Sean frowned at the communication unit. We stood in the narrow alley just outside the door leading to Baha-char, dressed in our travel innkeeper robes, simple garments that hid our clothes. His resolve to not look for Wilmos lasted about as long as his piece of cake.
“Nothing?” I guessed.
“It’s not even picking him up.”
He pulled his hood on, hiding his face. I did the same, and we started down the alley toward the wide street, where the myriad of Galactic shoppers of all shapes, colors, and species flowed like a river through the canyon of tall, terraced buildings.
Wilmos’ shop lay off the beaten path, just inside an alley branching off from the main street, its door sheltered by an archway. Sean turned into the alley and stopped. I stopped too.
He inhaled. A second passed. Another.
“What is it?” I asked him softly.
“It smells like Michael.”
Dread washed over me. My fingers went ice cold. Michael Braswell had been my older brother’s best friend. He’d become an ad-hal, an innkeeper enforcer, one of many responsible for neutralizing threats the innkeepers couldn’t handle, then he’d disappeared. Nobody saw him for over a year until he blocked our way on the street at Baha-char and tried to kill us. He was no longer the Michael I knew. He was decay and rot, a living corruption oozing foul magic. He’d almost killed me, and then his corpse had infected Gertrude Hunt and tried to kill another ad-hal.
“The scent is old,” Sean said. “Stay behind me.”
I followed him to the door. Sean keyed a long code into the electronic lock. It clicked, and the thick reinforced door swung open. He stepped into the gloom and the automated lights came on, bathing the store in a sharp artificial glow.
The shop was in shambles. Wilmos had a place for everything, and his wares were arranged with military precision. The place looked like a bomb had gone off inside it. Weapons littered the floor among shards of glass. Store shelves hung half torn from the walls. Ahead a counter had been split in two and by it, on a pile of glass, sprawled a large lupine body covered with blue-green fur. Gorvar, Wilmos’ pet and guard, one of the last Auul wolves.
Dear universe, what the hell happened here?
“Clear,” Sean said.
I rushed to Gorvar. His fur was matted with congealing blood, still viscous but old. I put my hand on his neck, searching for a pulse. His eyelids trembled. He raised his head, trying to snap, but he had nothing left.
“It’s me,” I told him.
Recognition sparked in his green eyes. Gorvar whined softly.
“Hold on, big guy.” I spun to Sean. “We have to get him to the inn.”
Sean scooped the massive beast into his arms and carried him out like a puppy. I followed, pushing the door shut behind me. The lock clicked.
We hurried through the streets, dodging traffic. The shoppers of Baha-char had seen everything, and nobody paid us any mind. In fifteen minutes, we reached the inn’s entrance. Sean handed Gorvar to the inn.
“I have to go back.”
I brushed a kiss against his lips. “Be careful.”
He nodded and took off at superhuman speed.
I entered Gertrude Hunt. “To the infirmary. Quickly.”
The inn gulped Gorvar’s body and opened the stairs. I took them two at a time. I had no idea how, but I had to save Wilmos’ wolf.
I looked at Gorvar sprawled on the medical table. He had four deep lacerations that carved him from his belly halfway up his side. Something had dug into his stomach with its claws and dragged them up, ripping gashes in his flesh. The edges of the wounds were trying their best to turn necrotic, but Auul wolves had insane immune systems. It was part of the reason their DNA had been used to bioengineer werewolfism. Whatever contamination had invaded his body had to be very potent, because normally the wounds would’ve closed by the time we found him.
Gorvar had lost a lot of blood. The medical unit wasn’t specifically calibrated for Auul wolves, but it was pretty good at biological analysis and extrapolating the proper course of treatment. It had pumped him full of antibiotics. I had used the robotic surgery system to repair a cut in his liver, cleaned his wounds, cut off a very thin sliver of the injured tissue to combat the worst of the necrosis, and sealed the wounds. His pulse was weak but steady, and the medical unit’s read outs assured me that in its opinion, he was stable.
Now I just had to wait for Sean to come back.
He had smelled corruption by Wilmos’ store. Corrupted Michael had thick yellowed claws. Sometimes I had nightmares of him chasing me through Red Deer dripping decay and reaching for me with those claws while I desperately tried to find my way back to the inn. My distorted memory made them much bigger in my mind, but objectively speaking, the wounds on Gorvar could have been made by claws just like those.
After I brought Michael’s corpse to the inn to analyze it, the corruption that inhabited his body acted almost like a living thing, a pathogen that actively tried to contaminate the inn. I had purged that infection from Gertrude Hunt, but I had done it in my inn, where I was strongest. Fighting Michael outside of the inn’s boundaries had nearly ended me. Both Sean and I had gone against him, and we’d nearly lost. In fact, we might have if Wilmos hadn’t intervened and sapped some of Michael’s defenses with an alien Gatling gun.
Sean would be fine. He was strong and fast, and if he realized he was losing the fight, he would retreat to the inn. Instead of making a heroic last stand, he would draw the creature to Gertrude Hunt, where we had a million ways to deal with it.
Of course he would be fine.
There was no reason to worry.
There was definitely no reason to rush to Baha-char. I had a responsibility to the inn and its guests. If another thing like Michael was out there and it tried to invade Gertrude Hunt, I needed to be here to defend it.
Besides Caldenia and Orro, we had four other guests in residence, the Koshai. Solitary, sponge-like beings, they rarely travelled outside their world, but due to an emergency, they’d had to make an interstellar trip. It had depleted their inner resources, and they required a suitable environment to recuperate before setting out on their return journey. They needed a marine environment and complete silence. We had buried their chamber deep within the inn, but I couldn’t just leave it unsupervised.
Not to mention that the inn was branching. Shortly after Maud and Helen left the inn, Gertrude Hunt began to grow. Inns branched for reasons known only to them. Right now in the far corner of Gertrude Hunt, a simple hallway formed of the striated wood that was the essence of the inn led to a barrier glowing with pale silver. Eventually that barrier would vanish, and a door would form, opening to another world or possibly a different dimension. That’s why the inn had been gobbling up firewood by the cord. When that door opened, which could be any minute, one of us needed to be there because we had no idea what lay on the other side of it.
So chasing after Sean was out of the question.
How long did it take to inspect the store anyway? He should have been back by now.
Magic chimed in my mind. The Baha-char door opened, and Sean entered the inn. Finally.
I jumped up. The inn dropped a staircase in front of me and I climbed it into the kitchen.
By the island, Orro drew himself up to his full seven feet. His dark quills rose slightly.
“You have made a cake,” he said.
“Not now,” I told him and hurried into the hallway.
Sean was waiting by the door. It was still open. Sean’s eyes had that focused, clear look they got just before he expected to jump into a fight. My pulse speed up.
“I need your help.”
My robe was still on. The inn dropped my broom into my hand. I jogged out the door back into the Baha-char sunshine, and we rushed through the streets, dodging passersby.
“Gorvar?” he asked.
“Stable. Where are we going?”
“Something took Wilmos out of his store. It went through a portal gate. The gate has a guardian. He won’t tell me where it goes.”
Walking through that kind of door without knowing where it led could get you killed. You could end up in the middle of a volcano or out in space.
The bazaar had many gates and entrances, some obvious like the huge stone arch leading to Teegarden’s Star, others hidden like the simple length of worn canvas in a dusty tent that hid an entrance to Luyten 98-59 f. Most of them were guarded.
There was no point in asking more until I saw it.
The gate lay far from the center of the bazaar. We’d been walking and jogging for over twenty minutes, and we had left the brightly decorated streets behind awhile ago. Here the air was ominous, the canvas roofs of the stalls faded and tattered, and trash littered the cobblestones. This wasn’t the fun-shopping part of Baha-char. You didn’t come to this place unless you wanted something specific you could only get here, and the grim-faced vendors gave us dark looks as we passed.
A merchant on our left, a strange creature with the shaggy body of a sloth, a massive beak, and furry tentacles instead of limbs, screeched as we passed. It was hanging upside down off the top frame of its shop, anchored to it by its hind tentacles, and I had no idea what species it was, which almost never happened. When we got home, I would have to look it up.
A large stone arch loomed ahead, its brown stone worn and scarred. Remnants of red banners hung from it, bleached by the sun to a dirty pink and torn to shreds by the desert wind. Tall buildings with barred windows crowded the arch on both sides, creating a long gloomy tunnel.
We strode through it. A draft fanned us, bringing a thick, potent scent, an off-putting musk. Some kind of animal had marked its territory here.
The musk grew stronger. I fought the urge to clear my throat. I could taste it on the back of my tongue. Next to me, Sean grimaced and kept going.
The tunnel ended and we emerged into a round plaza formed by a single circular building. Three oversized stories high, the building stretched to the sky, offering rows and rows of balconies and stone benches. Strange creatures and elaborate glyphs had been carved into its sandy stone façade, once sharp, but now smoothed and blurred by time.
The plaza itself was perfectly round, formed with remarkable precision and paved with giant triangular slabs of stone that radiated from its center. In the middle of it two stone towers rose. The base of each was a tall trapezoidal prism that flowed into a three-dimensional crescent toward the top. The two crescents faced each other, crowned with green flames burning in metal braziers.
“This is the Old Arena,” I whispered.
Sean glanced at me.
“They used to have gladiator fights here thousands of years ago. There are three of them in Baha-char. Two are still active. See that gate across from us? The gladiators entered there and then fought to the death. When a fighter died, their flame would go out.”
Each of the stone spires sported a network of delicate blue veins, metal yet liquid. They glistened weakly in the sunshine. The portal vines. One of the easiest ways to set up a teleportation gate. This had to be a recent addition.
Directly opposite us, something stirred in the gloom of the gate. Something large.
A massive leonine paw moved into the light, easily five feet across. Claws shot out and struck the stone.
A colossal shoulder followed, then the other, then the broad muscular chest sheathed in sandy fur, a thick neck crowned with a dark rust mane, and finally the giant head, a strange, disturbing mix of lion and human, anthropomorphic, horrifying, yet cohesive. This wasn’t a mishmash of two species. This was a naturally evolved being, who just happened to resemble a huge predatory cat with human eyes on its face.
Sean’s upper lip wrinkled in a precursor to a snarl. If there ever was a monster designed to terrify his people, an Auul kaiju guaranteed to evoke instant revulsion among the werewolves, the creature in front of us would be it.
“Is that the guardian?” I asked.
A sphinx. Crap.