For a church dedicated to the worship of death, the Cult of Nihil stubbornly refuses to die. When word reaches the bounty hunter who calls himself Logan Coldhand that the Central World Alliance is willing to pay for members of the congregation, he takes the job. Perhaps chasing death will help him recapture the thrill of the hunt, lost ever since the mark that got away.
Halfway across the galaxy, Maeve and the rest of the Blue Phoenix crew are still struggling to rebuild their lives after a devastating encounter with the Nihilists. But when Captain Myles agrees to take on what should be a simple job – flying a team of archeologists to the remote planet of Prianus – they find themselves pitted against old enemies and ancient terrors.
Sword of Dreams is the second book of the Reforged Trilogy.
“Evil perseveres not at the hands of bad men, but at the inaction of good men.”
– The Books of Light (23 PA)
Fifty-seven years ago.
Gavriel Euvo stood at the edge of a field of withered gray grass that rippled in the cold wind. It was always dark on Zeos, as dark and dry as the inside of a coffin. The low sky churned with brown clouds that blotted out the tiny pair of orange suns and turned the planet’s moons into invisible monsters that tugged jealously at the muddy Zeon oceans.
“Gavriel? Are you sure about this? What if things don’t work out at the university? Where will we’ll be then. Gavriel…? Love, did you hear a word I said?”
“Hm?” Gavriel answered. He slid an arm around his wife’s thin shoulders.
He could feel the sharp angles of her bones through her skin and clothes. Jaissa Euvo was only thirty-seven years old, but a hard life on Zeos had lined her face with worry and streaked her hair in gray. Still, she was no less lovely in her husband’s eyes.
“Well?” she asked. “What do you think?”
Gavriel pulled Jaissa close and kissed her furrowed brow.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I heard you, Jai, but I think you’re worrying too much.”
“And I don’t think you worry nearly enough,” Jaissa told him, but finally smiled. “Your head’s always up in the clouds, love. You’re never down here in the mud with the rest of us.”
“I’m a philosopher. Having my head in the clouds is my job,” Gavriel said. He gave his wife another kiss. “And that’s why you fell in love with me.”
“On the very first day of class, oh great and wise teacher,” Jaissa teased, and then grew serious again. “Do you think they’ll approve the transfer this time?”
“I do. The Alliance Education Board likes what they’re hearing. It might take some time for the datawork to go through, but then they’ll sponsor our move out to Tynerion.”
“Tynerion,” Jaissa sighed. Now was looking up at the sky, too, as though desire alone could pierce the thick Zeon clouds and see through to the bright stars beyond. “God, I can’t wait. Zeos is no planet for Sarru.”
“And speaking of our tiny devil…”
Gavriel crouched and held out his arms to the little girl running toward them through the dry grass. It was still early in the morning, but her jumper was already covered in colorless dust. Sarru leapt into her father’s embrace with a squeal. The eight-year-old had her mother’s graceful build and beautiful sky blue eyes. Sarru waved a streamer of bright, shiny plastic at Gavriel, too close and too fast to read.
“Come on! We’re going to be late!” she said.
“Late for what, honey?” Jaissa asked, full of mock confusion. “I don’t remember what we’re doing here in this God-forsaken chill. Oh, we must have gotten lost! Maybe we should just go home and get warm.”
“No!” Sarru cried. She slid out of Gavriel’s arms and stomped her small foot in the grass. “We’re going to the fair! Xiv and Dinna are already inside. We have to go soon or they’re going to do all the good rides without me!”
“Well, we wouldn’t want that,” said Gavriel seriously. He took the plastic advertisement from Sarru’s hand and picked her up. “Come on, let’s go. I think I have some tickets in one of my pockets.”
With his daughter giggling and tugging on his beard, Gavriel led his family out across the grassy field. The annual fair was too small for the large venue, with brightly striped tents spaced few and far between. Brilliantly lumapainted rides would have been lonely were it not for the long lines of eager children waiting for their turn to be thrilled.
At the gate, Gavriel handed his tickets to a man who winked at the impatiently fidgeting Sarru and made her promise to have a good time.
“I will,” she assured him with childish gravity. She wriggled free of Gavriel and hopped down to the ground. “I’m going to find Xiv and Dinna!”
“We’re right behind you, sweetheart,” Jaissa said.
They followed their daughter until Sarru found her friends – a small, silver-skinned Ixthian boy and a taller human girl with dark Mirran stripes – already in line for the garishly flashing Whirly-Swirly. Gavriel put his arms around Jaissa again and watched Sarru bound over to the other two children, cheerfully ignoring grumbles from the rest of the line when she cut in next to Xiv and Dinna.
“She’ll miss them to much,” Jaissa sighed. “When we move out to Tynerion, she’s probably never going to see those two again.”
“Sarru’s a sweet girl. She’ll make new friends,” Gavriel said. He gave Jaissa a reassuring squeeze. “But it’s all the more reason for her to have fun with them now.”
Dinna’s mother had bought her a huge cone of fluffy lavender puff-candy, now proudly shown off and shared with Sarru and Xiv. Sarru managed only a few mouthfuls before the spun sugar stuck to her fingers. She giggled and tried to wipe it off in Xiv’s fine white hair. The short Ixthian boy dodged Sarru, but Dinna caught on to her friend’s game and dropped a clump of candy onto Xiv’s head. It stuck to one of his antennae, making it look like a tiny tree.
“Hey!” Xiv protested. “Stop it!”
“You know, Xiv’s a bright boy,” Gavriel said contemplatively. “It would be such a waste for him to become a miner like his parents. Maybe when we’ve been on Tynerion for a while, I can fly Xiv out on a scholarship.”
“Really?” Jaissa looked worried again. “You think you could do that? There aren’t very many scholarships.”
Gavriel smirked. “No, there aren’t. But what’s the point of power if I can’t abuse it a little? Once I’ve got some clout with the Tynerion universities, I’ll see what I can do for Xiv. Maybe Dinna, too, if I can. It would be good for Sarru to have her friends around, after all. Like you said, she’s going to miss them when we’re gone.”
Xiv’s hair was full of purple candy now. He fought back against the giggling girls, but to no avail. All three children were screeching and covered in dyed sugar.
Jaissa sighed. “Well, I’d better go save Xiv or else those girls are going to end him long before college age.”
She disentangled herself from Gavriel’s embrace and went to the children. Sarru and Dinna shrieked and feigned ignorance of their crime, cramming the last of the sweet evidence into innocently smiling mouths. Jaissa just shook her head and picked the candy from Xiv’s hair. Her own hands were quickly covered in sugar, too, sticking fingers together and sending all three children off into gales of laughter. Jaissa giggled as she licked her fingers in a vain attempt to clean them. His wife looked no different than the other girls now, Gavriel thought with a grin.
The frozen air shifted as the wind picked up, whipping the low-hanging clouds into sudden motion. They swirled and danced like ink in water. It could almost have been beautiful. Almost. Gavriel squinted up at the sky again. There were stars out there, and worlds better venaformed than Zeos. Worlds like Tynerion, centers of light and learning.
Thank God I can finally take my family there, away from all of this mud and darkness.
Someone screamed – not the mechanical shriek of the rides or children at play, but a sharp cry of absolute terror.
It was Xiv. He was standing over a heaving, thrashing knot of motion on the ground, pointing and screaming. The boy’s thin, keening wail cut through the wind and music of the carnival. Dinna fled the scene, weeping and pulling on her green braids.
Jaissa was on the ground, her whole body was twisted in terrible, unnatural convulsions. Her eyes rolled back in her head and her heels drummed rapidly against the rocky ground. Thick red foam boiled up from her mouth and streaked her cheeks in gore. Sarru lay beside her contorted mother. The little girl tore at her own throat with her fingernails as she gurgled and choked. Gavriel ran to his family, scattering frightened fairgoers. He fell to his knees and gathered his wife and daughter into his arms.
“Sarru! Relax, Sarru. Just take slow, deep breaths. Someone call a doctor!” Gavriel shouted.
Jaissa writhed like a worm impaled on a hook. Sarru thrashed in her father’s arms and tried to scream, but all that came out was a strangled choking sound. Gavriel pried her hands away from her neck and stroked her hair. There was blood under her nails.
“Everything’s going to be fine, Sarru,” he said. “No… No, don’t fight! Just try to calm down and breathe. Sarru!”
The little girl went stiff in Gavriel’s arms as blood erupted from her nose and mouth. Her eyes – so beautiful and blue, just like her mother’s – went wide as her eardrums ruptured with a small pop. Sticky red poured down over Gavriel’s fingers. He held his daughter to his chest as she died, screaming silently in agony.
When the medics finally arrived at the fair, they found Gavriel still holding his wife and daughter, begging them to breathe.
Gavriel stared at the painted walls of the waiting room. It was a tiny room, a private place to receive bad news. A prison cell. Why did they call it sky blue? There were no blue skies on Zeos. That soft pastel color was supposed to be calming, Gavriel guessed. He hated it.
A tall Ixthian woman came to tell him what had happened. Her clean lab coat – the same lying color as the walls – was embroidered with the quartered circle of the CWA Medical Corps.
It was the lavender candy, she explained in a smooth, soothing voice. The dye had reacted with deoxylene, an airborne by-product of the mines. The mixture was harmless to most people, but a rare genetic abnormality made it fatal to Jaissa. A trait she had passed unwittingly on to her daughter. No one could have predicted it. No one could have known.
That was it. Just a one in a billion random chance. An accident. There was no one to blame. No one would pay the price for their terrible deaths. The mining methods were extensively tested and verified for safety. Nothing would change. Nothing could change.
The doctor asked Gavriel to sign the datadex she held, a document that gave the hospital permission to sequence Jaissa’s blood so that they could screen other Zeon citizens for the same problem. Gavriel took the datadex, staring at it. He could see nothing but reflections of the blue walls on the shiny screen.
Screenings? Why? To save some stranger from one horrible death, only to deliver them to some other random, terrible chance? To be crushed by a car as they carry their groceries across the road? Murdered by a jealous lover in a fit of rage? Just to choke to death on a pill meant to save their pointless, pathetic life?
Gavriel flung the datadex across the empty waiting room and it shattered into splinters against the wall. The startled Ixthian doctor jumped and told Gavriel to calm down. Her voice seemed muffled, echoing as though from a great and uncrossable distance.
Why do you live? Gavriel wondered. Why do I live? We’ll only die. We all die, alone and in pain.
Gavriel grabbed the doctor around her slender silver neck. Her smooth, slightly rubbery skin was so fragile under his strong hand. Her compound eyes shone red with fear. The Ixthian doctor fought against Gavriel, but he was larger and stronger. She could not even scream. Just like Jaissa, just like Sarru, dying in terrible silence… He crushed her throat, choking until she went finally still.
Gavriel held the Ixthian there and stared into her eyes until they went dark. Flat black. Dead.
Dead and free.
Published 11.23.2013 by Loose Leaf Stories