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Before anything can be reforged, it must first be made, forged by pain and experience. Forged includes four short stories that take place before the Reforged trilogy. To avoid spoilers, Forged is best read after Sword of Dreams.

Purity: Maeve Cavainna was once a knight of Arcadia. How did she fall so far?
Little Hawk: A story of honor and childhood on Prianus. Also included in Sword of Dreams.
Beauty By Night: An art thief in the Giadeen night.
Songs and Sigils in Space: The story of how Maeve joined the Blue Phoenix crew and where phenno comes from.

 Beauty By Night

His palette was black night and red blood and sharp, broken white bones. His music was muffled screams and the sound of bodies hitting the floor. He stared down at his canvas of twisted bodies and broken glass.

Tonight’s work was a failure. It was cheap. Gaudy. Jack wished he could close his eyes, but he didn’t have eyelids anymore, just high-resolution cameras wired straight into his brain. Jack couldn’t turn them off any more than he could stop the stars from glittering in the brilliant Giadeen sky.

Thick blood clotted on Jack’s metal fingers. So ugly… Desperation rose in the back of his throat, choking yellow-brown bile. Jack chose a clean patch of floor – well, mostly clean – and traced the straight, simple lines of a valley lily all in crimson. The blood flowed almost like ink, or like paint.

But it wasn’t paint. The dead men’s cooling blood dulled and grew dark on the cool floor. It smelled like old metal and decay. Jack raised the graceless cybernetic lump of metal and high-impact ceramic that made up his fist and slammed it into the floor. The stones cracked under his mechanical blow.

Ugly. Ugly. So ugly…

He was wasting time. Jack had to find what he had come for. He made his other hand release and dropped the security guard’s arm. The torn flesh fell to the broken floor and fresh blood streamed around Jack’s metal feet. He pried apart the heap of meat that had been three armed and expensive security guards until he found a keycard. Clumsily, Jack wiped it clean on a torn uniform and unlocked the doors. They glided open on hinges almost as massive as those in his metal arms.

Jack dropped the keycard to the scarlet-streaked floor and stepped through into a wide circular room. Cerulean nightlights made it waver like a secretive ocean grotto. Jack let out a breath that tasted like burnt wiring.

At last.

The gallery was a museum in miniature. Jack’s automated eyes clicked softly and zoomed in on every detail. The walls were hung and set with works of precious art: delicate sculptures of pale, subtly textured paper; perfectly smooth carvings of wood in fine-grain ebony and sienna; a hologram of a dancer mid-leap all formed of emerald and azure light; glass vases and hand-crafted bowls so delicate that it seemed a single breath might shatter them.

There was no metal. No metal anywhere.

Light reflected and distorted over Jack’s cybernetic metal skin. He wore no clothing to obscure his graceless manufactured body. Jack’s metal feet clanked tunelessly against the polished mosaic floor.

There. It rose up between two slender alabaster columns, the centerpiece of the whole room: the simple painting of an old woman. She sat at a window, smiling out at a sky full of stars. A hand-lettered plaque beneath the frame read Beauty By Night.

A man’s hands would have trembled. Even cloned replacements – flesh and blood and bone painted properly over each other in delicate layers – might have shaken. But machines, these artificial machines, felt nothing so delicately human as fear or anticipation. There was only the rage, the searing inferno of anger and loss sealed away inside Jack’s metal body. Fake fingers closed and ground hungrily at his side and blood clung to the metal like rust.

Jack reached for the painting. He had no plan for getting it out of the well-protected penthouse, but he didn’t care. It was here, right in front of him…

Jack froze. He stepped to one side and then the other. No Beauty By Night was too flat. Paint didn’t lay like that. It flowed and layered like waves on sand. This was just a print.

A fake.

A howl of frustration welled up inside Jack, but all that came out through his voice synthesizer was a flat bleat. He tore the title plaque off the wall. It came away easily and a strip of black electrical adhesive dangled from the back. Jack crushed the plastic square in his metal fist like a playing card.

The ceiling lights flared suddenly, flooding the room with bright white and drowning the nightlights entirely. Jack spun. His computerized eyes whirred and constricted to pinpoints.

A man stood in the door, watching. He was young – far younger than Jack, if age meant anything to a cyborg – and handsome in a raw, unrefined sort of way. Not the kind of man likely to sit in a studio and pose, but who an inspired artist might ask anyway. His hair was a dark blond, not a poet’s field of wheat under the sun. The man held a large handgun at his hip, heavy and scarred, but with the closed refraction barrel of a laser. Not an NI gun like those that lay beside the broken guards, empty of bullets that had only flattened uselessly against the cyborg’s thick illonium armor.

Jack’s uninflected voice echoed hollowly from the speakers in his cheeks. “Gavin Hun?”

“Minister Hun is out for the evening,” said the man. “But for a fee, he loaned me his name and home.”

“They said that Hun bought Beauty By Night. They told me I would find it here!” Jack took a heavy, booming step toward the man.

“I said that. They just repeated it.”

“Who are you?” Jack asked.

“Logan Coldhand.”

“What the hells kind of name is that? Are you a bounty hunter?”

“Jack Orsin, you’re wanted for nine counts of murder and twelve of theft.” Coldhand glanced back over his shoulder at the dark silhouettes of bodies in the hall. When his eyes returned to Jack, they were hard as glacial ice. “That will have to be twelve across the board after tonight.”

There was stern judgment in those blue eyes. But if the house had been empty of security personnel, Jack supposed, the trap would have been too obvious. The huge cyborg took another long, heavy step closer. His fobersteel foot snapped another floor tile into jagged halves.

“Theft!” Jack snarled. “Theft? I didn’t steal those paintings!”

“Their owners would beg to differ. If they were still alive to say anything at all.”

“Those paintings were mine!”

“You may have painted them, but you sold them, Jack.” The other man adjusted his grip on the gun. One hand glinted strangely.

“They are mine!”

Jack didn’t stop. He stalked step by step across the gallery.

Coldhand said nothing. He simply watched, gun leveled at the advancing cyborg. He didn’t ask why. He didn’t care. But Jack did.

“I was an artist,” Jack said. He gestured to his metallic machine body with whirring, grinding fingers. “Before… this. But I can’t paint with metal hands and wire nerves. Everything I make now is… is broken. Ugly…”

Silence. The man’s hand shifted again. Nervously? No… Coldhand raised the left one as though hailing Jack. It reflected the harsh yellow-white dully, just like Jack’s metal body. Cybernetic…

Jack fixed glowing glass eyes on the hand. It was metal. Flat gray illonium. The cybernetic limb was thick, angular and unnatural, as though painted in awkward, amateur brushwork.

A clumsy sculpture of a hand. Another damned fake.

Jack leapt the final distance to the door on spring-loaded metal legs. He landed with a crash like thunder, scattering shards of shattered tile into the air. Coldhand jumped back, raising his gun to aim at the joint of steel plates high on Jack’s chest.

“Stop,” he said. “I can take you in dead, Jack, but you’ll never paint again with a laser bore through your heart.”

Heart? He had no heart anymore, only a plastic fluid pump… Jack grabbed for Coldhand, but the other man was ready. The gun snapped up and ruby laserfire bloomed from the barrel. Hot, wet pain boiled in Jack’s steel chest. It felt like tears. The laser whined twice more and Jack fell back into a spreading halo of blood and lubricants. The man with the metal hand stood over him, expression subtly and beautifully sad.

Even now, Jack couldn’t close his eyes. He stared up at Beauty By Night. The printed stars hung flat on the wall, but the old woman’s smile was just as beautiful as the real thing.

Published 07.20.2013 by Loose Leaf Stories