Read Sword of Dreams (The Reforged Trilogy) Online
Authors: Erica Lindquist,Aron Christensen
Tags: #Fairies, #archeology, #Space Opera, #science fantasy, #bounty hunter, #Science Fiction
"No. I went home before heading out to Koji. I wanted to see my parents and pick up a few things from the Kynfarr laboratories before I flew out to the frontier. My mother lectured me a little. Like you, she always thought I should have stayed in research. But otherwise, everything was fine. Until I left."
Xia laced her fingers in her lap. "A pirate ship – the Caitiff – intercepted my passenger liner. They took everything of value, killed anyone who resisted and took many others as prizes. I was one of these last, but I wasn't on the Caitiff long before the captain, Gelden, figured out that I was a lot more valuable as a medic than a whore."
Xen listened thoughtfully. "You don't have to tell me more."
"No, it's all right," Xia said. She unwove her fingers and wiped her damp palms on the knees of her pale green pants.
"So you were a doctor for the pirates?"
"Not at first. I refused to work for them, but then Gelden brought in some of the other prisoners from my ship. He told me that if I didn't obey, he would kill one of them. I didn't believe him, naturally. Gelden was a petty, spiteful little man. I didn't think he had it in him. I was wrong.
"The next time the Caitiff landed, I tried to escape. I was terrified and clumsy. Gelden's men caught me easily. When they dragged me back, Captain Gelden shot one of the other captives, a human girl. Right there in front of me. There was nothing I could do for her.
"I didn't push Gelden again. I worked for him for two years. After a while, he even let me carry my own weapons. I still have the pistols he gave me, stolen off one of the ships he attacked."
"But you left, eventually," Xen said softly.
"Gelden stopped the Blue Phoenix. It was carrying some transistors. Gallium-erol, very delicate. He didn't want to risk damaging the cargo by firing on the ship, so he boarded. Tiberius, Maeve and Duaal fought back. Gripper wasn't around back then. Maeve chased one of the boarding parties all the way back to the Caitiff. She found me there, waiting to care for the pirates. Maeve rescued me, if you can believe it, and brought me back to Tiberius. He offered me a job and I took it."
"And here you are." Xen looked around the medbay with a new appreciation in his faceted compound eyes.
"Here I am," Xia agreed. "Tiberius built all of this for me. It used to be a closet. He had it expanded and bought some equipment so I could do my job."
"Why didn't you go back to Koji?" asked Xen. "They still need doctors in the colonies."
"I'm sure my grant expired a long time ago."
"You could get a new one," he suggested.
Xia shrugged. "I don't know. There aren't a lot of grants."
"I could help you secure one."
They sat in silence for a few minutes. The bulkheads rumbled as the engines worked, wrapping the Blue Phoenix in a huge null-inertia field and hurling them between the stars, flying faster than light. Voices echoed quietly from the rest of the ship as the crew and passengers went about their evening routines. Xia could just make out Orphia's harsh calls as Tiberius flew her in the hold.
"It's good to see you again, my dear," said Xen at last.
"And you, Xen. It has been a long time."
"I meant what I said before. I want to hear all about your strange companions. I'm quite curious."
Xia nodded. "I knew you would be. I'll be making breakfast tomorrow. If you want to get up early and lend me a hand, I can tell you some about them."
The other Ixthian stood and took Xia's hands in his smaller ones. He kissed her forehead, between her antennae. "I look forward to it. Until tomorrow."
He left Xia sitting alone in her medical alcove. It was good to see Xen. He seemed much older, more mature than the over-eager young man who had been her lover six years ago.
Or am I the one who has changed?
Her relationship with Xen seemed like a lifetime ago, but the memories of the intimacy they had once shared stirred a longing in Xia that she had nearly forgotten. Life on the Blue Phoenix could be isolating. Xia spent every day with the rest of the crew, but when she was not working, her off-duty hours were long and lonely. It would be good to have passengers, especially other scholars, if only for a little while.
Xia shut off the lights in the medbay and headed back toward the mess. She could help with the dishes before bed.
"Every truth is a lie in someone else's eyes."
- Enu-Io Crath, Varnum archeologist (220 PA)
Coldhand spent the next three days in his hotel room, sorting through every available report on the Cult of Nihil and using his E3 status to request more. Where were the Nihilists now? There were speculations and panicked police reports of suspicious strangers in black, but very few actual facts.
It made sense. If there were enough easy leads to track down the Cult of Nihil, local authorities would have found them already. There would be no need to post bounties. The Nihilists were hiding.
Logan sat at the desk and ran his right hand idly over the smooth-polished wood – actual wood, banded in alternately light and dark brown. It was probably the most expensive thing in the room. Coldhand supposed that most of the hotel's guests were businessmen. How many contracts were written and reviewed at this desk?
I'm probably not the first to spend more time here than in the bed.
Coldhand pulled up one of the police reports on the monitor. The video of a woman's hysterical testimony was full of low resolution rude gestures, but the audio was clear enough. Her husband had run off with an Arcadian – "A bird-back slut!" – that she was convinced was a Nihilist. The husband turned up two days later, floating face-down in one of Giadeen's huge violet lakes. Someone had remotely emptied his accounts, using his codes. They found his Arcadian mistress a week after that, dead from a chem overdose.
But in spite of the widow's adamant accusations, the Giadeen police found no evidence of Nihilist involvement. The fairy appeared to have been working alone. After rereading the report for any overlooked details, Coldhand found no reason to doubt their conclusion and moved on.
There were other stories of Nihilists appearing throughout the galaxy – some substantiated by other witnesses – but none with any more evidence than the Giadeen case. Coldhand pulled up the four most likely reports side-by-side on his monitor: a pair of self-proclaimed Nihilists giving death sermons on Glaw, an Arcadian looking for converts on Koji, and a series of brutal murders on the Devros moon, Frast.
In most cases, the local authorities had caught the culprit, only to have each one kill themself before questioning. On Frast, another bounty hunter found the Nihilist and cornered him in front of a crowded restaurant. Fifty-eight witnesses confirmed a short, brutal fight between the hunter and a tall human in a dirty red robe.
Coldhand swiped a bead of sweat from his forehead before it could drip down into his eye. The other bounty hunter had been no match for his opponent and was still laid up in a Frast hospital, recovering from multiple deep lacerations and a major concussion. Of the Emberguard, there had been no further sign.
Logan checked the clock. It was getting late again. He sat back in the chair, making the leather creak. Each of the incidents was suspiciously public. The first three gave their speeches on street corners, in the middle of parks or even on the steps of Union of Light churches. The Emberguard on Frast had never made the slightest attempt to conceal his crimes, usually killing in plain sight and dropping the discarded bodies in front of busy public centers.
Even back on Stray, when the Nihilists were at their strongest, they never acted so openly. Gavriel gave his sermons, but never let his subordinates so blatantly criminalize themselves. The abduction of Kessa's baby was done quickly and quietly. Gavriel kept his people under careful control.
Coldhand closed away the details of the four reports. They were useless. These Nihilists had to be acting on their own, outside Gavriel's authority and influence, if he was still alive. They still believed in the old bastard's teachings, but without his guidance, could not fly straight.
That did not mean they were dead ends… Coldhand read over the planets again: Glaw, Koji and Frast. He kicked his feet up onto the desk and frowned up at the shadowed ceiling.
Glaw was being extensively mined. A pulsar only a few systems over swept the planet with frequent radiation bursts. The colonists lived far underground in an expansive network of caves and tunnels. It was an easy place to hide and was a popular smugglers' stop.
The CWA always sought out new planets to venaform, to feed and settle their ever-growing populace. Koji was the most recent planet to become a full member of the Alliance. Thousands of ships came and went from Koji every day, carrying colonists and the multitude of supplies needed to sustain the young world.
The two planets did not seem to have much in common. What about Frast, the innermost moon of Devros 2? Like Hyzaar, oceans covered most of Devros 2 and made dry land a rare commodity. Starports were too large to put on such expensive real estate. Most ships landed on the nearby moon. Passengers and cargo moved down to the planet on the hourly shuttles.
Coldhand closed his eyes. They were sandy and dry from hours of staring at monitors. Fractal patterns in red and green danced in the darkness behind his lids. There was a simpler pattern to all of this, if he could just see it. The hunter pressed his fingers against his closed eyes, making the shimmering shards of color jump and spin.
Had the Cult of Nihil fragmented? Devros, Koji and Glaw were nowhere near each other. Maybe the church simply dissolved, scattering to the stars. One of the first accounts Coldhand had read was a police report from Stray. The Nihilists arrested in Gharib killed themselves shortly after capture, just like those on Koji and Glaw. But when the Stray police stormed the other cathedrals, they found only dusty, empty buildings. The Nihilists were gone.
Coldhand cracked his eyes open again and frowned at the dark hotel room. There had been hundreds of the death-worshippers in Gharib. Half of those escaped the collapsing catacombs, but the Stray police only managed to arrest ninety-three of them.
And that was only
of Gavriel's cathedrals. There had to be thousands of Nihilists on Stray. So why can I only find records of four?
The remaining cultists must have gone somewhere. The ones on Glaw, Koji and Frast had to be stragglers, fledges fallen from the nest. But all three worlds were major ports. What if these cultists were part of larger groups, left behind because they arrived late or were troublemakers?
Coldhand brought up images of the four known Nihilists. None of them were Arcadians, but the majority of Gavriel's following on Stray had been made up of fairies. The hopeless and unhomed Arcadians made perfect targets for the cult's escapist preaching. So where were they? Was Gavriel trying to keep the Arcadians close? Why? To keep himself in Xartasia's good graces? Did the princess care at all what happened to the broken fragments of her people?
Or maybe I'm trying to build a nest from a single twig.
It was a possibility. Coldhand had very little information and could have been taking it all in the wrong direction.
A sound distracted the bounty hunter from his thoughts. Only after a minute sitting in stony silence did Logan hear the noise again and realize that it was his stomach gurgling. He had not even noticed the empty aching in his gut.
Coldhand brought up the hotel's internal node and ordered some food at random from the room service menu. It was going to be expensive, but Logan had no desire to leave his desk long enough to find something else.
The Cult of Nihil was moving off of Stray, or had already done so. Where could they go that such a large influx of fairies would not attract notice? One of the sparsely populated colony worlds, like Koji? No, the Central World Alliance watched their new colonies closely. They farmed and manufactured important products and foodstuffs for the older worlds.
The vast city-world of Axis was home to ten times more Alliance citizens than any other planet. The appearance of a few hundred or even thousands more would never be noticed. The lower levels of the megatropolis were a mystery even to natives of Vanora and were an easy place to hide. The idea of finding the cult on Axis was a daunting one, but Coldhand did not think about it long.
I found Vyron there, and he was just one man. It can be done.
There were only a few other civilized planets where the Nihilists could go and escape the notice of the CWA. Glaw might have been a good choice, full of places to hide away from prying Alliance eyes. But they were all deep underground, but unlike even the lowest levels of Axis, Glaw was all tight tunnels and caves. It seemed unlikely that even the most despondent Arcadians would be willing to make their homes in a place where they could never fly. And if they endured the interminable tons of stone burying them away from the sky, someone would eventually notice the Arcadians in a place so alien to them.
Coldhand had almost forgotten about the food he ordered until the door toned softly. He pulled on a shirt and answered. In the hall, a gangly girl held a covered tray and squinted into the darkness. Her freckles stood out starkly against her skin in the bright light of the hallway.