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Fire and Rain

By Nova
Page 2 of 10

The following morning, a gunrunner arrived to take Blake from Gauda Prime to a Federation Defence Academy asteroid and for the next nine days he steered a zigzag path across the galaxy. On the asteroid he was met by an undercover rebel who outfitted him in Federation blacks and smuggled him onto a troop ship heading for R&R leave in Space City. There a supercilious Beta waitron gave him a compressed lecture on the etiquette of service and turned him into an attendant on a cruise ship bound for the ski slopes of Helvetia. Blake jumped ship at the Helvetian capital, alerted by a message from a snowfox trapper, and spent two days as a bouncer in an elite cathouse, before a free trader walked in and gave the signal he'd been waiting for.

Now he was crammed into the makeshift passenger seat of a remodelled flyer, knees angled sideways to avoid the control panel, while the free trader glared at his flight computer and muttered a series of ethnic curses. 'Dunno why the drongo couldn't give me the bloody coordinates in advance,' he snarled for the dozenth time. 'I know my way around. Could've cut a few corners, if he'd bloody told us where we're bloody going.'

'You're not being paid to cut corners,' Blake observed and the free trader scowled harder.

'Listen, sport, for once in a while I got a lot of work lined up. The sooner I get shot of you, the better.' He glanced at the display again, snapped his fingers and said, 'At bloody last! Freaking wombats, it's a deserted mining planet. Why in the name of Ned Kelly do you want to go there?'

Pointing out that it was none of the smuggler's business would only have triggered another tirade, so Blake stayed silent. He stretched his legs cautiously, found a marginally more comfortable position and lounged back, studying the firefly specks of light that swarmed across the darkness ahead of them, amusing himself by trying to pick the mining planet out of the swarm. An hour later the planet was looming large, a sapphire and bronze ball, three quarters sea and a quarter land. It expanded till it filled the viewscreen, then changed from a single entity into an accumulation of detail. Dazzling sweeps of ochre sand, jagged mountains shouldering abruptly out of the desert, gaping quarries and a tangle of stunted grey trees under a ponderous grey cloudscape. Blake squinted at a spire of silver light, glinting from a clearing near the forest's edge, the first indication of any human presence since they'd started to skim the planet's surface. He leaned forward to look closer and caught another gleam, the final set of coordinates scrolling luminous across the terminal.

'Shouldn't you be changing course now?' he suggested and the free trader shrugged.

'Bugger that for a joke,' he rasped. 'I don't have time for fancy piloting. Near enough's bloody good enough. I'll put you down on the edge of the forest, sport. You can walk to the clearing from there, no sweat.'

Before Blake could argue back, the flyer spiralled into a flamboyant nosedive. Thorny branches reached up, grabbed for the undercarriage and missed. They landed with a jolt that slammed Blake's knee into the control panel. Hard. As he sucked his breath in, blindsided by pain, the free trader reached past him and wrestled with the vacuum lock, swung the door wide and tipped him out.

The sky split open, dumping a solid mass of rain onto the earth. Nothing like the gently insidious rain on Gauda Prime: Blake was drenched before he touched ground. His knee buckled, flinging him sideways. As he gaped up at the sky, lightning knifed between bruise-coloured clouds, a steely streak instantly mirrored by another bright trajectory. The shimmer-ray from a laser rifle, whistling past his shoulder.

Blake ducked and rolled. White fire lanced through the downpour - either lightning or a laser volley but both possibilities seemed equally dangerous, so he struggled to his feet and went skidding and wading towards the forest. Gusts of rain slapped his face and tore at his clothes. A thunderclap shook every molecule in his body and sent him sprawling headlong into the mud. When he peered back, the flyer was buckling and contorting in slow motion, trapped at the heart of a gigantic scarlet flame. Blake gasped and heaved himself upright and kept on running, fire roaring in his ears, rain pooling in the sockets of his eyes: like tears.

A crooked branch clawed at his arm, slowing him down. Blake took a quick circular scan of his surroundings and discovered that he'd reached the forest. The laser rifles were still hunting him - at least ten of them, judging by the smeared silvery blurs reflected across sheets of rain. He dodged and weaved, jogging steadily through the maze of trees, while his brain worked on a series of frantic calculations to establish the position of the clearing. By some minor miracle, he got it right, fighting his way out of a thorny thicket to stare, breathless with disbelief, at a silver tower shining like a beacon from a still point at the centre of the stormy world.

Lightning crackled. Rain pelted down with renewed force. As the tower's clear lines wavered, distorted by the watery screen, Blake stalled, suddenly uncertain. The dead trader had told him to steer back to the clearing and yes, the silver tower definitely looked like the sort of place where you might expect a magician to live. But on the other hand, his hunters presumably had a base somewhere - and even if they weren't quartered in the tower, they would be able to pick him off easily once he stepped out into the open.

He was still hesitating when someone shouted, 'This way. Over here.' Blake recognised the voice and ran. After a dozen strides he tripped on a grassy mound, wrenched his knee and almost fell. A sickening jab of pain, followed by a spasm of terror as he imagined the sightlight from a laser rifle settling between his shoulder blades, but he clenched all the muscles down his legs and forced himself to forge on. As he stumbled over the mound, the rain stopped, abruptly and completely, and at the same moment Blake's memory attached a name to the voice he'd heard.

**Olag Gan. I thought Gan was calling to me. But Gan's dead.

Oh, that's marvellous. I'm being hunted by unknown enemies, heading towards a fairly dubious sanctuary, and I've lost my mind into the bargain.**

Half a dozen more paces, eyes fixed firmly on the toes of his boots as they slogged through the mud, and then Blake heard the voice again. 'This way. Over here.' He looked up, almost gagging with apprehension, and saw Gan's burly silhouette outlined against a metal wall, pointing urgently; Gan's flattened profile creasing into a familiar frown.

**Yes, no question about it. Clearly, I must be certifiably insane.**

To confirm his diagnosis, Gan melted and vanished, not a trace of him left on the empty air. Blake sighed and took a step forward, realised he hadn't seen any sign of the hunters since Gan called to him and glanced over his shoulder. While his back had been turned, the forest had vanished as conclusively as Gan, obliterated by a silver mist. No, on second thoughts, not a mist. A glistening dome that fitted over the clearing as neatly as the silver plate covers they'd used on the cruise ship and went soaring upwards to graze the top of the tower.

Blake groaned, clutched a handful of curls and tugged hard. His scalp twinged, which at least indicated that he wasn't dreaming. He stared at the surface of the dome, a living and changing pattern of glassy swirls and runnels, like ... like water sluicing over an invisible protective shield. Interesting. That theory would explain why the rain had stopped so suddenly and it also suggested that he was indeed heading towards the Magician's headquarters. What's more, it proved he was still capable of rational analysis, a thought that cheered Blake enough to send him striding in the direction that the Gan-ghost had pointed out.

A thin dark crack in the curved metal wall turned into a door when Blake pushed against it. One last backward glance at the rain-washed dome, spattered with ineffectual bursts of fire from the laser rifles, and then he shrugged and stepped inside. The air was tropically warm, which paradoxically made him shiver. He tugged off his sodden boots, found a long robe on a hook by the door and wrapped it around him.

And turned to see Jenna Stannis poised in the narrow hallway, wearing a red leather suit that he remembered from their Liberator days.

'Welcome back,' she said, blonde and smiling. 'Come inside.'

Blake's heart kicked at his ribs. 'Jenna, you're supposed to be dead,' he said hoarsely. 'As dead as Gan - and by the way, where is Gan?'

Not entirely to his surprise, Jenna ignored the question, swinging away to shashay down the corridor and disappear. Blake hurried after her but was distinctly unsurprised when he burst into a silver-walled, sparsely furnished room and found it empty. Although a second later he realised the room wasn't quite as empty as he'd assumed. While there was no sign of Jenna, a slight balding man in a red skullcap, jagged red robes and yellow leggings was squatting beside a chrome cabinet in an alcove, studying an exotic array of bottles. He straightened up, held out a glass, winked and said, 'Want a drink, then?'

A tidal wave of joy swept through Blake's body, battering his abused heart muscle. He grabbed for the door frame and slumped against it, croaking, 'Vila! Vila Restal!' Unlike Gan and Jenna, Vila looked older than the last time Blake had set eyes on him. He'd never seen Vila dressed as a surrealist's version of a jester. And hadn't he already thought that Deva's unpredictable silver ball was exactly the sort of toy Vila would have loved? It all added up to a very satisfactory conclusion.

'Vila,' he repeated. 'So you're alive and you're the Magician - or the Magician's apprentice.'

He pushed himself away from the door and stretched his hands out, reaching towards the jester: and then through him. Blake's heart shrank into a small tight ball of disappointment. As the Vila-hologram shimmered and evaporated, he heard a new voice say, 'Wrong again.'

Blake whirled around. A man was watching him from the far end of the hall, framed in the arch of another doorway. A long blue robe, overlaid by a rose surcoat patterned with heraldic emblems, swathed his angular body and swirled across the silver floor. Dark hair brushed forward in a serrated fringe and a neat beard, trimmed as close as an animal's fur, made him seem at once supremely civilised and oddly feral. His eyes reinforced that impression, scanning Blake with a mixture of cynical resignation and subdued fury. One hand played restlessly with an oblong medallion on a chain round his throat; the other hand clasped a slender silver wand.

**Well, a laser probe, actually.**

He looked like one of the figures from Vila's ancient tarot pack, stepped out into a streamlined world of xenium walls and chrome furnishings. Blake stared until his eyes burned dry. Rage shivered through him, pumping his blood faster and inflating his lungs.

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