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Loren Cooper works as a technical coordinator for Hewlett-Packard. His short story "Soldier's Home" (which is set in the same universe as "Black Promise") appears in Dark Planet #4.


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Black Promise: Parts Three and Four

by Loren W. Cooper

(Go back to Part Two)

     Stars rose incandescent against the velvet night like clouds of fiery smoke. Hailing from much farther Rimward, Temenus never failed to marvel at Hope's night sky, braced as it was by mighty columns of starlight, washing the Lady's rolling deck with a tangible mist of spectral light. On nights like this, a man could forget all about mortality and listen only to the voices of wind and wave and soul.
     But tonight Eleythia's voice still rolled in the back of his mind, so he grimaced and stepped into the water. Cold and dark, the waters closed over him with a grip like death. Kicking strongly, he rose next to the Lady's comforting presence. Blood pulsed from deep cuts across the heel of each hand. He would have no more than twenty minutes before temperature and blood loss drove him from the deeps, but he knew that they would not disappoint him. This night he would know them, one way or another.
     Suspended in the cold water, hands and legs moving gently through the swells, he thought of fire and darkness, an entire world burning against the backdrop of uncaring velvet night. Even the smoke had not been able to shroud the corpses as the flames devoured them. His ships had fought the Concilium to a standstill there, and in the pyre of a world his strategy had dealt the Concilium perhaps the most serious single blow of the Shadow War. The idea had been his, the execution his, and so the dead were his. After looking upon the dead of Chrysippus, the White Lady had turned her face from them all.
     Drifting in the darkness of the sea and the fire of old memories, hands weeping tears of blood into the black waters, he knew they would come. Rising out of the deep places, he felt them before he saw them, a growing sense of presence laying a smoky hand on his soul. Then jagged fins broke the line of the waves, circling in on him. He raised his head slowly, tired face drawn in the silvery light, hands still stroking gently against the long swell of the waves.
     He felt the circling tighten until his fingertips brushed cold armored muscle. Still they did not close, and he could not see them clearly. Temenus' heart beat slowly and deeply against the walls of his chest as they circled, but his pulse tightened as they maintained their distance, and he accepted fully that he had never intended to come back from this night.
     Then fear closed over him like a black hand, and he deliberately kept his movements slow, though his heart began to race in his chest and his breath came in gasps. And though they still circled, he had the impression of something larger moving below them, rising gradually beneath him. His extremities began to tingle, his gut churning as he watched the circle break away from the front of him. The dark waters stilled, then ran back from a jagged fin followed by a muscled dorsal surface. Even in his fear, Temenus had time to marvel at the size of the dark predator, half again as long as the other bloodfish circling him.
     Current swept against him as the body sank, the head rising slowly from the shrouding waters. He remembered the fearsome impact of the champion rising from the waves in the light of the previous day, and stilled as he realized that he would look upon the face of death when the waters fell away. He brought his hands slowly forward, suddenly empty of fear, and ran his fingers along the side of the mighty jaw as the bloodfish shrugged the waters back and rose above him. And Temenus thought he had never seen anything so beautiful as he stared into eyes deep and knowing, terrible with feral awareness.
     It dropped back slowly, releasing his gaze, and the others closed in around him, flukes and bodies brushing him, enclosing him in a living net of concerted motion. Then they were gone, and he pulled himself back slowly to the deck of the Lady and bound his bleeding hands. He spent the night there, listening to the waters, drinking mulled wine, and marveling at the beat of life. Long after the dawn came, when the sun had begun his long journey back to the sea, jagged fins crisscrossed the rolling waters, escorting the Lady all the way back to Outlie's dock.
     He was still smiling when Ceis met him at the dock and told him that Eleythia was dead.

Four


     Every human sensation is capable of infinite variation, and the edge of intensity can never be wholly exhausted. So it is with love; so it is with hate; so it is with pleasure; so it is with pain.
     Pain shocked Temenus to the razor's edge of alertness, old instincts reawakened from enforced quiescence. Ceis backed away from the sudden darkness filling Temenus' face, the fire burning behind his eyes. "How did she die, Ceis?"
     Ceis stopped himself suddenly, stood straight, and glared at Temenus. "You tell me. As far as I can tell, you saw her last. Did you take her out on the boat with you? Did you mean to kill her?"
     Temenus' lips skinned back from his teeth, but no other reaction could be seen on a face suddenly cold and lifeless. "Take me to her, Ceis."
     Ceis drew in a breath to argue, saw the black promise in Temenus' eyes, thought better of it, and turned away. The wind whispered over the sand and tugged gently at the two of them as Temenus followed Ceis across the strand and up the white rock path to the Ship. Echoes followed them down the gray walls of the Ship, until at last they came to the gleaming room smelling of purification.
     She lay on the only one of the tables folded out from the wall. Temenus rested one hand on the edge of the table as he studied her in silence. Eleythia's face had none of the masklike control she had cultivated in life, leaving her with an air of youthful innocence Temenus had only seen while she slept. His own face softened as he traced the line of her cheekbone with one finger. Then his gaze dropped and the hardness closed back over his features as he covered the clean wound underlining her sternum with two fingers.
     Hot grief ran down his face unheeded. Death came to everyone he touched. Eleythia should have let it be.
     Ceis stepped out of his way as he turned and left that place behind. His feet carried him toward his cabin as he rubbed harshly at his face with the heels of his hands. The sun had lit his own pyre in the western clouds. Temenus slowed to watch splashes of crimson spread across the banks of white and think about the Concilium, and the reports filed on his work, and the panicky response of men suddenly confronted with a Movement presence. He turned to look back, caught sight of Ceis hurrying toward the pier and set out after him.
     Ceis must have heard him, since he stopped by the quiescent Lady and waited for Temenus. Temenus backed Ceis into the rail and spoke with a deceptively soft voice. "Who killed her, Ceis?"
     Ceis shook his head, face pale in the bloody light. "I didn't ...."
     Temenus saw Makali walking toward them over the rusty sands, teeth gleaming as he smiled and waved. Temenus bent close to Ceis. "How many reports have you filed on my work lately, Ceis? Did they have you watching me, or did you believe that you had an inside track to fast promotion?"
     Ceis flushed and sputtered as Makali coughed politely. Sudden realization hit Temenus then, and he stepped into Ceis, pushing him with vicious force back into Makali. Ceis' body muffled the report of Makali's weapon: he convulsed as plasma erupted from his lower torso. Temenus kicked Ceis' dying body with savage ruthlessness, entangling Makali. Temenus locked the wrist holding the LR pistol as Makali swept the corpse aside. Temenus twisted Makali's arm outside and broke his wrist as the weapon fired again.
     The world tilted as Makali caught Temenus above the ear with his free hand. The pistol clattered to the pier, and Temenus hastily kicked it into the water as he backed away. Shaking his head to clear any cobwebs, he watched Makali's grimace blossom into a smile as he reached behind him with his good hand and brought a long knife up between them. "It's better this way. I've always wanted to take the Movement's best, and now I'll have two in one day."
     Temenus drew his own knife from its arm sheath. "Death isn't a game, Makali."
     Makali's grin widened as he slid into a crouch and spun the knife down to lie along his forearm, blade out. "What else could it be?"
     Makali lunged, sweeping the blade in a steely horizontal arc. Temenus twisted, stepped inside and caught Makali's forearm with his own as Makali swept the knife back. Temenus closed, brought his trailing hand up in a stab, and felt Makali's knife rip along his shoulder as Makali rotated, pulling the knife free and entangling Temenus' legs. Temenus heard Makali grunt as the knife punched into his torso. Temenus twisted the knife savagely to break suction as he ripped the blade out and lost his balance. He grunted as he fell free of the pier to Lady's deck. Makali lunged down after him, stabbing with his own weapon.
     Temenus rolled free, catching a slash across one forearm and losing his knife. Makali rose from his knees to his feet, the grin still on his face, the front of his loose shirt dark with his own blood. He lunged at Temenus with sudden silent ferocity.
     Temenus caught Makali's extended forearm and shoulder, levering his moving weight across his body. Makali shifted his own weight as Temenus threw him, sweeping Temenus into the water after him. Temenus lost contact with Makali when they hit the water, and kicked for the surface. The water came alive around him then, boiling with the presence of Bloodfish. But no teeth touched him as he pulled himself back to the Lady's deck.
     Leaning heavily on the rail, blood ran in a hot line down his side as he looked back out over the dark shallow waters foaming around the pier and saw their terrible beauty as they closed around Makali's struggling form. And as he stood there, wrapped in fire and darkness, Temenus watched death, burning like an angel, delicately stripping the flesh from the struggling man with needle teeth.
     Eleythia had known that he was promised to death. So did he, but he had allowed himself to forget. And there, in that place, watching the tide run red in the setting sun, he saw death following in the wake of the shadow war. He saw the Movement and the Concilium feeding on the carcass of society, feeding on one another, and he suddenly hated the White Lady for turning away from this thing she had set in motion.
     Chrysippus had shocked them all, but it had not been enough. The shadow war still raged. Temenus looked out on the face of the deep and charted his course. He would see the end of this war, if he had to bring the darkness raging down on them all. He would take them all to himself, shoulder the burden of whole worlds blackened with fire, if he could but bring this thing to an end. Drawing strength from the gathering shadows, he turned his back on Hope and left it behind.

Continue on to Part Five and Epilogue