Saturday, January 31, 2009

Here's the deal...

Well, many of you who read my other blog, God, astrophysics and the Universe in general, know that I like to write. I am currently 'working' on a couple of different novels. I decided that it might be nice to get a little feedback. So, I am posting the first chapter of my book, Theristes. It is kind of a thriller/historical fiction/sci-fi story. I don't want to give too much away, so I'll just let you read the first chapter for yourself...if you want to. I'm about 1/3 to 1/2 of the way done with the book, and have taken a sort of 'writing hiatus' as of late. This is part of an attempt to get back on track and finish the novel! Here's chapter 1.


“…the righteous has a refuge in his death” – Proverbs 14:32


“Lilly…can you hear me, dear? Lilly, darling, open your eyes now. That’s good. Can you see me?” (Smiles)

“I can see…oh my, you’re beautiful, aren’t you? Have you come to take me home?”

Yes.” (Big smile) “This is your day. Everything is prepared and He is waiting. Try to sit up now, I think you’ll find that the pain in your back is gone.”

“I’ve been waiting for this day, wanting it for so long…I can’t believe you’ve finally come.”

“I’ve been a little busy. I saved the best job for the last today. Take my hand now, dear, it’s just a short walk, but it makes some people a little dizzy.”

“Will my family be O.K.?”

“They know how much you’ve been looking forward to this. I’ve sent some of my best colleagues to help them through the rough parts. More than anything, they will be happy for you…and a little jealous, I think!”

“You’re so kind.”

“It is against my nature to be anything but kind.”

“When will I get to see Him?

“Just now. He is anxiously awaiting your arrival. He has so much to show you. Hold tight to my hand, now…and welcome to Life!”

Chapter 1

1476, Bucharest

I could smell the battle before the portal was even closed. I stood for a few seconds with my eyes closed after the drop was complete, listening to the screams and feeling the thunder of hoof beats. A new smell had appeared on the battlefields of Europe in the last century. Gunpowder. This wasn’t going to be pretty.

Wishing I could finish this one without having to open my eyes, I slowly surveyed my surroundings. It could have been morning or evening. The sky burned red through the black pillars of smoke rising from the battlefield and obscuring the sun. The acrid smell of cannons mingled with the sickly sweet smell of blood and fear. Fear. Always a tangible presence on the battlefield, there was something about this fear. It seemed to permeate the atmosphere and stick to every surface. Although immune to the human version of this emotion, I could sense it flowing swiftly though every living thing, even the flora and fauna. A Turkish Karaman battle horse ran past me without its rider, eyes wide with the terror that seemed to be driving it’s countrymen into a frenzy.

Something was different here. This was not going to be a normal mission. Using my neural implant, I accessed the Main Network and found that an unusually high number of the Enemy’s forces were rushing to my general location. A quick scan revealed that my subordinates were very busy today indeed.

Gunnar, what exactly is the situation here?”

The sub-vocal communication took milliseconds to find my chief general on a private channel.

“Sir. Glad you could make it. We’re not quite sure yet, but it seems as if the Enemy really wants to keep you from finding your target.”

The majority of missions carried out by myself and my team members were one-man-jobs. Occasionally, we knew we would encounter resistance, and we would drop in a team to make sure things went smoothly. This was one of those assignments, but it seemed that I had underestimated the Enemy’s interest in my target.

Fortunately, I had picked a spot with a good view for my drop. I accessed our target locator while I scanned the battlefield to get my bearings. As my eyes took in the grisly scene, I began to understand why my target had generated so much interest. I had heard stories in passing about this prince, but due to the pressing responsibilities of my job, I had not taken the time to verify the rumors. What was it the Master always said about complacency?

I started down the hill on which my drop had placed me and headed toward the red dot just in front of my right eye indicating the location of my target. In my line of work, you see quite few disturbing sights. They say I was selected for this post because of my heart of compassion, but I think that my iron stomach may have had something to do with it as well. Still, even I was not prepared for what I witnessed as I jogged down the hillside toward my target’s camp. Thousands of poles, sharpened at the top, snaked around and through the battlefield, leading away from my target’s position. On each of these poles was impaled, in various stages of decay, a human body. I had seen similar cruelties carried out by generals in wars past, but nothing of this scope. The sheer volume of victims was matched only by the malicious precision and organization of this macabre forest of misery. The prince obviously intended for his enemies to be forced to ponder their fates as they weaved through this chamber of horrors.

His tactic seemed to have some effect. It looked as if as many of his enemies were rushing away from the battle as were toward the fight. As I continued toward the battle, I noticed that there seemed to be no prejudice in the prince’s choice of victims. Turkish knights hung alongside Wallachian boyars. Hungarian children next to elderly peasants. Who was this monster, slaughtering his own people along with his enemies?

“OK, Gunnar, I admit I’ve been a little preoccupied. I know this guy isn’t nice, but what gives?”

“Little busy right now, boss. Open a channel to Arielle. Her people have the goods on this hapsi.”

Gunnar must have felt a twinge of guilt for having to be short with me because immediately a channel opened to Arielle in my communications implant.

“Beautiful day for a mass genocide, eh, boss?” Arielle’s silky smooth voice was felt rather than heard in my head. “I’m sending you all the data we have on your target right now.”

I barely had time to start processing the information packet Arielle was sending when a more pressing matter appeared. I always seem to forget just how fast I can move in this dimension, and I had already made it into the heart of the battle, just in front of the invading Ottoman army. I looked up as the sky turned black from a tidal wave of the defending force’s arrows bearing down on my position. I knew that my reactive armor would stop arrows as easily as a window blocks the rain, so it wasn’t the arrows that concerned me. What got my attention was the revolting stench-ridden swarm of the Enemy’s forces rising from behind the prince’s Moldavian guards and moving to a position in front of the defenders’ hold point. Although the humans on the battlefield could not see the Enemy’s minions, it was they, combined with the impaled corpses, who were responsible for the all-consuming terror coursing through every mortal’s veins.

I was getting very close to my target now, and evidently this was exactly the spot the Enemy did not want me to reach.

Gunnar’s voice echoed in my head, “Hey, boss, some more of our team just jumped in from north Africa. They have some nifty new toys that should help take care of that little mess in front of you.”

“Roger, Gunnar. I have a sick feeling in my gut, brother. There hasn’t been a target the Enemy has protected like this since Babylon. I wouldn’t be surprised if that ‘little mess’ was just the beginning of our problems here. A diversion, possibly.”

“You don’t think the Enemy himself is protecting this guy do you?” I could sense the tension in Gunnar’s tone.

“If he is, you guys let me worry about it. He should know me well enough by now to know that I always take my target. Period.” Not that I’m looking forward to a conversation with him, I thought to myself.

In the time it took for this exchange with my teammate, the volley of Moldavian arrows had begun to find their marks all around me. Advancing Ottoman horsemen fell by the hundreds, their horses falling with them or trampling them into the wet earth. When we had sorted out my primary target, my team and I would have our hands full mopping up this mess.

Theristes, my brother, looks like you could use some muscle!” Dubi’s big voice boomed as he used the Greek name for me that had started as a joke amongst our team and since has turned into a term of endearment for their boss. Dubi means ‘my bear’ in Hebrew, and anyone familiar with him knows the moniker couldn’t be more appropriate. He is a towering hulk with dark black skin and a heart of gold. He is probably the one member of my much decorated team who you would pick first to be by your side down that dark alley on a stormy night.

“Hey, big brother,” I answered. Dubi was big to everyone. “Good timing, as usual.”

“Who loves you, baby? I’ll grab as many of the team as I can and fan out around those szörnyek in front of your target and try to flank ‘em.”

I opened a common COM channel and listened to Dubi barking orders to the team. The arrows had stopped falling now, and somehow the Ottoman generals had redrawn their battle line and convinced their horsemen to carry on the attack. I had to hand it to the Turks; they definitely had guts. Most armies would have turned and fled at the first sight of ten or twenty thousand impaled corpses. Add that gruesome scene to the fact that the Hungarians were using cannons and handguns and were skilled in the art of the longbow, and one would think the recipe for mutiny was complete. But the volley of arrows seemed to only strengthen the resolve of the Turks. On they charged through the forest of the slain, determined to make Bucharest a part of the ever-expanding Ottoman Empire. I just wondered what would happen if we didn’t clear the hordes of our Enemies that lay between them and our common target before they reached the foot of the prince’s hill.

Gunnar, where is this Wallachian assassin?” I knew I would have to deal with the host of Enemy in front of my target, but I wanted to be sure we were still on schedule. These things need to be timed just right. The humans around the target must never guess that we were here.

“Looks like he broke Hungarian ranks about fifteen minutes ago and is sneaking through the rear of their left flank toward your target right now, boss. We estimate he’ll reach the prince in five to seven minutes, assuming he can stay low and go unnoticed.”

Right. That didn’t give me much time to deal with the mess in front of me. I just hoped this new device Dubi brought with him could take out lots of Enemy troops at once. It was apparent that I still commanded a fair amount of respect from the Enemy’s underlings. Having reached a position directly in front of the hill that the Hungarians were using for a command post, they were making no attempt to advance any closer to me. I walked slowly toward them as the stench of their putrid breath overpowered the sickening smells of the battlefield. Under thousands of armored helmets, eyes glowed crimson or yellow and sharp teeth glistened with poisonous spittle. Some were standing on the battlefield with weapons drawn, while others hovered above. Why weren’t they advancing? Were they even going to try to stop me, or were they fooled into thinking they could just scare me away?

Dubi,” I said as calmly as possible, “How long before you guys are in position?”

“We’re locked in and ready to fire, boss. I just can’t figure out if these Enemy lackeys are here to fight or just watch the show…do you want us to draw first blood?”

“No, hold your fire until I say. I agree that something’s not quite right here. The humans are shedding enough blood for both of us today. I’m gonna try opening a channel…see if they want to talk.”

I opened every common channel frequently used for negotiation. “Accursed ones, you know who I am. I have a job to do today. We were once brethren and for that sake I will not rush to shed your blood. Stand aside and let me pass.”


“Say the word, boss, and we’ll blast ‘em back into their own dimension.”

“Copy that, Dubi, hang tight. I’m gonna keep walking toward them. Just make sure your safety’s off.”

A quick scan of our team channels verified that I was indeed covered. I could hear my teammates updating each other on Enemy positions, target priorities and fields of fire. One false Enemy move or itchy trigger finger, and they would pay dearly. I started at a slow pace toward them. Suddenly I stopped. It felt as if the ground beneath me had started to rumble, a sort of low moan. It wasn’t coming from directly beneath my feet, but seemed to have its origin some meters behind the Hungarian command post. The Enemy soldiers must have felt it as well, for a commotion started amongst them and they began to divert their gaze from me back toward the source of the rumble. I looked behind me across the battlefield and noticed that while the Ottomans seemed oblivious to what felt like an impending earthquake, their horses had started to panic. As if they could be any more panicked!

“Do you feel that, boss?” asked Gunnar.

“Yeah, and I don’t think it’s gonna be good.” The sinking feeling I had had in my stomach ever since the drop was getting worse. Suddenly I felt the hair on the back of my neck and arms start to stand on end and I knew it was not an earthquake coming. A portal was being opened…a big portal. I was feeling the electro-gravitational bleed-over.

Awwww, crap!” I heard Arielle mutter on the command channel.

I turned back toward the horde of Enemy soldiers just in time to watch what seemed to be an invisible hand sweep their entire left flank into the air and fling them like dice across the battlefield. As they flew through the air they glowed like embers from a dying fire and then suddenly just ceased to exist, little flakes of gray ash gently falling to earth from where their grisly bodies left this dimension.

Thinking that maybe Dubi’s new weapon had fired prematurely I started to ask him what was going on. He beat me to the punch.

That was not us, boss. I wish we had something that could do that…I have a bad feeling…”

Before he could finish, a white flash lit up the horizon behind the prince’s battle position. Simultaneously, the other half of the Enemy’s troops suffered the same fate as their comrades, shrieking and cursing until their bodies blinked out of existence. I knew that none of them had actually died; they had just been forced back to the dimension from which they had come. I actually felt sorry for them, for they truly had been my brothers and sisters at one time, and their present existence must be a fate worse than Death. Sometimes I wished that I could bring them the mercy of Death.

Suddenly the air seemed heavy and warmer. I realized that I had subconsciously raised my hand to my eyes to shield them from the flash. As I slowly brought my hand back down, I knew that I didn’t really want to see what was going to be coming out of the flash. If the humans could see what was about to step into their little world, the battle would be over right now.

Let me just pause and say that whoever says that the Devil is subtle has obviously never met him in person. More than anything, he is arrogant. Arrogance tends to lend itself to grand entrances. Some of his underlings may at times use subtlety in their trickery toward humans, but the Devil himself relishes being the center of attention. It was, after all, his immense pride made him the Devil in the first place. When he walks into a room (or in this case, onto a battlefield) he does so with pomp and circumstance.

“Arielle, open the command channel to the Master. We may need to call in some big guns.”

“Right away, boss.” Arielle’s tone told me what I knew everyone was thinking – today was quickly going from bad to way worse.

Before the last of the Enemy soldiers had even finished their screeching journey back to their own dimension, a tear in the fabric of space-time located at the flash of light closed like an eyelid. I don’t know if I saw him or heard him first. The one thing I did know was that he was really angry. A blast of sound that could have been the screams of a billion damned souls hit me head-on, forcing me to shield my face with my hand once more. When I was able to look up again, I was staring at a monstrosity not unlike a giant dragon, but with strangely man-like features. Steam rose from his scaled skin and his shifty eyes glowed a sickly yellow. His putrid breath reached me a few seconds after the scream and it was as hot as a furnace and smelled of rotting flesh. Again he let loose a deafening roar, but this time I thought that I could make out my name in the chaos.

With my neural implant, I ran a scan to make sure that my armor was at one hundred percent and that my portal device was fully charged. I sent a quick data stream to each of my teammates instructing them to do the same. If things got really ugly, we could catch a drop to safety.

Now he was clearly calling my name.

“Theristes – is that what they are calling you now?” As he spoke his form began to change. He started toward me and as he did he began to shrink. The reptilian shape in which he had arrived started to mutate into a humanoid body. I took a few hesitant steps in his direction and by the time we were several paces apart, he looked as if he could be one of my teammates. In fact, he looked downright handsome. But those eyes hadn’t changed – the evil behind them was something that even he could not conceal.

The battle continued to rage around us, although to their great frustration, the Ottomans could not get their horses to come anywhere near the spot where the Enemy and I were standing. Seen by a human eye from the air, our position was a little island of green empty turf in a sea of blood, sweat and Death. We were just in front of the prince’s position now, and the Ottomans were too close for the Hungarian archers. The fighting had turned purely hand-to-hand.

At the same time, a man dressed as a Hungarian army messenger had slipped unnoticed to the rear of the prince’s forces. His messenger’s uniform would ensure that no one on the Hungarian side would question him even if they did see him. He stopped for a few seconds and felt the lump in a pocket in his breeches. He then straightened the parchment he carried that bore a wax seal stamped with the emblem of a dragon. Good. All is ready then. On with it.

“Boss, the Master’s channel is open.” Arielle’s voice was a welcome sound in my head.

“Is He audio-only or full visual?”

“Visual, He’s actually had the channel open for some time now. He says that your mission is still a go. Just remind the Enemy who owns the rights to Life and Death. He says he’ll back down.”

While that didn’t make me feel much more confidant, I reminded myself that the Master had never been wrong yet.

“Theristes, my old enemy. Or should I say my even older friend?” The Enemy’s voice now sounded gentle and wise, although I couldn’t miss the mockery in his tone.

Calmly, I replied, “Your memory must be much longer than mine. I am most definitely your enemy. Now please, I have a job to do and time is of the essence. Your little show was quite impressive, but I can’t stand around and talk about it.”

His eyes flared a quick intense hatred, but he quickly restrained himself. “Your ‘job’ is the reason I am standing here. It is the reason that I am not attending to a thousand other tasks on my schedule today. He’s mine. You can’t have him.”

I instructed my neural implant to open the data packet Arielle had sent me earlier. In the nanoseconds it took for the information to stream into my conscious thoughts, I began to understand what was happening here.

“You know that neither you nor I have the authority to say when I take a target. Besides, what difference does it make? From what I understand, we’re giving him to you after I take him anyway.”

He seemed to purposely ignore my first comment, choosing to control his temper for the time being. Instead, he played the role of the gentle old pauper begging for alms, saying, “I know this, however, being that I am getting him in the end, what would it hurt to postpone this day for a few years? Who knows? He may have a change of heart and end up on your side. Surely only time can tell. I think we should not be hasty about this.”

Now it was my turn to get angry. He had to know that his was a losing argument. Once the Master had determined a target’s day and time, that was that. The Enemy may be the most powerful of my kind, but only the Master has the power to change a target date. Knowing this, his only hope here could possibly be to delay me long enough to disrupt our timeline. That would surely be an inconvenience, and would probably blow our cover with the humans, but it was not anything we couldn’t handle. Maybe he was just trying to make our job hard to prove that he still hated us. Still, I had to tread lightly here. He could hand me a pretty good beating if he wanted to.

“Look, you and I both know that I do not have the authority to negotiate these matters. I am simply doing my job. You’re talking to the wrong person here. Now please, I have less than a minute before my deadline. I have to get to work.”

“I SAID YOU COULDN’T HAVE HIM!” His eyes were now glowing red and it seemed that he had grown about a foot larger. His breath was hot in my face and I was grateful for my reactive armor that was scrubbing the toxins I was sure were spewing from his mouth, even though it couldn’t mask the smell for me.

Time was short now and I had just pissed off the one being in Creation besides the Master Himself who was capable of kicking my butt. Enough playing around. It was time to call in the Big Guns.

I opened the command channel to the Master. “My Master, I think I need your help now.”

A wonderful calming sensation flooded my brain as the Master replied, “With Me, you can do all things. I am your strength. Let’s fix this little problem. Open this channel to the wretch. I’ll speak to him Myself. Continue with your mission now, you should have just enough time. Tell your team that you are all making me proud today.”

With that, I opened the command channel to the Enemy. Instantly, the Master’s thoughts flooded his brain. I knew he wasn’t going to like this! I knew that I had better finish my job quickly, because when this was finished, he was going to be out for blood.

I started to walk forward as the Enemy’s hands suddenly reached up and grabbed each side of his own head. He stood frozen; feet shoulder width apart and yellow fingernails dug into the sides of his scalp. He was letting out a series of low moans and sounded like a dying cow. I knew his agony wasn’t coming as much from what the Master was saying to him as it was from simply feeling the Master’s voice in his head. I muted the channel so that I could concentrate on my task.

Meanwhile the Hungarian ‘messenger’ had made his way to about thirty meters behind the prince’s battle tent. He stooped behind an ammunition wagon, again reaching for the pocket in his breeches. He felt the lump and this time pulled the object from the pocket. It was a little smoked glass vial with a cork top. He shook it a little and felt the liquid inside splash around. Where the boyars had acquired this potion, he couldn’t say and he didn’t care. All he knew was that one drop of this poison could kill a grown man. With that thought in mind, he drew his dagger from its sheath. With gloved hands, he gingerly opened the vial and let several oily drops fall on the tip of the blade. He found a leaf lying nearby and used it to rub the poison over most of the blade. He then disposed of the vial, threw away the gloves and hid the dagger beneath his cloak.

I stepped past the paralyzed Enemy, thinking of how even in his present state, he was still a menacing figure. I looked to the hilltop directly ahead and saw what I knew to be the prince’s battle tent. Only about forty seconds left, now. Like the Master said, I should have just enough time. Thankfully, my armor would allow me to slip through the Moldavian guardsmen unseen. They were so tied up in trying to fend off the advancing Turks that at this point they may not have even noticed me anyway. I looked toward the entrance of the tent and saw that two guards were all that had been spared from the fighting to protect the entrance to the prince’s command post. Hopefully the assassin would have a way of making it past them. Reaching the tent, I took one quick glance back to reassure myself that the Enemy was still occupied and stepped inside.

The air inside the tent was heavy with incense and smoky from several torches that were lighting a central table on which was laid maps and battle plans. A few of the prince’s generals and noblemen were hunched over the table examining the maps. In the middle stood the target himself. I had about twenty seconds left now, so I moved closer to the prince, making sure I left room for the ‘messenger’ to do his job. As I examined my target from close range, I began to notice something quite disturbing. A menacing figure to begin with, the images we had of the prince didn’t hint at the deep malice that seemed to be hidden just beneath the surface of his skin. As I looked into his eyes, I realized that the same cruelty and hatred that emanated from the Enemy’s eyes were there also. I shivered as I recognized an evil older than humanity. I began to fully understand why the Enemy was personally watching over this one.

“Gunnar,” I asked on a team channel, “How many victims has the prince claimed?”

“So far, the count is over 400,000 souls tortured and killed, boss. I just wish the target date had been sooner. The Enemy has put all that he has into delaying this day.”

“Right…Gunnar, make sure that everyone is ready to catch a drop out of here the instant I finish my job. I have a feeling the Enemy hasn’t given up yet. I’m nervous and I don’t get nervous.”

“Roger, boss, standing by for portal ops.”

I turned my gaze to the tent entrance and saw the assassin. He was talking to the guards and showing them the parchment in his hand. It was clear that they were buying his cover. I zoomed in with my optical implant and noticed something curious. The parchment was sealed with red wax stamped with what looked to be the emblem of a dragon. Where had I seen this symbol before? I looked back toward the prince and my eyes fell on the pendant he was wearing around his neck. The same dragon symbol. Of course…the prince, because of his family line, was a member of the Order of the Dragon; a secret fraternal order of knights dedicated to upholding Christianity and defending the Holy Roman Empire against Ottoman Muslim horde. The gruesome lengths to where this prince had taken his ‘calling’, however, had nothing to do with Christianity. I knew that in Romanian, the word for ‘dragon’ also doubled as the word for ‘devil’, the double meaning surely not being lost on the prince’s people.

The ‘messenger’ had now been allowed entrance to the tent. He looked nervous but determined. One of the prince’s generals looked up toward him and acknowledged him.

“My lord, I have an urgent message for the prince. I have been instructed to hand it personally to no one but him.” He held the parchment up so the nobleman could see the dragon symbol.

With a quick nod, the general turned and whispered in the prince’s ear.

The prince turned to the ‘messenger’ and barked, “Come, then son. Make it quick. As you can see, I am quite busy.”

I noticed that as the ‘messenger’ moved toward the prince, the other noblemen in the room seemed to move back a step and give him space. Whether this was out of respect or fear, it was hard to tell.

The prince reached out to take the parchment. The ‘messenger’ held it out but did not let go right away. Instead, he looked the prince in the eye and said, “Before you read this, I have been instructed to tell you something.”

With that, he shrugged off his cloak, revealing the dagger that had been concealed in his other hand. As the cloak fell to the floor, he took one step forward and thrust the blade with all his might into the prince’s stomach.

“Your reign of terror is over!” He announced.

He took a step back, leaving the dagger buried up to the handle in the prince’s abdomen. The prince looked more surprised than physically hurt. He gasped for a breath of air as he stumbled backward.

“You Ottoman dog…my generals will crush your army…and hang you on stakes like your bastard brothers…” said the prince between increasingly weaker swallows of air.

The general who had first acknowledged the assassin now stepped forward. “This man is not an Ottoman,” he said as he leaned over the slumping prince, “he is a loyal Moldavian guardsmen. One of your very finest. He will be paid handsomely for the service he has just provided. He, like the rest of your countrymen, has had more than enough of your cruelty and perversion. You think your were working for God, ha! Now you will get the chance to see Him yourself and ask Him if he is proud of your service. I wouldn’t expect a warm welcome except for the one you will receive in hell! Like the man said, your reign of terror is over.”

At this, the prince summoned one last burst of strength, and standing straight for the final time, cried, “Nothing is over! Mark my words – the world will never forget my name!”

This was my cue.

“Here goes, Gunnar. Be ready to drop out of here! We’ll clean up the rest of the mess when things cool down. Oh, and the Master says ‘Good job today’.”

I knew Gunnar wouldn’t answer me back.

I stepped unseen through the men in the room and stood in front of the prince as he started to slump again. I noticed that none of them seem the least bit surprised by the unfolding event. As I moved, I unsheathed my sword. An ancient weapon, I knew, but in this case, very fitting. No one besides the prince would see it, but the sight of me holding a sword should be enough to shut him up. I activated the decoy device and cloaked the prince’s body. No one saw or heard me grab him and throw him to an empty corner of the tent. All that the humans saw was a carbon copy of the prince’s soulless form fall to the ground in a pool of blood and exhale for the last time, a trickle of that same synthesized blood oozing down his left cheek. I had to admit; the new version of the decoy device would probably even fool me!

Quickly, I injected the prince with a cocktail of medichines. These tiny machines would quickly repair the prince’s damaged tissue and scrub his bloodstream and organs to remove the toxins from the poison. True, the prince’s mortal body had just outlived its usefulness, but I had to keep it alive until I could bring him to stand before the Master. Then, the Master would put his soul into a body that would last forever, wherever he happened to be going. I had a pretty good idea where that would be.

As the dose of medichines kicked in, I had time to survey the tent. All of the noblemen were now standing around the lifeless copy of the prince. The decoy was accurate right down to the prince’s DNA. One day, humans would start to understand the technology behind these copies and they would become known as ‘clones’. They would cause quite an uproar in the moral arena, but that is a story for another time. For now, I was satisfied that everyone would think that the prince was lying dead on the ground.

One of the noblemen looked up at the assassin, holding out a sizable leather pouch. “Job well done, my friend. We know you risked everything for this task. Your family will be protected. Here is the second third of your payment. The last third is waiting at the guesthouse in Prague as per your request. Go now and leave this mess to us. Know that you leave here a hero.” As the assassin turned to leave, one of the guards at the door entered with a dead Turk slumped over his shoulder. “This one should do nicely, my lord. He is run through the gut by a sword; get some of his blood on your sword and you just became the man who killed the prince’s assassin!”

The prince was starting to come around now. I planted the tip of my sword in the ground in front of me and stood with my hands on the hilt, looking down at him. This is usually one of the more interesting parts of my job. People generally have one of two different reactions when they see me for the first time. Which reaction they choose usually depends on where they are heading when I am through with them. I guessed that the prince wouldn’t be real happy to see me.

The prince opened his eyes, closed them again and shook his head a little. He opened them again and let out a gasp. Immediately he jumped up, clutching what a minute ago was the wound in his stomach. When he felt neither dagger nor any pain, he took his eyes off of me for the first time and glanced down at his midsection. Quickly, his gaze returned to me a look of perfect confusion in his eyes. He took a step back and drew his sword.

“If you mean to do me harm, you’ll need more than that little sword.” I said calmly.

He began to call for help from his traitorous noblemen in the tent, never taking his eyes off of me.

“They cannot hear you.” I told him in a tone that reeked of boredom. “You have left their world now. If it makes you feel any better, I mean you no harm. They are the ones toward whom you should have used more caution. It was their assassin who brought you to me.”

Now becoming paralyzed with fear, he again called out to his countrymen, barely daring to avert his gaze from me for long enough to see that they indeed could not hear him.

“Send a message to the king of Hungary and tell him that the thorn in his side is gone…” the prince could hear his generals talking, “…the beast is finally dead. The king can now concentrate all of his energies on fighting the Turks.”

Confusion slowly began to fade into understanding. The prince took another step back, dropped his sword and fell to his knees.

“Noooo…” he moaned, “this cannot be. I always win! I cannot be…”

He looked up at me and put his hands out in front of him, shielding his face.

Now it was terror in his eyes as he cried, “You’re Death! You’ve come for me! It’s too soon!”

“I am not Death. You’ll find out about Death soon enough. I am simply the messenger sent to bring you before the Master. He’ll decide your fate. Only those whose lives are found lacking need fear me.”

“But I do fear you! What am I lacking? I have been doing God’s will! I am purging the world of sin and infidels!”

“As I said, only God can decide if you have done His will. Come now, we must leave this place. You will do exactly as I say or you will truly see why it is you fear me. Stand up!”

I knew that the Enemy must have had some contingency plan in case things didn’t go his way. With this in mind, I felt a renewed urge to finish the job. I noticed a commotion not unlike a rushing wind begin outside of the tent. Somewhere down the hill, a scream rose above the chaos of the battle. Playtime was over.

“Gunnar, I’m opening his portal now. Get out of here and grab him on the other side. That goes for all of you!”

“Right away, boss. What about you?”

“I think the Enemy just woke from dreamtime. He’s a little angry. I just need to be sure he doesn’t break the rules with the humans. I’ll be right behind you.”

I activated my portal device. Instantly the fabric of time and space tore just enough to open a man-sized ‘door’ to my destination. By now, the prince was pretty much on information overload, standing obediently in a stupor where he had formerly been kneeling in front of me. I grabbed him and threw him through the portal, feeling a slight sucking sensation as I pulled my hand back through to this side. I immediately de-activated the portal, hearing it slam shut behind me as I walked out of the tent.

As I looked around, I accessed our team locator grid and watched the green blips that represented my teammates disappear one by one. Good, they had all made the drop.

It’s just you and I, now, you old snake, I thought as I walked down the hill toward where I thought I had heard the scream. Hopefully the Enemy would not break our rules pertaining to human contact. As soon as I could be confident that it was only me he wanted to kill today, I would catch a drop out of here.

It was almost as if the Ottomans could sense that their enemy had been killed. The terror in their eyes had dulled to an ember now, and they were pushing on closer to the Hungarian command post. Only a matter of minutes now, and this bloody battle would be over. I thought of how glad I was that my kind can ‘adjust’ time. Otherwise, the cleanup operation here would take forever.

As I scanned the battlefield for my Enemy, I noticed what had been responsible for the rushing wind sound. Rather, it noticed me. An entire legion of the Enemy’s soldiers stopped swirling around the command tent and began to descend upon my position. Maybe I wouldn’t have time to check in on my foe. I’m a pretty tough customer, but even I would have my hands full with this many opponents.

I drew a weapon and started to open a portal as the first of the attackers fell upon me, thinking of how much harder these things are to fight since they managed to steal anti-gravity tech from us. I was about to jump through the now open portal when the first wave of them blinked from existence just as their comrades had earlier. The rest of the legion came to an abrupt stop about fifty meters from me.

“He’s mine! Purest suffering awaits anyone who touches him!”

I turned around to see the Enemy coming up the hill behind me. He was still in human form, although his eyes were glowing with an ancient malevolence. I could feel the tidal waves of his rage fanning out in front of him with each step.

“Did you think that I would just stand by and let you steal my favorite toy, you insolent fool?” He sneered mockingly at me. “Maybe you think that I’m getting apathetic in my old age? That I would just write off my losses; better luck next time?”

“Like I told you before, I don’t set the target dates. I am simply doing my job.” I tried to resist the urge to jump through the open portal.

As the Enemy approached me, he seemed to regain some of his composure. I knew that this was probably only the calm before the storm. In the handful of times I had dealt with him in person in the last several millennia, the best word to describe his demeanor would be volatile.

“Did you happen to notice the symbol he wore?” he almost smiled as he came closer. “A nod to true beauty and wisdom. This prince was smart enough to acknowledge the rightful ruler of this world!”

“Your pride is clouding your reason, now.” I answered. “He was a member of the Order of the Dragon. He thought he was protecting Christianity.”

Bingo. Mr. Volatile was back. Upon hearing my response, he let out a blood-curdling howl and began to change shape.

“You truly are a fool, then, Theristes,” he growled as he grew to ten times his humanoid size, “who do you think started the Order of the Dragon in the first place?”

As he grew, his shape changed into that of the dragon on the prince’s pendant. Fire spewed from his nostrils and his claws tore mounds of sod from the field and flung them into the air where his fiery breath torched them to smoldering ash. He spread huge wings that had grown from his back, bringing the tips around in front of him to where they almost touched me.

“That little boys club was my brainchild! I fooled the brainless humans into thinking that it was a righteous undertaking. Uphold the Holy Roman Empire, fend off the savages and all that garbage. But look for yourself and you will see that all the Order has accomplished is hatred, killing and death. Give it a little longer and you can add genocide to that list. The most satisfying part is that they do it all in the name of the Master! Religion is always so easy to twist and use for my purposes!”

Of course! I had been so busy with the prince that I hadn’t put two and two together. The Enemy was protecting the prince because he was the all-star player on his team. I braced myself and inched closer to the portal.

The fire of malice and hatred had returned in the Enemy’s now reptilian eyes. “Enough small talk,” he roared, “I may have been able to forgive you for so rudely putting me on the line with the Master. But taking my protégé from me at the same time? You must pay dearly now, my old enemy.”

“He’s yours now, anyway. You win, why the theatrics?”

In his anger, the Enemy now enveloped both of us in a sphere of flame, screaming, “I didn’t want him yet! He was bringing me souls by the tens of thousands. Can you imagine the sea of humanity that would belong to me if he had lived another decade? Two decades? It will take years to craft another puppet like that one. Your Master may have made the prince in His image, but I bent him to mine! Do you have any idea how much work that takes? You stole him from me and I demand payment in the form of your blood!”

Mission accomplished. He didn’t want to break rules of engagement. He just wanted to kill me. That was my cue to leave. I started for the open portal.

He saw me jump and instantly reached out and grabbed me with the clawed tip of one of his wings. Turning me to face him, he yelled, “You think this is over, Theristes. This is far from over! Until the end of time as these miserable humans know it, this will never be over. You may think you’ve won today but I will have the last laugh! The prince’s death will only be the beginning of his reign of terror. I will turn him into legend that will melt the heart of the sturdiest warrior with fear. You felt that fear today. That same fear will keep children awake in the night and make whole villages stay locked inside after dark. Generation after generation will feel the hair stand up on the back of their neck when my prince’s name is spoken.”

As the Enemy worked himself into a frenzy, he didn’t notice me pull out my plasma blade. I usually used this in the field for more ‘constructive’ purposes, like opening a locked door or what not. It was a little small to be a proper weapon, but for this task it was perfect. I held out the hilt and hit the activation button on the side. A six-inch bolt of contained lightening jumped from the handle. As he was ranting, I quickly sliced the blade through the air to my side, cutting off the claw with which he was delaying my departure.

Free now, I jumped through the air toward the portal.

He screamed, probably more out of anger than pain.

As I dove through the ‘door’ to the next dimension, I heard him yell, “You hear me, Theristes? This is not over! Until the end of time, humans will shudder in fear at the mere mention of the name Vlad Dracula!”