Excerpt

The milky sun dissolved into the grey horizon with no attempt at romance. They found shelter for the night in a half derelict gang of buildings that had probably once been a trappers’ station. Now they were merely an eerie crop of leaning stones and swooping brambles. They hacked out the worst of the thorns and laid down blankets on the soft moss beneath. When the fire was built, the abandoned shacks became almost homely, and the floor, which was nearly dry beneath the sagging roofs, released a comforting woody smell.

Midnight approached and the Steels slept; all except Io, who couldn’t, and Verde, who had other things on her mind. Io grimaced to herself as she watched Vassinger pick her way through the recumbent men. Wordlessly, Guerin followed her away from the camp. It came as no surprise. The two of them had been making eyes at each other all day. Just as Io put aside her discomfort about the pair’s night-time antics she began to wonder if that was all this little outing could be. Verde was as suspect as they came, and Guerin was giving her funny feelings quite apart from those he usually evoked. Sterk shed her bedding and soundlessly hurried over to Guerin’s packs. She looked them over quickly. There was a peculiar, bulky shape in his saddlebags, catching her eye. She quietly opened them. Inside was a small, hand-held signalling lamp. It seemed very strange that a bounty hunter should carry one. Curious, she searched the rest of his luggage. She soon found what she had been looking for: his bundle of contracts. Guiltily, she unbound the papers and flipped through them. Classified, classified, classified. What the hell had Guerin been up to? He’d said Annick and Wallbird had been an Imperial contract, as Io would have imagined, but there was no legal seal on any of these documents. There was only military insignia and blacked out locations. Something very odd was going here. In fact, the only mention of Annick and Wallbird was on a screwed up Binary scrip, and much of that was coded.

Just as she folded up the contracts to return them to the pack, a name caught her eye: Corneil Mountinner. A mixture of fear and anger erupted within her, but there was no time to dwell on this man from her past. She rearranged the bounty-hunter’s luggage as she had found it and stood up. A sharp sense of alarm snapped her to immediate concerns. Her Watcher from the forest had returned.

She drew her sword. This time she was as alert as she could be, and while she could not see or hear it, she knew it was out there and she knew it was real. She made her way to Dan and shook him awake.

“Wha? Boss? What’s going on?”

“It’s here again. Have Cruiseway watch the camp and follow me.”

He obeyed and they left the warmth and light of the trapper’s station.

Another night so dark as this, in so bleak and lonely a forest, Io might have been a little afraid. She might have felt the deep silence intimidating, or found the cold dread-inspiring. That was not tonight. Now, she was quickly stalking towards her quarry, so fast that Dan was almost left behind.

“Wait,” hissed her lieutenant. “I can’t move this fast and keep quiet. Give me a second.” He finished buckling the holster for his crossbow and caught his breath. “You’re talking about the thing from before, right?”

“Yes.”

“And where are Vassinger and Guerin?”

“Tch. Can’t you hear? Screwing. Now be quiet.”

Sterk heard him run his hand over his stubble, and to her, it sounded like a gale through a field of straw. It was now that she heard her Watcher, the creaks and scratches of its unfathomable mechanics nearly drowned in a rasping sea of breathing and beating. Io’s head snapped off to their left. Sparks of light, black to any other eye, were glinting on frozen dew. Hidden within these pinpricks were two that did not belong. She plunged towards them, stealth lost in the face of speed.

Io harried the Watcher into the wilderness. Some force carried it through thorns and thickets, down ravines and over rocky banks, through miles of savage country until unable to shake its implacable hunter, it slowed. Now it waited on the shores of a frozen lake. It seemed to know, if it were capable, that it had met its match. She saw it clearly now. It was a tree-man, but not a man. Clearer description defied her. Certainly it was a Watcher, because its eyes were easy to define: glaring, lidless and enormous. Black as they were, Io thought that she could see straight through them to the night beyond, which though blotted by clouds seemed endless. There were no stars, no moon, and no witnesses.

In places it was literally possible to see through it, as it was a hastily constructed ghoul. She knew now it was not a man in the guise of something else, but something else in the shape of a man. She judged it an agent of convenience, conjured from the floor of the land it wandered, to watch for reasons she could not divine.

As she stumbled after it onto the ice the thing gave a shrug and seemed to forget the life it had aped. Its branches quivered and burst apart. Its body shivered to the frozen surface of the lake and let out a spurt of foul smelling liquid that Io identified as old blood. One eye fell onto the ice and shattered into powder. The other rolled from its disintegrating head, but Io dived for this one and caught it as the rest of the apparition became so much litter. Almost crying, bereft of the vigour that had propelled her here or even enough to take a full breath in her lungs, she clutched the proof to her breast.

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