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Michelle pushed her way through the crowds around the paddock, elbowing Christa aside as the Knight stepped forward to hold her back.

'C'mon Michelle, you don't need to see this.'

Michelle dropped to Natalie's side, gasping in shock to see her friend's mutilated face. 'Oh God.' She sobbed, unable to believe the body before her was once a beautiful young woman. Christa stepped back, shaking her head in dismay at the sight. She glanced around at Diane, who was also watching Michelle, her face unreadable.

'Lonia killed her,' Diane told Christa grimly, then turned and walked away. 'Michelle's going to have to pull herself together pretty quick,' she shouted back over her shoulder, 'Her trial is in thirty minutes.'

'Oh shit.' Christa turned to Michelle and grabbed her arm. 'Michelle, come on. You have to get ready to fight. I'll help,' she added, knowing that Natalie would have been assisting Michelle in her preparations. As she managed to drag the grieving girl away from Natalie's body, Christa wondered whether the sobbing Handmaid would be in any state to fight at all. She looked into the girl's tear filled eyes.

'If you want to drop out, I'm sure that can be arranged,' she told Michelle, but to her surprise she received a vigorous head shake in response.

'No,' Michelle sniffed, but her voice firmed as she continued. 'No, I'll fight. I'll fight and I'll win; for Suzanne. Then I'll find out who's responsible for this . . .'

Christa still didn't know whether she would be able to put up a fight, but the gleam in Michelle's eyes told her the brunette was eager for revenge. That would probably give her the strength she needed.

'OK, let's go,' she put her arm around Michelle and guided the trembling Handmaid towards the changing area.

'What the hell were you thinking? Hold her steady!' McManus alternately shouted at Karen and the aides who were holding Hayley's bucking body down.

Karen's dark eyes watched her lover's frantic struggling fade as McManus quickly sedated her. 'She wanted to know the truth. I thought it was time she found out.'

'There's a time and a place for such things,' McManus growled.

'I thought she was ready!'

'Well, she wasn't!' McManus gestured to Hayley's comatose form to punctuate her cry, then flicked her hand as she addressed her aides. 'Take her to an observation room and secure her. Don't underestimate her strength.'

The female aides nodded and picked up Hayley's weakly moving body, and McManus turned to Karen with a dangerous gleam in her eyes.

'Don't EVER do anything like this again. You forget who is in charge here.'

Karen bristled. 'The time is close, Doctor, and I want Hayley by my side when I take Erran as my own.'

'Oh God, not this again,' McManus rolled her eyes in despair. 'I keep telling you, Karen, our current situation with Elizabeth is acceptable. You will not do anything to jeopardise that, do I make myself clear?'

'You bred me especially for command, then when I want to take it you try and stop me? I don't think so, Doctor,' Karen scoffed. 'I think it's time I insisted upon your co-operation.' Her hand dropped to her dagger, but she hesitated as McManus only stared at her grimly.

'Don't be foolish, Karen.'

Their eyes locked for a second before Karen deliberately unsheathed her dagger, as if daring McManus. Then, the Knight buckled, shrieking in pain as red hot lances seemed to spear her brain. All she could do was clutch at her head and roll on the floor in agony until McManus released her.

The Doctor's hand was in her pocket, holding a small device that governed the bursts of pain. She watched Karen writhe for a moment. 'You should know by now not to threaten me, Karen. Make sure it doesn't happen again.' She turned and walked away, and Karen glared after her venomously as she forced herself to stand.

'Your usefulness nears its end, Doctor,' she muttered under her breath, her eyes narrowing as she imagined gutting her tormentor. Chuckling at the thought, she turned to make her way painfully through the complex. She had work to do.

Thoughts of Natalie fled from Michelle's mind as she stared at the sight before her. Elizabeth had obviously gone to great lengths to ensure that none of the Handmaids preparing for their trial would know what they were facing.

The trials were taking place in the midst of a copse of trees that stood exactly half way between the two castles. The area at the copse's centre had been cleared of trees and shrubs to erect an impressive wooden structure that was obviously some manner of obstacle course. At its centre stood a tower, accessible by a number of wooden ladders. Atop the tower were placed ten flags bearing Erran's sigil.

The natural dip that contained the structure was ringed by wooden benches built into the earthen slopes on all sides, where Knights from both estates waited for the trial with anticipation. This was obviously the culmination of a collaboration between the two Ladies, and all were eager to see what Elizabeth and Marina had planned.

Michelle's attention was diverted from the crowd by Lady Madeline, the marshal who was in charge of the trial. At a signal from Elizabeth, who sat with Helena in a box on the northern slope, accompanied by Marina and her second, Collette, Madeline turned to face the twenty girls who would be participating in the first trial of the day.

'Alright, pay attention,' the marshal's clear voice rang out, and even the nearby crowd hushed to hear what she had to say. 'Before you lies the trial pit,' Madeline continued, 'and at its centre the tower which is your goal. You will have noticed there are ten flags and twenty of you. Those who end up with a flag will be Knights this time tomorrow. Those who don't will probably be dead.'

She turned to gesture at the structure behind her. 'There are twenty starting positions around the edge of the course, with a number of obstacles and platforms leading to the centre. Only once you have fought and beaten one opponent are you allowed to climb the tower and claim your flag. Until that point, basically anything goes. Are there any questions?'

'Yeah. Can I go home please,' whispered Kimiko, who stood beside Michelle.

Nodding her head in satisfaction, Madeline raised her hand in a signal, and the crowds surrounding the trial pit broke into a hubbub as the wooden assault course came alive. Around its outer rim, a moat of fire sprang to life, seeming to reach almost as high as the platforms and beams that Michelle now suspected were not made of wood at all. Within the ring of fire, a wide stretch of razor-tipped spikes emerged from the ridges in which they had been concealed. On the ramps, platforms and walkways of the course itself, gleaming axe-blades swooped or spun, turning each section of the structure into a death-trap, and more steel spikes rhythmically emerged and descended through holes in the wooden boards.

'I wonder how they tested this thing?' the girl on Michelle's right asked drily. She was an American called Brigitte, and Michelle hoped she would not be pitched against her in the upcoming trial. She was six feet tall, and her short cropped blond hair framed an angular but not unattractive face. She was firmly muscled, and her exposed flesh was sun-bronzed and unblemished.

'That would be our job,' replied Neve, the diminutive Irish redhead who stood beside Kimiko. Short but stockily built, Neve eyed the structure before her with confidence. She was considered a favourite, although all the girls selected for the trial had proved their worth in the preceding months.

'Quiet!' Madeline called, then moved to stand before the twenty Handmaids once more. 'Take your positions,' she ordered, her clear blue eyes watching the girls intently as they ran forward to fan out around the base of the assault course. They all looked fine, and ready to fight.

Each Handmaid wore light leather armour, little more than a halter and thong but matched by soft calf boots and gloves. They had their choice of light weapon sheathed or belted at their hips, together with a long bladed dagger apiece as a secondary weapon. Madeline felt a pang of trepidation as she saw her own Handmaid, Dawn, take her place and prepare for the challenge. Tall and lissom, Dawn's dark skin gleamed with a sheen of sweat almost instantly as the heat of the fire moat hit her. She quickly tied her long ringlets of jet black hair into a single ponytail, then began to loosen up as she waited for the trial to begin. Madeline knew she had trained the girl well, but only ten girls would make it to the tower, and Madeline wondered if she would be forced to watch the girl she had trained for nearly a year die horribly.

From where they watched, Elizabeth and Marina discussed the form of the Handmaids. 'With every season the quality of our warriors seems to increase,' Elizabeth baited her opposite.

'You'll find my girls are equally skilled,' Marina told her. Her own Handmaids would take their trial later in the day, once the pit had been cleaned out. She watched the twenty girls prepare under the roar and applause of the expectant crowd. 'So who are the favourites today?' she enquired.

Elizabeth looked to Helena, who sat forward to eye the women for herself. 'We expect much of Neve, the redhead closest to us, and of Madeline's girl Dawn. Suzanne's girl Michelle should also do well, so long as she doesn't dwell on what has occurred over the last few days.'

'A shame about Suzanne,' Marina said to Elizabeth. 'She was a fine warrior. Is the one who killed her here?'

'She isn't,' Elizabeth's voice sounded strained. She had already noted Karen's absence, and that there was no sign of Hayley either.

'We must accept these things, Elizabeth,' Marina said quietly, 'For the good of the estates. I don't like it any more than you do.'

'It's not like we have a choice any more,' Elizabeth spat bitterly.

'It looks like we're ready,' Helena spoke up as Madeline gestured to her from below.

Elizabeth stood, her gaze passing around the rim of the huge structure that would be the death or the glory of her girls. Then, she raised her gauntletted hand and held it high before sweeping her arm down to begin the trial. A gong sounded, and the crowds roar swelled as the twenty girls jumped into action.

Michelle clambered up the ladder before her, scrambling onto a wide platform that offered her three ways ahead. She quickly made her way along the narrow beam that angled off to the left, aware that Brigitte was to her right. Blazing heat seared her calves as she hurried across the beam over the raging fire below, and her throat dried up at the thought of plunging into that fiery hell.

She took stock at the next platform, noticing that two girls had already met in combat some distance to her left. The favourite Neve had scurried along two beams to engage a brown haired girl called Vicki, who mounted the platform with a gasp as flames licked at her heels. Seeing Neve coming at her, she cursed and plucked the handaxe from her belt, dropping to a fighting stance as the favourite closed in with her scimitar raised.

Neve checked her lunge as Vicki flicked her axe out, then stepped to her right and jabbed at the other girl's side. Vicki twisted and stepped back, teetering on the platform's edge for a split second before regaining her balance. Neve's booted foot lanced out, hoping to kick the brown haired girl off guard, but Vicki reeled away, taking the impact on her hip and grunting in pain before spinning around with her axe held at neck height.

Neve simply ducked under the blade, then thrust out with her sword, grinning savagely as the tip plunged deep into Vicki's exposed bellybutton. Vicki screamed shrilly as she was lifted off her feet by the force of Neve's impaling blow. The scimitar's tip emerged stickily from her lower back, and for a second she was held aloft by the victrix below her. Neve let out a shout of victory and excitement as blood sheathed her swordarm and showered over her face and mostly exposed breasts. She came with a shudder, and as her limbs trembled her sword drooped, allowing Vicki's arched body to slide off the bloodslicked blade.

Gasping for breath as she held her ruptured navel, Vicki tumbled to the platform, her body bouncing as it landed. She let out a scream of dismay as she felt herself slide off the edge of the platform, and her hands clawed at its surface as she vainly tried to hang on. One hand slipped, but as she fell the other desperately gripped the rim of the platform. Extreme heat seared her kicking legs and buttocks, and her eyes widened in dismay as she saw Neve's face appear above her. She knew the redhead would not show her any mercy, but gasped in surprise as Neve leaned down and gripped her forearm, pulling her half back onto the platform with a grunt of exertion.

'Th . . . thanks!' Vicki gasped.

'Don't thank me,' Neve told her amiably, 'I just wanted to see the look on your face when I did this!'

So saying, Neve brought her scimitar's edge down swiftly, taking Vicki's arm off just under the shoulder. Vicki's mouth gaped silently as blood hosed from the stump and she felt herself fall back off the platform once more. Her other hand flailed out, but this time she fell into the roaring hell beneath, and when her scream finally rang out it was the sound of unimaginable agony.

The sound stopped abruptly, and Neve shuddered at the thought of her victim's burning corpse amidst the inferno below. She raised Vicki's severed arm with a shout of triumph, and although she could not hear the crowds roar over the sound of the fire, her heart still swelled with pride at the thought she was now an Amazon Knight. She casually tossed Vicki's arm into the fire, then turned to head for the tower to claim her flag.

Unaware of Neve's victory, Michelle teetered on a beam and gasped in shock before hopping to safety on the next platform. Opposite her, an Asian girl named Amy readied her mace, grinning at Michelle as she waggled her weapon. 'Close one, huh?'

'Yeah,' Michelle risked a glance to the spikes below, then steeled herself for combat.

Amy stepped in, sweeping her mace from the left as if hoping to knock Michelle back off the platform. Michelle ducked and jabbed with her sword, forcing the other girl to step back out of harms way. Like Michelle, Amy's pale skin was sheened with sweat from the heat of the flames and the fear of death. Her large breasts heaved as she panted, and her face was set in rapt concentration as she attacked again.

Michelle waited for the macehead to sweep in, then knocked the weapon aside with the flat of her blade, bringing her sword back quickly to slice open a cut on Amy's arm. Gasping, the Asian girl staggered back towards the other side of the platform, and Michelle pressed forward in an attempt to finish her foe swiftly. She suspected, however, that Amy was faking the effects of the cut, and as she moved in her opponent seemed to swiftly recover and lashed out with her weapon, making Michelle duck and scuttle back. She quickly glanced behind to make sure she had plenty of room, but as big as the platforms looked in relation to the beams, they were not large enough to wage a battle on.

'These fights are going to be pretty quick,' Elizabeth noted as she watched the proceedings, seeing that another two warriors were about to clash on the far side of the course.

'Maybe we should make things a little more interesting for those two?' Marina suggested as she watched Michelle and Amy fight.

Amy swung her mace in low, and Michelle teetered once more on the brink of her platform, then stepped inside Amy's swing to loop a leg around the Asian girls own and sending her crashing down to the wooden surface. Amy rolled with a curse, then her eyes popped wide as foot long spikes suddenly sprouted from the platform's surface. She came to her feet fast, gasping in relief as she realised none of the vicious spikes had caught her flesh. Michelle swallowed the lump in her throat and jumped forward with sword raised, determined that she would not end up a victim of these cruel barbs.

On the far side of the pit, Brigitte nimbly ducked under a swinging axe to alight on the next platform, where she quickly took stock of her situation. She was further in than the other girls, past the ring of fire and the spiked pits. Here there was a short beam to a wider platform that covered a quarter of the course's circumference, but there were no beams leading further inward. Instead, a canopy of wooden rings offered the means to continue, although the base of the pit here was lined with sharpened wooden stakes. Brigitte hesitated. She had not cared to fight over the fire pits, but there was no need to risk heading further inward until she was ready to mount the tower. She looked around and saw another girl approaching the larger platform, a Spanish beauty named Inez. The dark haired girl was moving with obvious intent, but did not seem to be making for Brigitte. Frowning, the tall blonde glanced to the rings again, and this time she saw what Inez was interested in.

Amidst the rings, a scroll hung down, attached to which was a a gleaming gold coin. The inference was obvious, this was a cash bonus for whoever managed to grab the scroll. Without thinking, Brigitte scurried over the short beam that led to the larger platform, where she drew her sword and shouted a challenge at Inez.

The Spanish girl was just about to mount the hoops and make for the bonus, but turned to look at Brigitte as she heard her cry. For a second she considered heeding the blonde girl's challenge and fight on the platform, but Brigitte was considered one of the favourites, and the hoops might be a disadvantage given her greater height and weight. Inez waved with a grin and swung out onto the hoops, her brown skinned, muscular arms grabbing hoop after hoop as she made her way towards the scroll. Cursing, Brigitte thrust her sword back into its scabbard and leapt for a hoop of her own, her heart pounding as she caught a glimpse of the vicious spikes far below.

'Greed is a wonderful thing,' Marina smiled, 'This should make things a little more interesting.'

Kimiko staggered on her beam, ducking as a spiked ball swung overhead and scuttling further forward with a small cry of fear. She had nearly lost her balance, and a glance at the rows of gleaming spikes below revealed that there would be no second chances. At the far end of the beam, a short, plump girl with pigtails grinned and waited for Kimiko, her axe held ready.

'Bitch is waiting for me, huh?' Kimiko muttered under her breath, 'Might have a long wait.' She ducked again as the ball swung back, but this time inched her way out of danger, breathing a sigh of relief but still swaying on the narrow beam. Then, she looked up with a cry of dismay. The blonde girl, Ingrid, had mounted the beam and was intently moving out to fight her. 'You've got to be joking?' Kimiko cried, but Ingrid grinned and shook her head, the motion making her pigtails waggle.

Keeping her balance as best she could, Kimiko readied her own handaxe, her heart racing.

With a gasp of relief, Neve reached the foot of the tower, having made her way over the treacherous beams and rope bridges that still needed negotiating even after her battle. She glanced around to see how the other girls fared, then began to climb assuredly, finally throwing a curvy leg over the rim of the uppermost platform and pulling herself up. She screamed with delight as she grabbed at one of the ten flags, her Knighthood now secured. Then, she gazed down at the remaining warriors from this vantage point to see how they fared.

Dawn alighted on a platform with some relief, freeing her sword from its scabbard as she saw another girl was closing in on her from a different angle. The girl, Lynette, was a fair haired American, and she seemed to be having some difficulty negotiating her beam. A wide bladed axe swung back and forth at the centre of the beam, and Lynette hesitated before making her move, and almost stumbled as she did so. Her body wavered, and she doubled over to get her balance, screaming in fear and seemingly unaware that her reflex motion had saved her life as the axehead swung over her bent frame. Feeling herself falling forward, she straightened and wheeled her arms, but as she finally regained her balance her eyes widened and she yelled in denial. The axehead was swinging back, and this time its huge blade bit deep into her, splitting her open from her chest down to her belly.

Blood belched from around the weapon's edge, and Lynette keened shrilly as her intestines spilled free from either side of the blade. The axe stopped swinging with the extra weight, moving only gently back and forth as the girl skewered onto its blade writhed and kicked, gore spewing from her mouth and dribbling down her inner thighs. Long loops of intestines coiled almost down to the floor of the pit, and Dawn grimaced and turned away, aware that she still had to find and defeat an opponent before she could claim her own flag.

Michelle cried out in pain and reeled away from Amy, glancing down quickly at the gash on her arm that dribbled blood freely. Amy waggled her mace and grinned. 'Now we're even, huh?'

'Sure,' Michelle growled, 'But that means its my turn again!' She danced forward, her sword chopping, and Amy retreated as far as she could, almost tripping over one of the spikes still protruding from the platforms floor.

Kimiko slashed out and gasped as she nearly lost her balance yet again. As she wavered, Ingrid stepped forward carefully and brought her axe down on Kimiko's own weapon, jarring it free from the Japanese girl's hand.

'Shit!' Kimiko wailed as she saw her weapon spin over and over before clanging off the spikes far below. She edged away from Ingrid as she fumbled at her belt, aware that the blonde girl was moving in faster than she was moving back, and the axe was ready to swing again.

The weapon came swooping down, and all Kimiko could do was scream and jump back, unable to think about keeping her balance on the narrow beam. Her breath whoosed out as her back hit something hard, and her outflung arm wrapped around something on reflex. She was sent flying clear of the beam in one heartstopping second, her eyes squeezed shut as she awaited her death.

Then realisation dawned. She wasn't falling, but flying! She opened her eyes, in a second realising she had somehow managed to grab onto the swinging ball that had given her so much bother a minute ago. The ball reached the apex of its swing and began to swoop back, and Kimiko saw her chance. Before her, Ingrid loomed, the blonde girl's face a mask of surprise. As Kimiko was brought swooping back down towards the beam, she lanced her foot out with a shout, kicking Ingrid between her copious breasts before the blonde girl could bring up her weapon.

Screaming, Ingrid flailed her arms as she was kicked clear off the beam. Her limbs pinwheeled as her body plummeted inexorably towards the waiting spikes. The sound she made when she hit was hideous, and blood belched skywards as she was skewered by no less than six of the razor tipped spikes. One punched through her throat, another pinned her through the chest, its bloody tip sprouting from her left breast as she landed heavily, Two more skewered her belly, and another ripped through her right buttock and out of her groin. The last shredded the side of one muscular thigh, which trembled and kicked out as the blonde warrior died choking on bloody vomit.

'Eww!' Kimiko shuddered as she witnessed her foe's fate. She had no time to think on her victory, as her grip was slipping on the ball she was clinging to, and as her adrenaline rush faded she began to feel where the ball's sharp spikes had ripped her tender flesh. The wounds were not deep, but bled freely as Kimiko struggled to keep her grip. The beam whisked back and forth below her, and the Asian girl's heart pounded with fear as she knew she would have to make her move soon.

From where she watched, Emma cursed her Handmaid colourfully, attracting surprised glances from the Knights sitting beside her. 'Jump, dammit,' she muttered, 'Hesitate and you'll wind up dead.' Then, she held her breath as Kimiko let go of the ball and flailed out for the beam as she fell.

The breath whooshed from her tiny body as she caught the beam with one arm, slamming against its side and cracking some ribs in the process. She gaped at the pain, hardly able to breath but quickly flinging her other arm over to drag herself up to relative safety. She flung a leg over the beam and collapsed astride it, panting but grinning, waving a tiny gloved fist in the air as the thrill of victory finally hit her.

Inez spun, grunting and flailing out with a firm leg as Brigitte closed in again. The tall blonde seemed perfectly at ease on the hoops, and the Spanish girl began to regret her leap from the platform. Below, the wooden stakes waited menacingly.

Brigitte grinned as she took Inez's weak kick on her thigh, then lashed out with her own leg to kick the other girl firmly in the stomach. Inez groaned and spun again, out of control, her bare belly heaving as she fought for breath. She felt her grip on her hoops loosening, and grabbed at another to move further away from Brigitte.

'No you don't!' the blonde girl cried as she swung forward, her booted foot lancing out again to slam into Inez's left hip. The Spanish girl grunted with the pain, but her brows knitted as she began to get angry. She was angry with herself for losing this fight, but also at the gangly American girl who seemed eager to take every opportunity to goad and insult her. Deciding to take a risk, Inez let go of one hoop to wrench her mace free from her belt, swiping at Brigitte and causing the other girl to shout in alarm.

Unable to dodge the incoming weapon, Brigitte groaned as its head slammed into her left arm. Numbed, her arm fell, and her flexed her right arm with a grimace, feeling fear for the first time in this fight. Her numbed hand grabbed at the sword on her belt, starting to pull it out wrong-handed, but Inez's body was spinning towards her, the mace flailing out again as she let out a shrill cry of excitement.

Brigitte gasped and threw her head back, aware that the weapon was swooping towards her face. She nearly succeeded in dodging the blow, but the mace caught her nose, cracking cartilage and spreading a fleshy stain across her cheek. She let out a guttural cry of denial, blood bubbling from the ruins of her nostrils. More blood began to choke her and her eyes widened, and she kicked and flailed on her hoop desperately, with nowhere to go and no chance of mercy from her excited opponent.

Inez's body was spinning again, and once more the Spanish girl used the motion to good effect, lashing out with the force of the spin behind the weapon's heavy head. This time she aimed low, and the macehead slammed into Brigitte's bare navel, rupturing her flesh and causing a sudden gout of gore to spurt from her belly button with a loud popping sound. Inez gasped as excitement flared in her crotch. Brigitte's long, taut belly heaved as her body arched, and a string of purple entrails began to drool from her sundered belly button. Inez dragged her mace free, and with a slurp it ripped from Brigitte's lower abdomen, its studded head clotted with offal, drawing free coiled loops of intestines that drooped and dribbled from the hideous wound.

For a few seconds she hung like a slaughtered animal, grunting and squealing, legs kicking around the spaghetti-string entrails that spooled towards the stake lined floor of the pit. Then, with a final wail, her right hand slipped from her hoop and she fell, her body not having the chance to twist or turn before she slammed down onto one of the cruel stakes.

The sharpened wooden tip cracked her pelvis as it impaled her between the buttocks, and her head fell back open mouthed in time for the gore-caked tip to rip through her body, up her throat and out between her slackened lips, spraying blood, flesh and teeth as it did so. She was killed instantly, but her body shuddered and twitched horribly, and Inez gagged in disgust at the sight, hating how the dead girl's eyes stared up at her accusingly.

Still hanging one-handed, Inez threw her mace away, and the entrail-choked weapon fell to bounce off Brigitte's unfeeling shoulder and clatter between the bloody stakes. Gratefully gripping another hoop with her free hand, Inez began to pull herself the rest of the way across the pit, grinning from ear to ear and risking a wave to the cheering crowds as she plucked the scroll from where it hung.

Dawn panted heavily as she parried the frenetic attacks of the ginger haired girl who faced her. The woman's name was Nicole, and she had managed to blindside Dawn as the black girl was negotiating one of the trickier beams. Blood dribbled from a gash on her upper arm, but Dawn had not been badly injured and patiently waited for an opening.

Nicole fought with an axe, and the single bitted blade swooshed left and right as she tried to force Dawn towards the edge of their platform. Inexorably the black girl edged back, but as the axe swung in high she made her move, dropping into a roll that took her to Nicole's left. Gasping in surprise, Nicole twisted, but Dawn's sleek leg was already lancing up to slam into her buttocks, sending her staggering. She wailed in dismay as she fell from the platform, twisting in the air before landing with a hideous shriek of steel on bone.

Dawn scrambled to her feet and peered over the edge of the platform, her mouth agape as she saw the woman she had been fighting dying painfully below. Nicole's body was arched almost back on itself, and she clutched at the sticky point of the single spike that impaled her through the navel. Blood sheeted over her taut stomach, which fluttered as she fought for breath. She tried to bring herself upright, moaning in agony as the steel wedged within her shifted amidst her seething guts. Unable to pull herself off, she sagged back, her eyes staring pleadingly up at Dawn.

The black girl stepped back waveringly, her loins aflame with her excitement. She had sent this woman to her death. She was an Amazon Knight! Unwilling to leave Nicole suffering, she stepped close to the edge of the platform again and raised her sword, then threw it as hard as she could towards the body below. Her aim was true, and Nicole shrieked a final time as the blade stabbed deep between her breasts, stilling her heart instantly and causing her tortured body to sag lifeless.

The trial was nearly over. Kimiko and Inez were making for the tower, where another two Handmaids had already joined Neve. The crowds attention turned to Michelle and Amy, who had been fighting the longest.

Amy 's mace swished past Michelle, and the dark haired girl gasped and fell back, screaming as a spike slashed open her thigh. She felt herself falling and her arm shot out, just in time to stop her fall onto the bed of spikes below. Hanging from a beam by both hands, she began to edge her way away from the platform, where Amy panted and grinned, waiting for the stricken warrior to try and right herself.

The Asian girl's smile slipped as she saw Michelle moving further out on the beam, and reluctantly she began to edge her way out after the fallen Handmaid, making sure she didn't give her opponent a chance to grab her leg and send her crashing down on the spikes. Her mace was held ready, she only needed to get close enough to crush Michelle's hands.

Michelle knew full well the danger she was in. As her body swung from side to side she could see Amy approaching on the beam above. There was no time to reflect on the hopelessness of her situation. She cursed and forced her tired body to move, to make a final effort to evade a hideous death. As she swung to the right with as much strength as she could muster, she flung her arm up to grip the beam, swinging her leg up and over at the same time. Amy grinned and stepped in, teetering but regaining her balance as her mace rose above her head and she prepared for the killing blow.

But Michelle had other plans. As she hauled her body up onto the beam, her left leg shot out, She could not have aimed the blow, she could only have hoped that Amy was moving in for the kill. The Asian girl grunted in pain as Michelle's boot slammed into her groin. In mid stride she staggered uncontrollably, a foot slipping from the beam. She wailed as she felt herself begin to fall, but kicked out with her other leg, hoping to give herself enough momentum to reach the platform.

Her upper back slammed against wood, and for a split second she thought luck had been with her, until she saw the shower of red that sprang up before her eyes. She had landed on one of the platform spikes, which had skewered her through the base of her throat. Her eyes bugged as her mouth and nostrils instantly filled with blood, and as her lower body began to fall from the platform, the spike ripped up through her neck as the rest of her body was dragged over the edge.

Clinging onto the beam for her life, Michelle stared in disbelief at what had befallen Amy. Unable to fall any further, the girl's body was checked by the spike rammed into her jaw. Amy gurgled in unimaginable agony as her skin ripped, then the muscles in her neck shredded and popped until - with a final tearing sound - her body fell free. Amidst a spray of gore the headless body tumbled, limbs flailing lifelessly until it was skewered messily on the spikes below.

Michelle gaped at the sight beneath her, then stared at Amy's shocked face, her decapitated head adorning the platform on a shiny pool of spreading crimson. Then, she dragged herself onto the platform with realisation slowly dawning. She had won. She could claim her place as an Amazon Knight! She stood to receive the shouts and applause of the watching Knights, but already she was thinking of revenge. Whoever was responsible for Natalie's death would pay. Her foot lashed out in sudden rage, but Michelle didn't even bother to watch Amy's head sail through the air before being impaled with a squelch on another cruel spike far below.

The eastern extreme of the estates comprised of a mile of coastline, closed to the public apart from a narrow cliff path that ran far below the lip of the land. The land near the cliff edge was wild, whipped by extremes of weather, but an area remained clear of matted grass and shrubs, a cleared stretch of ground flattened with concrete and the protruding mount that contained a slab-like door, featureless except for a narrow window plate within its sheltered entryway.

A keypad beside the door flashed colourfully for a second, then the heavy door opened outwards. Doctor Jane McManus emerged into the daylight, squinting and gripping her coat's lapels together, instantly shivering under the frigid wind. She scanned the skies, catching sight of the helicopter as it swept in from over the sea. It was squat and black, unadorned and without markings. It circled the landing pad and slowly descended, its pilot handling the craft steadily despite the violent wind.

As it touched down a side door slid open, and a dapper man in a business suit stretched his long legs to the ground, elegantly alighting and pulling his suit jacket straight fastidiously before turning to watch his companion nimbly emerge from the helicopter.

She was tall and lithe, sheathed in supple black leather, her long blonde hair tied back in a severe ponytail. She wore narrow sunglasses despite the overcast day, and her pale, expressionless face seemed eerier still with the ruby red lips that seemed perpetually pursed. She wore a wide leather belt, bristling with holsters and sheathes that contained numerous weapons, both ancient and modern. McManus felt her lip twist in a sneer as she regarded The Man's covetous looks towards his pallid bodyguard, but she smiled as he moved forward to greet her, his face as always a mask of professional cheer.

'Good morning, Jane!' he shouted over the noise of the helicopter. 'Brisk, yes?'

'Indeed, Sir,' McManus yelled back, indicating that they should retreat to the bunker and preceding him quickly inside.

When they had entered and descended the short stairwell to the clinic's entryway, McManus sighed in contentment at the warmth, taking The Man's chilled hand as he thrust it out, seemingly a ritual greeting for him. He kept her hand in his, shaking it as he looked into her face, his blue eyes twinkling in a manner he obviously assumed to be disarming. Resisting the urge to laugh in his face, McManus smiled back at him.

In truth, his eyes were his most becoming feature. They seemed to belong to a much younger man, and McManus often shuddered as she thought on that. In his line of work, such a thing was not an impossibility. Besides his eyes, he was the picture of foppish elegance. His hair was greying, swept back over his wide forehead. His face was that of a man in early middle age, but his slim form seemed energetic, as if in contradiction of his profession. He was a Suit, a city gent who walked briskly and suffered no fools. He was important. He was her boss. She hated him.

'Coffee?' she smiled, flapping a hand at a passing technician and sending the girl scurrying for refreshments. She led her visitors down the wide central passageway, past the monorail station and into the control suite, then into her office to the left.

'You've been busy, Jane?' The Man wasn't asking a question, he knew exactly what she was doing at all times. 'Is our new subject a success?'

'Some teething problems, but nothing too serious.' Gesturing that her guests sit, McManus lowered herself into her chair, noting that The Man's bodyguard took her position behind him automatically. She stood straight, legs braced apart and hands clasped behind her back. McManus wondered how long he had taken to train her to do that.

'If you don't mind, Jane, I'll be the judge of that.'

At that moment Sally Kinvig entered with a tray of coffee and a plate of macaroons. 'Ooh, lovely,' The Man cooed as he took one of the cakes, flashing the girl a trademark smile as she stepped back and turned to leave.

'I have her birth on record,' McManus said loudly, pulling a dozen or so discs from her desk drawer and passing them over to him, 'Perhaps you would like to view some material now?'

'No, I'll review them later,' he glanced at the discs labels. 'Hayley Carrington. A pretty little thing, if I recall.'

McManus was sure he would recall. Aside from footage relevant to his studies, The Man insisted on copies of all footage stored in the clinic's system. She noticed Sally was still standing beside the desk. 'That will be all, Miss Kinvig. Be about your duties.'

The Man looked up from the discs. 'And our errant Beta subject? Has her condition stabilised?'

'No.' McManus sat back in her seat, sighing as she thought of Karen. 'She remains dangerously volatile and resistant to authority.'

'I gather she is now a marshal?'

'Yes, she's been lucky.'

The Man smiled thinly. 'I think we both know luck has very little to do with it, Jane.' He took a sip of his coffee. 'Is she aware of the Alpha yet?'

'I think she suspects. She wants to take control. She doesn't like to be junior to anybody.'

Eyeing the Doctor, The Man brushed crumbs from his lapels. 'Ideally, I would have asked you to encourage her. It would be a logical next step for a subject to attempt to take control. Unfortunately a problem has arisen.'

McManus narrowed her eyes. 'Why?' she asked bluntly, 'Have we finally attracted unwanted attention?'

'The attention has always been there,' The Man said, 'and it's always been unwanted,' he added under his breath, 'But now certain people are making waves, and I don't think we'll be able to keep the project under wraps for much longer. I need to know if the last four years have been worth my not inconsiderable funding.'

'How long have we got?'

'Make ready to leave immediately.' McManus stared at him in shock, but he coolly finished his macaroon before continuing. 'I want the hardcopy data destroyed and personnel ready to evacuate by tomorrow night. We probably won't have time to evacuate the heavier equipment, so I've authorised the arming of the detonators.'

'You've turned this place into a bomb?' McManus yelped, 'There are dozens of people working here . . .'

'I'm aware of our staff, Doctor, and have no intention of killing anyone,' The Man snapped irritably. He leant back in his chair to recover his composure. 'Except for the revenants, of course. A shame about them. It is, unfortunately, too risky to keep them alive at this point.'

'So we just up and leave, wiping all trace of Chrysalis away?'

'Oh no, Chrysalis has proved itself to be viable, and the work will continue. But not here. We must clean house, Jane, and do it quickly.'

'What about the test subjects?'

The Man smiled. 'Only we know about the Alpha subjects, and I see no reason why they should not continue living in the manner they choose. The others, however, must be eliminated. A shame, as Karen and Dolores were showing great promise.'

'And Hayley?' McManus asked. The Man considered for a second.

'Best to be on the safe side, Doctor. We can always create another Gamma subject in a more controlled environment. No, she must be destroyed with the Betas. The process is quick and painless, I believe?'

McManus refused to believe he could care how painful their deaths could be, but nodded. 'A flick of a switch and they'll be dead before they hit the ground. It'll look like a heart attack. I'll see to it as soon as you leave.'

'Very good.' The Man made a show of looking at his watch. 'I won't waste any more of your time, Jane. And I look forward to seeing you again in more distinguished surroundings. These last five years must have been hard.'

McManus nodded, standing as he made to leave. 'It hasn't been easy, but we've accomplished a lot.' She paused. 'What will happen to Elizabeth and Marina?' she asked him. He shrugged.

'Hard to say, but it won't be our problem. They'll never leave here.' He eyed her shrewdly, as if unwilling to believe McManus knew the truth about the Ladies. 'Haven't you realised it yet, Jane? They're both quite, quite mad.'

They left the Doctor's office, followed by The Man's black garbed bodyguard. None of them noticed Karen where she clung to the shadows a short distance from the office door, her face dark with rage and her eyes narrow. Silently she slid into the office before its door could fully close.

Doctor Jane McManus watched the monitors before her flicker and pulse, showing the eerie life of the bio-regulators implanted in her subjects. Hayley's creature was virtually inactive as its host slept, but the others warped and undulated rhythmically.

She recalled the first tests; the implanting of the biotech device into the base of a cadaver's neck, and the resulting ripples of life that caused the dead girl's limbs to move again. The second stage had been to clone the woman from her own dead cells, creating a living vessel for the creature to inhabit. Gorged on the corpse's synaptic fluids, the creature - McManus had never been in the habit of calling them re-animators - had gradually introduced its borrowed memory of life into the doppleganger, until what remained was a living girl virtually identical to how she was before.

This girl and a second subject were the Alphas, and they were a success. But The Man wanted more, and two Beta subjects were planned. The process was different this time round, as the brainwaves ripped from the dead bodies were altered before the re-animator could do its work. By the time McManus was finished, the Beta subjects could remember their past lives, but their minds and bodies had been radically altered. These two subjects were designed for battle, and eager to kill.

Another success, but these two were too far from their hosts' original personalities, and the Ladies of the castles had ordered that no more of their ilk should be tested. There had been no argument, as work was underway to develop the next phase, a Gamma subject that had the strength and skill of the Betas, while retaining the humanity of the original host.

Elizabeth had to be blackmailed for the tests to go ahead. Katherine was dying, and her wish to die fighting could only be fulfilled with McManus' drugs; drugs she had only agreed to supply when Elizabeth acquiesced to her conditions. Hayley's flight into battle with Katherine had been an unexpected bonus. The girl had potential as a test subject, and her psychological profile had made for interesting reading. When Katherine abandoned her challenge to ride into battle, and Hayley had followed, McManus knew she had the chance to obtain her Gamma subject. Marina had sent Knights to intercept Katherine, and Dolores had been there to take Hayley's life, although as it transpired the task was beyond her. It fell to Marina's Knights to kill Hayley, and the young Knight's body had been smuggled back to Erran under the pretence she had just been badly wounded.

McManus highlighted Hayley's statistics on her monitor, readying the Scythe program that would cause her re-animator to destroy itself. The creatures were a marvel of bio-technology; they heightened their hosts' senses and secreted drugs to increase strength and dull pain. A bizarre side effect had been the increased sexual excitement the hosts felt in battle, but this had not been deemed a handicap. They were miraculous creatures, and McManus hated the idea of killing them. Her fingers hovered over her keyboard, ready to activate the program and kill Hayley while she slept.

'I can't allow that, Doctor.'

McManus yelped and spun around, staring in alarm at Karen as the Amazon Knight stepped from the shadows. 'Karen? What . . . what the hell are you doing in here?'

'Saving my own skin, from what I hear,' Karen sounded calm, but her face betrayed her. Her eyes burned and her lips were twisted in fury. McManus' hand dropped to her pocket, fumbling for the remote that would shock Karen into submission, but as her thumb pressed the trigger Karen only laughed.

'Deactivated, Doctor. I've been busy in here while you were seeing your little friend off.' Karen lunged and gripped McManus' lapels, lifting her bodily from her seat and throwing her across the room. The doctor screamed before slamming into a console, crumpling to the floor with a groan as Karen moved to stand over her. 'Who the fuck was that prick, anyway? No, never mind. I don't really care.' She squatted beside the doctor and continued conversationally. 'I'd prefer you to be co-operative, Doctor. I really would. I'd hate to see you leave when there's so much more work to be done. Do you really want to see all your hard graft go down the tubes because this man from the Ministry tells you to flush it away?'

Karen stroked the doctor's hair, enjoying the way McManus quivered in fear at her touch. 'Come on, Jane. Say you'll stay. Is there anywhere you'd really rather be?'

'N . . . no,' McManus stammered, 'Th . . . this is my work. G . . . given the choice, I'd prefer to st . . . stay.'

'Wonderful!' Karen beamed as she stood, grabbing the Doctor's arm and pulling her half upright. 'There's just the simple matter of your punishment, then we can be friends again.' Her sword slid from its sheath. 'I've learned a lot about Chrysalis over the last half hour, but I think I should adopt a bit more of a hands-on approach from now on, don't you think? Grit your teeth, Doctor, this may just sting for a second.'

McManus screamed as Karen raised her sword, then brought the blade slashing suddenly downwards.

Technicians preparing to abandon the underground clinic scuttled out of Karen's way as the blood spattered Knight stalked through the laboratory towards the giant strongroom door that led to where the Chrysalis pods nursed their cloned occupants. She stopped before the access panel, her breath coming fast as she contemplated her destiny. The watching technicians were frozen in horror as they watched the crazed Knight regard the heavy portal.

'My warriors,' she breathed, 'You've waited too long. Your queen is here to release you and take you into glorious battle.'

The palm scanner blinked beside her, and she raised the hand that clutched McManus' bloody forearm, still twitching after being sliced from its owner's arm, blood still drooling from its severed end. She placed the doctor's hand on the scanner, and as the access light blinked green and the heavy door swung slowly open, she casually threw the limb to one side. Before her, ranks of revenants were ripened and ready for hatching. Her army was waiting.

As evening fell, the two Ladies said their goodbyes. Mounted and positioned close to each other, their speech could only barely be heard by the senior Knights that escorted them. Other Knights from both estates glowered across the space between them, reminding Elizabeth that all was not well between the two camps.

'Last time we met we agreed things should get a little more serious,' she said softly to Marina. 'But don't you think they're getting out of hand?'

Her counterpart nodded. 'I'll remind you it was your girls that struck the most telling blow. Five scouts, four of which were merely rookies?' Marina shook her head as Elizabeth grimaced and started to speak. 'I know it's not your fault, Elizabeth. Both our hands are tied.'

Elizabeth sighed. 'How did we get into this?'

'We weren't paying attention to what was going on in the world outside,' Marina told her grimly, aware that Elizabeth already knew the answer to her own question. 'These people we're dealing with are smart. They knew where to hurt us the most, and they knew we'd have to go along with them. We have these girls to think of, after all.'

The two women stared at each other glumly for a moment, but then Marina grinned at her old friend. 'At the heart of it, even with Chrysalis and McManus, we're still doing what we set out to do. Let's enjoy it while we can.'

'And the rivalry between the estates?'

'It's good! Let's encourage it. Our ranks are swelling, and my girls are better than ever. Better than yours.'

Elizabeth was uncertain, but her old friend's teasing was infectious. 'But I owe you a trouncing,' she grinned, 'My girls have been smarting since the Battle of Erran.'

Marina chuckled. 'We're agreed then. We talk less, fight more. I don't expect to see you until Christmas, Elizabeth.'

'Unless I come knocking before then.'

Marina laughed, wheeling her mount and spurring the beast into a canter. Her Knights fell in behind her as she thundered over the land, and Elizabeth watched her go before signalling her own Knights to return to Erran.

The women of Erran drank and sang and fought good-naturedly until there was a hint of pink in the sky that heralded the coming dawn. As they staggered or collapsed through the halls of Erran, alone or in pairs, unlucky Knights who had drawn watch duty sighed and trudged along their posts glumly, pondering on their lot.

Since incidents had begun to flair between the estates, Helena had been posting guards at night, and although she took more than her fair share of turns on watch, many Knights resented the tedious duty. Especially on a feast night such as this. All they could content themselves with was the knowledge that they would be free to join the carousing over the next two nights, leaving some other unfortunate to man the ramparts in the cold night.

Lady Fiona was Chief of the Watch tonight, and she sighed glumly as she flexed her gloved hands, trying to keep life in her numb fingers. She watched as the first traces of light appeared over the distant horizon, grateful that her long night was almost over. She frowned as a scratching noise came from the nearby outer wall, and moved closer to the ramparts to see what had caused the sound. Erran had many rats, but they rarely bothered the castle walls.

Peering over the wall, Fiona squinted downwards, blinking in astonishment as she saw several large shapes ascending the stone wall below. As she watched, a face turned up to leer at her, and she stepped back with a gasp, turning to make for one of the alarm bells that stood at regular intervals along the ramparts. She filled her lungs to shout an alert, but before she could make a sound a strong forearm clamped around her throat and help her fast. She gagged for breath and flailed with her arms, amazed that anyone had been able to creep up on her so silently. Her fists connected with flesh, but her attacker did not seem to feel the blows. Fiona's eyes popped wide as the woman holding her chuckled under her breath, at the same instant plunging a blade into her struggling victim's lower back.

Fiona's back arched. She had no breath to scream, and the gloved hand was still clamped over her mouth. All feeling drained from her lower body, and she heard the spatter of her blood on the stones between her feet. She flailed out again in desperation, but the blade wedged in her back withdrew and all she could do was twist with fresh pain until it plunged back in, higher than before, cracking ribs and skewering her heart. She sagged, dying, but aware that the woman who had slew her was panting with excitement, fondling her body as it crumpled against the cold stone. The hand was finally taken from her mouth, but she couldn't even manage to curse her killer before her vision glazed and her last breath rattled in her throat, obscenely loud in the morning calm.

The killer glanced inward, checking that no-one had heard any of the attack. From around her she could hear the sounds of her comrades mounting the wall, scuttling towards the gatehouse, invisible in the gloom. Astride Fiona's lifeless corpse, the killer rubbed frantically under her skirt, quickly climaxing at the sight of the dead guard's staring eyes and the coppery smell of her blood. Her body doubled as she came, but she quickly regained control, grabbing Fiona's unprotesting corpse under the armpits and dragging the woman towards the gatehouse. She left a greasy trail of blood, but that could not be helped. The invaders would not be here long enough for such a trail to be discovered.

Within the gatehouse, Lady Jennifer glanced to the doorway as a figure loomed at its frame. She tutted in mock disgust. 'Deserting your post ten minutes early, Fiona? You could be up on a . . .'

She spun around as the figure lunged, gasping as she saw an unfamiliar face creased in a vicious sneer. She grabbed at the sword on her belt but was too slow, and the attacker slammed her up against the inner wall of the gatehouse, slashing open her throat with one sure movement. Jennifer gaped as a spray of crimson jetted before her eyes. She sagged against the wall, slumping down to land heavily on her behind, her legs spread before her and blood pouring over her chainmail jerkin and skirt. She was dead almost instantly, but the killer nudged the bloody corpse with her foot several times, seeming to enjoy the movements the body made.

Two more Knights met their death on the wall. The first arched her back as a gloved hand covered her mouth, only to gag on blood as a wickedly sharp dagger slit open her neck from ear to ear. She drooped gracefully in the arms of her killer, vaguely hearing a low cry as a fellow guard was felled. The killers froze, watching to see if the sound would alert anyone within the castle grounds. Seconds passed and no alarm was raised, and the silent killers carried on their work.

They descended to the inner courtyard, timing their sprint to the inner wall as a guard patrol passed. These two women waved to what they thought was a fellow Knight on the outer wall, and a killer returned the gesture, quickly buckling her helm into place as the guards passed.

Leaving three of their number of the walls, the killers continued into the inner courtyard, stopping to observe the unguarded area in case of surprises. Close by, giggling from some bushes alerted them to cavorting Handmaids, drunk and playful after the night's celebrations. They rolled noisily, clamped together at the hip and by the lips, almost comatose with booze and pleasure. The girl on top ground herself against her lover, uncaring that her bare buttocks heaved at her motions, presenting a tempting target to the killer that crept up behind them. As pressure in her loins spilled over, the Handmaid moaned and arched her back, grinding herself against the girl beneath her, who gasped with her own orgasm. At the peak of their pleasure, the killer moved swiftly, sending her sword stabbing forward with all her strength.

The long blade slid between the bare buttocks of the upper girl, and her body heaved as the tip split from her belly to ram deep into the ribsection of the girl below. Impaled together, the two lovers twitched and writhed, unable to scream at the shocking suddeness of the attack. The killer rammed her sword in deep, burying it up to the hilt between the upper victim's quivering buttocks, then quickly lifting her skirt to drop down heavily on the pommel of her blade. She grunted softly as her spherical end of her weapon's handle ripped her panties and plunged deep into her, then wrenched herself back and forth for only a few seconds before coming with a shudder.

Her fellows watched her impassively, as she raised herself off the sticky hilt and gripped it firmly in a gloved hand. She yanked her weapon free of the bodies, releasing a torrent of fetid gore as the corpses shifted and rocked with the sudden motion. Wiping the clotted blade on the top body's pale buttocks, the killer quickly joined her companions as they scurried across the open inner courtyard and made their way silently along the walls until they reached a side door that led into a kitchen area. As if on cue, they each drew up a hood to cover their heads.

They padded swiftly through the kitchens, emerging into a main hall that led left towards the front doors of the castle, and right to the rear. Seeming to know exactly where they were going, the shadowy figures turned right and jogged through the silent hall until they reached a junction, where they stopped to watch a single guard patrol the hall outside of Elizabeth's throne-room.

Lady Isobel was waiting out the remains of her watch glumly. Even senior Knights had to take their turn on this duty, made all the more dull by its confinement. On the walls you could at least breath the fresh air and watch the sun rise or set. The comparative warmth was little comfort. The scuffing of her leather boots was the only sound in the quiet halls of Erran, a rhythmic noise that threatened to lull her into semi-consciousness even as she walked.

She was, however, an Amazon Knight, and at the slight sound behind her she spun, her hand dropping to the hilt of her blade. She gasped as she saw the dim shapes break into a flurry of motion to come at her, dragging her sword free with a scrape of steel that was deafening in the peace of the hallway. A knife flashed, the shining blade flipping end over end before landing with a squelch in Isobel's throat. Her eyes bugging as blood rushed into her mouth, Isobel reeled and slumped against the throne-room's heavy doors. They shifted, banging loudly with the impact. Even though she could not draw a breath, Isobel bounced off the doors and lunged, eager to take one of the assassins with her to the grave.

The lead intruder stepped past the lunge easily, clapping one hand over Isobel's mouth and slamming the dying warrior once more against the doors she had been guarding. Daggers flashed, punching through leather and chain to stab deep into Isobel's belly and breasts. Her body bucked, rattling the doors as the weapons plunged time and again into her flesh. One of the intruders plunged her blade time after time into Isobel's crotch, making a special point of twisting the blade each time she withdrew. After only seconds of the dreadful abuse, Isobel's senses hazed with the shocking pain. She felt each stab, but thankfully there was no more pain, only an enveloping calm and a lethargy that robbed her limbs of strength. She drooped to the floor, her thighs spread before her, seeing the lake of blood that poured over the polished wood of the hallway, aware of the women that stood over her, their weapons dripping with gore and clotted flesh. Her vision dimmed, and as the women pushed open the doors she slumped against, her body fell back to lie spreadeagled. She heard light feet step over her, then she knew nothing more.

Elizabeth pulled on a cloak, her only shield against the morning cold, as she followed Helena swiftly through the hallways of Erran. She could already hear the sounds of anger and dismay from below. Knights and Handmaids scuttled past, stepping aside to watch the Grand Knight pass with wide eyes. Many fell in behind the two Knights, and by the time they reached the throne room, more than a dozen women joined the crowd that had already gathered.

Helena pushed the women aside, revealing Isobel's corpse still lying where it fell, sprawled pathetically in a drying pool of dark gore. Elizabeth stopped, shocked at the sight of a senior Knight butchered in such a fashion.

'How many in total?' she asked Helena, struggling to keep her voice from wavering.

'Seven including Isobel here,' Helena told her grimly. 'All four guards on the outer wall were slain, and a couple of Handmaids that were in the inner courtyard. They're a whole other sight to behold.'

The crowd were bitter and angry, and Elizabeth turned to them as their clamour rose. 'Quiet!' she ordered. 'An Amazon Knight has fallen. Do not dishonour her with your bickering.'

She gestured to ashen-faced Handmaids, who scuttled forward with a stretcher for Isobel's body. As they worked, Ladies Diane and Madeline pushed their way through the crowds to stare in shock at the spectacle.

'Is that Isobel?' Madeline asked, shaking her head in disbelief, her eyes distraught.

'What happened?' Diane asked grimly, her full lips pressed firmly together as she took in Isobel's hideous wounds.

'A night assault, seemingly to capture Elizabeth's sword,' Helena gestured into the throne room, where there was now a noticeable space above the Grand Knight's chair. 'Seven are dead. The killers were swift, skilled, and brutal. They seemed to take a great deal of pleasure from their work.'

Diane's dark eyes were hooded as they turned to Elizabeth's. 'When do we take our revenge?'

She spoke quietly, but loud enough for the closest of the gathered Knights to hear. Shouts of agreement soon became a roar of outrage and a clamouring for retribution, until Helena's voice rocked the entire castle with an order for quiet.

'This is not the time for talk of revenge!' Elizabeth cried, casting Diane a black look as she struggled to control the angry crowd. 'We mourn the dead, then we see what is to be done.' The crowd's noise swelled again, but this time Elizabeth did not need her second to quell the furore. 'Enough!' she cried. 'Those who have no business here, leave. Get on with what you're supposed to be doing. You three . . .' she gestured to her marshals, 'with me.'

Stepping over pools of sticky gore to enter the throne room, getting away from the muttering Knights without, Elizabeth paced back and forth while her senior Knights waited. Finally she stopped before Diane, staring into the marshal's eyes. Diane could not hold the gaze for more than a second.

'Situations like this do not usually happen here,' she said, 'but I expect you to handle yourself with a little more reserve. When the time comes for revenge, it will be at my order.' She looked aside as Emma entered the throne room, her face twisted in rage. 'And don't you start, either!' she warned the grey eyed Knight before Emma could even speak.

'There will be a counter attack then?' Diane asked eagerly.

'I don't know,' Elizabeth said finally. She mulled for a moment, angry with herself for her mixed emotions. 'This isn't like Marina . . .'

'You went out to encourage animosity between the two estates,' Madeline reminded her, 'We all agreed it was time to sever some ties.'

'To make our battles seem more real! Out on the battlefield itself!' Elizabeth cried. 'This is not what we are about. Sneaking and backstabbing? Isobel was raped with blades, and from what Helena tells me the Handmaids in the courtyard suffered even worse. This is not the work of Knights but of animals!'

'So what's to be done?' Diane asked. 'Marina steals your sword, she must want you to attempt to take it back?'

The marshals waited while Elizabeth thought. The Grand Knight looked old and tired, but her rapid breathing slowed as she finally resolved her course of action.

'This isn't how I wanted things. I must meet with Marina and make things right.'

There was a pause, then Emma spoke hesitantly. 'I don't think that would be a good idea.'

Diane agreed. 'Marina could be taking this a lot more seriously. If you turn up at Dunan, you might not return.'

'Oh, come now,' Elizabeth scoffed, but she noticed even Helena looked a little uneasy.

'I'll go and speak with Marina,' she told the Grand Knight, but Madeline quickly stepped forward.

'You place is with Elizabeth,' she told Helena, 'If anyone is going to Dunan, it will be me.'

Elizabeth nodded grimly, aware that Isobel had been something more than a friend to her marshal. Madeline was one of her most trusted Knights, one of too few of her original Knights that still lived.

'Very well, Madeline. Go with a flag of truce, no weapons. Tell Marina we need to speak.' She hesitated for a moment, then turned away from her Knights as she continued. 'Until recently we communicated regularly via a videolink. I feel it should be reconnected.'

Erran's marshals looked at each other with some surprise. They had known Elizabeth used technology sparingly to benefit the estate, and to afford her Knights simple comforts. The castle was heated subtly through the flooring, and all the Knights enjoyed the benefits of hot showers and bathroom facilities without a thought. There were rumours that the Grand Knights of both estates watched their Knights fight and train through hidden cameras, but none had known the two Ladies communicated like this.

'I'll leave immediately,' Madeline turned to leave, and Elizabeth watched her go sadly.

'I've let you down,' she said to her remaining marshals. 'I'm sorry.'

'Bull,' Emma said brusquely, 'Whatever the arrangement with Marina, it's no excuse for her to act with dishonour.'

Emma turned and left, but Elizabeth gripped Helena's arm and took her second aside, her face pale. 'Helena, there are some things you should know. You . . . you're not going to like what you're about to hear, but it's time you knew the truth.'

By nightfall Madeline had still not returned. Emma had already saddled her horse by the time Helena confronted her in the stables.

'She's your friend too,' the grey eyed Knight scowled at her senior. Helena nodded patiently, keeping a firm grip on her colleague's saddle, using her body to block the open stable door.

'Believe me, Emma, I want to know she's fine too. The weather has turned bad, and Marina has likely offered Madeline shelter for the night rather than force her to ride home in the rain.'

Emma reluctantly accepted the explanation, swinging down from her saddle and fondling her horse's ears as she confided in her raven haired comrade. 'Did Elizabeth speak the truth? Have the two Ladies been in communication since the beginning?'

'Does it matter?' Helena asked her wearily. She had learned many things today, and most had been unpleasant surprises. Elizabeth had admitted to a network of hidden cameras secreted in every room and all around the exterior of the castle walls. Taking Helena into her private study, the Grand Knight had shown her a rack crammed with optical disks, video recordings of all the sparring sessions, trials and battles that the Ladies had overseen. They had examined footage of the previous night, seeing the killers enter the castle grounds and slaughter their victims, but they had not learned anything from the shadowy figures except that they had been skilled and vicious in their work.

Elizabeth had admitted to the recordings like a criminal confessing all, and just as Helena had been about to console her, to tell her the Knights of Erran would understand, Elizabeth had shown her a second rack of disks, and their titles alone had taken Helena's breath away.

'There are cameras in our rooms?' she whispered, her face reddening, her mind whirling as she thought on all her private moments, her trysts with Katherine and the handful of other sisters she had taken to her bed. Unable to listen to Elizabeth's attempts at an explanation, she had turned on her heel and left the Grand Knight before her anger would lead her to say or do something she might later regret.

Seeing that Helena was keeping things from her, Emma shook her head in disgust, marching from the stables and up onto the outer wall, where she looked determined to keep watch with the designated guards. Shaken by the violence of the previous night, those on guard duty were relieved by the Knight's company, although the anger written on her face convinced them not to engage her in idle chit-chat.

In her room, Helena spent an hour searching fruitlessly for the cameras she knew were watching, finally coming to the conclusion that they were built cunningly into the furnishings or concealed behind the mirrors or panels secured to the walls. She lay in her bed fully clothed, her skin crawling at the thought of her every movement being recorded for the salacious amusement of a woman she had considered her friend. She slept fitfully, but still came awake with a start as someone hammered upon her door.

Dawn had yet to creep over the castle, and she glanced through her window and shivered at the bleak weather without as she untangled herself from her bedclothes and opened the door to find Lady Diane waiting. The raven haired Knight stared at her for a second before speaking.

'Get dressed, Helena. I think you'll need to see this for yourself.'

The cell was guarded by a bored looking technician, who looked up from her textbooks as Karen approached.

'Sorry,' the woman said, 'McManus said no visitors.'

Karen glared at the girl maliciously. 'Except for me, you fucking retard. Unless you plan to stop me by force, get the hell out of here.'

The guard blinked, then hurriedly collected her books and scuttled away down the corridor. Karen smiled slowly, enjoying the fear she instilled in the Doctor's staff. They knew her too well to argue with her. Turning to the reinforced glass viewing screen that showed the contents of the cell, Karen watched Hayley for a moment, noting how her shallow breathing made her belly and breasts swell under the light shift she now wore. Deeply sedated, her head lolled and her limbs moved weakly. Her motions had caused the shift to ride up over her thighs, and Karen felt her nipples harden as her eyes flicked over Hayley's creamy thighs and the enticing shadow between her legs. Stepping to the door, she keyed in the code and the portal opened with a clunk and a whirr.

Approaching the bed, Karen smiled as Hayley's face turned towards her. She was conscious, but obviously still doped. Karen slid off her leather gloves, sliding her hands over Hayley's body. The tiny Knight had been secured by her wrists and ankles, spreadeagled on the bed with only a small amount of movement allowed for each limb. She couldn't resist as Karen's cool hands caressed her belly, sliding over her ribs to cup her small breasts, thumbs worrying her hardening nipples through her thin garment. A moan escaped her lips, and they parted as her head lolled, eyes closed as Karen continued fondling her helpless body.

'Yesss,' Karen whispered, 'You're mine, Hayley, aren't you? You obey only me.' One hand moved up to Hayley's hair, gripping and twisting and causing the girl to squirm. 'Tell me,' Karen insisted, 'Tell me you only wish to serve me.'

'Yes,' Hayley slurred, her eyes open but unfocussed, 'Only . . . you.'

'That's good.' Karen moved back down Hayley's body, sliding her shift up to reveal her hips and navel, her head dropping towards the shackled girl's thatch of dark hair. Her tongue thrust deep, stretching and probing into Hayley's warmth, making her moan and thrash. Karen's hand slid under the hem of her own skirt, worrying the moist film of her panties. She pleasured Hayley for languid minutes, until the girl's body tensed and then bucked, and a spurt of salty fluid burst over Karen's tongue. She came herself at that moment, not caring that anyone stood outside the room would have a fine view of her mostly naked buttocks thrust high in the air as she leaned over her lover, her hand rubbing frantically at her swollen sex. As her passion faded, she lifted her head to stare at Hayley's face.

'I understand how you feel, Hayley,' she told the young Knight. 'I was shocked too. I knew I had died, there was no doubt about that.' She brushed her hand up and down Hayley's arm as she spoke, distracted by the downy hair on her lover's limb, and the sheen of sweat the slicked her body. 'Maybe Katherine told you about that battle? No, probably not. I think they all wanted to forget about it. It's quite flattering really. I think they missed me.' Her slight smile faded as she thought about her fellow Knights. 'Of course, they weren't so keen on me when I came back. But I didn't have much of an option.' She looked down into Hayley's face again. 'Do you want to hear about the first great battle between Elizabeth and Marina? It was a fine battle. We won, but then you know that. How we won was a different matter.'

Karen settled herself on the bed beside Hayley, not even noticing whether or not the shackled girl was capable of understanding what she was saying.

'It was a good day for a fight,' she began, 'The ground was firm and the sun was shining. It wasn't too hot, which was good because we were all in full plate. Katherine found something to complain about, though. . . .'

'Ungrateful little bitch!' Indignant, Katherine flicked her reins, chivvying her mount and ignoring her friends' grins as best she could.

'Don't take it as a personal insult, Katherine,' Helena told her. 'We all have Handmaids, and they're all a pain in the ass sometimes.'

'Yeah, but none of yours have decided to leave a fortnight before their trial. Is it me? Am I not a good teacher?'

'You're a great teacher,' Diane told her, 'A little highly strung at times . . .'

'Thanks a bunch.'

'Katherine's annoyed,' Karen pointed out with amusement, 'Pity help the poor bitches she'll be facing down in a minute or two.'

The four Amazon Knights faced forward, watching as the early morning light illuminated the line of enemy warriors across the field.

'This should be fun,' Karen said brightly.

Up to now the battles between Erran and Dunan had been one-to-one duels or the occasional team battles. Today would be different. A hundred armed and armoured women would charge each other and fight to the death, and the honour of their castles were at stake.

Katherine hefted her lance, grimacing as she felt a tremor of pain in her side. McManus' drugs were powerful and worked well, but every so often the pain would stab, as if reminding her there was no escape. Perhaps today would be a good day to finish things; to die in battle screaming rather than slipping away in a hospital bed. Katherine set her lips firmly, thrusting such mortal thoughts to the back of her mind. No, she would fight for all she was worth and damn her cancer. Show it she had no fear and maybe, just maybe it would give up the chase.

'Get ready, girls,' Elizabeth called as she rode up the ranks of mounted warriors. The Grand Knight's heart pounded with pride and excitement as she watched her Knights prepare themselves for battle. They looked magnificent in their battle dress, sheathed in glimmering plate and chain, their lances rising high as they readied the weapons for the coming charge. Fifty Amazon Knights closed their visors, checked their mounts and dismissed their Handmaids. They knew what was about to happen, and they knew many friends and colleagues would soon be lying dead or dying. It was what they wanted, why they had come here. Elizabeth always felt wonder that there were those who shared her passion, who would give up their mundane lives for the thrill of mortal combat from a bygone age.

Her eyes fell on her best warriors, the four women she trusted the most from her band of Knights. Helena, her second in command and closest advisor; the one who somehow steered her decisions when they were astray. Katherine, her lover and friend, who came here to die and lived all the more for it. Diane, with her stubborn strength and indomitable spirit. And Karen, whose affable humour cemented the quartet. For Elizabeth, these four Knights summed up what she had in mind for the estate when she and Marina were making their plans. She felt a jolt of fear as she wondered what the next minutes would bring. If one or more of these four close friends were to fall, what would be the effect on those that survived?

She flung such fears from her mind, thinking only that to fight and die with bravery and honour were what each Amazon Knight craved when she came to Erran. These girls too knew the risks, and welcomed them.

She drew her blade. She would not be charging with the lancers, but following in with her close guard, taking the fight to Marina. They would fight until one fell or submitted, but although there were risks, it was not intended that their conflict be mortal. They each had their girls to think of. Raising her sword, she turned her gaze to the opposite slope, where a distant figure emulated her pose. 'Here we go, Marina,' she whispered. 'God forgive us.'

Her hand swooped down as she cried the charge, and before her could draw her breath, her warriors had spurred their frightened mounts into a death or glory charge, lances held high and shields at the ready.

Katherine felt her heart pounding in her chest as the wave of Erran's riders thundered towards the approaching warriors of Dunan, and briefly wondered if her comrades felt the same way she did. Two armies had not clashed in this fashion for hundreds of years, and although their number was drastically fewer than those battles of bygone times, there was a sense of event that made Katherine quiver in anticipation.

As the enemy loomed larger she forced herself to concentrate, picking her opponent from the line of silver Knights across the wild grass of the plain that would play host to this battle. Her shield, looped around her neck by a leather strap to allow her to keep gripping her reins, nestled against her left breast, and she nudged the burnished steel with her shoulder so it would best protect her chest from the bite of an enemy lance. Her own weapon, and those of her comrades and enemies, swooped downward. Couching the weapon's butt against the cantle of her saddle, she braced herself for the crushing impact as her lancetip sought out the flesh of her enemy.

Wild screams heralded the Knights' collision; screams of agony mixed with those of excitement and ecstasy. Katherine gasped in shocked pleasure as her opponent's lancetip clashed against her shield and was swept aside, while her own weapon struck true. The woman opposite shrieked in mortal pain, scrabbling at her chest where Katherine's lance impaled her. The weapon's bloody tip tore from her back amidst a shower of bright gore, and the dying Knight was lifted from the back of her saddle with her legs kicking, blood hosing from the slits in her helm as she vomited dark gore.

Choking and speared, she fell to the ground as Katherine's lance split, the shaft still impaling her jerking body as she crashed against the grass and rolled drunkenly, blood spraying and limbs spasming. All too quickly her broken body was swept from Katherine's sight as the victorious Knight tugged on her reins to slow her mount. She wheeled the beast around, dropping her broken lance and drawing her sword with one smooth motion, releasing her grip on the reins for a second to flip up her visor. She wanted to see the death and destruction the Knights' clashing had caused, and she was not disappointed. Hot iron assaulted her nostrils as the stench of blood spilled over her. She drank it in, feeling fire in her loins as her eyes took in what was happening.

Bodies rolled and jerked on the blood splashed grass; metal-encased warriors screaming their last, desperate breaths as their innards oozed from sundered armour and blood spewed over their quivering lips. Nearby, a Knight of Dunan dragged herself to her feet, her helmet gone and her eyes wide as she watched a greasy spray of gore pump from her ragged shoulder stump. Her arm flopped against the ground near her feet, seeming to jerk and twist its way out of her grip as her remaining, shaking hand reached out for it.

Another Knight, this one a fellow Amazon Knight, kicked and quivered her life away as she gripped at her bloody face. Her jaw was gone, ripped from her skull by a well-placed lancetip, and the left side of her face was caved in. Her eye hung loose on her cheek, and she slowly choked on the blood bubbling from her exposed throat.

Shocked by the horrors she was witnessing, but inexplicably aroused by the violence and blood, Katherine felt her buttocks clench as her excitement peaked. She moaned and quivered in her saddle, feeling moisture on her thighs under her plate and chain. As her orgasm faded, her eyes sought out her friends, praying that they had survived the charge and were taking their own pleasure at this very moment.

Helena was nearby, lance still in hand as she pulled her mount to a halt beside a fallen foe. The Knight of Dunan rolled in pain, clutching at a lancetip impaling her through the right shoulder. Blood sheeted her breastplate, and her helm had fallen free to reveal the fresh face of a young blonde woman, not yet out of her teens. She yelled in agony, but as she saw Helena looming over her, her splintered lance held ready, her cries became those of desperation. Not the kind to keep a downed foe in pain, Helena jabbed down swiftly, her lance bursting the girl's head as its splintered tip crunched between her eyes. She was killed instantly, her limbs jerking as blood and brains sprayed over the lush grass. Helena dropped her lance, gripping the double-bitted axe secured against her saddle, already looking for a fresh enemy.

Katherine could not see Karen or Diane, but there was no time to look for her friends. She raised her sword and kicked her horse into motion, sailing back into the fray with a battle-cry on her lips and excitement once more clutching at her chest.

Karen's lance had splintered as its point took an enemy Knight in her shoulder. The Knight's arm had ripped free in a burst of bright crimson, and she had fallen with a shocked wail to crash against the ground, rolling in pain as her body was sheathed in her own spurting blood. Discarding the remains of her lance, Karen yanked her sword from its scabbard, leaning far out of her saddle and bringing the gleaming weapon down on her felled opponent's skull. As her head split open and her brains burst over the grass, the warrior woman jerked and twitched her gruesome death throes.

Her blade sheathed in gore, Karen cast about for a fresh foe, aware that there were too few warriors for the battle to be prolonged. Nearby an Amazon Knight fell from her saddle, clutching a lancehead buried between her breasts, blood spurting from the slits in her visor. Digging in her heels, Karen yelled a challenge to her comrade's killer and charged into battle.

The Knight of Dunan was good, perhaps one of Marina's senior Knights. She did not flinch as Karen attacked, calmly parrying the Amazon Knight's strikes and lashing out expertly in response. Karen checked the blade with her own, but her heart pounded faster as she realised she was in mortal combat with an accomplished warrior.

Nearby, Diane yelled in pain and fury as a lancetip skittered off her shield to bury itself under the lip of her pauldron. Somehow the armour held, but the force of the impact lifted her from her saddle and cast her to the ground. She landed hard, rolling and gasping for breath. Her opponent reined in her horse, turning and levelling her intact lance, obviously intent on heading back to finish off her downed opponent.

Willing her limbs to move, Diane staggered to her feet, her longsword sliding from its sheath as she readied herself for the enemy charge. The Knight of Dunan kicked her mount into motion, eager to skewer Diane through her shining breastplate, but the Amazon Knight had other plans. As the lancetip drooped to seek her flesh, she ducked aside nimbly, her shield rising to bash the weapon aside. Thinking Diane had still been dazed by her fall, the enemy Knight cried out in alarm as a sword slashed towards her exposed leg.

Delivered with all her considerable might, the blade sheared through plate and chain, chopping deep into the leather saddle and horseflesh. The horse whinnied in pain, rearing to dislodge its rider, who fell with a shrill scream to land before Diane. Her helmet dislodged, the Knight of Dunan raised her head to gape in shock at her severed leg, which twitched spastically by her side. Blood pumped from her stump, but before she could begin to scream in earnest, Diane had straddled her body and plunged her sword deep between the stricken warrior's breasts. Blood burst from her mouth as her head dropped back, and she writhed for several seconds before she died. Diane leant against her swordhilt, wracked with a sudden orgasm as her blade took a woman's life. She sagged with a moan, but the battle still raged and she could afford no more than a few seconds to enjoy her victory. Yanking her blade free, causing the body to jerk wildly, she turned to find another foe.

A mounted warrior loomed, and a steel-shod foot swished out to kick Diane square in the chest. She reeled back with a cry, tripping over the corpse of her victim and sprawling on the bloody grass. She just had time to lever herself to her feet as the enemy Knight turned her mount and came in close again, a battleaxe raised high. Diane leapt for the woman's leg, fully aware that to give the attacking Knight a chance to plan her strike would be sure to result in her own death. Her hands gripped the Knight's armoured thigh, and she was dragged alongside the terrified horse as its rider slammed her axeshaft down into Diane's shoulder.

Pain flared in her chest, and Diane screamed as she felt something rip into her shoulder. The axe had a vicious spike atop its shaft, which now bit deep into her chest. Her grip weakened and she fell beneath the horse's rear, a steel-shod hoof clipping her helm and sending her tumbling. Blood gushed from her shoulder, and the Knight of Dunan turned her horse to observe the unmoving body as if looking for signs of life. There were none, but the Knight hefted her axe and made to turn on Diane once more, intent on making sure the Amazon Knight stayed down.

Then, a cry of challenge distracted the Knight, and she turned as Helena brought her horse alongside, her own axe swinging. The two weapons clashed, bright sparks showering the combatants as they hacked at each other. There was little skill in their combat, just strength and determination, but Helena had the edge in this regard and the Knight of Dunan was soon sagging in her saddle, her strength sapped by trading violent blows with the Amazon Knight. Seeing her chance, Helena struck.

Her axe whistled through the air, its wide edge shearing through the enemy Knight's left pauldron and opening her up down to the swell of her breast. She screamed in agony, her body arching as her left shoulder and upper torso peeled away from the rest of her body with a sickening sound of tearing flesh and splintered bone. The Knight fell forward, dead in seconds but her body spasming on the blood-sodden grass. Helena gazed down at the lifeless corpse for a moment, then turned her attention to Diane. She was moving weakly, but before Helena could think to dismount to go to her friend's aid, another enemy Knight shouted a challenge and moved in beside her, a flanged mace sweeping over her head as she commenced her attack. Helena's gory axe intercepted the descending weapon, and she thrust her concern for Diane to the back of her mind as she concentrated on this fresh battle.

Karen screamed as her armour split, her opponent's blade sinking deep into her upper arm. She wavered in her saddle, almost falling and just keeping her balance as her mount carried her out of immediate danger. She was weakening, and her opponent did not seem to be tiring at all. Now Karen regretted jumping at the chance to fight a skilled foe. Her heart hammered as she turned her horse to face the Knight of Dunan again, determined to change the tide of battle as she raised her sword and sent it slicing through the air.

The enemy Knight's sword leapt skyward to intercept the blade slashing towards her armoured skull, drawing back before stabbing her sword in low. Karen yelled in fresh pain, doubling over as she felt cold steel punch through armour and sinking deep into her belly. In an instant the sword was ripped free, and Karen slumped over her saddle groaning, feeling warmth spilling over her groin and thighs as her doublet was instantly soaked with blood. Something hot slithered over her navel, and she realised with horror that she was feeling her guts spilling from her stomach. Frantically she clawed at her armour, unable to clutch at the wound or stop her innards from spooling free. Her horrified shrieks brought the enemy Knight in close, her sword raised high to finish off the wounded Amazon.

Kathrine saw Karen fall. Locked in combat with another Knight, she was unable to ride to her friend's aid, and yelled in disbelief as Karen's killer chopped down into her victim's neck. The blow was clean, and as Karen's body bucked and heaved on the saddle her head spun free, trailing a crimson ribbon of gore before bouncing across the bloody grass. The body slipped, falling loosely, purple entrails spilling from under the breastplate as the corpse ended up spreadeagled and twitching.

Her teeth gritted painfully, Katherine hacked at her own foe, her heavy blows stunning the Knight of Dunan for a fatal second. Her sword swooped down, lopping the woman's right arm off under the shoulder and continuing through her armour into her chest. Dark gore belched from the jagged rent, and the Knight was pitched screaming onto the ground, blood spurting high as her body bounced loosely before coming to rest.

Karen's killer had already turned to tackle another foe, leaning back in her saddle to avoid an Amazon Knight's blade before plunging her blooded steel deep into another yielding body. The stricken Knight shuddered and sagged in her saddle, a stream of crimson jetting from where the blade was rammed under her ribs.

At Katherine's cry of challenge the enemy Knight yanked her blade free, not even watching her latest victim fall from her saddle, and turned to face her new opponent. Katherine felt a shudder of anticipation as her blade clashed with that of the enemy. This woman had just killed a good friend, an Amazon Knight as skilled as she. Despite her anger and dismay at Karen's brutal demise, Katherine felt her lust for combat rise.

Her sword clashed again and again with the enemy Knight. They were both exceptional warriors, and traded blows for more than a minute. Around them, bodies tumbled from saddles, and mortally wounded Knights gripped bloody tears in their armour or ragged stumps, yelling their defiance until their lives were ripped from them by invading blades.

Helena ripped her axe from a quivering body, feeling a thrill course through her veins as the dying enemy beneath her foot gurgled a horrid death-rattle. As the fog of battle cleared, the Amazon Knight lifted her head to take in her surroundings with shock. This was truly a battlefield. There was little green visible on the once lush grass; the entire area was now a bloody morass. Bodies sprawled lifeless, or twitched or writhed in agony. Limbs lay scattered amongst shards of armour and discarded weaponry. A decapitated head, free of its helmet, stared up at Helena from its resting place close by, blood still oozing from its exposed throat. Echoes of the battle returned to Helena slowly; Diane falling, her own frantic battles, dismounting from her horse when no mounted enemy remained. It had been the first mass battle between the estates, and it had been a fine battle.

But her thoughts turned to her friends, and she knelt by Diane's side worriedly, craning her head to see where the medics were. Once the battle was over they would save who they could, but Elizabeth and Marina were still fighting and they kept their distance until the battle was done.

As their Knights fought and fell, the two Ladies had spurred their mounts to charge each other with swords aloft. Their armour was intricately adorned, and they wore billowing cloaks and plumed helms so they could be distinguished from their warriors. They, by necessity, were not fighting to the death, but their blades locked fiercely enough as they clashed, and it was evident to the few warriors still capable of watching their battle that the Ladies were taking their combat very seriously.

Katherine saw her chance, as her opponent sagged weakly in her saddle, exhausted by their brutal conflict. Roaring her rage, Katherine lashed her blade down, splitting open her foe's skull, splitting her head neatly in two and causing chunks of brain and bone to spurt high. The body flopped in its saddle, and as Katherine dragged her blade free it fell to crunch against the sodden ground, limbs flailing spastically before coming to rest. Katherine glared down at the woman's body, wishing she had made the enemy Knight suffer before she died.

Elizabeth ducked back in her saddle as Marina swung wide, punishing her opposite by bringing her sword down sharply on the other woman's blade as it swished by. Almost unbalanced, Marina fought to regain upright in her saddle, and Elizabeth held back to sportingly give her time to prepare for the next assault.

It came swiftly, and Marina was soon reeling from the heavy blows that rained down on her hastily raised weapon. Her arm was numb and sore, and all too soon she felt her sword ripped from her grip and cast away, leaving her defenceless before Elizabeth. The Queen of Erran crowed in victory, bringing her mount in close and lashing out with the pommel of her sword, bashing Marina's helm and sending the Knight tumbling from her saddle.

Victorious, Elizabeth dragged her helmet free and raised her blade in victory. Her Knights, those that were still alive and conscious enough, raised a cheer for their Lady, who took in the bloody battlefield with a curious mixture of horror and pride. Her Amazon Knights had won!

Medics swarmed over the battlefield, ashen faced women who picked their way through the bodies to look for survivors and treat the wounded. Helena called a pair of girls to where she knelt at Diane's side. The dark haired warrior was breathing heavily, blood bubbling at her lips and her eyes staring. As she was stretchered off the battlefield, Helena joined her fellow survivors, a small knot of women who looked pale and shaken after the ferocity of battle. With relief Helena embraced Katherine, but her heart sank as she saw her friend's face.

'Karen's dead,' Katherine told her simply.

Stunned by the news, Helena managed to nod weakly. She found it hard to believe that after so long together the four of them could be parted in such a way. 'Diane is badly injured,' she said numbly, seeing that Katherine was looking for the other Knight, 'but she'll be OK. Doctor McManus herself is seeing to her.'

Karen searched Hayley's face. She was still groggy, but had obviously been following her words.

'I'm lucky enough to remember my death, Hayley. That experience has been robbed from you by McManus and her experiments. You're one of the new breed, indistinguishable from the original in most respects - like the Alpha subjects - but with enhanced physical attributes like myself. You're supposed to be better, but McManus has misjudged. She's left a spark of humanity in you, an inkling of morality, and that makes you weak. I'm the strong one, and it's time to prove it.'

Hayley's eyes flickered, but focused on Karen as she struggled to speak. 'W . . . what are you . . . going to do?'

Karen smiled as she bent over the shackled girl, kissing her brow and running fingers through her hair as she purred her answer. 'Take Erran for my own, as Dolores will take Dunan. Kill all that oppose me, and bring a new power to the throne.'

Hayley shook her head weakly. 'But . . . why?'

'Why?' Karen snorted, 'Elizabeth and Marina play games, and nothing more. There is no fire when we fight, no hatred to fuel our desire to kill!' Karen's eyes burned as she looked down into Hayley's own. 'You know what I mean. You know what it feels like to really live as you rip the life from a squealing enemy. Don't you want more?'

Hayley swallowed hard, her breath quickening as she jerked her head in a nod. Karen's hands traced the contours of her shackled lover's face.

'You can join me, Hayley. Imagine fighting together! Killing all who dare to face us. I will be Queen of Erran and you could be at my side. Imagine our final battle with Dunan, Dolores' warriors our only equals. What a battle that will be!'

Hayley nodded again, her eyes filled with desire. Karen stared deep into them, and as she saw Hayley's thirst for blood and power she knew she had won. Her fingers dropped to Hayley's shackles, deftly working the bonds free. 'We move within the hour. Erran's warriors will be away, and we will fall on the castle and take it for our own. Our army will only be fifty strong, but each of our Knights will be worth a dozen of the enemy.'

She laughed as she slipped Hayley's last bond, but as a tiny fist slammed up into her chin she shrieked in pained surprise and tumbled to the floor, her breath whooshing from her by the impact. She struggled to rise but Hayley's foot lashed out to slam into her face. Her vision blurred and she gasped for breath, aware that Hayley was kicking her time and again, screaming her rage as her bare foot stamped down, reducing her face to a bloody pulp.

A line of sullen Knights watched Elizabeth as she hurried through the castle gates and out onto the grassland, hoping forlornly that what she saw in the distance through the early gloom was some cruel joke. As she closed on the crucified figure hanging limp in the tepid morning light, she knew her hopes were dashed.

Madeline had been tortured; hung, spitted and then nailed to a cross. Her skin was blue, and a drool of bloody spittle spilled over her cheek. Her eyes were closed, but her face was taut and lined. She looked shrunken, as if long hours of cruelty had robbed her of her youth and beauty.

Her armour was in shreds, the clothing beneath torn and soiled. Her skin was ripped and gouged, her left breast no more than a burst sack of fat and flesh. Her groin and thighs were raw and streaked with blood, and a cruel wooden spike had been buried deep between her legs. Her belly was split, flaccid loops of purple gut hanging stickily from where they had oozed through the night. Iron spikes had been driven through the dead woman's hands and feet, cracking bone and pinioning her securely to the stout cross. Her hair blew in the morning wind, the only part of her tortured corpse that remained of the once beautiful woman.

Elizabeth stared, aware of the women that surrounded her but not meeting their eyes. As Handmaids arrived, the Grand Knight gestured them to the body.

'Get her off there,' she said quietly, 'but with care.' As the girls hurried to do her bidding, Elizabeth turned away, unable to gaze upon her dead warrior any longer. Her eyes met those of Emma and Diane.

'Prepare for battle,' she said quietly.

Diane nodded and turned away to head back to Erran. Emma stared at Madeline's corpse for a moment longer, then turned on her heel to follow the other marshal. Helena gripped Elizabeth's shoulder and hissed in her ear.

'Elizabeth, please think before you act. Marina did not sanction this! Someone is playing us for fools…'

'Enough!' Elizabeth shook her arm free, her face dark with rage as she rounded on the Knights who still stood around her. 'The blame for this is mine alone. I sent Madeline to her death, when I should have sent an army to avenge Isobel and the others. I'll play Marina's game if this is how she wants it played!' She strode towards Erran, gesturing for her Knights to follow. 'Take to your horses! Take your revenge to Dunan!' She stared at Helena. 'If you have the stomach, lead our army to victory.'

Helena shook her head. 'No, Elizabeth. Things are out of hand, and I want no further part of it.'

She stared into her Lady's eyes, seeing the fleeting sorrow and surprise that quickly turned to rage again. 'Then get out,' she snarled at Helena. 'If you won't fight you're no use to me. Gather your things and leave Erran. Be gone by the time our noble warriors return.'

Helena watched the Grand Knight walk away, yelling to Emma that she would be leading the army. She felt numb, unable to imagine leaving Erran but unable to stay while madness gripped her Lady. She turned to see Madeline's body being borne gently to the ground by Handmaids, and felt tears prickling at her eyelids. Another friend dead. There were so many now she could barely count them. Had she been wrong coming here all those years ago? Elizabeth had promised a life of pride and honour, but little of that remained now. Sinking to her knees, Helena began to weep, and the Handmaids who carried Madeline away tried their best to ignore her grief as they carried out their grim task.

As the sky began to lighten in the east, Castle Erran came alive as the Amazon Knights made ready to take their revenge. Emma rode along the line of angry warriors, not letting her rage effect her judgement.

'Not you, Lea. That arm isn't fully healed.'

'It's healed enough,' the Japanese girl said indignantly, but Emma shook her head and moved on abruptly.

'You too, M'Banta. Not a chance.' The giant Knight grunted her annoyance, but shrugged her beefy shoulder in acceptance of Emma's decision. The marshal eyed a knot of freshly Knighted girls, their eyes betraying their eagerness for blood. 'You sure about this? You're a bit wet behind the ears, and this'll be no tourney.'

'We've proved our worth,' Lady Dawn told her calmly, and Emma nodded with satisfaction. By Dawn's side, Ladies Neve, Inez and her former Handmaid Kimiko were ready and willing. Emma passed by Julia and Shathirana, Christa and Sarah, coming to a halt before Alexus.

'Bloody hell,' she observed drily, 'You've put some armour on.'

'It's a cold day,' Alexus retorted.

Emma took in the rest of her army. A hundred and sixty Knights, give or take, would ride into battle this morning. Her eyes found Michelle, armed and armoured beside her fellow Knights, and Emma nodded to herself as she wheeled her horse around. She moved to stand before the ranked Knights, and called for their tumult to quieten. Diane walked up to stand by her side.

'Elizabeth is staying here,' she told Emma. 'This is too much for her, especially as Helena seems to be leaving. I think I should stay with her.'

Emma nodded. 'Good idea. And don't worry about Helena. She's like us all. This place is her life.'

As Diane walked away, Emma raised her voice to address the mass of Knights.

'We're going to war, and we're going to win,' she shouted. 'Marina has made a grave mistake, and we're going to punish her for it. Our goal is Dunan's throne room, where the bitch has most likely mounted our Lady's sword as a trophy. We get it back whatever the cost.' She paused, making sure all the assembled Knights were giving her their full attention.

'This won't be like any fight you've had before. There will be no rules, save for one. We will not attack Dunan's Handmaids like Marina's bitches did ours. We'll rip their Knights asunder, and bring their Queen to justice. That's all. Are you up to it?'

Their roar convinced her they were. She drew her sword, for no other reason than to spur them into motion. 'Then follow me! We ride to war for our Lady! Do not dare disappoint her.'

The ground shook as scores of mounted Knights rode from Erran, Emma at their head, preparing to charge into the bloodiest battle the estates had ever known.

Hayley staggered into the corridor, staring back to where Karen lay sprawled and bloody. A trail of crimson led from the body across the floor, and Hayley's eyes widened as she took in her bloody feet. Most was Karen's, but she had been stamping so hard her skin had split.

She heard a whimper rise in her throat. She really was a monster. She had no recollection of attacking Karen, save for a feeling of mounting rage as the other girl had leaned over her, releasing her bonds.

She slammed the door on Karen, wondering whether the girl was dead but unwilling to approach the body. Turning, she hobbled down the corridor, intent on escape. She recalled Karen's words, how there was an army of cloned warriors ready to fall on Erran. She had to escape and warn Elizabeth.

As she reached a junction, a jumpsuited guard almost ran into her, recoiling as she saw Hayley's bedraggled form. 'What are you doing here? Who are you?' the guard demanded, her hand dropping to the holster at her belt. Before she could clear her weapon Hayley was upon her, her fists flailing. Grunting in pain the guard cannoned back against a wall, her vision dazed as her head cracked against a metal beam. Before she could clear her head, Hayley had ripped the knife from her belt and rammed it forward into her belly, twisting the blade and yanking it upwards. Eviscerated in one casual movement, the guard gurgled in agony as she slid to the ground, her legs spread wide and her guts piling up between her thighs. For a moment she gaped at her loosened innards, her hands plunging deep into glistening mass. Her eyes lifted to stare at Hayley in shock, and as the Amazon Knight watched, the light within them faded. Her head slumped onto her shoulder.

Aghast, Hayley backed away. She had killed this woman in the blink of an eye, without a thought. She sagged to her knees, turning the knife in her hands. A slash across her throat and it would be all over. This nightmare she had found herself in would finally be over. If Karen's crazy story was true then she was already dead. What would it matter? No-one else would have to die.

Before she could act on her impulse, something struck the back of her head hard. She collapsed forward, grunting in pain but still conscious. Someone straddled her back, and she writhed suddenly, bucking her body to try and throw her attacker off.

The woman attacking her was shouting something, but Hayley did not care. Already her instinct for survival had cut in again and she was fighting like a wildcat. Her knife slashed back, opening a gash on her attacker's thigh. The woman screamed in pain, but plunged a hypodermic needle down hard into the back of Hayley's neck. Her eyes popping wide at the sudden intrusion, Hayley yelled in fear, but within seconds she felt her limbs turn to jelly. The fight left her, and as her head came to rest against the cool tiles beneath her, her attacker's words became clear.

'Hayley? Can you understand me? I don't want to hurt you. I'm trying to help you. My name is Sally Kinvig. . .'

Hayley grimaced as Sally finished binding her feet. The effects of the drug were wearing off, but her mind was reeling with what the medic had told her.

As she half-carried, half-dragged Hayley through the laboratory corridors to the office in which they now sheltered, Sally Kinvig had confirmed the worst of Karen's story, and had added to the horrors as well. Elizabeth and Marina had known of the experiments, and their senior Knights were a part of it also. They had sanctioned experiments on the corpses of their fallen warriors, and allowed them to be cloned and re-animated by some manner of creature implanted in the base of the neck. The resulting warriors were called revenants, and Hayley herself was one of them.

Hayley had lost some of what she was being told. She heard Sally talk of Government funding, and military backing, a bomb within the laboratory and Karen's recent madness. All she could think about was the thing coiled around her spine. Her skin crawled as she imagined it controlling her during her spates of violence.

'Get it out,' she told Sally shrilly, and the medic looked up at her in surprise.

'I can't imagine how it feels to have something like that inside you,' she told the Knight carefully, 'but I strongly advise against our trying to remove it. You could die.'

'I'm already dead. And my friends will be dead if I don't help them. Rip this thing out of me! I don't want to lose control again.'

'You don't understand! The re-animator controls most of your bodily functions. It releases drugs to keep your strength up. Remove it and you'll be as weak as a kitten, if you survive at all. I'd have to carry you out of here! You're my best chance for getting out of here alive as it is!'

Hayley struggled to control her anger. Sally was right. She intended to ride to Erran and warn the castle of the imminent attack, but she would be no use to anyone if removing the re-animator incapacitated her. 'What the hell are you still doing here, anyway?' she muttered. 'I thought you said the technicians had been evacuated already?'

'Most of them, yes. Some guards and nurses remain. But I'm not really a nurse. I was sent here to keep tabs on McManus' work and report to my superiors. With what's happened over the last couple of days I had a chance to get a hold of data relating to the entire project!'

'You're a spy?'

Sally grimaced. 'If you must put it like that, yes I suppose I am.'

'But you're not here getting information to close the project down are you?' Hayley accused her. 'You work for someone else who wants to do experiments like this. Right?'

Sally nodded. 'You can think what you like of me. Right now I'm just trying to get out of here alive. Karen nearly killed McManus yesterday, and now the doctor is doing Karen's bidding. They know about me. I've been hiding out in the stores, unable to escape because Karen has posted armed guards at all the doors. I couldn't possibly fight them - up until now, that is.' She pulled out the gun dropped by the guard Hayley had just killed. Hayley eyed it with distaste.

'What do you want to do? Get to the monorail?'

'It's been disabled, and the tunnel is heavily guarded. The best bet would be the fire exit behind the loading dock. It's close to the project laboratories, but it's probably got the lightest guard.'

Movement in the corridor outside interrupted Sally, and she cursed under her breath. 'Damnit. We must have been spotted on a security camera. They're everywhere.' She gestured to Hayley to take cover, and moved adjacent the door, kneeling and taking aim. Hayley melted into the shadows, instantly ready for a fight. A face framed with blonde hair appeared at the window beside the office's door; another project guard scanned the interior, unable to spot the two girls in the dim light.

'Move on,' Sally whispered, 'there's nothing in here.' Her heart sank as the guard turned the doorknob and swung it open. She had sealed her fate, and possibly theirs too. Gunfire would be sure to bring the rest of the guards down on their heads. She made ready to fire, but then Hayley blocked her aim, the ragged Knight lunging from her hiding place with her knife outstretched.

The guard had time to take a breath to scream before the knife stabbed up under her left breast, angled perfectly to pierce her heart. Her gun dropped from suddenly lifeless fingers and she clutched her breast as she slumped against the doorframe. Hayley ripped the knife free, and as the guard pitched to the ground with blood squirting from her fatal wound, the Amazon Knight drew her arm back and flung the dripping blade at the second guard.

This girl was raising her hand, ready to fire. The knife crunched into her right eye, sending her stumbling against the corridor wall. Her arms twitched and dropped, the gun clattering to the floor before she slumped on top of it, her body twitching as she died instantly.

Sally gasped at the suddenness of Hayley assault. The Amazon Knight turned to her and grinned. 'I needed that. Time for us to move, I think. Although you've yet to tell me how we're going to get back to the castle in time to warn Elizabeth.'

'There are stables behind the rear entrance,' Sally told her, quickly searching the lifeless guards and relieving them of their spare clips. She held a gun out to Hayley but the Knight shook her head.

'Stables? Why would there be stables here?'

'The Chrysalis project is all about creating living weapons,' Sally told her, leading the way down the corridor. 'McManus dabbled with re-animating horses. Only a couple are being tested at the castles, but there are enough for Karen's army to use in their attack on Erran. I can't ride for shit, so I need you.'

'Resurrected horses?' Hayley shook her head in disbelief.

'More like engineered from scratch. You'll be able to use a limited form of telepathy to assist in controlling its actions, if you can work out how to do it. They seemed to work quite well.'

After a couple of minutes of making their way through the corridors, Sally gestured to Hayley for quiet. They were approaching the rear exit. A bored looking guard leaned against the wall up ahead, watching the activity in the open area some distance beyond. Hayley recognised the open chamber she had seen when she arrived with Karen. They were close to where the cloned warriors were stored.

'The exit is down that corridor beside the guard,' Sally whispered. 'Unless we can distract her, we're going to have to hit and run, get out quick.'

Hayley shook her head. 'Have you seen what's going on? There are revenants all over the place in there. They'd be on us in a second.'

Sally craned her neck to see that Hayley was right. The revenants were gathering in preparation of their attack on Erran. As she watched, Karen stepped into view, nursing her swollen face. 'You made a bit of a mess of her,' Sally remarked with satisfaction.

'Too much to hope that I'd killed her,' Hayley muttered.

Karen turned to address her troops. Most of the revenants were less than a day old, but they were all fit and ready for battle. Disappointed that there had only been slightly more than fifty ready to be hatched at a moments notice, Karen contented herself with the knowledge that these warriors were worth half a dozen normal Knights. As the revenants formed into a square, having armed and armoured themselves from a mismatched pile of weaponry Karen had managed to scavenge for them, the dark haired Knight called for attention.

'As I speak to you now, Erran's Knights are preparing to ride to Dunan. While they seek revenge on Marina's Knights, we'll take their castle and make it our own. I estimate there will be fewer than thirty Knights at the castle, but there are around three hundred Handmaids. They must all perish to make way for the new order.'

Hayley tugged at Sally's shoulder. 'Elizabeth is attacking Dunan? What's going on?' Sally shrugged. She had known Karen was planning something, but she had gone to ground before the Amazon Knight had revealed her plan.

Karen was inspiring her troops with talk of blood and victory, and Hayley fretted as she realised they were wasting time. 'OK, we're going to have to risk it. Let me get as close as I can to that guard. It looks like she's watching Karen more than the corridor.' Sally nodded, letting the tiny Knight slink off down the corridor towards the distracted guard. She held her breath as Hayley silently slithered closer and closer, her knife held low and ready to strike.

As a slight footstep sounded to her left, Sally's head snapped around. She gasped as she saw the figure standing by her side.

Karen had posted several revenants to guard the laboratory corridors, and this one vent a sibilant hiss as she lunged at Sally with her sword raised. She was little more than a girl, pale-skinned and bald as all the revenants currently were, clad in a light tunic and sandals. Her blue eyes shone brightly, but her sneer convinced Sally she was ready to kill. Without thinking Sally fired, and the gun in her hand barked twice, throwing the revenant away like a rag doll.

The guard before Hayley whipped around, her own gun rising as she let out a cry of alarm. Hayley lunged, plunging her knife into the woman's throat and ripping it aside. Blood gushed, and the woman gurgled horribly as her head flopped back off her shoulders, exposing glistening tubes that pumped crimson over her white jumpsuit. Her body crumpled, but Sally's shots had attracted unwanted attention.

Karen spun around, her eyes widening as she saw Hayley kneeling by the twitching guard. 'Get her! Take her alive!' she screamed to her revenants. A savage grin on her face, Karen watched her Knights charge, imagining the pleasure she'd take from Hayley before finally killing the impudent little bitch. She had given her a chance for glory, but now she'd die with all the others.

She ducked with a yelp as a bullet whizzed overhead. Hayley had grabbed the guard's pistol and was firing wildly into the approaching revenants. A warrior fell back clutching a ragged hole in her chest, tumbling under the feet of her sisters, but Hayley had not fired a gun before and her aim was high. She cursed and glanced to Sally. 'Let's go!' she cried, but her heart sank as Sally screamed in pain.

The revenant who attacked her had been hit with both rounds, in the belly and chest. But still she surged forward, her sword stabbing into Sally's thigh. Flesh split wetly, and the sword's tip tore from the back of Sally's thigh to splatter the wall behind with crimson. Sagging against the wall, Sally groaned in pain, ramming her gun into the revenant's belly and pulling the trigger again and again. Four muffled thumps made the warrior's body shudder, and ragged holes burst from her buttocks, spraying the floor with gore. Sagging with a sigh, the revenant crumpled back to lie writhing, clutching at the minced guts that oozed between her clawed fingers. Sally also dropped, gripping her wounded leg.

'Get out of here!' she cried to Hayley, instantly realising she didn't have a chance to escape with an injury such as this.

The young Amazon stared at her for a second, but knew she was right. She turned and ran, heading down the short corridor to where a flight of steps led to the exit. Ramming against the door, her fingers scrabbled at the handle, and she risked a glance over her shoulder to see that revenants were swarming up behind her. As the door burst open, she reached back to fire twice, the second shot hitting the lead revenant in the eye. Blood and brains splattered the walls as the revenant went down, and the warriors behind her sprawled over her twitching body. Hayley slammed the door shut, blasting the keypad on its outer frame and hoping that this would slow them up.

She was outside. A brisk wind chilled her scantily clad body, but she had little time to worry about the cold. She cast about frantically, seeing a helipad nearby and the silo opening into the laboratory. Beyond the silo a grassy mound was inset with another door, but to the left stood a concrete building with a wide doorway that would have to be the stable. Hayley forced herself into motion, knowing that Karen would not allow her to escape.

Below, Sally raised her gun as revenants bore down on her. Her first shot ripped open the throat of the lead warrior, and as she reeled back Sally pumped two more rounds into the second clone. The girl's body bucked as the bullets chewed the flesh of her breasts, but more revenants swarmed around her crumpling body. A sword slashed down, and Sally yelled in dismay as the gun was swept from her hand. A blade pressed up against her throat, and she froze as the bald-headed warriors surrounded her.

Hayley burst into the stables, expecting to find it occupied with any number of revenants. Two of the bald women were here, readying the horses for battle. The closest spun around, her hand already dropping to the sword at her belt. Hayley raised her gun and fired, sending three rounds into the woman's breasts. Blood sprayed from the wounds as the revenant collapsed back over a wooden railing, gurgling as blood rushed up her throat to spray from her mouth. The second revenant lunged, and Hayley turned to fire, gasping as the gun clicked empty. She threw it at the approaching warrior, who ducked as the weapon flew over her head. Hayley jumped to the body slumped nearby, tearing the dying revenant's sword from its scabbard. This at least was a weapon she knew how to use properly.

The revenant's blade swooped down, and Hayley blocked the blow expertly, bringing up a knee into the woman's midriff. She grunted and staggered, and Hayley thrust her sword in low, knowing better than to give the cloned warrior a second chance. Somehow the woman managed to bring her sword up to counter the attack, but Hayley's sword glanced off and rammed deep into her hip, and the revenant screamed in pain. Hayley ripped her weapon free, swiftly burying it between the woman's breasts. Her head jerked forward and she vomited blood over her chest, and her eyes rolled back in her head as she slumped to the straw-covered ground lifelessly.

Panting, with exertion and excitement, Hayley made to move past the woman's body, but something made her frown and kneel by the body, turning the woman's head to look into her face. Recognition hit her suddenly. This was Rachel, who used to be a bunkmate when she was a Handmaid. Hayley had killed this girl once before, during her trail. Her skin crawling, Hayley stood and stumbled back, but gasped as she heard voices from outside. Karen and her revenants were already here. She turned to where rows of snorting, patient mounts were saddled and waiting.

The horde of revenants descended on the stable doors, dragging them open as Karen hurried to catch up with them.

'Do not kill her! I want her taken alive!' She had yet to determine how much control she had over the revenants, and if they fell on Hayley in a killing frenzy her entire attack would be put in jeopardy. Sword in hand, Karen stalked forward to join her warriors, but as the stable door eased open, the revenants were suddenly thrown back as a whinnying stallion burst its way free.

Hayley wheeled the mount around, taking stock and gasping in fear as she saw she was surrounded. Revenants yelled and closed in, and she kicked in her heels to spur her mount into motion. A sword slashed out, its owner intent on maiming the stallion, but the beast seemed to twitch aside to dodge the blade, suddenly breaking clear of the mob and making for open ground.

Karen cursed as she saw Hayley make good her escape. She had just lost five of her precious warriors to this little bitch and the damned nurse. She gripped the arm of the closest revenant, and jerked her thumb at two others. 'You, you and you - get after her. Catch her alive if you can, but stop her getting to Dunan at all costs. She's going to try and stop Elizabeth's attack.'

As the three warriors ran for the stable to mount up, Karen yelled for the rest of her army to form up. 'The plan has not changed. We make ready for the attack. Prepare your horses, and ready yourself for glorious battle!'

The revenants cheered, eager for blood and battle, and Karen turned to face Dolores. The white haired Knight's leg still hadn't healed properly after Katherine had skewered her knee. McManus had tried major surgery, but the Knight still dragged her foot when she walked.

'What do you want done with the nurse?' she asked Karen. 'She knows a lot about the project; and she could be useful.'

Karen grunted. 'Keep her under lock and key with McManus. Leave two revenants guarding them, they won't give us any trouble. Then get back here; we leave in five minutes.'

Dolores nodded, leaving Karen to ready her troops as she made her way back inside the lab. Cursing her leg as she hobbled down the narrow stairwell, she still grinned as she approached the heavy strongroom door that led to the Chrysalis project itself. Beyond the now-empty cylinders where the revenants had been grown, McManus and Sally were under guard in the control complex. Sally was binding her leg as McManus did her best to operate a keyboard with her remaining hand.

'I trust you two will get along while we're away?' Dolores told them amicably. 'You have your orders, doctor. Although we'll have the upper hand, we're bound to lose some warriors, and we'll need replacements.'

'It's not like growing tomatoes, you know,' McManus snapped, 'Karen's demands are unreasonable. There are only about sixty subjects suitable for cloning, and we've yet to determine the psychological effects of having two or more identical revenants interacting with each other. Anything could happen.'

'Psychological effects?' Dolores scoffed, 'These girls know how to fight and die, and don't give a damn about anything else. The process will be underway by the time we return, is that clear?' Dolores turned away from the doctor, addressing the pair of revenants that would be staying in the lab on guard duty. 'Make sure they don't leave these consoles,' she ordered, knowing that Karen had made sure the doctor could not access anything other than Chrysalis data from this part of the lab.

As the white-haired Knight left, Sally finished binding her wound and watched McManus tap at her keyboard. 'Can we access the Scythe program from here?' she whispered. McManus shook her head curtly.

'Don't ask me how, but Karen seems to have developed an intimate knowledge of how the project and all its related systems work. These consoles are completely locked out.' She nodded towards an adjacent bank of consoles. 'If we could access those terminals. . . .'

'No talking!' A revenant stepped forward threateningly, and McManus flinched and bent over her terminal. Sally could only watch helplessly as she began the process that would double Karen's cloned army.

Hayley glanced over her shoulder, cursing as she saw her three pursuers were closing on her. Somehow the revenants were using their link to the steeds to goad them to tremendous speed, but Hayley herself didn't have a clue how to inflict her will onto her own horse. She dug her heels into its flank and yelled for speed, but the sweating beast was already doing its best.

She was only halfway to Dunan, and there was no chance she could keep her distance from the revenants until she reached Marina's castle. Accepting this, she angled her horse towards a tree-lined gully. She would have to try and lose them rather than out-run them.

Plunging into deep foliage, Hayley prayed her horse would not lose its footing. Thankfully she emerged onto a riverside path, and pounded along the narrow trail, risking another look back in time to see the first of her pursuers burst from the undergrowth and continue the chase. Only one! Her head snapped around to scan the trees to her left, and her heart sank as she saw the other two plunging through the foliage to intercept her. Her sword ready, Hayley steeled herself for combat against three skilled warriors, desperately aware that if she were to fail, Erran would fall to the revenant army.

A horse thundered up beside her, its bald rider grinning savagely as her sword swooped. Hayley brought her own blade back, parrying the strike but gasping at the revenant's strength. She didn't recognise the woman she fought. This girl might have fought and died for Erran or Dunan before Hayley even arrived. The thought helped, as she couldn't bear to think about having to face a friend - Katherine or Charlotte - in such circumstances. Thrusting that fear to the back of her mind, she lashed out her response to the revenant's attack, forcing the warrior to parry desperately. She fell back slightly, and Hayley dug in her heels and angled her mount aside as the trail ahead split.

She took a higher path, leading up the ragged side of the valley the river ran through. At least here the path was too narrow for her to be attacked, but the revenants were right behind her. The trail widened as it levelled out, and Hayley kept flush against the bank on the left-hand side, hoping that one of the revenants would be foolish enough to try and take her on the inside. Sure enough, the lead warrior surged forward, coming alongside Hayley as her mount's hooves thundered perilously close to the path's edge.

Hayley pushed guilt to the back of her mind as she lashed out with her sword. The blow was high, but as the revenant easily parried, the Amazon Knight brought the weapon down and stabbed, deep into the thick neck of her enemy's horse. The creature whinnied in pain and stumbled, crashing against the path before spilling onto the steep embankment that fell away to the river far below. The revenant screamed as she flew from her saddle, sailing loose-limbed before crunching against a tree-trunk and tumbling brokenly out of sight. Her horse also fell, it's legs flailing.

The other two revenants surged forward, intent on revenging their comrade as the path widened further. One forced her way to Hayley's left while the other cautiously approached on the embankment side, and within seconds Hayley was trading blows with both women. She yelled her defiance as her sword ploughed left and right, but there was no chance of staving off both revenants. A swordblade ripped open her upper arm and she screamed in sudden pain, just managing to duck as the second revenant's blade swooped towards her skull. Despite Karen's orders, these two looked eager to kill their quarry.

Even as despair settled on her, Hayley yelled in pain as a swordblade bit into her shoulder, knocking her aside. She gripped her reins, but felt herself falling and tumbled with a cry onto the trail, curling into a ball as hooves churned the ground close to her face. Her horse bolted on, but the revenants turned, grinning savagely as Hayley pulled herself painfully upright.

She cast about helplessly, but there was nowhere to hide or run. The bank fell away steeply to her right, to where jagged rocks below cut a swathe through the valley, and churning waterfalls roared. She could not even hope to control a jump down this precipice, and yet this was her only chance for survival. As the revenants charged, Hayley launched herself over the embankment, sliding down the wet grass until she began to tumble helplessly, striking rocks and crashing through vegetation as her descent became nothing more than a headlong plummet into oblivion. Her piercing scream was lost in the roar of the waterfalls as her body was swallowed by their swirling spray.


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