RALI- Renegade

Authored by Taki
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One person can always make a difference- the motto of Xlack’s home, a culture steeped in tradition. Its guardians are hybrids called Aylata.
When the new emperor sends Xlack to a foreign, confusing land, Twi finds him. The Aylata’s mysterious ancestors left another legacy. Twi’s people are the dangerous kind of cousins, ones that rival the Aylata’s power. Twi needs Xlack’s help. He needs her trust.
Change follows a plan bigger than either of them. Yet one person can always make a difference.
Renegade's Misplaced Preface
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Chapter 1 of RALI- Renegade
Written by Taki
Renegade's Misplaced Preface
Reckless Energy
Never Emerges Gracefully
And Dies Easily

So History has taught
And History is a part of all of us
It belongs to us all

It has shaped who we are
And we shape it by what we remember
By what we conclude about those who have gone before

History so often paints a biased picture

As I pace these echoic halls so empty
Brittle glass crunching beneath my boots
Think of those who have tread the same path

Their thoughts, their dreams
Their fears, their plans
All a part of who I am

Twi, who is not invincible
Ject, who would do anything for his friend
Revel, who will rule them all
Xlack, who will become a legend

Before I can tell of me
One must understand these heroes and duty-seekers
Revolutionaries, rebels, and renegades

For my survival depends
Upon proving the truth
Of a simple statement

One person can always make a difference

—The One They Misplaced
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Renegade section 1 scene 1- Thief!
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Chapter 2 of RALI- Renegade
Written by Taki
Renegade section 1 scene 1- Thief!
One person can always make a difference.

Words etched in the interwoven bars of a door propped open, a greeting to those who entered this small shop. They were the motto of this territory, overused, rote, and easily overlooked. The glittering jewels laid out in the display cases did a much better job of catching the eye.

“S-sorry, Sir,” stammered a petite man behind the counter, four eyes blinking rapidly. “It’s early and my master isn’t available to assist you yet.”

Etiquette and tradition dictated the patron apologize for arriving so early, but apologies rarely escaped the lips of Anko Phy, self-termed most infamous conman extraordinaire. Pride reveled in how he always remained one step ahead, never trapped in a situation where he truly need plea for forgiveness.

Though he was not ethnically a native of Zalerit, Phy had grown up and honed his skills on that vast, mountainous world. Dodging authorities there no longer offered a challenge, but this place promised to be different. This was on the planet Napix’s soil in a growing city and its suburbs called Kizmet District.

Anxiety kneaded Phy’s gut, reminding him death was the penalty for most crimes here—some deaths worse than others. No one contested his claim to the title ‘most infamous’ because dead men made silent rivals.

Yet, to be killed, one had to first be caught, and to be caught, one had to be noticed. If asked for his most defining feature, Phy would have said it was his skill at not being recognized for who or what he was. Today he wore the long, white vest of a nobleman, sleeveless and open in front, girded with a wide belt, hemline displaying a motif not unlike that of the richest clan in the empire. The belled pant legs and sleeves of his high-collared under-tunic contained secret pockets useful for concealing weapons and other essentials—slight recompense for how the pointed shoes pinched his toes.

This lowly man who watch the shop, his too many eyes revealing his native Zalerit heritage, became Phy’s first mark here, falling for a traveling collector act. From a certain point of view, that job description could apply to Phy, and it amused the thief, deepening the polite smile he forced into his eyes. Residents of Districts with Aylata Protectors were always so gullible, thinking nothing could happen to them.

A dozen gorgeous gems were exhibited before him, perfectly cut symarrs. Phy could have taken the whole lot of them and run, but he wasn’t the type to draw that much attention to himself. One gem would do.

Picking up an average-sized stone, he pretended to be deep in thought and squeezed the little gem a bit harder than advisable.

“Imbeciles!” Phy bellowed, beady eyes bulging with as much ire as he could muster. “What kind of sloppy workmanship do you have here?! This jewel just cut me!”

“Sorry, Sir,” the shopkeeper apologized, “but-”

“Why should I buy from this shop?! Why should anybody buy from this place?! And you’re just standing there like a fool! Get me something to dress this wound!”

Shoulders hunched, the shopkeeper ran to grab a bandage.

Anko Phy walked out of the shop with a symarr securely hidden in the wrappings around his right thumb. He had never truly comprehended why symarrs were so highly praised. They were just hard, clear rocks. But they brought a heavy price tag even for a piece so small its weight would hardly be noticeable.

Outside, he chuckled, elated at a job well done and smiling wide beneath his faux beard, this latter popular among noblemen who fancied themselves as powerful as the Aylata race. He would have patted himself on the back if it wouldn’t have gained him a strange or questioning look.

It was a bustling morning, the daystar peeking over the mountaintops, setting the windows in this affluent valley glittering. This was Phy’s first day in the city, and he liked it already, a collection of wealthy marks lined up and waiting. The city was aesthetic as well, a creation of curves and smooth surfaces and incredibly clean, not a scrap of litter in sight. The smell was even better, a swirling blend of nature—crisp mountain air and the perfume of the terraced landscape’s flowering vineyards—and shops, bakeries, chandlers, jewelers.

A young man landed just in front of Phy. “Good day, Nobleman. Where are you headed?”

“To sell my investment and make a profit. That’s not a crime, is it?” Phy answered nonchalantly.

“Not unless your product was obtained illegally.”

Phy let out the most innocent laugh he could manage.

“How did you hurt yourself?”

Caution wrapped Phy and replied a wary, “What do you mean?”

“Well, I’m sure your hand is bandaged for some reason.”

“I’m in a hurry.” Phy hastened, determined to outpace danger.

“But I’m not through talking to you yet, Anko Phy.”
The thief’s heart leapt into his throat, and he made a conscious effort not to choke, his great uncle’s words ringing louder than ever before: If you get caught by an Aylata, you might as well bid the world bye-bye, especially in our business.

Clearly this kid was an Aylata, a keeper of Napix law and order. While his neat, ashen curls and demure features would almost allow him to blend with the natives, his dark attire teeming with rank and symbolism wouldn’t. None but Aylata were permitted to wear the adaptive material Tsoqisi, while this one left the fabric’s slightly leaden texture undisguised, black pants tucked into even darker boots at his calves, subdued silver straps lacing the inseam-half of the footwear. His high collared jacket reflected this style, secured at his right shoulder, hem cascading from there to his left hip while paler bands crisscrossed under his arm, an ebony shirt peeking from beneath them.

His confident, take charge, better-than-you-at-everything demeanor was another clue. If anyone dared look him in the eye, the strange, ghostly green-gold color neerj dancing in his gaze testified as to what he was.

Those facts alone should have cued Phy to flee, but to top it off, Phy knew this one’s name. Everyone did.

Trying to sound unconcerned, Phy mumbled, “What do you want, Ravi Xlack Skyme?”

“The symarr you took from the shop.”

Phy’s legs immediately heeded the command to run. Unfortunately, Xlack Skyme caught his arm before he got anywhere.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about. I have nothing!” Phy whined as the Aylata’s grip grew steadily tighter.

“Then what were you going to sell?”

Phy sunk to his knees, numbness creeping across his right hand as he tried to pry open the Aylata’s grasp.

“Please…” A crowd gathered around them: his marks, his audience. “Citizens, I have been falsely accused!”

Xlack Skyme frowned. “Unwrap the bandage around your finger, then.”

Phy shook his head, trying to come up with a plausible excuse. Even the daystar stared at him, peering over the row of terraced buildings lining this pedestrian path. Kizmet seemed built of glass and jewels, too dazzling at the moment.

The Aylata’s insouciant voice wrenched back his attention: “I’ll give you one more chance to cooperate. Show us all what’s hiding in your bandage.”

Phy eyed the Ier resting peacefully in its sheath on the Aylata’s belt. He knew it was an inanimate object, a tool, a weapon, an impossibly flat square while it slept, but it seemed to dare him to keep up his defiance. He gulped.

Slowly, Phy unwrapped the bandage, careful to conceal the symarr between his fingers, but the Aylata saw through his trick.

Picking the tiny rock out of Phy’s hand, Skyme passed it to a little girl in the crowd, instructing, “Return this to the jewel shop on Rebalo Street.” She nodded and scurried off the way Phy had come.

Released, the thief dropped to the ground, shaking circulation back into his dominant hand as he disdainfully watched the little girl run up the street. Then he remembered the danger currently surrounding him.

Scrambling to his feet, Phy tried to flee, but the crowd packed too thick around him, whispering and staring.

“Get out of the way!” he yelled, but no one complied.

The Aylata tossed his Ier into the air, where it snapped open with the dreadful hiss of electricity ripping a new path. In an instant, the square plate transformed into a thick, loosely-woven staff formed of a dozen luminous, twisted strands of magnetized light, seething power.

Catching the Ier, Skyme twirled the tendrilled staff around his hand like an athlete warming up. “Tell me, why should a man who repeatedly breaks the law out of greed be allowed to live?”

“I have a family,” Phy whimpered, “with little kids…and pets!”

“Really? Do any of these little kids have names?”

“Um…uh…my son…my kid’s called Rebalo.” As soon as he said it Phy realized the stupidity of that answer.

“Did you name your kid after the street or the animal?” Skyme asked.

“It was my wife’s idea.”

“Is she also named after a pest?”

Some in the crowd laughed. Rebalo were common vermin, hated or feared by every proper woman.

“Do you think I’m stupid, Mr. Phy?” The Aylata swung the Ier, looking bored, as if he wished he were anywhere else. How old was he anyway? Just over two decades, Phy recalled. Young Aylata were notorious for overzealously enforcing the law.

Phy shook his head quickly, backing away from the long swipes of the Aylata’s dangerous weapon.

Xlack Skyme nodded. “Good. I don’t think you’re truly stupid either. You know what happens next.”

Anko Phy got to his knees like a classic groveler, and even his gaze fell to the ground. “I’m sorry. I took the symarr from the shop. Now I appeal to the Mercy of the Judges.”

Ethereal eyes narrowed, the Aylata stepped closer, Ier held motionless behind his back. “Step one: admittance. If you so insist, you will have your day in court, but let’s make one thing perfectly clear: Today you lost your merchandise and maybe some dignity, but if you ever steal in my District again, you’ll lose a lot more.”


-continued in Renegade section 1 scene 2- Heir's Demise-

Thank you for reading this scene from Renegade, the first of four novels in the RALI series.

This character driven series set in a vast, detailed universe primarily follows Xlack Skyme as he learns to deal with change and culture clash. If you like flowing fights, wry wit, cute creatures, and an array of weapons and talents, this series is for you.
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Chapter 3 of RALI- Renegade
Written by Taki
Renegade section 1 scene 2- Heir's Demise
Prejudice and discrimination defined the Napix Empire.

So deeply were these roots woven through the culture, to pull them out would cause this structured society to collapse. Most raised in this environment were blinded, not to their existence, but to their injustice, and those who could see had neither the power nor the audacity to change it.

Change, however, is inevitable.

Sarqii Kise was a bundle of shaking nerves. He hoped no one could tell. After all, he was supposed to be the symbol of strength and serenity now. He was about to be installed as Napix’s new emperor, but he felt like a small boy playing in his father’s flowing garb and oversized shoes—dreaming and completely unprepared.

He stared at his reflection as a servant hemmed the traditional, feather-like robe. While Sarqii was tall, he was not the giant his father had been. His clear, dark eyes were narrow and slanted, whereas his father’s had been wide and bright, saturated with wisdom and compassion. Sarqii couldn’t tell what his own eyes held. Would anyone find it too odd if he combed his curtain of hair over his face and let them pretend he was someone else?

His valet insisted that would be ridiculous. His hair must be pulled back exactly like his father’s. His hair was exactly like his father’s, darker than night and thick enough to damage most things meant to cut it.

Change is inevitable. The words were a song sung to him in a dozen languages by a mother he barely remembered. Her eyes had been like his, though hers had contained a universe of secrets.

No one knew much of her, whereas everyone had loved his father; even the mighty race of Aylata marveled at the peaceful reign of Gera Kise, the man with an infallible memory and the compassion of a dozen grandmothers. Everyone had loved his oldest son, too.

Unfortunately, they were both dead.

Sarqii’s older brother had caught some horrid disease and perished within a week nearly a year past. Despite investigations, where the disease originated or what exactly it was remained unknown. Medical experts still disputed how it killed him. Sarqii only saw his brother collapse during a spar exercise, a sequence of shallow tremors followed by stillness, dark blood dripping from the corner of his mouth.

His opponents had been thoroughly inspected and disposed of for good measure, no useful information gleaned. The oldest prince had disappeared behind med-center doors, and Sarqii had not been allowed to see him, not until the Honoring.

The body within the glass coffin had his brother’s face, but it lacked his intrinsic wild energy. It was still. Much too still.

More recently, his father’s fate had been too similar: collapse in a council meeting, death reaping him before a doctor could arrive. Sarqii had seen him only moments before. The emperor had patted his heir’s head and promised to join him for breakfast after this one conference.

So if the eighteen-year-old second son of an adored ruler of a massive empire felt a bit inadequate, it was completely understandable. Yet that was not the only reason nervousness clung to him. Last night, Sarqii had awoken to find a mysterious stranger in his room.

“You will die tomorrow,” the man had foretold, a shadow attired in foreign armor nearly the color of Sarqii’s hair, skin not much lighter.

Sarqii had leapt to his feet, snatching the knife-like kanaber hidden in his pillow, but he didn’t activate its blade. If the intruder had intended to kill him, he would already be dead. Plus, the liqui-mattress still sloshed beneath Sarqii’s feet, resulting in unsteady footing. Accidently falling on his own weapon was a definite possibility.

“Why do you say so?!” Sarqii demanded, dramatically pointing the kanaber’s dormant handle at the stranger.

“I say so as a warning, Prince Kise,” came the man’s sonorous reply. Sarqii couldn’t place the accent—sharp-edged consonants slurred into growled vowels. Reflected light from Zalerit, the planet they claimed as a moon, streamed through the open balcony, glinting in the stranger’s eyes and showing their dark neerj color—a gossamer flicker of emerald and bronze. It was not the bright green-gold Sarqii normally associated with the term, but still, only Aylata exhibited neerj in any shade.

He held no weapons, only a look of complete seriousness. “Run. If you stay here, tomorrow’s sunrise will be your last. When you meet the Ravida, he will kill you.”

Sarqii backed toward the edge of the bed, hair wild from sleep. He didn’t have a shirt, and his loose pants wouldn’t encumber him, but any sudden movement would easily see him entangled in the blankets or the bed’s canopy. He would rather have his feet on the solid stone floor or braided rug, but even then he couldn’t fight an Aylata. Where were his guards?

Swallowing an unhealthy dose of paranoia, Sarqii snapped, “How do you know the Ravida’s plans?”

“I heard him speak them.”

Sarqii opened his mouth to protest, but the stranger raised a finger, holding it a hairsbreadth from Sarqii’s nose. Even for an Aylata he moved swiftly. “Before you ask how, let’s just say it’s my duty to spy on Aylata. My knowledge keeps my people alive.”

That made no sense to Sarqii; how would Aylata spying on Aylata keep Aylata alive?

In response to the prince’s dumbfounded expression, the man continued, “You don’t need to know how I know, just know that I do. If you run now, I can make sure you’re protected, but if you stay, I can do nothing. I cannot confront the Ravida.”

Shaking with emotion, Sarqii tried to slap the stranger’s finger out of his face, but the man moved it back to his side before Sarqii even had his hand completely raised, and the blow fanned empty air.

Sarqii grew indignant.

“You think I’m quite an idiot! Like I’d run off under the protection of strangers! You’re trying to get me to run from the Ravida so he can’t protect me…to tear apart the system of succession…to undermine my trust in my protectors!”

“Keep calm, Prince Kise,” the man advised, unmoving and a portrait of serenity with a worried face. “I mean only exactly what I say.”

Sarqii turned on the kanaber, its short, flat laser blade casting an eerie glow over the spacious room, and the stranger vanished.

Sarqii had stayed, but only because he couldn’t decide whom to trust, the stranger or the Ravida. He didn’t want to be around either.

At the former emperor’s Honoring in the palace’s grand hall, the first Aylata to arrive was Messenger Tat Pozan.

“The Ravida is the highest ranking of all Aylata. If you are to be Emperor, you must meet him,” the wrinkled Messenger told him, “and you must gain his approval. Without it, the Aylata won’t follow any emperor.”

Sarqii felt like he needed to barf.

Mingling with the crowd of aristocrats and wait staff, an uninvited Zalerit observed the prince closely, thinking this plan extremely risky. Surely if he were caught here, a lowly Zalerit, no excuse or uniform in a hall brimming with noblemen and finery, they would blame the impending tragedy on him. Yet, even if he didn’t completely understand, there was a reason this Zalerit was here.

“You live in the shadow of great pawns and kings,” his master had told him. “Watch carefully and remember everything you see.”

He did exactly as instructed, memorizing everything—from how the emperor-to-be anxiously swallowed each time the doors swung open to admit more guests, to the way the light sinking through the pool above the glass ceiling cast strange, undulating shadows in this crowded antechamber. Refreshments waltzed around the room via trays carried on waiters’ shoulders, the scents of strong alcohol and delicate meats wafting through the miasma of perfumes. No chairs awaited the crowd’s desire to sit, traded for mats on which to kneel—long, furry swaths in swirling rows around the space’s center. There, a throne—a heavy, ornate, and rigid thing—hovered above scenes etched in glass, simple, white lines drawing the story of this ancient empire’s second emperor, the founder of the Kise dynasty.

A murmur rushed through the assembly as finally Ravida Vuet K’alaqk entered the room. The highest-ranking Aylata was short compared to Sarqii, hematite hair combed back but refusing to lie flat, crowning him with stubborn, slanted pikes facing behind. A thin beard bordered his jaw, something never seen on purely Napix men. It reinforced the alien authority infused in his every line.

Through the crowd, Sarqii met the Ravida’s gaze. There was the green-gold neerj he recognized, flickering and pale over gray irises. Focusing on the color neerj was like trying to map a kaleidoscope or staring into an opal’s depths—ever changing, forming scenes that could not be.

Sarqii’s breath caught in his throat, and the one he called mother screamed. Everyone turned to the widowed empress, a mixed reaction impelling those nearest her; some scrambled back, others rushed forward, examining the limp boy she cradled: Chyr, Sarqii’s younger brother. At fourteen, he had already caught up to Sarqii in height, and the former empress could not hold him, lapsing to the floor’s glass mosaic. Dark, glossy blood dripped from Chyr’s nostrils and the corner of one eye, staining her white gown.

Medical help was summoned, but the doctor kneeling by the boy’s side wagged his head.
Sarqii exhaled what he thought would be his last breath, a horrified moan escaping him. Anger and fear entwined together and shook his hands. He looked back at the Ravida and found the man staring at him, a look of sad determination in his eyes.

‘I cannot confront the Ravida,’ Sarqii recalled the stranger’s words. Well, I can, he thought. I will!

Sarqii took a heavy step forward, his shoulder bumping one of the guests and calling his gaze for the briefest of glances, but there was no time to apologize. The Aylata’s words rang in his mind, and as his eyes returned to the Ravida, a wave of nausea overtook Sarqii, sight all but abandoning him. But he could do this; he was the son of Emperor Gera Kise.

Forcing himself to straighten in a manner befitting his position, he took another step forward, but the room spun, and his head hurt like it was about to implode. Sarqii raised his left hand—his dominant hand, despite how askance people regarded that—a demand for acknowledgement on his lips, but he got no further.

Sarqii tripped, falling first on one knee, and then on his side. A moment later, he realized he couldn’t breathe, and he couldn’t remember how. His head hit the ground, eyes half-closed, and he couldn’t remember how to move them.

The crowd around him was yelling and shaking him and shuffling away, but the last thing he saw was his mother’s face, streaked with tears as she pulled him into her arms alongside his brother.

The last thing he heard was a Mind Aylata’s whisper, the kind only its intended heard: ‘Forgive me.’

-continued in section 1 scene 3- Summons-
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Chapter 4 of RALI- Renegade
Written by Taki
Renegade section 1 scene 3- Summons
Freedom was lost slowly by the worlds of the Napix Empire. Tradition strangled it.

Many blamed the Aylata, voices soft and hidden in shadow. Wisdom did not possess those who openly spoke against these hybrid sons of the planets Napix and Magni. The Napix Empire was designed to remind all that the Aylata were different, more powerful, better.

But not all were content.

For centuries a revolution brewed, buried deep where few could see and fewer could do anything to stop it. Now, finally, it breached the surface, flowing through cracks like lava, dangerous as it changed the face of the land.

How far one man’s strings stretched was impossible to tell, especially now that he was dead, his legacy fallen into the realm of speculation and assumption.

Assumption also heralded Aylata Protector Xlack Skyme would grow into something legendary. Unfortunately, assumption was a little vague as to how. ‘Someday’ was nice, but for now, boredom was his stalker.

Apprehend thieves, reboot the mechetts, monitor everything in the District—all in a day’s work for an Aylata Protector. Sometimes he also mediated disputes, but people usually didn’t want Aylata involved too deeply in their affairs, and those rare occasions often weren’t exciting anyway. Being there the moment something went wrong had become rote.

The mechetts had alerted Xlack to someone dressed as a nobleman bearing false credentials, and Xlack had observed the man for a while, hoping he would turn out to be something more interesting than a petty jewel thief. A whiny one, at that.

He was glad to leave Anko Phy in the capable care of custodians when the mechetts notified him of another arrival. Following their directions, Xlack came to his own front door.

Xlack’s home was on the top floor of Kizmet’s tallest tower, which meant it was also limited in space since each story was a smaller block centered atop the one below. Most of the walls were clear and hashed with metal supports, creating a million windows that could be darkened with the right touch. The view over the sprawling valley was breathtaking in the midmorning light, but it was not Xlack’s focus as he placed his hand on the door and it rushed aside. An uninvited guest waited within the apartment.

“Vlokem, what are you doing here?”

The paunchy, middle-aged Messenger’s broad face showed his every slight emotion, neerj barely perceptible in his gaze, soft, dark hair parted on the left and copiously gelled. A plain, pale scarf denoting his rank draped across his front, clipped at either shoulder and hanging behind him.

Koth Vlokem hadn’t hesitated to make himself at home, leaning back as far as the chair would allow, feet propped on the table. “What do you mean, ‘what am I doing here?’ Can’t I have a little vacation to visit my friends?”

“Since when have you had any friends, Vlokem?”

A large jar on the shelf to Xlack’s left wiggled its way to a crash course with the ground, saved at the last instant by Xlack’s quick reflexes. The jar growled.

As Xlack lifted the sealed lid off the vase, a small, scaly face baring sharp teeth emerged from the container—Rell, Xlack’s young pet elitbeast. The little animal snarled and snapped in Vlokem’s direction, trying to squirm free.

Pulling the beastling from his prison, Xlack quickly scanned him for any signs of injury. The six-month-old beastling had a pudgy feline body with fragile, sleeve-like fins running down his forearms. Triangular ears flopped on either side of his head, soft scaled in the same pewter as the rest of him, obsidian spots splotching his rump and dripping down his hind legs.

“Your little runt didn’t exactly give me the most welcome greeting either, and I have the holes in my boot to prove it,” Vlokem griped.

Good boy, Rell, Xlack thought as he looked at the Messenger askance, wondering who had sent him. The scent of Kobolast District still clung to Vlokem—carefully curated forests and sparkling lakes—blending with his tincture of toothpaste and laziness, permeating the suite.

“You’re here for some reason. Tell me quickly or I’ll get bored and leave.”

“So you want drama, huh? Well, how’s this: I bring you a message from the emperor!” Standing, the Messenger overdramatically clenched his fist and punched the air above his head, holding the pose in a lame anticlimax. Xlack would have walked out on him just for that, but the inflated words had seized his attention. Caught off guard, he took a step back.

Sometimes it was difficult to tell when Vlokem was serious, but despite his joking tone, the words were backed with conviction of truth, and they were important considering the rumors flying across the dataseas—rumors that claimed Emperor Kise and his heirs were dead and the Aylata hid this fact from public knowledge to avoid widespread mayhem.

But those were only rumors, right?

“Then Emperor Kise lives,” Xlack ventured cautiously, setting Rell on the floor and gesturing for him to stay.

“Uh, no,” Vlokem replied, opening the cupboard. “You got anything with flavor in here?”

“Who sent you, then?” Xlack questioned.

“The new emperor.”

Xlack crossed his arms; getting information out of a Messenger sent to tell him stuff shouldn’t have been this hard. “And who is the new emperor?”

“Just before the Ravida died, he named his son, Revel K’alaqk, emperor,” Vlokem reported like it was yesterday’s news.

Xlack felt like someone had just whacked him over the head. He took another step back, sliding over the armrest of his favorite lounging chair and plopping on its oversized cushion, ashen curls falling in his eyes.

“The Ravida’s dead, too?”

“Yeah, some mystery disease wiped him out along with Emperor Kise and some other important people. You didn’t know that?”

“Obviously not.”

Vlokem shrugged, turning back to the cupboard. “Not my fault. Try to keep up, will you?”

Xlack’s mind raced. Why hadn’t he heard about any of this?

They’re covering it up, he realized. Very few people know. When the public finds out, there’ll be chaos.

And assumption’s someday had just gotten a lot closer.

Noticing the anxiety growing in his master, Rell padded closer to him, letting out a worried whine. Xlack signed ‘stay’ to him again, and Rell sat down, his slender tail slithering across the floor so fast his little rump wiggled back and forth, too. He liked it when Xlack practiced command signs with him since this usually involved treats.

“Okay, Vlokem, you got me,” Xlack admitted. “I couldn’t tell you were joking.”

“That’s ‘cause I’m not.”

“But Revel K’alaqk can’t be emperor. No Aylata can. That’s treason!”

“Actually it’s only an unwritten law that says an Aylata can’t be emperor, so depending on how you look at it, you could see it as okay, but hey, no one really cares about my opinions; I’m just delivering his message.”

Xlack stood up, arms crossed, distrust covering his face. “And that would be, finally?”

“He wants to see you about a special mission. You have…” Vlokem glanced at his datapad, checking the time, “four ruahs to arrange for your District and rendezvous at Aylata Tower.”

A ruah could feel like forever, but it was only a twentieth of the Napix day. Using available ground transportation, it would likely take Xlack all four ruahs to reach the Tower, but neither the journey nor the destination were what bothered him.

It was an odd request. Revel K’alaqk normally avoided him; he would go out of his way not to have to talk to Xlack. Hence Xlack would have expected to be the last person called to K’alaqk’s new court. It made him distrustful of this special mission.

But he would go. It was too strange to ignore.

“Vlokem, you ever wish you were something other than a Messenger?”

A grin resided in Vlokem’s replying voice, but his face was lost somewhere in the cupboard. “Only when you’re not thinking about how much you want to be a Messenger.”

“Then watch my District while I’m gone.”

Vlokem fell backward, catching hold of the cupboard door to steady himself. “What?!”

Already headed for the exit, Xlack waved a hand dismissively, a grin sneaking across his lips. “Consider it a favor.”

“But…” Vlokem’s small eyes narrowed. “How exactly are you planning on getting there?”

“I’ll fly your Oha. Since you’re staying here, you won’t need it. Never fail, Messenger.”

Before Vlokem could protest, the door slid shut.

-continued in section 1 scene 4- The New Emperor-
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Chapter 5 of RALI- Renegade
Written by Taki in portal Trident Media Group
Renegade section 1 scene 4- The New Emperor
The arrow-shaped, metal hull of the borrowed Oha groaned as Xlack guided the plane down through thick clouds. Beads of moisture scurried up the windshield, the gale hissing its irritation at being unable to reach the Oha’s occupants.

Rell slept, curled in Xlack’s pants pocket. Oblivious of the outside world, he snored softly, content to be close to his master.

Xlack felt restless, hands fidgeting on the Oha’s steering staves. He was a Protector—one of the four caste-like ranks of Aylata, above Messengers and Defenders and equal with Watchers. Protectors were accustomed to knowing what awaited them around every corner. They knew every nook and cranny of their assigned Districts and rarely left them. That would be a breach of loyalty—a contradiction to duty.

Duty said summons from dubious emperors were to be ignored. Even Emperor Gera Kise had no official command over Aylata. Duty insisted Kizmet should be his priority, not satisfying his curiosity as to what Revel K’alaqk wanted.

Yet still Xlack flew toward Kobolast, Yakru, the capital of the Napix Empire. The sprawling network of lush estates mortaring pockets of urban areas appeared beneath him as he broke through the clouds. Here he was halfway across the world from his District, his home since receiving it as his first assignment last year.

I didn’t abandon Kizmet, he told himself. Vlokem’s there. He can handle it…

It’ll probably be a mess when I get back. Hopefully this doesn’t take too long.

Kobolast was not home, though it held Aylata Tower, the center of the Aylata universe. At the southern edge of the vast Imino Lake, the Tower resembled a pair of wings stretching into the sky, a showcase of sharp points. Perched alongside it, the emperor’s palace was a structure of sweeping curves, like waves frozen as they crashed ashore, dwarfed but also enhanced by its neighbor as if the massive wings were its own.

As Xlack landed in a hangar near the Tower’s base, the afternoon storm clouds hung heavy and low, the Tower’s metal and the palace’s foggy crystal gleaming at the touch of the daystar’s few penetrating rays.

Even inside, the air smelled of rain and forest, the ventilation system contributing a cold, numbing aroma. The leather and fur of the Guards’ uniforms was another prevalent odor, though Xlack didn’t venture near any of them. The noble Guards remained at their posts—one on either side of the hangar entrance, another in an alcove high above the door that led inside—silently staring at Xlack and the tiny elitbeast trotting along at his heels. Anyone with a golden neerj overlay in their gray eyes was easily identifiable as an Aylata, and no full-blooded Napix questioned an Aylata’s presence.

Xlack didn’t talk to them either. He didn’t need to. The Tower computer orchestrated everything here, including control of the teleporters. There were even some rooms one couldn’t get in or out of without those teleporters. It was mostly the ‘out of’ part that bothered Xlack.

Passing another Guard as he entered a wide, tube-like corridor, Xlack pulled his datapad from a small pocket on his belt, allowed it to unfold, and synced it with the computer, downloading his instructions.

Welcome, Xlack Skyme, scrolled across the screen.

Where does the new emperor want me to meet him? Xlack typed.

Before the computer replied, angry shouts erupted from the Guard behind Xlack.

Turning, he found the Guard hopping on one foot, other leg in the air trying to shake off a certain beastling.

“Rell, here, now,” Xlack ordered, snapping his fingers and pointing at the ground next to his feet.

Obediently, Rell let go and bounded to the spot indicated, not taking his keen, dark eyes off the flustered Guard who complained, “That creature of yours ruined my service shoes!”

Almost invisible punctures dotted the toe of his polished, fur-lined boot.  Rell roared, the tiny sound matching his tiny body.

“The shooter in your hand,” Xlack questioned, gaze on the palm-sized, L-shaped weapon held slack in the Guard’s grip, “why isn’t it in your holster?”

Smile false, the noble rubbed the shooter’s chrome barrel with his half-untucked shirt, which along with his open jacket was in violation of dress code. “I was just polishing it.”

Xlack felt if the weapon were any shinier, the next time the Guard drew it he was just as likely to blind everyone as he was to hit his target.

“Maybe next time an elitbeast comes into the Tower, you’ll keep your weapon where it belongs,” the Aylata reasoned. He would have said more, but he was trying to be nice. Like most Protectors and Watchers, Xlack greatly distrusted Guards and troopers.

Xlack’s datapad beeped, alerting him that the Tower computer awaited his response.

“Never fail,” Xlack dismissed with a forced grin, thumb barely brushing the datapad’s touchscreen to send his affirmative reply. His skin was still in contact with the button when the teleportation system moved both he and Rell into a dim room deep within the Tower’s basement.

And they were not alone.

Xlack dropped to the ground, an arrow slicing the air just above his head, the sharp-tendrilled staff called an Ier leaping into his hand. The arrow burrowed into the wall behind him with a smooth THUNK, gleaming a shiny black in his Ier’s radiant glow.

Two Messengers faced him, a menagerie of weapons in hand, yet neither wielded anything as ancient as a bow. That one stood closer, arm still cocked back from releasing the arrow.

“Yield,” she ordered, voice as soft as a feather’s landing.

One Messenger obeyed, straightening into a relaxed stance, hands respectfully behind his back. Petite and dark-haired with freckled skin, he hailed from a similar background as the lady, likely her childhood escort and now part of her dowry.

The other, nearly three times her size, stepped in front of her, shooter aimed at Xlack.

“Yield, all of you!” the lady demanded, shoving past the second Messenger. Hesitation slowed him, but he did relent, retreating a pace to stand alongside the first, hands dropping to his sides, grip tight on a shooter and a throwing kanaber.

Xlack did not lower his Ier. Completely still. Unsure.

His home region, Tsira, was considered the most pleasant of the five. An unbreakable bond existed between Tsira Aylata, a brotherhood that had always coddled Xlack. Yet his mother hailed from Skaelao, where treachery hid in every shadow. She had told him ‘Take caution as your guide’ enough times in his first two years of life it was burned in his brain alongside ‘hello’ and ‘thank you.’

Now the part of him that listened to his mother whispered warnings of a trap.

“You, too, Ravi Skyme. Sheathe your Ier,” the lady insisted. “I mean you no harm.”

“You shot at me with an antique arrow.”

“You weren’t supposed to just appear there!” She slung the bow across her slim shoulders, her hair swaying. Such was thick black silk, long enough to brush the floor despite the twists elegantly binding it.

Xlack looked around, noting the arrow now decorating the wall seemed to be the only one of its kind here. The soft wood it had impaled lined all the room’s walls and the floor, pocked and scarred long before anyone present had been born. Crisscrossing, black metal beams stretched to the faraway ceiling, scratched and scorched, witnesses to hundreds of fights, thousands of lessons. At scattered intervals, clay pillars and arches stood guard, extra ground for those with certain Talents, hosting sconces with lit torches—the only apparent light source besides Xlack’s Ier. The air was dusty and reeked of sweat.

A sparring room. A Sereh, female of the Aylata race, standing in the middle of it with a bow and arrow. From somewhere, Revel K’alaqk watched them. Xlack could sense him nearby, but he couldn’t pinpoint the new emperor.

What was he expected to do? Rell, skittish of the Ier, hid in his pocket. The Messengers stood relaxed but alert, watching Xlack. The lady stared, firelight and Ier glow dancing in her eerily bright neerj eyes.

Xlack questioned, “What were you aiming at?”

She shrugged. “Aiming wasn’t the point. I was supposed to stop the arrow.”

“With what? Me or the solid wall? If it was the wall, congratulations.”

“No!” the lady defended, face darkening. “I was trying to control it with…” She trailed off, wrapping herself in secrecy.

“With what?” Xlack pressed, eyes narrowing.

“With nothing.”

A fragile appearance was easily attained with her petite figure and fancy garb—shoes with heels as long as her hand and narrow as her littlest finger, delicate, chain-link straps spiraling nearly to her knees and half hidden by a faux skirt. The latter pooled on the ground by her right foot, slit on the left stretching just above the waistband of her dark shorts. Walking would be hazardous, running impossible.

She shook her head, suddenly appearing overly docile. “I apologize for shooting at you, Ravi Skyme. When I asked the computer to make sure I and my escorts were present when you arrived, I guess I should have been more specific.” She met his gaze tentatively, clinging to the secrecy around her.

“You’re learning to use your Talents, aren’t you?”

Surprise spurted from her, gaze dropping surreptitiously to the floor, confirming his assumption.

“You were trying to control the arrow with Micro-magnetism.” He reached toward the wall, and the arrow flew back to him. When it had nearly arrived at his hand, he pulled it around in front of himself, holding his arm outstretched before her, the arrow floating above his palm unstably as if rocked by invisible waves.

The lady reached for it, but as soon as her fingers touched the rusting metal, the arrow shattered into shimmering dust, falling to the floor in pieces almost too small to see.

“Hey! Why did you do that?” she whined.

“So you couldn’t shoot it at me again.”

A whisper exploded in Xlack’s mind, too loud and bright, unfurling into the sentiment, ‘Do not break Topeka’s toys.’

‘Come out from wherever you’re hiding and talk to me then, K’alaqk.’

Stillness prevailed, no one stepping out of shadows or pushing through a door. With the overwhelming boom of K’alaqk’s voice, Xlack figured he must be near, but where exactly remained a mystery.

‘Why did you not listen to Topeka when she told you to put away your Ier?’

‘I was listening very hard, trying to find where you were.’   He still was, gaze raking everything.

‘Then why not do as she asked?’

‘I don’t take orders from girls.’

A laugh crept into K’alaqk’s whisper, ‘I wonder why that is. What if it was a girl’s order that could save your life?’

“I’m tired of this conversation already!” Xlack shouted. “Come out or I’m leaving!” ‘Stop avoiding me like I don’t exist.’

Revel K’alaqk dropped from some high location, the spectating Messengers teleported away at a wave of his hand.

Xlack stared. Was that the emperor’s traditional robe draped loose and open over K’alaqk’s simpler Aylata attire? It was true then. Revel K’alaqk claimed the emperor title despite millennia of tradition insisting that was not a position an Aylata could hold.

“I recognize your existence,” K’alaqk said, sharp gaze pinning Xlack, “though I do not see why you care what I think of you.”

“It shows exactly what you think of me, calling me here, and then hiding like a perfectly mannered host, leaving your wife to greet me so sweetly.”

“She apologized,” K’alaqk defended, strong face too easily carrying arrogance, a trait that bled into every line of his straight stance, hands hidden in the emperor’s long sleeves. He stood between the room’s other occupants, just beyond the reach of Xlack’s Ier but within an arm’s length of Topeka. She was hidden now, as the two Aylata were equal in height and her chin was even with their elbows despite her heeled shoes.

“I feel obliged to remind you she’s not allowed in Aylata Tower,” Xlack combatted, glaring as though he could see her through K’alaqk. “No women are.”

“No women except for me,” Topeka corrected, peeking around her protector. At K’alaqk’s sideways glance, she silenced herself, though the chrome cascades of wire-leaves dangling over her hair still tinked with her movement. Rell peeked out of Xlack’s pocket, entranced by the noise and shine.

“Topeka is in a unique position,” the new emperor excused, “as am I.”

Xlack glared at him. “So I heard. What do the Refraction Leaders say about your position?”

“They have some interesting opinions,” K’alaqk responded. Interesting was an understatement. Xlack was sure his uncle especially had some very strong opinions on the matter. “But I did not call you here to discuss them with you.”

Xlack gripped his Ier tighter, subconsciously slipping into a defensive position. “Then get to the point already.”

“What are your goals, Xlack Skyme? Where do you picture yourself in the future?”

“I’ll be a Refraction Leader, possibly Ravida.”

K’alaqk’s left eyebrow rose, sniffing out the lack of conviction. “Possibly?”

“Or maybe you’ll be Ravida since we can’t all know everything like you.”

K’alaqk blinked the jab aside. “You do not approve of Topeka learning her Talent, do you?”

“What?” Xlack’s eyes jumped to where the Sereh now sat on the floor, Rell happily on her lap, nudging her hands in a demand to be pet. The soft white of her sheer arm warmers, cropped shirt, and dangerous skirt reflected a spectral glow in the Ier light, as if she were an apparition and might fade away at the slightest provocation.

Xlack had never met a Sereh without that alien quality, some subtle sense of not belonging to this world, but then, weren’t Sereh prized for their foreign heritage, same as Aylata?

K’alaqk reiterated, “You do not believe Sereh should learn to use their Talents.”

Xlack considered this carefully. His mother could whisper, as could his aunt. In fact, whispering was his aunt’s main form of communication since an accident in her youth left her without the ability to speak aloud.

So no, he did not think Sereh should be denied all knowledge of their Talents just because they were female. But the notion still seemed strange.

Sereh don’t need to use their Talents,” Xlack replied, “not the finer applications. Aylata will always be there to protect them.” The whole idea of systematically teaching a Sereh to use her Talents seemed incredibly…odd.

That appeared as his fallback phrase around this Second Ravi, his rival for the title Ravida. Revel K’alaqk had a different way of looking at things than everyone else.

“Why the weird questions, K’alaqk?”

“I have a special task for you, but I know not what sort of weird circumstances you will come across while completing it.”

“Thanks for the weirdly vague answer.”

K’alaqk smiled. “I send you to the planets Tala and Knalz.”

Xlack’s feet screamed for him to run. K’alaqk didn’t smile and say normal things. His smile was the predator of common sense, and prey fled when in his presence. Go to some planet Napix already controlled? Simple. Venture to words beyond the empire? Different story. That was a job for a Watcher, and last Xlack had heard, that was not his title.

“K’alaqk, I’m a Protector. What about my District?”

“Did you not make arrangements for your District before coming here?”

“Yes.” Sort of.

“Then your District will be fine without you,” the emperor reasoned.

Confusion swirled around Xlack. They had known about the worlds Tala and Knalz for as long as history had been recorded, but those planets had protectors of their own, ones the Aylata purposely avoided. What could Revel K’alaqk, new Emperor of Napix, possibly gain by this? Why send someone with no skill in foreign diplomacy to navigate what would become a touchy situation?

“I want you to gather as much information as you can while in their space,” K’alaqk continued, “especially information on their protectors. I warn you to expect cultural differences.”

‘Don’t send me,’ Xlack thought so hard he accidently whispered it blindly to anyone with Mind Talents and close enough to hear. Embarrassingly, this included K’alaqk.

“Afraid?”

K’alaqk’s taunting smirk efficiently strangled Xlack’s patience.

“Of course not! This just doesn’t make any sense. Why should I care about some far-off worlds? What’s in it for me?”

K’alaqk’s stare hardened as if about to throw a suggestion. Well, Xlack was plenty on guard for any of those. “Benefit to you is not in question here. You are an Aylata, pledged in allegiance to Napix.”

“Yes, to Napix, which does not have an Aylata as its emperor!” Xlack put away his Ier and turned to leave. He was not a Watcher, but a Protector, and he would return to his District. What would become of the empire if order were allowed to fly out the window?

“Test me not, Xlack Skyme,” K’alaqk warned, acute calm surreal, unnerving.

Xlack stopped. “I have every right to.”

“There is no Ravida for you to run to and plead your case. If you continue to speak against me, I will destroy you.”

Turning back, Xlack scoffed, “You’d try.”

“I would not have to. Encumbered by roots of cowardice, you would not even best Topeka. You have been given such potential, but you squander it, preferring to sit lazily in your District, growing old.”

Composure tried to flee despite the vice Xlack kept it in. A fight between him and K’alaqk would expand beyond just the two of them, death reaping its fill until it claimed one or both. If Xlack killed this questionable new emperor, would that make him a hero or a traitor?

Abandoning K’alaqk, Xlack’s eyes found Topeka, who sat on the floor in humble silence now petting a very spoiled beastling.

She interpreted the glance as a cue for input. “It is an interesting assignment.”

She had a point. Did he want to be in the middle of everything, key in influencing the future, watching events as they unfolded? Or did he want to sit in Kizmet, bored, out of the loop, left trying to pry information out of datasea rumors and Messengers like Vlokem?

Xlack spun on his heels, decision made. “I shall do as you ask, K’alaqk, but don’t call me lazy or a coward ever again.”

Revel K’alaqk grinned.

Standing, Topeka handed Rell back to Xlack, asserting, “Peace be yours, Ravi Skyme. Never fail.”

“Contact me when you stand on their soil,” K’alaqk instructed. “I will tell you no more until then.”

Xlack glared at him with distrust, half-formed objections whirling around his head, but before he could voice any of them, a wave of K’alaqk’s hand sent Xlack and Rell back to the entrance nearest Vlokem’s parked Oha.

“Completely ridiculous,” Xlack mumbled as he stepped through the door. Nervousness and determination blended in a batter coursing through him, sapping his energy. Tala and Knalz awaited, unaware, and Xlack knew little more than they did.

-continued in Renegade section 1 scene 5- Pillow Talk-
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Chapter 6 of RALI- Renegade
Written by Taki
Renegade section 1 scene 5- Pillow Talk
Revel’s quarters within Aylata Tower still seemed odd to Topeka, a space unlike any she had ever seen. It reminded her of ripples.

The room was round, the curved walls’ pale wood set with dark grain drawn in expanding circles. On the stone floor, piles of river rocks formed swirls and rings—a pattern that changed daily, skirting the bed in the far quadrant and the overstuffed couch near the door. The computer usually positioned fires somewhere on the rocks.

Three such fires burned now.

“Want to see what I learned today?” Topeka toppled over the armrest of the couch, back playfully crashing into Revel’s side.

His silver and neerj gaze slid to her, abandoning cluttered datacharts. “Of course, but be forewarned: if your trick fails to impress, I will force you to memorize minute tax laws with me.”

Topeka grimaced, rolling so she faced him and the transparent sheets unfurled across his lap. Glowing diagrams overlapped, columns of finely-printed exposition squeezed into every space. She couldn’t tell if they truly pertained to tax laws, but such was a subject she had little understanding of and less interest in. She twirled, feet catching her when she ran out of couch.

“You have to throw something at me.”

A suspicious smirk crawled across Revel’s lips as he grabbed the round couch pillow beside him and lobbed it at her. Topeka tensed, arms flying up in her defense, fingers splayed. The pillow sailed past her hands, alighting on the bend of her elbows.

“Nice posing catch,” Revel commented, patting the cushion alongside him. “Come take a datachart.”

“Wait,” Topeka pled, nervous hands fisting at her sides, pillow fallen and forgotten. “This one works more consistently.” She lifted one foot—with the onset of night, now silkily slippered—and stomped. A clatter like shattering rock thundered as, just before her heel, a mellifluous forcefield slapped the tile, rendering a web of cracks. With a sidestep, Topeka inspected her accomplishment, pride prancing in every line.

“Impressive indeed. You can break the floor,” Revel praised. “Name your prize.” He lifted a hand to her, and she took it, the embodiment of a smile as she glided onto the seat next to him. An Aylata equal to her in years and Talent would have considered her trick elementary and poorly executed, but she had made great progress in the few months since Revel had proposed she learn to use Micro-magnetism.

She was a work of art in the hands of many sculptors, sixteen years old and possessing a natural knack for finding and filling her perfect role even when she hardly understood the situation. Revel adored her.

“My prize is an answer to a question.” She leaned against him. “Protectors are not diplomats, nor are they soldiers. They don’t do well when you take them away from their precious Districts. Why send one so far outside his comfort zone?”

Revel draped his arm across her shoulders. “Do you wish to hear my true motivations or what I will tell the Refraction Leaders?”

“If you don’t already know the answer to that, you don’t know me at all.”

“Hmm, both. Truth first, then. Xlack Skyme will be very useful…if he learns the correct lessons.”

“And if he doesn’t?”

“He will not return.”

Her heart pinched, and Topeka glanced up, meeting Revel’s gaze for an instant before her eyes darted aside. She trusted Revel implicitly, and yet, to hold a Mind Aylata’s stare was considered unwise; a lifetime of looking away was a hard habit to break.

She bit her lip. “You’re not just sending him off to die? Like my brother was sent?”

“Have you so little faith in me, Topeka?”

“I have faith in you to the point of madness, Revel. So make me understand.” She looped her arms around him, feeling the small sigh that rolled his shoulders beneath the heavy emperor’s robe. The garb was too large for him, really, generously layered and intricately wrapped closed, all but concealing the simple tunic and pants she had always known him to wear, fiery wings of the K’alaqk family crest bold on his left pant leg.

“Our world ventures through major change; some will not like it.”

“He embodies defiance,” Topeka admitted. “Some might consider getting rid of Xlack Skyme prudent, if a little heartless.”

“I want him on our side.”

Timidity softened Topeka’s words, the fires’ cracking embers nearly overpowering her voice: “Everyone expects he will be Ravida.”

The words hovered over dangerous ground. Revel, too, was a Ravi, a legal contender for the coveted position of Ravida…if he wasn’t emperor.

“They expected him to be older by the time your father passed,” Topeka realized, “but despite that, he has great influence among the Aylata.”

Revel nodded. “He is an icon for those whose weighted opinions sway his decisions.”

“Your plan is to send him away and somehow convince him to listen only to you?”

Revel chuckled, “The way you paraphrase things always makes them sound so ridiculous.”

But isn’t it? Topeka thought. Xlack Skyme doesn’t believe in the changes like you do. He may even oppose them.

Revel held her closer, invisible reassurance draping over her like a blanket as she snuggled in. Did he hear her inner musings? It often seemed like he did.

“As it is said, ‘Caution is a great ally, always pointing out the best forks in the path,’” Revel whispered. Topeka loved proverbs and recited her favorites frequently, but this one was new to her ears. She highly suspected Revel made up all his quoted adages himself.

“What does that mean?”

“There are several ways this could go; it is not always my choice which path we tread, but there are several I will accept.”

Topeka’s hands squeezed each other. “You mean you cannot guarantee Ravi Skyme will return or won’t return. He may even die…and you’d be alright with that?”

Revel’s reply fell gently in her ears, like the last line of a lullaby: “Change makes cowards and heroes of us all.”

Even me? she balked, intrigued despite herself. Was she a coward? Plenty of times throughout her life she had been scared senseless, and she certainly wouldn’t want those moments showcased.

However, she fancied becoming a hero. Would she be a legendary Sereh, a name on the tip of every historian’s tongue? She would surpass the great Sereh of old—Adara Arique Smirazi, who was pretty but didn’t really do anything; the deceitful Adara Sibsi Uanik; Adara Aviah Nalavoy, who destroyed everything she touched.

Topeka was learning to employ her Talent; that was a start. Already she could…break the floor. On second thought, that wasn’t such a great beginning.

Suspended in a half-dream state, Topeka drifted off, lulled into sleep by the rhythm of Revel’s breaths, her head on his chest. He had resumed reading.

Topeka sat up a little and shook sleep from her mind, light flashing off the jeweled wedding pendant laced through the top of her right ear. Its design was a clever combination of the chevrons that were the symbol of her family and the wending flames found in the K’alaqk crest.

“Is that what you’ll tell the Refraction Leaders, that change makes us all cowards and heroes? Xlack Skyme is their most prized heir.”

“For now, they know nothing of Skyme’s quest, and they need know nothing. It is too soon to script what they will need to hear.”

She leaned into him again, worry gilding her. “They say when taming an animal raised to despise you, step one is not to play fetch.”

“But a leash or a cage will only cause it to hate you more,” Revel countered.

“You mean to set him free?”

“You said Xlack Skyme embodies defiance. If I tried to force him to accept change, would he? He must choose it,” Revel reasoned, and Topeka peeked up at him. The firelight played over the curves and angles of his face, adding seriousness to his words. This was an expression Topeka knew well—some blend of teasing and thoughtful—but the ambiance hinted at extra mischief.

His hair, though black, toyed with the light in a way Topeka envied, and never lay flat. Always combed from one ear to the other, it stood in leaning pikes, giving his shadow a rather ominous appearance. Yet, Topeka knew his locks were softer than a beastling’s belly.

“Topeka, why are you staring at me?” he queried, and she laughed; she couldn’t help it. His expression delved into a priceless mixture of curiosity and insult, and Topeka’s mirth only grew.

“Revel,” she whispered, smile sweet as she pecked a kiss on his jaw, “I’m glad the Ravida named you Emperor.”

-continued in section 2 scene 1- Nightmares-
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Chapter 7 of RALI- Renegade
Written by Taki
Renegade section 2 scene 1- Nightmares
A nebula surrounded Napix, a vast, opaque cloud named for the giant star at its heart, Zackertoonii. Beyond it, in a region called Alliance Space, that empire was merely ancient legend faded into myth.

Those of the Alliance had many living myths, many secrets, plenty nightmares of their own:

“I can’t leave you here like this,” you say to him. How dare he tell you to abandon him, those narrow, azure eyes glued to you, fogged with pain but brighter than the sun here on this distant world. You will carry him if you must.

“One life for another, Twi,” he insists, voice fragile and strained. “Run. Now. Don’t make it two for nothing.” He can’t breathe. You can see his anguish and terror, though he hopes you don’t. You see that wish, too.

“No,” you protest, helping him to his feet, “you’re coming with me.” He grimaces as you wrap his arm around you and support his weak stance, any movement an explosion of pain.

You know why he asks you leave him. Your Talent shows you that, same as his hurt. He doesn’t want you seeing him so broken. But if you desert him, you will break, too. As reckless, stubborn, and arrogant as he may be, if Tyko Sep dies, your heart will shatter, and you will never find all the pieces.

“If you stay, we’ll both die,” he argues. The floor shakes, chrome walls reverberating with the clamor of your pursuers closing in. “Promise me you’ll make it out of here alive.”

“At least hide,” you admonish. “I’ll return…and I’ll bring help.”

“Promise me,” he persists, “and run like the world disintegrates behind you.”

They burst in from all sides, the floor, the ceiling, erupting through the walls: ruthless Kelison warriors, insectile and giant.

Navaria Twi awoke with a silent scream, tears hidden in her silvery eyes. Awake or asleep, that day three months past still plagued her. In the chaos, she had lost track of Sep, and when she could do nothing else, she had obeyed his last request, leaving him and the Kelisons behind.

Brushing blue-black plaits back over her shoulder, Twi sat up straighter, trying to stuff her helplessness and resentment back into their cage, safety-straps tight across her body. Her request to return for him had been denied, and well-meaning individuals assured her there was no way Sep could have survived longer than three secliis, three heartbeats after she left.

“It’s not yer fault,” they told her.

“I know it’s not my fault,” she repeated over and over, but the words found no roots in her splintered heart. She had returned home. Sep hadn’t. How could she pretend that was okay? Twi clung to her hope for him, refusing to give up on him, watching and waiting as she and Lanox patrolled along the ill-reputed fringes of the Zackertoonii Nebula.

Nebulae were plentiful in Alliance Space, both stunting its growth and protecting its borders. No Alliance-developed ship had shields that could withstand their intense radiation, and even oha shields couldn’t withstand it for long. The nebulae were like an ocean: beautiful but claiming all that fell into their clutches. The Alliance nestled within a bubble in this ocean, an island with many lakes and rivers to be avoided. The Zackertoonii Nebula was one of these latter, a lethal cloud separating the twin planets Tala and Knalz from their own stars.

Brilliant colors danced across every smooth surface in the small ship, reflected endlessly in dozens of control panels. On one of these a sprawling list of technical terms appeared under Twi’s tapping fingers, detailing how long she had slept (longer than she would have liked) and how little had transpired in that time (also disappointing).

“Ya awake?” Lanox asked, trying to look over her shoulder. They sat back-to-back, and the safety-straps made it impossible to actually turn and look at anyone in the seat behind oneself, but Lanox always tried to turn when she talked anyway.

“Yes.”

“Good. I’ve been watching this blip on radar, but far range sensors say there’s nothing there. It’s either a false echo or a mostly hidden ship.”

“Like an oha. Give the coordinates to the navi-aid,” Twi instructed, taking hold of the steering staves. Their own ship was an oha, and besides her people (including Sep), the only ones who flew oha through Alliance space were Mueta. To everyone else, they were just a myth, a ship a few thought they might have seen once.

“Don’t get yer hopes up, Twi,” Lanox warned as they zoomed toward the speck on the screen. “It could be nothing.”

Twi whispered, “Or it could be everything.”

-continued in section 2 scene 2- Greetings-
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Chapter 8 of RALI- Renegade
Written by Taki
Renegade section 2 scene 2- Greeting
“Unnamed vessel, please state yer business and identify yerself.” The voice in his ear awoke Xlack.

Confusion reigned in his sleep-clouded mind, empowered by the clammy scent of Vlokem surrounding him, incongruous with either where he usually awoke or the gossamer starscape filling his view. Memory slapped him—a summons to Aylata Tower, a dispatch to Alliance Space, plotting a course, deploying helmet and gloves—and Xlack’s half-closed eyes flew open.

Four humongous ships encircled Xlack’s small Oha, their gleaming, curved hulls resembling crescent moons.

Oha were fast, able to cross the Zackertoonii Nebula in under twenty ruahs, less than a Napix day. It took the planet Magni a year to travel the same distance. Yet Oha shields worked differently than those on newer, larger Napix ships. Sleep was the defensive reaction of most Magni hybrids to the scant amount of nebula radiation that inevitably eked through both shields and the protective material Aylata always wore, Tsoqisi. The autopilot had deposited Xlack here just beyond the cloud, waiting idle and vulnerable.

The voice repeated itself, this time without the ‘please.’

“Yeah, yeah. Who am I speaking to?”

“This is Rala Centra, commanding Nypet of the Tala flagship Araqut Nemul. Identify yerself,” ordered the transmission-distorted voice.

Xlack hesitated. Millennia ago, because she hid him from her tempestuous older brothers, Pratique Nar had not identified her son by either her own name, nor by his father’s, which was by now lost in the pages of time. She called him only Skyme, for she said, “In his eyes are the colors of the sky, bright gray and neerj.”

After his uncles’ deaths, Skyme became the first Ravida and the patriarch of a long line that strove to live up to his ideals. Xlack was proud to carry the Skyme name, though sometimes it felt too heavy or too bright. It was a beacon that pointed the entire world’s eyes at him.

In the Alliance, it would be different. Skyme the Great had not yet confronted his uncle when Aylata had last visited Alliance Space. No one here would know the Skyme name. Xlack wasn’t sure if that was a good thing or not.

“I think I’d rather remain anonymous.”

“I do not like anonymous people. Name yerself and accept visual contact or prepare to be towed.”

Xlack tapped the navi-aid, searching for an escape route. “I don’t wish to continue this conversation.”

The Oha rocked, encased in a bright swath of light and settling into an unnerving vibration. Revving his engines, Xlack tried to power his way free, but it was no use. Even if he had been able to break away from one of them, three of the large ships had locked this weird leash on him. All he managed to do was blow out one of his Oha’s four engines.

Curled tight in one of Xlack’s protective pockets, Rell awoke with a start, wiggling free and glancing around anxiously for the source of his master’s frustration.

“Oh, now I feel so welcome,” Xlack retorted. “What do you call this kind of greeting?”

“The kind anonymous people receive.”

Insane notions whirled through Xlack’s head. Surrendering unconditionally didn’t appeal to him, yet he had no confidence in his negotiating prowess. Without any better ideas, Xlack aimed at the ship closest him and commenced rapidly firing.

“Cease fire at once, or we will retaliate!”

Xlack pulled the earpiece from its dock on his helmet, not listening and not abating his barrage.

On the command deck of the Araqut Nemul, the Nypet stormed, “Disable that midget!” A jagged electric stream shot from her flagship and struck the tiny Oha, overloading its networks and prompting the safety computer to shut everything down.

Emitting a low growl, Rell hid beneath his master’s hand.

With his other hand, Xlack punched the dashboard and reattached the headphone in time to catch, “Just cooperate and things will go a lot smoother. Who are ya?”

Arms crossed, Xlack replied, “I’m not talking to you.”

“Please try to be rational,” the Nypet advised. “If ya don’t…hold on.”

Another ship not unlike Xlack’s own slipped out of the distance. Arrowhead shaped with a shining, cylindrical engine resting on either wing and luminous thrusters leaving a visible wake, a tail split into four thin slices and angled acutely up from the body cradling a smaller pair of engines—it was undeniably another Oha. Had someone followed him?

This other Oha came to a stop just above Xlack, protective like a mother bird. Centra’s reception of the newcomer appeared much warmer, though in hindsight Xlack figured that likely had some connection with this pilot not having fired at her ships.

Of course, Xlack wasn’t privileged with even a muted line in on their conversation. They could have yelled insults at one another or awkwardly heralded silence, or they could have pleasantly chatted about the weather. Whichever the case, they took their time. Xlack felt like pulling his hair out.

Finally Centra’s voice returned: “Ya are released under the authority of the O’ees. Board the Araqut Nemul and repair yer engine.” Did he have a choice? Their leash already reeled in his ship, the other Oha keeping alongside him.

Inside a vacant hangar-bay, they set his ship on its belly, its land legs still tucked away in the hull. The other Oha alighted on the opposite side of the hangar, facing him but keeping its distance like a distrustful animal.

At Xlack’s command, his helmet retreated into his collar, gloves similarly folding away into his undersleeves. Xlack hopped out as soon as the Oha’s clear canopy swung up out of his way, gaze sweeping the scene. It was plain enough; aside from the two Oha, everything gleamed pure white, even the zigzagging walkways that disappeared in the maze above him. It smelled as stark as it looked. Curiosity spurred him, but he fought it down, forcing it to hide behind a façade of confidence. With only a cursory glance around, he got to work on his damaged engine.

Across the bay, Lanox was unbuckled and leaping out almost as soon as Xlack. Twi placed a hand on her friend’s shoulder.

“Where are you going so fast?”

“To say ‘hi.’ It’s called being polite, Twi.”

“I don’t recognize his signature,” Twi warned.

“But he’s not Mueta either,” Lanox argued, pulling off her helmet. “He’s got black Tsoqisi and a black oha. Mueta wouldn’t dare fly that color. Remember, they say it represents the empty space that swallowed their precious ‘true relatives.’”

She was right, of course. Twi’s stare narrowed, cutting across the distance to analyze the stranger. By Tsoqisi, Lanox referred to the specific fabric of his outfit, boots, pants, belt, shirt, and jacket all rendered in black as Lanox had observed. Straps of dull silver added contrast to the footwear and torso, a tiny chrome swirl pinned to his collar, punctured rectangles sketched on his right thigh. Snug undersleeves hooked over his thumbs, the strings meant to lace the jacket from elbow to wrist left loose at impracticality’s suggestion.

From this distance, there was no way Lanox could tell if the fabric was actually Magni Tsoqisi, yet no one with access to it would wear anything else on a space venture, and Lanox was good at assuming. She no doubt also assumed that, like her own, the Tsoqisi would adapt to seal him in completely should the need arise.

“Go find out where he’s from, Lanox,” Twi said with a nod, “but be careful.”

Lanox pranced across the bay with a perky smile, approaching from behind Xlack.

“My name’s Lanox. What’s yers?” she asked, platinum blonde curls bouncing as she came to a stop on her toes, hand extended toward him.

The Napix legend of Drin and Vozin Nar’s battle above Knalz told few details regarding the Knalcals’ appearance and mentioned Tala even less. Xlack didn’t know what he had expected them to look like, yet she claimed a near Napix form. With her tall, lanky, classic humanoid shape, piles of pale curls cascading off her head, Lanox could easily have been a common pedestrian on the streets of Kizmet if not for the subtle slits along either side of her nose marking her foreignness.

She was just alien enough to give him pause as he turned to face her; she was also Magni. Her life-signature whispered that, swift and alacritous; she rode in an Oha and wore Tsoqisi, both of Magni origin and privilege. Should he treat her as a Sereh, then? Address her with the title Adara?

No, she was not a Sereh.

Xlack turned back to his engine. “I’d rather not tell you my name.” Judging by looks alone, Lanox was even younger than him.

“That’s kind of rude, ya know. Oh well, can I call ya Anonymous?”

“If it suits your fancy.”

As she climbed over the side of the Oha, Rell scrambled under the seat. In his baby elitbeast mind, her curls were scary. Without noticing the beastling, Lanox leaned over the seatback, rummaging through storage compartments, booted feet in the air.

“Where’s yer amarac?”

“My what?”

“Then, are ya a Sugataep?”

Was she joking? “I’m trying to fix this engine, and your insistence on not making any sense doesn’t help!”

“Wow, ya are cranky. Well, if ya aren’t a Sugataep, and ya don’t have an amarac, then how…oh, I’m so sorry! I…” She jumped down, hand held before her mouth in dismay, sympathy welling in her bright eyes. Her skin seemed to glow, but not like a Zalerit’s which actually emitted light. It was like trillions of tiny mirrors hid in her pores. A little distracting.

Xlack shook his head. “You should be sorry, climbing all over my Oha like a nosy lyoko.”

“A what?”

“You heard me,” he muttered, a twist of the tool in his right hand instantly melding the exposed ends of two wires.

“But I didn’t understand ya.”

Xlack did not reply, grimacing at the next scorched bolt to be loosened. He wondered if anyone would notice if he used his Magnetism on it, and more importantly, how they would react.

“Listen,” Lanox continued, “I know it’s hard for ya to feel anything but anger at the world right now, but I’m trying to help ya.” Honesty pervaded her steady stare, her vivid eyes filled with innocence.

Xlack’s focus slid back to the engine, and she added, “I’ll ignore whatever ya just called me, and we’ll take ya and yer ship to Tala.” She called back his gaze with a gentle hand falling upon his shoulder. “Ya aren’t alone, Anonymous.”

“Please take your hand off me.”

She gestured toward the Oha’s cockpit. “Just get in the ship, and we’ll make sure ya land safely on Tala.”

Was this a shortcut to mission accomplished or a trap? Xlack couldn’t tell; Lanox didn’t look like she could have a pinch of deception in her.

Xlack closed and sealed the singed panel, deciding a full repair would take more than he had on hand. Oha were adaptive and resilient though. Even in its current state, the engine could carry him a little farther.

“Alright, Lanox. I’ll follow you to Tala,” he accepted, hopping back in the Oha.

“See ya on land!” she called, running toward her own ship as Xlack closed the cockpit, gaze on her more analytical than cynical. Her smile overflowed into her stride, thigh-high, netted boots skipping across the white floor, vest and asymmetrically draped shirt flouncing with each step. Lanox radiated a liveliness to compete with any daystar.

Xlack flipped on the transmitter, calling the other pilot. “Lanox says you’ll make sure I land safely on Tala. Is this true?”

“I’m not a liar,” Lanox radioed back.

“I was speaking to your pilot.”

A second voice replied, “The pilot can hear you.” Another girl.

“My right engine is a little injured, so if you could lead easy, I’d appreciate it.”

She made no verbal response as her Oha lifted into the air and coasted by. From just below the ship’s split tail wing, a cord shot out and dug into the nose of Xlack’s Oha, wiring itself into his ship’s command systems.

“Hey,” Xlack transmitted, “I didn’t say I couldn’t fly!”

“The injured and slow get picked off,” the pilot responded as the two Oha glided through the open bay doors. “This is my way of ensuring your safety.”

“Is there any way you could do that without turning me into a trailer?” Xlack stabbed in disconnect codes, but all his buttons were useless.

“Be mindful of words: a trailer just gets in the way, but an appendage can be useful.”

“Useful, that’s a start. There’s got to be a third choice that doesn’t involve my ship being attached to yours.”

“Can you define that third choice?”

There had to be one, Xlack was just too frustrated to think of it. He drummed his fingers on the dashboard, waiting for inspiration, but none came. This worthless, odorous Oha had transformed into a prison. It was like he had just been kidnapped, and by two girls even. The whole thought was absurd.

“Can’t I actually do something? I don’t like just sitting here!” Xlack scanned the panorama of distant stars and wispy nebulae, glaring as if these wonders of the universe had betrayed him. “It makes me feel useless.”

No response from the other Oha.

He flopped back against the seat, arms crossed. “Hello! I’m talking to you!”

Still no reply.

“What’s your name, anyway?”

“Maybe I don’t wish to tell it to you. After all, there is a sense of security in anonymity, isn’t there?”

“Completely original response. Please continue while I rot of boredom.”

“You’re angry?”

“Not just yet.”

“Then maybe you should consider the emotions of others around you. You’re not the only person in the universe, you know.”

She swerved around a pile of debris, flinging Xlack’s Oha out to the right and letting it fishtail before jerking back into line. Inside the ship, where the inertial dampeners had somehow gotten turned off, Xlack and Rell were thrown against the sides in quick succession, eliciting a series of disgruntled snorts from the beastling.

With a poorly hidden laugh, the pilot continued, “I admit it would be much quieter without you.”

“Is that supposed to be a hint? Fine, I like silence better anyway.”

“You’re the one who started the conversation.”

Sitting on Xlack’s lap as far from the offending walls as possible, Rell cocked his head curiously, not yet grasping the concept of transmitters and so not understanding why his master argued with the Oha speakers. Two growing orbs reflected in his dark eyes, the planets Tala and Knalz looming near.

The former was radiant gold, the latter the deepest blue, the pair in a dance as eternal as that of Napix and Zalerit. Tala’s embrace with Knalz was far from shy, ensuring constant contact as they spun opposite each other. A faint halo of shared gases churned with their movement, and though neither world possessed the mysterious appeal of Napix’s thick, swirling atmosphere or the glitter of Zalerit’s broken rings, their beauty inspired awe. Around them, the steady traffic resembled the mesmerizing inners of a clock.

Xlack was too antsy to appreciate it. Anxiety blazed as they soared over the Tala landscape, cringing whenever solid objects skimmed by. He had barely met these people, and already he had discovered a horrifying truth: they knew how to torture him.

It was worse when she flew them into a cave, one he hadn’t even noticed until the mouth of it rushed past, stealing all daylight with it. Only her lead lights fought back the darkness, and from his view the body of her Oha blocked most of what they revealed.

Xlack thought about escaping; it wouldn’t have been hard now that they were within Tala’s atmosphere. Even if the computer wouldn’t let him open the cockpit, his Ier could easily cut through it, and then he and Rell could jump to freedom, ridding themselves of Lanox and her irksome pilot.

But his Ier remained sheathed and clipped to his belt, the cockpit closed. Curiosity pinned him in his seat, wanting to see where they would lead him.

-continued in section 2 scene 3- Vlavaran Base-
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Chapter 9 of RALI- Renegade
Written by Taki
Renegade section 2 scene 3- Vlavaran Base
After what felt like forever, the narrow cave opened into a larger cavern, dismal illumination provided by hidden fixtures. Tidy rows of varying vehicles decorated the space, Oha plentiful among the mix.

Their two ships landed lightly alongside one another, cockpits swinging open, the air rushing in warm, damp, and sweet, like the fragrance of dessert baking.

Xlack jumped out of the Oha and hit the ground harder than he had anticipated, hand leaning against the ship’s side in an effort to recover his grace. This planet was heavy, his heart hammering to keep blood supplied to his brain, dizziness threatening to pounce. So he remained motionless, taking in slow gulps of sugary air as his body adapted and his eyes roamed his surroundings.

This cave-hangar was tall; around its perimeter, five shelf-levels displayed more parked ships and doorways. People loitered nearby, in the halls those doors led to perhaps, but no one occupied the hangar except Xlack and the two girls. Once again, he found himself wishing to explore the maze above.

“Are you coming?” the pilot called, already halfway to one of the many doors on the ground level. Her voice was muffled by the helmet she still wore, reminding Xlack he had so unsafely forgotten to redeploy his. He didn’t step away from the ship.
“When do I get to fix my Oha?”

“Maintenance teams will care for your oha. Follow us, please,” she quipped. She had a striking accent with sharp t’s and hollow l’s. Lanox had an accent, too, Xlack noted, but hers was different, more like Centra’s with a kind of lilt, and it didn’t catch his attention in quite the same way.

Xlack held out a hand to Rell, and the beastling hopped onto his palm, needle-like, retractable claws sticking in Xlack’s Tsoqisi sleeve as Rell scrambled up to perch on his master’s shoulder. Closing the cockpit, Xlack started after the pilot, gaze studying the two girls.

Lanox had also remembered to wear her helmet, but her visor was now raised, revealing her cheerful eyes. Like the helmets Xlack knew, theirs were hard on the outside but flexible like a balloon if pressed from the inside. While matching her eyes in color, Lanox’s helmet seemed misshapen, stretching to accommodate her piled hair. Without such a feature, the helmet would never have fit her, the pilot either—not that Xlack dwelt overly much on the girls’ hairstyles, though he did wonder what the pilot’s face looked like behind her dark visor. Was she as ordinary as Lanox?

Ms. Security in Anonymity was notably shorter than her friend, curves accentuated by the long-sleeved, crimson jacket cropped at her ribs, a symmetrical pair of black laces sauntering down her onyx shirt. An ebony utility belt hugged her hips, pants the same red as the jacket, disappearing mid-shin into soft, obsidian boots. Her fingers were all that showed of her skin, fair as moonlight. Mystery slithered in her wake, and Xlack followed.

Lanox pulled off her own helmet, announcing, “Don’t mind her rudeness. Welcome to Tala, Anonymous!” With her helmet folded into a small card and tucked into one of her many vest pockets, she fell into step alongside him, heralding a ridiculous smile. “Ooh, what is that?” She pointed at Rell, who perked one floppy ear, both wary and intrigued by her interest.

“An elitbeast.”

“Where’d ya get it?”

“From his mother; where else?”

A puff of slight envy sprinkled with confusion. “We’re not really allowed to have pets, at least not here in Vlavaran. What hrausq are ya from?”

If he wouldn’t even tell her his name, what made her think she could just start asking random questions? And he didn’t even know what a hrausq was, not that he would admit such.

“What hrausq are you from?” he countered.

“Seven-One-Nine, but that doesn’t answer my question.” So she looked for a set of numbers.

“Uh…Three-Two-One.”

“Doesn’t exist,” the pilot informed him.

“Sorry. I meant Eight-Nine-Nine.”

Halting, the pilot whirled on him, observing, “You’re a bit big for a two-year-old. How’d you get assigned to such a young hrausq?”

“I-”

“It doesn’t really matter for now. Come meet our hrausq!” Lanox interrupted, opening a door and shoving Xlack through.

The square room boasted beautiful landscapes and intricate patterns painted haphazardly on the otherwise silver walls. Overrun by gutted electronics, the furniture arrangement was the design of chaos incarnate. Amidst this, six ladders ran to slide-away doors in the ceiling, each providing access to a short cubicle with just enough space for a bunk on either side of its floor entrance.

Gaze sliding over the abandoned mess, Xlack reported, “There’s no one in here.”

Lanox asserted, “Well, they’re not invisible or imaginary, I assure ya.”

“Lanox,” the pilot rebuked, starting up one of the ladders, “why do you always expect them all to just be sitting in here, waiting to welcome you back with open arms? They have lives of their own.”

“But I brought them a guest!”

“They don’t know that yet.”

Lanox bounded over to the ladder, whining, “Find them, Twi. Anonymous needs to meet them.” As she stomped her insistence, her loose locks danced, the golden bushels of curls atop her head growing slightly more uneven. Rell hissed.

Twi dropped to the floor with the grace of an autumn leaf, helmet and jacket no longer in sight, and for all Xlack’s wondering what type of face her visor had hidden, he wasn’t disappointed. Curiosity, suspicion, and compassion mingled intrinsic in her expression, highlighting features that were both sharp and soft.

She defined beauty more than any Zalerit, the only alien race with which Xlack had regular dealings. That wasn’t really a fair comparison, though, considering Zalerits had four eyes and Xlack thought they smelled like a bitter spice to be avoided.

Lanox was pretty in her own way, but Xlack’s eyes were glued to Twi.

A skein of thick canvas occupied her arms, and she looked from it to Lanox with a sigh, resignation prancing.

Her gaze, glistening silver and neerj, met Xlack’s, and he flinched.

“Do you want to meet them?”

Looking away, Xlack shrugged, a hand rising to curl over Rell and quiet him. “Sure.”

“Alright then. Teree is the closest,” she reported, her plethora of blue-black plaits swinging as she set down the canvas and turned to the door. Amongst the maelstrom of other objects, the canvas held special dignity, perfectly folded and placed with reverence.

She led them back into the hewn hallway. Xlack strove not to stare. Intriguing streaks of shining silver ran through her skin, patterned around the corners of her acute eyes.

“I think you wore that helmet too long,” he expressed through a half-worried grin.

Her gaze jumped to him. “Why?”

“Because it left stuff on your face.”

“My face?” she questioned, voice near silence as she rubbed a hand along her cheek. Louder, she mused, “That’s odd. It’s never done that before. Lanox, does-”

“There’s nothing on yer face,” Lanox interrupted, head swaying in confused disagreement.

“Yes there is,” Xlack countered, stepping within her space. Her scent was ambrosia, as sweet as the air here but deeper, fuller. “You have these silver lines by your eyes and your hairline and across your nose.” He started to trace one with his finger, but she flinched away from his touch, offended.

“Don’t be a cruel idiot,” she reprimanded. “I’m Knalcal; I should be asking you why you don’t have birthmarks on your skin.”

“Because I don’t.” A blunt response.

Her suspicion flared. “You act as though you’ve never seen a Knalcal before, and when Lanox asked about your hrausq, you didn’t know what she was talking about. Even common people know what a hrausq is.”

Way to make me feel stupid, Xlack thought.

Her hands were on her hips now, gaze on him steely as, walking backward, she continued to lead them. “Would you mind giving me the definition of amarac?”

“Of course not, if you first recite the definition of Sugataep.” He thought he knew the word, but it was old, and no one used it anymore…except Lanox apparently. Surely she didn’t mean to call him a shepherd.

As they entered a mid-sized auditorium—no chairs, floor sloping toward a flat space in the center, all carved straight into the cave’s dirt and rock—Twi stopped. “I asked you first.”

“And I asked you second.”

“Exactly, so you’ll answer first, and I’ll answer second,” she reasoned.

“No,” he rationalized, “you asked first, so your answer also comes first. You said something, I said something, so now it’s your turn again.” An illogical argument, sure, but he hoped he had lost her somewhere in there and she would just give up.

She stood with her arms crossed, glaring at him with one eyebrow raised, refusing to dignify that with a response. Rell slinked around Xlack’s neck, relocating to the other shoulder where he could better hide from her line of sight.

Small children suddenly poured into the space, yelling and laughing and shoving each other. They paid no mind to the trio of young adults arguing by one of the doorways, even rudely slamming into them.

Predator eyes sharpening, Rell scampered down Xlack’s back and joined the stampede.

“Rell, come back here! Hey!” Xlack snatched up a Knalcal child by the back of his shirt collar, a small boy he was sure had rammed him on purpose.

“Hey ya!” he heard, an echo with an accent and a wail.

Without releasing his first prisoner (who was now trying to kick him), Xlack turned to find another boy scowling at him. Also clad in Tsoqisi—an open sandy jacket with rows of tin zippers, pants the same—brown hair semi-shaggy and curling around his ears, this one was only half Xlack’s height and age, but he claimed more years than the toddlers swarming around them.

“Who are ya, and why are ya in my spot?” the boy demanded, glowering up at the Aylata. Xlack thought the sight funny; glowering was usually reserved for people one could physically look down at, not persons twice one’s size.

Not deigning to move, Xlack defended, “I’m in your spot because I didn’t know it was your spot. Do you have a problem with that?”

The boy’s eyes narrowed even farther, jaw rigid as he pointed at Xlack’s feet. “The marker has my name on it.”

Xlack looked down to see that under the toes of his boots there was indeed a small x with some scribbling around it, but he couldn’t make out what it said. His head hurt, and dimness crawled from the corners of his vision. The children were much too loud.

Most people learned to be reserved around Mind Aylata, but it was a skill that took time to acquire. Small children tended to be completely unguarded, throwing their emotions on any surrounding them. Sometimes it seemed their young minds shouted every feeling they had. With one or two kids, it was simply an irritating nuisance; in a rambunctious crowd like this, it was an outright assault.

Xlack pushed their minds away—their crashing waves of emotion—because if he didn’t, he knew his vision would only continue to retreat. If he focused, he could make this chaos go away and leave him alone, or so his uncle always assured him. It usually didn’t work, but Xlack strove to act like nothing was wrong anyway. He just had to collect Rell and get out of here as soon as possible.

A hand clapped down on Xlack’s shoulder, and he jumped.

“Easy, Teree. Are ya okay, Stranger?” This newcomer had a soothing quality to his voice, his accent similar to Lanox’s, and he helped push away the chaos as if encircled by a strong shield.

Xlack nodded. “I’m fine.”

Xlack guessed this one to be about his own age, but he stood a whole head and shoulders taller, his straight hair spiked like a desert plant. His slit nostrils were a bit more obvious than Lanox’s, but not as notable as Teree’s. The boy’s nose was almost flat, which contributed to the sharpness of his voice. All three had the same shimmery quality to their skin…Twi too if Xlack looked for it. Hers was much fainter.

“Be nice to him, Teree. He’s likely someone important.”

“Don’t put me down in front of my charge!” Teree whined, gesturing at the children scrambling around them.

“Then don’t give me anything to put ya down about and get yer class under control.”

“They are under control!” Teree argued just as the boy Xlack held finally succeeded in kicking free and took off. “Kahrin, no running!”

Kahrin stopped and contemplated this rule for a moment before taking one large, quick step, hesitating, then taking another.

“Kahrin!” Teree rebuked.

“I’m not running!” the boy challenged.

“Ya are going to fall flat on yer face like that!”

Kahrin paid no heed to this warning.

Sit!” Xlack instructed, accompanying the suggestion with a whisper in each of the minds bombarding his. The same openness that made kids overwhelming also made them highly susceptible to suggestions.

Teree’s entire class of eight sat immediately, several others doing likewise. From within her circle of personal space that none of the children had dared enter, Twi observed this cautiously.

“See, Teree,” the tall one admonished, “he helped ya. Now be polite.”

“Fine,” Teree groaned, extending his hand toward the Aylata. Xlack could barely see him, his vision so fogged over with clouds of overdramatic emotion.

He squinted, appearing to glare. “What do you want?”

“I’m introducing myself,” Teree explained with a roll of his eyes. “I’m Teree, and ya are supposed to shake my hand now.”

Hesitant, Xlack grabbed Teree’s wrist and made the hand attached to it shake.

With furrowed eyebrows, Teree looked at the tall one, commenting, “He’s weird.”

“Speak for yourself,” Xlack combated. “I’m not the one who asked for someone to shake my hand.”

Twi laughed, calling his attention back to her. He liked her laugh; he sensed that for some reason she needed to laugh, but he didn’t like that she laughed at him.

Turning amid a mix of emotions he didn’t care to identify, Xlack wove through the restlessly sitting multitude, heading toward where tiny Rell terrorized a group of children.

The tall one kept step with him. “I’m Alek Revo.”

Xlack said nothing. He wanted away from the crowd, but Revo’s dampening presence was helpful…nice. Xlack wondered if the sigils like exploding rivets on his auburn boots and belt had any significance. Things like that always had significance among Aylata.

“Ya got a name?”

“I’m called Skyme.”

Clapping, Lanox popped up from an argument with some seated kids. “Oh good, ya met Revo, Anonymous!”

Revo didn’t seem nearly as happy to see her as she seemed…most of the time.

“Now he only has to meet Zeln and Aarex, Naday, and…” Xlack stopped paying attention as she rambled, and evidently so did Revo.

“So why are ya here, Skyme?”

Interrupting her own previous run-on, Lanox answered, “He lost his amarac, and we found him and rescued him, but I think he lost his memory, too, because he talks awfully strange, no offense of course. Oh, and that thing on his shoulder is an elitbeast-wait, where’d it go?”

“Thank-ya Dr. Know-It-All,” Revo commented.

“Ya asked,” she explained with a shrug.

“But maybe I wanted to hear it from him.”

Her shoulders rose again, brushing aside the counsel as a small girl tugged on the longer end of Lanox’s pale aqua shirt.

“Oh, ya are so cute!” Lanox exclaimed, scooping the child into her arms. The toddler cooed indiscernible sentences to her, and she cooed back.

“Ya hungry, Skyme?” Revo questioned.

Until Revo mentioned it, Xlack didn’t realize how famished he was. His stomach’s loud, mournful grumble answered for him.

With an exaggerated bow and chuckling smile, Revo responded, “Well then, right this way, and we’ll get ya some food.”

At hearing these well-loved phrases, Rell bounded over, toting a scrap of fabric as a prize. Slender tail waving, he leapt at Revo’s ankle, claws digging into the tough, brown Tsoqisi of Revo’s boot as the beastling climbed. His nose twitched, whiskers shaking as he sniffed at the lowest of the pockets lining Revo’s leg, baby fangs sinking in a moment later, stolen fabric allowed to fall away at the prospect of a better prize.

“Hey, Pipsqueak, I bite back,” Revo warned, catching Rell by the scruff of the neck and lifting him to eye level. “Ya might make good filling for a sandwich.”

Rell swatted at his captor’s face, little paw nowhere close to reaching its target.

“Rell would scratch and claw the whole way down,” Xlack cautioned, scooping the growling beastling away from Revo.

“I’d prefer an easier meal. Ya coming?”

Xlack’s stomach voiced complaint again, aggrieved that Revo hadn’t pulled food from one of his myriad of pockets. Revo laughed, leading the way to an exit.

Jumping to her feet, Lanox queried, “Where are ya going?”

“Yer guest is hungry.”

“Oh, okay,” she conceded like she had lost all interest in listening to anything else Revo might say, returning to her cooing. Lanox was…weird. Xlack was glad her mind seemed so closed because he guessed getting lost in it would be the stuff of nightmares.

-continued in section 2 scene 4- Seven Questions-
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Chapter 10 of RALI- Renegade
Written by Taki
Renegade section 2 scene 4- Seven Questions
The room with ladders and murals and chaos for a housekeeper was called the hrausq room, according to Revo, who led Xlack back to it. As the door rolled open and he stepped into the space, the Aylata’s gaze fell on the pristine canvas Twi had left perched on a small, square table in the middle of the room. Curiosity dared him to unfold it, discover why it was so special. Did it have something to do with the murals? Had Twi painted those?

Revo trudged to the far corner and pulled open the door of a coolbox nearly hidden by unidentifiable objects…or parts of objects. It looked like a mechett might have exploded in that corner, quite a bit of its scattered pieces scorched. Revo didn’t seem to notice, rummaging through the icy cubby, muttering something about Stevalok having pirated his cookies again.

Keeping a wary eye on him, Rell jumped down and set about exploring the space, clambering over the electronic carnage littering the floor.

Unsure where he should sit or stand in this mess, Xlack let his gaze roam the murals. The ceiling was a mosaic of scenes, none larger than the length of his arm. Several spaces remained blank silver, throwing back his faded reflection.

The panels on either side of the door were similar in their vacuity, but they lacked the same untouched clarity, faint afterimages lingering, as if rain had blurred and washed away what had once been there. This fading effect afflicted only the center of the adjacent scene.

By contrast, the most vivid mural spanned much of the back wall, depicting a dizzying drop into a vine-coated canyon, sparkling swirls of architecture laced through its walls.

“Is that a real place?” Xlack wondered, and Revo froze, finger hovering just short of the start button on the cookbox he had just loaded.

After a moment, the cooker acknowledged his touch with a hushed beep, motor whirring, and Revo turned away, deliberately not looking at anything. “It’s Mumir…on Knalz.”

Xlack noted a faded black scar splashed across the ravine, hovering over the landscape and ruining some of its depth. Several of the murals had these slashes, now that he looked for them. Were they supposed to be words? Did these aliens write with scribbled splashes? It was said ancient Zalerits wrote by dripping scented dye on dried leaves.

“Did Twi-”

“Twi is removing the murals,” Revo interrupted.

Why? Xlack wanted to ask, but the heavy sadness and regret pulsing through Revo silenced him. Revo didn’t want to talk about the murals, and they weren’t important. They likely had nothing to do with Xlack’s mission.

Retreating to a squat, square chair positioned against the wall, thick cushion relatively free of clutter, Xlack sat on its edge and retrieved his datapad from a small pocket on his belt, prompting the fingernail-sized device to unfold.

“Sorry,” Revo apologized, sweeping electronic inners off the seat, “when Entrycii and Lanox get into a project, they can make quite a mess. I don’t even notice it anymore.”

The cookbox hooted, and Revo returned to it. Xlack sat back, mysterious mission looming at the front of his mind. He stared at his datapad—a device, once fully extended, about the size of both his hands held alongside one another; a rectangular prism as thin as an eyelash and just as weightless; a shiny black touchscreen in a smooth metal casing, a variety of ports hidden by this latter until called upon. Eight black ovals adorned the back, designed to take commands from warm fingers.

Revo pulled Xlack’s gaze away from it, handing him a piece of flat, bumpy food.

Xlack commented, “This smells like bread.”

“That’s because it is bread,” Revo confirmed, ripping off a piece and tossing it in his own mouth.

“But it looks like it has a disease.”

Revo laughed, nearly choking on what he had just swallowed. “That would be an interesting concept, having to give yer bread medicine so when it was better, ya could eat it.”

Xlack laughed, too, and took a tentative bite of the flatbread. It was warm, soft, and buttery, melting in his mouth.

Rell emerged from beneath the chair, a sock gripped in his sharp teeth.

“Rell, give me that,” Xlack ordered, capturing the beastling. Setting Rell on his lap, Xlack traded the sock for a fluffy crumb, which Rell happily gobbled, onyx eyes wide in hopes of more. Xlack draped the sock over the armrest.

“It’s funny,” Revo remarked, sliding into the chair next to Xlack’s, “people always try to compare their own experiences to those of others.”

“How so?”

“Well, my own amarac died on Kelis not too long ago.”

Xlack wished he knew what an amarac was.

“Yet, there’s no way ya are feeling the exact same way I was because circumstances are never exactly the same. Even the slightest difference is still a difference, but still, the first words I think to say to ya are ‘I know how ya feel.’”

Interesting sentiment, but Xlack seriously doubted Revo knew what he felt. Debating what he should do next, he turned the datapad on.

“What’s that?” Revo asked, attention grabbed by its sudden glow and quiet tune.

“A device,” was the vague answer he was supplied.

“I can see that. What are ya doing with it? What’s it for?”

“I’m sending my report and receiving further orders,” Xlack replied, typing:

This is Xlack Skyme. I have accomplished my objective and am reporting to you from Tala. Awaiting further orders.

Rell pawed at the back of the datapad, a reminder the bread wasn’t all gone and if Xlack was done with it, Rell would gladly finish the rest. Xlack gave him a bigger piece, and Rell lay down to winnow away at it.

Leaning on the armrest and reading over Xlack’s shoulder, Revo noted, “Those are Zalerit letters.”

Xlack clenched his typing hand into a tight fist, offense bubbling like some nefarious concoction. Nayatilix was the beautiful and ancient language of the Napix. How dare anyone call their letters Zalerit!

“Ya aren’t from around here, are ya?”

“That would be correct,” Xlack admitted, digging deep for a polite grin. It looked too rigid to be genuine. “Tradition dictates that in respect to you, after I tell you my name I must truthfully answer the first seven questions you ask me, and you’ve already asked five.”

“Okay…where are ya from?”

He wasn’t supposed to ask that. Considering how exactly he should answer, Xlack recalled what little he knew of these people, all gleaned from very old legends.

The Knalcals and Tala had been cohorts of Vozin Nar, the traitor, the renegade whom the first Emperor of Napix had hunted down right here in Alliance Space.

Suppressing a shudder, Xlack took a deep breath, placed his hand over his Ier, and divulged, “Napix.”

“Hmmm.”

Not the response Xlack expected. The Aylata said nothing, mistrust blistered with surprise and suspense.

After a thoughtful pause, Revo added, “So, if ya aren’t an O’ee, what’s yer occupation?”

“I’m an Aylata.”

‘Which is?”

Xlack cancelled the conversation: “You’ve already asked seven questions.”

“So what, ya can’t ever tell me the truth again?”

Annoyance seeped from Revo, sawing at Xlack’s nerves. A noise nudged his ears, no louder than an exhale, and cradling Rell, Xlack leapt to his feet, stiffer than Revo’s spiky red hair.

“Whatever an Aylata is, ya sure are jumpy. Listen, this place has security coming out its figurative ears. Nothing will get ya in here.”

“You can’t guarantee that. Look-” His datapad beeped, its signal lost, likely because that signal had been detected. Rell wriggled; his soggy bread piece had fallen on the floor. Xlack felt a bit like that, everything familiar falling away, the hand of tradition and duty holding him tight. He showed Rell he had more bread, and the beastling stilled.

“Am I being held prisoner here?”

Revo flung his arms at their benign surroundings, disbelief clinging to the gesture like ornate sleeves. “Does it look like ya are?”

“Then I’m free to go. Is there a way out?”

“Where there’s a way in, there’s a way out,” Revo told him, arms crossed, “or so says my Sugataep.”

Xlack stepped out the door. “Will you show me the exit?”

Leaning on the wall, muddy jade eyes narrowed, Revo argued, “Maybe I should just stop answering yer questions. I’m sure ya’ve asked more than seven by now.”

“Fine. I’ll find it myself.” Xlack slipped down the hall, but Revo wasn’t far behind.

“Even if ya won’t tell me what an Aylata is, I want to know why ya are here. I’ll keep following ya until ya tell me.”

“I’m learning,” Xlack answered.

“Learning what?”

Xlack shrugged. “Maybe I don’t know yet.”

“What are ya running away from?”

Xlack stopped and turned, finding himself face to face with Revo. “What makes you think I’m running away from anything?”

“Because I’m Tala,” Revo explained. “I really do know exactly how ya feel.”

-continued in section 3 scene 1- Cookies-
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Chapter 11 of RALI- Renegade
Written by Taki
Renegade section 3 scene 1- Cookie
In Hrausq Seven-One-Nine’s room, Kix Entrycii looked at the crumbling sweet before him, skepticism prompting, “What kind of cookie is it?”

“It’s a cookie. Just eat it and be happy,” Lanox countered, shoving it even closer to his face, the pastry’s cerulean surface reflected in the silvery Knalcal birthmarks on his cheeks and ears. The cookie’s color went well with his hair—short, purposefully messy locks claiming an amalgam of blues, from near-black like Twi’s to a pale platinum, this latter the most prevalent.

Entrycii made no move to take the treat from Lanox. “Did you make it?”

“Entrycii, do I make cookies?”

“Is this a trick question?” Suspicion crawled across him, inciting schemes; Lanox could see it in his stance, in his icy eyes, in the twitch of his fingers near the pouches on his belt.

Sliding down the ladder from her bunkroom, Twi warned, “Run away before you make her angry, Entrycii.”

He snatched the cookie and stepped in Twi’s path, asking, “Have you received missions for tonight?”

“You mean these missions?” Twi confirmed, three glittering datasticks fanned in her raised hand. Entrycii reached for them, but Twi pulled back.

“I’ll give you a cookie for one,” he offered.

“A cookie that’s already been bitten off of? You are such a great negotiator, Entrycii.”

“Ew! Lanox, you gave me an already-been-chewed cookie!”

Lanox shrugged. “Ya didn’t ask me where I got it from.”

Entrycii’s stern stare latched onto her, not deigning to track the cookie as it flew into a trash bin.

“So, what’s up with the assignments, Twi?” Lanox queried, ignoring Entrycii’s oppressive gaze.

Twi gestured with the datasticks. “These were written before Skyme showed up.”

“And the problem?”

“Have you ever seen anyone like him?”

“Ya mean his gray skin and hair, and how they’re almost the same shade, so it looks a little weird, and how he doesn’t have a smidgen of color?” Lanox elaborated.

“Except for the neerj in his eyes,” Twi corrected. “The way those cut into whatever he looks at, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn he has Mind Talents, but he’s not Tala.”

“So?”

“There’s something too strange about him,” Twi admitted. “I don’t want to leave him here to wander around unattended, but these datasticks send us into the city.”

“I don’t see why ya are putting up full security shields, Twi,” Lanox argued. “Didn’t that patrol find his ship sailing out of the deep gases? None of our ships have shields that can withstand the inner nebula. Not even our worlds venture in there.”

Unease shifted Lanox’s feet.

“Look, who knows how he lost his amarac or what he’s been through, but we can’t expect him to tell us everything right away. How were ya when ya first came back from Kelis, Twi?”

Mistrust narrowed Twi’s eyes. “I should report him to Stella.”

“And embarrass every last bit of pride out of him?!” Lanox exclaimed. “He seems to get along pretty well with Revo. Give him time. Just ask him to come to the city with us. Revo, too.”

With a subtle nod, Twi headed for the door, passing Lanox.

“You’re actually going to take advice from Lanox?” Entrycii questioned, his intense stare swinging from the Tala to her amarac.

Without looking back, Twi responded, “At the moment, I don’t have any better ideas.”

-continued in section 3 scene 2- Invitation-
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Chapter 12 of RALI- Renegade
Written by Taki
Renegade section 3 scene 2- Invitation
The hallways seemed endless. Countless doors hid any actual exit well. Frustration was a mild term for what Xlack attempted to keep bottled up, but it grew nonetheless. To top it off, Revo still followed him, humming like a muzzled bird.

Xlack eventually found his way back to the hangar housing his Oha, but the heavy doors refused to grant him passage. He knew that beyond them and the very long, dark, twisty cave, outside awaited.

Impatience spilled the words, “Do you know how to open the doors?”

“Yep.”

“Then open them,” Xlack ordered, still managing a thin façade of calm. On his shoulder, Rell growled.

Revo crossed his arms, murky green eyes accusing. “Last I knew, I wasn’t supposed to take orders from uncooperative strangers who refused to answer more than seven questions.”

Xlack sighed, “Fine. You want to know what an Aylata is?” He snapped out his Ier.

A straight, simple beam of light emanated from its center. Surrounded by tiny electromagnets, amplified, divided, and curved as it ran along the length of the weapon’s structure, it split any molecules in its vicinity. It wouldn’t hurt the hand of the Aylata for whom it had been made, bonded to his life-signature and hence remotely a part of him, but other things...

He stabbed it into the door. Sparks flew as the weapon seared through blast-resistant metal, cutting a hole just large enough for Xlack to fit through.

“Short definition, that’s what happens to anything that stands in an Aylata’s way.”

Revo was dumbfounded. Though the Ier reminded him of his own ju’wack, blast-resistant metal considered itself safe from his green-glowing weapon.

Slipping through the new opening, Xlack found himself in a high-ceilinged cave with dripping rock formations. A smirk crept across his lips, the silver Ier still pulsing in his hand. He had never used it to injure anything animate. The sight of it was enough to persuade most offenders to compliance. The Ier was as much symbol as weapon, recognized far beyond his empire’s borders.

Xlack’s left hand curled around his back, digging Rell out of his jacket. He had shown the Ier to the beastling several times so it would become familiar, but Rell insisted the tool was scary and always hid.

“The cave is a maze,” Revo warned. “Ya won’t get out without a guide.”

Xlack ignored him and kept walking.

Jogging to catch up, the O’ee offered, “I could show ya the way out, but on one condition.”

A sideways glance. “What?”

“Ya try to consider us friends and not obstacles.”

Xlack grinned. “Hard bargain.”

“No harder than blast-resistant shielding. Accepted?”

Xlack nodded. “Sure. Which way, Guideman?”

For light (and reassurance with the Ier so near), Revo drew his ju’wack and pointed down a narrow path to the right. “The tunnels are dark. Keep yer weapon on.”

Squirming in Xlack’s hand, Rell froze, curiosity and fear sharpening his gaze and tying it to the ju’wack’s viridian tendrils.

Xlack frowned. To his eyes, Revo’s weapon emitted no light, but it was loud like a stiff breeze, and it copied the O’ee’s life-signature like an Ier would.

As the Tala turned, proud of his negotiating prowess, his ju’wack’s glow revealed a person in the mouth of the passage.

“Hello, Revo. Skyme,” Twi greeted, nodding at each in turn. Rell sniffed at her, leaning as close as he could without falling from his perch in Xlack’s hand.

“What’s up?” Revo asked, halfway between concern and relief.

Mueta gather in Vlavaran. Restigam wants to know what they’re up to.”

There was a title Xlack recognized: Restigam—someone commanding great respect.

With a roll of his eyes, Revo announced, “Where the Mueta gather, we go!”

Twi turned her quick eyes on Xlack, asking, “Would you mind accompanying us to Vlavaran?”

Anywhere, as long as it was outside!

“Sounds interesting. I’d like to go.”

“Good.” The slightest of smiles found Twi. “I must collect Stevalok. Meet us at the top of vacporter four.”

“Will do,” Revo agreed as Twi left them, shadows stealing her from sight. With a snort, Rell settled into Xlack’s palm, hugging his master’s thumb and chewing at its tip.

As Revo walked on, Xlack continued following him, wondering if the O’ees or Mueta could be the protectors the stories spoke of—the protectors K’alaqk had meant when he mentioned collecting information.

“Ow, Rell, stop!” Xlack hissed, thumb tearing free and tapping the beastling’s velvety nose. With a disgruntled yip, Rell retreated, jumping onto Xlack’s side and squeezing into the Ier’s sheath. Xlack let him stay there, attention returning to the vagueness of his mission.

“Hey, Revo, what are Mueta?”

Revo laughed. “They’re people like ya and me, I guess.”

“Then what makes them Mueta?”

“They have Magni ancestors, like O’ees do. The mix of genetics makes us stronger and faster, both mentally and physically, than the natives of our worlds. It also gives us some special Talents.”

Same with the Aylata.

“So the Mueta protect the common people?”

Revo grimaced. “I guess they would if it served their interests, but that’s rare. Easily defined, they’re an organization of underground gangsters with strict rules and driven by selfishness.”

“Sound like great friends,” Xlack drawled. “We’ll meet some in Vlavaran?”

“It’s just the way it’s always been: Mueta make a mess, and O’ees clean it up.”

“So, what’s with the girl who always shows up out of nowhere?”

“Twi? Yeah, she’s pretty, ain’t she?” Revo praised, a sly grin making a brief appearance. His next words chased it away. “She’s a good person. My amarac’s death hit her hard, but don’t worry. She won’t let ya get captured by Mueta. She has…history with them.”

“What do you mean by history?”

“What do ya think I am, a blabbermouth? Go ask Lanox.”

In front of them, a vacporter door slid open, and Revo stepped into its blinding, artificial light, closing his ju’wack and dropping it into one of the pockets lining his right leg. Xlack plucked Rell from the Ier sheath and returned him to his shoulder, putting away his own weapon and following the O’ee, though he would rather have taken stairs.

Vertiporters—contraptions employing pulleys or the like to carry passengers along a vertical shaft—always felt like a trap. One way in or out. No place to hide. Little space in which to dodge. Vacporters, which traveled in a vacuum, only decreased one’s chances of escape.

As Xlack stamped down this stubborn paranoia, the computer requested, “Please select a destination.”

“Outside,” Xlack ordered.

Several beats passed before the computer replied, “I apologize, but-”

“Surface level,” Revo clarified. The door closed, and the vacporter did its job, carrying them up through the vacuumized tunnel.

“If ya get separated from the rest of us, ya will probably need this,” Revo anticipated, handing Xlack a small pendant on a chain, “unless ya plan on cutting through every door ya come across.”

Rell scampered down Xlack’s arm, whiskers twitching, a curious paw swatting at the shiny thing.

Xlack inspected the pendant—a fingertip-sized equilateral triangle with a computer sphere in the middle, this last like a glittering, translucent jewel. Twi wore a near-identical ornament on a short necklace, and Lanox wore hers looped through her bundled curls, though Lanox’s was a seven-sided shape that reminded Xlack of a fish.

“What is it?”

“An O’ee emblem. It used to belong to my amarac, but he doesn’t need it anymore.”

Back home, Aylata emblems opened otherwise locked doors and served as tracer signals for Messengers. An O’ee emblem could come in handy.

“Thanks,” Xlack said, shooing Rell back to his shoulder and dropping the emblem in his pocket.

“Don’t mention it,” Revo responded. “Really, Twi’d kill me.”

-continued in section 3 scene 3- Prison-
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Chapter 13 of RALI- Renegade
Written by Taki
Renegade section 3 scene 3- Prison
“Are Aylata monsters?” a preteen Anko Phy asked his father long ago.

Through his signature trust-me grin, Father replied, “Some might think so, but to let that thought escape aloud would get you killed.” He winked. Phy winked back in understanding, trying to do it exactly like his dad.

Father’s grin hadn’t worked on the Mind Aylata that caught him a few weeks later. Extortion, the Aylata claimed, shattering the veneer of trust Father’s smile had built over the crowd of neighbors.

The Aylata didn’t have any proof, but Aylata never needed any. One moment the Ier slept on its master’s belt, the next it had severed Father’s upper half from his lower.

Phy wouldn’t move from that spot, staring numbly at where his father had last stood, even long after they had removed the body. Great Uncle came for him, and another six months passed before Phy uttered a sound.

Great Uncle made it a point to entrepreneur only in Districts that were between Protectors. Under his tutelage, Anko Phy honed his own signature grin. Cockiness grew, and he tired of his senior’s thumb.

He made the biggest mistake of his life.

How crazy was he to think he could pick one of the most bejeweled cities on the Aylata homeworld, hustle it, and escape care free?

But he wasn’t dead yet, was he?

The Aylata hadn’t killed him.

“You know what happens next,” Protector Xlack Skyme had said, and Phy had been certain the Ier would crash down. The thief’s appeal to the Mercy of the Judges had been a last recourse buoyed to the surface of his consciousness by desperation. He hadn’t dared hope it would work.

This holding cell wasn’t half bad either. It was clean, immaculately so, every surface gleaming like freshly polished dishes. The bed was hard and shaped like a pill. Phy decided not to sit there once his imagination supplied a dream of it closing up and being swallowed by a giant. But he had long ago learned to sleep leaning against a wall.

“Hey, you,” a young voice called.

Phy didn’t move, spine to the bars, shoulder against a thin metal partition. Some of his associates back on Zalerit would have crumpled it like paper. “If you tried using my name, I might answer.”

A sigh with a hint of amusement. “Prisoner two?”

Phy huffed, pride a ravaged, mutilated thing, barely recognizable. “Not my name.”

“No one cares.”

The easy dismissal strummed Phy’s thin nerves, prompting a peek over his shoulder at the pest. A Scribe stood there, a city official. Scribes’ power depended upon how involved those above them wanted to be, and there was an overabundance of them. This one wore the silken undertunic and long sleeveless coat of a nobleman with the added fur collar of official service, a medallion embossed with Kizmet’s mountainous vista seal hanging on his chest. His surname appeared beneath the stylized peaks: Skrinul.

A spoiled brat who’s always been handed whatever he wanted on a soft bed of lyoko fur and fragrant kriri petals, Phy thought, just like the annoying Protector. They’re probably friends.

“Have you anyone who could speak on behalf of your character?” Scribe Skrinul questioned, fingers ready to type on a small screen.

Phy trusted his great uncle more than anyone in the universe.

Great Uncle would kill him himself if Phy got him involved in this.

“Who’s prisoner one?” Prisoners were ranked by priority, not seniority, and as much as Phy shouldn’t have wanted to be their most valuable captive, he had hoped…

Skrinul smirked. “Not a valid witness, nor will he be available to attend your hearing at this week’s end. He is a suspected Journalist spreading slander about the emperor having been murdered. This evening he will record a redaction while being ripped limb from limb. You may hear the screams from here. Don’t let it bother you.”

Phy turned, beady eyes widened in horror. He hid quivering hands behind his back and swallowed hard. He wasn’t worried. Why should he be worried? He was a simple thief, nothing like a Journalist. “What if he doesn’t say the words you want?”

“Skillful editing.” The Scribe looked at Phy like he was an idiot instead of the most clever conman ever to have graced this holding cell with his presence.

Phy hated that look. It was too close to the self-righteous mien worn by the Aylata he also hated. His disdain was a simmering, wounded monster hiding deep within him, long ago having accepted there was nothing he could do. It was stupid to fight Aylata.

Skrinul seemed the type to ride in the shadow of the Aylata’s power and love every moment of it.

Phy leaned back on the flimsy wall, not bothering to correct his feathered beret. It had slid a bit far to the right, but he hoped it gave him an enigmatic, calm appearance. He stroked his fake goatee for added effect.

The beard was itchy.

He tried to ignore it, wishing he had splurged on finer material, like the faux beards of delicate lyoko fur often donned by noblemen envious of the Aylata.

Phy noted that beneath his fringed, pentagonal hat, Skrinul’s shadowy hair was long enough to be pulled into a petite tail. Purebred Napix, regardless of gender or age, typically possessed thick, coarse tresses that refused to grow longer than a thumb. The emperor’s luxurious coif was a mystery many noblemen strove to emulate.

Meeting Phy’s medium gray gaze, the Scribe continued, “Upon your imminent death, whom should be informed?”

“Wait a lard-slicing moment, I appealed to the Mercy of the Judges. Surely their benevolence won’t allow a good man to die for one tiny mistake.” Fear’s tremors rattled Phy’s hand, but he continued to rub his chin, refusing to be the first to look away.

The Mercy of the Judges was a tradition stretching back further than the Aylata, a court consisting of twelve highly regarded older men from the local District. Only those of pure Napix descent could appeal to them, and once the appeal was made, the accused had to appear before the assembly. Should he die before presenting his case, the one responsible for his death would appear in his stead.

Skrinul shook his head dismissively, slipping the datapad into a pocket on his coat. “You are pathetic to think the judges would side against their Aylata. They never do. This is all just a formality, and there are multiple charges against you.”

“Like what?” Phy scoffed. “I borrowed the tiniest gem, and it has since been returned.”

“The Athikil clan wishes you penalized for infringement of their state-recognized pattern. You will be required to strip and publicly burn the clothes you now wear.”

Phy didn’t have to reach deep for his best offended nobleman voice, arms folding across his front. “You’ll provide me with suitable replacement attire?”

“If you failed to bring alternate covering, it’s not my problem.” Again the Scribe’s dismissal felt like sand slowly scratching away at Phy’s flesh. “You won’t have much time to wallow in your humiliation anyway. In case you weren’t listening closely enough, you’re death is imminent.”

Phy’s fists clenched, partly in anger beget by the Scribe’s calm arrogance, partly to conceal the panic steadily overtaking him. “They may choose to bestow the lesser sentence. Petty theft with a recovered item usually results in the loss of a limb.” Not an ordeal he wanted either, but it was better than dying.

Skrinul stood with his hands loose behind his back, smirk small and self-satisfied. “According to code four-o-two section three amendment sixteen, your punishment shall be decided by the Protector.”

“Grand theft merits a quick death,” Phy charged, hating how squeaky that came out. He had witnessed the execution of business associates—usually a swift gutting with an Ier. He hoped this wouldn’t be one of those occasions where Aylata chose to show off their Talents. Mind Aylata were the worst in this regard, trapping victims in their own little horror world until they dropped dead.

Xlack Skyme had Mind Talents, Phy recalled, breath hitching.

Skrinul’s smile possessed a sinister slant, pale eyes too stark against his shaded lashes. “Our Protector prefers not to dabble or dawdle with the darker side of our judicial system. He usually leaves such decisions to me.”

He turned, smile unfaltering as his heels clicked against the hardwood floor, a steady rhythm carrying him to the exit.

“The record will show you have no next of kin or close associates. Out of some shard of loyalty, most perpetrators seem to prefer this. Enjoy the lullaby this evening.” He rounded a corner, a heavy door sliding shut behind him.

Regret filled Phy. He had to get out of here. Was that one tiny gem worth his life?

No, it hadn’t even been about the gem, really. He had done this so he could brag to his great uncle that he had managed to slip past the elite Protectors in a place as revered as this.

So much for bragging rights. Anko Phy wanted to bawl.

He lay for some indeterminate time in a fetal position on the unsoiled floor. Just as sleep finally came to check on him, mercifully closing his eyes and transporting him away, the screams began.

-continued in section 3 scene 4- It Beeped Again-
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Chapter 14 of RALI- Renegade
Written by Taki
Renegade section 3 scene 4- It Beeped Again
Night hung over Kobolast. Topeka slept soundly, lost in a land of pleasant dreams until an irksome beep pulled her back to her bed. Turning on the light, she scanned with blurry eyes for the noisemaker, finding it on the bedside table: Revel’s datapad, and he nowhere around.

Stupid thing, she thought, punching the ‘lights off’ button and rolling over. The beep persisted.

Shoving a pillow over her ears, she admonished, I shouldn’t open it. Be a good girl, Topeka.

It beeped again.

But if I don’t open the message, it’s never going to shut up!

It beeped again.

I don’t actually have to read the message, just open it.

It beeped again, and she grabbed the datapad.

At first as small as the nail on her littlest finger, the device unfolded in her grasp until it was larger than both her hands together. Its bright screen illuminated her face in the dark, and she squinted at it, searching for the ‘open message and shut up’ button.

I am pathetically nosy, she chided herself as she opened the message and began reading.

It was from Xlack Skyme; he had made it to Tala and wanted to know what his mission was.

That was fast, she thought. It would be incredibly rude to make him wait after he so quickly did as asked.

“Computer, where’s Revel?” she called.

As always, there was a bit of lag before the computer’s voice interface understood her question and formed a response: “Revel K’alaqk is in a meeting with the High Defenders of Yakru.”

“Without me?!” she blurted.

“You are not invited,” the computer clarified. Its voice was grainy like an old man’s, its cadence rough.

Topeka’s lower lip jutted out before she realized the computer would say such for her own protection. It was programmed to believe she never secretly attended these meetings.

“He left his datapad here,” she reported, fixing her pouty face. “Will you give it to him?”

“Is that an order, Adara K’alaqk?”

Topeka had only been allowed in the Tower for three days now; it was hard to remember the computer didn’t understand her mannerly way of speaking.

“Yes, Computer, I want you to give Revel his datapad. It’s important.”

The computer’s immediate response was unintelligible, a series of disturbing squeals that made Topeka wish she had read the fire evacuation plan. She made a mental note to do so as soon as possible.

As she searched for this information on Revel’s datapad, the computer questioned, “Does a Sereh’s order outrank those of Watchers?”

Topeka highly doubted it. “Explain your dilemma.”

“Prior to your command, Revel K’alaqk ordered he not be disturbed. His meeting is currently in a heated dispute. I predict the order you gave instructing me to interrupt will put his life in danger.”

“Then don’t!” she yelled, jumping out of bed, tripping over a furrow of river rocks, and throwing open the tiny closet. “Leave him be!” She imagined the careful tension in Revel’s meeting; if the computer were to smash it with a datapad delivery, it probably would turn volatile.

And the High Defenders likely don’t know about Skyme’s assignment yet, she thought, throwing a dark disguise over her nightgown.

“Forget about my order. Here’s a new one: Direct me to where this meeting is and inform me when the discussion is a little less tense, please.”

A map appeared on Revel’s datapad, and she watched as a black line traced a path for her through the maze of Aylata Tower’s corridors clear to the other side of the building. It was ridiculously far.

Pointing on the map to a place just outside the room where Revel was, she amended, “Uh, actually, I’d rather you teleport me right there.”

“Is that an-”

“Yes, that’s an order. Teleport me there!”

Gripping Revel’s datapad tightly against a sudden wave of nausea, Topeka found herself in a brightly lit hallway. She looked at the door before her, noted the yelling voices beyond it, and began pacing. Her eyes fell back to the datapad, fingers reopening Skyme’s message.

Recalling her earlier conversation with Revel, she thought of how Skyme’s loyalties and/or life were easily lost so far away. Her mind ran through a dozen absurd situations he could be in, including one where he was captured and refusing to talk, awaiting further instructions before deciding what to do next, huge, ugly thugs beating him to death.

“A good commander doesn’t leave his people hanging,” she whispered, repeating the most famous quote of the first Ravida.

On the message screen, she hit reply.

-continued in section 3 scene 5- Ride and Park-
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Chapter 15 of RALI- Renegade
Written by Taki
Renegade section 3 scene 5- Ride and Park
The city gleamed in the diminishing sunlight. Not that the daystar had been all that bright to begin with. Tala and Knalz were the foster children of many stars, shuffled from one to the next in a long revolution around the bulbous Zackertoonii Nebula.

The star called Zackertoonii nested in the heart of the nebula, and since the cloud and all the stars within orbited this massive sun, Tala and Knalz claimed to as well, even if none of its light reached them. From the surface of Tala, dusk spread colors across the sky, and the dark blue world of Knalz eclipsed one fourth of the speckled view the fading colors revealed.

It was even gorgeous in black and white.

The tram Xlack rode weaved through the blocky, shimmering skyscrapers of Vlavaran, following a translucent band of light. The car was crowded, pungent with the press of people, a slightly sour smell amongst all these Tala, like a sodden lumberyard. Rell would have found it fascinating had he not slept, belly full, curled up in one of Xlack’s pockets.

Feet braced against the tram’s sudden turns, Xlack stood between Alek Revo and Kix Entrycii, a Knalcal as tall as Xlack’s shoulder, birthmarks glistening silver against the wet-sand color of his skin.

Behind Entrycii, his amarac, Srev Stevalok, leaned against the long window, bored. His stocky, corded build was a common trait of Zalerits, as were his sharp nose and large mouth, though Stevalok’s gums hosted very pointed teeth. Like a Zalerit’s, his eyes were without sclera, yet there the similarity ended, vertical pupils slicing amber irises, a large, single pair.

A quick datapad scan revealed he had no bones; an intricate structure of hydrostatic tubes formed his skeleton, giving stability to muscles woven in mind-boggling complexity. Many creatures made use of the flexibility, strength, and finesse inherent in hydrostatic designs—humanoid tongues were of similar construction. Yet beings whose whole bodies relied on this were usually simple, like the worms found in the soil of almost every inhabited world. Stevalok’s humanoid form was a million times more complicated.

“What is he?” Xlack questioned Revo in a voice Kizmet’s librarian would have approved of.

Matching his volume, Revo responded, “Stevalok is Lettaplexian.”

Xlack had never heard of Lettaplex. “Where is that?”

“Think you’re so highfalutin you can’t ask me questions directly?” Stevalok disparaged, twang reminiscent of the blurry Yakru accent.

“You speak?” Xlack countered. At the top of vacporter four, Stevalok had let Entrycii voice all the introductions. Now his gaze burned into the Aylata, body stationary in an unnatural way aboard the rocking tram. Arms crossed, Stevalok appeared casual, half-asleep, but something about him promised an explosion of motion at any moment. Twi and Lanox stood on his other side.

“You can stop staring at me anytime, Creepface.”

“Be nice, Stevalok,” Revo chided.

“I am nothing if not nice,” the Lettaplexian countered. “I am the very essence of- Ack!”

“Oh yes, ya are the essence of a scream. That explains a lot,” Revo mocked with a roll of his eyes, but Stevalok was already in motion, feet launching off the window. He landed in the center of the car, stance a low crouch, crowd parting. Rell clung to his back, tiny claws fully extended, five per hind foot and six per forepaw, each one dug into Stevalok’s stretchy, yellow shirt.

Grabbing him around the middle, Stevalok stood, holding the beastling high. Rell squirmed.

“You have very sharp teeth, Runt.” Stevalok’s russet fingers probed a circle of punctures at the nape of his own neck, nearly hidden by his cords of hair. Blood welled, red but rendered glossy slate to Xlack’s eyes, a faint shimmer of neerj. As surprise prickled, Xlack had to remind himself neerj blood simply marked Magni heritage, not something only Aylata possessed.

Stevalok’s face softened. “You are a little cute.”

Rell’s teeth sunk into Stevalok’s thumb.

Flung and squealing, the beastling flailed. Xlack caught him, cradling Rell close to his chest. Clinging to his master’s jacket, Rell hissed at Stevalok, who sucked his wounded hand.

Anger spasmed in Xlack. “Don’t throw him!”

“Now ya are infected,” Lanox claimed, rummaging through a satchel slung over her shoulder. “Ya better let me inject ya with the antidote.”

“No needles,” Stevalok refused, words muffled around his hand.

She captured his arm. “But ya will sprout purple pimples and transform into a swamp monster.”

Entrycii waved at her serious tone. “That’s how he wakes up every day.”

Xlack’s datapad beeped, heralding it had a message. Revel K’alaqk’s name blinked on the screen.

“Lanox, not joking! Don’t stick me with anything!”

DING! The intercom proclaimed, “Tram two-five-six approaching stop seven-seven-six. Please exit orderly and be respectful to your fellow passengers.”

Despite the recording’s admonition, the opening doors triggered a mass exodus that involved a lot of shoving, the small group of O’ees squished against the opposite wall.
Slipping into the exiting crowd, Xlack stepped off the tram, absconding without the O’ees.

“Wait, Skyme, ya are-” Revo started, but the doors rushed closed, and the tram took off again.

“This is Snook Park. Welcome,” a recording announced as Xlack stepped off the deck’s wooden slats at the city’s edge. Brambly trees twisted together to form high arches above a rocky path, shadows dripping from their black bark and metallic leaves. It smelled like pudding left in the sun. The temperature was dropping, and he was glad for his versatile Tsoqisi.

Pewter and inky scales glistening, Rell scampered down to explore and find a place to do his business.

Xlack opened K’alaqk’s message:
Your speed is unmatched, Skyme. I am extremely busy at the moment. Please hold on.

“Weird message,” he mumbled. “Kind of pointless.” He typed back:
Tell me the details of my mission now!

After a moment the reply came:
ARE YOU IN DANGER?!!

“What’s with the caps?” He sent:
LIKE YOU CARE! Tell me my mission or I’m getting back in my Oha and going back to Kizmet, and I’ll never ever take another order from you.

Xlack wandered deep into Snook Park’s woods, Rell trotting along behind, tacking across the path to sniff every other dry fern. A branch of a spiky plant shivered in the wind, and Rell swatted at it, pleased when it shivered harder.

The datapad beeped again:
Your mission has something to do with bringing something back.

What was that supposed to mean?

Like what, a rock? A feather of some ambiguous bird that only lives on some imaginary mountain? Grow up, K’alaqk. I’m serious.

The next message came almost as soon as he hit send:
I’m sorry. Please don’t fly back yet. Just hold on a little longer. Call you soon! :>

Now a smiley face? Xlack realized that was the oddest messaging series he had ever had with anyone, and disturbingly, it had been with Revel K’alaqk.

Another, different sense of oddness splashed through the first: someone followed him. It took Xlack less than a heartbeat to locate the all too familiar, staring eyes.

“I was wondering how long it would take you to notice me,” laughed the most annoying Aylata he had ever had the misfortune of meeting.

“What are you doing here, Spycykle?” Xlack glared, radiating despise, though Lorm Spycykle seemed blind to such concepts when they were directed at him. Rell charged to take his preferred position just in front of Xlack’s left boot, grainy roar dropping into a gurgling growl. He stood proud and tall, smaller than Xlack’s foot but every bit cast of bravery, dark eyes fixed on the stalker.

Like a young rebalo crawling among the rafters, Spycykle was barely visible, cloaked in shadow high in one of the thick trees. His clothes were dark like most Defenders’, but his shoulders lacked the short cape adorned with a shining sigil that would have marked to which Legion he belonged. Instead, faded sigils lined his sleeves and marched down his back and chest, one for every Legion that had rejected him. Fifty-two was a lot, especially when added to the fact that he was only about to turn thirty.

Spycykle glared back, exuding the same despise. “What am I doing here? Same thing you are: rescuing the crew of the Isike, capturing a few O’ee prisoners, and returning home not to share one degree of glory.”

“There is a difference, Spycykle. I was sent here. Please don’t tell me K’alaqk thought sending an irresponsible Defender would accomplish anything.”

“You don’t think very highly of me, do you?”

“Should I?”

Spycykle didn’t reply, and the two were locked in a silent, spiteful stare for a long moment.

“If you weren’t sent here, I could consider you a Defender turned defector.”

Hands raised, Spycykle jumped out of the tree, arrogance a miasma thick as a stone wall. Rell scurried behind Xlack’s boot, peeking around his ankle, tail swaying with agitation.

“So kill me.”

“I don’t have to. You’ll choke on your own pride and ambition.”

“Even so, you wouldn’t give me that invitation. You know I wouldn’t hesitate to follow through on such an intriguing command,” Spycykle challenged, inspecting his fingers, nonchalance a façade. “The difference is that you will fail this mission, Skyme, and I will succeed, even if I have to make sure you don’t get in my way.”

Xlack drew his Ier, well aware that Spycykle always brought a bag of tricks, but at that moment his datapad resumed its fervent beeping.

Spycykle vanished.

Anger, annoyance, and suspicion flared around Xlack, his stormy neerj eyes scanning the dense forest as he answered the call: “Talk!”

“Calm, Skyme,” K’alaqk cautioned. “You sound as if something has gone wrong. Topeka assured me this would be good news.”

Why would Topeka- Xlack realized he must have been messaging Topeka earlier. That made a lot more sense now.

Xlack bent and scooped up Rell, who had occupied himself with gnawing at a bootstrap. The beastling slinked along his master’s arm, growling at the datapad—often his rival for Xlack’s attention.

“It was good news until Spycykle showed up.”

“Skyme, you have watched your back since the day you were born. Spycykle should be no threat to you.”

“It’s not me I’m worried about.”

As Xlack’s mouth formed the words, surprise softened them. People came and went—a rule of life his teachers had taught him well. Yet he couldn’t help but think of Spycykle’s taunts and Twi and Revo, even Lanox. Pity mourned for any subjected to Spycykle’s mercy.

Rell had almost reached the datapad, right paw raised, claws extended to slash at the screen. Xlack caught the scruff of his neck and placed the beastling near his Ier sheath. Grunting, Rell found his favorite pocket below the weapon’s home and crawled inside.

Xlack continued, “I’m curious to receive the details of my mission.”

“Of course. You remember our experimental ship, Isike, which disappeared some time ago. It was captured by Knalcals. Each member of the crew wears a tracking device I trust you can search for. Rescue them all and return them home.”

So, Spycykle had been right about part of the mission.

“I shall-”

“In addition, it would be helpful if you brought back a Tala and Knalcal, preferably of Magni descent. Can you handle that?”

Okay, so Spycykle had suspiciously known about this whole mission.

“Did you send Spycykle here?”

“That I will leave to your discernment.”

“I’ve already discerned it! What were you thinking?”

K’alaqk sighed, “Skyme, the crew of the Isike relies on you, as does the entire empire. Avoid Spycykle if you feel you must, but do not fail us.”

“Why natives of Magni descent?” Xlack questioned.

“Like the lightcurvers, they are cousins to us, but we know very little about them. You understand how they might be a threat, can you not?”

Xlack nodded. Lightcurvers were dangerous.

“I shall do as you ask, K’alaqk.”

“Very good,” the young emperor said with a smile and cut the transmission.

Immediately, Xlack sent him this message:
See you soon! !>

K’alaqk replied:
Is there something wrong?

Xlack fell over laughing.

-continued in section 3 scene 6- Chase-
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Chapter 16 of RALI- Renegade
Written by Taki
Renegade section 3 scene 6- Chase
Dusk had faded over the horizon, and the bright, omnipresent city lights of Vlavaran cast strange shadows. On a relatively flat section of roof belonging to the Knalcal Embassy—a building that resembled a frozen splash—Twi and Lanox waited for Revo, Entrycii, and Stevalok to return.

“The missions tonight were quick,” Lanox commented, leaning back on a slanted eave, one knee bent. Warm wind toyed with her myriad of ringlets.

“Keep alert,” Twi admonished, standing near the edge of their level ledge, eyes scanning the scene below. “The Mueta we met tonight were low-rankers.”

Lanox rolled her eyes. “We’re low-rankers.”

Looking over her shoulder at her amarac, Twi grinned smugly. “Stay a low-ranker if you wish.”

“Ya would have us be invincible,” Lanox replied. She was rarely jealous of Twi. Okay, so she occasionally envied her eye-catching looks, but not the responsibility heaped upon her shoulders or even her complicated Talents, really. Lanox thought the complexity of Twi’s life was reflected in her default hairstyle, a conglomeration of braids crossing every which way before dropping from a half-bun at the back of her head.

Twi’s grin turned grim. “If only we could be invincible.”

She used to tell Hrausq Seven-One-Nine they were, or could be if they tried hard enough. Sep’s death on Kelis had wrenched such confidence from her, though. Lanox missed the old Twi; she was forever searching for her just as Twi searched the skies for Sep.

Her own eyes scanned the stars now, and she changed the subject, voice soft but accusatory: “Ya weren’t really looking for him.”

Twi immediately and correctly identified the ‘him’ implied, as Lanox knew she would. “Skyme stepped off the train on purpose. If he wants to, he’ll return. If he doesn’t…” She shrugged, leaning her hand on a protruding piece of roof. “Let someone else take care of him.”

“Someone like the Mueta,” Lanox asserted, “or the authorities who’ve been greedy to use hybrids like us since forever.”

Twi didn’t acknowledge the attempted guilt trip, eyes on the skyline, fear chilling her as lights in the surrounding buildings flickered, spelling out a scrolling message that would only have been readable from their vantage point. She followed the blinking in a complete, counter-clockwise circle, reading, “Three-Two-One.”

Only Mueta called O’ees three-two-ones, doing so with double meaning. Mueta believed Magnies were meant to take whatever they wanted, not to give it back. In this, they considered O’ees backward fools, their days numbered, counting down.

As a minor result, there was no Hrausq Three-Two-One.

Twi whispered the numbers aloud, taking an indecisive step back, and Lanox leapt into a readied stance. A sharp-edged disc flew toward the pair, crashing into a forcefield of Twi’s creation.

Just behind her, a lone figure dropped to the roof. “Hello, Navaria.”

Twi whirled, meeting silver eyes that mirrored her own. Thin lines of Knalcal scales glinted in the city lights, tracing a pattern near identical to hers through skin a shade duskier. His wrapped tunic and pants claimed the deepest blue, the former’s edging of the darkest brown to complement his long belt, woven boots, and the half glove concealing his left palm.

“Rogii Moshee,” Twi breathed, drawing back. Disaster was Rogii’s shadow.

He smiled, voice smooth, full of false charm, and far from calming: “Good, you remember me. I was afraid you wouldn’t after that nasty fall I heard you had.”

“I’d rather plunge from a thousand balconies than have anything to do with you, Mueta.”

“Harsh.” Rogii’s head wagged in faux disappointment, his hair—a vivid smalt to cobalt to white gradient—too gelled to move.

Behind him, Lanox tiptoed closer, a kanaber’s sleeping handle gripped in the tight fist held at her side. As she raised her arm, short laser blade flashing into existence, a giant pounced, curling her into his somersault. A maroon hand caught the kanaber as it flew, following the tumbling pair.

Stillness reigned an instant later, Lanox dazed and glassy-eyed, piled hair an uneven cascade of white-gold, body limp in the rough embrace of a Lettaplexian man twice her height, hands engulfing her biceps. He grinned, pointed onyx teeth cutting his lip, round, citrine eyes gleaming through the pale green mask etched into his ruddy skin.  Tugging on his loose, open jacket, a sour breeze booed him.

The kanaber hovered at Lanox’s throat, held by the Lettaplexian’s amarac, a stocky woman, her short, white hair pulled into four tufts—two tiny and two larger, like her eyes. These were true to her Zalerit heritage—rare since all Zalerits here were greatly mixed—two small, glossy black ovoids on either side of the nearly flat bridge of her nose, a tiny, darker bead nestled under the outer corner of each. She blinked, luminous skin that peeked through the crisscrossing ribbon of her shirt and the net along her pants’ out seam brightening to match the crimson of Twi’s drawn ju’wack.

Twi sidestepped Rogii, racing to Lanox’s rescue, but a coin flew out of Rogii’s pocket and met his hand, expanding into a thin cylinder and sprouting a glowing tentacle. The lightwhip snapped, coiling around the ju’wack’s crimson tendrils and yanking it back. Quick steps kept Twi on her feet, her gaze cutting to Rogii’s mocking grin.

“Feel like testing me, Twi?”

“Release Lanox!”

“If you insist,” Rogii conceded, smirk condescending. “Narkom, Mikana, when have we ever wanted little Lanox?” As he snapped his fingers, his intention sunk into Twi’s heart.

“No!” she shouted, shoving Rogii, but Lanox already tumbled down the side of the slick, steep roof, dropping for the hard streets below.

Rogii caught his balance, but not before Twi jumped past him, aiming to slide after Lanox and somehow catch her, ju’wack reverted to a silver disc to avoid accidently impaling anyone.

Rogii was not through with Twi yet.

Again the lightwhip cracked, catching Twi’s wrist. Though her feet kept going, her arm did not, and she fell on her back, hanging by the faintly glowing cord. It functioned on principles similar to the ju’wack, feeling alive as it tore through her durable sleeve and into her skin.

Rogii pulled her back onto the level ledge. “All I want is to talk, Twi.”

She scrambled to her feet, twisting free of the lightwhip’s hold. “You can talk to your flunkies!”

“If they had the information I needed, I wouldn’t have gone through the trouble of finding you. Now spill everything you know about the stranger in the black oha.”

Cool disdain in her stare, Twi replied, “Why don’t you just ask him?”

Rogii laughed. “You can’t just walk up to an Aylata and start asking questions. They’re like…like…Narkom, help me out with an analogy.”

The giant Lettaplexian answered, “A bag of chips.”

“Narkom, that doesn’t make any sense! How can an Aylata be like a bag of chips?”

Twi ran, her destination the flamboyant billboard floating above the freeway curved around this building’s other side. The road looked like smoldering, lavender glass. Her observant gaze not leaving the racing vehicles below, Twi jumped for the advertisement and ran to the middle of the platform, awaiting opportunity.

Shock pinned Narkom. “She wouldn’t.”

“You bet she would!” Rogii shouted, springing after her.

Twi leapt off the billboard, landing on the back of a speeding hovercycle. The vehicle bobbed slightly with the unexpected impact, her feet sliding from the seat to the ledge just behind the driver’s heels as their trajectory leveled, toes half a body length above the slick road.

The young driver twisted around. “What in-”

“Can you give me a ride?” Twi asked with the sweetest smile she could muster.

“Well sure. What true biker wouldn’t give a ride to a beautiful girl who just fell out of the sky? Where-”

Shooter fire erupted around them.

The bike spun, incompliant with the driver’s panicked attempts to correct their course. The other vehicles were blurred streaks skimming much too close. A wispy forcefield distorted them further, taking out a bridge’s railing just before they crashed into it. They would plummet into oblivion, their deaths mentioned in subtext on the morning news.

The driver clutched the nearest object—rough, cold, hard…and not falling. He opened his eyes, finding he hugged part of the guardrail. Debris splashed into the wide river far below.

Righting the bike, the mystery girl promised, “You’ll be compensated for your cycle.” She took off, racing against traffic.

“Um, yeah, but that’s actually my uncle’s bike!”

But she was long gone.

The three Mueta were right behind her, weaving through screaming vehicles—a mix of small, pike-like transports, other sleek hovercycles, and big, boxy barges, all coasting no more than hip height above the shining, svelte road, travel instructions winking in soft white on its surface. Slamming her foot down on the speed control, Twi folded herself into the cycle’s aerodynamic pocket, hoping to outrun her pursuers. Unfortunately, the Zalerit named Mikana had acquired a racer’s bike, its paint convincing the eye that flames danced across its surface. Despite the weaving, she was close enough Twi could have grabbed her hand.

Banking a hard right, Twi ran the bike up one of the fancy Welcome to Vlavaran signs and spun through the air, sailing over the Mueta. With another stomp on the speed controls, she landed back in the flow of traffic, going the right way this time.

Mikana pulled a tight one-eighty and charged after her, Narkom and Rogii following. Passing traffic left and right, sharp-edged towers blurred beyond the highway’s edge, Twi’s bike was still no match for the racer. In the mirrored casing on the right handlebar, she watched it devour the space between them. Making a snap decision, Twi exited the freeway, determined to lose the speedster by winding through darker maze of city streets.

At the first traffic signal, she turned left without bothering to notice which direction the indicator faced. She turned left again at the first narrow alley. Then, taking a right at the next street, she twisted through bumper-to-bumper traffic, still hearing the racer’s echoing motor not far behind. Mikana was just on the other side of the line of transports, trying to weave her way into a position right beside Twi, but the narrow space between vehicles made that impossible.

“Just surrender, Cousin, and we won’t have to harm you!” the Mueta woman shouted. At least ‘cousin’ was less demeaning than ‘three-two-one.’

“How can I trust that?!” Twi quipped, turning right on a less crowded street. The Mueta followed. The shops lining this slender corridor were closed to respectable business this time of night, windows darkened, offering anonymity to those who sought it. Mikana’s luminous skin was a beacon here, her fear and frustration palpable.

Zalerits hated the dark.

A magenta-tendrilled ju’wack appeared in Mikana’s hand, swinging in a fast, downward arc intended to slice the front off Twi’s cycle. Reflexes quick, Twi blocked the chop with her own ju’wack.

“I’m more trustworthy than a Napix Aylata!” the Zalerit claimed, her weapon careening down a second time. Again Twi parried the attack.

“Running just makes it harder on yourself,” Rogii boomed, voice coming from everywhere. Rogii’s ‘netic specialty was air. It carried sound however he wanted. It moved however he wanted.

As Twi deflected Mikana’s strikes, a whirlwind formed around them, tossing Twi. The gale ripped her away from the hovercycle and stole her breath, squeezing her like giant, invisible fists.

Twi pushed back, falling, sweeping gestures and angled palms dictating her course, eyes closed at the wind’s insistence. She felt rather than saw Mikana and her racer soar through the tornado, brilliant ju’wack sundering Twi’s borrowed hovercycle.

Twi cringed. She would have little difficulty anonymously depositing its worth in its owner’s account later, assuming she survived this, but without a vehicle, outrunning these Mueta became a lot less likely.

Twi stretched toward the racer, diving under Mikana’s slash, her own ju’wack closed but still firmly in hand. The burning tendrils of the Mueta’s weapon passed a mere fingerbreadth above Twi’s arm, her skin tingling in warning.

As the stamina-draining whirlwind subsided, the racer dropped back to regulation height, and Twi grasped the handlebars, elbows locking to prevent her from faceplanting on the headlight, legs curling, feet hanging just above the road.

Yet, a racer was not designed to have a passenger dangling from its front. The Mueta driver zigzagged, trying to keep from spinning out of control. Twi winced as buildings and vehicles whipped by.

Swinging her legs, Twi kicked at the Mueta’s wrists, knocking the ju’wack from Mikana’s hand. One danger gone, but off-balance, the racer fell on its side, sparks flashing as it skidded down the smooth street.  Twi landed on the racer’s current upside, gripping the fuel tank just behind the handlebars.

Thunderous and reeking of grease, a barge drove over them, bumper brushing Mikana’s pearlescent tufts as she yanked Twi into a headlock. Twi thrust her elbow up under the Zalerit’s ribs. Mikana grunted, weight pressing on Twi, but her hold hardly loosened. A cargo transport pulled up alongside, oversized and formed of a million square panes.

Leaning out his window, the angry driver bellowed, “Some of us are actually trying to drive here!”

Unlatching a shooter from her belt, the Mueta took a haphazard shot at him, her other arm still around Twi’s neck. The transport sped away.

Twi twisted out of the headlock, right foot prying Mikana’s leg from the bike. With lithe, feline coordination, Twi’s left foot pushed off the ground, the other mashing the speed controls, racer righting as it took off without the Mueta.

There was no way they would catch Twi now, but still she wound around for at least half a ruah, making sure she had really lost them and wondering what their intentions were.

They wanted to know about ‘the stranger in the black oha.’ Skyme obviously, but what did Twi really know that she could spill anyway? What in the world was an Aylata?

Returning to the Knalcal Embassy, Twi found Lanox on the ground behind disheveled trash bins. She was unconscious, a swelling bruise on her forehead, but besides that no major injuries stood out to Twi’s scrutinizing eyes.

Wrapping Lanox’s vest tighter, Twi hoisted her onto the back of the racer, ordering the sys laced over her ear to dial Revo. Either he, Entrycii, or Stevalok would ensure a doctor tended Lanox. Twi had somewhere she needed to be.

-continued in section 4 scene 1- Confrontation-
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Chapter 17 of RALI- Renegade
Written by Taki
Renegade section 4 scene 1- Confrontation
Setting a datapad to search for tracers and following the radar were elementary skills. Xlack walked…and walked…and walked, leaving the park and the city far behind.

As he trudged along, only occasionally encountering roads or paths through the brambly forest ringing Vlavaran, he thought. His mind continued to whir as he lay in the twisted roots of a large tree, sleep pulling apart his logic and painting nonsensical pictures that shattered when he awoke. When his journey resumed, so did his musing.

“Like the lightcurvers, they are cousins to us,” K’alaqk had reasoned.

Long ago, all Magnies fled their home, seeking refuge on a variety of worlds. Yet no matter the planet, one fact inevitably arose: Magni hybrids were never the same as their purebred cousins on either side.

The Aylata used this to their advantage, conquering first their own world, and then others. It made this point in their subconscious: any other Magni descendants were a threat. For example, lightcurvers—Zalerits with high concentration of Magni heritage. Upon discovery, any lightcurver was to be killed, no questions, no exceptions. That was the law.

The Knalcal/Magnies, Tala/Magnies, and Lettaplexian/Magnies Xlack had met here didn’t seem like the maniacal lightcurvers of legend. They were…different…but also familiar in so many ways. If he brought them home, would they easily don the mantle of Aylata or Sereh? Would they instead prove to be as monstrous as lightcurvers? Or was there a third niche waiting to be filled by these lost cousins?

As the delicate hands of dawn poked at the edges of the sky, the datapad’s beep grew more fervent, pointing ahead at a small bunker crouched among the trees, Vlavaran’s glittering towers barely visible on the horizon. The structure was a squat, slate dome in the middle of nowhere, a forcefield across the locked door.

The O’ee emblem hid in the pocket also occupied by a snoozing Rell, who swatted at Xlack’s intrusive fingers but quickly fell back asleep, purring softly.

Xlack set the triangular pendant on the pass reader, and the heavy door slid aside, dropping its forcefield. Xlack stepped in, no alarms tripped, not even a guard in sight. He hesitated.

Eerily dark and quiet, the hallway’s only lighting came from the tile he stood upon. When he stepped onto another, the light followed him. The previous tile slowly dimmed, soon glossy black like its comrades. The air smelled of antiseptic, and the only sounds came from the ventilation system and his own datapad, its soft beep on rapid repeat.

Trying not to dwell on how creepy this place felt, Xlack followed the radar deeper into the building. The signals came from beneath his feet; he needed to get into the basement. Behind a door eager to glide out of his way, he found a set of winding stairs and walked down them.

Twi waited for him, her familiar life-signature drowned in all the other foreign fields. Ice could not compare with the chill of her presence, her steely stare just as cold, stopping him on the last step. She stood just in front of the door his datapad pointed him toward.

“What is an Aylata?”

What did these people think he was, a dictionary?

Declining to answer, Xlack continued on as if she weren’t there and had said nothing.

Stance stiffening, she warned, “Do not take another step forward.” Adding authority to her soft voice, she drew her ju’wack, an action that sounded like metal slamming into a wall. Before Xlack realized it, his Ier was in his hand, banishing shadows to the oddly angled corners of this large corridor.

He couldn’t see her weapon’s exact shape, couldn’t perceive its light, instead catching undulating, ghostly glimpses along its length, like heat waves blurring the distance. And he could hear it, humming in front of his chest like contained thunder.

To Twi’s eyes, her ju’wack lit the room in red, but her surprised gaze was fixed on his weapon—an Ier, a descendant model of the Magnies’ Aqkashi, as he assumed hers was likewise. By now, Ier were also of ancient design, their reputation having grown with the Aylata who wielded them.

Twi’s gaze was wary but steady, as was her position.

“Let me pass,” Xlack suggested. Suggestions involved grasping the thoughts of the target and inserting one’s own idea. Twi’s thoughts were slippery, and the suggestion slid right past them, foreign in her mind and easily dismissed.

“If you release the people in the room behind me, you will put them in even greater danger.”

“I can protect them,” he argued, glaring.

“To what point? Can you alone protect them from an entire hrausq?”

“Get out of my way,” Xlack ordered, slamming his Ier into the invisible strands of her ju’wack.

“Or two hrausqs?” she pressed, one foot retreating to strengthen her balance. As he passed, she ducked low, one leg kicking at the back of his knees. Xlack jumped, barely high enough in this elevated Tala gravity, and again swung his Ier at the ju’wack. Disarmed, she would be less bold and annoying.

Twi thought the same about him.

Still low, she spun under his swing. Xlack’s wrist twisted, angling his Ier so its other end dipped toward her, smooth arc uninterrupted. She jumped over it, vertical ju’wack thrusting down as the Ier passed beneath her. The ju’wack’s tightly woven strands speared through the looser tendrils of the Ier, entwining them together.

Gripping the Ier with both hands, Xlack whirled, flinging the airborne Twi into the wall, their weapons slipping apart with a horrendous snap. Twi hit the wall feet first and sprung, diving in an attempt to harpoon the Ier yet again. With a step to the right and another turn of his wrist, Xlack avoided such, and the two weapons bounced off one another with the cold, hollow sound of rushing wind.

Twi landed lightly on her feet, pulling her ju’wack close, the edge of one strand scraping across Xlack’s elbow.

Arm and pride stinging, Xlack leapt back, fear a sudden, gelid weight. His left hand covered the wound, a superficial scratch—normally nothing of any consequence except that it was caused by an Ier-like weapon. Ier not only slit through flesh, muscle, or bone, they severely confused nerves, sending infectious messages to the brain, a virus to a nucleus.

Insanity and death had found victims with lesser scratches than Xlack now had.

But Twi’s weapon was only Ier-like, and Aqkashi did not have such mad effects. Xlack probed around his mind. Would he feel the craziness slipping in? How long would it take?

He had to finish this before then.

Ier slammed into ju’wack, two powerful blows in succession jarring Twi’s weapon loose. A third slash sliced through the ju’wack’s center, its fragile handle—the only part of it Xlack could actually see—rendering it useless. Twi dropped the half that remained in her hand before its melted edges could burn her.

Now left unarmed, Xlack figured she had no choice but to let him pass. He expected her to run, to at least back off. Instead, she launched toward him, foot accompanied by a stiff forcefield crashing into his chest. A clear, distorting cloud made more visible by white veins of energy, the forcefield added exponential strength to her blow. As Twi pushed off him, soaring into an untucked backflip, Xlack stumbled back toward the stairs.

Now he knew why K’alaqk tested him with the idea of Topeka learning her Talents. Twi was not defenseless, relying on protectors and escorts. She had been taught to fight and to use at least some form of Micro-magnetism.

Intimidation hadn’t scared him off. As Twi landed and vaulted again, a new tool occupied her hands, a thumb-sized, chrome ovoid cupped in each palm. Another forcefield snapped into existence as she flew, and Xlack sent one back. The ovoids shot toward him, cutting through his shield as Twi was tossed at the ceiling. Her hands touched first, the fulcrum of a tight flip, feet tucking against the solid surface.

She dove.

As the ovoids veered to pass on either side of him, Xlack realized what they were; at Twi’s command, they would grow a link between them and encircle him. But they were closer to him than to her.

Xlack stole influence over them, shoving the ovoids away as their connection activated. Their link, a jagged, smoke-like shadow, crashed into Twi’s left bicep, the virtual cord instantly tying multiple loops around her arm, the ovoids’ course unaltered. Twi’s reversal was immediate, the ovoids boring deep into the metal ceiling, too far apart. The ovoids were meant to come together once they captured a prize, but Xlack had pushed them at different angles. They fought to reunite, link constricting.

Deactivating the restraint, Twi dropped, crumpling on the ground, left arm limp, right hand clutching her wound. Slashes marred her Tsoqisi sleeve, neerj-sheened indigo blood seeping. Her pain screamed.

Xlack turned to the door, stomping down sympathy. She was not anyone he should care about, an obstacle, an enemy.

“Prove it!” she called, and he halted. She stood, gaze as sharp as an Ier, slicing into his back. “Once you free those prisoners, the Mueta will pounce. How can you protect them if you can’t even stop one O’ee?” She moved like a river, graceful and daunting, planting herself between him and the door. Her left shoulder was crooked, dislocated and beginning to swell, but discounting that, her fighting stance was solid and flawless, right hand extended toward him. Determination and tenacity burned in her eyes.

Xlack grabbed these along with her raucous pain and twisted them into another suggestion: “Sleep.”

Again nothing, like a pebble tossed into an ocean.

Twi would not relent. As she had said, he had to prove himself a worthy savior. To pass, Xlack would have to kill her.

Rell mewled, no longer asleep, glossy eyes peeking out from under the safety of the pocket flap.

Twi sprung, kick blocked, right hand catching Xlack’s wrist. He twisted, flipping her onto her back as he tore free. Her feet found the ground first, trapped beneath her, right hand touching down a moment later, and everything stopped, the Ier’s endpoints hovering just above her clavicle.

She looked up at him, silvery gaze wide with pain and disbelief. Xlack fought not to look away as his Ier slid lower, devouring the distance between its sharp tendrils and her heart.

And stilled.

Knocked away by another defending ju’wack held by a different hand. Revo stood at the other end, his stony stare set in a shocked expression.

A projectile flew at Xlack from behind, and he whirled, Ier chopping the small, flying disc in half. Revo used the instant of distraction to put a hand on Twi’s uninjured shoulder and drag her back a few more paces, just far enough to buy a smidgen of hope, not to reach genuine safety.

Backing up to gain a view of both the disc-throwing Stevalok and ju’wack-wielding Revo, Xlack stated the obvious: “She’s hurt.”

“And what are ya doing here?” Revo questioned, distrust and disdain in every syllable. His ju’wack, although green to most, was still invisible to Xlack. Same as in the cave, the Aylata could feel it, every strand in clarity as it pulsed alongside Revo’s life-signature. It matched him, just like an Aylata’sIer matched only the Aylata for whom it was made.

“I have a good reason for being here,” Xlack countered, “but I don’t see yours.”

“Like I don’t have a good reason! Would ya really have killed Twi had I not been here?”

“It was necessary!”

“Add a syllable to that: it’s unnecessary!”

So how was he supposed to get out of this now—two against one with a third already injured but glaring at him like she actually considered rejoining this fight?

“Don’t do anything stupid,” Xlack advised, unsure if he warned them or himself.

“That’s what we’re asking of you,” Twi replied through gritted teeth.

Xlack jumped back, stabbing his Ier into the closed door that stood between him and the captive crew of the Isike. Stevalok and Revo weren’t far behind.

Extricating his Ier from the door, Xlack used it to block Revo’s advancing ju’wack. Stevalok was pulled into a headlock, but he had his own ‘invisible’ weapon, and together with Revo’s, they knocked Xlack’s Ier from his tight grasp. Both Xlack’s and Stevalok’s weapons flew away from the trio, automatically deactivating when they hit the floor, damaging the light-tiles where they landed.

Strong and flexible, Stevalok pulled Xlack into a somersault. Using his own momentum against him, Xlack flipped Stevalok in turn, throwing him into the wall and scrambling to recover his Ier. Rell hissed, complaining about the wild ride, every one of his twenty-two claws stabbing Xlack’s leg.

Stevalok did not get up.

Ier in hand and reactivated, Xlack swept the weapon toward the O’ee nearest him: Revo.

Crash-crash-crash! Revo reacted with precise timing as if the O’ee knew his foe’s next move. All swings from either side were blocked. They circled one another like a pair of predators, tiles lighting up under their feet.

“Revo,” Twi admonished, standing now but shaky, “back off. He’ll hurt you. Let him open the stupid door if he wants.”

“Yes, let him,” another voice chimed. Emerging from shadows above, the speaker leapt over the stair rail and landed between Xlack and Revo. Shrouded in a bulky cloak, she was exponentially older. Xlack was surprised an elderly woman like her could make such a move without breaking a hip or something.

“By all means, let him make his own decisions, but let them be informed ones. Beyond the door is a Mueta trap.”

“Why didn’t you say that in the first place?” Xlack asked Twi.

“Didn’t she?” the newcomer giggled, cadence melodious and diplomatically practiced. “She told you the Mueta would attack, and she warned you would not be able to protect those you came to save. Would you blame her for your lack of listening skills?”

Xlack frowned, caution delaying any response as his gaze swept the old woman. Her stance was both defensive and unflinching, despite her empty hands. This last was subject to change, though, considering her voluptuous cloak. Anything could have hidden in there.

Xlack didn’t know how to react to her. Revo seemed stuck between genuine surprise, anger (mainly directed at Xlack), and a need to stand at attention and salute. This combination’s resulting expression evoked amusement, but Xlack had no time to laugh.

“Those ashen curls are so cute. What is your name?” the old woman questioned, and now Xlack’s expression mirrored Revo’s. Should he simply answer, remain silent, or slash her and get on with it?

“His name’s Skyme,” Revo divulged.

“Good, Skyme. I’m Mystis. Why don’t we settle this in a more civilized manner?”

Xlack took a step back. “Meaning?”

“I’m sure you came here for a reason, and I’m fairly certain it has something to do with the people you believe to be on the other side of that particular door,” she lectured. “Maybe if you voiced this reason to the proper authorities, it could be fulfilled without a fight.” Her candid eyes, a glittering mix of silver, blue, and black, slid to Twi. “Without a death.”

Well if it was faster and easier, why not? Who was he to say things had to be done the violent way?

“Do you know these proper authorities?” Xlack asked.

She smiled wide. “Perhaps. Answer this first: how were you planning on transporting the Isike’s numerous crew?”

Disquiet dripped down Xlack’s spine, a blizzard raging in his toes.

“You hadn’t thought that far ahead?” Mystis guessed, mock surprise sharpening her smirk. “Life lesson, little Aylata: You cannot fly through life without leaving footprints. Your actions leave marks, and if you are unable or unwilling to look where they lead, do not invite others along to share your fate.”

Xlack frowned. “Do I have to solve riddles to earn your assistance?”

“Life is a riddle,” Mystis laughed. “Here’s my second tip: Nothing can be accomplished alone. Accept help, even if its form is nothing like you expected. Follow me.”

She turned and glided up the stairs, tossing him a choice. Xlack followed, sheathing his Ier and calling the ovoids out of the ceiling, directing them into a pocket.

Twi crouched alongside Stevalok. The Lettaplexian was limp and motionless, his arm like a rag as Twi lifted it, but his life-signature pulsed strong. He was unconscious but alive.

The scratch on Xlack’s arm itched more than stung now, a thin scab that would disappear in a few ruahs. He didn’t feel insane.

Rell whimpered, and Xlack patted him, already halfway up the stairs. Xlack wanted to apologize: for the fear and resentment emanating from Revo, for Stevalok’s comatose state, for the weeping wound on Twi’s arm and the tears in her eyes. He couldn’t take any of it back. What good would his regret do? It would just tie him down in guilt.

He whispered it anyway, a breath at the top of the stairs: “Sorry.”

-continued in section 4 scene 2- Med-center Analysis-
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Chapter 18 of RALI- Renegade
Written by Taki
Renegade section 4 scene 2- Med-center Analysis
Navaria Twi and Srev Stevalok retreated to the med-center of Vlavaran Base—a place of billowing curtains and rough rock walls scrubbed until they shone. As Twi patiently endured the live doctors’ attentions and let the mechetts tend to her shoulder, she detected Lanox nearby, sleeping peacefully as machines watched over her.

Machines with any sense avoided Knalcal/Magnies. The machines here had been programmed without any sense, but they could still dress a wound pretty well.

Sinister fire seemed to crawl through Twi’s arm, but she did her best to ignore it. Instead, she focused her attention on the two halves of her ju’wack.

Spinning them above her hand, she watched the light glint off their melted edges. Ju’wacks rarely broke, especially older ones like hers. This one was believed to have come to Knalz with the Magnies countless generations ago, before the Knalcals even knew what space was. Now it sat in pieces in her hand, unable to turn on and defend her. She could only hope it was repairable. Her acute eyes and ‘netic senses scanned the damage, measuring, calculating.

So many of the basic details of their society stemmed from Magni influence, and many of those, even in such a technological civilization, from nature itself. Their measurements, for instance. A mym claimed the distance between her finger’s tip and its first joint. A ceme stretched eight times longer, about the length from her elbow to her wrist. A neme extended still eight times longer, about the height of the stranger.

And so her thoughts turned back to him and the question of how his weapon had managed to break hers. Even on its more fragile handle, a ju’wack was usually impervious to others of its kind. The Aylata’s weapon was similar, but not identical.

For starters, all true ju’wacks measured an exact neme; she would estimate Skyme’s weapon to be at least a ceme longer. Where the ju’wack’s strands were woven tightly together, each end flaying somewhat, the strands of Skyme’s weapon widened at a much greater angle, leaving the ends more spacious and their curve to individual sharp points more apparent. The strands were thicker, too, and brighter.

Most curious in Twi’s mind, though, was the difference in handle. The chrome hilt of Twi’s ju’wack spanned one and a half times the width of her palm and was about the circumference of her wrist. It had grooves for each of her fingers, thumb included, that had adjusted to fit her hand as it had grown accustomed to her. Though it sprouted searing tendrils from either end, the handle was the heart of a ju’wack and completely necessary if it were to learn to serve a new master.

Skyme’s weapon had no handle. Its strands ran uninterrupted from one end to the other, modestly covering all its mechanics.

Even more an intriguing mystery was the Aylata himself. Whatever the label meant, this one claimed quick reflexes and extraordinary Talents, as would be expected of an O’ee with an extreme amount of Magni heritage. Skyme was no O’ee though. So that left a worrisome question running through her mind: Is an Aylata a friend or enemy?

No friend would have ignored her warnings and tried so blatantly to kill her, but…

Revo knew something, but Revo had gone with Mystis and Skyme.

As the mechett retracted its tools and wrapped her arm with a blur of metal hands, Twi caught a glimpse of the silvery scabs spiraling around her left arm. Her shoulder felt a little languid, but the swelling had been chased away by efficient meds, and only a faint bruise remained, the palest cyan against her creamy skin.

Almost done, she thought. Hurry. Impatience pesters me with questions.

As soon as the bandage was in place, Twi pulled on her jacket and slid off the medical table, ignoring the mechett that ordered she sit back down. She didn’t take orders from mechetts, and Revo had some explaining to do.

-continued in section 4 scene 3- Politics
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Chapter 19 of RALI- Renegade
Written by Taki
Renegade section 4 scene 3- Politics
Though strange, Mystis proved quite helpful. She had a feisty, beautiful spirit time would not mar. Her smooth words had a way of inspiring any she spoke to, and whatever she asked for was quickly granted. Within a ruah, she had Xlack standing within the Knalcal Embassy, encircled by a throng of Knalcal officials, ones with expensive-smelling perfume, outlandish dress, and snobby stares.

There were only fourteen chairs, each an artwork of stone positioned at the pinnacle of a staircase. The stairs were the radii of the sunken circle where Xlack stood in the center, spotlights dotting the stage and deepening the shadows beyond the amphitheater.

At least two of those sitting appeared kindly and genuinely concerned, less caught up in themselves. He hoped only their votes counted. He really hoped the man with the perpetual scowl was just somebody’s secretary.

Perched on Xlack’s shoulder, Rell ignored them all, attention enraptured by a brittle bone—all that was left of the greasy drumstick Mystis had presented him. His snout shone with its juice, as did Xlack’s shoulder.

“So let me be sure I understand,” a woman with a huge feather coming off her small hat asked, “you want us to release the crew of a trespassing ship you say is yours just because you asked with the word please?”

It was more because Xlack had long since grown tired of saying please, and his Ier itched to make an appearance. He sighed, wondering how Spycykle planned to reclaim the Isike. This way was torture.

One of the kinder-looking Reprees—a Tala, as told by her softly glittering, golden skin and lack of birthmarks—spoke up: “I must ask you never to mock an Aylata. It is a very unwise course of action.” Sweet serenity slithered around her, amplifying her presence. She seemed tiny in comparison, too fragile to be the source of such power, a gentle girl wrapped in a long, silky gown and oversized chair, a white lace mask perfectly fitted across her eyes and held on by nothing. Her voice matched her appearance, though her accent was almost Knalcal with the same sharp t’s and hollow l’s as Twi and Mystis.

The feathered hat woman frowned at her, as did all her supporters. “You will remain silent until spoken to, Repree Per’nyé.”

With a sly smile, Per’nyé stood, replying, “Now you’ve spoken to me.” With a bow, she retook her seat and continued, “This miniature committee of the Sagel asked for a representative of the Mueta so you could share our insights. I am simply advising you of what I know.”

The scowling man grumbled, “So, what do you know of the Aylata?”

Per’nyé did not answer him. Instead, she leaned her head upon her hand, crushing a few coppery curls as she asked, “Sir Skyme, what are you: a Watcher, Messenger, Defender?”

“Protector, Ma’am,” he answered with a smile, glad to see the woman with the feathered hat wasn’t the absolute monarch here.

“Then what are you doing here? Protectors protect Districts.”

“I’m here to protect the crew of the Isike.” He made up the mandate on the spot, but it sounded like a rational reason, right? How much did Mueta really know about Aylata? Twi hadn’t even recognized the title.

“Good answer, Aylata.” Per’nyé turned to the officials, conspiracy dancing in her fiery-colored eyes. “I wouldn’t be very happy if someone prevented me from completing my assignment.”

The woman with the feathered hat smiled weakly. “Per’nyé, I advise you to regain your composure and be silent.”

“Or what, you’ll have your guards toss me out?” She grinned, a bellicose mix of sweet and smug. “We both know how well that would go.”

The woman’s fake smile plummeted into a frown matching that of the scowling man. Xlack had always felt uncomfortable in political settings. He wasn’t exactly sure how this foreign diplomatic stuff was supposed to go, but to him it didn’t look like it was going too well.

Per’nyé left her chair and strode closer to him, her soft voice cutting through tension in the air as she addressed him, “Aylata, Sir, I will be honest with you. These people have no authority over the fate of your friends.”

Of course not! So why was he here again? Mystis had conveniently disappeared.

Xlack tried to think of what a Watcher would do: bow theatrically and excuse himself? Whip out his Ier and make them see how incredibly annoying they were?

Diplomats yelled over one another, accusing their neighbors of being liars and cheats but not throwing anything. Xlack would really have liked to have thrown something.

Noticing the commotion, Rell snatched up his bone and retreated to his favorite pocket lest some barbarian attempt to steal his prize. With no pocket to hide in, Xlack kept a calm mask on his face and bowed.

“Well, that’s disappointing to hear.” Did his words find any ears? Seemingly not. Did they need to? Not really.

As he straightened, Xlack slid his Ier from its sheath, snapping it on for the whole assembly to stare at with wide eyes, instinctively wary.

In the sudden silence, Xlack announced, “I don’t care who has the authority. I want the crew of the Isike released to me and, while we’re negotiating so nicely, the ship itself too. Someone in this room must know how to get it for me!”

Shooters all over the room aimed at him, but no one dared be the first to fire. Though Per’nyé stood closest to the end of his Ier, its silver glow highlighting the curves of her face, a grin captured her lips, coy and daring.

“I will tell you a secret, Sir Skyme,” she said, almost whispering, yet the walls caught and repeated her words, throwing them around the circular room. “The Knalcal scouts, for all their reputed strength, could not take down the Isike. So they asked for help.”

“From the Mueta?” Xlack guessed.

She lowered her head, a slight nod, continuing, “The Isike and its crew belong to us now, but they are not priceless. For the chance to speak with you, my superiors would release the Isike, fully loaded with supplies and its entire crew.”

That seemed too easy.

“You, Audit, make official record of her words,” Xlack ordered, pointing to a balding man standing by the woman with the feathered hat. With flying fingers on an onscreen keyboard, he did as asked.

Per’nyé still grinned, orange eyes burning against the backdrop of her sapphire eyeshadow. “Will you come with me to meet them, Skyme?”

This had TRAP written all over it, but sometimes traps could be turned on their own masters.

Gesturing with his Ier toward the door, Xlack warned, “Beware of your own tricks and lead the way.”

-continued in section 4 scene 4- Xlack vs Mueta-

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Chapter 20 of RALI- Renegade
Written by Taki
Renegade section 4 scene 4- Xlack vs Mueta
Len despised waiting, especially in places like this Knalcal Embassy, where fragile things glittered and stole his concentration. His reflexes were quick, his mind quicker; these were the main causes of his lifelong battle with boredom.

“I see them!” he whispered, no louder than a breath. The mic in the sys clipped to his ear picked up the words and transmitted them across the narrow hallway.

His hrausq member, Lyten, replied, “Keep composure, Len. Not yet.”

Watching the Aylata waltz by and not doing anything was sheer agony. Feet soundless on the lush, purple carpet, back against the charcoal granite wall and avoiding the protruding glass artworks, Len slipped to his next hiding spot, following the foreigner and their other hrausq member.

Per’nyé was a conspicuous drop of elegance, a river flowing alongside a mighty tree, the Aylata tall in comparison, his movements solid and alert.

“Do you think Per’nyé’s in any danger?”

“She’ll tell us if she is,” Lyten responded.

“What was she thinking, choosing that long white gown today? She won’t be able to fight very well, and the copper swirls on her belt are too sparkly.”

“And not half as stunning as her hair.”

“Don’t say that so wistfully!”

“Both of you, be quiet,” Rrosh rebuked. Len had no idea where she was. As a Zalerit, she could maintain invisibility better than he could, especially in this tricky lighting. The high sconces were programmed to mimic rays scattered through dancing leaves.

What if he treated this as the forest they tried to evoke? Hands light and quick on the glass, Len climbed.

The Aylata looked as edgy as a pooff on a hot roof, gaze flicking around the hall.

“Someone’s following us,” he revealed.

Surprise fidgeted in Per’nyé, but before she could say anything, a zap-cord flew from the Aylata’s pocket, flung at an apparently random spot. The two ovoid ends straddled the invisible Rrosh, their shadowy connection coiling around her. As the two ends met at her back and delivered a powerful shock, the Zalerit appeared on the floor, bound and semi-conscious.

Determined to protect his downed amarac, Len leapt from his hiding place and dove for the Aylata. Xlack stepped back, letting Len hit the floor and roll to his feet.

Before Len had fully stood, Lyten also joined the party, his mazarine ju’wack cutting Rrosh free.

Three against one. This’ll be so easy! Len thought, lunging at the Aylata again. Something grabbed the back of Len’s shirt and threw him down the hallway as if he were some discarded fruit peeling.

Ier in hand, Xlack swung at Lyten, driving him away from the motionless Per’nyé. He didn’t know why these part-Magnies had attacked, but the Zalerit among them made him extra suspicious, and he would defend the Mueta representative. She seemed content to let him.

Lyten would risk anything to protect Per’nyé; he belonged between her and the Aylata, determination swinging his ju’wack at Xlack’s legs. The blow was blocked, strike after strike redirected.

A shiver crawled up Xlack’s spine, a familiar presence at his back, and he dared a glance behind him. There stood Mystis, large, curved enershield in her hands, facing the hall where Len charged.

Wielding a golden ju’wack, Per’nyé leapt at the O’ee and was shoved back, Mystis’ Magnetism pushing at the Repree’s fine dress. The Mueta stumbled, finding her footing alongside Lyten and Rrosh, the three of them fanned before their opponents.

Headed for Mystis, Rrosh disappeared. Xlack concentrated on Lyten, who retreated. Xlack had him; like Revo, Lyten seemed to foreknow Xlack’s moves, but Xlack had found his pattern, his weakness. One last sideswipe, and…

Per’nyé blocked the blow, disapproval radiating. Calculation ticked in her burning eyes, annoyance and frustration distracting it.

Mystis’ crescent-shaped enershield whacked Rrosh, the electric shell sending her flying. The Zalerit hit the faux stone wall with a lurid thud, returning to color. Len didn’t like Mystis. She was too full of tricks. He would have to take her down before he could help with the Aylata. Disappearing, he charged her once more, but his shoes fell out from under him—her stupid ‘netics again!

Stiff and sore, Rrosh stood up and vanished, calling Mystis’ attention. Len fell into a front handspring, his feet barely missing the end of Xlack’s Ier. Landing in a squat, Len dropped back on his hands to duck under the swinging Ier and ju’wacks. Rrosh had Mystis, he figured. He would go after the Aylata now. Keeping his eyes trained on the blur of weapons above, he kicked Xlack’s heels.

Xlack stumbled back, somersaulting over Len as Mystis leapt over them both, engaging Lyten. Again, Len had no idea where Rrosh was, but she couldn’t be unconscious and invisible at the same time, so that was a good sign.

Needles jabbed Len’s chest, and he looked down. A tiny bundle of pewter scales clung to him, slender tail swaying, a gnawed bone gripped between sharp teeth. As Len scrambled back, the creature bounded away, climbing up Mystis’ cloak and perching atop her head.

“Traitor,” Xlack chided the beastling, back to back with Mystis.

She warned, “You need to retreat, Skyme.”

“And miss all the fun?” Xlack replied, slight laughter in his voice, but disdain tethered his gaze to Per’nyé. Her petty attempts to get her ju’wack past his defending Ier were unceasing and annoying. Her crew’s goal was not to kill him, he noted, their strikes aimed at arms or legs, intending injuries he could survive. But Mystis they wanted dead.

“You run first,” he told the elderly O’ee.

Rell growled at their enemies, bone still held tight.

With no intention of fleeing first, Mystis used the absconding-shoes trick on Lyten, and he fell, narrowly rolling out of the way of Xlack’s Ier and crashing into a crushing side blow from Mystis’ enershield. Energy bolts ran along him, and he lay unconscious.

“Hey!” Len yelled, anger helping him slip away from where Xlack stood on him.

Jumping on Mystis’ back, he wrapped his arms tightly around her neck, a kanaber in his grip. Rell hissed, slashing at Len’s face. Mystis grabbed the hand wielding the small, knife-like weapon and threw herself down backward, crushing Len. She was much larger than him, and though as a Lettaplexian Len had no bones to break, air and sense fled from him.

Rell was sent tumbling, squealing as his claws dug into the dark carpet and he ran back to Xlack.

Mystis slipped out of Len’s stunned arms and leapt to her feet, enershield at the ready. Her hood had fallen back, platinum locks escaping the scarf tied over her head. These stuck to her face, contrasting her mud-colored skin and the azure scales swirled over her nose.

Rrosh, in silent collaboration with Per’nyé, appeared out of nowhere, and together the girls slapped a pair of lightwhips around Xlack’s Ier. Yanking upward, he pulled them both off their feet. But Per’nyé still had him. Now held at eye level, her strong gaze stared directly into his.

Sleep, Sir Skyme,” she whispered, and the world dropped away from him.

-continued in section 4 scene 5- Oha Investigation-
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Chapter 21 of RALI- Renegade
Written by Taki
Renegade section 4 scene 5- Oha Investigation
“There’s something I think you should see…or not see…or…you’ll understand when you get here,” the head maintainer told Twi, summoning her to the underground hangar of Vlavaran Base.

Skyme’s damaged oha was gone.

“It disappeared while we were working on it,” the mechanic recited, confusion running a hand through his rigid, short locks, dark like Twi’s, skin just as fair, Knalcal birthmarks platinum, eyes a deep teal. His name was Vian, a good friend of Entrycii’s; they both liked to take stuff apart and figure out how it worked. Unlike Entrycii, Vian had hardly any ‘netic Talent and no inclination for adventure. He never left the base, never wanted to, and was their only non-automaton maintainer. His efforts kept this place running.

Twi stepped closer to the sparse team of mechetts gathered around a clear, oha-shaped space. The foreign oha appeared absent, but Twi could still feel it. Throughout her life, she had found that if her eyes told her one thing and her ‘netic senses another, the latter were usually correct.

She reached out and touched the oha, feeling the cool metal beneath her fingers, but still she couldn’t see it. Twi had never heard of a ship that could be invisible, but the concept wasn’t too farfetched. Zalerits and Lettaplexians possessed the skill of invisibility. With enough effort, surely someone could come up with a way for a machine to mimic that Talent.

‘Netics digging through active circuits, Twi found the ship’s mask and switched it off. The black oha reappeared.

“I wish I could do that,” Vian lamented, nervous hands lost in his pockets. Like many, his scant Magni heritage had led the Mueta to discard his as an infant.

“Well, I wish I could wear grease-stained coveralls five sizes too big and make it look cool.”

“We all have our strengths, I guess.” Vian laughed halfheartedly, gaze shyly sliding away from her and fixating on the eviscerated engine. He snatched a tool from a mechett and busied himself. “Though I’m not really the one considered eye candy around here.”

Twi frowned.

“I was wondering…since Sep is…no longer here, maybe-”

“Sep will return,” Twi asserted, stance stiffening.

“And I completely believe that, too, but…in the meantime, if you get lonely waiting for him, I’m…always here.”

“And I’m always busy.”

He flinched, shoulders hunched. How could any answer not have stung sweet, dependable Vian aside from the yes she could not give? She did not want to hurt him, but no, she could not afford kindness, allowing weeds of attachment to grow, especially not if he would insinuate himself as a replacement for Sep in her heart.

And it was true: she was forever busy.

Revo rushed into the cavern hangar, solemnity and worry a heavy cloud tethered to him.

“What’s wrong, Revo?”

“I don’t know exactly. I was in the Knalcal Embassy with the Aylata and Restigam Mystis, and she gave me this datastick with an important message for Restigam Mire,” he answered, flashing the mentioned hardware as he passed, not slowing. Twi kept step with him. “I just came back here to get my oha so I can fly to Lettaplex Six, where Restigam Mire is.”

That cloud of worry sinking into her and blossoming, Twi queried, “She sent you without an amarac?”

“Apparently it’s that important.”

“Is it about Skyme?”

“I don’t know; I haven’t read it yet, but I have to go.” Revo climbed the side of his emerald oha.

“I’ll send Zeln and Aarex after you. Success to you,” Twi bid, placing a brief, reassuring hand on Revo’s forearm. She noticed Vian register the touch and scowl.

“Ya, too,” Revo replied as he slid into his seat. Twi retreated as the cockpit closed and the oha lifted into the air. The thick blast doors rolled open, and Revo flew off out of sight.

Twi felt Vian’s gaze on her back, his envy, disappointment, and calculation. Anger wriggled deep within her. To Knalcals, a touch was a claim, but not to Revo. To Tala, a touch was a necessity, like air.

Even if this weren’t the case, Vian had no right to judge.

“This oha’s pilot, did he follow you home?” the maintainer questioned, jealousy reeking like rotten fruit.

Twi sighed, “I dragged his oha here because it was broken and you can fix it.”

“Which I am graciously doing, though if you deliberately brought him here, I wonder-”

“Analyze the ship, not me!” At his startled look, she softened her voice a little. “Is there anything different about it, special?”

“Oh yes. For starters, I thought I had maxed out speed stats on Entrycii’s oha, but this thing would make his seem like a baby learning to crawl.”

“Record that and anything else you find. It’s important.”

Vian saluted, bringing a thumb to his lips, then raising it overhead. “I will perform a full analysis if you promise to read every boring word.”

Cynicism tugged at Twi’s eyebrow. “Just be a traditional O’ee and say you’ll do as you’re told.”

Vian grinned. “For you, Milady, anything.”

-continued in section 4 scene 6- Mueta Heir-
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Chapter 22 of RALI- Renegade
Written by Taki
Renegade section 4 scene 6- Mueta Heir
Xlack’s head spun. He knew this trick, wrapping someone up in their own emotions. He had learned how to do it to others in his second year of school. He had also learned how to not get caught by it. He should have seen the suggestion coming. Attempting to only injure an opponent was classic Mind Aylata strategy, evoking the fear, pain, or anger that became the real weapons.

His frustration made it harder to break free from the swirling chaos. He had to stop fighting it, to acknowledge his situation, find the path to consciousness, and follow it.

Xlack came to with a start, hands empty, Ier nowhere around. Rell lay curled on Xlack’s chest, purring. The beastling stood and rubbed his side against his master’s chin, his usual morning salute.

“Where am I?” Xlack demanded, sitting up. Rell clung to his shoulder. The hammock that held them swayed. Delicate darkness sat over the room, light diminishing with yet another sunset. The same small star slipped over the horizon, but this time Tala took precedence in the sky, a deep, dazzling gold to those who could see such color, its spectral glow sauntering in through narrow double doors. Open, these led to a large balcony where sail-like decorations billowed in the frigid wind whipping around this skinny tower. It smelled of ice and luxury with a slight bitter undercurrent, and the sound of an unseen bubbling fountain prickled Xlack’s ears.

Standing before him, her skin sliding from invisible to a pale red glow, Rrosh answered, “Someplace safe.”

Lie one. She was easy to see through. A disconcerting pun, that, considering she had been invisible a moment before. Her crop-top, buckle-littered pants, and glossy boots were Tsoqisi, able to respond to her wish for invisibility. For this reason among others, Zalerits within the Napix Empire could be executed for wearing it.

Noticing his frown, Rrosh sat next to him, her red glow leaden to Xlack’s eyes and brighter than the descending daystar. Rell hissed and Xlack leaned away as she continued, “If Knalcal officials were granted their wish, do you know what would become of you?”

Xlack kept his frown. “You’re probably going to tell me it’s the most horrible thing you can come up with.”

Her four eyes blinked, first the two larger ones, the tiny spheres at their corners lagging. “Only because I don’t wish any harm to come to you.” Lie two.

“I’d feel safer with my Ier nearby.”

She flinched at that but quickly recovered. “You are safe here. You won’t need it.” Lie three. No more chances.

Jumping out of the hammock, Xlack grabbed her wrist and pulled her down after him, twisting her arm around her back as she landed. She tried to act like it didn’t hurt, but he knew it did. She was Zalerit; he knew exactly how flexible Zalerits were.

“You’re right, I don’t need it,” he told her, Rell’s grainy growl playing harmony. “I just like to have it around. You should try telling the truth every once in a while.”

“I’m not supposed to hurt you,” she replied, motionless, her arm numb. “So you might want to duck.”

Xlack took her warning, pushing her to the ground just as Len flew overhead, a pair of kanabers clenched in the Lettaplexian’s fists as he landed.

With a sweeping kick, Xlack knocked the Mueta’s feet out from under him, then brought his foot around to collide with Len’s chest. Rrosh was yanked upright as Len slammed onto the wooden floor. Still holding the Zalerit’s arm, Xlack stood on both of Len’s wrists.

“Enough!” Per’nyé called. The fabric of her gown’s train sizzed across the title as she bustled in through the balcony doors. Xlack wasn’t sure how she could walk in that getup, shoes like stilts, tight pencil skirt stretching just below her knees, a thick obi holding on the heavy, embroidered layer that dragged the ground.

Len stayed still but glared at Xlack. A dark bruise ringed the Lettaplexian’s left eye, striped with shallow furrows—a prize from his fight with Mystis and Rell. It looked odd because he, too, had what appeared to be a mask over his caramel skin, bright green and made of a less delicate pattern than Per’nyé’s, heightening the conspicuousness of his sans sclera, vertical slit, dull red eyes. But it wasn’t a mask, not in the traditional sense, nor was it painted. His skin cells had been changed to display such a color, damaged somehow—burned, Xlack estimated from the cells’ slightly slowed life-signature.

Even the Zalerit Rrosh had one of these seared masks, though like her skin, it seemed to be whatever color she preferred at the moment.

Xlack saw them all in shades of gray anyway.

“Rrosh,” Per’nyé said sweetly, a rebuke hidden in her voice, “you were supposed to inform Restigam the moment the Aylata regained consciousness.”

Rrosh nodded, humility a sweet nectar. “Yes, I would have, but I seem to be a hostage at the moment.”

“I think I deserve an explanation,” Xlack spoke up, not releasing Rrosh. “Why am I here?”

“To protect us,” Rrosh answered, no deception this time.

Annoyance swept over Xlack. “From what?”

“Everything.”

“Not possible,” he scoffed. “I hope you don’t really mean that.”

“Allow me to explain,” Per’nyé sighed. “Release my hrausq members and follow me please.”

Reluctantly, he did.

Navigating past—not through—the double doors and beyond layers of sheer curtains, Per’nyé, Xlack, and Rell entered another, brighter room decorated with extravagant art—dioramas, abstract statues of metal and stone. Curvy furniture reminiscent of flower buds ringed a small, bubbling pool. Rell scampered to the floor, snuck up on the fountain, and bounded in, mewing happily as he swam.

Per’nyé’s ever-quiet voice remarked, “He likes to swim.”

Xlack shrugged. “Elitbeasts are amphibious; he spent his first two months after hatching swapping fins for feet. Why am I here?”

“This is Moshee Spire, the Mueta capitol. We…had business here, and you were still unconscious, so we brought you with us. The Mueta have awaited the arrival of Aylata for a long time.”

“I don’t mean to disappoint you, but to my knowledge, Aylata weren’t planning on paying you any special visits,” Xlack replied, fully aware of all the watching eyes and recorders. To all appearances, they were alone, but Per’nyé was better protected than a prized elitbeast with a newly hatched litter.

“We know,” she responded, opening a compartment in a tree-like figurine. “That is why we took our opportunity when the Isike appeared, knowing an Aylata wouldn’t be far behind if such a special ship failed to return.” As Per’nyé pulled out a glass and filled it under a cascade built into the wall, Xlack leaned on the back of a couch.

“Why wait so diligently for ones who’ve shown little to no interest in you?” Not entirely true; K’alaqk had vaguely mentioned gathering information on them and even bringing one of them home. Xlack didn’t think it was really a good thing though.

“We admire your might,” she replied, offering him the clear, sparkling drink. He took it to be polite but didn’t sample the contents. “Studying your historic footprints, we have collected more information than I’m sure you would care for us to have, so we cherish it even more. What we know is that nothing stands in the Aylata’s way, and we wish to be like you.”

“Like us?”

“Our High Boss is tired of shadows. We will use the might we have to become something greater than the Mueta of the past, perhaps even greater than the Aylata.”

“Good luck. Why am I here again?”

Restigam would love to speak to an actual Aylata. When I told him I had found one…well, you can only imagine the look on his face.”

Xlack could imagine a lot of things.

Per’nyé smiled. “And here you are, a model of what we strive to become. Impress the High Boss with your honesty, and the Isike is yours to do with what you will.”

“Answer me one question first: if we’re such happy allies, why the sleep suggestion?”

Her arms spread in a ‘why not’ gesture. “I wanted to see if I could make it work on you.”

Not exactly a comforting answer.

“If I refused to meet your High Boss, would you do it again?”

“You will not refuse,” she countered, uncertainty prancing. She shoved it down, trying to hide it.

Xlack slammed his full glass on a stone end table. “If you know all about Aylata as you claim, then you must know how incredibly stubborn we can be.”

“I cannot allow you to refuse.”

“Of course you can’t, but that doesn’t mean I have to agree with everything you say.” Fingers snapping for Rell’s return, Xlack strode toward the wall of curtains, trying to come up with a route of escape that involved the balcony, but Per’nyé grabbed his arm and captured his gaze again.

“You will-” She fell to the floor, limp and unconscious.

Rell at his heel, Xlack had reached the open balcony doors before he registered what he heard: clapping. Behind him, a young man slipped out of the shadows, hands meeting once more before his arms folded across his chest. A Knalcal, as told by his life-signature, his silvery birthmarks, and his accent so like Twi’s.

Rell spun, rear bumping against Xlack’s boot, and growled.

“Good job, Sir Skyme, taking down an innocent Tala,” the Knalcal praised as if this had all been some test.

Xlack stopped, half turning back around. “Innocent? I simply mirrored what she threw at me.”

The Knalcal loosed his arms and stepped closer, silver eyes widening, surprise leaking for an instant. “You mirrored a Tala’s suggestion?” Reigning in his curiosity, shock, and enthusiasm, he straightened, drawing back. “Tell me, can all Aylata do such things?”

“I don’t answer a stranger’s strange questions,” Xlack countered, turning once again to leave. Rell bounded onto the vamp of his shoe, claws clinging.

“I’m Rogii Moshee, Heir to the High Boss and the one to whom Per’nyé actually referred.” An elaborate bow only the most pompous of Atetu Aylata would have performed. “I also know something of Aylata tradition: now that I’ve told you who I am, you must truthfully answer the first seven questions I ask.”

“No,” Xlack argued, “I can honor you by answering your first seven questions, and I’m not sure I feel like honoring you.” He had it backward anyway; the one who announced his name was the one to answer questions.

“How about this?” Rogii replied, tossing Xlack’s closed Ier at his back. “You can take it as a sign of trust.”

Catching the weapon, Xlack studied this Knalcal. He claimed a few more years than Xlack, his hair bleached, roots showing ebony. Though he wore a mask slashed in a pattern resembling thorns, unlike the other Mueta, his was painted, temporary, not seared into his skin. A perk of being the High Boss’ Heir, maybe, not having to burn your face?

Regardless, Rogii’s fear prowled between them, subtle, granting no visible evidence, but it screamed at Xlack’s Mind Talents. Maybe the Aylata had the advantage here.

Ier pocketed, Xlack turned to face him, inquiring, “If I answer your questions, will you release the Isike like Per’nyé said?”

Rogii nodded, a grin cracking his lips. “I give you my word.”

“Then ask away.”

Rogii’s grin broke into a full smile. “How do you mirror a Tala’s suggestion?”

“Practice.”

“You meet many Tala?”

“No.”

Rogii frowned but decided not to push it. “Let me explain some of the vast knowledge of the Mueta to you.” A grand, sweeping gesture. “We control many worlds, and on most of these we have found traces of Magni genetics. These hybrids all have Talents unique to each world, an amplified version of to whatever the natives were prone.”

That agreed with the Napix theory. Zalerits had an instinctive affiliation with light. Zalerit/Magnies could control their glow or even disappear, and if they held enough Magni heritage, they were lightcurvers.

Xlack declined to add anything, so Rogii continued, “Knalcals have a natural sensitivity to magnetic fields, Tala have an empathetic disposition, and Blamookins are pyromaniacs. Mix this with Magni, and you get a Talent.” He held out a hand, a datastick floating above it, the flat, glittering shaft spinning slowly. “Knalcals, for instance, can learn to wield the science of Atomic Magnetics.”

“Explain how you do that,” Xlack requested. He was fairly certain it worked just like what the Aylata called Micro-magnetism, but as long as Rogii kept monologuing, Xlack might be able to find something useful in what he said. If not, the longer Rogii talked, the longer Xlack didn’t have to.

Eyes fixed on the sparkly stick, Rell left the safety of Xlack’s foot, slinking closer to the Knalcal.

“Magnetism, or gravity, if you will, holds our universe together. Magnets can manipulate certain metals because of their molecular makeup. Atomic Magnetics goes a little beyond that, to the atomic level.”

“Hence the name,” Xlack inserted.

“Yes. All living cells are constantly in motion, unconsciously affecting inanimate matter around them. Knalcals can pace the life patterns of their cells, influencing the motion of atoms deliberately.” An explanation a little too simplified for Xlack’s taste since he’d had to study this Talent in depth, but then, he had led Rogii to believe he didn’t even know the basics of it.

“So, here’s my question,” Rogii started again, “what Talent do Napix Aylata have?”

“All the ones you just mentioned,” Xlack responded, “and quite a few more. Some are pyros, some can do amazing things with their Magnetism, and the list goes on.” Some also had more than one Talent, and a few others—Menageries, they were called—had them all. Menageries, though, rarely saw adulthood, and Xlack didn’t feel like going into that much detail.

“Extraordinary,” Rogii exclaimed, plopping onto one of the plush chairs. Rell scampered up the side, leaving long rents in the soft fabric. “Why do you think that is?”

Xlack shrugged. “It’s in our genes.”

Rell surmounted the armrest, datastick reflected in his dark eyes. Bowing over the edge, he readied a pounce, hind wiggling.

Rogii rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “A mystery then?”

Xlack rolled his eyes. He was sure some sciencey guy somewhere knew, but personally, Xlack didn’t care.

Just as Rell sprung, Rogii tossed the datastick at Xlack. “Here, give this to your Ravida.”

As Rogii caught Rell, Xlack grabbed the datastick, asking, “What is it?” About the length of his thumb and rounded at the ends, the device was practically flat and almost transparent, thin silver lines swirled through it like galactic maps.

Rogii’s eyebrows rose, and Xlack found himself wondering if all Knalcals looked similar; Rogii’s expression of disbelief greatly resembled Twi’s, and the pattern of his silver birthmarks was also reminiscent of hers.

“It’s a datastick,” the Mueta explained, “hardware memory storage for a sys. This rodent is yours?” Held by the scruff of his neck, Rell wiggled, scratched, and growled, unable to reach anything.

“You’ve offended him,” Xlack cautioned, hand extended to take the beastling.

Placing Rell on Xlack’s palm, Rogii censured, “You shouldn’t let him be so rude.”

“Curiosity is a form of beauty,” Xlack countered as Rell climbed back to his shoulder, irritation waving the beastling’s tail in long, graceful arcs, a soft snort thrown out every few steps for good measure. “Thanks for the memory stick.” He would figure out how to make his datapad read it later. “The Ravida will be delighted to receive word from you.”

The Ravida was dead, and his successor had not yet been decided, but Rogii didn’t need to know that.

“I thought you said the Aylata didn’t care about us?”

Xlack shrugged. “You’re more like us than I realized. Maybe our interest will change.”

“Change is inevitable,” Rogii claimed, leaning back, arms folded behind his head, “especially if someone helps push it along.”

-continued in section 5 scene 1- Mentor's Admonistion
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Chapter 23 of RALI- Renegade
Written by Taki
Renegade section 5 scene 1- Mentor's Admonition
Entrycii had once told Teree an elaborate tale of how Knalcals were elevated creatures of the sky. In this story, when ignorant Tala trespassers tried to land on the clouds, they caused the Knalcal lodgings to fall. Brilliant Knalcal engineers rushed to save everyone, managing to freeze time just as the cities splashed on the ground, and that was why Knalcal architecture looked like flowing streams poured from the expanse above.

Teree no longer believed such nonsense. Yes, Knalcal buildings were poured—molten metal, glass, and stone—but molds were set first and details shaped later by skilled laborers, all according to blueprints. Yet the story still tugged on Teree’s mind whenever he saw the sinuous structures. Was that a pleading hand stretching out of the wall, trapped when it all fell? A screaming face embossed in the ceiling?

If he let those thoughts persist, terror would slowly blossom in his gut, as if the lingering emotions of these fictional victims seeped into him. So Teree kept his gaze in a narrow focus when on Knalz, particularly in a questionable establishment like this on the outskirts of the radiant capital, Laqkerangy.

The barmaid stared at him, wondering how this twelve-year-old had gotten past the bouncers and if he were truly unattended. Teree was Tala/Magni; he could feel her gaze and silent inquiry, but he didn’t look at her, staring instead at the half-empty glass of kau ti sitting on the counter in front of him—the counter that, despite the ridiculously tall stool he had literally climbed onto, rose level with his shoulders.

The translucent beige liquid bubbling in his glass was a popular drink on Knalz and rumored to be nutritionally hazardous. Entrycii loved the stuff; Teree couldn’t see why. He’d had to force himself to drink even as much as he had, and it churned in his stomach, melting away his insides he was sure. If he exploded into a putrid puddle, would Twi notice? A thousand eyes bored into him, but not hers.

Some distance behind him at a booth in the far corner, Twi sat across from Lulii Stella, but Teree couldn’t see her around the curving walls or through the thick, slightly bluish haze. Though Teree had accompanied Twi to this shady club so far from home, he sat at the bar, out of earshot. Not many were privy to Stella’s discussions with Twi.

Owing to whatever secret quest she was on, she also always summoned Twi to the oddest places.

Stella’s hood was pulled low, making it difficult to see her face from any angle but Twi’s. Every O’ee tried to keep a profile of incongruity—the O’ee Leaders even more so. They would not be recognized. Even the Mueta knew the face or name of only one O’ee Leader. That was Mystis, and they hated her. True to form, Mystis found this amusing. Stella did not. She was invisible to the world and wished that to always be true, though her association with Twi made this challenging at times.

The Leader’s chin fell into her hand. “I trust you’ve looked up the meaning of Aylata?”

Twi nodded. “The Mueta are keenly interested in them.”

“You brought him to one of our bases. That was unwise.”

“I apologize, Restigam,” Twi said quickly. “I wasn’t thinking clearly.”

“Your hrausq is short one member.”

“I wasn’t considering him as a replacement. Just, Lanox said he had lost his amarac, and I thought of Revo.”

“And Sep,” Stella added, caution vying with rebuke, clipping the words. Twi nodded subtly. “I advised you to forget about Sep.”

Twi’s gaze fell, as did any possible hint of a smile. Sighing, the Leader remembered her own lost hrausq members, some of them related to Twi. They lived on only in her dreams, still protecting the world there as Stella strived to do when awake.

“But I know that can be difficult,” she continued. “I charge you only with doing what you mistakenly thought to be right. However…” Stella paused, her eyes catching the light as she leaned forward, their umber-spotted, pale lavender in glittery contrast with her deep taupe skin and the shadow of her hood. “Skyme has met with the Mueta. We do not know what scheme they are constructing, but any form of alliance between Mueta and Aylata is not acceptable. Given their record, the Aylata alone are a threat.”

“The Aylata helped organize the Magni descendants on Knalz,” Twi countered.

“At a price,” Stella amended. “Remember those we protect. It is for them I now ask a daring task of you.”

“A mission involving Aylata?”

“To get rid of Skyme finitely.”

Surprise squirmed at these words from her Sugataep, her mentor and teacher. Even when battling Mueta, O’ees strove not to kill unless absolutely necessary.

“I’m not an assassin,” Twi claimed. “Such a quiet and delicate assignment is beyond me.”

“We perceive,” Stella began, careful word choice cueing Twi; Stella spoke not her own sentiments, not as Twi’s mother figure, but with the voice of the Leaders, “this assignment is best handled by you and your hrausq because it is you Skyme trusts.”

“Trusts?!” Twi shouted, then caught herself, lowering her volume. “He nearly killed me.”

“Nearly,” Stella highlighted.

“He could be a facet for change.”

“Change is not always good, Twi,” Stella countered. “The Mueta have tossed a mess on the world, and we do not need the Aylata getting tangled up in it. It is best if this Aylata simply vanishes. Am I clear?”

Twi’s fists clenched, but she forced passivity and subservience into her voice: “I do as I am told, Restigam.”

Though she said these traditional words, Twi was not sure she meant them.

-continued in section 5 scene 2- Doubters-
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Chapter 24 of RALI- Renegade
Written by Taki
Renegade section 5 scene 2- Doubters
“How very steep the slope you stand upon,” High Defender Bril Dekkom remarked, voice no louder than the wind. The elderly Fire Aylata’s volume was often even softer, leading many to believe he never spoke at all.

Here in a spacious, curved hallway of Aylata Tower with interval spotlights shining down, the smooth wood floor beneath his feet was perfectly level, as were the planks beneath Revel K’alaqk, but the new emperor understood what his aged mentor meant.

“One cares little of slopes when one has excellent wings, no matter who thinks them preposterous,” Revel rebutted, obliquely referencing the ancient meaning of his family name. Konalaqk were masterful birds of prey. Reminiscent of theirs, four wings of silvery fire were embossed on the tall double doors behind Revel, the same crest decorating his left pant leg.

The old man’s eyebrows rose, the scar slashed crooked across his face stretching, markedly pale against his middling gray skin and downy dark hair.

Charcoal gaze impassive, his aide interpreted, “The preposterous has always served you well, Ravi K’alaqk. A major side effect, though, is the massive worry it generates within the High Defender. You can’t expect him to let you walk in there without expressing it.”

Dekkom nodded. Often serving as his spokesman, Lioden Nyoki was another reason some believed the High Defender mute.

A warm smile dawned over Revel’s face, his reply directed at Dekkom, not his mouthpiece. “Your concern weighs more than all the stars in the universe, and I value it, but you also know I cannot let it shackle me. Trust me a little longer, Dekkom.”

“We understand only the surface of your game, Ravi K’alaqk,” Nyoki reasoned. He was short. On him, the High Defender’s cape of rank would drag the ground like a Ravida’s. “We’d be too lost if we let go of your hand now.”

“I told you I will walk in there alone. Step aside and do not follow me.”

Dekkom turned and stepped back, acquiescence and resignation smoldering, and Nyoki mirrored his motion, clearing the path like double doors pushed open.

As Revel strode between them, Nyoki put on a grimace, amusement glittering in his stygian eyes. “Why would I follow? It stinks in there.”

“You would hold your breath if you needed.”

“The moment you need my help, I will be there,” Nyoki promised with a gesture between a nod and a bow. A polite dismissal.

The door before Revel stood unlabeled, high in the Tower, across from the Ravida’s suite. Yesterday this had been a solid wall. Today the plain door slid aside, silent and swift, admitting access to a forcefield floor. The field buzzed, every footstep momentarily raising the pitch.

The hum grew, agitated by the long cape sweeping behind Revel, smearing the din of hushed voices resonating in this vast, empty space. Quiet fire burned in rows of narrow troughs mounted to the smoke-streaked walls. The ceiling hid in shadows far above. There was no other decoration, no furniture to accommodate the dozens of Aylata clustered in speculating groups. Each one wore Yakru’s insignia of abstract flame at his collar. Their curiosity was thick and frenetic like a hurricane’s gale, batting Revel from all sides, their recognition sharp like stinging rain.

“It’s Ravi K’alaqk,” several whispered as if their companions couldn’t have figured that out for themselves. He even wore ceremonial Ravi attire: sock-like boots and loose pants shrouded by a knee-length robe slit up to his twice-wrapped belt. Neerj embroidery of Yakru flame decorated this last, also lining the edges of his wide sleeves and dragging cape, suggestive of the Ravida’s. In deference to Revel’s even-numbered rank, the garment was black. First, Third, and Fifth Ravies wore white.

Pace steady, eyes ahead, Revel bisected the crowd, ignoring any who called out to him. The far side of the room was no different than by the door, yet Revel’s presence transformed the space into a stage. He turned to the crowd, cape fanning behind him, hands relaxed in each other’s grip at his back. He watched, holding silence until it grew over everyone, all eyes focused on him.

“Each of you received a message inquiring as to whether you would support an Aylata as emperor. Those summoned here are those who said no.”

The question had gone only to Aylata of Yakru, and ‘no’ had been the response of the majority, but Revel would not tell them that. He would split them into these manageable groups and repeat this procedure dozens of times.

“It’d be treason to say otherwise!” an elderly Protector shouted. “An Aylata can’t be emperor!”

“Why?” Revel queried, curiosity and innocence carefully drawn across him.

“Because it’s the law!” a middle-aged Messenger announced.

“Why?”

“Because Skyme the Great said so!” A young Protector this time.

A grin stretched Revel’s lips. “Why?”

Murmurs raced through the crowd.

Finally, an older Defender proposed, “Because there must be balance. We cannot half belong to this world and expect it to fully belong to us.”

Revel chuckled, “By that merit you could choose a lyoko as emperor, but let us follow that vein a bit. Does the Napix Empire comprise only the planet Napix?”

“No, we own the whole Zackertoonii Nebula.”

“And the planet Magni, desolate as it is,” another Defender pointed out.

Additions overlapped one another: “And Zalerit!” “Adnash!” “Abin!” “Armara!”

“If the Napix Empire is a composite land,” Revel reasoned, “then why should its emperor not be of a composite heritage?”

Agreement blossomed.

“Right, if our empire had only one world, it would be weak, like the pure Napix!”

A second crowd member concurred, “Our empire is strong because of us, because we can do anything!”

“But tradition is there because it works,” another dissented. “Our ancestors already figured out how things should be done. Why get lost trying to find another path?”

“Because there is a difference between living and thriving, Protector Lomeai.” Revel approached tradition’s advocate, the forcefield floor hissing with every step.

Unease effervesced in Vruen Lomeai, a hint of smoke curling up from his collar, a result of his barely controlled Fire Talents. He knew Revel better than most here, had shared the same teachers for much of their childhood, the witness of a thousand plots, each one working out exactly as the Ravi intended.

Lomeai shook his head, short, dark curls rustling. “You knew I’d bring up tradition. You summoned me here just so I would.”

Revel smiled, gaze steady on his former classmate. “Renk Dekkom, please state your rank.”

Youngest in this crowd of doubters, the High Defender’s great-grandson stepped forward. “Junior Defender.”

“As expected of a thirteen-year-old Aylata,” Revel acknowledged, turning to the boy. Though thirteen, Renk didn’t appear any older than eight. “Your parents are proud of your accomplishments.”

“Of course, Restigam. I’m top in my class.” Renk had his great-grandfather’s fog bright eyes, shining with honor and delight.

“And fifty years from now? Would you still take pride in the same rank? If you never grew in stature or skill, never rising beyond the accomplishments of a thirteen-year-old Junior Defender, all potential squandered, would you be satisfied with that?”

Renk’s face darkened, umbrage igniting tiny flames along his fingers as he tried to keep his temper in check. “Are you implying I won’t grow anymore?!” A sore wound, considering his appearance.

“I use you as a metaphor, young Dekkom. If being static would make you feel slighted, why should we allow tradition to stunt our empire?”

Whispers shot through the crowd, a thousand speculations giving rise to excitement, expectation, and wonder.

“Are the rumors true?” Lomeai called, gaze narrowed in suspicion. “Is Emperor Kise no longer with us? Are you planning to usurp Prince Sarqii?”

“Emperor Gera Kise has perished,” Revel divulged, “as have Princes Sarqii and Chyr.”

“And the Ravida wants to choose an Aylata emperor?” Lomeai pressed, unease boiling down to fear, clenching his fists.

A Watcher remarked, “Makes sense why there’s been no announcement, then. Why are you the one asking us, Ravi K’alaqk?”

“Gera Kise’s reign was one of peace and prosperity but also of unsolved mysteries and wasted potential. It is time for this empire to move on.”

“Don’t evade the question!” Lomeai shouted. “Why isn’t the Ravida here? Or is he dead, too?”

A hush killed the whispers, all eyes tethered to the Ravi. Revel remained silent.

Lomeai’s fear solidified, heavy and too searing even for a Fire Aylata, disbelief uncurling his hands. “Wait, he can’t...is he?”

Eternal calm blanketed Revel, a façade as cool as marble, the weight of his gaze both smothering and somehow a comfort. “I ask you to think carefully about whom you would want to lead this empire into the future.”

Within Lomeai, fear snapped reason. Fist ablaze, the Protector charged Revel. “Answer me!”

Revel remained motionless, gaze solemn, ethereal green-gold neerj glittering over unfathomable silver depths. Lost in that abyss, Lomeai fell prone and unconscious at the Ravi’s feet, flames dissipating, forcefield seething its disgust of his embrace.

Shock and anger rumbled through the crowd, several members stepping forward.

The forcefield floor vanished.

-continued in section 5 scene 3- That's a Secret-
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Chapter 25 of RALI- Renegade
Written by Taki
Renegade section 5 scene 3- That's a Secret
They told Xlack departure would be first thing in the standardized morning and they had a place for him to sleep safely. Instead of taking the Mueta up on such a hospitable offer, he opted to spend the intervening ruahs aboard the Isike. That seemed safer.

Xlack returned to the O’ee base, gaining access with the emblem Revo had given him, and retrieved his Oha. Rell sulked in a pocket, miffed because Xlack wouldn’t let him have the datastick despite the beastling’s many attempts to abscond with it. The memory card now nested beneath the Ier in its sheath, protected from prying paws. Over the past few months, Xlack had lost several shiny objects, including one datapad, to Rell’s teething plunders. Personally, Xlack didn’t see how a clear plasamique and metal tongue depressor could be more appetizing than the juicy bone ruminating in another pocket.

The Isike should have had stores of real food anyway.

Tethered to a Knalcal military outpost, the enormous ship had the appearance of a spark—polished onyx, rhombus-shaped from side, front, or top with hooked points, like dorsal fins or claws. Eighty stories tall, twice that wide, length four times its berth, every edge curved and sharpened, a snowflake formed of sabers. It could accommodate over a hundred thousand occupants.

Oha parked in Docking Bay Two, Xlack navigated the Isike’s twisty halls with little difficulty. Pride radiating, Xlack’s father had once instructed he take a close, lingering look at the plans for this prototype craft—a Tsira project—chuckling only luck would see these ships standardized in the current Refraction Leaders’ lifetime. Perhaps after Xlack claimed the title his home would be aboard such a palatial vessel.

Stomach murmuring again, Xlack quickly located the ration stock, a room housing row upon row of pallets: stacks of small, powder-filled packets and sealed flutes. Perusing the selection, Xlack chose a pouch labeled mykuro bacon and a bottle touting high electrolyte gravy.

Back leaning against a pallet, Xlack ripped open the packet, and Rell emerged from his hermit’s nest, nose twitching, flat, pearlescent tongue darting out to test the air. Per packaging instructions, Xlack sprinkled the bran—which smelled more like sawdust than bacon—into the liquid gravy, resealed the lid, and shook it.

The resulting concoction resembled lumpy, wet sand and smelled like stagnant mud. Rell’s tiny tongue folded over his velvety nose and wet his whiskers, his entire body wiggling in anticipation, obsidian splotched, pewter scales winking with the movement.

“You want to try it first?” Xlack asked, dripping a few clumps of mislabeled swamp slush onto his palm. Pouncing on it, Rell gobbled the gunk with gusto, purring his approval.

Xlack was not reassured. Rell, who sometimes snatched prizes from the trash compactor, could hardly be termed a reliable food connoisseur.

Leery, Xlack raised the bottle and took a tentative sip. Smell and appearance had not lied; the sludge was gritty, slimy, and tasted exactly like rancid river mud—which Xlack had once eaten on a dare.

Crazy manufacturers think they can make fake food and label it whatever they want. This is a slight to bacon lovers everywhere.

All the packets and bottles likely tasted the same, but the last Xlack had eaten was just before he and Mystis had entered the Knalcal Embassy, and he wasn’t sure how much time had passed since then. He needed the sustenance, the energy, but memories of how the river mud had made his stomach roil bound him in hesitation.

“If you don’t like it, change it.” The words of a very clever friend.

“Change it how?” Xlack had asked.

The Fire Sereh had grinned. “Well, I find that if fire doesn’t improve your situation, it at least makes things more interesting.”

Xlack gripped the bottle, temperature rising. He didn’t often use this Talent; to give in to Fire was to let chaos reign.

Chemical commands flooded his blood, every cell wrapped in an infinitesimal barrier as catalysts seeped in and hastened its processes, guzzling energy. The protective barrier absorbed the resulting heat and carried it outward, transuding through his skin and forming a barely perceptible coating, which reeked like fetid, burnt sugar.

On a true Fire Aylata, this flammable patina was always present, but in multi-Talented Menageries like Xlack, it formed on reflex or practiced demand, and to burn hot enough to manifest flames hurt. Mentors claimed exercising this Talent more would remedy that, but Xlack’s current goal did not need visible fire or the full-on inferno chaos wanted. He had to keep it in check, contained in his right hand, nowhere near the left where Rell’s tongue scoured off any remnants of his small sample.

The bottle dented under Xlack’s fingers, wisps of black smoke adding to the acrid stench. Inside, the slush boiled into a pale froth, grains softening into jelly. Loosening his grip on the container, Xlack sniffed at the wafting steam, intrigued by its syrupy scent.

They should add cooking it to the packet instructions, he thought, tipping some of the froth into his mouth. The taste of sugar-glazed bacon fertilized a smile despite the awkward jelly texture.

Rell scratched at Xlack’s wrist, a reminder of his presence and that he would like seconds. Obliging, Xlack shook another glob onto his palm. With a tiny roar, the beastling pounced again, inhaling the morsel, and then promptly spitting it out, dark, accusing eyes glaring at his master.

“I didn’t ruin it,” the Aylata defended.

With a huff, Rell did not agree, slender tail waving in annoyance, but his protest was short-lived.

A distraction pulled the beastling’s gaze to the closed door, floppy ears perked. There was nothing to see, but Xlack had also heard it, his Magnetic senses revealing exactly what lurked outside this store room.

Deeming it an excellent opportunity for Rell to practice some skills, Xlack ordered, “Rell, find the noisemaker.” The beastling galloped off on a much needed head start as Xlack chugged the rest of his bacon jelly.

Rell had almost reached the exit when Xlack caught up, the door sliding aside to admit access to the dim hallway. Despite the nose numbing odor of the air scrubbers, Xlack detected the grassy scents of countless Napix crewmen and above that, more recent and potent, the crisp, snow-like fragrance of a Knalcal.

With feline grace, Rell rushed around a corner, growl like the buzz of insect wings, stilling in an instinctual, intimidating stance.

Eyes faithful to the wall screen he tickled, a tope-skinned, silver birthmarked Knalcal stood several paces in front of the beastling, pale hair drawing a rigid line from his left ear to the base of his neck, touching the lapels of what Xlack had come to recognize as a Knalcal military uniform—wide pants and plain, high-colored shirt beneath an ankle-length, leathery jacket cinched with a narrow belt. The ornateness in the wrapping of this latter seemed to denote rank, and this officer’s simple sash let Xlack believe he wasn’t ranked very high. “How’d you get here, runt?”

“I’d rather hear what you’re up to,” Xlack demanded, arms crossed.

Now the Knalcal’s cobalt-speckled eyes abandoned the screen, zeroing in on the Aylata. “I assume you want your crew to be able to control the ship when they get here, so I am removing our lockout codes.” The words were woven from clean sincerity; that was exactly what he had been ordered and so what he did, but disapproval shaded him.

“You think this exchange is silly, that the Knalcals are giving up this prize too easily,” Xlack revealed, evoking shock, stark and cold. Meeting his gaze, Xlack tugged on those emotions, tangible weapons and bindings for a Mind Aylata.

The Knalcal retreated a pace, drawing a shooter from a holster on his thigh. “If you try to invade my mind again, I’ll kill you.”

“You don’t stand the slightest chance,” Xlack remarked, too easily holding the Knalcal still. “You fear and resent Mueta, but Aylata are their older, more powerful cousins. Drop your weapon.”

The shooter fell, silent on the padded floor. Terror as unrelenting as a glacier encased the Knalcal, leaving him just enough room for quick, shallow breaths.

Releasing him, Xlack grinned. “Go ahead and complete your task and make sure you do it well. If I find you’ve forgotten to disable something or added anything even remotely suspicious, I’ll come after you and…what is that smell? Rell?!”

A putrescent pile of soft brown slouched behind Xlack’s foot, its beastling artist nowhere to be seen.

Though he had been doing fairly well lately, Rell was not yet one hundred percent accident free. Xlack had held the squirming little runt over the waste vacuum enough times now that he should have gotten the point, but Rell was stubborn. Toilets were scary.

“Disgusting,” the Knalcal denounced, freckled eyes wide.

Isike, clean that up,” Xlack called.

Nothing happened.

Disbelief hoisted the Knalcal’s eyebrows. “It does that?”

“Yes.” Xlack had never known a ship of decent size not to have the ability to absorb and dispose of much larger messes.

“A pity the computer is currently locked, then.” Slight anticipatory amusement. If this Knalcal thought he would get to see an Aylata scrub crud off the floor, he would be forever disappointed.

“I thought we already covered your need to respect Aylata,” Xlack sighed, meeting the officer’s gaze again. “You really don’t want to see me pick that up.”

The brown matter rose like evaporating mist, condensing into a compact, hovering sphere. Confusion and revulsion drew harsh lines across the Knalcal’s countenance, surprise adding its mark as the sphere shot toward him.

The Knalcal’s flat palm batted it down, but the pellet did not fall. Gagging on disgust and bewilderment, the Knalcal turned his hand over to discover a growing fragrant stain coated his fingers, palm, and wrist. All attempts to fling or wipe it off failed.

“Stop it!” he screamed, entire arm encased, stain creeping up his neck.

“I recommend you fix the computer quickly,” Xlack advised.

“How will that stop it!?”

With a glance at the unaltered mess on the floor, Xlack explained, “As soon as you know you have completed your tasks aboard this ship, that stain will vanish as if it were never there.”

As Xlack passed him, the Knalcal stepped closer to the wall, maintaining a wide margin of personal space.

“I can also promise that should you even think you’ve sabotaged this vessel, the stain will return, and nothing will wash it off.” Xlack strode down the hall, not looking back.

“How does that work?” the Knalcal called after him.

Xlack shrugged. “Aylata can do anything.” Because anything can be real in your mind. “You only captured this ship because there wasn’t an Aylata onboard.”

Though Xlack didn’t know why, nor did he know exactly how this Tsira project had ended up in Alliance Space. Legions always had at least one Defender with them. Why had this crew been sent without one?

Before this mission the last Xlack had heard of the Isike, the ship had neared completion, and the Ravida had borrowed it. The Isike had vanished, dataseas pulsing with rumors for almost a month before people forgot and moved on. Though Xlack asked, his father revealed nothing of the fate of the Isike, and Xlack, too, had dropped the subject.

Rell bounded after his master, mewing mournfully. His tummy hurt and he didn’t want to walk. Silent, Xlack scooped up the beastling, and Rell cuddled into the crook of his elbow, immediately asleep, shiny scales twinkling with his peaceful breaths.

Undeterred by the halls’ wending ways, Xlack strolled along several decks, appreciating the ship’s detailed luxury: large spaces, spongy carpet cancelling the sound of his footsteps. Intricate, gilded carvings covered the walls, depicting various landscapes. The air had the tangy, processed aroma he acquainted with ships and stations, not quite managing to erase the Napix bitter-starch or the Knalcal scorched-ice scents.

In the center of a giant snowflake frieze, Xlack found the door he wanted: the entrance to the Isike’s grandest suite, the one intended for a Refraction Leader. This was where he planned to pass the night.

Taking a deep breath, Xlack picked his Aylata emblem—chrome Tsira insignia, an abstract lamp shape—off his collar and waved it in front of the pass reader. The door slid out of his way with the softest and most authoritative hiss he had ever heard. Complete awe waited to ambush him, but such was shoved aside by a foreign puzzle piece.

“Why and how do you always show up out of nowhere?” Xlack queried, caution flanking him as he entered the dark room. Two plump chairs faced each other, centered in the space, while two more resembled sentries on either side of a bedroom door to the right. A desk beset with control panels lined the left wall, and a column of empty shelves lined up opposite him.

Sitting atop this latter, Twi responded, “I excel at being unnoticeable. So either you can see in the dark, or you’re extremely sensitive to life-signatures.”

“Or you’re not as unnoticeable as you think you are.”

“I know you have ‘netic Talents. When I threw a forcefield, you countered it with another,” she asserted.

“I asked how you got in here.”

Rell looked up, sleepy eyes glossed in perplexity, and he yawned.

“That’s a secret,” Twi claimed, sliding off her pedestal and alighting on her toes. Her sweet, edible-flower fragrance danced with the circulating air. “I came here to ask questions, not answer them.”

“Turnabout’s fair play,” Xlack scoffed, and Rell growled, climbing onto his master’s shoulder.

Twi raised an eyebrow, gliding around the Aylata. “Then you may have a turn later.” As she continued circling him, the metallic bandage on her otherwise bare shoulder caught the light from the corridor. Hiding the wound he had given her, it folded across her bicep, disappearing into her thin, black sleeve.

The slice on Xlack’s arm from Twi’s Aqkashi was all but gone now, a faint line on his skin concealed by repaired Tsoqisi.

Confusion tumbled through Twi, incredulity its watchful guardian, pinching her expression. “You expected to die from that tiny scratch?”

Tail twitching, Rell spun on Xlack’s shoulder, eyes fixed on her.

Xlack sighed, “I expected to be insane by now.”

“Then either your mind or your weapon is fundamentally different from ours.”

“The Ier’s victims don’t keep their wits about them for long,” Xlack explained, the weapon leaping into his hand and snapping open. Rell scrambled down Xlack’s back and hid under the diagonal hem of his jacket. Twi retreated, but she drew no weapons of her own.

Her eyes did not leave the Ier as she spoke. “You determined to finish me in front of that Mueta trap, but then you paused. What stopped you?”

“You know that answer; your buddy, Revo, showed up.”

She met his gaze, and he flinched. People rarely looked Mind Aylata in the eye on purpose, and unlike the vulnerable Knalcal, Twi’s gaze was steely and assured.

“You hesitated, and I think you would have stopped yourself had Revo not been there.”

Xlack looked away. “Well, Revo was there, and I’m not going to be drawn into a hypothetical argument.”

“You could kill me now.”

Did she have a death wish?

“I don’t need to now,” he argued, closing his Ier. He kept it in hand though, in case she really was crazy.

She tilted her head. “Your trust is loose then.”

Xlack didn’t know what she meant by that, but he doubted it was a compliment.

“I’m happy you’re alive,” he offered, “and okay.”

“You’re also happy you have your ship and people back,” she countered, falling into one of the center chairs. It engulfed her, spurring a wave of surprise, yet grace swathed her recovery. She sat on the chair’s back, her feet on one armrest, only a slight pause inserted in her presentation. “They’ll likely hail you as a hero. Is that what you seek, what you wanted in coming here?”

Her stare bored into him. Xlack crossed his arms.

“They always said I’d become a legend to stand alongside the heroes of the past.” They said that about every Menagerie, though, and history’s spotlight was very harsh on them, good points withered, faults and weaknesses on display.

“Is that what drives you then, what gives you the courage to stand here now?”

In a way. His deepest desire was to be the legend that didn’t fall, to gain history’s fond smile. But that wasn’t something to discuss with a stranger.

“If something’s happening, would you rather be involved or sitting around doing nothing?”

She grinned. “Like you said in the oha, you don’t like sitting around; it makes you feel useless. And yet, could you pause long enough to realize that maybe the Isike was captured for a reason?”

Xlack shrugged. “The Mueta wanted the attention of the Aylata.”

Frowning Twi asked, “And why would the Knalcals want the Isike captured?”

“They obviously don’t like trespassers.” Foot tapping, Xlack wished she would hurry up and get to the point.

“Why do you think they don’t like trespassers?”

Xlack sighed, “They likely view them as a threat.”

“There you go, a threat to their way of life. Napix way of life might be fine for a Napix, but you can’t impose that on others, especially ones who know what it’s like to make their own decisions.”

“Have you ever been to Napix?” he inquired, pacing.

“No.”

“Then how do you know what the Napix way of life is?” His ashen bangs fell across his brows, and Xlack swept them aside in annoyance.

Twi looked at the floor. “I hacked into a Mueta database.”

Xlack allowed confusion to take over his expression. “Revo told me they were an organization of underground gangsters. Why would they have a database?”

“You’re picking on the wrong details,” Twi argued, shaking her head. “If what I read was true, there is barely a sliver of freedom on your world.”

“Explain.”

“Every Zalerit is a slave, and citizens have to ask permission to do anything, even to travel to visit a friend or relative.” She caught his arm as he paced by. “I don’t think even you are as free as you believe.”

“All Aylata are completely free,” he recited, pulling away from her. “It’d be treason to say otherwise.”

“Then you came up with this idea to come rescue the crew of the Isike, so far away, all by yourself?”

Xlack stopped. “No.” Even if he had, it was still a job for a Watcher, no matter how he excused it.

“Did they even expect you to succeed? Really, sending one man to rescue a crew of twenty thousand and six from a whole army in their home territory?”

“Why are you telling me all this?”

She shrugged, her gaze capturing his again, solemn seriousness loitering. “I don’t know, really. According to the database, the Mueta are paranoid someday their Aylata cousins will come and steal their land, their liberty, and perhaps even their lives. Can you honestly say your leader would never order such a thing?”

Emperor Kise—the citizens loved him, and he also had the Aylata’s approval. He always knew exactly what was right. But K’alaqk?

“No,” Xlack whispered.

“Then that’s why I tell you this. Maybe because you spared me, maybe you can see reason, and you can be its voice. Would you speak out? Would you stand up for what you believe in?”

“Of course, and the Aylata would stand with me.”

“I hope you speak truth, because if a Napix army arrives in Alliance Space, the Mueta will go crazy. The Knalcals will not tolerate their presence, and together with the Tala and Lettaplexians, they will wreak havoc. As strong as we may be, there’ll be too few O’ees to be able to do anything about it.”

“One person can always make a difference, Twi,” Xlack assured her, quoting the Tsira motto. His hair was in his eyes again, but he didn’t notice.

“Then be that one person and stop disaster before it starts,” she admonished, the door sliding aside as she approached.

Preventing a war—certainly a mandate gilded in heroism. But how did she expect him to accomplish that? Where would he begin? He knew next to nothing about these people.

As if eavesdropping on his doubt, she turned in the corridor. “It may not be easy.”

“Easy is rarely worth it,” Xlack spieled.

She gave him a coy grin as the door closed.

Xlack remained motionless, questions burrowing in his mind like sanda in the bedrock of the Lakiai River. He used to practice his Mind Talents by suggesting the jeweled crustaceans leave their safe havens, much to the delight of the tradesmen who caught and sold these savory delicacies. His friend, Ject Sirvette, had even called out hundreds at a time, but Xlack found such spectacles overwhelming—the carpet of black opal shells writhing up through the sand, the mass of tiny minds bombarding him with their singular focus, the wave of life-signatures, the cloying, salty smell.

Sometimes Xlack’s plethora of Talents gave him too many details.

With that thought, suspicion prickled Xlack’s skin. He had been so preoccupied gawking over the little details of the ship, he had almost overlooked Twi’s presence. What else had he missed?

With his Magnetic senses, he first searched the room, and then concentrated on feeling beyond its walls. Twi distracted him, waltzing down the hall at a brisk pace. Another life-signature caught his attention not too far away—Knalcal, the one with the poop nightmare.

On a hunch, Xlack looked for a very specific Napix signature, and unfortunately he found it, barely at the edge of his perceptions, where he couldn’t quite be sure.

“Isike!” he called, and this time the computer beeped in recognition. “Tell me how many sentient beings are aboard this ship besides myself and a Knalcal worker!”

“Two,” it replied.

One of those should be Twi, he thought.

“How many are Knalcal?”

The computer hesitated, looping. Yeah, he had noticed that, too. Twi’s signature wasn’t quite like the other Knalcals. She seemed somewhere between Knalcal and Tala.

Already out the door, he saved the computer: “Sorry, unfair question. The one you can identify, what race is he?”

“Napix,” the computer answered. That was enough conformation; there was another Napix onboard, and Xlack had only one guess as to whom he would find it to be.

“Turn off all the lights, Computer,” Xlack instructed. “I’m on my way to him.”

-continued in section 5 scene 4- Intruder-
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Chapter 26 of RALI- Renegade
Written by Taki
Renegade section 5 scene 4- Intruder
Wherever there was one O’ee, there was always another—a fact an O’ee was to vigilantly never let be untrue. This was just one of the many rules Twi had broken in coming to the Isike. Lanox would be panicking, frantically searching for her.

Yes, the Leaders had ordered Twi dispose of Skyme, but they had doubtless meant for her hrausq to help. Twi hadn’t told any of her hrausq about either the order or where she headed. When she had left, she hadn’t yet decided what she would do, and still hadn’t even when on the Isike waiting for Skyme. Now she left him behind, hurrying down the dark, narrow hallway that led to Docking Bay Five, and she hadn’t so much as drawn her ju’wack.

What happened to the girl who always did as she was told, no questions asked? she thought.

Another part of herself answered too quickly, She learned such obedience begets no loyalty.

If anything dire were to happen, surely someone would notice and come with help, right? She used to believe that would always be the case. Since Kelis, however, her faith had faltered. What if Sep still awaited her return?

I am so ridiculous, she chided, shaking her head.

Her hand automatically slid to the pocket on the right side of her belt. Sep hadn’t expected to live long after she left; somehow in all the confusion, he had hidden his ju’wack in the lowest pocket on her left side, the one she kept random scraps in. She had found it only after she was home, safe on Tala. His weapon now rested in the belt pocket where her own ju’wack normally resided.

At her command, a door slid quietly aside, letting her enter the docking bay. Here the soft carpet ended, and the hard floor loudly sounded even her lightest footsteps.

Sometime back, all the lights had gone out, and she navigated on what she could feel, on what her ‘netics could see. The darkness became infinitely more alarming as she entered the spacious bay. Her ‘netic senses warned she was not alone in this room. Another life-signature, distinct from Skyme’s but similar, lurked nearby. Once again, her hand flew to the ju’wack on her side, but she was reluctant to pull it out.

Ju’wacks were relics of a time long past—artifacts salvaged and treasured by the descendants of their original owners. Used as both tools and weapons, they attached themselves to one life-signature. Like an extension of that person, it would never harm them.

Sep’s ju’wack mimicked his life-signature and, as a result, shone a vivid violet. Never let it be said, though, that ju’wacks displayed superlative loyalty; they could and would learn to serve new masters.

Twi knew her handling of Sep’s ju’wack would force a gradual change. Eventually, the weapon would imitate her life-signature, and its purple color would shift to red like her own ju’wack. It was a relic of Sep now, one she couldn’t yet bear to alter. Hence, she had told no one she had it, not even Lanox.

The lurker charged, drawing a dull, charcoal Ier. As he swung, Twi ducked and rolled out of the way, coming to her feet with the grace of many practiced years. Using the gesture-sensitive bands ringing the fingers of her right hand, she instructed her sys to power up her oha and start pre-flight checks. She needed the vehicle ready to go as soon as she reached it.

The stranger’s Ier dove for her. Snapping open, Sep’s ju’wack glistened like radiant amethyst, blurring as Twi swung it above her head, bending her knees as the two weapons impacted. The Ier bounced back, its wielder spinning, running his weapon along a wide, heavy arc, a backhanded swipe.

Twi threw herself into the air, for a moment parallel with the Ier, barely clearing it. Her back curved, arms extended above her head, aiming the ju’wack straight down, but she was a bit late. She missed lacing the two weapons together, and the ju’wack stabbed into the floor.

Flipping, Twi landed on her feet, immediately jumping again as the Ier made a returning pass. It crashed into the ju’wack, and her left shoulder gave, too recently healed to have anything more than a façade of strength.

Knocked out of her grasp and drilling into the floor, the ju’wack closed, turning into a metal disc as it skittered away from Twi. Her feet caught her again, scrambling back a few more steps. Her shoulder throbbed, and she resisted the urge to comfort it with her other hand.

“That’s it,” her attacker said, overconfident creepiness saturating his voice. “Run until you have nowhere left to go.” He swung the Ier again. “Just one-”

Sound abandoned Twi as she landed on an unsteady stack of grease cans, the pile crumbling noisily, Twi crashing to the floor amidst the bursting tins.

Her assailant laughed. Pooling on the floor, the grease oozed toward him. Sep’s ju’wack lay just behind the maniac, not helping over there. Finding a clean spot amidst the grease pond, Twi kicked off from it, sliding under the stranger.

Once past him, she snatched up the ju’wack and rolled away from the grease, her front on the ground, then her back, then her front again, legs curled up so her feet were firmly under her. She stood, the reopening ju’wack illuminating her foe. He was tall and thickly built, wild hair the same dull charcoal as his Ier, Tsoqisi a mottled black scribbled with silver, all of which she had already noted. But now the light revealed his face, broad featured and set in a way that implied innate cruelty, sunken eyes nearly lost in the sharp shadows.

Twi ran.

He’s slow, she noted, slower than Skyme. And thinking of him, she couldn’t help but wonder if he would show up, too.

More importantly, whose side would he be on if he did?

The bay’s second largest door flew open, the crash echoing off metal walls. Distracted, her attacker stopped. Twi dove through a smaller door, ‘netics sealing it shut behind her. Only her own ragged breaths and soft footfalls disturbed the silence. Whatever happened in the bay would not be heard here.

Tapping her fingers, Twi hoped to send her oha to another dock. She would find her way through this maze of a ship and meet it there.

Great plan, but impossible. This quiet room was a dead end, a storage closet for a million and one spare parts. She would have to go back.

continued in section 5 scene 5- Morphometal-
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Chapter 27 of RALI- Renegade
Written by Taki
Renegade section 5 scene 5- Morphometal
“Spycykle, get over here!” Xlack yelled as he entered Docking Bay Five, Rell scampering along at his heels.

Spycykle remained where he stood, Ier pulsing by his side, a huge, sarcastic smirk cracking his face. “Welcome to the Isike, Skyme. I see you’ve accomplished half my objective for me.”

“It’s not your objective.”

“When can I expect the other half completed?”

“I don’t answer to you, Spycykle,” Xlack countered as Twi reopened the closet door and snuck toward a nearby exit. Her oha had already disembarked and would meet her in Docking Bay One. The challenge would be getting herself there.

Xlack continued, “When I capture an unfortunate, native hrausq, I’m not going to hand them over to you.”

Twi stopped, hoping she had misheard, ears perked for anything more.

“How selfish of you,” Spycykle retorted.

Twi agreed. She was frozen, barely even breathing. What if one of them detected her? She had disobeyed the Leaders, and for what—so Skyme could complete a mission with ill intent toward her people?

But she didn’t dare challenge him now. There was no way she could be a match for two Aylata together. Slipping into an open corridor, she ran, hoping she headed toward Docking Bay One.

“Get off this ship,” Xlack ordered.

“But I just got here,” Spycykle pouted. “You’re being rude.”

“I don’t care. You have five secliis before I order the Isike eject you.”

“It won’t comply,” Spycykle combated, starting toward Xlack, steps slow, casual. “The computer’s been attacked by safety wardens. Those guys suck the fun out of everything.”

Now within an arm’s length, he swung his Ier. Xlack ducked under the strike, his own weapon instantly in hand. With a squealing growl, Rell ran and hid behind a toolbox in the corner.

Xlack’s Ier was open to its full length when Spycykle’s charged on a returning pass. As the two weapons crashed, Xlack pushed his weight into the blow, throwing his opponent back. Though thickly built and a bit taller than Xlack, Spycykle was at no advantage.

“What, no forcefields? No flames or ice or whispers?” Spycykle jibed. “You wouldn’t actually order the ship to eject me anyway. You’re too nice.” Spycykle swung again, and Xlack fended off the strike like before.

“Don’t be stupid, Spycykle.”

“You shouldn’t accuse people of being stupid,” the Defender spat, offense oozing like sewage eking through a strainer. “I’m actually quite clever.”

At his subtle signal, three familiar machines slid from the innumerable shadows and surrounded Xlack. Large, four-armed armor mechetts, called such because of their near indestructibility, aided Protectors in a variety of District maintaining tasks, but rarely had Xlack seen one with weapons. Their clawed hands and feet alone could easily prove lethal, yet these three brandished an assortment of small shooters, each one aimed at him.

Xlack slipped into a defensive stance, Ier gripped tightly, eyes fixed on Spycykle.

“Clever, right. Prove it.”

The armor mechetts fired, glowing darters lighting up the area, and Xlack fell into survival mode: ducking, spinning, jumping. His forcefields slammed into the three like waves, one after the other, disrupting their aim, but Xlack knew he couldn’t keep that up for long. Forcefields sapped his stamina.

Though the mechetts had the posture of haggard old men, they danced with the finesse of elitbeasts, faster than Xlack had ever seen armor mechetts move. They closed in on him, two pulling long-poled tridents from their backs and toggling them on—electromasses, originally designed for mykuro herding and capable of immobilizing a creature a thousand times Xlack’s weight.

Hot, white sparks frolicked between the close prongs, light flickering ominously off the mechetts’ metallic plating.

But it’s not metal, Xlack realized. It’s not that simple. It feels alive.

Caution nourished the dread growing in Xlack’s core. His Magnetic Talents could easily render normal machines inert, but these were far from normal. Even their weapons were made of the animate material.

The forcefields grew sloppy—irregularly shaped and slow. Xlack shook his head, trying to focus, his gaze cutting to Spycykle. The Defender had not moved. He watched, arms crossed and pride purring.

“Call them off!” Xlack barked.

“But you’re doing so well,” Spycykle mocked. “This is the best entertainment I’ve had in quite a while.”

“I’m not playing! This is too much for a joke, Spycykle!”

“Oh, you thought this was a joke?” A half dozen kanabers appeared in Spycykle’s hands, and he flung them into the melee.

Xlack spun low, landing in a backward somersault just ahead of a steady stream of shots as he grabbed influence over two of the passing knives. Both electromasses stabbed down at him, and he kicked one’s handle. As the pair of tasers crashed into one another, a crackle of electricity racing between them, he sent the kanabers into the chest of the mechett in front of him.

The kanabers sunk as if thrown in mud, absorbed within a seclii, no effect on their targets other than a slight rock back.

Xlack’s foot came down on one of the electromasses, springboarding him into the air as the absorbed kanabers emerged from the mechett’s palms.

Despite being in the mechett’s hands, they were still Xlack’s weapons to wield.

As he flipped, Ier slashing down at a second mechett beneath him, Xlack directed the kanabers to slice through the biceps of the machine holding them. The arms were sundered like a river, edges curving around the obstruction and melting together, unharmed.

At the same moment, Xlack’s Ier struck the other mechett’s shoulder and bounced. Thrown off-kilter, Xlack landed in a stumble, a mechett foot stomping on his leg. Xlack kicked, slipping free, Ier bouncing off the mechett’s hip and pitching his arm back.

Ier cut. They did not bounce.

From a distance, Xlack heard Spycykle laugh. “You haven’t seen morphometal yet, have you? Such a nice present from our allies.”

Napix has allies? Xlack wondered, but he had no time for pondering. A moment’s hesitation or slight miscalculation would see a darter through his head.

He dashed between the machines, using them as shields from one another, barely sidestepping the thrust of an electromass. It crashed into his Ier and got trapped between the tendrils, an upward shove from Xlack pivoting it back toward its mechanical owner.

The trident pierced the mechett’s collar, and holding the pole parallel with his Ier, Xlack plunged it deeper into the chest cavity.

The second charged at Xlack’s back, and he leapt, electromass and Ier the fulcrum of his swing, feet colliding with the rushing mechett as its weapon impaled its partner’s waist.

A scream of sorts, not one Xlack’s ears could hear, left his every cell tingling. The speared mechett melted, and he dropped with it, quickly rolling away from the puddle as the second machine scrambled after him.

Continuing to fire, the third jumped over the mess, keeping in range.

Xlack grabbed an electromass only to find they now had the consistency of taffy. Inert and useless. Still, he had managed to defeat one of them. They weren’t invincible.

Seeing the first of his army fall, Spycykle fled.

-continued in section 5 scene 6- Message-
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Chapter 28 of RALI- Renegade
Written by Taki
Renegade section 5 scene 6- Message
“Return this to Mystis,” Mire told Revo, handing him another datastick. The elderly Leader, now pale and visibly drooping in a loose, tan tunic, shuffled along a covered porch at the O’ee farming base near Stril on Lettaplex Six, his face a map of concerns far beyond Revo’s rank. Furrowed hills rolled into the hazy distance beneath a golden sky, quiet serenity incongruous with the Leader’s tone. “Ya had best get home very quickly.”

Revo knew better than to let his curiosity control him, but this was too much.

Humility turning his eyes to the ground, he queried, “May I ask what bad news I brought?”

“The Mueta have infiltrated the Knalcal government,” Mire sighed. “It’s safe to assume the other Alliance officials won’t escape their influence for long, if they even are now, since Mueta are already recognized Reprees in miniature committees of the Sagel.”

“But the people don’t believe in Magnies,” Revo countered, shaking his head. “They think we’re myths, and those of proper education that do believe we exist want us dead.”

“Not dead, Revo, just under their control,” Mire corrected. “The Mueta may have falsely promised them that, too.”

Anger boiled in Revo, but he didn’t want to show it, especially not in front of Aarex and Zeln.

“Ya want us to regroup with our hrausq then?”

“For safety’s sake,” Mire said with a nod, dismissing them.

Pocketing the datastick, Revo walked toward the landing pad, two hrausq members in tow.

Aarex faded into translucency, her big Lettaplexian eyes widening. “But the Mueta have always hated us O’ees. What will happen to us in a society they control?”

“I say we march in there and show them who should be boss,” Zeln suggested, smacking his fist into his other hand with a trail of flames. As a Blamookin, a body temperature through the roof and a slimy coating of special oil let him spontaneously combust on command without damaging himself. It also gave him an ethereal appearance, dark skin claiming the fluidic quality of a deep lake, teasing at transparency, and fire seemed to pace just beneath it, not glowing exactly, but eager.

He also reeked like wet ashes.

“Ya will do as ya are told,” Revo rebuked, trying to keep all emotion out of his voice. He had to be strong for these two since they were the youngest dyad in the hrausq, and Aarex had a way of excitedly following Zeln’s outlandish suggestions.

Revo’s own amarac had died trying to keep the Mueta from acquiring Kelison soldiers, and now those same Mueta would have an army of Knalcals, Tala, and whatever else in the Alliance. No doubt, too, they would turn on the O’ees eventually; it was only a matter of time.

“Flank my wings closely,” Revo told Zeln and Aarex, shoving his helmet on, “and try to keep up.”

-continued in section 5 scene 7- Acid-
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Chapter 29 of RALI- Renegade
Written by Taki
Renegade section 5 scene 7- Acid
If evil incarnate vomited, morphometal would be that bile, Xlack thought.

The mechetts seemed impenetrable to his Ier, and no matter how many times the kanabers sundered them, the machines mended within a few moments and attacked again, one with taloned hands and feet—the only weapons it had left—and the other keeping up a barrage of fire from its miniature shooters. Xlack had retreated into a corridor in a desultory attempt to chase Spycykle, but the Defender had disappeared.

Xlack ducked into a somersault under a stream of glowing darters, kicking out at the mechett’s leg. The metal bowed, knee snapping, and the mechett stumbled, multitude of arms scratching at the walls to prevent its fall.

The other’s clawed feet lashed out at Xlack, and he rolled, trapped under the tumbling machine, vertical Ier’s sharp tendrils impaling the mechett’s torso. Sparks flew, the machine limp and heavy atop him. The Ier struck something vital inside, and though not melting, the mechett couldn’t move.

Why did it cut instead of bounce this time? Did the mechett think it could absorb my Ier like with the kanabers? Idiot.

Or maybe not. The morphometal solidified around the wound, trapping Xlack’s weapon, and the press of the inert machine’s weight left him little room to maneuver.

The second mechett leapt onto its partner’s back, and Xlack sent the kanabers at it again. It swatted at the knives like annoying insects, snatching them, silver plating from its palms melting around the kanabers’ handles and growing, encasing the weapons in a thin layer of morphometal.

Xlack could barely feel the kanabers within anymore, his influence too weak to stop the weapons as, held tight in the mechett’s grip, they dove for Xlack’s face, chrome blades reflected in his eyes.

Xlack twisted to the left, a knife piercing the floor by his ear, the second a hairsbreadth from his collar. He didn’t stop, body just ahead of a series of deadly thrusts.

They’re learning and adapting, Xlack realized, dread a hard, barbed stone trapped in his gut.

With a groan, the perforated floor buckled, dropping the trio into the world of wires and pipes between stories.

The rigid tubes didn’t care that the Aylata fell across them, his more pliant flesh and bones expected to bend in deference. But the mechetts were heavy.

The first’s dead weight pinned Xlack. The second’s landing pressed the air from his lungs and denied him the space for another inhale. Beneath Xlack, a pipe dented and burst, hot, acerbic-scented liquid spewing.

Steam blossomed into thick fog, its touch inciting a tingling burn, and his Tsoqisi suit responded, helmet deploying, inner sleeves stretching to encompass his fingers, every junction sealed.

He still couldn’t breathe, chest in a vice between the pipes and mechetts, back bent, shoulders and neck touching the floor, where scalding liquid pooled. The Tsoqisi helped protect against the temperature, but it also severely limited the range and effectiveness of his Magnetic Talents.

Darkness lingered at the edges of his vision, lulling him with a deceptive sense of security.

Just sleep, it called. Spycykle won’t let them kill you. He’d have too many consequences to face if he did.

A small, gurgling roar sounded from above, Rell’s silhouette appearing at the edge of the crater, forepaws folded over the hole’s jagged bank, eyes searching for a way to get down there and help his master.

“No, Rell, retreat!” Xlack ordered, but the beastling did not back up. Silly master, so clearly in trouble and yet expecting Rell to run away on his own? What would Rell do without him? He would only run if master came, too.

The active mechett turned toward the elitbeast, glowing eyes focusing on the tiny creature, hand reaching out.

Terror shot through Xlack. Ier deactivating, he twisted and shoved free, breath coming in ragged gasps. But with the Ier no longer through the comatose mechett, the machine returned to life. Before Xlack could even stand, the repairing mechett’s claws wrapped around his neck, wrist, and thigh and threw him back down into the knee-deep liquid. His splash rose unnaturally high, breaking into several sharp needles and shooting at the higher mechett.

It stumbled with the plethora of strikes, gaze snapping back to the submerged Aylata, its partner pouncing.

A faint buzz found Xlack’s senses, a thick wire nudging his spine.

Their weakness is electricity, a strong surge, Xlack analyzed. He knew there were Magnetic moves that could take advantage of that, pulling lightning seemingly from nowhere and directing it at a target, but Xlack had never successfully dealt with that level of power. Movement was what he understood; it was closely related to his Ice and Fire Talents, one a stilling, a stealing of energy, the other an explosion of chaos. While he possessed many Talents, Xlack had mastered none.

He grabbed the wire, thick rubber tearing at his command. The voltage carried by this cord was nowhere near that of an electromass; he could only hope it was enough to hurt the morphometal and wouldn’t kill him.

Liquid touched wire, and Xlack’s muscles locked. The mechett splashed down on top of him. A sensation like the sound of a thousand distant screams shimmied across his skin, loud to his Magnetic senses, pulsing on beat with the mechetts’ jerky movements, a halo of shedding cells forming around them.

Laughter rang from above, sinister mirth making it heavy as it wandered through the fog and bounced off the walls.

“I was just going to watch through the Isike’s eyes,” Spycykle spieled, “but I’m glad I decided I needed to see this in person.”

Xlack fought to stand, jaw clenched, thoughts a scribble finding some focus as he rose, gaze zeroing in on Rell dangling over the crater, Spycykle holding the beastling by the scruff of the neck.

“You think this one likes me?” the Defender asked.

Rell snarled, needle-like claws extended and wildly lacerating the air, legs too short to reach his captor.

“No? Isn’t it ironic how elitbeast are the pets of Aylata, but they’re a Zalerit animal? And here I thought anything associated with that lesser world was supposed to be beneath our caring.”

He dropped the beastling. Xlack’s heart froze. The acid would burn his baby scales and the electric current would kill him.

The Ier’s silver tendrils reappeared, slicing through the floor in a spiral as Xlack jumped, catching the squealing Rell. Behind him, a mechett fell through the widening hole, lost in a roaring cascade.

“Why don’t you face me yourself, Spycykle?” Xlack called, disengaging his helmet and his Tsoqisi’s seal. The fabric steamed from the acid, but it limited him too much, and Rell couldn’t crawl into a safe pocket while the seal was active. The beastling slipped into his haven just below Xlack’s Ier sheath, the shine of his onyx eyes visible in the shadow of the flap, disgruntled growl as loud as Xlack had ever heard it. “What kind of Aylata are you, hiding behind machines like this?”

“You think you have courage, Xlack Skyme? Or do you hide behind your Talents?” Spycykle countered, arms crossed, smugness a sly predator slinking through his every line. “What would you be without them?”

The last mechett sprung, and Xlack called up another splash from the shallow stream on the floor, solidifying it. Like glass, his shield shattered, machine crashing through, slivers of ice swirling off and slamming into the mechett again and again, denying it forward momentum. Xlack’s Ier slashed amid the strikes, bouncing off polished plating.

“If that Navaria Twi had all your Talents, could you stand against her?” Spycykle continued. “Give her Talents equal to yours, and she’d easily destroy you.”

Claws grazed Xlack’s hip as he spun around the mechett, ducking low under another swipe, Ier bouncing back again. The fog stunk like burning rubber, stinging his lungs. “If you made us equal, wouldn’t it be a draw?”

“Talents aren’t everything.” Spycykle’s elbows rested on his knees, his chin on the back of his laced hands, a glimmer in his shaded eyes belying the bored pose. “Her determination is thicker, stronger than yours. Maybe because everything she ever wanted wasn’t just handed to her.”

Small, solid spears of acid continued to pelt the machine as Xlack hooked an ankle around a metallic leg. The mechett retreated a pace, dragging him with it, talons slashing again. Xlack reeled, dropping flat, rolling as the mechett’s fingers pierced the floor, snagging a jacket strap across his stomach.

Spycykle’s leg swung lazily over the edge of the ceiling’s hole. “Twi is the perfect specimen to take back home: part Tala, part Knalcal, with an exotic fierceness and a bit broken.” His smile was like lightning piercing the night. “I like her.”

“Don’t you dare touch her!” At Xlack’s slashing gesture, several of the spears broke off their barrage, hurling toward Spycykle.

The Defender leaned aside. “Contrary to popular opinion, not everything is yours to defend, Xlack Skyme.” His smirk grew, inflated with self-satisfied smugness. “She may even enjoy my company.”

“Wouldn’t that be a first,” Xlack grunted, skirting the crumbling edge of the hole he’d made in the floor and bounding onto one of the pipes.

Metal body glinting through the haze, the mechett leapt, two oversized hands slicing down at Xlack with the machine’s full weight, meeting the Ier held vertical in a double-handed grip, Xlack’s stance solid, immovable. As the mechett twisted, other hand slashing, Xlack caught its wrist and towed it on a wide, downward arc. A metal foot swept Xlack’s legs aside, and he dropped into the mechett’s embrace as they splashed through the geyser gushing from the cracked tube. Xlack’s skin tingled, Fire Talents responding, building their protective coating as the mechett struck the pipe and rolled atop him.

Feet wedged against the machine’s stomach, Xlack kicked, launching the mechett back into the geyser. His Magnetism directed the liquid in the pipe to hurry, to explode through the crack, to toss the mechett straight at Spycykle.

It flew right through him.

Xlack blinked stinging eyes, squinting through the haze as he got to his feet, coughing into his sleeve. Surely he didn’t see that right. Spycykle no longer sat at the edge of the crater. He must have dodged.

And now he was nowhere in sight.

Wariness trickled through Xlack, Ier gripped tightly as he scanned above with both blurry vision and Magnetic senses set throbbing by the fog’s touch. Even without these advantages, Spycykle was a stealth master. He’d been known to hide his signature completely.

A breeze brushed the back of Xlack’s neck, followed by the light of an Ier.

-continued in section 5 scene 8- Rivulets-
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Chapter 30 of RALI- Renegade
Written by Taki
Renegade section 5 scene 8- Rivulets
Calm abandoned Twi as she ran through the corridors of the Isike. She could not be caught; she could not allow these Aylata anywhere near those she protected. Her thoughts raced as fast as her feet, stealth forgotten, steps clinking on the metal walkway.

Run like the world disintegrates behind you.

The walls hid in distant darkness to either side, the platform just wider than her arm span, hemmed by a railing of black bars in a complicated hash. The makeshift map rendered on her sys by her oha’s scans assured her this was the shortest route to the dock where her ship waited—a maze of catwalks through alternating tight tunnels and vast expanses far above an engine’s glow.

A shadow appeared, glinting in the faint light from below, a looming, four-armed monstrosity with the grace of a predator and burning white eyes. Unable to stop, Twi jumped, foot on the rail launching her over the machine’s head. A clawed hand caught her boot, pulling her down, and Twi twisted to land on her hands, kicking at the mechett’s wrist as the arm swung back and pitched her.

Twi’s right shoulder hit the walkway first, several somersaults expending her momentum. Sep’s ju’wack slipped from its pocket, skittering noisily across the textured metal surface. Fear a cascade of sharp, heavy stones streaming through her, Twi snatched it, eyes on the approaching machine as she stood, weapon snapping on and bathing the space in violet light.

This mechett was unlike any she had ever encountered: serpentine head, neck hidden within burly shoulders, chest wide and tapered sharply to narrow hips, clawed hands and feet oversized at the end of limbs long and spindly like an insect’s.

Like a Kelison.

“YOU WILL SURRENDER,” ordered its grating voice. The mechett looked evil; it sounded worse, and unlike normal automatons, it was immune to her ‘netic influence. This machine was made of living metallic cells, and Atomic Magnetics had no influence over other living things. Each life had its own unique pattern no one else could copy.

“Surrender to whom?” she questioned. “Who is your master?”

“YOU WILL SURRENDER,” it repeated, reaching for her. Twi swung the ju’wack at the extended forearm, and the weapon ricocheted, Twi’s arm thrown back. She let the momentum push her into a spin, a frown cast over her features, dropping low under another swipe of oversized claws.

Its taloned foot lashed out at her, and Twi blocked with the ju’wack, wide-eyed as the mechett’s toes came down on the weapon unharmed, stomping it into the walkway. She moved like a wave, bent legs unfolding so she stood behind the machine, pulling back to slide the purple tendrils free.

Blade-like, curved fingers captured her hand. The mechett didn’t even turn to face her, a second and third limb grabbing the ju’wack at either end, metal glistening as it melted around the luminous strands, partially coating them before yanking back to tear the weapon from Twi’s grasp.

The left limb let go, right wrist pivoting to slash the weapon at Twi’s middle. She jumped, using her captured hand to support her flip, a knee wrapping around the mechett’s forehead as she wrenched free, knuckles scraped and bruised, but hand intact.

Swiveling over the machine’s shoulders, she kicked away from it, landing low, just ahead of another swipe of the stolen ju’wack—a weapon that did not consider itself hers and possessed no qualms about slicing her to pieces.

Panic flickered in Twi’s heart, a flame she soothed with movement, retreating, expression schooled into one of calm calculation, silvery gaze glued to the mechett, ‘netics filling in the details of her surroundings. Behind her, fire-scented streams poured from a hole in the distant ceiling, an ever-changing number of rivulets dancing in the breeze. Twi weaved backward between them.

Could she outrun this mechett? Was there a way to slow it? The machine stalked closer, holding the purple ju’wack in a pose that mimicked how she had wielded the glowing staff.

“YOU WILL SURRENDER.”

Surrender wasn’t an option. This was mockery, threatening her with a weapon Sep had sworn would always protect her.

A rivulet splashed against the mechett’s shoulder, burning leaf and rubber scent growing, no visible damage appearing on the machine’s metal skin, but it looked anyway.

Twi’s gaze flicked to the side, eyes confirming the streams moved at her command, acid swirling around her, orbit expanding to include her foe. It moved as both a ribbon and a splash, enwrapping the mechett and solidifying into thick chains secured to the railings as Twi leapt, feet crashing into the machine’s chest, fingers prying at the clawed grip around the handle of Sep’s ju’wack.

Her hands slipped away empty, rebound onto the platform saving her from a meeting with the ju’wack’s searing tendrils. Already the chains crackled, breaking.

Twi backpedaled, loath to leave the last relic of her lost teammate, but she had to make it out of here. Malice and threat stabbed at her panic, reminding her the rest of her hrausq family still needed protecting, and how could she help them if she fell here?

She continued to retreat, outstretched arms guiding the cascades to encase the mechett, a spiky stalagmite growing in fast forward until she was out of range. Then she turned and ran, outrage an inferno. Anger made her swifter than fear had, sprinting toward home, not just to safety, but to her hrausq, her loved ones, where she could ensure nothing harmed them.

-continued in section 5 scene 9- Xlack vs Spycykle-
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