Question of Faith
"You are one of mine, are you not?" a voice asked him. He couldn't see anything, only a blank white. When he held his hands up, Psychro could see flakes of white passing by. The flakes weren't snow, or rather didn't behave like snow. For all that they were swirling, they didn't seem to be accumulating on the ground, they weren't cold or wet, and they didn't melt against his skin, merely evaporated. "I asked you a question," the voice said. There was no anger in it, just a statement of fact, as one might comment on the colour of the sky.
"I am," Psychro replied. He had never heard the voice before, but he knew the speaker intuitively. In this place, with the aura about it, there was only one person it could be. It never occurred to him that he should kneel before his goddess.
The white flakes somehow parted revealing the most strikingly beautiful woman he'd ever seen. An Icewalker, doubtless, with flawless blue skin. She was distinctly muscular, as befitting her role as warrior, with a heavy suit of armour. A pistol and a sword hung on her hips, and her head carried two magnificent golden horns. "You are half mine," she stated, causing him to wince. His mother had been a Psion woman, which was both a blessing and a taint.
"You honour me," he said, finding his voice.
"I do," she replied. He thought he detected a hint of a smile as she said it, which brought him back to the question as to why he was here before her. "You have served me well, both as a warrior and as a lover. The time is coming, though, when you will need to face me as one or the other in order to keep your life. You and Psikaris are twins, and as such your fates are entwined. Your success depends on her, and hers depends on you. If one dies, the other dies too. Remember that and keep it well."
Sweat soaked his pillow as Psychro jerked awake. He was alone again in his rented room, Tug Mug snoring soundly on the next bed over. He had drawn a curtain between their two beds to create some illusion of privacy, and was glad for it now. Had that really just happened? Did the goddess really commune with him? And, most importantly, what did it mean?
He turned on his bedside lamp and quickly jotted everything he remembered on to a notepad, as much detail as he could. "You must face me as one or the other," she had said. As a warrior or a lover. He thought gods were above such carnal pleasures, surely he wasn't supposed to have sex with her... but then how was he supposed to fight her? She was goddess of warriors, she was fighting spirit embodied, one could no more fight a goddess than contain a hurricane in a bottle. None of it made sense.
Except for one thing. If he died, Psikaris died as well and vice versa. It made this whole thing that much more dangerous, and made finding Isilik before he found Psikaris even more important. He didn't really want to die, and he didn't want to lose the one person he truly cared about. Only Lunis knew what she had in mind, he just hoped he could figure it out in time.
The western tunnel. Once they crossed that threshold there would be no turning back, or if they did the term 'coward' would follow them for all their days. Snoeya had provided them with a very nourishing meal, inviting them to take as much as they liked with them, and then had escorted them to this point. There had been curious stares and whispers from those they passed, some remembering their own treks and others wondering what it was like. Snoeya had touched the marks on their arms where they had drawn blood for the bonding ceremony, blessing them, and wished them on their way.
The thoughts of the two were of fear and excitement. The wild outdoors held many surprises and their very lives were at stake. But for Psikaris there was an added element, concern for her brother and the role that Snoeya had promised was there for him. She hadn't seen him at breakfast, which was considerably odd, nor was he waiting here. She could only assume that he and Tug Mug had left early to begin their hunt for Isilik.
Psikaris was snapped back to reality by the feel of Cameo's lips on hers, pulling her close. "Let's do this," he said. She saw Snoeya still standing in the tunnel, watching with a bemused smile on her face. Together they stepped out into the cold.
The wind was still, and their foot falls crunched in the shallow snow. Psikaris fancied that she felt stronger now that she was out, but passed it off as the fresh air being invigorating. It was theoretically possible that the goddess was taking some of the burden of childbirth off her, but the rational part of her brain dismissed this.
Earlier in the week they had discussed a strategy. They would hike at a reasonable pace, alternating taking the lead so one could walk in the other's footprints, while trying not to tire themselves out, and seek a spot for shelter early. The worst thing they could do was to be frantically trying to find something with dark coming on. Food wouldn't be an issue for the first few days, but they weren't carrying much since there were so many other essential things to be carrying, so if they saw something edible that they could get easily enough, then it would be worth their while.
Somewhere in there they would be tested, and that was a part that was difficult to plan for. In many ways, she thought as Cameo took the first shift in the lead, he had the advantage. All Icewalkers were taught basic survival skills, but those in the military were given so much more. Cameo would be expected to know how to survive for days if his ship crashed in a remote section of the moon, and even on other moons. An engineer was less so. She knew a dozen ways to re-calibrate a ship so that it flew faster, but she'd never had much in the way of practical experience in the wild.
Cameo had told her a story of how every pilot was given orders to land their ship in a desolate stretch they called the Frozen Graveyard in their first year. It was here that the moon was coldest, and very few creatures dared venture in to the several mile area. They were left on their own for two nights to see how well adapted they were. It was all heavily supervised, and only one person had ever actually died from it, but Cameo hadn't needed to be rescued. He'd known that the key to survival was to keep the canopy of his ship closed as much as possible to trap the warmth. He'd gone out long enough to catch some food and relieve himself, but otherwise had stayed inside where there were emergency rations and the like.
She suspected the purpose behind the story was to instill confidence in him and to try and calm her nerves, and she supposed it had worked to some degree, but it also left out how badly prepared she felt if they were separated.
Not too far away, Isilik watched patiently through a set of binoculars, his vehicle was ready to go. He tracked the direction they were headed and waited. Attacking them too close to the city would be foolhardy; someone might see him. He would wait three hours, and then follow. That, he figured would give them plenty of time. By then, they would be feeling the effects of fatigue and become easier prey. Just as he was about to go further into the cave, he heard the roar of an engine as a small fighter craft raced overhead. In itself this wasn't unusual, but there was something about it that caused the hairs on the back of his neck to stick up. He had seen an abnormally high number of fighters go by in the last day, which made him wonder.
Psikaris was in the lead now, some two hours into their first day, when they decided to take a break. They had spotted the boulder, lightly dusted in snow, in the distance and had agreed to use that as their first stop. Cameo felt that he could go on, but the fatigue was starting to show in his bond mate. He felt guilty about it, knowing that she wasn't used to the rigours of this much physical exertion like he was. Even though he was an officer, he still felt obligated to do many of the exercises that his men went through, to provide moral support mostly. She was also hampered by the added weight she was putting on. It would be worse in a few months, he knew. He also knew that she wasn't likely to admit to needing this rest.
She had laid out a small tarp on the ground against the boulder, using it as a natural shield from what little wind there was. "Not a bad start," she said, sitting.
"Couple of miles," Cameo agreed, crouching down and taking a mouthful of water from the canteen at his hip. "I guess the first part of the trek is the easy part."
"Hnh. Yeah, we haven't even had to find shelter or food yet. Don't be impatient, though. It'll come." She looked up as Psychro's ship roared overhead, flying low and slowly, she waved up at it. "Good to see he's still around."
"Not really. It just means he hasn't found Isilik yet. What makes a man become that obsessed? Just hormones and sore feelings? That doesn't make sense to me," Cameo said. He didn't want to add the haunting thought that Psychro wasn't that much different from Isilik. Neither man handled rejection well, and Cameo had seen exactly how obsessive Psychro could be in the pursuit of his conquest. Was Psychro capable of something like this?
"He isn't like that," Psikaris said, jolting his train of thought. "I know you're comparing Isilik to my brother, and Psychro isn't like him. He can take no. He doesn't like it, but he can."
It was disorienting to hear it, but she had talked about her abilities once. Limited cellular telekinesis, which allowed for very mild shape shifting, and an almost non-existent telepathic power. The latter, she said was like getting a vague impression of what someone close to her was thinking; in this case she knew that Cameo was talking about Isilik and thinking of Psychro, her logical mind filled in the blanks. "I know, but it's not far off," he conceded. There was no point in lying to her, he was never good at it. "If Psychro's personality was pushed to an extreme..."
"Okay. Maybe," she stood, a little uncomfortable with the subject matter, and he managed an apology rather than letting it fester. They'd spent only a few minutes, but they knew they should press on.
Still nothing. Psychro cursed loudly, the profanity nearly startling Tug Mug as he piloted. "Such language," the Graviton chided, though they both knew he'd heard worse. They'd been searching for the last four hours, a good two hours before the lovebirds even left White Fang, and still had found no sign of Isilik. Trying to find him was going to be like finding a needle in a haystack, and yet Psychro knew they would track him down. That was one impression he got from his commune with Lunis; that he and Isilik would meet again somehow.
What the end result of that meeting would be was uncertain, and even the meeting itself was unknown depending on how the rest of Psikaris' test went. If she died... he shook the thought from his head and concentrated on the landscape below through the borrowed goggles. All this travelling and the only living things he'd seen was a pack of snow wolves that were far away and the pair themselves. Their vital signs appeared to be normal, maybe running a little warmer than average, but still normal.
"Let's try a little to the west," Tug Mug said, "you never know." There wasn't a particular rhyme or reason to it. Rationally, Isilik could be far ahead and laying in wait, or come from any angle and direction. A lone elk grazed nearby, burrowing beneath the snow for the stubby scrub grass that grew sporadically. It would make for good hunting if it would venture towards them, but trying to guide it that way would definitely constitute cheating.
Psychro had meant to look up the history of cheating during these treks, whether anyone had ever tried it, and what had happened to those that did. The Icewalker goddess was not known for being very forgiving, much like the moon itself, and he suspected that the results were quite gruesome. He probably would have gotten around to doing it if the whole Isilik mess hadn't cropped up.
The fighter craft turned sharply, Tug Mug skilfully piloting it. The ship was military hardware, and the gentleman in charge had been very reluctant to part with it. A lot of restraint went into not decking the man, instead Psychro had pointed out that the health and safety of Cameo, probably technically the man's superior, was very important. A concession had been made to disarm the vehicle, which was probably a minor point.
Another two hours of solid marching later and thoughts of lunch were beginning to stir. That was when luck hit them. The same elk that Psychro had spotted from the air had indeed ventured near, close enough that Cameo and Psikaris saw it at the same time. "What do you think?" she asked, freezing in place as the elk raised its head to scent the air.
"Why not? We'll take what we can and leave the rest for some other predator. We don't know when the next time we'll find food is." Cameo shrugged off his pack and placed it on the ground. "You get the fire ready to go and I'll see if I can kill it."
Quietly he slipped off. There wasn't much in the way of shelter, and he would have to stop anytime the elk looked in his direction. Blasters were great weapons, but their accuracy and strength diminished with distance.
While he slinked off, Psikaris slowly removed the small bundle of wood that she had lashed to Cameo's bag. There had been a small stand of evergreens near the mountain city and they had stopped long enough to gather a few. Fire was a luxury out here, giving those Icewalkers who could generate it from their bodies an advantage. She alternated between keeping an eye on his progress and her own work until she was satisfied.
"Go back!" Psychro said, urgently. "Back where we saw them!" He couldn't explain it. One moment they had been travelling across the sky, the next he had this sudden feeling that Psikaris needed him. Tug Mug didn't hesitate, turning the light craft around.
The worst case scenario, Cameo thought, softly putting one foot in front of the other, was that the elk would charge him when he got close. Those horns weren't for decoration, as Lunatak horns seemed to be, and adult elk had been known to kill unwary Icewalkers. If it did charge, though, he probably could get off a killing shot before it gored him, but it still paid to be careful.
It's head whipped towards him, and it turned its body. He'd been spotted, clearly, and it was evaluating whether he was a threat or not. The elk wasn't cornered, and was more likely to run the other way, but he couldn't be sure. His pistol raised and he chanced another step forward. He was still too far away for comfort. He wasn't a bad shot, but he usually allowed the targeting systems of his ship do the hard work. Across the empty space their eyes locked, a battle of wills between them. He wondered, as he had during his training, if this was life had been like for the first Icewalkers, the primitive battle of Lunatak versus nature.
As he had done on that day long ago, he kept his eyes locked on his target, the crosshairs of his pistol lined up on its chest. Another slow step brought him inches closer as he tried to project the thought that he meant it no harm. Which of the gods was it that governed the hunt, his mind projected suddenly. Tesudas, the Darkling goddess of luck? Lunis who governed warriors? Cyris the Psion god of death? He supposed that each had a hand to play, but there was only one whose name he would pray to at the moment. "Please let this work, Lunis," he thought to himself.
The elk stomped on the ground, and he could see the steam coming from its nostrils even at this range. It was going to decide any second what it was going to do, so he braced his arms for the shot. Suddenly it started to turn, as if to bolt and he pulled the trigger. The elk let out a mournful cry, tumbling to the ground still kicking. Cameo sprinted through the snow, cursing. It hadn't been a clean kill, and now the elk was suffering. The gap seemed especially long now, the agony of the elk poignant in the air as he got closer. Legs thrashed and he saw the scorch mark in its hind quarters where the bolt had hit, numbing the entire section. His weapon had been on a stun setting, so in a few hours the rear might revive, but until then the elk would be helpless.
Large brown eyes looked accusingly at him, striding closer with a knife drawn. He didn't want to chance wasting his blaster's power on a second shot. Cameo walked behind it, as it craned its neck to follow him with those eyes. It was wounded, not stupid, he needed an open shot at the throat with his knife, but those perilous antlers... "Easy there," he whispered, "I'll make this as quick as I can. Sorry about this."
He dove in, landing squarely on its back. He grabbed the antlers with one hand and directed them away from his person as best he could, while his other hand slid the knife across the throat. Blood spurted from the gaping wound, and he threw himself free. Gradually the beast collapsed. He turned to signal Psikaris and saw, to his horror, a snowmobile almost on her.
She couldn't really tell what was happening over there, it was too far away to make out more than the basics of the event. She saw Cameo jump the elk and fancied that she could see the flash of blood in the air. Once he rolled free she released a breath that she didn't realize she had been holding, and that's when she heard the roar of an engine. At first she thought it might be Psychro coming back on another pass but knew it wasn't. The ship he had taken made a different sound. That was the sound of an Echo class ice sled, which meant one likely thing. Psikaris fumbled in her bag for her pistol as Isilik's snowmobile arrived.
Psikaris pointed the weapon at his chest, wondering how long it would take for Cameo to get near. She'd never killed anyone, and had a pathetic rating in both hand to hand and armed combat. It wasn't the main reason she had delved into the mechanical side, but it was one of them. "You aren't going to shoot me, are you, Karis'?" Isilik asked, dismounting from the snowmobile. He was a good twenty feet away, close enough that she could see the mania in his eyes.
"I might if you don't stop there. You nearly killed my brother," she said, using the anger as fuel for if she did need to shoot him.
"He lived? That's too bad, I was hoping he didn't." He did stop, which brought her some relief. "Is that whose ship that is?" he asked, glancing above and behind her. Foolishly, she turned her head, a mistake that he capitalized on by shooting her in the chest. It was a stunning blast, knocking her out cold. "And now, to kill you and your children."
Time seemed to slow to a crawl as Cameo willed his legs to move faster. Psikaris was down, and the mad man had drawn a knife of his own. Isilik thrust the blade in to her stomach twice before Cameo's laser blasts knocked him down. He was hardly aware of Psychro and Tug Mug's ship landing nearby, focussed on dealing with the traitorous Isilik with his bare hands. Fury built to a blazing crescendo, tackling the stunned body, driving his fists into every available surface. His bondmate. His children. Everything he cared about taken from him by the man in front of him. No, not a man, a sack of meat that he was determined to tenderize.
Only one thing stopped him. Psychro. The hybrid Lunatak pulled Cameo off by the shoulders and spun him towards Psikaris, blood flowing freely from the wounds in her stomach. "What did you do that for? She's dead and that one..." Cameo snarled, his anger towards Psychro held in check by the thinnest of threads.
"She's not dead. Not yet, and only you can save her. Isilik's not going anywhere," Psychro's words acted like a wall to the flood of Cameo's anger, as confusion reared its head. "Look, she told you. Cellular telekinesis. Gives her a bit of a healing factor. She can't use it because she's unconscious, but you..."
"Can copy her power," realization hit Cameo. He assumed that the gift had come from his father's side, the ability to mimic the abilities of those around him, only with diminished strength. It made sense, he'd never seen Psikaris with a significant injury, and she always seemed to have soft hands. "But I don't know how to use them."
"I'll help. Put your hands over the stab mark and close your eyes. Concentrate on the sound of my voice," he began.
One moment he was standing with Cameo, trying to quash the uneasy fears inside, the next he wasn't. He was in a white space with a pair of doors nearby. His first thought was that he had died, that he had been too late. No one knew what the afterlife was like, mostly because no one ever came back to tell. Oh sure, there were rumours and speculation from those who had spoken with the gods, but nothing confirmed. But what was he supposed to do? Was one door a paradise and the other condemnation? And how could he tell which was which?
He walked over to them, surprised to find that he could walk around the doors but certain that if he opened either that it wouldn't be the same white space on the other side. They were both of plain wood and both lined with deep gouges. The one on the left, strangely, smelled more pleasant than the other, but he couldn't put his finger on either odour.
"The time has come," Lunis said, startling him. Even more strangely there were two of her. The one on his right wore an improbably loose, almost transparent outfit that seemed to cling to her in just the right places and hang by magic. The one on the left was dressed head to toe in body armour, and was armed with the traditional sword and pistol. A helmet, with holes in the top for her horns, was nestled in the crook of her arm.
"No. Not yet. Psikaris and Cameo need me. She's dying and I can save her," he looked from one to the other, pleading.
"You can save her, if you're successful." The images of Lunis spoke in unison, and neither seemed moved by his impassioned begging.
"But there's no time. Every minute I'm here brings her closer to death."
That sparked a reaction. Though he didn't remember there being wind, it suddenly picked up, howling fiercely and knocking him from his feet. He sat on the ground, covering his eyes. The two women were untouched by the wind. "You forget, you deal with the gods. All things are possible. Time has no meaning in this place unless we will it. Behold!"
They stepped aside and he saw the landscape he had just left behind them. There he was, standing behind Cameo, crouched over Psikaris, tears streaming down the former's face. A drop was caught mid-air, destined for her bellybutton. Lunis, or was that the Lunises, pointed to where Isilik lay. His hand was wrapped around his fallen pistol and levelled in their direction. "In seconds he will fire. If you succeed here, he will miss and you will have the chance to kill him or spare him as you see fit. If you fail, his shot will kill you, and Psikaris will die as well."
The words struck a chord in Psychro's soul. Whatever was about to transpire here, he held the lives of two people in his hands. He felt helpless, and yet he had no choice. "What must I do?" he asked, choking the words out.
"I am the goddess of love," said the first. "Come with me and show me the pleasures of the mortal world. Delight me as I have never been delighted, satisfy my needs and I will reward you with the gift of life."
"I am the goddess of warriors," the second said. "I challenge you to single combat. Blood will flow in rivers when we meet, best me and you will have proven yourself worthy, fail and you die with glory and honour."
"We require champions in our House. Choose one of us, accept our call, and be counted among our best," they spoke again in unison. "You have served us well in the past, and have gained our favour. Now it is time to prove that favour is well earned. Remember, time means nothing, consider wisely." The women turned as one and retreated to their doors, leaving Psychro alone in the tableau.
They were right; he needed to choose wisely. Since he had the time, he figured he would sit and think. Love or war. It wasn't a question of which he was best at, but which he could beat a goddess at. On the surface it was easy, he was renowned in the bedroom and less in the arena. Women from all over the moons, and more than on from other planets, knew his name and sighed wishfully at the memory. But, and he didn't like to admit it, a lot of that wasn't him. Oh he was above average and had learned many tricks to please women, but he also cheated. Thanks to his Psion heritage he could convince people of things, growing stronger if he was in direct physical contact. To tell a woman that what he was doing was pleasurable, or to increase how pleasurable it was, wasn't a difficult feat. He only did it if he thought he wasn't doing well, but he did have to use it on occasion.
Would it work on a goddess, or would she be resistant to his powers. How would he operate without that safety net. Was he, in fact, better off fighting her? In the arena he had a below even record but there were no rules in a contest like this, there couldn't be, which fell in to his realm. He was used to fighting in bars where the only rule was to win. With his life on the line he would hold nothing back and he might just get lucky.
Or he could rely on his natural charm and get lucky. It was difficult to conceive either way. And yet the odds of winning couldn't be that horrendous if she were asking for a champion. Surely this was designed to thin the ranks and bring out only the worthy ones. He eyed the impassive figures, standing by their doors. They were watching him, and he didn't doubt that they could hear his thoughts.
He had to go with his strengths, he sighed. And, at worst, he could at least say that he had died with a smile on his face having slept with a goddess. He walked over to where the phantom image of Psikaris was and touched her face. "Karis. I love you, and I'm sorry that your life depends on me. It's not fair to you. If I could, I would sacrifice my life for you, but it doesn't look like it works that way. You've always been there for me and I hope I'm here for you now. Cameo? If I die, get that bastard Isilik for me."
The tear drop caught his attention, and he found himself strangely studying Cameo's face. The anger. The grief. The passion. It was all there, bared before him, not clothed with the need to hide his emotions. He felt tears of his own burning his eyes. He would never know that level of love. Psikaris came close, but she was family. Could he have that someday with Chilla?
An odd thought at a time like this, but one he chose to nurture. He had fooled around with so many before, always claiming to be searching for the 'right one.' But was he really? Had he really understood what love meant? To devote oneself to a single person above all others? Oh sure, Icewalker law allowed for multiple bond mates, but Chilla had never done that. She had been happiest with Ren, could she ever be happy with him? He had one chance, a chance he had won by sleeping with Mandora, and he promised he would make it count. He would remain faithful to her and...
The choice was clear. He walked to the doors and faced the warrior aspect. "I accept your challenge," he said, swallowing hard.
"You do? Congratulations, you have surprised me," Lunis' warrior side said. "I was certain that you would choose my other side."
"I can't. I have sworn myself to Chilla, and she doesn't like to share. Not even with a goddess. I'm sorry. If I fail, could you let her know I cared?" he asked.
The goddess of love smiled warmly and touched his shoulder. "This gift I will give to you," she said, and vanished along with the door.
The warrior Lunis opened her door, showing a battlefield littered with bodies. "Come then, meet your destiny." The stench of death wafted more strongly from the door, Icewalkers of every sort lay in various states, many were missing limbs and all were very dead. The snow was stained purple and was covered in gore.
The ground on the other side of the door was nearly covered in vomit as Psychro took it all in. "Ah, no offence, but could we pick a different place to fight. This isn't really my style," he said, wrenching his eyes from the scene to the goddess herself.
"You amuse me, Psychro of House Myntaello." The scene changed, replaced by a bar. The corpses were gone, but the smell wasn't. It looked exactly like the bar he'd been in a few days before in Froston Ridge, where the whole mess with Isilik had begun. It seemed like a fitting place to have it end one way or the other. He stepped through and the door vanished. Lunis' sword and pistol were gone, but the body armour was not. "We fight until one of us yields or you are killed."
"Fine by me," he replied.
Lunis allowed him to make the first move, slowly walking around the room, measuring where everything was and analysing everything that could be used as a weapon. Bottles of every sort, a pool table with the cues still in their racks, chairs, and much more. But a look at her told him that he'd be best off starting with hand to hand, weighing her speed and strength. He lunged in with his right fist, connecting solidly with her left hand which he would have sworn had not been there moments before. Instantly he began to second guess his choice. There was no doubt in his mind that she could win the fight any time she chose.
"Until one of us yields or you are killed," she had said, meaning that there was no way to kill her. In many ways it was far easier to kill a man than it was to make them surrender, he had found. Anything could kill, if used with the right force, but to beat on someone until they gave up? He was so caught up in his thoughts that he almost missed seeing her reach out and grab him. She propelled him by his vest over the side of the bar.
"How often do you lose these things?" he asked, struggling to his feet and trying to buy himself some time.
"It's only happened once," she replied. Lunis didn't move from the entrance to the bar, and he wondered about that. Was she toying with him? No, she was testing him. A lightbulb went off in his head. He didn't have to beat her, he had to impress her. None of this was real, the real him was out there with Cameo and Psikaris, any wounds incurred here wouldn't affect him there... he hoped.
"Who were they?" his eyes searched the area behind the bar and he saw a short metal rod, used to keep rowdy patrons in line. Carefully he palmed the weapon and walked around the bar to face her again.
"Vaekin the second. The greatest fighter that ever lived." Psychro hesitated. Vaekin had been legendary among his people over a thousand years ago. He had united several of the major Houses and helped the Icewalker empire along the road to become as strong as it was today. He had always carried the banner of Lunis, and now it made sense. He certainly couldn't top those efforts, but he would have to try. For Psikaris' sake as well as his own.
He walked closer, noting her posture and saw a slight tension in her muscles when he started to get within striking range. This was no drunken patron, despite the setting, this was a full fledged goddess. He swung the rod with his right, which she caught, and followed up almost immediately with a sharp left to her ribs. Few people knew that he could fight with both hands, and had become adept at this kind of move. The pipe was wrenched from his grip and he stumbled backwards to narrowly avoid her counterattack. "Very good," she said, though the body armour had absorbed most of the blow.
Psychro stood up again, trying to keep the thought of Psikaris laying bleeding front and centre; use that anger to fuel his strength. She had his weapon now, and he didn't think she would hesitate to use it. There was also the question of how long she would be content to let him come to her, at what point would she tire of it and seek him. "Put down the weapon, make it a fair fight," he said, trying his hypnotic powers on her.
It was a mistake. Her expression changed instantly from patient, if amused, to fury. "That was not one of my gifts," she snapped, closing the gap between them. She swung the pipe with terrible force, splitting the pool table in half with the narrow miss. He didn't have time to consider the damage it would have done had the blow connected as her second swing caught his shoulder and sent him flying on to a table against the wall. Her aura frightened him, radiating a loathing for the Psion power he had tried to use.
"Maybe not," he said, switching to his natural charm. "But all's fair in a fight. I fight to win, even if it means using my other half."
"And are you winning?" Lunis asked, seeming to calm a little. The question sounded sarcastic, and he accepted the barb. "Winning is important, but so is honour."
"Right. Because this was a fair fight to begin with. You've got the armour, you've got the powers of a goddess. I have no chance to win no matter what I do. Look what you did to that table, I couldn't do that kind of damage in a hundred shots, but you did it in one." He managed to scrape himself off the table, even though his body was protesting movement of any kind.
"You want me out of my armour? Perhaps you chose the wrong trial. But if you believe you cannot win, then you have already lost."
Something danced in the back of his head, and it would be his eyeballs if she struck him again. This was his trek too, wasn't it. The trek was about faith; in one's self, in one's partner, in Lunis. If he didn't have the faith in himself to beat her, then she was right. He couldn't win. Could he. Was that how Vaekin had done it? He had always been so full of faith, the stories said, maybe that was how he had won.
It wasn't about the armour. The armour was there as decoration. She could be fighting naked and his strikes would still have little effect. It was about him, not her. His shoulder still hurt, but he'd dislocated it before; he would live. Psychro walked towards her and was glad that she wasn't hitting him immediately. She didn't so much as flinch when he swung again, merely stepped aside and let his momentum carry him past. He tried his left again and she caught his wrist, twisting it sharply so that it was pinned behind him, further injuring his shoulder.
The pain was enormous, almost overwhelming. His knees buckled, and she let him drop to the ground. "You are no warrior. You will be culled from the herd and your sister will die," she turned her back and walked towards the entrance where he now saw her knife and pistol were hanging, waiting.
He rose unsteadily to his feet, wanting with all his heart to attack her now, while her back was to him, but remembered faintly her words about fighting with honour even through the haze of his pain. "No," he said, the words barely a growl. "If you want to be rid of me, you'll have to do better than that."
Lunis turned, and he saw her smiling, a pleased look. The exposed back had indeed been a test then. She walked back over to him and he waited, trying to analyse her movements for even the slightest weakness. He didn't see any, but he didn't let that phase him. Once she was close enough he dove at her, tackling her around the mid-section, his wounded arm crying out for mercy as he moved, and was rewarded when they went crashing to the ground. Psychro struck that pretty face with his good arm as hard as he could, grunting as it felt like punching a stone wall. She twisted with the punch and rolled so that she had him pinned. She reared back and hit him back, sending a pair of teeth flying, blood spraying from the open wound. "You're weak," she said. "I've already won."
She climbed off him and made towards her weapons. "Not until I'm dead," he rolled to one knee, thinking hard. She needed her weapons, that had to be important. But how? What if he could get to them instead? Could he use them? Would that be cheating?
"Still you fight? Why put yourself through this suffering? Let me end it," she said. "You can't even stand."
"An Icewalker doesn't give up," he cursed. "I won't give up until my heart stops beating." Psychro tried to gather his reserves of energy, watching and waiting. He dove, knowing she would anticipate and step aside, but that wasn't his goal. His head hurt, his left shoulder and arm were practically useless, but his legs were fine. He continued the dive, sprinting past to where the weapons were. He grabbed the pistol and wheeled around, firing blind in case she was chasing.
She wasn't. She wasn't even visible, which he found very disconcerting. He let his gaze wander around the bar, searching for any sign of where she might have hidden during his mad rush, and trying to quell the rampaging headache he had. She wasn't behind the bar or anywhere above him, from what he could tell, which left the possibility that she'd ducked into one of the washrooms at the back. Psychro had been wondering if those doors actually led anywhere. The front doors probably didn't, anyway.
There was nothing obvious about the washrooms to indicate which she was in, no tell tale sounds or tracks. He considered the women's one as likely, but supposed that was only because he perceived her as female. The men's room was where the mess with Isilik had started, so maybe he ought to look in there.
"A disciplined warrior relies on patience, waiting for his opponent to make a mistake," his old instructor's voice came back to him, and it brought up a good point. Out here he had an advantage, he could sit and wait for Lunis to emerge from behind one of those doors, he could rest his aching wounds. But if he went blindly in there, he could be walking into an ambush.
He wasn't sure how long went by. Ten minutes? Twenty? An hour? He was restless, mostly wanting to get this over with but trying to keep calm knowing that two lives hung in the balance. Two people he cared about dearly. Suddenly the men's room door exploded open, Lunis charging out. He hastily got up, but was tackled bodily to the ground, back scraping across the stone floor. "Patience is a virtue, but so is always being ready," she told him. The blaster had spiralled from his grasp and now lay too far out of reach. It was a desperate move, but he was running out of options, so he grabbed her throat to try and choke her. Lunis wrenched the arm aside and laughed. "You've lost the fight. Surrender."
"Psikaris forgive me, " he whispered. She was right. He had lost. With one arm pinned and the other rendered useless he had little chance. He closed his eyes, as if giving in, but rapidly brought his forehead up to crack her chin. Momentarily she let go of his arm, and he used the respite to shove her aside.
"Stop," Lunis still crouched, but there was a change in her demeanor. "You have proven yourself to be courageous and loyal. You accepted the challenge of a goddess knowing it might result in your death. You remained loyal to a woman who has shown you nothing but scorn and you have shown your devotion to both your sister and myself. Rise, Psychro, I have chosen to give you your life." She held out a hand for him to take and, as he did so, he felt his health return. His head cleared, his arm moved freely, even the missing teeth regenerated. The bar put itself back together and she gestured for him to follow. "Service like yours should be rewarded. Come sit with me for a moment. Rest and gather your thoughts."
"Sure. You drink?" he asked, slipping behind the bar. She regarded him with a hint of humour, but accepted a mug of beer. For himself he sampled one of the expensive bottles from the rack. He'd never have been able to afford to purchase something like this on his own, so he figured he might as well. It wasn't every day one fought a god and lived to tell the tale. "So I just go back to where I was and have a few seconds?"
Lunis drank slowly. "A few. He will miss regardless. What you do to him then is your own business."
The brandy went down his throat smoothly, a wonderful explosion of tastes, as he considered the options. Should he let Isilik live? Let Cameo finish him off? Or did he take satisfaction in dealing the killing stroke. Lunis had spared his own life, he thought, maybe he could return the favour. At least, long enough for one of the others to do it. The second shot went down to join the first and he saw Lunis watching him carefully. She was barely winded, and only a hint of sweat. This had been far too easy for her, he knew, she could have killed him immediately. A treacherous, maybe even sacrilegious thought surfaced, voiced by the alcohol. "So, if I'd chosen your other aspect... How good are you?"
"If Chilla doesn't work out, you're more than welcome to try and find out," she replied, waving her hand at him.
"Now what?" Cameo asked, as Psychro was jolted back into the real world. Alcoholic haze gone, and suddenly freezing cold again, Psychro winced as a beam of energy arced past his shoulder.
He sprinted to Isilik and took the weapon away. He would be of no further danger. It occurred to him that Psikaris would be safe. Lunis had promised that she would only die if Psychro failed, and he hadn't. This gave him renewed confidence as he returned to Cameo's side. "Focus on the wounds, it's tricky to visualize and I'm going off how she's described it. Picture the tears closing along the precise path that they were torn. Take your time, don't rush. You can do it, I know you can. There you go; that's one done. Now the other, you're doing great. Now clean her up as best you can. You're both going to need a lot of rest, so get your shelter ready. When she wakes, I've got a story to tell, and then you two can decide what to do about Isilik over there."
"Kill the bastard," Cameo spat. "He doesn't deserve to live for what he did to 'Karis... the babies! What if..."
Psychro hadn't considered that. Isilik's strikes had been to the stomach intentionally, he was sure. Punish her and the unborn children. Sure, they weren't very big, and the odds of hitting one were slim, but there was no way to be sure. "Trust in Lunis," he said. "This is your test, not theirs."
But what if the threat of losing them was part of the test, Psychro asked himself. He had interfered in it enough already, he knew he shouldn't stick around but what if his trek wasn't over. It couldn't just be one obstacle, could it?
"You're right. I'd better go get that elk, set up the tent and everything else. Leave Isilik there. When she wakes up, I want Psikaris to see him, I want her to have the chance to kill him herself," Cameo said.
Cameo wasn't really sure what had happened. Psychro had seemed like a different man, helping him heal his sister. One second he'd been frantic and the next he'd been patient and calm. He didn't really allow himself the time to think about it, as he had too much else to worry about. Psikaris seemed to be out of the danger zone, he seemed to have done an adequate job healing her, though a proper doctor visit would be needed. He had set up their small domed tent first, laying her inside with their packs.
Food was not a priority, keeping her warm and dry was. He was tempted to change her clothes, as they were damp from laying in the snow and sticky with blood, but felt a little self-conscious doing that in front of her own brother. Psychro might have been acting a little more friendly, but that might be pushing it.
At least he didn't feel guilty about using the snowmobile to fetch the elk carcass. People on the trek were permitted to use whatever resources were available to them. There was a couple of hours worth of fuel in the tank, something that didn't surprise him, they could use it to get them some distance from here tomorrow to make up for lost time. The elk was large and bulky, requiring quite some effort to drape it over the back of the snowmobile, and the vehicle complained as it was made to carry the extra weight back to the camp. Psikaris was starting to wake, as the numbing effects of the stun wore off, while Psychro and Tug Mug waited patiently outside.
He poked his head inside the tent to reassure her he was fine, and ducked back out to work on making a fire. "You should keep some of that hide as a trophy," Psychro noted. "Your first kill as a bonded mate." It was traditional, after all.
"It's a good thing I found it first and then Isilik, then," Cameo said, glaring at where the prisoner lay. Psikaris emerged, still in the sodden clothes and looked in the same direction. "I was going to kill him, but I thought I'd let you do it."
"I've never done it before, and never felt the desire. But I should." He saw the warring in her countenance. Cameo had a good idea of what she was thinking; that she needed to be strong, she needed to prove that she could defend herself and her loved ones. This man had made her seem weak, he had nearly killed her and her children. If she didn't do something about it, the act would haunt her forever, staining her with the cowardice just as her own blood stained her shirt. She squared her shoulders and advanced.
Cameo wanted to hold her, protect her from the mix of horror and duty that lay before her. She obviously didn't really want to end this man's life, and he felt his own duty rising. But he couldn't baby her. There were times when he had to let go and let her be her own woman, and this was one of them. He was ready though, just in case.
Isilik was awake as she stepped closer to him, his eyes weren't focussed and his face was mottled with cuts and bruises. He probably, she thought as she stared down at him, had several broken bones in his face and it was only shock that was blocking the pain. Psikaris knelt down and stared at him for a little. Did he realize she was here, did he recognize her? She tried to remember why she had liked him. He'd been friendly enough, but with an underlying tone of manipulation. He wanted in her pants and little more, but she had genuinely liked him for a time.
Those emotions wouldn't help her now. Pleasant thoughts would do no good in spurring her on. She needed to do this. The men behind her might think less of her if she didn't follow through. Ordinarily she didn't really care what the public perception of her was, but these were the two exceptions to the rule. If either her brother or her bondmate thought poorly of her, it would hurt her more than the lingering pain in her stomach.
She needed anger, she needed hate. This man had nearly killed Psychro. This man had tried to kill her children and herself. This man was insane enough that if she let him live she would forever be looking over her shoulder for him to come finish the job. Her knife slashed hard across his throat without hesitation, and the blood sprayed up against her face. The liquid splashed across her lips leaving a bitter iron tang, she forced herself to watch for a long minute as the blood slowed to a dull ooze and the light faded completely from his face.
Her first kill. She felt none of the joy that others in her class had expressed on theirs, but maybe that had been bluster, a false bravado to impress their peers. There was no glory in taking another's life, only honour in a job well done. It had been quick, at least, and that was the least he deserved for those rare moments of kindness he had shown.
Psikaris rose unsteadily to her feet, her outfit now completely ruined, and rejoined her companions. She saw them nod approvingly, but also saw the concern. Suddenly, as her stomach fought to keep its contents, she felt a desire to be with them and be comforted. She didn't think she liked death. But first she needed to change.
The story didn't take long to tell, and it sounded highly unlikely to Cameo's ears. Some of it, he was sure, had been embellished to make him sound good, but there was enough truth present for him to wonder. Psychro's timely arrival was the obvious sign. How else could he know where to be? The sudden change in his personality, the calm with which he'd directed Cameo. Everything sounded plausible. "So happens with you now? Do you think that's the last role you have to play?" he asked.
"Couldn't tell you. I hope so, but only Lunis herself knows what she's got planned. I do know that I should take his body back to White Fang. He's got family, and they might want a proper funeral. It's the least we can do," Psychro said, sitting back. The elk was quite tasty, even though they didn't have any fancy seasonings.
Even Tug Mug seemed satisfied with his share, belching. "Assuming they don't lock us away on sight for murder."
"They won't. It's justifiable homicide. He was a wanted man who tried to kill us. Look at it this way, we saved the courts the money by doing it ourselves."
"And I guess we press onwards. We'll stay here through the night and take the snowmobile as far as it'll take us. I hope the rest of the trek isn't like this, I don't think I could do that every day," Psikaris added.
"In that case, you two better get some rest. Tug Mug and I will see you when you get back." Psychro hugged his sister tightly and whispered something softly to her. Cameo watched as they got back in their ship, now with added cargo, and took off.
"Which leaves it as just us again. You okay?" She had changed out of the bloody clothes, and washed herself with snow as best she could. Now she settled back down beside him, resting her head on his shoulder, arm wrapped around his waist.
"I will be. And I want to talk about it, but not now. Just hold me." He obliged, planting a soft kiss on her forehead and smoothing her hair down her back. He felt her tremble against him and prayed to Lunis that she would be alright.
Morning came, and with it a dull ache in her back. The ground was hard and unpleasant to lie against, but the warm soft body beside her was welcome. To make it more comforting, she had been having a nightmare featuring Isilik rising from the dead to seek revenge on his killer. He'd tried to grab her but she had taken control of the dream, running from him to safety. She rolled over and found Cameo looking at her with concern. She smiled to try and reassure him and sat up. It was morning, so they would need to press onward soon. Some activity and a quick breakfast would banish the lingering memories for now.
Psikaris changed into a clean outfit. Like most of the clothes she'd brought it was a white one piece jumpsuit designed to keep the wearer extra warm while repelling moisture. It wasn't perfect, but it was good enough. Once both she and Cameo were fully dressed, with the latter watching her brief nudity with obvious interest, they slipped outside to check on the meat they had left hanging over the fire when they'd gone to bed. The fire had, naturally, gone out and the meat was cold, but it still tasted good. Along with the protein supplements they carried, they soon were packing their gear.
With Cameo disassembling the tent, Psikaris took it on herself to make sure the snowmobile was ready. The Echo class snow sleds were built with cold starts in mind, so she wasn't worried there. A cursory glance told her that it was well maintained, if a little dirty. The fuel gauge indicated a near full reserve and she calculated that they would probably have about five hours of riding, more than enough for Isilik to have driven it back to White Fang. The mention of his name caused her to look over to where she'd done the deed, his blood still staining the ground. Someone, probably Cameo, had tossed snow over the spot, but she could see it still.
"We need to talk about it," he said, crunching through the snow behind her.
"At the next rest stop. We need to get moving," she said, forcing the thoughts of the grisly deed aside. Five hours of riding she could handle, facing Cameo right now she couldn't.
Tug Mug landed the small fighter craft and opened the hatch. It was nice to be back at the city. Gravitons weren't built for the cold, despite their extra bulk. He looked forward to a nice warm room, some beer, some food, and possibly see if the city had any strip clubs worth visiting. They were rare on the Ice Moon, probably because of the frigid climate and the rigid attitudes, but there were a few.
"Open the hold!" Psychro said, climbing out. The Graviton considered leaving the engine running so he could make a quick getaway. Lunatak laws, and Icewalker laws in particular, weren't terribly stringent on the concept of murder. They were a ruthless people, but being sloppy in your work was punishable. Tug Mug wasn't sure how the Icewalkers would react to Isilik's corpse being dropped off. It was justifiable, probably even commendable, but one never knew. At least Isilik hadn't been someone of importance, those murders tended to be dealt with a little more harshly than some no name who probably deserved it.
A squat Icewalker approached when Psychro signalled, and an in depth conversation was had. Tug Mug couldn't hear any of it, but it didn't seem too heated. The squat man, probably some sort of dock inspector, took his radio and called someone. Psychro didn't look too worried, which probably just meant that a body bag and a hose were being called for. With no immediate sign of danger, he re-opened a bag of pork rinds he'd brought and waited.
They sped across the frozen ground, chewing up the miles and the snow alike. Cameo drove, being the one with more expertise, while Psikaris clung to him with their packs strapped on behind. It killed him to see her like this, and he almost wished that Psychro was around to help deal with it. He'd seen her occupied with her thoughts before, but those weren't the same. The difference between trying to mentally draw up blueprints and dealing with a death were vast. Cameo could almost remember the day her father had died. She had been a little withdrawn then, and it was only a week later that she'd snapped out of it.
For all that she could be scatterbrained, he grumbled to himself, she also could be very focussed when she wanted to. He tried to understand it, remember how he had felt during his first kill, but it was hard. Cameo was a pilot, a soldier whose job was to kill. Sure, the first space flight had been tough, but he'd adjusted by the time he'd had to kill in hand to hand combat. He wondered if that would help her, and made a note to mention it.
The snowmobile's engine sputtered just shy of five hours after they'd left, causing Psikaris to grin to herself at how close her estimate had been. Cameo let the machine coast for as long as it could and then dismounted. They were out in the middle of the open, hardly the best time to take a break, but then they didn't really want to hike to a better spot. Psikaris stayed on the snowmobile, rummaging through her pack for a late lunch, trying to avoid his eyes. She knew what was coming, even before he knelt down in front of her, hands on her knees. "What's wrong?" he asked. "I love you, and I want to help."
Well, she thought, it's like a bandage. Better to do it in one go. "I've never done anything like that before, killing Isilik that is. I mean, I know it had to be done, I know it was better for me to do it, it's just... I can still see it. I can taste his blood, feel it in my hair."
"And what if you hadn't?" he asked, his voice low and soothing.
"He'd have been executed by Icewalker law, and everyone would think me too scared. What kind of warrior am I if I can't take a life."
"Is that what you think? That we're just killing machines? Look, I'm not going to lie to you, death is a natural part of who we are, but we aren't required to enjoy it. Sometimes I'm out there, flying in my ship and I'll wonder about the person I've just atomized. Probably some kid, scared out of his mind whose only fault was fighting on the other side. I pray for them, often. And I'm not the only one. You're not special. Well, you are to me, but not in that way. I've heard rookies in the barracks at night crying over killing, and I've seen veterans snap one day, haunted by faces. Why do you think we drink so much? But it's our duty. And that's all you did. Your duty."
She didn't look up, his words sounding true. But she knew that there had been another way. "But it didn't need to be done. Not by me. You could have done it, we could have left it for the courts..."
"The courts? And what if he'd escaped? You did it to protect your family, and that's what matters most. I'm safe, you're safe, our children are safe. Please try and remember that. We live because you did what had to be done."
"Nice try," she snorted. "I should have let you do it."
"Then why didn't you?"
"Because... I didn't want you to think me weak. What kind of bondmate would I be if I couldn't..." he stood and she thought, for one horrified moment, that he was going to slap her. She almost wished he would, she probably deserved it.
Instead he laughed, turning away from her for a second. "You really think that? 'Karis, I love you for who you are. You're not weak. I've seen you in the middle of a crisis and know what you're made of. Remember two years ago when that engineer was crushed when that ship's landing strut gave out? Who was the first one there, directing traffic and helping him out until the paramedics arrived? That was you. That doesn't sound like a weakling to me. So you're not good at killing, there has to be something you're not good at. But I love you regardless."
Cameo took a few paces away from her and suddenly vanished through a crack in the ice, jolting Psikaris out of her self-pity party. She sprinted over to the spot and saw him about ten feet down, still laughing. "Lunis isn't even trying if she thinks this is going to stop me," he said, finally brushing himself off and getting to his feet. "Fetch a rope and help me out."
She nodded, relieved that he was okay and in decent spirits. Psikaris tied one end to the snowmobile and started to toss the other end down. She heard him cry out, and the sound of a dozen voices filled the air.
Psikaris ran to the hole and saw Cameo under siege. Strange pale green humanoids had emerged from the rock and were pawing at him. He was putting up a keen fight, but even she knew that he wouldn't last long against those odds. Her blaster was out in a heart beat, and she carefully picked off two of the intruders. What she didn't notice was that more of the creatures were climbing out of other holes in the rock around her until the net draped over her head. She struggled until one managed to sneak behind her and press a foul smelling cloth over her mouth. The world began to turn black, and she dimly heard Cameo call her name as she slumped to the ground unconscious.
On to Question of Faith - part four
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