The next few minutes were spent in a blind scrabble through narrow, empty lanes, that terrible croaking growing fainter as he fled. At length, Jimmy halted at the junction to wider street, Marsh Street according to the faded, green-streaked sign on the lamppost. Avoiding the pale glow of the street lamp, Jimmy turned right and made a crouched run, passing the dark windows of what looked to be abandoned houses. 
            A cool breeze from ahead carried the scent of sea; Jimmy reasoned he could maybe find and steal a boat and escape this madhouse. The dark entrance to an alleyway appeared ahead on the left and Jimmy darted into it. He risked a quick glance over his shoulder, the street behind remained quiet and empty. The far end of the alleyway opened out onto the sea front and Jimmy allowed himself a brief pause to draw breath. His shoulder was beginning to throb, his feet were sore and sweat stung his eyes. However the fresh ocean breeze helped revive him somewhat and, checking left and right, he crossed the open space to the low sea wall. Sliding over it, he dropped to the soft sand below and paused once more. 
            The coastline stretched away to each side. Not so much a beach as what looked like deposited sand, piled up between the breakwater and the shore. To his right, ruins of wharves jutted out from the shore to end in jagged, broken timbers. To the left, the coast curved round towards the harbour. Just beyond the mouth of the Manuxet River,  Jimmy could just make out the vague outline of a few fishing boats visible in the clear night air. He was about to make for them when a sound caught his ear; that unholy croaking, clicking cry. Worse, it was echoed from more than one  place, and as he watched, a group of figures burst onto the seafront, between him and the harbour..... 

       The young thief slid through the open window and, unhooking the grapple from the ledge, wound the rope swiftly up behind him. He glanced outside but all was quiet, save for the distant whisper of the sea and a soft night breeze that carried the scent of jasmine up from the garden below. As he was returning the rope to his backpack, the soft chink of harness and a low cough alerted him to the approach of  Palace Guard.  The youth moved quickly into a darkened alcove as two armoured figures strolled slowly by, talking softly as they went. Fortunately for the thief these weren’t the elite Talons but older City Guard nearing retirement age, given easy duties to see out their service. 
           The thief waited until the corridor was quiet once more then, with a quick glance at the rough map he’d prepared earlier, set off with slow, silent tread towards the Royal Chambers. The time spent wooing one of the Palace maids had not been wasted and had been far from unpleasant, a most agreeable way to prepare for tonight’s excursion. 
            The youth was tall and lithe, his long blonde hair restrained by a plain cloth headband. He wore a simple dark blue tunic, breeches and sandals, carrying nothing except a dagger and the pack slung over his shoulders. Two turns, another check of the map and he found himself outside the large door of what should be one of the Royal treasure rooms.         
            Holding his breath, he tried the handle and gently pushed the door. It moved to his touch, the door was unlocked, swinging silently open on oiled hinges. The room interior was dark and the youth paused to allow his eyes to adjust from the soft torchlight of the corridor. Then, keeping his movements careful and deliberate, he crept forward, closing the door behind him. He almost immediately froze, some sixth sense warning of him of impending danger; was there was a slight smell of burning, perhaps? But nothing moved, the room was still. 
         He crouched and, reaching into his pack, brought out a flint and candle, lighting it after a couple of strikes. Holding the candle aloft, he looked around, taking a sharp intake of breath as he noticed two things. The first was the light reflecting back from a heap of jewels in an open, wooden chest. The second was the figure of a man, half hidden in the shadows. No features were visible, just the vague outline of a wide shouldered frame. A gruff voice spoke with a lilting accent.
         “And who might you be, boy?”     
    Quick as a flash, the thief responded. “My name is Laertes, I’m a serving boy. It’s my first day here, I got lost in the corridors.”  
     There was a low rumble of laughter from the dark. 
       “Bel’s balls, you are no serving boy. You are a thief!”    
 The youth shifted nervously, hand automatically seeking the hilt of his dagger.   
         “Are you a thief also, then, come to steal the Royal gems?”    The figure moved forward into the dim light, the youth gasped and his hand dropped away from the dagger. The powerfully built man wore a plain but finely tailored, knee length white tunic. At his belted waist was a poniard in an ornate green sheath. Cold, grey eyes regarded the thief from a scarred face, framed by long, dark hair and silver-shot beard.    
     “I’m no thief, boy. I’m the King.” 

      Llorc, looking over the heads of the crew, suddenly gave a broad grin. Casting around, he found a discarded short sword on the deck. With the sword in one hand and dagger in the other, he made a run, then a leap, shouting a war cry at the top of his lungs as he exploded into the crew. Intent, as they were, on the pirates, the first the sailors knew of this assault was that blood chilling cry… and then a madman was among them. The weeks of inactivity fell away from his limbs as Llorc gave himself fully to the joy and fury of battle. With no thought for safety he cut through the sailors like a hurricane, his face a mask of hate, teeth bared like a ravening wolf. 
            A slash of the sword opened a throat, the dagger pierced deep into a belly. A downward swing of a short axe was met by an upward cut of the sword and a hand spun off into the air, trailing bloody drops as it went. One brave clutched Llorc’s dagger arm with both hands, the barbarian snarled and smashed the pommel of the sword thrice into the man's face. Seeing his chance, another sailor lunged in with a powerful stab to Llorc’s side but with a lithe twist of the waist, the point passed harmlessly by. The attacker barely had time to scream as Llorc’s sword whistled down in a terrible cut, cleaving the sailor's skull to the teeth. Already the barbarian had moved, flinging his dagger into another attacker’s face. 
            The deck ran red and a space appeared around the grim, gore streaked savage who’s eyes blazed with anger and delight. Then came another great yell as the pirates charged and, within minutes, the battle was done.


Jonas nodded enthusiastically. “Yes. For only by those virtues can we come to know the joys of the Afterlife in the loving arms of the Creator.” 
        “I’ll take my joys here and now,” Llorc responded. “They are few and far between and life is fleeting enough. Fierce battle, hot kisses, strong wine. Those are the only virtues I seek.” 
        The missionary sighed. “Such a shame that you and others should take pleasure in killing and strife. Will there be no end to it?” 
        “Not here in the north.” The young man gave a bleak smile. “We are born to it, preacher. It is in the blood. Besides, if you have never experienced the exultation of battle, who are you to judge? When the blades flicker in the sun, when the kinfolk chant and stamp, when the strength of arm and heart are what determines a warrior’s fate… aye, there is joy in that, though the end be red ruin and lamentation for some. But even in lamentation we find joy. Joy in a life well lived, a battle well fought and joy in bloody vengeance to come.” 
        Llorc stopped and lay a gentle hand on the missionary’s shoulder. “Nay, friend, I think you’ll find little appetite for your Prophet in the north, though I admire your grit in trying. Others may not be so well inclined towards you, though, so be careful!”

Soon, Llorc arrived at the chosen place. Pale faces showed briefly around him in the dark as he entered the gorge. They set back into hiding as he strode into the narrow space, making his way to the end of the gully, a sheer rock wall, from which there was no escape. He turned, unsheathed his blade and waited, no longer smiling. 
        The first of the Njordir, younger and faster than the rest, hurtled along the stony floor, giving a whoop of pleasure at finally seeing their quarry. Without waiting for his fellows, he, charged straight at Llorc, hefting a long war axe in gloved hands. Llorc met the charge coolly, allowing the man to make the first swing. He ducked below it, feeling the cold air of its passing on his cheek, and struck out with the point of his sword. The blade bit deep into the Njordir’s abdomen and the man staggered back, a dark stain spreading on his fur. 
        His comrades followed quickly behind, howling in rage at the sight of their fallen friend. But these men were more crafty. They set in two lines, each six wide and slowly advanced, weapons sparkling in their torchlight. 
        “Now, Jonas!” cried Llorc. Nothing happened. The Njordir continued their careful approach, teeth shining whitely in dark beards. Llorc cursed and shouted again. “Jonas, now!” 
        “I don't know who Jonas is,” roared the man front and centre of the Njordir line, “But it doesn’t seem he’s going to help you.” Then, to his fellows, “Take him alive, boys, this one deserves to be skinned for the chase he’s led us.”  
        With mirthless laughter the group advanced and Llorc was forced to make a quick decision. His only  advantage was the fact that they wanted him alive. Against that, he had no armour, little chance of breaking through their lines and, with his back to the cold stone, no avenue of retreat. 
        He did what only a Clannacht warrior could do and allowed the battle joy to come upon him. With a wild shout he bounded forward into the midst of his foes. One man was cut down before he even knew what was happening, opened from collar bone to stomach. The rest paused, stunned at the madly laughing whirlwind of death that erupted in their midst. A slice into an unprotected thigh, a stab up under a jaw, a drop and scything slash at ankles bought Llorc a few more seconds. But he knew his time would soon be up. He began a death chant as he hewed and chopped, its eerie echo raising hairs on the Njordir necks. Nonetheless, grim warriors that they were, they closed in for the kill.




      The team were out of the truck and sprinting forward in a flash, as three figures came bursting out of the booth. Tahir tripped one and Armstrong was on him immediately. Slade shot off like a rocket and tackled the second, he hit the tarmac with a grunt. The third was light on his heels though, he was off and sprinting towards the main building like shit off a shovel. Chen raised his assault rifle and took careful aim but before he could fire there was a faint crack and the goon went down pole-axed. Another strike for Devlin! 
            I shouted into the comsnet “Go! Go! Go!”. Almost immediately there were crumps from the near distance as the fences were blown. Tahir already had the two guards cuffed and Slade raised the barrier as I rolled the truck in. Jumping out, AK at the ready, I joined the team as they advanced in assault formation, scanning nearby doors and windows. 
            One doorway opened, framing a Cartel man who snatched at his waist for a pistol. Chen’s burst took him in the chest and he wheeled and fell back into the interior. I waved Chen over and he and Armstrong headed for the door, throwing in a flash grenade before disappearing inside. 
            A shot whistled past my head from above. I instantly turned and sprayed an upper window. Glass shattered as a figure disappeared from view. I heard more gunfire from ahead and the thump of a grenade. Armstrong and Chen popped back out of the doorway, signalling all clear. 
            We focused ahead on the main entrance to the factory building itself. I nodded and Chen kicked the door in, crouched, SMG at the ready. There was no response so we entered quickly, each covering a separate arc of fire with our weapons. More gunfire, followed by shouts, sounded from ahead, then a figure came racing towards us, another Cartel goon. On seeing me he shouted an expletive and raised his weapon. He was immediately cut down by the fire of our three guns. 
            Within five minutes we had linked up with Koenig’s team and had the main building secured. The second team were mopping up the rest of the compound. Doc had followed us in on the other truck and was seeing to the hostage families, they looked in a right state. The remaining goons were soon rounded up and disarmed, Haugen was covering them as they knelt, hands on heads, on the tarmac at the front of the building. Max was among them, eyeing us nervously. We’d been told not to blow his cover, so we had to treat him the same as the rest. Kaur was leading some equally nervous looking science types out, blinking, into the daylight. 
            I gave the all clear to Abomo, who told me Schrader and our back-up were already on the way. Sure enough, within about thirty minutes, the shadow of our transport fell over the compound, followed by a group of Canuck hovers. They landed in a nice square formation, surrounding an unmarked hover that landed in the centre. Troops piled out of the four, forming a protective cordon around the central vehicle, from which two figures emerged, both civvies from the look of it. All very impressive but totally unnecessary. Haugen looked up from guarding the prisoners and laughed. 
            “Who the fuck are these guys?”

Lethbridge waits until the group is assembled then,  closing the heavy door, takes position by the desk.
     “What is it, I wonder,” he asks, “that makes a man run howling from a building to his doom?” He pauses, taking another draw on his cigarette.
   “And not from some gothic mansion or haunted castle on a storm-ravaged night. No, this was from a room in a library… in fact, the very room in which we are now gathered!" 
   The group shifts impatiently. Dean Heywood glances at his pocket watch. The cadaverous Head Porter Dollond tugs on his ear and stares fixedly at a point on the wall. 
    “And it is because of  what happened then, and subsequent events, that I now strongly advise this room be sealed.” Lethbridge seats himself on the edge of the large desk. 
    The room in question is a library. The simple plaque on the door proclaims it the Manby Rare Books Room. On entering the room you first see, to your left, the desk on which Lethbridge currently sits. Behind the desk, the room’s large, sole window looks out onto a quadrangle. To the right, on either side of a central aisle, several large, dark, old, empty bookcases stretch away into the gloom.
     The jowled, bespectacled Vice Chancellor Beaumont is the first of the group to  speak.  
     “Come, come,  Lethbridge, surely what happened then was just an accident;  why should this  be of concern to us now?”
    “Ah well,” Lethbridge stubs out his cigarette in the ash tray 
on the desk, “some nows are connected with particularly germane thens  and it may well be prudent to be cognizant of those connections. I have pieced together as best I can, from Parker’s own notes and from various lines of enquiry, what I believe to be the facts of the case. But, please,  won’t you be seated gentlemen? ”             “Will this take long?” enquires the bird-like Reverend Lowe.  “Only I have evensong to attend presently.” 
       “Not to worry Reverend, we will be finished before it gets… dark.”
    The group shuffles, chairs scrape on the wooden floor and soon all are seated. Proctor Barcroft takes the opportunity to have a quick nip from his hip flask. Lethbridge remains still as an owl, perched on the edge of the desk. The only sound is the dry ticking of a clock. Then Lethbridge clears his throat and begins...

         Suzy walks slowly across the deserted beach. The sea is calm and quiet, just a regular ripple disturbing the shiny surface. The large, full moon gives everything the colour of bone. To left and right the shoreline fades into the distance. Looking north, she thinks she glimpses the outline of a figure atop the low cliff. For a moment it stands, silhouetted against the sky. When she looks back to check,it is gone. But now there is a figure on the beach, hundreds of yards away. It is indistinct, little more than a shape, but seems twisted, distorted. She can make out no features but has the sense it is watching her.   
        Her heart is pounding now, louder than the surf. She turns southward and begins a hurried walk away from the figure, shingle grating underfoot. After about twenty paces she glances over her shoulder. The figure is nearer. It moves with a curious shambling gait, awkward, broken, rising and falling. She turns and begins to run, her progress slow on the shifting surface, almost as if she were running on the spot. She hears it now, ragged breathing, the crunch of its progress, drawing nearer. 
      Suzy is at full sprint. Ahead the pale strand leads on; there is no hiding place, the vague shape of the  power plant looms in the distance. She risks another look over her shoulder - the thing is less than ten feet behind her! Impossibly tall, a pale, grinning  face, black rags streaming out behind it. She falls awkwardly, knees grazing on the sharp stones. The thing reaches out bony hands, clawed, curved bony hands that reach for her, reach for her...