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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Chapter 2 of RALI- Renegade
Written by Taki
Renegade section 1 scene 1- 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, 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 2- Thief!-
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Chapter 3 of RALI- Renegade
Written by Taki
Renegade section 1 scene 2- Thief!
Apologies were rarely heard escaping the lips of Anko Phy, most infamous conman extraordinaire. Pride reveled in how he was always one step ahead, never trapped in a situation where he need plea for forgiveness.

He had spent most of his life dodging authorities on Zalerit, and there his family was well known, but not here. Here was on the planet Napix’s soil, in a growing city and its suburbs called Kizmet District.

In actuality, there were few criminals to compete with Phy for the title ‘most infamous,’ since the penalty for almost any crime was death—some deaths being worse than others. The Napix authorities found this system effective at discouraging any unwanted behavior.

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.

His first mark, the keeper of a small jewel shop, fell for his traveling collector act; after all, that job description could apply to Phy from a certain point of view. People in 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!”

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, smiling wide beneath his faux beard, this latter popular among Napix men on Zalerit. 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. His confident, take charge, better-than-you-at-everything demeanor was another clue. If anyone dared look him in the eye, the strange, ghostly 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? Barely 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 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 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!”

Rell roared, the tiny sound matching his tiny body.

“The shooter in your hand,” Xlack questioned, “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, Officer,” 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.”

‘Do not break Topeka’s toys,’ K’alaqk whispered.

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

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

‘I was listening, very hard actually, trying to find where you were.’

‘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, “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. He stood between them, 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 for a moment. 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?

“Do not defy me, 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 bemused 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, which was mostly black: long dark pants tucked into even darker boots at his calves, subdued silver straps lacing the inseam-half of the footwear. The jacket reflected this style, asymmetrical, straps crisscrossing under his right arm, front closure at his right shoulder, hem running from there to his left hip, partially revealing a black shirt.

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 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.

As he jumped out, Xlack took a wary scan of 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.

Xlack hit the ground harder than he had anticipated, hand briefly leaning against the Oha’s side in an effort to recover his grace. This planet was heavy.

“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, her 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. “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, her 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 tried hard 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 ranted, 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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