About the Author
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
Commander Belinski had been security chief of the southwestern region of Gehenna for nearly ten years, but in all that time he had never received an order like this one. He scratched his head and reread the letter, which had arrived by special delivery the night before. It still didn't seem right. With a sigh he summoned his assistant, Gorky, who appeared in the office a moment later, clicking his heels and saluting energetically.
"I want your opinion," Belinski told him.
Gorky nodded. "Certainly, sir."
"This letter arrived yesterday," Belinski continued. "It's from Dr. Sigmundus himself. There's no doubt about its authenticity. I've spoken to the Leader's private secretary by telephone. This is what it says: 'For the attention of Commander Belinski, Thirteenth Southwestern Region. You will meet with your Leader at map reference ST549827 at 0500 hours tomorrow morning, bringing with you a detachment of armed men. You will then transport him without delay to his office in the capital.' “
"That seems fairly straightforward, sir," Gorky observed.
"Yes," Belinski agreed, "though I've looked up the map reference and it appears to be an abandoned quarry in the middle of nowhere. However, that's not the part that worries me. Listen to what comes next: 'You will not recognize your Leader at first. He will appear to be someone else altogether. But you must not let this stop you from carrying out these orders.' What on earth am I supposed to make of that?"
"It sounds as though Dr. Sigmundus is going to be disguised in some way," Gorky suggested.
"So how the hell am I supposed to recognize him?"
Gorky thought about it. "I expect he'll be the one giving the orders, sir," he said.
Bea returned to the PSca camp and described what had taken place.
"This doesn't make any sense," said Bea's friend Maeve, pushing back her long red hair and frowning. "I spoke to Dante before he left here. He was planning to rescue you."
"Yes, that's what it looked like at first," Bea agreed. "But then he suddenly screamed and collapsed, and when I went over to help him, he grabbed me by the throat and tried to kill me!"
"It must be the shock," Albigen said. One of the PSca's most respected leaders, he was a tall young man with light brown skin, tight curly hair, and a jagged scar that ran across his forehead.
"Think of all he's had to cope with. I expect he's come to his senses by now. I'll go and talk to him."
"No, wait!" Bea said. She recalled the expression in Dante's eyes as he had lunged towards her. She was certain it would not be as easy as Albigen seemed to think. "I believe something has happened to him, something that has changed his personality."
"What sort of thing?" Albigen asked.
"I don't know. I realize it sounds crazy. But it didn't feel like it really was Dante at all. It felt like he'd been taken over."
Albigen looked skeptical.
"He was Dante when he left here," Maeve pointed out.
"Yes, but something very strange happened on the cliff top," Bea said. "I can't explain it, but I don't think Albigen should just walk right up to him."
"I'll be careful," Albigen told her.
"She's hysterical," he said to himself as he walked away.
No doubt Dante was also hysterical. It was understandable. The world had been turned upside down for all of them in the last few hours, and shock did strange things to people. When he had lived in the north amid the Ichor mines, he had seen a woman burst out laughing when she was told that her husband had been killed in an accident underground. She hadn't known what she was doing, and Dante was probably in the same state. The important thing was to keep a cool head. He would approach Dante carefully, talk to him gently and remind him that they were friends. Then he would bring him back to the PSca and all would be well.
It was easy enough to follow the trail of footprints left behind in the mud, and it didn't take long to find the place where Luther and Bea had left the cover of the trees for the cliff top. Albigen paused and squinted into the distance. Yes, he could see Dante standing outlined against the sky. Albigen hesitated. It was important to remember that, whereas he had only his powers of persuasion and his own strength, Dante had the power of the Odyll at his disposal.
He could just about make out a body lying on the ground beside Dante. So it must be true, as Bea had claimed, that Dr. Sigmundus was dead. If so, then the struggle was really over. But Albigen was not ready to accept that yet. At least, not without proof. He had been fighting Dr. Sigmundus for too long to be easily taken in.
Cautiously, he prepared to step out from among the trees, but before he could do so, he heard the sound of an engine in the distance. He froze and listened. There must be a road on the other side of the cliff, hidden by the rising ground. Soon the sound grew louder, and it was clear that more than one vehicle was making determined progress towards this location.
Suddenly, three trucks appeared on the horizon. Keeping under cover of the trees, Albigen drew nearer until he was close enough to see and hear what was happening.
The trucks came to a halt. Security officers jumped out and immediately surrounded Dante, their weapons pointing directly at him.
The commanding officer glanced at the body of Dr. Sigmundus and then at Dante. "Don't move an inch!" he barked. "Tell me what has happened to the Leader."
Dante stared calmly back at him. "I am your Leader," he replied.
The commander frowned. "Shoot him if he moves," he ordered his men. Then he stepped towards the body of Dr. Sigmundus and crouched down beside it.
"I am your Leader," Dante repeated. His voice was cold and hard, and despite the fact that more than a dozen rifles were being pointed at him, he managed to sound incredibly threatening. "You have had your orders, Commander Belinski," he continued. "You are to take me to the capital without delay. We can bring this body with us, since you seem so concerned with its welfare. But let us waste no more time here."