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stop. Feel it. The urge
to kill a man
is a rat in a paper cage.
The urge to kill a man
is a fresh broom in the forest.

They are killing everyone. Death is all around him, overwhelming him, filling his Stykera senses like the pulse blasts and the screams fill his ears, like the smoke of the burning village fills his lungs.

A woman runs past him, her face so transformed by fear and grief that it takes a moment to recognize her as his cousin Jelaza. Her four-monen-old child clutched to her breast, she flees, stumbling for the shelter of her father's house. A Peacekeeper tracks her, appears to hesitate long enough to let her reach safety, then fires, once. The tank of heating fuel on the roof explodes, and the building bursts into flames. Jelaza doesn't come out.

Another woman rushes by him and falls, gut-shot, not two motras from where he stands. It's Lastel, the baker, who brought him fresh bread at the Temple just this morning. Her life force flickers and ebbs, and she reaches out for him. "Stykera... Help me..."

He steps forward, his hand already on the buckle of his mask, but something cold and hard presses against the back of his neck. Lastel's eyes go wide, and Stark freezes.

"Don't shoot him," says a voice. "This one's valuable. Stykera."

"I won't shoot him," returns another, very close, laced with a note of humor that turns Stark's stomach, "unless he moves."

Lastel's pleading eyes go dim and close. She is not dead. She will be a long time dying.

Stark stays very, very still.

Around him, the slaughter goes on. To the Peacekeepers, no doubt, it is retribution, the punishment of a rebellious village of slaves. To Stark, it is only death and pain and the loss of everything he has ever held dear. They are dying around him, all of them, alone and uncomforted, their souls crying out in his mind.

And, somewhere, far beneath the screams of anguish that ripple through him, something else is moving, too. It starts in a fiery-cold ball, deep inside him, and spreads, rustling like the scrabbling claws of an animal caught in a paper sack.

He is Stykera. He does not take life, only eases the passage into death. His holy calling is compassion, the lifting of fear and pain. This new thing, this rising urge to violence, is against everything he was born to be. It makes his heart race, his muscles clench, a red haze swim before his eyes. It makes him afraid.

Desperate, he turns to the soul-traces that are the constant companions of his mind, the remnants of thousands whose deaths he has shared. Thousands of slaves who died under Peacekeeper rule: of beatings, of overwork, of malnutrition, of diseases their masters could have cured. They whisper to him, not of reassurance, but of vengeance and anger and blood, their voices a rustling, murmuring cacophony that blocks out conscious thought.

He screams.

Behind him, the Peacekeeper shouts something, perhaps a warning, but he can't hear it over his own voice, over the sounds of the dying and the dead. He does feel the gun behind him waver, and a part of him he's never suspected the existence of, perhaps a part of him that isn't his, leaps into action. He whirls, still screaming, dizzyingly fast, and impacts the Peacekeeper with the full force of his body, head first. Stark is not a large man -- one does not grow fat on the rations given to slaves -- but the Peacekeeper is small for a Sebacean, and taken by surprise. Under the sudden impact of flesh and bone and metal he cries out, and the pulse rifle drops from his nerveless fingers.

Stark's own fingers scramble for the buckle and rip the mask from his face like tearing a scab from a half-healed wound. Light pours from him, energy, hatred. The images of a thousand deaths, a thousand lives lived in pain and fear. "Here!" he screams, not hearing himself. "Here! Take this! You deserve it! Not me, not them! You!"

The Peacekeeper's body shakes, his mouth contorting, but unable to form the word "no." His hand gropes for his gun, finds it... and stills. Tears wet his cheeks. Stark is hurting him. He can feel himself hurting him. And it is good.

From far off someone is shouting "Shoot him!" and someone else is saying, "Careful... valuable... no..."

"Yes," Stark whispers. "Yes. Valuable. I am Stykera. I am death." His own hand closes around the butt of the gun and raises it slowly, with a calmness none of the rest of him feels. He pulls the trigger, and the number of deaths he has attended increments by one.

When the blow takes him from behind, he falls forward, still shining. Still smiling. When he wakes, much later, in chains, the dead Peacekeeper is still inside him.

The next time he kills, it's even easier.