the military lengthened the journey somewhat but not unduly. The hospital itself was bedlam, what with the number of people being processed. Very few of them looked to be injured, but everyone wanted to be checked. With so much confusion it wasn't hard for Paul to slip through the crowd and find his way down to the morgue. The attendant abruptly developed some distress which induced him to repair at once to a nearby restroom. In his absence Paul searched the coolers, eventually discovering a young but exceedingly obese horse woman whose husband had stabbed to death in a drunken rage. Paul dragged her out of the cooler and lay her on a table. He placed a hand on her chest and she morphed into a new shape, some extra bits dropping off. Finally he opened her mouth and exhaled deeply into it.

Zalika's eyes fluttered open and she sat up, stretching her new muscles. "Thank you Paul," she said, patting him on arm. "That one now." she pointed.

Paul opened another cooler. It contained Alexsia and Matilda. He lay them on the table where Zalika had been a moment earlier. She placed a hand on their chest and the bullet popped out, the wound it had inflicted closing up. She breathed into each mouth in turn, then stepped back and snapped her fingers. They both awoke with a start, coughing and gagging. They looked around... saw Paul... and started shrieking.

"Oh, give it a rest already!" Zalika shouted, silencing them with a curt gesture. "If he were here to kill you he'd just do it, wouldn't he?" She scooped up the spare flesh left over from the horse woman and shaped it into a stole, of sorts, which she draped around her neck. "Now come on. We need to get the flock out of here while everyone's still euphoric about Super Collie coming back."

"What... what happened?" Matilda asked.

"Never you mind," Zalika snapped. "Just look at this as the first day of the rest of your lives and let it go at that, okay?"

"Okay," Matilda responded meekly.

The group left Southern Cross Hospital and made its way back down to the CBD, angling toward the Terrace. Police had cordoned off Paul's headquarters but there weren't any army units present. No one paid any attention as the group crossed the barricades and went inside. Needless to say Paul knew all the passwords to open the security doors.

"Oh, my God," Alexsia breathed when they arrived at Paul's private garage, on the lowest level. Several Jaguars, a couple Ferraris, and a Lotus were lined up there, awaiting their master's pleasure. Paul ignored them, going instead to one of the limos. He drove; Zalika and Alexsia/Matilda rode in back. A short time later they arrived at Wellington Airport; bypassing the commercial gates they went around to the general aviation section. Paul's passwords and keys admitted them to a hanger which contained a stunningly beautiful Learjet 60. Paul lowered the boarding ramp, ushered the ladies aboard, then started the pre-flight warm-up.

"What happens now?" Alexsia asked, settling herself in one of the very comfortable, generously sized seats.

"We leave New Zealand and lay low for a while," Zalika replied. "As things are, all of us should disappear for a bit."

"What about the triplets?" Matilda asked. "Where are they?"

"Right here." Zalika wiggled Daitakerou's sword so it caught the light.

"Why haven't you brought them back?" Alexsia asked, her eyes narrowing.

"I need a place to put them first," Zalika replied. "In which you two can assist me, if you're willing."

"I think we already have about as many heads as we can manage," Alexsia said.

Zalika burst out laughing and kept it up until she'd doubled up in her chair and tears streamed down her face. "Oh, that's good," she sighed, wiping her face. "But no." She became businesslike once more. "Since you two happen to be pregnant-"

"Pregnant!" Matilda shrieked, leaping to her feet. "How in the bloody Hell are we pregnant?"

"At the hotel in Ohakune, you two did the nasty while Alexsia was still Alex," Zalika pointed out. "The end result of that was exactly what it's supposed to be, all things considered."

"Well, all be," Alexsia breathed.

"You already are," Zalika responded. "In fact, you have the unique honor of being both mother and father to this offspring at the same time."

"How does that help you with the triplets?" Alexsia wanted to know.

"They need new bodies," Zalika pointed out. "They have to be living ones, or they'll degenerate into wraiths. I could steal some- tear out their souls and put the girls in instead- but that would be messy. Or I could use the one that's growing in your tummy right now."

"Wait a moment." Matilda crossed her legs, laying a hand protectively on hers and Alexsia's belly. "What happens to the baby that's already there if you do that?"

"If you like I can split the embryo you have into four parts," Zalika replied. "You can do that at this stage and it won't hurt anything in the long run. One I leave alone. The other three I make into bodies for the triplets, and stick their souls in them."

"Well-" Alexsia looked at Matilda.

"Alexsia, this is probably the only chance I'll ever have to have your baby," Matilda whispered, stroking Alexsia's cheek.

Alexsia blinked. Tears stung her eyes; she wiped them away distractedly. Hugging wasn't the same when the huggee was already half of oneself, but she tried nonetheless. "Okay," she said quietly. "This is probably the only chance I'll ever have to have your baby." She kissed Matilda on the mouth and caressed her cheek. Then another thought occurred to her. "Gonna be a bit of a strain, isn't it? With four littles?"

"I can optimize your body so pregnancy and delivery won't be unduly difficult," Zalika replied. "In fact..." She stroked her chin thoughtfully. "I can help some with after, too." She lifted the fleshy stole from around her neck and pinched off a wad, juggling it in her hand. It reformed... into a breast, complete with nipple. She set it in her lap and built another. With one in each hand she came over and stuck them against Alexsia's and Matilda's chest, just below their current pair. Skin parted, tendons and blood vessels spun together... and the new breasts settled in place as if they'd always been there. "There," she declared. "Now none of the little ones have to worry about going hungry."

Alexsia grinned foolishly, stroking her new breast. It was undoubtedly hers; she felt the nipple stiffen under the gentle stimulation. All at once a thought came to her; it was so intense her whole body quivered. Her crotch suddenly felt hot enough to burn right through the seat, and her other nipple stiffened. Matilda had to feel it; it was her body too. Her nipples also hardened, but she said not a word. "That may be so," Alexsia observed in as casual a tone as she could manage. "But... the girls always struck me as quite energetic tykes... maybe we should... make sure? Just in case?"

Zalika's face split slowly into a wicked grin. "Hmm," she mused, stroking her chin. "Better too much that too little, you mean?"

"Yeah," Matilda put in. "Something like that."

"Well... if you insist." Zalika pinched off another handful of flesh.

"Wake up, Daddy."

"Huh?" Daitakerou blinked several times. Usually he awoke instantly, but this time consciousness came only grudgingly. He groaned, rubbing his head. He had one Hell of a headache; must have been quite a bender-

All at once Daitakerou became cognizant of several key facts. One, he lay in a hospital bed, not his own. Two, an IV attached to his arm. Three, a pair of handcuffs secured his other arm to the bed. "Good grief," he muttered, testing the chain. It must have been one Hell of a bender.

"Here, Daddy."

"Huh?" Daitakerou looked up. A naked boy, no more than twelve or thirteen, stood by his bed holding a handcuff key. The lad was a Siamese cat... and bore a disturbingly close resemblance to Daitakerou himself. He felt a surge of panic; how long had he been out?

"Only two days, Daddy," the body replied, as if reading Daitakerou's thoughts.

"Uh... thanks." Daitakerou took the key and unlocked his cuffs. "Where'd you get the key?"

"From the policeman outside."

"Oh." Daitakerou sat up, rubbing his wrist. Very carefully he extracted the IV needle from his arm and pressed the tape back over the hole. Exploring himself he found all his parts in their proper location, with a number of them hooked by electrodes to a bank of machines. His only clothing consisted of a loose hospital gown decorated with tiny flowers. "Say, kid, I don't suppose you could lay your mits on some duds?"

"My brother's already taken care of it," the boy replied.

Daitakerou noticed another, identical boy standing nearby, holding a bundle of clothes. Daitakerou took them with a nod but frowned. He didn't like to brag- overestimating his own ability was dangerous- but he felt he should have heard, or at least sensed somehow, if someone had entered the room. He was sure the other by hadn't been present when he awoke. The clothes were nondescript, which offended his sense of fashion. They make him look like some sort of South Island kiwi joker. Which might be best, under the circumstances, but that didn't mean he had to like it. "Could one of you fetch my sword?" he asked.

"No," one of the boys replied. "The Dark Lady has it."

"Does she now." Daitakerou finished buttoning the plaid flannel shirt and smoothed it down, his tail lashing. "We'll just have to see about that, won't we?" He shook back his shoulders and stretched.

One of the machines let out a squeal, deciding that since too much time had passed without a signal, Daitakerou must have died. Daitakerou let it shriek, and moved up beside the door. A few seconds later it burst open; the crash team came first, with four heavily armed constables hot on their heels. They had no firearms but they did have riot armor. Instead of the traditional straight truncheon they carried ones about that same size and shape with an extra handle mounted perpendicular to the shaft. Which was in fact a weapon called a tonfa, an Okinawan peasant tool adapted for fighting. As the officers charged past Daitakerou deftly slipped one out of its holster.

The officer who'd lost his weapon wasted precious time groping for it. Daitakerou swung his arm in a lazy arc, letting momentum flip the long end of the tonfa's shaft out. It shattered the officer's jaw and knocked him sprawling. In aid to the confusion Daitakerou leapt, kicking off from the crash cart. I fell over, knocking the paramedics and one of the officers sprawling. Daitakerou came down on the balls of his feet, balanced and ready. One of the officers swung at him; he snapped his hand up, the tonfa's shaft now laying along his forearm, and batted the blow aside, leaving officer open for a kick to the solar plexus that doubled him up in spite of his padded armor. To make sure he stayed down Daitakerou jumped on his back while lunging at the last officer, jabbing with the tonfa's long shaft as if it were a blade. It tore the officer's helmet off and left a nasty pressure cut on his scalp. A delicate kick to the jaw made sure he stayed down, and a casual backhand swipe cracked the skull of the officer who'd fallen under the crash cart and was only now getting up. At which point Daitakerou paused a moment to twitch his clothes back into order. It was unspeakably conceited, even he had to admit, but frankly he was offended that the police had posted only four officers to guard him. Sure, getting out of the handcuffs might have been problematical without the boys' help, but still, it was the principle of the thing. A series of quick kicks put the EMT's out of his misery, so he dropped the tonfa and strode out of the room as if he had every right to. An orderly tried to stop him; he merely dodged past, tripping the fellow so he slammed face first into a counter. Why waste time or effort on challenges that barely even qualified as such?

Once Daitakerou got into the stairwell things became much easier. He hurried down, then out onto the lower floor. Security officers were already herding people out; he simply joined the flow. At a convenient juncture he slipped free. Outside he found himself at Southern Cross Hospital. He paused briefly, surveying his immediate surroundings. He needed a car-

"Over here, Daddy!"

Daitakerou looked. One of the boys stood by a car, waving his hands. He hurried over. "Yes?"

"It's unlocked and there's a key under the mat," the boy said.

Daitakerou tried the latch. The car was indeed unlocked, and the key lay exactly where promised. Daitakerou slipped behind the wheel, started the engine, and pulled out.

"Where are we going now, Daddy?"

Daitakerou glanced over his shoulder. Both boys sat in the back seat. He knew for absolute fact that no door had opened other than his own. He turned back around with a shrug. "We find a safe house and lay up for a while. Once things have calmed down a bit we get some money and documentation and leave the country." After which we track down what became of Ms. Corby, I get my sword back, and I express my displeasure at her taking it. His face split into a wicked, feral grin.

As for the boys... Daitakerou wasn't sure exactly what they were but it didn't matter. They were useful, so he'd keep them around. Besides, he wasn't at all certain he could get rid of them even if he wanted to. "I wonder if Vyacheslav made it," he mused aloud.

"Yes," one of the boys said.

"That's great!" Daitakerou's grin morphed into something more wholesome. He really liked Vyacheslav. "Can you lead me to him?"


"Go on, then."

"All right. Turn left."

Daitakerou obeyed, whistling cheerfully. Things were definitely looking up.

While the Governor-General droned on Esmerelda glanced around. She loved New Zealand, and Wellington in particular, but even she would admit- if pressed- that it wasn't the best place for an outdoor ceremony. The sky was its typical leaden gray, and a light drizzle pattered on the canopy stretched over the VIP stands. The omnipresent south-westerly wind ruffled the bunting and rattled the strung banners. And yet the notion of holding the ceremony indoors never once came up. As she looked at the tremendous crowd packing every inch of ground within sight of the presentation stand in front of the Parliament building, including the streets, she found herself thinking that maybe this was the way to go. All these people were out here in the cold and wet for one reason only: to see the person whom they believed had yet again delivered them from the brink of destruction.

A troubled expression flicked across Esmerelda's face. She didn't like this. She hadn't done anything except die foolishly. Others had done all the hard slugging... and of those only a couple were getting any recognition at all, to say nothing of what they deserved. Like- like-

Oh, why not admit it? Esmerelda told herself sternly. It was Zalika's treatment that troubled her the most. Zalika had done what she could to avert tragedy... and other things- like healing the victims of the bus crash, and restoring Mrs. Henstridge- she'd done simply to be nice. Now she was going back to Te Papa, with all the world thinking she was nothing but a black hearted villain...

Tears stung Esmerelda's eyes. She let them be because everyone had their eyes on her. She didn't trust herself to tell a properly diplomatic lie if someone asked why she was crying. She'd most likely blurt out the truth, and that wouldn't do at all.

"...Captain Haimar Wilkes!" the Governor-General concluded, gesturing for Haimar to step forward.

Haimar marched up to the podium, snapped to attention, and threw a joint-popping salute. The creases on his dress uniform looked sharp enough to cut, and the material itself practically glowed. Esmerelda smiled; Haimar looked absolutely stunning in his dress uniform... and he deserved this award, without a doubt.

"Captain, after the gallant stand you made in defense of our great nation and her people, no one could possibly doubt the valor and bravery of yourself and your squad," the Governor-General pronounced, taking a medal case from an aide. "As such it is with great pride that I present to you, on behalf of Her Majesty the Queen and the Commonwealth of New Zealand, the New Zealand Gallantry Star. May you wear it proudly in recognition of your country's gratitude for your service." She took the medal from its case and pinned it to Haimar's chest.

As the Governor-General stepped back Esmerelda leapt to her feet, applauding enthusiastically. She'd been briefed by a protocol officer but couldn't remember a word of it now. She didn't think she was supposed to applaud just yet but frankly she didn't give a damn. The crowd followed her lead, so the officials really had no choice but to let it run its course.

"And now, someone who surely needs no introduction," the Governor-General continued once the noise died down. "You've seen her on television... you've read about her in the paper... and no small few of you have had the honor to meet her in person. Allow me to present... Super Collie."

Esmerelda flinched. She had to look down at herself to verify that she was in fact in costume; she'd been thinking of herself as Esmerelda so much recently that, for a terrifying instant, she thought she'd forgotten to change. Then she frowned; she was sure the protocol officer hadn't said anything about this. She never would have agreed to stay if she'd even suspected something like this might happen... which, come to think of it, was a good reason for the protocol officer not to mention it. Since it was happening it wouldn't be practical to do anything but go along. She shifted her staff to the crook of her arm and stepped up to the Governor-General's side.

"Everything I said to Captain Wilkes goes double for you, Super Collie," the Governor-General said, smiling warmly and shaking Esmerelda's hand. "I know there have been those who haven't understood the contribution you've made to the safety and security of our country, but now that you've delivered us from the fell clutches of Daughter Night not once but twice, there can no possible doubt as to your valor, your conviction, and above all your efficacy." She held out her hand; an aide passed up another medal case. "In recognition not only of your current contributions but also those of the past that went unremarked, it gives me the greatest pleasure to name you Distinguished Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit." She took the medal from its case; fortunately it came with a ribbon, which she set around Esmerelda's neck. Then she turned Esmerelda toward the crowd. Esmerelda found herself thinking that before this latest debacle she might have described what happened next as all Hell breaking loose. Everyone in sight who wasn't already standing jumped to their feet, clapping and shouting at the top of their lungs. The din rebounded from the face of the parliament building, surrounding everyone on the VIP platform like a physical presence. Now she understood that saying so would be hyperbole. She had a pretty good idea what real Hell breaking loose would be... and this was nothing like it. Nothing at all.

Ultimately, the noise died out only because people wore themselves out and couldn't sustain it. On the tail end Esmerelda found herself shaking hands with various people; one she recognized only belatedly as the Prime Minister. Then they moved off and the reporters crowded forward.

"Wait!" Esmerelda caught the last worthy as that person turned to go. "What about the rest of the awards?"

"Don't worry," the person replied. "There aren't any more surprises." He flashed Esmerelda a grin and followed the others off to a press area.

Esmerelda turned to face the reporters. A line of constables kept them off the VIP platform but that didn't stop them from shouting questions and thrusting microphones and cameras at her. She glanced once again at the departing VIP's... and realized the dreadful truth. It was over. There weren't going to be any more awards. George and Cymbeline, who'd done so much- who'd sacrificed so much- weren't getting any recognition at all.

George's words, in the Hall of Two Truths, flashed into Esmerelda's mind. You give hope and confidence to people, simply because they know you're there, looking out for them. Her hand strayed to the medal hanging around her neck. She could see the logic of it: as the Governor-General had said, she wasn't necessarily being honored for what she had or hadn't done just recently. She was being honored... well, for being Super Collie. For being the person in whom everyone believed.

Flashes still flashed, cameras still whirred, and reporters still shouted questions. Esmerelda tried to smile but it came out all wrong, as if she were being garroted. She didn't believe anymore. If it's just the appearance that matters, then what the Hell have I been doing this for all this time? She opened her mouth to shout it at them-

A hand touched Esmerelda's shoulder. She yelped and jumped, spinning in the air. It was Haimar.

"Constable Kremmin told me he'd like to speak with you before you addressed the public," Haimar said. "If you come with me, I'll take you to him."

Esmerelda swallowed, and tears welled up in her eyes. If there was one person she actually wanted to talk to right now, it was definitely George. She let Haimar turn her away and walk her through the press, sweeping reporters aside as if they were tall grass. A military vehicle waited by the curb; Haimar handed Esmerelda in then slid in beside her. The driver pulled out immediately. A short time later they arrived at Wellington hospital. Esmerelda couldn't help a feeling of deja vu as she and Haimar entered the Clinical Services block. And yet this was the first time she'd come here. In her own body, at any rate...

An elevator bore them upward, and Haimar led the way down a hall to a room guarded by soldiers in battle dress who carried loaded assault rifles. They saluted and stepped aside to admit Haimar and Esmerelda into the room.

Cymbeline lay on her back, with the head of her bed elevated to about forty-five degrees. She looked... much too small, compared to the expanse of white sheets and pale gray blankets. Where her legs should have been the bedclothes lay flat, and her right arm ended just below the elbow with a hairless pink stump.

George sat on a chair at Cymbeline's bedside, dressed in his uniform, holding Cymbeline's hand. He gave Esmerelda a friendly nod. "We saw the ceremony on TV," he said. "We're glad you finally got the recognition you deserve."

"But I don't!" Esmerelda shrieked, her wall of reserve cracking under the emotional strain. "I didn't fucking do anything!" She tore the medal from around her neck and cocked her arm to hurl it through the window.

"Stop!" George thundered, jumping to his feet.

Esmerelda froze. George had never raised his voice to her. Ever.

"That medal was given to you by a nation," George said sharply. "Nearly four million people. You will treat it with the respect it deserves!" He grabbed Esmerelda's arm and forced it down. She could easily overcome his strength, but she could not overcome his will. Her arm came down. "You may not feel like you deserve this recognition, but you do," he continued in a more gentle tone. "It is incontrovertible fact that you saved us, just as the people who gave you this say you did."

"B- but-" Esmerelda stammered. Her protest lacked conviction and she couldn't meet George's eyes.

"Listen," George said sternly. "The things I did that are worthy of merit, I did because I had your strength, and your spirit guiding me." He put his hand on Esmerelda's cheek, stroking gently. "You made it possible for me to round up those thugs at the hospital. To rescue that child. To keep the cat monster distracted until Captain Wilkes got his men into position. Only you were with me in that icy water, when my own will failed. Then you came to me again, and brought me to where I needed to be to rescue Cymbeline." Gently but firmly he forced Esmerelda's chin up, so she couldn't avoid looking him in the eye. "Daughter Night turned away from rage and vengeance and embraced forgiveness and compassion solely for the sake of your love."

"You stopped me from becoming something just as bad, if not worse," Cymbeline put in. "You brought me love when I most desperately needed it. George's... and you own." Cymbeline wiped tears from her face. "I'd give you a dozen medals. A hundred. You... you gave me my soul!" She broke down, crying.

After a brief hesitation Esmerelda flung herself onto the bed, clinging to Cymbeline and trying to comfort her but crying just as uncontrollably herself. George sat down across from them, putting an arm around them both. "I know it hurts," he said softly. Neither Esmerelda nor Cymbeline noticed his voice catch, or the tears staining his cheeks, but Haimar did. "Just... go ahead and cry. Let the tears wash it away. That's what they're for." He stopped talking because he couldn't any more. He hugged the two who were more dear to him than anything, than even his own life. Both of whom had been returned to him, by what he could only think of as the grace of God. That Daughter Night had been the instrument of that grace only made it all the more miraculous. He leaned his head against theirs and let his own pain run out through his eyes.

The ground shook minutely as the Learjet exploded. Alexsia looked back wistfully. "Did we really have to do that?" she asked.

"Yes," Paul replied. "Our flight out of New Zealand will be noticed. Eventually someone will come looking. We have to cover our tracks every step of the way."

Alexsia and Matilda flinched. Those were the first words Paul had spoken since they... well... joined up. Neither Alexsia nor Matilda liked to think about what had happened before Zalika brought them around.

The ancient Land Cruiser jounced onward, with Paul driving, Zalika in the passenger's seat, and Alexsia/Matilda in back. Paul said nothing more and neither did any one else. Zalika stared ahead... but tears pooled in her eyes and ran down her cheeks. She glanced at Paul; he didn't react in any way. "Stop the car," she said.

"Why? Is something wrong?" Matilda asked, glancing around.

"No, nothing's wrong." Zalika scrubbed her face. "It's... I have one last thing to do." She got out and walked around to Paul's side. He stepped out and joined her.

Paul wasn't actually that much taller than Zalika but with his mass and shape he loomed over her. She looked up a him and brushed the tears from her face, but they kept coming. "Paul, I... I'm sorry," she said. "I never should have done what I did. I used you. I'm using you now. The fact that I feel you wronged me in the past doesn't make it right." She paused briefly. "You helped me, Paul. You helped us escape. I've decided that it doesn't matter why you did it. I'm going to repay you by giving you what you gave us: our lives back." She lay a hand on his chest... and he changed. Years dropped away from him like shed clothing, leaving him... young.

Alexsia's mouth dropped open. Paul-Constandinos Ulysses had always been a very striking individual. As a man in his mid twenties, he was.... absolutely gorgeous. A distant corner of Alexsia's mind supposed that Zalika had probably touched him up somewhat, but if so not that much. And here he was, in nothing but his skivvies. Alexia's eye roved over his back and shoulders, admiring the swell and curve of wonderfully sculpted muscle laying over a masterfully proportioned figure, a lupine David carved in living flesh. Alexsia leaned out the window; too bad his tail partially obscured his buttocks. Be nice to move it out of the way... not to mention his briefs.

"Now." Zalika stepped back, her tone and expression hardening. "Beyond this... I used you, yes, but you used me too. Don't think I don't know it. Now I've used you to help us escape... and I'm helping you escape. For which I think we should both be grateful. We both created this mess, in equal parts. That being so I'd like to think we can call it even and part ways. Not as friends, I don't think... but at least as respectful adversaries, perhaps. Then, if we meet again... well, maybe we'll fight. But I think it would be best if that didn't happen. Let us instead each go on with our lives, recalling how we gave the other a real run for the money. If we fought again I don't think either of us could win. We'd both have to give up so much in the effort that whoever won wouldn't have enough left to enjoy the victory. Let it end here instead. Now I'm going to release control of your mind, and you can make your decision without let or hindrance."

For a long time Paul and Zalika stared at one another. Then he turned and walked away, without ever once looking back.

"Is... is that it?" Matilda asked timidly. "Is it over now?"

"It's only over when you're dead," Zalika replied, sliding into the driver's seat. "And sometimes not even then." The truck lurched into motion as Zalika drove, inexpertly but adequately. "Which is as it should be. Life is the only true source of hope we have in this world."

"This is a very nice place, George," Esmerelda said, but contrary to her words she stirred her food around on her plate instead of eating it. And she really was Esmerelda now, in her comfortable skirt and coat, her hair up, and her glasses on. It was a tremendous relief to escape the stresses of being Super Collie... but at the same time it felt strange. She felt herself slipping back in the old habits... but it didn't seem any more real than being Super Collie. As if she were merely assuming yet another role.

"I like it," George replied. "It's friendly. Comfortable." He looked around, nodding in satisfaction. The restaurant was a working class eatery in Petone; even an eye considerably less experienced than his would have seen that the patrons- except for this small party- were clearly not office workers.

"I like it too," Cymbeline added, spearing a piece of steak and conveying it to her mouth. She could eat well enough one handed, but George had to cut her food for her. "The food's... wholesome. Maybe not the delicate interplay of sensations you get at a fancy place... but not pretentious either."

"Definitely." John Palmer nodded, gesturing with his coffee cup. "Reasonably priced, too, which is another thing you won't find in those swank joints."

Esmerelda's heart did a flip-flop in her chest. John resembled a cocker spaniel; for this meeting he'd put on a black beret, a horizontally striped shirt, and denim trousers. He was perhaps a bit pudgier than he could have been... and not as muscular... but nevertheless Esmerelda's heart ached just looking at him. Unlike most of the general population, he knew what had really happened... and even more, he understood what it meant. Yet here he was, as cheerful as ever. Esmerelda dabbed hastily at her face as tears welled up in her eyes.

"Quite so," George declared, nodding in satisfaction. He wore a collared pullover and shorts. "Though..." the corners of his mouth quirked up. "I had an ulterior motive in bringing you all here." He reached into his pocket and removed a black velvet box.

"Oh, my gosh," John exclaimed, his eyes widening. "That looks rather suspiciously like a jewelry box, George."

"It is." George opened the box, revealing a silver ring sporting a very substantial diamond set in a fancy frame.

"Oh, my gosh," John repeated, even more awed. "That wouldn't happen to be an engagement ring, would it?"

"It would," George replied.

"Then... you're planning on getting engaged?" John's voice had dropped to a whisper and his eyes had grown nearly to the size of dinner plates.

"I am," George confirmed.

"To... to whom?" John managed.

"Not to you, certainly," George replied, arching his eyebrows. "In any case, I understand you're already spoken for." He turned to Cymbeline. "I... don't exactly remember what happened to us," he began. "But... even if my head's forgotten, my heart hasn't. I know this is right, even if I'm a bit hazy on why." He took Cymbeline's hand gently in his own. "Will you marry me, Cymbeline?"

Cymbeline's mouth worked. Some inarticulate sounds emerged. Tears welled up in her eyes.

"Don't you try talking me out of it, either," George continued, though Cymbeline hadn't said a word. "I've thought about this. In fact, ever since waking up in the hospital I've done nothing but. Already one woman I loved went out of my life because I lacked the will to bring her back. Another went because I lacked the strength." He glanced at Esmerelda. "Well, no more I say. I've reached a decision, Cymbeline. And that is... that I want to be with you. Now and forever, forsaking all others, in sickness and in heath, for richer or poorer, for better or worse. Until death do us part." He lifted Cymbeline's hand and kissed it tenderly. "And not even then if I get any say in it. You can say no, Cymbeline... but there is no power in heaven, earth, or anywhere in between that will stop me from asking. Because... you are the woman I want to be with, Cymbeline. You're brave... compassionate... loyal to your friends... and above all... beautiful." He closed his eyes, laying her hand against his cheek. When he opened his eyes they were wet with tears. "Please say you want me too, Cymbeline," he implored quietly.

Cymbeline blinked rapidly to clear the streaming tears from her eyes but it didn't help. She wouldn't let go of George's hand to wipe them away. Several times she tried speaking but nothing came out of her mouth other than gulps and inarticulate sobs. Finally she grabbed the ring and tried to put it on her finger one handed. After dropping it twice she gripped the stone between her teeth while thrusting her finger into the band. Then she grabbed the front of George's shirt, hauled herself into his lap, and kissed him. And kissed, and kissed, and kissed...

"Um... I think we can take that as a yes," John observed.

Esmerelda said nothing. Her throat had closed up and tears filled her eyes. She wanted to cheer and sob at the same time. George and Cymbeline were so right for each other. Then she froze. John had put a hand on her shoulder and given it a friendly squeeze. She stole a glance but he was watching George and Cymbeline.

For an instant Esmerelda felt as if she were being torn apart. Then, with the suddenness of something breaking, the conflict resolved itself. Waiting wasn't an option any more. She knew all too well that time could run out, without her even realizing it. "John, would you marry me?" she blurted. The words popped out before her conscious mind could intervene. She couldn't have held them back any more than she could have stopped breathing.

John blinked, his attention snapping back to Esmerelda. Then his expression softened. "Any day of the week, pretty lady," he said softly, taking her face in his hands and caressing it gently. "And twice on Sunday. In fact... if I had my druthers I would do it on Sunday, so I could do it twice." He drew her close and kissed her on the nose. "And I'd do it again every Sunday after."

Esmerelda smiled. In the back of her mind the voice of doubt was going full blast. Her parents would have a fit; John didn't exactly conform to their idea of a responsible and capable head of household. For that matter, his parents would have a fit; they were dyed-in-the-wool hippies, and in their eyes Esmerelda was about as Establishment as a person could get without actually holding a Government post. On top of all that, the problems that had plagued them all along- her being Super Collie, primarily- would, if anything, only because more acute. Which was all why she'd never asked before. It was madness. Sheer madness.

Esmerelda grinned, then laughed. She rose, swung John away from the table, and settled herself in his lap, face to face.

"What's so funny?" he inquired, slipping his arms around Esmerelda and snugging her close.

Esmerelda giggled. "I was just thinking. Sometimes being impulsive is a good thing."

The End

SCA #03: On the Lamb