The First Sdhlain: Sdhlai 3

She rose from the depths of a healing trance. Funny . . . I don't remember putting myself into one. Looking around, she realized the room had more exquisite furnishings than anything her pack could afford. Something danced on the cusp of her mind, trying to coalesce but not quite getting there.

A loud thump on the door, and then a Guard walked in. Memories, of the almost-victory over the first Guard and the subsequent capture, returned in a quick burst. She leaped from the bed and growled.

The Guard snorted. "Looks like you healed fairly quickly. A shame. Our compatriot--the one you threw off the Cliff--already recovered from the slight injuries your feeble attempt at escape gave him. The Master said to make sure he doesn't kill you . . ." the Guard snorted again, his wide nostrils flaring, "but I'm not sure I'll be able to restrain Red Star." The Guard paused. "Never you mind. The Master wishes to speak with you. It would be best if you came without me having to use force."

Walks-In-Shadow paused and considered her options. Fighting a Guard one-on-one was suicide at best, and she doubted that her body could handle another healing trance this soon even if she did manage to stay alive. Another quick glance around the room revealed no hiding spaces. Even a hard throw of some furniture would gain her nothing more than a few seconds before the Guard bled her life like they bled a snargh after a hunt.

Head held high, she sniffed. "All right. Take me to him."

The Guard walked up to her and snapped a pair of binders around her forearms. Some unseen command--probably subvocalized, she mused--brought them to life, and her forearms shot together with a snap.

"Damn! You didn't have to up the draw that quickly." She licked her lips, carefully watching the nuances of the Guard. Was that a nervous tic, or was there a reason it kept scratching behind its ear?

The Guard snorted. "Like I give a shit." It thumped her on the skull with the staff in its hand. "Let's go."

As they walked down the halls, Walks-in-Shadow took in as much as she could. Her last visit had been furtive by necessity, avoiding all of the main passages and sticking to abandoned storerooms and the occasional unoccupied library. Only her last mad dash to the Key had been in the open, and the fire caused enough confusion by that point to keep them from noticing its absence for at least ten minutes. She ran fast, but the aerobikes flew faster, and only when they neared the Badlands did the Guards have to leave the vehicles. The same rocks and faults that forced them on foot slowed Walks-in-Shadow down as well, and she barely had enough time to stash the Key before her final sprint to the Cliff.

She wondered at the opulence of the Master's abode. How much of my people's labor went into this? How many years of life were spent so that the Master could have one more rare painting, one more tapestry hung in a quiet alcove? She spat at one, a picture of a far-away life on a far-away planet, and the Guard behind her thumped the staff against her head again.

"You'd better watch that. Wouldn't want any more trouble on your head, now would you? Speaking of trouble . . ."

Another Guard rounded the corner, and Walks-in-Shadow froze. She had been too lost in thought, too busy looking at the scenery, to pick up on his scent. It was overpowering.

It was Red Star.

Only eight or nine feet separated them. Two big steps . . . for him . . . Slower than her, the Guard took one more step before coming to a stop. Jerked into motion again by the leash, she scuttled into his shadow but Red Star's hot glare followed her and she knew the illusion of safety was temporary. Closing her eyes, she strained her senses for any other signs of life, but apart from the three of them, the maze of looping hallways was empty. It was a perfect spot for an ambush or a handover. . .

"Weeell . . . if it ain't me ol' buddy Gork . . . with the spicimin that got me demoted. And here I thought me luck had all run out!" The laugh that followed this heavy-handed witticism was completely without humour.

. . . oh fash . . .

". . . Red . . . I . . ." Gork's voice came out as close to a squeak as a rumble could get.

At Gork's lack of enthusiasm, Red Star's show of camaraderie slipped, replaced by a hungry impatience.

"The bitch's gotta pay for what she did to me. You know that. Now quit messin' around and hand her over!"

"Aw shit . . ."

His free hand raised in a placating gesture, Gork took a shuffling step backwards while his right hand tried to free the stunner on his hip and hold onto the leash at the same time.

"You 'n me, we're buddies right? But . . . orders is orders . . . see?"

Walks-in-Shadow was as taken aback by Gork's unexpected refusal as Red Star. Her respect for the Guard's courage went up a notch or two. He had joked about not being able to protect her from Red Star yet here he was, doing just that, or trying to. Either he was incredibly gutsy or he was plain stupid. Any fool could see that Red Star was the dominant one of the two. Physically, they were fairly evenly matched--both nudging eight foot, both heavily muscled, especially in the neck and upper body which made their heads appear disproportionately small--but that was hardly surprising given that all the Guards were hand picked for just these characteristics. What made Red Star stand out was the air of caged violence which surrounded him like an aura. Most days he just enjoyed the release violence gave him. Today he needed it. His skin seemed to give off waves of heat. His muscles bunched and twitched as if they had a life of their own. Only his eyes didn't move. They never wavered, staring through Gork--at her. By comparison, Gork looked hesitant; and flabby; and slow. Even though he carried a stunner and Red Star was unarmed it was obvious who the winner would be. . . . If she was to survive then she would have to find a way to help herself because Red Star would not, could not stop until he had torn her body into bite-sized bits.

Something about Red Star's fixed stare must have penetrated Gork's brain because he suddenly dropped the leash and tore at the holster, almost ripping off the flap in his haste. It all seemed to happen in a blur. The stunner was in his hand, coming up for a shot and then they were both flying backwards like skittles before a four hundred pound bowling ball.

Walks-in-Shadow was thrown back down the hallway, coming to rest beneath the very painting she had tried to deface. Gork smashed into the window embrasure, winded and fighting for his life as Red Star tried to rip his head off with one hand while grappling for the stunner with the other. The reek of blood lust was overpowering. After he was finished with poor, stupid Gork, Red Star would come for her. Barely healed, Walks-in-Shadow was in no condition to out-run a maddened Thul but she was damned if she was going to just sit there and wait for him either. Gathering the leash into a ball she pushed herself awkwardly to her feet and began edging past the battling guards. Unable to tear Gork's head off with just one hand Red Star had settled for bashing it into a bloody pulp instead. As he rhythmically smashed Gork into what was left of the window frame, Walks-in-Shadow caught a glimpse of Red Star's face. As she turned and ran she knew it would haunt her dreams.

The hallway seemed to go on for eternity, occasionally bending off in a direction other than straight ahead. The alarms hadn't gone off and Walks-in-Shadow prayed that Red Star was still pummelling Gork into the woodwork, her absence therefore going unnoticed. Walks-in-Shadow paused to catch her breath at a turn off, leaning heavily against the wall. Her ears pricked up at the sound of muffled voices, their origin unknown as they seemed to be coming at her from every direction. She pressed her temple to the wall and schooled her body into shutdown mode, letting the adrenaline of her hastened escape drain from her pores. As she moved along the hall, the recently indistinguishable voices became clearer, detached from the buzz of pounding blood in her ear. There were two people, male, moving around in a room somewhere behind the wall. Their tones suggested that they were engaged in a debate over something, or someone. Walks-in-Shadow furrowed her brow, straining to catch their words. A bead of sweat made its amiable way down the length of her long nose and fell unceremoniously to her feet. With one ear spying on the conversation she kept her other free to listen for the approaching footfall of guards. She often wondered at the way part of her mind could remain analytically detached even when the rest of her was engaged in more primal instincts. Walks-in-Shadow thought she heard some reference to her lapse into the debate and she forced herself to block out all other noises.

"The girl hid the Key. It's still somewhere out there. With all due respect Master, we need to interrogate her before she forgets or decides to play dumb." There was a pause, a long, heart stopping pause in which Walks-in-Shadow was painfully aware of the binders still strapped to her forearms.

"Yes, I know. I'm having her brought in now. But we can't do anything, we mustn't do anything to her until Lee'sar is found. He's the only one who can track down the Key." The Master's voice, like roughly woven silk passing over one's skin, was all too familiar to her senses. She could almost smell him. That analytical part of her replayed his words around in her head, and settled on that name. Lee'sar.

"Master, he's been gone for almost two weeks. Do you really expect him to help after this recent taste of freedom?"

"Well, yes." The Master shifted his body weight slightly, emitting a soft thud. "He'll be back. He always comes back."

"But--" Static. Walks-in-Shadow held her breath, pressing herself so hard against the wall that she was sure it would leave a red mark on her cheek. "Master. They have him, they're bringing him in now."

Walks-in-Shadow leapt back from the wall as it burst open like a door. She darted behind a bend, watching. Funny how she hadn't noticed the door before. A Guard that was considerably more slender than the others thrust his shoulders through and stood awaiting his Master. The other came slower, his heavy footfall muffled, his movements frustratingly precise. Walks-in-Shadow bit back a gasp. The man before her was of indeterminate age, though the white curtain of hair that hung in rat's tails about his long face could have said otherwise. He pulled a large coat around his broad shoulders and smiled at the ceiling.

"Let's go."

Walks-in-Shadow furtively followed them at a safe distance. They came to a white walled cafeteria for the Guards, tables surrounded by buff looking males like Red Star. But Red Star was nowhere to be seen. A few women dressed as nurses stood awaiting orders, eyes locked on a pair of double doors leading to the outside world. Walks-in-Shadow grinned.

The doors burst open in a flurry of motion, and three figures stepped forward. Two of them were Guards, the other was a normal sized male who looked no older than Walks-in-Shadow herself, and yet she didn't recognise his species. Electric pink spikes of hair hung at odd angles around a deathly pale face where two dark green eyes narrowed dangerously at all who surveyed him. He was reasonably wide shouldered and lean muscle showed where his t-shirt had been torn. A feral grin to match her own teased out the corners of his lips.

"Ho! S'good ta be home!" He greeted, slapping his hard stomach. "Any a youse miss me?" He winked at one of the younger nurses. "Hey sexy, I know you missed me."

"Lee'sar." The Master's voice was low and dangerous. "You, among others, have caused us all great amounts of trouble lately. Especially me."

"I aim to please." The other said, and the sarcasm to his undertones made Walks-in-Shadow smile. The Master came forward, hands clasped.

"And you escaped when we needed you the most of all, too."

Lee'sar quirked an eyebrow. "Aw, nice to know I'm wanted around here." He cocked his head to the side and eyed the Guards, but his green gaze sought out and pin-pointed Walks-in-Shadow with deftness.

"Sons-a-bitches . . . where's Jam'ee? Where is she?!" He growled, advancing on her. " . . . Who's this?! Where's Jam'ee!" Lee'sar halted and pointed a rigid finger at her. Walks-in-Shadow blanched. All eyes were on her.

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Last Updated: 2002.10.06.1253