Part I: The Day the Wolf Cried Vengeance Chapter 1 – A Body, Enraptured

Excerpt from "A City Over Ashes" by Angelina Delacroix – The Font of Truth

Haven's personality is reflected in the hearts of its people. Dubbed "The light of Pantheus" by the El'shi poet Gadavin Da'manshee, Haven is the center of commerce, the pinnacle of cultural diversity and the origin of nearly all technological development. Most importantly, Haven stands as a renowned symbol of peace and unity between the El'shi and Duan, who have always called this world home, and humanity who had been brought to Pantheus quite literally kicking and screaming from a world that was no more. After nearly four centuries of bitter contention, Haven has become the corner stone of a golden age in which each race is respected as an equal, and the sins of darker days stay in the past.

This great testament was built on the western Yrdith Fields, at the center of the continent of Verdallia, on the ashes of the last great battle of the War of Acceptance in which humans fought the armies of Duan and El'shi to a standstill. It represents the link between three distinct worlds. To the east, the Theocracy of Verd, the post-war center of El'shi civilization. To the North, the United Whalen Provinces, the home of humanity. And to the west, the Republic of the Black Hammer, the mountain country of the Duan.

In the beginning, Haven exposed its splendor to the world, inviting in all who wished to dwell in a place of peace. But under a pretence of protecting its citizens from the hazards of the surrounding Wilderlands, an immense, impenetrable wall now seals off the city from unwanted or unregistered visitors. This wall became the foundation by which the city was divided into two tiers.

Supported by massive inter-connected plates and sturdy pillars, Upper Haven rests atop the wall – burying its citizens' blacker passions under a façade of glittering spires and lush gardens. It's bright, pristine cityscape bares witness to the optimistic, peaceful ideals held by the citizens who dwell there. In stark contrast, the darker, wilder Undercity is a grim reminder that there are those whom a simple, clean life will never satisfy.

Haven's personality is reflected in the hearts of its people. Perhaps that is why, if one looks hard enough, they can still find a spot of dirt on even the cleanest façade.

The final days of the summer of post-migration year 498 were marked by a rainstorm unlike any the people of Haven had ever experienced. It began on Verdallia's western coast, where the crags and peaks of the Auroria mountain range gave way to the Sea of Vaug. It swept across the range – across the Republic of the Black Hammer – bellowing its thunder and driving its fury of rain on gales of wind which screamed through stone and tree alike. It did not linger in the west, as such storms were prone to do, but traveled on across the Continent, across the rolling hills of the Yrdith plains to envelope the city-state of Haven, where it banished the summer beauty so familiar to the sprawling metropolis.

It had been raining in Haven now for the fifth day in a row, and consigned beneath the weight of perfection and idealism, the Undercity was drowning. The unseasonal deluge streamed through the gutters of Upper Haven, there to be recirculated through a network of pipes and distributed in the Undercity by oscillating sprinklers, all but hidden hi above, in the places the sun spheres never reached.

Nicholas Parker trudged through the sodden labyrinth of Undercity streets in an emotional stupor. The pungent aroma of a man who'd forgotten the finer points of daily hygiene hung about him, hardly masked at all by the shabby rain slicker he wore. The smell was his only companion in a steady stream of people going about their lives. He was vaguely aware of others edging away as he passed, but Nick couldn't bring himself to care. Water swirled around his ankles, and though his leather boots came up past his calves, they were old and worn down, leaving his feet damp. At times, rainwater sluiced from the hood of his slicker, over his face and down his collar. The dreary wet barrage from the sprinklers above complimented his mood perfectly.

Not long ago, Nick had been another man with another name. Life had been simpler then. He borrowed, screwed and stole his way through life, unmoved by the people he hurt or the lives he ruined. But those days were gone; the Vonark Institute and the Societal Rehabilitation Act. Two years ago, they had burdened him with morality. Now Nick had a conscience, and he hated how much he appreciated it.

A jarring thud sent Nick reeling, jolting him out of his moping reverie. He looked up, a snappy curse rising to his lips. It retreated into a tight ball in Nick's suddenly dry throat. The man he had collided with glared down at him, murder blazing in the single green oval eye above the bridge of his nose. Shaggy brown fur matted his naked torso, except for his face, where it was little more than fuzz. His huge biceps bulged as he flexed. He was a Duan, and a damn big one at that.

The Duan wrinkled his nose, gritting his even white teeth. His ears – larger and more pointed than a humans' – quivered with either fury or disgust. Nick found it hard to tell with Duan. "Watch it skinback." His voice was a low baritone growl.

Nick flinched at the old specist slur. "Sorry."

The Duan was already stomping down the crowded street, throwing up spray with each step. His long, heavily muscled tail whipped side to side from a hole cut in his grey glem, a skirt-like garment reaching past his furry knees. Everyone gave the hazardous appendage plenty of room.

Nick withdrew back into himself, wondering how things had gone so wrong. He'd been doing so well. After the rehabilitation, his life had been back on track. But he'd gone and screwed it up again, and this time he wasn't the only one in trouble.

Nick's foot landed on something spongy. He gave a little hop forward, another apology rising to his lips. A fat grizzled human was sprawled on his side in the middle of the street, wrapped in a filthy green cloak far too big for him. His pudgy little mouth was slack and his eyes were closed. Rain glistened in his unkempt beard. He didn't stir, even though nick's shoe had ground grit into the back of his splayed hand. He was either sleeping off a hard day's drinking, or dead. Nick knew he should at least try to drag him to the side of the street under one of the awnings, but if drunk, the old street drifter would probably just scream in his face. If he were alive, a big enough face full of rain would probably wake him up eventually.

OR:

He bent, thinking to drag the old street drifter out of the rain and under one of the awnings. He got one arm under the sprawled body, and was about to lift him, when the man screamed in his face.

"Spiders! Spiders on my face! Spiders in my eyes! No, no! Don't eat the light. Get off. Get off!"

Then his arm wrenched painfully as an invisible force threw Nick back amidst a spray of water. He landed on his back in a puddle, the air exploding from his lungs in a forced whoosh. His head bounced against the ground. His hood cushioned the impact, but he could still taste it as a palpable coppery tang in his mouth. He cursed, spluttering water and trying to catch his breath. The old bastard was a crazed pha'eerist!

Nick sat up. He waited until the world stopped spinning before climbing awkwardly to his feet. The street drifter had fallen silent. Nick rubbed the back of his head, which had begun to throb with a slow, dull ache. He felt like stomping the man's face until his lips split, and his nose exploded. He wanted to feel the impact. He wanted to hear the crunch of bone and cartilage. Before the rehabilitation, he would have done it, and maybe more. Now the impulse was overshadowed by the overwhelming sense that such a response was highly inappropriate, and simply wrong. The feeling was subtly alien, as if it didn't fully belong to him. Yet it felt right, and it felt like a thought he should be having. So instead of smearing the man's face, Nick simply looked down at him for a lingering moment.

Nick's thirst for retribution was replaced by pity. A thin trickle of blood oozed from one nostril, and one of the man's eyes bulged from its socket, as if something behind it were trying to force it out. Nick shuddered. The street drifter was far worse off than he was. He was a Trinitarian – A Pha'eerist to be specific. To possess a Gaia Spark – to be properly ordained, and trained in its use –had the potential to elevate a person high above the common residents of the Undercity. To control the pha'eer – the matter of the physical world was to have your talents sought after by a wide range of industries. This man could have been someone. Perhaps once, he had been. But now, both mentally and physically, he was suffering.

Nick had witnessed the result of long-term Trinitarian burn-out enough times to find the phenomena worth looking into. He'd spent a whole afternoon glowed to his Encephalon Link, browsing the vast sea of fact and fiction which made up the World Archive Collective's database. The bio-babble had made his head spin, but what he had understood was enough to give him an entirely new perspective on Trinitarians.

In addition to the Pha'eer, the Gaia Trinity was made up of two other facets. The Aetheer – the spectrum of primal energies which flowed through Pantheus, and the Anima – the far-less understood mental and spiritual essence of the world, and the life that dwelt thereon. Manipulating the facets of the Gaia Trinity took an inevitable toll on a Trinitarian's psyche and brain. Trinitarians underwent extensive psychological, mental and physical training in order to manifest and control their abilities safely and effectively. Still, prolonged use of their abilities often resulted in short-term cognitive impairment and severe headaches. Drugs, talented Trinitarian healers or rest and relaxation could alleviate such effects. However, long-term results of Trinity manipulation often resulted in severe psychological scarring, dementia and dissociative identity disorders. These two could be held at bay by the proper healing methods, but they were far too expensive for the common street drifter to afford.

The worst outcome of Trinity manipulation lay at Nick's feet. For some Trinitarians, The Gaia Spark – a preternatural force contained in a gland deep down in a Trinitarian's hindbrain – sometimes produced cancerous growths that disrupted brain activity, causing severe pain and inevitable death.

Due to the strain their minds endure over a lifetime, Trinitarians generally had a shorter lifespan than most. Nick wondered how long this man had to live. Certainly, no one down here could help him. It was enough to make Nick glad he hadn't been born with the spark.

Nick left the old man behind. There was nothing he could do. Besides, he had his own problems.

He turned onto Black Iron Street. A row of cold industrial buildings lined one side of the street, while the other belonged entirely to an Aerophant graveyard protected by razor wire interlaced with glowing beams of sapphire aetheer. The blue energy would send a massive jolt of power through anyone stupid enough to touch it. Unlicensed salvaging of Aerophant corpses was no joke in Haven. Behind the barrier, Sections of stripped Scaly hide, skeletal frames and cracked gray crystalline hearts lay in haphazard piles behind the barrier, waiting to be reintegrated into the next generation of living transportation.

As he neared the warehouse at the end of the street, he slowed. A signpost leaned precariously to one side, looking ready to topple over and crush someone. "Property of Haldren Imports. No trespassing. Unrecognized persons will be permanently removed." Nick felt his skin crawl. He swept the street, searching for the suspicious eyes he knew must be on him.

Inside the warehouse's stable, a few battered Aerophants were tethered to restraining pillars by chains of negatively charged glowing emerald aetheer. The green energy was pure force, and when negatively charged it bound two objects more securely than iron. Nick liked knowing little factoids like this; they made him sound more intelligent than he probably was.

The Aerophants were a strange mixture of spider, bird and reptile. It was this unique appearance which gave them the nickname splizerds. The creatures lay docily on the pavement, their four spidery legs curled under their softly heaving reptilian bodies. They had no wings – they didn't need them to fly – yet their heads were bird-like, with short, stubby beaks and slanted eyes. The illuminating sun spheres floating overhead shown on the glistening scales covering their heads and bodies. Their bodies were strong, sleek in structure, but rough in appearance. Even bound and immobile, the creatures were magnificent, but the acrid stench of their waste made Nick's nose twitch. One stirred restlessly in the grip of what might have been a dream. Nick shuddered. Did aerophants dream?

He mentally smacked himself. "Pull it together you idiot. No one's watching. No one even cares." He felt better.

Two humans – one merely heavy, the other morbidly obese – lounged against the wall smoking what looked to be enormous pink Duan cigars and talking shop. Neither man paid Nick any attention as he edged passed. He couldn't help breathing in the smoke, a pleasant mixture of honey and vanilla. Back in that other life, Nick had been partial to Duan Cigars, but the absence of an acrid, earthy under scent told him these were cheap knock-offs.

"Those new-hires are trouble." Heavy-set was saying.

The fat man removed his cigar long enough to turn and spit a hot pink glob half on the wall. "The kids? They're harmless. Pull their weight, too.

"How do you figure?"

"I see them all the time. Sorting merchandise. Lugging crates. Sure are strong, for El'shi."

Heavy set spat more discretely than his companion, but Nick still found it disgusting. "If there's Shiner in those crates I'll tongue kiss my Aerophant's poop shoot."

The fat man laughed. "That's nasty."

"I'm serious. Something's going on. Boss is tighter than Verd's holy matriarch. And that Duan! Damn! Got more weapons than a squad of piffs! You tell me why someone like that needs to hang around a Beanshine warehouse!"

"It's a rough part of town."

"The Velvet Strip's a rough part of town. Psycho should go darken one of their doorways."

Their voices faded as Nick turned down a deserted side street. It was approaching twilight, and the dreary light emanating from the spheres floating high above gradually darkened in similitude of the setting sun. Most of the buildings here were boarded up and run down. Crude word art decorated their grim facades, proclaiming "I live to smoke on your pleasie pipe," "all skinbacks need skinning", "The Guiding Hand only pleasures the High-Born" and other 'tasteful' declarations. Nick figured if the gloom and depravity along this street could be distilled into a perfume, it would smell like the stable he'd passed. He hadn't been in such a place since his other life. For a moment, he almost turned around. But in light of recent events, mere want had swiftly transformed into burning need. So he went on. Perhaps nothing had really changed.

The alley separating Haldren Imports from another boarded up warehouse was lit only by a small sphere mounted on the stone wall. The only sound was the gush as rain sluiced through a near-by gutter. Nick felt the hair on his neck tingling. He gazed up into the darkness. The telltale red eye of a wall-mounted security Watcher blinked back.

He stepped into the gloom, feeling his pulse quicken. "Hello? Shadows does silver moonlight banish?" The code phrase might have made him laugh if he hadn't been so nervous. Some of the people who lived in the Undercity probably hadn't seen real moonlight in their lives.

The sound of grating stone made him jump. A small slat on a door he hadn't noticed before slid open, causing a small bar of light to shine on the opposite wall. One large green eye peered out. The skin covering the gently protruding ridge of orbital bone was El'shi smooth.

"You got a reference?" The man had a High nasal voice, heavily accented and highly condescending. Nick placed him as Haven-born, but with a studied drawl of El'shi Isolationist diction. In spite of his edgy nerves, Nick barely stifled a laugh. If you were going to fake an accent, do it right.

Nick fished in his jacket, closed his fingers over a small piece of paper, lost it, then pulled it out and looked at it. "U6392 I 419."

The El'shi's voice brimmed with menace. "You late, olo."

Nick stammered an apology, but the El'shi cut him off.

"Chibra's got what you want. But you'd better be worth it. Hand."

Nick stared stupidly for a moment.

"Give me your hand, olo."

"Oh, right. Sorry." Nick stretched a trembling hand towards the slat, palm up.

"No, inside, olo" The man commanded.

Nick stuck his arm through the slat, hating it. Cold fingers grabbed his wrist. He held very still, barely breathing.

"You don't have the palms I'll break your fingers."

He felt a slight tingle as an automated transaction scanner touched the skin between his middle and index fingers.

"Okay, hand it over, olo."

Nick sub-vocalized the security code to his personal account. There was a short delay as the scanner collected funds from his account from the Nano crystal under his skin. When the scanner beeped, the fingers let go. The man placed something small in his hand.

When next he spoke, his voice conveyed all smiles, as if Nick were his best friend. "Heeeey, broto, you're straight. Enjoy. And tell your friends, hey?"

Nick quickly removed his hand. The slat ground shut. "Yeah," Nick said, "Pleasure doing business."

As he left, Nick looked down at the little pink box in his palm. It was tied with a blue ribbon. His whole body tingled, as if already feeling the effects of the prize inside.

Rapture.

Twenty minutes later, Nick returned to the Red Court apartments. The old building stood in stark contrast amidst neighboring residences which looked like palaces in comparison. Chips and cracks marred the soiled gray brick. Trash littered the Aerophant stable, and the gate leading into the small weed-infested courtyard seemed to be held together by a sheer act of will. Overall, The Red-Court looked less fit for the monarch of a small country than the king of rats.

As Nick stepped through the sagging front door into the lobby, several of the aforementioned king's little courtiers scurried into a small hole under the stairs, squeaking "Big feet! Big feet!" as they disappeared.

"Yeah, you'd better run," Nick said, but there was no heart in it. His walk back to the apartment had left him feeling a little better. The Rap burning a hole in his pocket promised a pleasant distraction. Now he was home, and as he climbed the protesting stairs, its presence only added to the indomitable burden weighing him down. Faintly muffled shouts echoed from the floor above. Somewhere a baby was squalling, its needs going unsatisfied.

The lock barring access to his tiny shared apartment was old fashioned and poorly maintained. He wished for the thousandth time the Red Court manager would spring for a personalized aetheer barrier, or at least a psychometric locking system. Of course, that would likely involve a drastic rent increase, and he was already paying more than enough for this dump. He fished the old key out of his pocket and slipped it into the lock. It stuck for a moment, and then the lock twisted open with its distinctive loud click. Nick entered, shutting the door and leaving the outside world behind. Instantly the crying and screaming dulled to a tolerable white noise.

He kicked his boots against the wall, shrugged out of his soiled rain slicker and left it puddled in front of the door. He trudged down the short hall into the kitchen, feeling his body grow heavier with each step. He made it a point to ignore the mess he'd left caked on the stove, instead opening the fridge and selecting something cold and alcoholic from its vacant depths.

He took the booze into the living room, looked around, and sighed wearily. The apartment looked the way he felt, messy, disorganized and hopeless. A week's worth of dirty laundry teetered precariously on the threadbare chair in the corner of the small living room. A fine layer of virgin dust settled over everything but the bare essentials - the sofa, and the wide oval screen of the Encephalon Link on the desk. The congealing remains of last night's take-out oozed from an overturned container near the sofa. Nick frowned at the sludgy mess of sauce and stiffened noodles. Had he really eaten so little last night? He knew he would have to clean before Naran got home, and he would … just not right now.

He collapsed onto the lumpy sofa and took a swig from the bottle. The booze was thick, pungent and sweetly acidic – definitely a taste he hadn't acquired. He set the bottle carefully on the floor, picking up his chatterbox from where it lay.

The palm-sized metal cube beeped when he thumbed the small node on its edge. Millions of particles of aetheer coalesced into a five-inch translucent window above its glossy surface. He barely registered the flashing icon indicating the chatterbox's power crystal was nearly drained, instead fixating on the words "1 new message". For a moment, it was as if the past weeks had never happened. It was a split second of near weightless relief mingled with frantic hope.

"Play new messages."

On command, a window opened and his first and only message streamed from the vast Chatter Stream.

An image of his friend and roommate Naran Zell winked into being. His classic features made him not merely handsome, but beautiful in a way akin to all El'shi. His dazzling smile caused his wide green eye to twinkle from within ITS gentle ridge of protective orbital bone. He was breathing hard, and a sheen of sweat glowed on the smooth, nearly poreless skin of his fine high brow and cheekbones. His short hair – blonde now, but originally black – stuck up in curled tufts which somehow accentuated his pointed ears.

A vast sunlit vista stretched behind him, plains of tall wavy grass disappearing into infinity.

Nick's euphoric buoyancy vanished as quickly as it had surfaced.

"Hey Nick," Naran said. His breathless voice was full of exhilaration. "Just thought I'd chat and see how things are going. You're probably busy playing somewhere in the Encephalon, but I hope you get this message. I'm still in Aluron's Rising." He paused to drink a long gulp of water from a canteen. It lent strength to his voice. "Sorry about that. The hill to the temple was way steeper than it looked. I still can't believe I'm actually making my pilgrimage. Me! The reformed and rehabilitated bad apple. Can you believe it? Just take a look at this place!"

The view panned away from Naran to show the front of an enormous building. Its high arched doorway looked big enough to accommodate five people walking abreast. Its ivory façade was made all the brighter by rainbows of luminous, sun-kissed stones framing its many windows. A ring of spires spanned by wooden walkways framed what appeared to be some sort of statue. Naran was standing too close to get it in view, but Nick assumed it was an idealized depiction of the Divine White, Aluren, the mother of creation.

"Isn't it amazing?" The view returned to Naran.

Nick had to admit he'd never seen anything like it.

"I'm hoping to catch a glimpse of Matriarch Varenese. They tell me she'll be back from her tour of the northern territories today. I'll probably be back in the next few days. I hope things are good there. Hopefully those stupid rats aren't at the door begging for food again. You have opened the door in the last week, right?" He paused, as if letting the question sink in. He glanced at something Nick couldn't see. "By the White! It's her? It is! Sorry Nick. See you soon." Naran vanished.

Nick sighed. A few more days. Not all Elshi made the pilgrimage to the heart of the Verd theocracy, but the journey was highly encouraged. It was far easier than making the expensive trip to Thaerra, a continent that had grown increasingly isolationist in its views over the years. Even some Duan and human followers of the White made the journey to Aluron's Rising. It definitely wasn't his thing, but he was glad Naran was enjoying himself.

Nick moved to put the chatterbox away, but he hesitated. "Play saved messages."

This time a young El'shi woman filled the window. Long golden hair spilled down her back, framing a face which reminded Nick of happier days. At this moment, her beauty was marred by a range of emotion, but only terror and sadness were visible to Nick's limited perspective. Tears welled from her sky-blue eye and dribbled down either side of her thin nose, looking like pregnant drops of rain. Her sensuous lower lip trembled with a gush of words.

"Nick. When you get this, chat me … Damn it! Nick … Nick I'm pregnant. I'm freaking out! What were we thinking? We were so stupid." The woman took a deep breath, then stared resolutely at him.

A single tear escaped Nick's clenched eyes. "Seera," he breathed.

"I shouldn't have chatted. I'm sorry. I don't know what I'm going to do, but if the Piffs get a hold of me, I'll keep you out of it. You've been through enough. Don't try and contact me. I'm going to disappear for a while. I love you. I wish it could have worked. Please take care of yourself, Nick."

"Pause!" Her face froze before it could disappear. Nick gazed into her eye. The emotion that eye could convey was all but lost in the still image of the aetheer's reconstruction of her features.

Nick met Seera one night six months ago in an Undercity bar – the Gagging Maggot. It was the sort of place people went to put the cares of the world on hold in lew of a night of drinking and dancing. Nick, then working a dead-end customer service job had been striving to rebuild his life. Seera, an Upper Haven debutante merely wanted freedom from the constraints of hers. Neither had been seeking anything but escape.

They'd danced until closing time. Slow songs, fast songs, no songs … it didn't matter. Their conversation was loose and natural – the booze probably helped. They hadn't worried about being seen in such close proximity. In places like the Gagging Maggot, nobody really cared who or what you were. The world and the taboos it held were left at the door.

They hadn't meant to end up in bed. But the third time last call came, Nick had invited her back to his apartment. He hadn't even thought twice about it. Naran was away, and he wasn't ready to say goodbye to Seera. It surprised him when she eagerly accepted. The two had left the bar laughing hand-in-hand. Nick couldn't recall the last time he'd felt so good – the booze had probably helped with that, too.

Their sex started out fast and frantic, as if by their coupling they were purging one another of their individual stresses. Nick had never been with an El'shi woman, and he was amazed by how naturally their bodies complimented one another. Neither had thought about contraception; it just didn't seem important.

As the boundaries of night and early morning drew closer together, their pace slowed, softening into revitalizing bliss. They began tenderly experiencing one another as people, allowing their minds and emotions to share in their bodies' pleasure.

The brightening rays of the Undercity sun spheres should have meant an end to the affair, but it was too late. They'd fallen hard and fast. At some point during the night, their companionable need for escape and their drifting from unbridled passion to soothing intimacy had instilled in them something new. Neither was ready to call it love, but both were unwilling to let it go.

Nick put his head in his hands. It had been the best six months of his life. He'd worried about Naran's reaction, but his friend had seemed happy enough. He'd even hacked the registry of the hotel where he worked to give the two of them many evenings of privacy. Nick loved him for that. The rooms were far from romantic – the Troubadour's Rest was a hotel meant for those who paid by the hour – but they were enough.

He and Seera spent long, happy nights in those rooms talking of the future. They knew their growing love couldn't work in Haven. The El'shi and Duan might have grown to accept humans after a couple centuries of treating them as interlopers, but that acceptance had its limits. They talked of leaving Haven – of traveling through the northern wilderlands. There were rumors of inter-species settlements there – places where love between humans and El'shi wasn't a taboo.

Nick allowed his gaze to return to Seera's stricken face. The weight of his hurt, worry and frustration made his chest tighten. He couldn't help thinking how close they'd come. Somehow, they could have left haven. They could have gone north with their baby! In the worst case, she could have had the child terminated! Instead, she had disappeared, leaving him alone.

Of course, he'd tried to contact her. He was sure Haven's Encephalon Communications Network Assistant was tired of his attempts. Each time she told him the same thing. No Chatterbox was tied with the Chatter Stream frequency he was trying to contact. Now a month had passed without a word between them. Where was she? Had something happened to her, or had she simply cut him out of her life?

Seera's words came back to him. "How could we be so stupid?" But they hadn't been. After that first night, they'd been careful. What faith they hadn't put into protection had been handed over to the El'shi's naturally low fertility. No, the question wasn't "how could we be so stupid." What she'd really wanted to say was "why did we do it at all?"

The chatterbox clattered to the floor, and Seera's image disappeared as the unit's link with his skin was broken.

Nick reached for the package. He tore it open, scattering its wrappings. Nestled amidst wads of white cotton lay ten pink pills. He hesitated. This wasn't really going to help, and he knew it. But that brief escape into mind-numbing bliss would take the pain away, at least for a while. And after that? … After that, he'd clean this dump, and find Seera, somehow.

He popped a pill and bit down. He grimaced at the taste, they weren't meant to be chewed. Instantly his discomfort was replaced by a relaxing tingle. It radiated from his chest and spread throughout his body. His muscles jittered as the blissful sensation intensified. He moaned in ecstasy. Everything felt loose and free.

He chewed another pill.

Then came a voice, a voice sensed more than heard. Stop.

He chewed one more, then another. They went down easily. The taste no longer bothered him.

Stop!

That voice – whose voice? The White? His own battered psyche? – was screaming at him. He smothered it. He knew he should stop, but it felt so good!

In the room, the dust stirred. He began to laugh as the sensation of pleasure exceeded anything he'd ever felt. Even making love to Seera never felt this good. He never felt the sudden release as his bladder let go. The sheets of paper stacked on the desk lifted into the air and began to circle as though born on gusts of wind. The forgotten bottle of booze surged up off the floor and shattered against the ceiling. Syrupy red liquid and shards of broken glass spattered the sofa and Nick's upturned face.

At first, when pain surged through his head, Nick didn't feel it. He was in the grip of such intense physical stimulation that nothing else seemed to register. Each rapid heartbeat sent bursts of pleasure through his limbs. The chair across the room rose and flipped into the wall. The crash broke through the ecstasy. Then the pain flooded his senses, violating every nerve. Spasms jittered his muscles. Then, they seized up entirely. More pain spread from his chest through his left arm. Each frantic heartbeat was a lance of pure agony.

"No, no, no. Please, no!" The words formed in his mind, but only a primal squeal rose out of Nick's throat. The room was alive with violent objects. His mind was swarming with a thousand stinging insects and jumbled images.

No, I don't want this! I don't want this! No! Somebody, help me! , no, no!

A faint whispering crawled inside his head, spidery impressions which were gone almost before he registered them. Then the sofa he was on rose and flipped. Nick tumbled off. The sofa crashed down on his legs at the same instant the world melted away.

The storm ceased, leaving only chaos. Nick lay facedown amidst the debris, his legs pinned by the sofa. Blood trickled from his eyes, nose and ears. The last sound he heard was the muffled crying of a neglected child – the child that would never be his.