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Authors: Christie Golden

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BOOK: Shadow Hunters
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CHAPTER FIFTEEN

IN HIS PRIVATE QUARTERS—A LUXURY ON THE battlecruiser—Devon Starke closed his eyes and cleared his mind. It was both easier and harder now than it had been during his days as a ghost, but he would have it no other way. Valerian Mengsk had saved him, and if he had merely traded one form of servitude for another, Devon was fully aware that in this version, he served as himself.

It had taken Valerian time—perhaps, the young emperor-to-be had feared, too much time—to assemble even this skeleton fleet that now traveled as fast as possible toward Aiur and archeologist Jacob Ramsey. The “fleet” consisted of a single battlecruiser, six Valkyries, and eight Wraiths. Their cargo was made up of marines, siege tanks, and dropships. All this effort to capture one human male. Well, that wasn’t quite true. Starke was uncertain if Ramsey could be called “human” anymore.

Starke opened his eyes and stared up at the ceiling. Again and again, his thoughts drifted back to that remarkable moment in time where his mind—no, more than his mind; his essence, his … soul?—had connected so profoundly with so many others.

What the
hell
had Ramsey done?

It had been—beautiful. Glorious. And Devon Starke ached for it again. He hoped that somehow, some way, Valerian would be able to experience this. The younger Mengsk was both like and unlike his father. He was disciplined, he was smart, and he was ambitious. But the younger man still had ideals and hopes. He still found beauty in the arts and sciences. He still had compassion. Devon didn’t fool himself that Valerian had saved his life for anything other than his own purposes, but even so, he knew his employer genuinely liked and respected him.

If Valerian could grasp this, this union—could understand it, as Devon felt he was starting, with all the power of an untrained child, to understand it—then this mission to find Jacob Ramsey could have consequences that might shake the foundations of human existence.

Rosemary awoke sometime later. She had been bathed and was wrapped in a blanket from the system runner. For a second, her head was clear, and she wondered who had taken care of her. Then nausea struck and she rolled over and retched. Nothing came out; she’d apparently thrown up everything in her stomach.

Gentle, nonhuman hands closed on her bare shoulders. “The Sundrop had permeated your clothing,”
Ladranix said. “When you have fully cleansed your system, we will give you new clothes to wear.”

She nodded her understanding. Jake knelt next to her. She couldn’t meet his eyes.

“Ladranix isn’t familiar with this topical drug they hooked you on, Rosemary,” Jake said. “He thinks it’s something completely artificial, manufactured by this Benefactor to keep the Forged under his sway.” He took her hand. She gripped it like a lifeline.

“You can beat this,” Jake said quietly. “I know you can. You’ve beaten drugs before.”

Tears filled her eyes, scalded them, slipped down her face. “Nothing like this. Believe me.”

“Zamara and I can help you, but we can’t do it for you.”

“Wouldn’t want you to,” she said, her teeth chattering.

He grinned, suddenly and unexpectedly. “That’s the Rosemary I know.”

Her skin prickled, as though a thousand ants were crawling on it. She spasmed, slapping at her skin. Gentle but insistent hands gripped her, preventing her from injuring herself.

“I’m coming to join you,” Jake said. “We’ll get through this together. Like we’ve gotten through everything so far.”

And then he was there, in her mind, sitting next to her mentally just as he was to her physically. Exhausted despite having just woken, Rosemary closed her eyes.

She was on a hill back on Nemaka. The sky above them was blue from the light of the atmospheric field generators. Jake sat next to her, wearing his customary dig outfit. She was clad in her old familiar jumpsuit.

“Not the most scenic of places, but one we both know,” he said, grinning at her.

“Why conjure up a fake landscape anyway?” Rosemary asked.

Jake sobered. “I thought it would be a good anchor for you. Because the protoss seem to think that your withdrawal will cause you hallucinations.”

The earth shivered. Rosemary’s hands splayed out to steady herself. Jake’s arm went around her. At the foot of the little hill, the earth caved in, and then
things
began to crawl out in a thick blanket.

“Like these,” Jake said with a sigh.

Rosemary leaped to her feet, reaching for her weapon. The rifle was cool and familiar in her hands, until it turned into a zerg pincer. She dropped it. It snapped, writhing, then grew six legs and began crawling up her leg. Red-hot agony shot through her.

“It’s not real,” Jake said in her ear. “Not the gun, not the zerg leg. Stand still.”

“Easy for you to say,” she growled, but fought to obey. The pain increased. It felt as though white-hot needles lanced her, but she summoned her fierce will and didn’t move. The pain increased and she bit back a scream, and then it was gone.

Until the next hallucination came.

*   *   *

Jake’s heart broke for Rosemary.

It was easy enough to analyze it intellectually. This Sundrop, whatever the hell it was, produced euphoria in its users. That meant that the brain’s pleasure center, the nucleus accumbens, was being flooded with dopamine. Sundrop appeared to be particularly malicious, as a cursory reading of Rosemary’s thoughts had revealed that while the first high had been ecstatic, each subsequent one had been less so, and the withdrawal worse. Rosemary would not have lasted long, even if the Tal’darim had indeed welcomed her into their fold. Eventually, the withdrawal would have killed her.

He wasn’t at all sure it wasn’t killing her now.

She is battling this, but she needs your strength, Jacob.

Our strength,
he corrected Zamara.

No,
she mused,
it is my skills that will help. But you are more effective. She trusts you.

Jake stared down at the shivering woman in the blanket, surprised.

I don’t think … I could have endured what she has.

Few could,
Zamara agreed.
She is strong, and has retained herself.

It was no wonder Rosemary had become so cynical and self-serving. The wonder—and Jake stood in awe of it—was that there was a place in her that hadn’t let her bitterness destroy her.

I can’t help her with this!
Jake cried to Zamara. They had done what they could with the technology they had on hand, but they hadn’t dared use any medication.

She will have to ride this out on her own,
Zamara agreed.
Her determination and will to survive will either carry her through or not.

But at least she knows she is being watched over. She knows there’s something to come back to. I wish I could take on her pain for her. She’s so wrung out after fighting it for so long.

Not even in the Khala can we take on another’s pain,
Zamara said, gently.
We can know of it, and feel it as our own, but we cannot eliminate it for another. The dark templar have said they fear losing themselves in the Khala, but it is not so, not in the way they think. We remain who we are. And we, in the end, every one of us, must face our torment alone.

Jake bit his lower lip and sent a thought to Rosemary.

Come back, Rosemary. Get through this, and come back.

Her face, drawn with pain but still perfect in its porcelain beauty, showed no sign that she had heard.

Rosemary blinked sleepily. The scents of smoke and cooking wafted to her nostrils, and she sniffed. She was suddenly ravenous. For a long moment, her mind was a blank. Something was missing….

Oh, yes. Excruciating torment. That was what was missing.

“I’m hungry,” she announced, turning her head and seeing Jake, as she had known she would.

He smiled down at her, running a hand along her hair with a familiarity that told her he’d done it a lot
over the last … however long it had been. She let him do it. She found it comforting. “I thought you might be. We’ve got some real food. Come on.”

He helped her sit up, and she frowned. “Weak as a damned kitten,” she muttered, clutching the blanket around her and letting him assist her.

“Stay right there,” he said, and grinned. Surprised, she smiled back.

“Smart-ass,” she said, her voice warm. He returned momentarily with a plate of some kind of roasted meat. She speared it on the knife he gave her and bit into it hungrily. It was charred on the outside, raw in the middle, and was the best thing she’d ever tasted.

“Roasted
kal-taar.
Don’t gobble it down too fast—you haven’t eaten in days,” Jake said soberly. “The drug took away your appetite. You didn’t even realize you were hungry.”

Rosemary nodded and swallowed. “Yeah … I ate because you all expected me to. Would have blown my cover. And then—well, it never stayed down for long once the withdrawal kicked in.”

“Are you well enough that we may speak with you?” The mental voice in Rosemary’s head belonged to Ladranix, of course. She made a slight face and nodded.

“Yes. I’ll tell you everything I know. There’s not a lot that’s useful, though, I’m afraid.” She took another bite.

“Uh, about that,” Jake said, and scratched the back of his neck sheepishly. “We already know a lot. To
help you we had to go in pretty deep. Even into your subconscious.”

“I’m not surprised,” Rosemary said, her mouth full. “You did what you had to do. What I asked you to do,” she corrected.

They looked at one another a moment. Both of them knew what he and Zamara had found there. To her surprise there was no trace of disgust in Jake’s blue eyes, only admiration and empathy. And for the first time in a long time, Rosemary was ashamed of how she’d treated someone.

Jake cleared his throat. “Anyway, the good news is, you knew more than you thought you did. While you were, uh, high on this Sundrop, the Forged spoke freely to one another, including you in the loop.”

“Really? Anything useful?”

“A lot,” Jake said. “By what they said, Zamara was able to identify this Benefactor of theirs.”

Rosemary was instantly alert. She hungered for information—for ways to fix the damage she’d caused—even more than she did food right now. “Who is it?”

Jake looked around at the gathering of Those Who Endure. “He goes by the name Ulrezaj. He’s something called a dark archon.”

A mental murmur rippled through the Shel’na Kryhas. “A
dark
archon? We know what an archon is….”

“I don’t,” said Rosemary.

A mental image filled her mind: glowing, swirling energy, a sense of tremendous psionic power radiating
from it. She also understood that this was a sacrifice—that templar had assumed this form, in order to aid their brethren with their very lives.

“Oh,” she said.

“There are few more powerful weapons among the protoss,” Ladranix said.

“It gives literal meaning to our terran slang ‘going out in a blaze of glory,’” Jake said. “Two templar sacrifice themselves to achieve this power for a brief time. The dark templar can create archons as well.”

“Has Zamara seen them?” Rosemary asked.

“I—better let her handle this,” Jake said. Rosemary watched as Zamara stepped to the fore. Jake’s expression changed, became calmer, more reserved. Even so, there was less of a difference than there had been earlier. Jake was starting to become more and more like Zamara. She wondered what he thought about that, wondered if he even realized it.

“The dark templar do not have preservers,” Zamara said, speaking with Jake’s voice. “When they decided to withdraw from the communal link that is the Khala, they forfeited the ability to create preservers. The Khala is vital to a preserver; it is only through that link that we are able to access the memories.” Jake÷Zamara smiled as he saw the confusion on Rosemary’s face. “It is complex for terrans to grasp, and you need not fully understand. All that matters is that you understand that I have no memories within me of any dark templar once they left Aiur. Thus, I have not seen a dark archon—save one, which I saw
only through reading the mind of the assassin it sent to kill me.”

Zamara looked gravely at those assembled. “What I know is that this dark archon—Ulrezaj is his name—wants to keep me silent. He is more than a mere dark archon. Whereas archons are comprised of two joined souls, this entity contains the psychic and spiritual energy of seven dark templar.”

“Seven?” Ladranix’s shock rolled over Rosemary. “How is such a thing even possible?”

“Likely that knowledge lies only in Ulrezaj himself, and it is doubtful he would ever share it,” Zamara said dryly. “He is powerful beyond anything I have ever encountered, and my being a preserver, that is a considerable statement. His assassin was sent to execute me and all other preservers, to ensure that the protoss would never know what we know, and be crippled without us to rely upon. When I read this dark templar’s mind …”

Zamara hesitated. “Based upon what I learned, I am one of the last surviving preservers. And if I die, all hope for our people—for this entire galaxy—dies with me.”

CHAPTER SIXTEEN

INSIDE HIS OWN BODY, BUT NOT IN CONTROL OF it, the essence that was Jake Ramsey turned to Zamara with horror.
You’re one of the last? Why didn’t you tell me?

What purpose would your knowing this have served, other than to further alarm you?

Zamara, you have to stop this not telling me things. You’re in my body. You’re running the show much of the time. I deserved to know this.

Well … now you do.

“I do not know what Ulrezaj’s ultimate plan is,” Zamara continued, as if she had not just dropped the equivalent of a nuclear bomb on them all, as if she were merely passing the time in idle chitchat. “But he needs assistants. He must, or else he would not need the Forged. He has created this drug to addict and enslave them. One other thing I have learned from Rosemary’s subconscious is that this Sundrop does not permit them to touch one another’s hearts the way the Khala does. It may do even more that they do not even know about, affecting them on very deep levels. They have become angrier, more primal; they could well be changing in other ways also.”

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