The pulser withered one huge, glassy eye, and the lock-mouth jerked spasmodically. Severance used the second’s grace to edge backward. He heard Cidra breathing quickly into the sudden, hushed silence, but she said nothing.

That was the thing about Cidra, Severance decided as he fired again. She knew when to keep her mouth shut.

The lockmouth jerked once more and then crumpled heavily to the jungle floor. The jaws slammed shut, locked for the last time in death.

“Severance, you’re bleeding.”

“I know. It’s one of the dumber things a man can do on Renaissance.” The pain was lancing through him now as the short-term anesthetic effects of adrenaline and fear wore thin. He looked down at where the lockmouth’s claws had ripped through the tough fabric of his shirt as though it were made of spun crystal moss. There were three savage scrapes across the tough hide of the rantgan leather utility loop. The loop had kept the lockmouth from ripping up his chest as well as his shoulder. Warm blood of an interesting shade of crimson had already dampened too much of the shirt. It was running down his arm and dripping on the ground. A small, innocent-looking flower suddenly spread its petals to absorb the moisture.

“The Ghost circle.” Cidra stepped forward, clamping a hand solidly over Severance’s bleeding wound. Blood seeped between her fingers but began to slow as she applied pressure. “We’ll be safe there while we bandage your shoulder.”

Severance didn’t argue. He was feeling strangely dizzy already and was alarmed. He couldn’t afford the luxury of any picturesque wounds. He had to get Cidra back to the safety of the deflectors; had to put in the call for help. Damn it, he should have been faster back there when the lockmouth attacked. Being exhausted and a little slower than usual were not acceptable excuses on Renaissance.

“I guess this answers the question of whether we’re going to get the same escorted tour back to the campsite that we got coming here.” He tried to seat himself calmly on the rich green ground cover inside the perimeter of the magic circle and wound up collapsing, instead. Not a good image for the crew, he chided himself. The one in charge was supposed to look as if he really were in charge. He hadn’t done too well in that area recently.

“I don’t understand,” Cidra said. She studied Severance’s shoulder with a grim intensity while she kept up the steady, blood-slowing pressure with her hand. “Why doesn’t the protection work both ways?”

“Who in a renegade’s hell knows? Maybe we got here through pure luck the first time. Or maybe the signal, whatever it is, has grown too weak to work well. Or maybe it never was designed to work both ways.” He flinched and gritted his teeth.

“You’ve been badly hurt, Severance.”

“Yeah, well, I wasn’t going to call it just a small flesh wound.” He groaned, more in frustration than from pain. “No wound on Renaissance qualifies as a minor flesh wound, unfortunately. Any amount of blood draws too much interest.” At the edge of the circle there was a flash of movement. Fangs gleamed for a moment and then vanished. “See what I mean? Thank Sweet Harmony this circle seems to be holding.” He rumbled with the utility loop. “There’s some emergency stuff in here somewhere. The antiseptic is the most important thing.” He cursed, a soft, sibilant sound, as he withdrew the small spray vial. Cidra took it from him, maintaining her pressure hold on his shoulder.

“I think the bleeding is slowing,” she said. He scanned her steady face. “It doesn’t seem to be making you sick to your stomach.”

She glared at him. “Nothing has made me sick to my stomach so far. Why should this?”

“Getting cocky, are you, little Wolf?” She saw the affectionate amusement that briefly replaced the pain and frustration in his eyes. “It isn’t blood that bothers Harmonics. It’s knowing someone else is in pain that bothers them. I don’t have to worry about that, though, do I? You’re doing an excellent job of playing the stoic hero.”

“Fool, not hero.” He closed his eyes as she peeled away the torn fabric of the shirt. Wordlessly he handed her the small utility knife. Cidra looked at him in horror. “Don’t worry. I’m already ripped up enough as it is. You don’t have to do any cutting except on the shirt.”

“Oh. For a minute there I thought I was going to have to perform minor surgery.”

“Just spray the area with the antiseptic, and then we’ll try bandaging it.”

“Perhaps I should wash the wound first.”

“Get some water from that stream. I’ve got a bag you can use to collect it. And there are some standard-issue purification drops somewhere on this damned loop.”

“But I’m sure any water flowing through this circle would be clean and pure,” she protested.

“You’ve got a hell of a lot more faith in the Ghosts than I do. Have you forgotten that last set of illusions inside that safehold?”

“No, but I’m sure there’s an explanation for them.”

“I’m sure there is too. Just like there’s an explanation for everything on this planet. The trouble is, it may not be one we want to hear.”

Cidra said nothing, collecting water in the clear plastic bag from the cheerful little stream. She added the chemical drops and waited while the water turned a strange shade of purple. Then she carefully bathed the wound, relieved to see that the bleeding was under control. When she was done, she reached for the antiseptic.


She stopped spraying antiseptic and glanced worriedly at Severance’s face. “Does that hurt?”

He set his teeth. “No. Not a bit. What makes you ask?”


“Finish spraying. I’ll work harder at playing the stoic hero.”

She hurried, aware of his growing pain. When she was finished, she dropped the spray back into his loop. “What do we use for bandages?”

“A mailman is always prepared. Try the small pouch near my other shoulder. I’ve got some plastic adhesive in there.”

She applied the liquid adhesive with quick strokes and watched as it hardened into a strong bandage. “I think that’s stopped the last of the bleeding. How do you feel?”

“I still feel like a fool.” He looked down at her handiwork

There was a lot of blood and gore on his arm, but the adhesive seemed to be holding.

“This was hardly your fault, Severance.” Cidra leaned back on her folded knees. “The responsibility for getting us into this mess is mine.”