Chapter Ten

8 Stormtide, YK 95

The cold stung like a physical wound, but it was one Ace could not seem to heal. He lay perfectly still, his nose working furiously as he tried to determine where he was. He was not in the habit of being knocked out, but that did not mean he was unfamiliar with the situation. Not at all. Back in the old days, waking up with a pounding headache had been an almost constant occurrence. Between the rigorous training and the ceaseless danger involved in his trade…


It was a little noise, hardly more than a whisper of soft leather on stone. Ace turned his attention toward it, still wary of revealing his awareness.

"It's no use. I know you're awake, Ace."

He knew that voice. A shiver ran down his spine, and Ace knew it was not from the cold. He opened his eyes, struggling into a sitting position.

"And don't try…anything."

Ace realized in an instant that his arms had been tied together. He suddenly regretted revealing his rather new advantage. Had he not, the man before him would have had no way of knowing about it, and no idea that he needed to defend against it. No matter. Ace ran an assessing eye over his grizzled, graying captor. "You've not changed much, Ben."

Ben lifted a skeptical brow. "Would that I might say the same for you, Ace."

"I don't suppose you'd mind cutting me loose—for old times' sake?"

The snowy brow rose higher. "Perhaps you are less different than I give you credit for."

Ace glanced all about, taking in the seaside cove and the sunlight streaming in through the opening a goodly distance away. He must have slept for quite some time—it had been nearly dusk before. "Where's the boy? He has nothing to do with you and I or any of our kind."

"And I have only your word that this is true."

"Come now, Ben, have I ever lied to you?"

"I wonder."

Suddenly realizing that there was something going on about which he knew very little, Ace found himself resisting the urge to break free and make a run for it. He knew Ben better than that. One did not rise to such a prestigious position as the Crown's Right Hand by underestimating a prisoner, and Ben had been dealing with the best escape artists in the world since long before Ace was born.

"Where have you been for the last two years, Ace? We searched all over for you, and then you show up—right under our noses."

"Believe me, it wasn't my idea to leave," Ace replied wryly. "You know me better than that."

"I thought I did."

"So," Ace began as conversationally as possible, "what are they dragging me in for this time?"

"This is more serious than that, Ace, as you well know," Ben snapped irritably.

"Is it, now?"

"It is! You're not even to be brought before the Crown—my orders are clear."

With a sudden, sinking feeling of dread, Ace asked the only reasonable question. "And they are what?"

"To kill you. At any cost."

"Then why, dear Ben, am I still here?"

For the first time, Ben hesitated before turning Ace's words back upon him. "For old times' sake."

"Really? Just thought we'd chat a bit before lopping off my head?"

"This is no laughing matter, Ace."


"No! This is serious, man! I've known you for years, and I never thought you capable of such a thing! What did they offer you? It must have been a rich reward indeed, for you know better than most the penalties you face!"

Bits and pieces of miniscule clues snapped together with nearly audible clicks. Indeed, Ace did know the only crime the Underground punished with an immediate death sentence. He laughed aloud with relief. "There's been a mistake, my dear old friend."

"You always say that," Ben informed him with a grunt of impatience.

"And I'm always right, am I not?"

But Ben shook his head stubbornly. "Not this time."

"Tell me, exactly what is the charge?"

"That you revealed, perhaps under extreme duress, the secrets of the Underground. Months after your disappearance, the Rangers stormed the Hideout in Crestilan. And now here you are, hale and healthy and failing to make contact at the first possible opportunity."

"This is my first possible opportunity!" Ace protested.

"And what of Zilur, where you were first seen last month?"

"I intended to visit the local convention, believe me. I was…deterred…"

"There are other ways to leave a message," Ben informed him icily.

"And there are better reasons for my silence than treachery!"

"Like what?"

"Like the fact that there is not a soul on the face of the planet who would not pay dearly for my hide, or the fact that I am being followed in ways you could never imagine! You've no idea what you've tangled yourself up in, Ben, and you may well have paved the way for the destruction of everything either of us has ever held dear!"

To Ace's eternal consternation, Ben snorted. "Indeed. You should know better than to attempt to threaten or intimidate me, Ace."

"I never make threats, and I need not intimidate anyone."

"What mind-boggling force is it, then, that might topple the Crown and all of his Underground Court?"

Ace felt another involuntary tremor crawl across his chilled flesh. "It is not the power, Ben, but the evil behind it."

Just then, Ace caught a glimpse of the old Ben, the one who had taken him in off the streets all those years ago and inducted him into the fabled ranks of the Underground, who had nurtured and raised him, scolded and praised him. But the old Ben seemed so much older now. "Where have you been, Ace? What has happened to you?"

"His name is Venix vin Roth. You know the one—he backed Duke Junfer when that old bat made a bid for the throne years back, when I was hardly more than a twinkle in my father's eye."

Ben nodded minutely. "I remember him well. The Crown enlisted myself and many others like me when the battle for the kingship ignited."

"Yeah. Sure. Anyway, his men brought me in. It was…horrible, to say the least. Incredibly painful. You've never felt such exquisite agony, I guarantee it. For more than a year, they kept me lashed to a table, stripped naked with nothing but old bread and stale water to sustain me. And every time he visited…" Ace shuddered at the memory he had tried so hard to repress over the past month. "There was another specimen there. That's what he called us—specimens. It was a spikehound. You know the kind, right?" Ben nodded, his long face pale. He had never heard Ace's voice break as it had just now, and he had known the man longer than any other living person. "Every day—at least, I assume it was every day; there was no way to tell time in the dark—every day, he would come down to the dungeon where he kept us and cast magic, all sorts of horrible magicks. He mixed us somehow—sometimes I felt as though I were the beast, and sometimes I could look right into my own eyes and see it staring back at me, as anguished and terrified as I was. I don't know how he did it—I've never understood magic. But one day, I awoke, and the pain was gone.

"I'm not even sure he did it on purpose, but I knew he healed me constantly. Had he not, I would have surely died. Somehow, I seemed to have picked up the skill. Perhaps it just rubbed off on me, perhaps it was more the spikehound who mastered it, for by that point we seemed one and the same. That was when I began to realize the results of his terrible experiment. He had bound us together in a single body, the beast and I. And the body was mine. Look, see what he's done to me?" Ace exposed the spikes all along one arm, slashing the rope to bits and cutting deep into the flesh of his other arm. He held the mangled limb up in the soft, filtered sunlight and clenched his teeth against the pain as the huge gashes healed before his eyes. Ben looked away, but not fast enough.

"And you told him nothing?" the old man whispered hoarsely.

Ace shook his head. "He never even asked."

"He gave you such strength…"

"I never wanted it," Ace retorted staunchly.

Ben offered a fleeting little ghost of a smile. "No, you wouldn't. You're not the type."

"Then you believe I'm telling the truth?"

"The evidence is plain as day." Ben sighed. "The only problem is, there is also a great deal of evidence against you."

"Like what?"

"Like the leak that led to the destruction of the Hideout."

"Surely that was merely coincidence, or perhaps even part of Venix's design. He is not stupid—he must have known I would at least attempt to escape. That may have been his way of making sure I did not roam freely. He knew you all would hunt me down, assuming I did not run straight into your waiting, murderous arms the moment I broke free."

Ben laughed hollowly. Then the sound cut off in a strangled gasp and he fell to his knees, his fingers scrabbling at something protruding from his back.

Ace hesitated for only an instant, momentarily torn between trying to comfort his old friend and the survival instinct that he knew was not entirely his own. The animalistic nature won out, and he slipped into the impenetrable shadows farther away from the opening through which the sunlight streamed.

"Did you get him?" came a soft, breathy whisper.

"Of course I did," snapped a harsher voice. "Give it up, Ace, we know you're here. That old doting fool might have believe you, but we have our orders."

"What if he went farther in?"

"Hush! He's not stupid, Bo. He used to be one of us, you know."

The two figures finally came into view, one small and skittish and the other slightly larger. The bigger person fairly radiated an aura of stern authority Ace could not make out details, silhouetted as they were against the blazing sunlight.

Ace knew he could take them. What with his heightened senses and newfound skills, he could take on almost anyone in the world. He felt invincible, invulnerable, almost giddy with excitement. And yet…

He had no wish to fight these people, despite the fact that they may well have just slain his oldest friend and greatest mentor. Ben had been old and near death, anyway. His time may well have come, but these people…They were in their prime, fit and active, invaluable assets to the Underground. And, though the Underground had, it seemed, abandoned and condemned him, Ace still felt far too strongly for their cause to intentionally damage it in any way. And besides, there was something else to consider, something Ace had rarely had to consider in the past.

Vince. Where was he? Ace felt solely responsible for the boy's well being. After all, Vince had been little more than an unlucky bystander. He played no part in this game and did not deserve to be victimized by it. If Ace knew the Underground as well as he thought he did, Vince would not be far off, but would be well guarded. All he had to do was find the lad, get in, and get out.

To this end, Ace crept along the shadows of the cave more quietly than any man had a right to and passed out into the morning sun, leaving the two agents bickering bitterly in his wake.