by Brian K. Asbury
Celebrand opened his eyes. I’m not dead! he thought. There was a grinding sound as Elvo withdrew the Powersword from where it had embedded itself into the floor next to Celebrand’s head.
“Creator!” swore Elvo. “That was close. I’m sorry, Celebrand. I just couldn’t stop myself. I barely turned the blade around in time.”
Celebrand opened his mouth to respond, but there was another agonizing scream. He looked around to his comrades, who were standing around looking bewildered but in control of themselves once more. Immorto thrust out a hand and helped his leader to his feet. “I’m sorry, too, Celebrand. None of us were in control of our own minds.”
“I know, but what–?” The question was cut off as Celebrand realized that the screams were inside his head. It was Hammond — Hector Hammond was screaming mentally. “What’s happened to him?” he gasped.
“I don’t know,” growled the Femnaz guard. “But he invaded my mind. I’m going to make sure it’s the last thing he ever does, and then I’m going to deal with you lot as well. No one humiliates a warrior of the Femnaz and lives to tell the tale!”
Celebrand frowned as the armored woman drew her gun and took aim at Hammond. “Dartalg…”
Although Dartalg looked shaken, he nodded and sent a dart into the neck of the Femnaz before she could fire. She whirled, fury in her eyes — and then keeled over.
“It’s OK,” the former assassin said. “It wasn’t anything deadly.”
Celebrand nodded. He approached Hammond. “What in the cosmos did this to him?” he mused.
“I don’t know,” said Elvo, joining him. “But if he snaps out of it again, he’s going to be trouble.” He raised his Powersword. “Immortal or not, can he survive his head being separated from his body?”
“I doubt you could make much impression on him,” replied Celebrand. “But this should make sure he doesn’t use his powers on us again.” He removed the amulet from his neck and placed it around Hammond’s. “It doesn’t just protect against psionic attack,” he explained. “It also blocks any psionic ability the wearer has.”
“Right,” said Elvo. “But what’s wrong with him? And what do we do about her?” He indicated Psyche, who was glaring angrily at the men.
“Uh-oh, see what you mean,” Immorto muttered. “She doesn’t look happy, boss. And with Apollo out cold, there’s no one to–”
The sentence was cut off as something tiny emerged from Hammond’s ear, shimmered, and grew rapidly in size.
“That’s impossible!” Dartalg gasped. “He should have been out for hours!”
They found themselves staring at the now-back-to-normal form of the avian shape-shifter Ornitho.
“I had a feeling this wasn’t over yet,” said Elvo. “I think we’ve got a couple of problems still to deal with, folks.”
Elvo hefted up his Powersword and assumed a fighting stance. “You might have intimidated us before, Ornitho, but you can’t assume the form of that Kryptonian bird-thing again for at least forty-eight hours. In any other form, you’ll find battling us a whole different ball game.”
Ornitho raised his hands. “I’m not here to fight,” he said.
“You shouldn’t be here, period,” muttered Dartalg, who had already fitted a dart to his pipe. “The drug on that kryptonite dart should have kept you unconscious for hours.”
Ornitho smiled. “Don’t underestimate my unique metabolism, my friend. I absorbed most of your poison as the winged one. What was left must have been only enough to put me out for a few minutes. Since I came around I’ve been observing you, and it became obvious that you were all being used by yonder gnome.” He indicated the immobile form of Hector Hammond. “When he was about to use the swordsman to kill your comrade, I felt it was time I stepped in.”
“What did you do to him?” asked Celebrand, curious.
“Played havoc with his inner ear,” replied Ornitho. “Immortal he might claim to be, but I was banking on him still being able to feel pain. And an Imskian bugbird is just small enough to do the job.”
“Imskian!” scowled Dartalg.
“Yes, I’m aware that the girl who died was an Imskian,” said Ornitho. “But I didn’t make her walk into the energy-barrier. I’m sorry about her death, but I’m not to blame.”
“No one’s saying you are,” said Celebrand.
“Really? I’m not sure you speak for everyone here. What about her?” Ornitho nodded in the direction of Psyche.
“Okayyy…” said Celebrand. “He does have a point, Psyche. What about you? You’re obviously not under Apollo’s influence any more. How do you feel?”
She stared at him. “How do you expect me to feel, Captain? You used me. Everybody uses me.”
“I’m sorry, Psyche,” said Celebrand. “It wasn’t my choice. I had no alternative. But you’re free now, and no one will ever exploit you again. I swear to that!”
She scowled and turned away. Moving to Hammond, she spat in his face. His eyes betrayed fury, but — his powers neutralized by Celebrand’s amulet — he could do nothing. “I ought to destroy you,” she said quietly. “I ought to destroy all of you. But…” She faced Celebrand and the others once more. “That would make me as bad as you. And there is one here who needs me. Who needs help.”
Turning away from Hammond, she moved toward the robots that held the containment-field generators holding in the energy creature.
“Psyche, no!” Celebrand blurted, dashing to interpose himself between the pink-clad blonde girl and the creature. “This thing is dangerous. Believe me, you have absolutely no idea how dangerous.”
“She’s in pain,” said Psyche. “She’s in terrible torment. She doesn’t know where she is, what’s happening to her, or even who she is anymore.”
“It’s a she?” said Ornitho. “What are you talking about?”
“Psyche’s an empath,” explained Celebrand, “an extremely powerful one. She can read the creature’s emotions, and if she says the creature is female, I’m inclined to believe her.”
“She’s more than just female,” breathed Psyche. “Under the pain, her emotions are incredibly beautiful. Like a queen…”
She tried to step around Celebrand, but he opened his arms wide to stop her. “Listen to me, Psyche, no matter what you may be sensing, we have to proceed with caution. I’m no more happy than you about the Zeraks keeping a living sentient being here in the Vault–”
“Amen to that,” muttered Elvo.
“–but there’s no getting away from the fact that this is a dangerous creature with unknown powers.”
Ornitho moved to join them. “Listen to him, lady. My employers don’t lock anything up in the Vault lightly. If it’s here, it poses a real and present danger. And anyway, I’m employed to protect the Vault and its contents. With the Custodian incapacitated, there’s no way I can allow you to approach that thing any closer.”
Psyche’s lip curled. “There’s no way you can allow me? You’re wrong, my winged friend. I’m going to free her, and there’s nothing in this universe that is going to stop me!”
Realizing that the situation was in danger of getting out of hand, Celebrand nodded toward Dartalg, intending that the green-clad former assassin should read this as a signal to neutralize Psyche with one of his anesthetic darts. However, Dartalg did not move. In fact, he was staring at his blowpipe with a look of horror, as if unable to believe what was in his hands. And Elvo was staring at his Powersword with a similar expression. Both of them seemed terrified of their weapons.
“Psyche, what are you doing–?” he began. Then suddenly he was filled with an overwhelming feeling of love. It didn’t matter what Psyche was doing. He could deny her nothing.
“Captain, dear, please show me how to work these controls,” she said softly.
“Of course, anything… my love.”
“Now wait a minute,” cried Ornitho in alarm. “What are you doing?”
“Leave them alone!” This was Immorto, who suddenly grabbed the Plubossian mutant from behind. “I know what your game is. You just want Psyche for yourself. But you won’t have her!” He threw a punch at Ornitho, who was suddenly filled with an uncontrollable rage. The two began brawling around the room.
Celebrand shuddered. On an intellectual level, he knew what was happening — and the feeling of love kept leaving him and then coming back, as if Psyche were having to rotate her empathic attack around the room in order to affect so many of them at once. He could see tremendous strain on her face, and he could feel beads of sweat forming on his brow as he tried to resist. But he knew he had no chance. Even if he had still been wearing his amulet, he would not have had a chance.
After all, that was why Hammond had selected Psyche for this mission. He knew her history — stolen from her homeworld of Dalnar seven years before and then sold into slavery by the space pirate Roxxas. All natives of Dalnar possessed empathic powers to some degree, and Psyche was the daughter of a priest. As the priesthood, by tradition, was chosen from the most powerful empaths among the Dalls, Psyche already had the potential to be strong indeed.
But she had been sold to the Psions, who had conducted experiments on her and then, typically of them, discarded her, letting her be used by their Citadel masters until they, in turn, tired of her and sold her on. The experiments had magnified her empathic powers greatly and modified them so they tapped into something beyond just raw emotion. Psyche could see into a person’s very soul.
She touched his shoulder. “Please, Captain. Show me the controls which will collapse the containment field.”
Celebrand wanted to resist. He knew that he must resist. But it was no use — his love for Psyche was so intense that to refuse even her slightest whim must surely kill him. He pointed. “You turn this control off, then wait for the green light to turn red. Then press this button. When the light flashes, press this one to confirm you want to turn it off.”
“Thank you, my darling. Now go and stand with the others. I must do this alone.”
Reluctantly, Celebrand moved away to join Elvo and Dartalg, who were still paralyzed with fear. He ignored Immorto and Ornitho, who were still rolling about the floor, furiously exchanging blows.
Then, quite suddenly, his head was clear. The sounds of fighting stopped, and he found himself staring at his companions in confusion. “What — what just happened?” gasped Elvo.
Celebrand spun around. The red light on the console was flashing. “Psyche, no!” he shouted. But it was too late. She stabbed down on the final button, and the containment field died.
The energy-creature flared and swelled in size, radiating tremendous heat and light into the room. “Psyche, no!” Celebrand yelled again. He started forward but felt himself being held back by Elvo.
“Don’t be a fool, Celebrand. Can’t you feel the heat coming off that thing? Try to reach Psyche, and you’ll be fried!”
If Psyche herself felt the heat emanating from the energy being, however, she betrayed no sign of it. She stood before it, hands raised. “You’re free, now,” she said softly. “I know you’re frightened, but there’s no need. I’m your friend. I can help you.”
Ornitho had joined Celebrand’s group. “What’s she doing?” he said. “Is she trying to commit suicide?”
“Given the way she’s been used, would you blame her?” muttered Dartalg. They stared at him. “I’m just saying what I’ve thought all along. Using a slime-ball like Apollo to control her was wrong. I used to kill people for a living, but I’d never exploit someone like that.”
“I’ve already said we had no choice in the matter,” said Celebrand. “Don’t you think I’d have freed her sooner if I could have? But Hammond would have smelled a rat. We’d never have stopped him.”
“Stopped him?” Dartalg said. “Are you saying you knew it was him all along? Just what haven’t you been telling us, Celebrand? What’s really been going on here?”
“Not now, Dartalg,” Celebrand replied. “We can debate this later. Right now we’ve got to stop Psyche before she destroys herself!”
“I repeat,” Ornitho said, grabbing his arm, “just what is she trying to do?”
“Maybe communicate with it,” suggested Elvo. “Maybe it’s empathic, too, or something similar. Maybe it communicates through emotions.”
Celebrand shook his head. “No. I think she’s trying to do what Hammond wanted to do. I think she’s trying to merge with it!”
“Is that possible?” Ornitho said.
“I don’t know. But I doubt it. Hammond is immortal, and he has a whole range of telepathic abilities. He was sure he could control the creature when he merged with it. Psyche is neither an immortal nor a telepath. Trying to merge with it could kill her.”
“Then we’ve got to get her out of there,” said the winged mutant. He stepped forward, then retreated back again. “But the heat! How can she just be standing there?”
“I don’t know. But is there some form you could change into that would be able to withstand it long enough for you to pull her out?”
“Er… none that comes to mind. Except for the Kryptonian winged one, of course. But as you said, I can’t use that form again today.”
Immorto had stood at the back of the group all this time, saying nothing. Now he spoke up. “OK, OK, we all know that there’s only one of us who has a prayer of surviving this, don’t we?”
Celebrand turned to him. “Immorto, you don’t have to.”
“Yes, I think I do. I know I make light of most situations, but I think this is the time to get serious. It’s obvious that the creature doesn’t want to harm Psyche — not deliberately, anyway — but has no qualms about burning the rest of us. Well, my powers have always enabled me to regenerate from anything in the past, even from death. I think we’ll now find out if I can survive even this.”
They stared at him. Elvo removed his protective goggles and handed them to the young acrobat. “Here. I can’t see a damn thing without these, but they should protect your eyes long enough for you to reach Psyche.”
“Thanks,” said Immorto. He put on the goggles and began to move toward the transfixed young empath.
As Immorto struggled to make headway against the searing heat emanating from the energy-creature, he felt his skin blistering and peeling away and his clothes smoking and, in some places, burning. I’m going to die, he thought. OK, it’s not the first time — but why does it have to hurt so much?
Immorto knew that this was testing his powers to the utmost. Ever since he was a child, he had healed small injuries at an incredible rate, and this ability had become even more pronounced as he grew into his teens, to the point when one day he had suffered a fall from a high wire that should have been fatal — indeed, the company’s doctor had pronounced him dead — only for him to get up a few moments later, completely unhurt. From that day on, he had no longer been plain Irving Schreck but Immorto the unkillable — the man with no fear of death. He had no idea where this power came from or why, but it had made him the most daring acrobat the circus had ever seen until he got bored with it and left to seek adventure elsewhere. But this, he thought, is not what I had in mind. Can even I survive this?
Through Elvo’s goggles, he could now see that Psyche was right ahead of him. She was now partway inside the creature, her arms and face penetrating into its energy. Yet somehow it was not burning her as it was burning him. How was this possible?
“Ps-Psyche…” he said, his voice nothing more than a hoarse rasp, “…please… come away from there…”
She partway turned, and he could see that her lovely face was untouched. “Go back, Immorto,” she said softly. “She won’t harm me, but I can’t guarantee…” Her eyes widened as she saw him. “Oh, gods, what have you done to yourself?”
“Can’t… argue. Not sure how long I can…” Immorto tried to say. Enough of this! he thought, grabbing the girl with blackened hands and pulling. She resisted, but somehow he found the strength to hang on and use his own weight to drag Psyche back from the energy creature. Back…
Suddenly, the light increased tenfold as the creature flared beyond anything they had seen before. Immorto found himself being hurled onto his back, but he held onto Psyche, pulling her with him.
Then the light was gone.
“What’s happening?” said Elvo urgently. “You know my eyes are bad. I can’t see at all now.”
The voice of Celebrand was grim in tone. “Nor can any of us, Elvo. That last flare blinded us all!”
“Great,” said Dartalg. “Just fragging great! Now what do we do?”
“Maybe we could wake up Apollo,” Elvo suggested. “Out cold, he won’t have been blinded. Do you have a dart tipped with a drug that could bring him around?”
“Brilliant suggestion, Elvo. But where is he? I’m as blind as you are, and I don’t even know which way I’m facing relative to where Apollo fell. Besides, what’s that blasted energy-thing doing while we’re blundering around sightless? And what’s happened to Immorto and Psyche?”
“Pipe down, both of you,” ordered Celebrand. “Haven’t you noticed? The heat’s gone.”
“Is the creature still here? Has it blasted its way out?” said Dartalg.
“Impossible. The walls of this Vault are impervious. Nothing could blast its way out.” This was Ornitho. “Oh, damn, why didn’t I think of this before?”
“Hang on, I’m going to change form. It’ll help to literally have a fresh pair of eyes.”
There was a rushing of air as the avian metamorph assumed the form of a raven. “That’s better. Now I can see.” He looked around. “You’ll be glad to know that your Geekouite friend and the fake Durlan were well away from the heat. As were, thank goodness, the Custodian and my two Femnaz colleagues.”
“What about Immorto and Psyche?” asked Celebrand. “Wait — I think my vision is starting to clear a little.”
“Mine, too,” Dartalg said. “That’s a relief — no permanent harm done.”
“Well, wait till you see this,” said Ornitho in his raven voice. He fluttered over to where Immorto’s blackened skeletal remains were already starting to repair themselves and flesh out into human form. “Amazing,” he muttered. “How does he do that?”
“I presume you mean Immorto,” said Celebrand. “How about Psyche? Is she still here?”
“Oh, yes,” replied Ornitho, switching back to his natural form. His humanoid eyes were still partially dazzled, but he could see enough. He bent down and touched Psyche’s carotid artery, feeling for a pulse. “She’s OK,” he said. “Just out cold.”
He switched his gaze to where the energy-creature had been. “But who’s that?”
“Who’s what?” said Elvo. “Celebrand, Dartalg, can either of you see yet?”
“Some,” replied Celebrand. He moved carefully toward Ornitho and his two comrades and could now see what the shape-shifter was staring at. There was someone in the room who had not been there before. Female, blonde, quite naked, and lying very still, about where the energy-creature had been.
“Where the hell did she come from?” breathed Ornitho.