Come dancing with devils Need not to know their names We'll waltz like an army For the fear of our pain Our souls become useless As the day they were born In a rusted arm rocking chair Away from your storm Come in Closer, - Blue October The fires had largely extinguished themselves by the time he had managed to pull himself out from under the wreckage. He stumbled past the piles of smoldering wood, the shattered brick work and twisted metal that were all that remained of the village's homes and civic buildings. He heard the plaintive keening of the mortally wounded from beneath mounds of rubble, but was both too injured and too bone weary to care. They had come for him, again. In the dark of night, twenty-three lightyears from their last encounter some six months earlier, the training cadre had descended upon the hapless village. They arrived like a horde of reapers intent on filling the afterlife’s coffers with souls. The people of the village had been repaid for their hospitality in the currency of death. For all their warmth and welcome, they had been mere appetizers, an amusing distraction for the dark hunters as they butchered and bulldozed their way through the small community in their search for him. He paused and looked skyward as his breath rose in plumes above him in the chilled night air. The clouds and snow were now past. The naked stars stared back at him with cold indifference. He was cursed, damned. He had known better. Innocents had died before because he had elected to hide among them. His own weakness had led him here. In his arrogance and weariness and desperation for humanoid contact he had made the unwarranted assumption that they had finally left him in peace, that he had finally run far enough to evade them. For years he had eschewed civilization for fear of endangering others by his presence. But what use was a Listener without others to commune with? Without people and their stories he was less than nothing. The unhearing ear, an empty vessel, a shell of his true potential. He had been a soldier in a former life, countless years and parsecs ago. He thought he had left those crimes and burdens behind him, but the universe had other ideas. A penance was to be exacted, and so the Hirogen had come for him five years earlier on an otherwise unremarkable journey between worlds on a simple transport. They had scythed their way through the other passengers with all the zeal of eager students seeking the approval of their instructor. Of all those aboard the tramp freighter, only he’d survived. He had fought with a manic intensity born of desperation, and had somehow managed to wound two of the monstrous creatures. It had been a fluke of fate, a terrible mistake. Had he died with the other passengers, it would have ended there. Instead, he had the terrible misfortune to have piqued their interest. They had poked and prodded and tortured him as they sought to understand what made him different, what had made him worthy prey. They discovered his people’s longevity, and that fact had sparked their hideous intellects to conceive of using him as a long-term teaching aid. A beast of prey to be hunted, captured, tormented and released again into the wilds for those times when the Hirogen found themselves without suitable prey in their vicinity. They had told him to run as far and fast as he could, that they would be coming. And so he had. He looked back at what little remained of the inn that had hosted him. The Yanuk family, an extended group of Zetrarian merchants, had taken him into their inn and showered him with the milk of companionship - food, drink, song, and story. He closed his eyes as the images of their last moments replayed upon the screen of his mind... The fire in the giant hearth burned hotly as Eden’Baugh filled his stein with another portion of their homemade brew, a heady mix of fermented local grains that had the kick of a matter/anti-matter reaction. She had favored him with a smile that promised that further adventures might be had once they had retired to their rooms for the night. Ontus was regaling him with an amusing story about the legendary idiocy of the local stockyard owner when he felt a familiar tremor in the recesses of his mind. It had been months since he’d felt the unwelcome sensation that accompanied the proximity of the psi-hounds, the quasi-sentient telepathic tracking animals favored by the Hirogen. It was not unlike deja vu, a slightly surreal feeling that something was amiss before a consciousness brushed across his mind. It was like looking into a warped mirror as his consciousness mingled with a simplified and distorted copy of his own mind-state through which the trackers sought to predict his movements. Without thinking he leapt to his feet, startling his hosts in the process. “Get out!” he shouted. “Get out, now!” They simply stared at him as if he’d suddenly gone stark raving mad. He was weaponless for perhaps the first time in recent memory. Clad in the simple, threadbare style of the locals, he had refused to carry his usual litany of knives, pulsers, slug-throwers and disruptors that frequently left him a comical, clanking mockery of a soldier. The entire wall of the building imploded and showered the occupants of the great room with a storm of splinters and brick shrapnel. He dove for cover beneath the table and avoided the worst of the onslaught, then scrambled back to his feet as the first of the psi-hounds charged into the room amidst a flurry of snow from outside. His mind raced as he searched for anything nearby that could be used as a weapon. He spotted potential and dove for a fireplace poker, its tip still glowed orange from where it had been inadvertently left extending into the flames. The poker hissed terribly as he grasped it and the stench of his own burning flesh filled his nostrils. The searing pain was offset by the flood of adrenaline his glands pumped into his bloodstream in response to his naked terror. One of the hounds had pounced on Jovis, Ontus’ eldest son. The young man shrieked horribly as the ravening, genegineered beast flayed him open with its claws. He raced forward and drove the scorching end of the poker into the animal’s flank. It howled and flailed; it’s foot struck out and sent him flying backwards where he splayed across the top of the table. As he tried to gather his wits, a shadow fell across him. His eyes cleared and he saw the hulking form of a Hirogen hunter as the giant loomed close. He coiled his legs and struck out, making contact with a bubbling cauldron of soup that his hosts had just set upon the table. The kettle clanged noisily off the Hirogen’s armored chest as its contents sprayed across the monster’s unprotected eyes. The giant bellowed in pain and shock. It’s massive tetryon rifle clattered to the ground as the hunter clawed at his own face. He pulled himself towards the end of the table and rolled onto the floor where he grabbed a hold of the rifle and heaved it’s muzzle upwards. He hooked his other arm through the ridiculously large trigger guard and pulled desperately with the crook of his arm. The rifle discharged with a blinding flash and roar that knocked the Hirogen backwards at least five meters and punched his armored bulk through the far wall. He had no time to savor his victory, for he turned back towards the now exposed outer wall of the inn in time to see another Hirogen eviscerating Ontus with swift strokes of it’s curved blade. He levered the unwieldy rifle up and onto the table top where he placed the young Hirogen apprentice in his sights. Just as he was about to pull back on the trigger, a psi-hound barreled into him. He fell forward onto the tetryon rifle and the portable cannon flipped up and fired into the ceiling. As the hound struggled to find purchase on the hardwood floor and turned to rush him again, the entire structure collapsed in a creaking, popping mass of cascading timbers. Now, hours later, he stood examining the ruined village as he cradled his broken arm protectively with his other limb. He found no solace in the growing stillness and so he started off and trudged through the drifting snow with no particular destination in mind. The catch-web that engulfed him delivered a jolt that set his nerves on fire and mocked the pain of his burned hands and broken arm in its intensity. He awoke to see five pairs of metallic boots surrounding him, the cadre, he realized with renewed dread. They had simply waited him out, prolonging their hunt by busying themselves with the remaining villagers like felines toying with their prey. He began to shut down his cognitive centers one by one in preparation for the agonies to come. Following the depredations of his captors, he would be released yet again to flee across the stars and thereby provide the Hirogen with a pleasant and educational diversion. He reflected that this was his lot in life and honestly no less than he deserved, given the gross misdeeds of his youth. Perhaps that fact is what kept him from taking his own life in those endless hours of soul-wrenching despair as he awaited the inexorable approach of the hunters. He had earned this. Thus ended his two-hundred and twenty-seventh year... His eyes snapped open and he sat bolt upright, the persistent beeping of the alarm matching tempo with the pounding in his chest. He was soaked in sweat, and his nerves tingled with the distant memory of the catch-web’s caress. He swung his legs over the edge of the bed as he took a series of deep breaths and fought to regain his composure. The foreign eye-shaped portals of his guest quarters seemed to taunt him, so reminiscent of the windows in the family’s inn so long ago. But this was not Atim-Karias, this was Deep Space Nine. Within two hours his new assignment would arrive. The newly re-commissioned starship Gibraltar, soon to be commanded by one of his oldest friends from this most recent of lives. A new beginning for them both, and his opportunity to repay the friendship that had buoyed his bruised and burdened soul during his four agonizing years at Starfleet Academy. Pava Lar’ragos stood and headed for the shower as he cast aside the memories of that terrible night from hundreds of years ago and half a galaxy away.