The Story So Far... (Alliance version)
These are the words spoken by
The One They Misplaced
Before the Emperor of Napix
And all ears he deemed worthy
Prejudice and discrimination
Defined the Napix Empire
So deeply rooted
To pull them out would cause collapse
Or so it was thought
By those blinded
Not to their existence
But to their injustice
And by those who could see
But who lacked audacity and power
Change is inevitable
A Protector serves his district well
An Aylata both like the people and not
He catches cowardly thieves
Keeps things in their place
Heart nourished by expectation of grandeur
The Emperor is dead
His sons meet the same fate
One was warned of the Ravida’s intentions
But he would not heed the words of a stranger
And so he fell into a Mind Aylata’s gaze
Eyes never to reopen
The Protector is summoned to Aylata Tower
Where a new emperor
Introduces him to change
Its vastness camouflaged
Because the Protector does not understand
Does not yet believe in it
He embodies defiance
But he goes
Lost, curious, nervous
To a region called the Alliance
Where Aylata have no place
In the hearts of the people
There is one who is regret
Beauty and Talent compose her
But even in such potent combination
They could not save the one she loved
She is not invincible
And she no longer believes she is
She finds the Protector
Welcomes him though she shouldn’t
She serves a similar role
A protector of the cities here
Called an Adjuvant though she is unique among them
Adjuvants share an ancient heritage with Aylata
Aylata are Magni and Napix
Adjuvants are Magni and one of a variety of worlds
This one is Magni and two
A contradiction of herself
A work of art that should not be
She is rightly wary
The Protector’s mission
Is to rescue a lost crew
And abduct one such as her
But she is like an elitbeast
Guarding the pack that guards her
She is strong
And the Protector is learning to think
He wants her smile
Not her glare
Not her surrender
He will not capture her
His thoughts distract him
And he crashes his borrowed transport
She brings him to his rescued ship and crew
Farewells exchange amid reminders
Of how much impact one person can have
One person can always make a difference
That is the motto of his home
He believes it now
More than ever
He will be that one person
Halting quarrels before they start
She is trapped on board
He will set her free
He is attacked by his own
She is chased down
A final message sent
Desperation carrying it to those she left behind
The contradiction is given to the emperor
She awakens in the Tower
To medical scents and sounds
She is clever and escapes one room
But not the Tower
The computer that guards all
She is lost in a never ending maze
The Protector comes for her
Promises to see her home
But doubts and betrayal weigh his hands
Tangible weapons for the right Talents
Items the emperor uses as poison
The Protector runs
Finds her, the contradiction
To the home of a friend
Where lies meant to protect
Sow more betrayal
They abscond again
She to recover her transport
Refusing to further involve him
To turn him against his own
To shatter his future here
An ambush awaits
She is injured and limping
Overwhelmed and outnumbered
With no one watching her back
The Protector returns
To fight alongside her
There are no winners
The Protector alone stands
Choices shining down on him
Too bright, too searing
He cannot turn away
He cannot remain idle
He carries her
Listless in his arms
Dying and spilling secrets
He begs her to hang on
Just a little further
He brings her home
Where he is not welcome
He is gone
She will find him
Offer him a home
Convince him to stay
Because one person can always make a difference
Papers rustle as he sets them down
On a dusty desk
And sighs like it is his last breath
I do not look
Lost in my own thoughts
Though I return the sigh
Any Love Lost
Is A Nightmare
What is confidence
Except a belief that drives one forward
Amidst impossible odds?
Confidence in one’s allies is imperative
And yet sometimes
They are not enough
Love is not invincible
As I stare out the window of this reclaimed ruin
Everything I see once belonged
To a place called the Alliance
And I cannot help but think
Of how it was
Of those who wanted to protect or claim it
Twi, who is danger’s obsession
Ject, who is determined to set things right
Revel, who pulls the strings
Xlack, who must choose a side
‘Wait’ I tell the one who has found me
’And I will continue their story
But pay careful attention
History altering changes are not made once
But day by day
So as not to be undone’
He quotes the first Emperor of Napix
’A choice is a powerful weapon
You claim a new duty
One you have chosen
But the one you inherited remains
In your blood
Did you think you could escape it?’
’Do you not believe in me?
For I believe in you’
—The One They Misplaced
Collector of Memories
Teller of Tales
Alliance ch 1: Believe in Us
“We all believe in us, and we’re stronger for it.”
Twi’s voice often reminded Xlack of a river, the way her words flowed from one to the next, pausing on sharp t’s and bubbling over hollow l’s. This morning, it barely rose above the clack of the tram’s wheels, and as she slid into the seat next to him, his heart jumped. After six months of physical therapy, her falls were rare, but he was ready to catch her nonetheless. It was an excuse to touch her.
Her gaze alighted on his wrist. “Do you remember when I told you that?”
“Five months ago.”
Tracking her sightline, he looked at the bracelet she had given him on the same occasion. A chrome corner of the seven-sided, fish-shaped charm peeked out from his sleeve. An Adjuvant emblem. It unlocked doors and proclaimed to all that he belonged here, that he was part of this team.
He peeled his focus from it and sought any other target for his stare. Without his acute eyesight and extra senses, he doubted he would have been able to see anything, not the very tall Rifo leaning against a pole across from him, Lanox beneath her mess of curls sleeping in the back row, or Stevalok and Entrycii in the front corner, probably conspiring. Light came in brief flickers through the narrow windows, and the hard, plastic seats that lined either wall reflected none of it.
“Breathe, Xlack Ekymé,” Twi said, shoulder near his but not quite touching him. “Relax. No one expects us to win this.”
He met her gaze, surfing the chrysolite lightning that hovered over her silver irises. That chrysolite revealed she was part Magni, a world lost long ago, its strength bequeathed to its scattered, mongrel descendants.
Xlack was part Magni, too. In the Napix Empire where he was from, it was something to be proud of. Whereas here in Alliance Space, anything of Magni was to be denied or hidden, and he still had a hard time grasping that concept. Magni heritage made one strong, capable of the uncanny. Why not show off?
His eyes slid back to his hands fisted in his lap. “You want us to win.”
Thanks to his Mind Talents, he felt that. Her longing for victory, for validation, buzzed against his skin. It tasted of metal and something not quite sweet. More lurked in its undulating depths, old and bitter, like a dead worm hiding in polished fruit.
Should I call it out?
She laughed, a delicate, throaty sound he wished he heard more often.
“I didn’t say we shouldn’t try to win the reorder. One should always try, but if you pass out, you won’t be any help to anyone.”
He grinned at the jab and rolled his eyes. Xlack was used to pressure. His entire life, everyone—family, teachers, random strangers who knew his name but had never met him—expected him to be perfect, a future legend. The past six months with this team of Adjuvants had been a respite from that, hard in its own way, but a refreshing look at the universe from a different point of view.
Here, he could choose what he wanted to be, and that didn’t have to match what everyone expected. They expected very little, actually. In the public eye, Adjuvants—Magni hybrids who used their Talents to protect the weak—did not exist.
He snorted. “As if I’d pass out.”
“It’s okay to treat it like a big deal,” Twi whispered, and he wasn’t sure if she meant the words for his benefit or her own. “This contest is one chance every fifty years to prove ourselves. We are low-rankers and young.”
Young enough that this would be their first reorder. On this team, Alez Rifo, at twenty-two, claimed the title of oldest. Xlack wasn’t far behind him. Navaria Twi, the leader, was almost twenty, and the rest were all younger.
Elbows resting on his knees, he leaned forward. “I know what this means to you, Twi. To all of you. It’s not that different from a contest I would have been a part of back…back in my old life.”
Her brows rose, but before she could question him, something crashed against his chest. As his spine hit the backrest, he scrambled not to let whatever it was fall on the tram floor. His arms curled around bony shoulders and knobby knees.
“This is my stop,” Stevalok explained, a half-grin revealing the tips of his sharp teeth.
Xlack glanced between him and the smaller version cradled in his lap. In better lighting, they didn’t look that much alike, though the pair were of the same world.
“What does that have to do with you dumping Naday on me?”
“You expect her to sleep on the floor?”
No, he expected Naday to stay awake like everyone else, but Stevalok didn’t wait for an answer. With a backward step and a two-fingered wave, he left the tram.
My stop’s next. What am I supposed to do with her then?
The numbing aroma of cold, processed air filled each breath. Between it, the darkness, the steady click of the tracks as the tram reaccelerated, and the gentle movement, Xlack could have fallen asleep himself.
I would have woken up if someone dropped me like that, though.
He would have feared the gangly preteen was dead had her life-signature not pulsed so strongly against his Kinetic senses. It performed a graceful, light-footed beat with an undertone of speed—another common thread between all those with Magni heritage.
“You can put her next to Lanox.” Twi gestured with an open hand at the back-corner seat where piled, platinum curls seemed to glow. Their owner sat sideways with her knees cuddled against her chest, one arm hanging, eyes closed, and mouth open.
Shaggy hair looking even more like a mop than usual, Teree crawled across the floor toward her. Was that normal behavior for a twelve-year-old here? Just in front of Lanox, he rose into a crouch and tapped at the device on his ear.
Willowy as a sapling, Rifo nudged him with a foot. “Teree, if ya take a picture of her like that, I’ll take an embarrassing shot of ya and share it with all of yer friends.”
Teree’s hand touched the floor to keep him from falling, then returned to his ear. “What friends? After this competition, we won’t ever go home again.”
“We’ll go home, just home will have switched locations.” Face turned toward the back window, Rifo didn’t move. “Plus, we’ll still have each other.”
“Fake family is not the same as friends.”
“Ouch.” Despite Rifo’s usual lilt, the word fell flat. “Should we have left ya in the nursery with the other kids then? Ya and Naday aren’t going to compete today.”
Teree wrapped his arms around his shins. “Because we’re sutae. We’ll just be future teachers, not heroes. We’re not real members of the team.”
“Teree.” Twi’s rebuke resembled a droplet landing in an empty, metal bucket, both sharp and soft like everything else about her. She rose, one hand suspended over the sleeping Naday’s shoulder. “Tell me why you came today.”
Letting his fingers fall from the device on his ear, the boy hid his chin in his knees, and his voice barely had the strength to escape that terrain. “I wanted to watch.”
Twi traversed the few steps between them, every movement a calculation. Pain flared with each footfall, like raindrops between thunderclaps, and Xlack winced. Surely Rifo and Teree felt it, too. They were both Tala. Both possessed Mind Talents. But neither moved.
As if a flower bowing before the storm, Twi slumped, and Xlack was halfway on his feet before he realized she purposely knelt in front of her youngest teammate. “If we mean as little to you as fake family, wouldn’t watching highlight reels with everyone else be good enough?”
The tram slowed, and the steadying light caught the excess shine in Teree’s dark eyes.
Twi beckoned him closer. “This is Rifo’s and Ekymé’s stop. Lanox’s and mine will be next. We’ll need you to look after Naday until we get back, alright?”
As the tram halted and the doors folded open with a hiss, Lanox rolled over with a loud snore. Her curls covered her face, and Xlack hoped she wouldn’t suffocate. Shaking his head, he knelt alongside Twi and set Naday down with her back leaning against Teree.
The boy glanced at her. “This is Mumir, the main Adjuvant base, and we’re not competing. We won’t be in any danger.”
Twi nodded. “Even so, give me a proper answer.”
As Xlack stood to follow Rifo out, the otherness in Twi’s excitement nudged him like a ball of screws tumbling down his spine, and his stride hitched. Real fear hid in the shadows of the motherly expression she wore, and he had a bad feeling that Teree was wrong. There would be danger, Adjuvant stronghold or not.
The worry was a foam churning in his core, tiny bubbles popping against his insides but never ending. He had once looked after an entire city as its Protector. Now, he protected the members of this team. His hrausq. He couldn’t lose them. They were all he had.
Teree’s face scrunched. “I’ll look after her, but don’t expect me to wake her up.”
“The first is all I ask.” Though wan, Twi’s smile was contagious.
Alongside Rifo on the brushed metal platform beyond the tram doors, Xlack turned back and forced a grin of his own. “Root for us.”
Teree’s only response was a frown, but at least it was an acknowledgement.
As the car sealed and roared away, Rifo shook his head. “I’m going to say this again in case ya didn’t understand it the first time: The chances of us winning are very slim.”
Xlack’s grin deflated, and he turned the full weight of his gaze on his assigned partner, his amaraq. “We’re all in this together, right? Teree, Naday, Zeln and Aarex, Stevalok and Entrycii, you and me, Twi and Lanox. We’ll watch each other’s backs. That’s all that matters.”
“Each member of a hrausq believes in every member.” The mantra oft repeated by his team’s leader was now Zeln’s answer to the lanky, middle-aged man who stood back to back with him making no attempt to save himself. “We all believe in us, and we’re stronger for it.”
As if to challenge this brave claim, the round corridor shook, stone grinding against stone as the room rolled. And arrows still shot out of the walls.
Despite the darkness, Aarex was quick to find the pattern. Constant clacks sounded as she flipped and bounced, sweeping down projectiles with a pair of pointy sticks. One had been issued to her. The other was supposed to be Zeln’s, but he let her handle that part.
He towed their living baton back, gaze darting to every notion of movement in the dimness. Silhouettes flickered over white-washed rock lined with a dizzying array of blue and green swirls. Dust clogged the air, sticking in the oily sheen on his skin as if trying to hide the flames that danced beneath—luminous tongues coiled under a thin, translucent layer of dark flesh.
They made him different, and that was a bad thing more often than not. Zeln wished they would hide, especially when they made girls scared to touch him. But Aarex wasn’t afraid of his flames. Sometimes Lanox even hugged him.
He liked it when their tall, always-smiling teammate wrapped her arms around him, her cascade of curls tickling his neck. If they won this competition, she would probably hug him again.
Don’t get distracted.
Aarex flew upside-down over his head, wide eyes seas of gold in the light of his latent flames. As she swiped aside another company of projectiles, her vertical-slit pupils narrowed on one that slipped past. It wouldn’t hit Zeln, but the official loitered in its path.
With a shout he wasn’t even sure was a word, Zeln grabbed the man and spun him out of the way, but the arrow was not entirely denied its quarry. Zeln hissed. Radiant, orange blood oozed from the slice across the back of his left hand, but he had no time to address it. His light slinked like sparks across another approaching horde of arrows.
As he inhaled through his nose, he gathered saliva and heat in his cheeks. A stream of fire shot between his lips. In the burning mist, the metal arrows melted. Molten splashes plopped on the floor and on Zeln as the room came to a stop, throwing him a step forward. One knee scraped rough rock, and thunder rattled through his bones.
The fire died quickly. This was the planet Knalz, where the makeup of the atmosphere deterred flame.
Rising, he shook melted metal from his sleeve, hand lifted to his mouth so he could clean and cauterize his wound, but an elbow struck his back and sent him stumbling another step.
“Don’t let this putrescent creature touch me again,” the official shrilled at Aarex as she landed in front of him.
Zeln’s fists clenched, internal flames pacing like a caged feline, but his partner simply tilted her head and gave a closed-eyed smile.
“Any one of us could die in this competition,” she explained, twang thick, “even you, Mr. Official.”
She strode past him and stopped with toes hanging just beyond the edge of the room, where darkness decorated a vast expanse. Before the tunnel had rolled, it had pointed at empty space above a drop with an unseen end. The drop remained, but now Zeln thought he saw faint shapes out there.
Scribbling on a small note square, the official stomped after Aarex. “I asked him what his hrausq thought of having him for a teammate. Do you agree with his response?”
Chin angled over her shoulder as she folded the staves into her pockets, Aarex grinned. Her sharp teeth and overlarge eyes gleamed in the flutters of illumination from her partner’s skin. “Zeln, mind shedding some light on the path ahead?”
“Sure.” He tried to shrug on nonchalance, but her smirk was infectious as he stepped up next to her.
Heat again gathered in his cheeks. It helped to think of delicious food: deep-fried, buttery fish on a stick, cakes iced in soft cream, just about anything laden with cheese. He really liked cheese.
Just when it reached the point that drooling would have become inevitable, he spat. His lips ignited the stream, and it blossomed into a plume of flame. He couldn’t see around it, but hopefully its light showed Aarex what she needed.
With a hand on her crooked beret, she backed away from the edge. “In answer to your question, Mr. Official, I only wish I could breathe fire, but since I can’t, I’m doubly glad Zeln can.”
Her eyes fixed on something out in the darkness, and her subtle smirk cued Zeln to her plan.
As the official scribbled, Aarex charged and leapt, feet level with Zeln’s face. With the faintest manifestation of flame, he brushed the soles of her boots and kindled the trick they had prepared. She shot into the void, smoke rocketing from her shoes.
At a distance six times her length, she grabbed a horizontal rope and swung. A moment later, her feet landed on the taut cable.
“Reckless,” the official denounced, still scribbling. “She could have perished.”
Zeln trained a deep frown on him. “Aarex doesn’t miss what she jumps at.”
“I mean the part where she could have exploded. Those shoes aren’t sanctioned equipment, and this is Knalz. Fire is forbidden. I suggest you start remembering that.”
Small flames coiled along Zeln’s arms and licked at his rolled sleeves. He hated how they revealed his emotions, painting his fear, nervousness, or anger as something visible to all. But he hated more how the superior Knalcals sneered or sniffed at him like he was the universe’s trash because of something beyond his control—where his ancestors had been born.
This official wasn’t Knalcal, not with his overlarge Lettaplexal eyes and grin or his twang so similar to Aarex’s, but like so many others, he agreed with them.
Zeln clenched his fists, false calm dousing his flames. They only wasted his energy. Hadn’t Twi told him that a million times?
Getting angry and punching or combusting people whom you could win to your side is an inefficient use of resources. Show them the witty, genius Zeln I know.
Aarex whistled, and he caught her gaze, then nodded as she gestured her intention.
“This obstacle course is supposed to encourage ingenuity and teamwork, right?” He stretched one hand into the expanse. “That’s exactly what the rocket shoes trick was, and we’ve got plenty more where that came from.”
A rope lashed the air, and Zeln snatched it, one tug testing the cord before he tied it off on a prong of rebar peeking past the ledge.
“Now it’s our turn, unless you’re too scared.”
Pocketing his note square with a sigh, the official plodded over, gripped the slanted rope, and climbed, motions deliberate and slow. “If you are trying to goad me, young man, consider that fear is born of a desire to live well.”
“Funny, I always thought recklessness came from the same wish,” Zeln muttered, then winced.
Mouth, check with brain before you say too much. This guy’s judging our performance in this contest, and we shouldn’t offend him.
But could the official be any slower? Zeln hung just under him, upward progress gradual as a tree’s growth. The burn in his arms now had nothing to do with his Fire Talent.
Aarex flitted along the tightrope above.
“She moves like a bird.” The official finally reached the horizontal rope, and with his calves wrapped around it, he slid hairsbreadth by hairsbreadth, spine to the dizzying drop.
Zeln did the same, hoping the official would keep a consistent pace so his head wouldn’t crash into any part of the man’s behind.
What if it surprised him, and he fell? He might look funny falling.
He shook the thought away. It wouldn’t be funny if the man died, and death surely awaited anyone who fell here.
A quiet, metallic squeal caught his ears. Aarex leapt to the next rope—not far, only twice her height away this time—but her movement activated a triad of chrome cubes. As they rose to block her flight, an assortment of sharp edges extended from their sides.
With every internal organ in his throat, Zeln watched her twist. One foot swiped a flat smidgen of cube and launched her higher. The obstacles sprung with her. Aarex’s back curved, still-smoking soles a fingerbreadth from her loops of sandy hair. Her arms reached beyond them, toward the lowest floating square.
Zeln scurried faster. If she fell, there wasn’t anything he could do, not like Entrycii, whose ’netics could push or dull the cubes or catch his plummeting amaraq. No, Zeln’s Talent was meant to destroy. He would have to watch helplessly as—
His head hit something hard and rang like a gong.
Wait, does the official have metal underwear?
Aarex’s hands curled around a spear-like protrusion on the bottommost cube, legs straight and together, hips bending to redirect her momentum upward. The obstacle tilted, then rocked as she released it.
Her feet tapped down on the higher rope, and a sigh escaped through Zeln’s grin.
“I thought you believed in her.”
“I do.” He caught the cord she tossed and tied it off between himself and the official. “Aarex always lands where she wants.”
“Ah.” The official released his hold. For a moment, Zeln feared he would dive to his death just to make them lose, but the man’s knees became the fulcrum of his swing as he doubled back and caught the new, vertical rope. “That frown was because she’s getting to have all the fun up front. It stings your pride to let her take the lead.”
“She’s way better at this. Why shouldn’t she go first?” Zeln started the climb after him. “The only reason I’m upset is because I have to stay behind and stare at your butt.”
The official paused, hooked an elbow over the rope, and resumed scrawling.
If Zeln hadn’t been so worried about falling, he would have slapped his own mouth. He waited a moment, but the official said nothing, and yes, that sounded like offended, angry scribbling.
“Did that sound rude?” Zeln squeaked. “Is that what you’re writing? Admit it was less rude than if I’d flame punched you.”
The stylus stopped, and the official’s overlarge, copper eyes rolled to him behind too-small, crooked glasses. “Did you consider flame punching me?”
Something please happen so I don’t have to answer that.
The rope creaked, calling his attention to where it was tied just below his ankles. Spikes grew from the cord and shredded the knot.
He scrambled higher as the explosion of barbs traveled up the cord like a spark on a fuse, but the official was in the way. Pain stabbed the back of his knee, and he bit his lip against a scream. The luminous orange of his blood did little to combat the darkness as it coated the rope’s quills. Steam rose from the spines. They drooped and deformed, upward journey slowed. Even so, they were level with his chest and crawling toward his hands.
The rope swung like a pendulum.
“Let go!” Aarex called, and he obeyed.
His dark hair waved in his face as he searched for her. She held the top of their rope and directed its swing. Zeln followed the line of her focus toward a series of round platforms, each balanced on a slender pillar.
Weightlessness fluttered in his stomach as he sailed toward those platforms, and dread dropped like a pile of bricks. He wouldn’t soar far enough. Neither would the cumbersome, hypercritical VIP who was supposed to be passed along still alive to their teammates for the next segment of the race.
Twisting, he grabbed the official’s arm, yanked him closer, planted his feet between the man’s shoulder blades, and jumped. It gave the official the boost he needed to skid onto the nearest platform. The round, table-like top rocked as he rose, and his knees bent to restore its balance.
The jump launched Zeln in the wrong direction. He flipped and fell, arms waving in a futile attempt to grasp some semblance of control. Upside-down. Right-side up. Face down. A gleam of metal, and everything stopped.
Continued in Chapter 2: Impossible for One Alone
Thank you for reading!
Alliance ch 2: Impossible for One Alone
The news lodged in Calu Mova’s heart like a blade, and excitement frothed on her tongue with a metallic flavor. She clamped her hand over her mouth to keep from squealing.
She sat on a cushion, legs stretched under a low table and a wide smile tugging at her lips. She had been with the Adjuvants for as long as she could remember, never lacking food, clothing, or shelter. They were like family.
Yet, they weren’t family. None of them shared her periwinkle skin, feathery hair, and thick physique. How often had she wondered if her mother had these same hips with a knack for knocking things from their pedestals? What did her father look like? Did she have siblings? Were her people as meticulous and picky as she strove—and failed—not to be?
No one knew the answers to those questions. According to official Alliance records, the planet called Annashu was a myth, but then, so was the planet Magni, and plenty of Magni hybrids lurked in the shadows, claimed by either Adjuvant or Aberrant.
She winked, and the page rendered by the sys clipped to her ear flipped. She couldn’t read this article fast enough, heart hammering. Was this the clue she needed to tie all her research together?
The sys beeped, and she nearly fell off her round cushion. With a hand over her heart, she released a heavy breath and blinked hard to take the call.
“This is Mova,” she whispered as her gaze raked the eight sleeping children in her charge. None of them flinched, sprawled over the suite’s couches. Dawn’s light peeked through thin curtains covering two of the room’s three walls.
“I trust you found your accommodations satisfactory.”
Mova’s breath hitched, but she forced her face to remain straight.
Calm down. So what if his voice is as smooth as butter? You can’t tell him that!
“This hotel is lovely. Thank you, Karlyn.” Good. She managed to sound normal.
“I wondered if you would meet me in the lobby and we could breakfast together.”
Mova barely managed to stop another squeal.
It’s not a date. This is official business, and he’s a Knalcal from an extremely prestigious family. Romance with me wouldn’t even cross his mind.
But he wants equality, her heart argued. He asked Izeko to introduce someone so noticeably different, exactly like me.
Logic countered, To use me in his campaigns. Just because he wants to see us as equal doesn’t mean he could ever see me as desirable.
Mova shook her head. “Let me wake the children, and we’ll be right down.”
“Don’t bother them. I’ll send up a guard to watch over the little ones, and it can be just the two of us.”
Mova’s heart exploded. Frozen fractals appeared beneath her fingers on the tabletop, but the only sound to escape was a strangled, “Yes.”
He chuckled. “Perfect. And if I may, one more favor? Would you bring the karkaek the hotel provided? They’re my favorite.”
Mova’s eyes cut to the lumpy, pink fruit sitting in a basket on the middle of the table. People ate karkaek? She thought they were only used as potpourri.
“I’ll bring them as long as you promise they won’t be the only item on the menu.”
“Don’t worry.” He laughed. “I have something special planned for you.”
The sys beeped to signal the call ended, but Mova barely registered it as the words “something special” echoed in her mind. Her gut tingled, and any thought of moving sent those inner specters on a frenzy.
But I have to hurry. I can’t keep someone so noble waiting.
As she pulled her legs in and smoothed nonexistent wrinkles from her dark Adapt suit, she again looked over the children.
They shouldn’t be such heavy sleepers. The world is too cruel to allow one so deep a trip into the land of dreams.
With a hand raised to gesture the door aside, she glanced back. Was it a good idea to leave eight Magni hybrid children in the care of purebred Knalcal guards?
Mova loved them all as if they were her own. The two Zalerits slept back to back, as of yet unable to glow. A tiny Knalcal curled on a throw pillow, three fingers eternally in her mouth. Alongside her, her amaraq drooled, jaw slack, having fallen into slumber mid-argument. Beyond him lay a dark-haired girl with brilliant silver birthmarks and a talent for breaking things. A little boy who always tried to make everyone happy pressed his spine to her feet, wrapped around a baby Tala whose scream of frustration could pierce one’s soul.
They were little monsters sometimes. Could a mere guard handle their innate chaos?
On the flip side, the Alliance government officially ignored and denied the existence of Magni, but they had been known to use or torture those they captured.
Mova shook the thoughts aside. Karlyn was Izeko’s friend, a politician, yes, but one who wanted to make things better. Progress required trust.
She opened the door and nodded to the guard outside.
The wicker floor groaned beneath her boots, and Mova tried to lighten her tread. How embarrassing it would be if she fell between the levels of this basket-like building. What a strange city this was near the southern pole of Cinos, riding on the backs of roaming giant quadrupeds. The structure swayed with the creatures’ long strides, and fear strove to stiffen her joints. Had any of the buildings ever fallen?
Had they ever hosted an ungainly, heavy-footed Annashal?
She soaked in the movement of everything around her and matched her gait to the myriad of rhythms. The dark wood of the stair rail paled at her touch. Conforming to the beat, it slowed and cooled. The spacious lobby beyond it was devoid of people, the ever-popular bar in one corner lacking even a tender.
She stilled, hand flying to the pouch on her belt and gripping two throwing discs within.
“Mova, are you here?” called that smooth voice, and she could barely keep her knees from melting as Rraklu Karlyn appeared through an arch beneath the stairway. He was young, tall, and strong featured, aquamarine eyes bright with amusement, maroon hair—the rarest color for a Knalcal—raked into loose twists hanging no lower than his ears.
“Above you,” Mova announced with more of a sigh than she intended.
He looked up, and his metallic birthmarks flashed in the angled light. “What’s wrong?”
Wrong? How does he know something’s wrong? Oh wait, the discs.
Mova lowered her hand.
“Did the delegation section off the hotel?” She tried to imbue her voice with authority, to not step back or shrink against the wall. “The Cinosals don’t want segregation. They’re tired of the Knalcals’ air of superiority. That’s why you brought me here, right?”
The sharp discs peeked between her fingers as she curled her hand into a fist to hide her tremors. She was decently covered, pants tucked into boots, sleeves meeting her wrists, and jacket zipped to her jaw, but she still felt exposed. Normally, she didn’t let any of her blue skin show.
What did Karlyn think of it? Why did he stare at her in such shocked terror?
“Why did we bring you here, out in the hallway?” a new voice mused.
Mova swiveled to face the top step, discs brought to chin level.
“So we didn’t unnecessarily disturb the children, of course,” the newcomer continued as he descended one stair. He wore a mottled gray jumpsuit, and unknown weapons lined the crisscrossing belts around his prodigious girth. “About the people, the delegation, and the whole integration thing, the negotiations fell through.” He stepped closer. “You scared them away.”
“How? Why would—”
His heel scraped the riser as he stopped only two stairs higher than her, their eyes level. “Because you died.”
Mova hadn’t heard it, hadn’t even felt it at first, but air refused to squeeze through her throat. Her lips moved without sound, widening in what should have been a scream. She flung the discs, but they bounced off a ’netic shield, useless as she clawed at her neck. Constricting wire shimmied into her skin, and sticky, magenta blood dripped down her hands.
Pain dug its claws in her, calling to chaos, and she fought it. She tried to still it, to freeze everything. A glimmer of fog wafted from her, but pain only laughed at her efforts. It ripped into her thoughts and severed all control.
She fell back and tumbled down the curved staircase. Every impact tried to beat out the useless air trapped in her lungs. The spilled karkaek sounded like a drumroll.
The woven wood of the lobby’s floor was as embers against her bruises, but Mova’s limbs no longer responded to her commands. Darkness crept from the edges of her vision, and golden sparkles blotted out portions of Karlyn’s face as he leaned over her, calling her name. His fingers against her neck felt like blow torches.
“If you manage to get that off, her head will no longer be connected to her body.” A long scarf waved in her attacker’s wake as he halted behind the Knalcal politician.
Karlyn whirled. A small, L-shaped shooter slid from his jerkin as he stood, but the gray man caught his hand and wrenched the weapon away.
Run, Karlyn! Get to safety!
But he stood there, gaping. “Why did you call me here? What do you want?”
The man smirked. “Answering all your questions sounds like a lot of work. You two, secure shiny-scale-boy.”
Two others dressed in gray jumpsuits appeared and grabbed Karlyn’s arms. He struggled until one held a large shooter to the side of his head.
Are they really monochrome, or is that just my fading vision?
Skin, hair, eyes, clothes—nothing about these invaders claimed any drop of color.
“Where do you want us to take him, Master Vlokem?”
“Back to the ship.” Vlokem knelt and loaded his pockets with the spilled karkaek. Orange welts mottled the pink fruits’ soft skin, and their syrupy scent filled the air. “The rest of you, get the kids.”
Mova screamed for her legs to listen, to curl in and launch her at this incarnation of evil, but there was only her heartbeat, loud as an avalanche and weaker with each thump. Her hands twitched, frost spreading beneath them. The glittery rime slithered toward the man’s feet.
“Too bad you missed breakfast,” Vlokem lamented as he raised a karkaek to his mouth. “These really are my favorite.”
He angled Karlyn’s tiny shooter toward her heart and toggled the trigger.
The pounding of his heart was the only thing Zeln could hear. One of the cubes hung just below his feet, and a long spike cut notches in the sides of his soles. Pain gushed through his chest, but he couldn’t make a sound. He couldn’t wrench command of his face away from the collection of o’s shock held it in.
His gaze slid up the shaft to where it pierced between the lower ribs on his right side.
It burned—not like his sore muscles or his flame punches or even his mother’s hug when he returned from a mission. This was a monster made of fire, clawing its way through him and demanding to be let out upon the world.
It was either let the pain or the heat take over, and Zeln chose heat. Flames peeked and slithered out of his skin, fighting the poor air. Oscillating light spilled into the void. In response, the spear glowed, matching the color of his blood just before the shaft snapped and he dropped.
Surprise made the flames retreat and pushed a scream from his lungs. Fingers curled into the back of his star-speckled hoodie as feet brushed his back. Boots reignited and rocketed them toward the waiting official.
Again, they wouldn’t make it. Their trajectory was too curved.
Well, I was kind of wondering what was at the bottom of this pit.
He kept his eyes trained downward. What would be revealed when darkness’ cloak was swept aside?
Stone struck his cheek and scrunched his shoulder. All his weight rested on his jacket’s hold on his armpits in a decidedly painful way.
He looked up to find Aarex with a grip on the pillar’s chevron carvings and the official peering over the platform’s edge.
Grab her hand, Zeln begged, words burning in his throat but unable to escape. Pull us up!
The official’s grin showed off his pointed teeth, their glint eerie in the light of Zeln’s dying flames. “He’s heavier than you are. Take too long to decide to drop him, and you’ll both fall.”
Aarex’s only answer was in the clack of her teeth as her jaw set. No, she couldn’t lift him in this position, but she wouldn’t give up on him.
We all believe in us, and we’re stronger for it.
Zeln’s toes scratched at the column, searching for purchase, and his hands followed their lead. His limbs shook, but they were found enough of a grip to relieve Aarex of some of his weight. As her fingers adjusted their grasp, he knew what she planned.
He jumped, and she flowed with that momentum. Throwing him higher, she scurried down, her shoulders beneath his soles as he began to fall. Again, he heeded her silent wish with a leap, and she was right there with him, scrabbling over the side of the round stone.
She rolled to her feet and faced the official. “Wherever there’s one Adjuvant, there’s always another. That’s the mantra, right? How dare you expect me to drop him.”
“The original idea behind amaraqs was that if one fell, the other could still complete the mission.” The official did not look up from his scribbles. “Nowadays, all too often, they both fall because of being too attached to one another to see the practicality of letting go.”
“That’s Aberrant thinking,” Aarex booed. “Vozin Nar invented amaraqs to complement one another. One is strong where the other is weak. We can accomplish what would be impossible for one alone.”
Zeln’s arms shook as he tried to rise. He wanted to lie face-down across the solid surface and just breathe, but the platform wasn’t wide enough for that. Besides, this was supposed to be a race.
A series of booms sounded.
At first, he thought it was his own heart, but the timing was off, spaced too far. He looked up and wished he hadn’t. If he couldn’t move, wasn’t it better not to see the huge, rolling column about to smash him? It skipped across the other platforms, dust flying up from each impact.
He tried to think light thoughts as Aarex’s fingers curled into the back of his jacket again. The column bounced on the edge of the pillar nearest theirs with a crash that ripped at his eardrums, but Zeln didn’t flinch. He trusted his amaraq.
The massive, stone cylinder glided above her beret and impacted again just behind his leg. Aarex was already in motion, towing him along. He followed her lead, knees weak but under him as they leapt.
The next platform slanted dangerously. Another cylinder struck its opposite side, and they flew. Their feet skimmed the top of the rolling column.
Onward, and the dance continued with Zeln obeying every minute tug. As Aarex directed the official with her other hand, Zeln was her stepping stool and anchor. He was barely aware of the movement, exhaustion and heat warring to take over his mind.
He stumbled, a solid foundation finally beneath his knees. The curved walls were wooden this time, twigs woven as if this were a giant basket, and still the cylinders kept coming.
He folded his legs for a leap, but they were too weak to lift his weight.
The official stood on Aarex’s other side. “What if the only way to finish this is to leave him behind?”
They ducked another column, and Zeln pushed against the wooden floor, sliding, trying to keep up, to not be a burden. He couldn’t breathe, couldn’t hear Aarex’s answer. His wound was closed, but it still ached just below his heart. That vital organ beat too fast, pounding into that soreness. This world hated flames, hated him.
“Do you even want to place in this reorder?”
“Yes.” The word him escaped as a hiss.
“Why? No hrausq with a Blamooka member has ever placed.”
“My team will be the first then.”
Did I really say that? I like the sound of it.
Zeln forced himself to stand, muscles tired and screaming. Fire screeched louder within his veins, egging him on to go, fight, win.
“You’re willing to risk your own and your teammates’ lives to make that happen?” the official pressed.
The three of them dove and rolled under another bouncing cylinder.
“If we didn’t want to be here, we’d have opted out with the rest of the cowards and remained low-rankers,” Zeln snapped. “We knew it wouldn’t be easy. Nothing worth it ever is.”
“Yes, but being able to light aflame isn’t a very useful skill.”
Zeln’s eyes narrowed, and his heart felt like it burst as he surged to his feet. Ardor soaked through him, setting his face in a challenging scowl, both hands burning.
The wall’s woven wood crackled at his touch, twigs snapping as he pressed harder. Another cylinder approached, and he sneered at it, fist drawn back and flames flaring. His knuckles knocked against the wall, and it gave. He fell through the hole with a cascade of embers.
The wake of the passing column whipped his back, and its rumble nearly swallowed excited clapping.
Resolute on a narrow ledge that ran alongside the basket tunnel, Zeln turned to his amaraq. “It’s a shortcut.”
Continued in Chapter 3: None the Wiser
Thank you for reading!
Alliance ch 3: None the Wiser
“A shortcut to disqualification, Fire Boy,” Stevalok grumbled. “If Zeln gets us kicked out of this competition, I’ll have him be my chair for the next fifty years.”
Right, because if they failed, Hrausq Seven-One-Nine would be stuck low-rankers for that long, until the next reorder. Entrycii couldn’t fathom that length of time. The sixteen years he had been alive equaled forever.
“You want a chair that can light aflame at will?” His face twisted in a smirk. “Wouldn’t you rather have someone wait on you hand and foot?”
Stevalok laughed, and his pointed teeth glowed against his russet cheeks. “Last time you had that pair pamper you to repay a debt, they stained your face. I can still see it if I squint.”
A scowl pushed Entrycii’s smirk aside as he glanced at his reflection in the checkpoint’s chrome door. Zeln’s artwork of six months ago had mostly washed away. The orange flames were now faint ghosts only visible at certain angles. They appeared to hover within his tan skin dotted with silver crescents.
He shouldn’t have let Zeln talk him into having Aarex give him a facial.
“Oh great, they finished.”
Entrycii turned to his amaraq. “Why say that like it’s a bad thing?” He also wanted to ask what about the wall sconce made it look like a proper seat but decided against it. This waiting area didn’t have any chairs, just two silver doors perpendicular to two white walls and a grated floor and ceiling.
The door behind him rolled up, and Aarex bounced inside. Her smile was so broad and sharp, the glare alone could cut down a tree.
Pocketing the screen on which he had watched them, Stevalok slid off his pedestal to meet her with a double high five.
Behind a crookedly bespectacled, middle-aged Lettaplexal man—presumably the official to be passed on in this relay—Zeln retracted his flames and briefly met Entrycii’s gaze. Luminous orange circled a hole in his jacket, the jacket he claimed was not inspired in any way by Entrycii’s, despite their similarities. Both were closed by diagonal straps and hooded, fabric dark and speckled as if containing the essence of the stars.
More blood coated the back of Zeln’s knee, and he looked about to pass out. He had been through a lot in the first round. Entrycii could respect that. He nodded at his slightly younger teammate, and Zeln glanced away. Fire frolicked beneath the skin of his ears, and Entrycii flinched.
He was Knalcal. He was supposed to fear fire, despise it, detest it. It was not supposed to fill him with this sense of awe. He was not supposed to want it.
But his feet moved on their own. One step forward. Two…
Stevalok whirled toward the other door, and his elbow jabbed his partner’s gut. “Why isn’t it opening?”
Entrycii leaned against the wall, arms folded across his middle and a glare trained on his amaraq. He was Knalcal, and Knalcals weren’t supposed to show pain.
Did other Knalcals not feel it like he did?
“Maybe the official has to step through the doorway?” Aarex suggested.
“Makes sense. Hurry up, old man! This is a race.” Stevalok yanked the official into the room despite there being barely enough space for its existing occupants.
Entrycii was squished against the still-closed door, frown complete. The three Lettaplexals were larger than him, two of them reeked of burnt cheese, and the pulse of their life-signatures cloyed his ’netic senses. It felt like drowning in a vat of pudding.
“It won’t budge,” Stevalok griped. “Did you miss some important switch or something?”
“Maybe.” Aarex gave a closed-eyed, apologetic grin and scratched beneath the side of her beret. “I mean, we didn’t really take the conventional route.”
“Zeln, if your stupid shortcut costs us this race, I will personally...”
Stevalok’s shouts faded from Entrycii’s notice as his palms flattened against the door. It wasn’t that he no longer heard the voice bellowing in his ear; he just ceased to understand it as his brain switched from verbal communication to ’netic sensations, speaking the language of the computer that kept the path blocked.
It was a complex and difficult dialect, full of details and requiring one to be painfully precise. Added safeties, securities, and loopbacks only increased its vexation level. Twi always made it look so easy, but Entrycii sat muttering nonsense for several seconds before the door coiled into the ceiling.
A cool breeze welcomed them to the relay’s next segment. Mirrored walls formed a narrow corridor ending in a T-intersection.
Entrycii turned to his team. “Stevalok, you want to stand here and do curls with Zeln all day, or can we go?”
Stevalok dropped his semi-conscious teammate and sprinted for the open door, snatching the official’s wrist along the way. “You’d better not be a slowpoke.”
The official stumbled a few steps before finding his stride. His amber eyes reeled to meet Stevalok’s sharp grin beneath an almost identical gaze—not only in shape or color, but similar even in the flecks of bronze.
Are they related?
Entrycii ran after them. Being of a different race, maybe he just wasn’t good at telling Lettaplexals apart, but the particular brand of sarcasm dripping from the official’s overstretched features seemed too familiar.
“What a heart-wrenching display of concern for your injured comrade that was,” the official drawled.
Stevalok guffawed. “You think so? I’m not worried about Zeln.”
“Left,” Entrycii barked, and Stevalok kicked off the end of the T in a tight turn, distorted versions of him arrayed in the mirrors.
Why did it have to be mirrors or glass at all? The myriad of reflections made the hall seem both cramped and infinitely vast. He could have handled the disorienting sight if it hadn’t messed with his ’netic senses, too. Glass took the signatures of his surroundings, ripped them apart, and threw them like glittery confetti.
He wished he had been in the first round instead. Rolling corridors, arrows, spiky ropes, bottomless drops, and columns intent on crushing him? Easy. Glass maze? Torture.
The official’s nasally twang didn’t make it any better. “Do you have no care for your Blamooka teammate then?”
“Why waste worrying when I know he’ll be fine?” Stevalok’s shrug flowed into another jump as he made a sharp right.
“You believe him invincible?”
“No, but I’ve seen him heal plenty of times. Once, we set a trap in the hallway, and Zeln tried to duck but didn’t quite make it. He had a gash on his forehead and a bruised eye, but it was all gone by morning.” The glass rattled as Stevalok’s foot hit it and launched him into a backflip. “Stupid mirrors. My reflection almost punched me with my own face.”
“Congratulations on your face becoming a weapon.” Entrycii passed them and tried not to wince at the official’s twisted arm still in Stevalok’s grasp.
Lettaplexals don’t have bones, he reminded himself, just complex muscles and hydrostatic tubes.
Sometimes seeing them contort still made him gag.
“Such an attractive weapon my face makes.” With a laugh, Stevalok sprinted into the lead again. He still gripped the official’s forearm.
At least he managed to untwist it.
The official’s narrowed gaze flicked between them, flashing a darkness that thickened the dread dripping down Entrycii’s spine. “What about your newest teammate, the Napix one?”
A light snapped on above. Amid the echoed and sundered signatures, Entrycii found the malleable threads woven into his amaraq’s attire, curled his influence into them, and yanked back. Stevalok landed on his feet half a body’s length in front of an illuminated cone as several more appeared ahead.
Brows high, Entrycii proposed, “Adjuvants aren’t supposed to call attention to themselves. Think the spotlights are a metaphor?”
His partner nodded. “Avoid the lights like they’re a team of lunatics with scalpels and needles. Got it.”
Stevalok took off again, and an “oof” escaped the official as he was dragged along. The Lettaplexals wove and dodged, and Entrycii stayed just behind them, listening to the electronics that controlled the lights. A buzz ran along his cheeks right before another flared, and a ’netic tug directed Stevalok away from it.
A spotlight swept into their path, and again Entrycii gave his teammate just enough of a push to guide him in the right direction. A lamp behind them swiveled to follow, and he shoved Stevalok.
The smack surprised him, as did Stevalok’s rock back. Someone else flew in the opposite direction, color slowly filling in the shape of a woman.
“Watch where you’re—” She fell into an illuminated cone and froze, mouth agape as gravity failed.
The lights abandoned them, and Entrycii felt what was coming like searing hands scraping his skin. Instinct flinched at the touch. Grabbing both his amaraq and the official, he threw them flat on the ground with himself at their side.
Viridian lightning shot from the walls. He closed his eyes, face hidden in his elbow. Afterimages burned in his retinas, but his ’netics claimed the threat was gone.
Blinking, he pulled himself to his feet and kept low as he scanned the scene. The lanterns remained dormant, leaving the corridor dim. It looked as it had at the maze’s beginning except there was a steaming body on the ground.
“Oh, gross. Is she dead?” Stevalok knelt next to her. “She smells like rancid bacon.”
Her life-signature pulsed strong, echoing off the glass as if a million incomplete copies of her surrounded them.
“She’s alive, but if she came from this way, it’s probably not the route to the finish line.”
Stevalok poked her shoulder. “I’ve heard Zalerits take on the color of whatever they were looking at when they got hit. This patchwork of blues says she was looking at your hair, Entrycii.” He grinned, pointed teeth overlapping his bottom lip. “She probably thinks you’re cute. You should ask her out.”
Entrycii’s cheeks felt like lightning might pour out of them next. The woman had more curves than a series of evasive maneuvers, everything about her sleek, soft, and delicate. She was part Knalcal, too. Silver birthmarks on her temples shone faintly around the dark lenses that hid her eyes.
She was also nearly twice his age.
“She’s unconscious,” he sputtered.
“Yeah, too bad you didn’t pull her out of the spotlight before that happened.”
“I was too busy saving you.” The rebuttal had no bite, towing a sigh. The glass mocked him, and even ignoring it drained him. It was like being in the middle of a mob of clashing cymbals, and doing anything that required his ’netics was akin trying to shout over that cacophony.
The lights returned, snapping on one by one, closer and closer.
Think ahead. I don’t want to expend our energy getting down this hall if it’s the wrong way, but…
It hit him: He needed to literally think outside the box.
“Um, can I know where I’m supposed to land?”
“Oh, that narrows it down.” But Stevalok leapt anyway.
Stance widened, Entrycii pictured strings connecting his hands to the non-Adapt threads in his partner’s attire. These imagined strings could push as well as they pulled. As Stevalok neared the apex of his jump and Entrycii’s arms shoved above his head, these unseen strings extended to propel his amaraq higher.
With a move like casting a fishing line, he threw Stevalok toward the wall. Stevalok curled into a somersault and rolled onto the partition.
Entrycii’s gaze fell on the official. “You’re next. Just jump like he did.”
The official made a mark on a note square, then slowly pocketed the device. “Your ’netics have no influence over other living beings. Am I to assume you will direct my flight by manipulating my clothes?”
Entrycii nodded. “I’ll fix them if they stretch or rip if that’s what you’re worried about.”
“It just seems invasive.” His knees bent low. “Knalcals make such a fuss about their personal space, but isn’t tugging at my attire a violation of my personal space?”
“If it’s that or fall to your death, which would you choose?”
The official grinned, adjusted his glasses, and sprung, not nearly as high as Stevalok had, but Entrycii expected that. The man impersonated a common citizen, and winning a jumping contest against Stevalok would be a tall order for anyone who considered themselves normal.
Common citizens didn’t wear Adapt either, the durable fabric of Magni origin donned by Adjuvants and slippery to ’netic Talents. The official’s loose suit was much easier to work with than the few threads woven through Stevalok’s outfit.
As the man rose, Entrycii slid beneath him, hands upturned and stance solid. Trillions of invisible strings connected them, each thrashed by the mirrors’ maelstrom of signatures. It felt as if the unconscious woman leapt at him from all sides, but he ignored those false echoes and concentrated on keeping the strings straight.
The official was heavy. The strength of Entrycii’s every cell poured into shoving him higher. Even so, the man fell, slowly, as if sinking through a murky lake.
Teeth grit, he released his hold and conjured a new one, hands splayed and shaking. His influence twined around every fiber of the official’s attire and pushed. His knees unbent to give the thrust the few extra fingerbreadths of height it needed, and Stevalok grabbed the back of the official’s long jacket, hauling him up the rest of the way.
Entrycii emptied his lungs and filled them anew. Time for the hard part.
He stood for a moment, arms circled in front of him as if around a large tree, palms downward. His eyes closed, letting his ’netic senses take over. Every molecule in the vicinity screamed details at him.
Exhale. Inhale. Exhale. Push.
“Breathe,” Atok Quanko whispered as his shoulders hit the wall. “Air in. Air out. Simple.”
Yet, it was not simple. Nothing was.
Words hissed between his teeth. “Go back in your corner and stay there.”
The wall’s foggy crystal chimed as his back slid along it. His head fell between his knees as if he bowed to the planet Zalerit low on the southern horizon. Its frigid light streamed through the square hole left unroofed above a courtyard of raked sand where once a pair of princes had practiced martial skills.
He should have known better than to come this way. Though the scene lay empty, its familiar shapes called to these stolen memories, and they spilled. He shoved them back toward where they belonged, but they dripped between his fingers as if he bailed out a boat with only his bare hands.
“Excellent, Prince Sarqii,” a mentor praises, a palm clapping the younger twin’s shoulder.
Atok forced himself to his feet, though the jealousy in the memory was a sack of rocks hanging from a rope around his neck.
Sarqii extends a hand to the bloody-nosed opponent he pinned, and they laugh together.
Atok stumbled toward the door at the end of the veranda, focused on the present, on the moonlight dancing over deep shadows and the gloss left by recent rain.
The second prince’s name means grace, and it is fitting. Everything comes easy to him. Whereas Ontz is a stone known for its beauty and strength. You have the former but none of the latter.
Atok did not want to see this, did not want to live it again.
A stranger melts out of the shadows, and something tugs within the depths of your mind. Alarm dangles just out of reach, a tepid blankness in its place. Curiosity bubbles at your feet. He has pale gray skin and paler hair that falls in waves to his shoulders. His large, round features are baby-like, and the focus of his eyes seems off. Green-gold chrysolite fills them, glimpses of the lightning within. He carries himself like a storm cloud.
Atok hit the door and tore it aside, but nothing made a sound loud enough to drown out the phantoms in his mind. The scene flickered between past and present, and as he closed his eyes, only the view he wanted to forget remained.
“Might I join your spar?”
A yes sits at the tip of your tongue, though you did not put it there.
“That’s not a good idea,” Sarqii says.
Another laughs. “Why not? He looks harmless.”
Sarqii’s dark gaze narrows on the stranger. “His eyes are chrysolite. He’s Aylata. His clan pattern is on his left pant leg, so he’s a Watcher, and the insignia on his collar is Skaelao.”
The present prevailed for a moment—the cold wood of the palace wall lay beneath his hand, solid, steady, and polished until it shone like amber. It was something to hold onto, to brace himself against as he stuffed these memories back into their box.
He was not Ontz Kys, oldest prince of the Napix Empire. Ontz had died a year and a half ago, and Atok wished this memory would have gone with him. Trying to escape it was like running on water.
A void holds your expression blank. You do not move, not even to gasp or blink. Yet, deep inside, warning thunders. A Skaelao Watcher. You have never seen one and thought you never would. Stories claim that by the time you notice them, you are already dead. Throat slit, neck broken, last breath held forever.
His deprecating smile crowns a facetious bow. “I shall merely watch, then.”
“No!” Atok’s shout rang in the hall, echoing back to him like the whispers of a million specters. The plush carpet swallowed his footfalls. In their place, the princes’ spar resumed, the clack of blocked kicks, soft grunts, growled curses.
He had leaned a shoulder against a corner pillar and observed shallowly through Ontz. The Ravida had been correct. The princes’ minds worked nothing like those of Napix heritage, purebred or otherwise. Like a fresh bay compared with a salty sea, the well of these foreigners’ thoughts stretched deeper and coarser, sanding his Mental palms until raw and weeping. If he did not take caution, he would sink too far, mission left undone.
A thud louder than the others. Prince Ontz lay on the mat, companions in a frenzy around him. Atok retreated into himself, teeth clamped on his own sleeve to keep him from vomiting.
He took the same pose now, perched behind a decorative scroll at the top of an alcove as a palace guard strolled past. Head held high above his fur-lined collar, the man gave no indication he had heard anything out of the ordinary. As his booted footsteps faded in the distance, Atok took a few more moments to compose himself.
With its epicenter left behind, the memory played out and jumped to another. The youngest Prince Chyr in the hallway outside the grand hall, smile sweet as ever. Then, his vacant eyes dripped blood onto the lap of the former empress.
Bumping shoulders with Prince Sarqii. One look. Easy dismissal. Sarqii’s fear and grief was a gunk Atok could not scrape off the inside of his skull.
By the time he dropped back to the floor, undesired scenes had mostly been shoved back in their containers, padlocks straining to keep warped lids closed. His weak knees bent further than usual as he ghosted through the corridor, tremors hidden and breaths a steady fire in his throat.
He could not change the past. He should not have dared enter this part of the Emperor’s Palace again, but he needed to speak with Revel in person despite the lateness of the hour.
Revel K’alaqk, Emperor of the Napix Empire for six months now, was not in his room. Shadow blanketed the curved space, gently reprimanded by moonlight filtered through ice-like walls. Face buried by a pillow, Empress Topeca lay tangled in a thin sheet.
Atok slid through the hidden door in the chandelier’s crown molding and alighted on a dresser, toes barely fitting between perfume bottles and trinkets. A guard slouched on the balcony, back to the sheer curtain over the arched doorway. The light fabric waved in the cool evening breeze, but the man did not move.
Atok’s frown deepened. It should not have been this easy to get in here. Another leap brought his feet to the raised, wood slat floor around the bed with a deliberate rap.
The empress shifted but did not awaken, and no one came to investigate the noise. She seemed a fragile, tiny thing, her braided hair as thick as she was. Freckles lightly dotted her cheeks, parted lips effecting a quiet hiss with each breath.
A needle of longing impaled his core, turned molten by jealousy. Revel had Topeca always. Atok was alone. He had just come from playing spy in his home territory, Skaelao, and had seen people he cared about, been as near them as he was to Topeca now, unable to reach out and touch them.
He should not have been able to get that close to them unseen and unquestioned. He should not have been able to get this close to the sleeping empress. Someone needed to be taught that. Shown, not told.
He drew one of his throwing kanabers. By rote, the toggle to activate its flat laser blade rested against his thumb. The handle waited, held vertical and aimed downward, but the blade remained at rest within.
He dropped the weapon, and it landed soundlessly on the empress’ black silk braid, chrome casing lit like a museum’s display. Alongside the toggle, the engraving of Skaelao’s motto glistened.
Take caution as your guide.
Standing, he padded to the main entrance, cracked open the double door, and slipped through. The young guard stationed here posed with the coy confidence of one who had never experienced a real threat to himself or his quarry. This nobleman’s boy was just as likely to flee, faint, puke, or wet himself as be of any help in a crisis.
Atok’s chin hovered over the guard’s shoulder. “Are you supposed to be protecting something?”
The guard whirled, shooter in hand, but Atok’s fingers wrapped its barrel and trapped the weapon at his hip, pointed at the baseboard.
A headset picked up the guard’s squeaked warning and delivered it to the rest of his company. His eyes, pale and clear gray like a Napix summer sky, met Atok’s. The emotions that struck through that connection were not nearly so serene.
Atok glared. “Never meet a Mind Aylata’s gaze.”
The guard shook his head, focus searching for another target. Despite that, the storm persisted, screeching at Atok’s annoyance. He saw his own face, light skin and hair phantasmal in the wall’s moon-fueled glow. He watched the chrysolite overlay in his wide eyes shatter and swirl.
Heralded by the hiss of a sigh, a darter shot past Atok’s ear. He spun into the shadows of an alcove, keeping the guard with him, and raised the shooter. A second darter sunk into the wall, and with a brief, brilliant flash, a chunk of the wood disappeared.
Knuckles level with his shoulder, Atok fired. A spark flickered as his darter hit its target.
“Mandin!” The captive guard’s cry nearly drowned out the thud of a heavy object striking the floor. Scrambling footfalls tattled on Mandin dashing for cover, fallen weapon abandoned.
“I shot what fired at me,” Atok murmured. “I would not shoot any of you. That would be pathetic.”
Relief loosened the young guard’s shoulders, and he looked back at Atok.
“What did I tell you about Mind Aylata?” Again, his own visage flickered over his view, and this time he coiled those emotional strings around his Mental fingers. They were smoke at first, slowly solidifying into rivers, cords, chains. His inner self held them while his fleshly hand pulled another throwing kanaber from the strap on his leg.
Unlike before, his thumb did not hesitate to slide the toggle. The hilt left his hand an instant later, a white laser blade flashing into existence. With a metallic whine, it impaled the barrel of another shooter.
The young guard’s heartbeat shivered through the chains, thrumming in Atok’s ears.
“Why?” A new voice.
This one shows more skill, at least.
With a tsk, he released his hold on the young guard, who crumpled to his knees, drowning in gasped sobs as Atok turned to the newcomer.
This one had already discarded the ruined weapon and stood in a solid stance just over an arm’s length away. Confidence held a smaller shooter in a two-handed grip, aimed at Atok’s head. Brave but hardly a good idea. He did not have to be this close to fire, and Atok’s staff-like Ier could easily reach him at this distance.
Atok eyed the mottled jumpsuit. A trooper, not a noble guard. “You are of the Unwanted.”
“Why shouldn’t we look into a Mind Aylata’s eyes?” He spoke with a trooper’s accent, too—the slight twang of Yakru but more slurred. It was not a speech pattern Atok equated with intelligence, and the fact that he stared into an Aylata’s eyes while asking why he should not only lowered his initial impression.
A tiny grin touched Atok’s lips. “Drop it.”
The shooter fell from the trooper’s hands and clattered on the floor.
“When you meet a Mind Aylata’s gaze, he owns you. I was not even all that specific with that command.”
Vagueness made suggestions easier, provided one did not care too much about an exact outcome, but he would not tell them that. This fear was medicine. He prodded it, and it festered.
The trooper retreated, knelt, and snatched the throwing kanaber, sightline now more wisely trained on Atok’s hands.
A quick learner?
“What’s your agenda, Skaelao Watcher?”
Atok shrugged. “Call it a drill, a warning that if I meant any harm to your lady, the deed would be done, and you would be none the wiser.”
The trooper ventured a glance at the closed doors. “We stopped you out here in the hallway.”
“Did you?” Atok tilted his chin. “Why not check on your empress?”
The trooper’s eyes flicked back and forth, indecision a vine spiraling around his limbs. Atok pushed on it, effecting one stumbled step and an ill-advised look back, but Atok was finished with him. He indulged in a long blink as a shield against the man’s beckoning emotions and focused on a distant roar.
When his eyes reopened, they aimed toward the window at the end of the hall.
“I must keep my appointment with the emperor,” he told the wobbling trooper. “Do focus on being more impressive next time.”
Continued in Chapter 4: Without One, the Other will Buckle
Thank you for reading!
Alliance ch 4: Without One, the Other will Crumble
Concentrate. Show them my best. Nothing less will impress them.
Entrycii jumped, and as his strongest cells repelled the planet’s gravity, the more dexterous ones in his hands shoved and tugged on his surroundings to dictate his course.
The confetti of ’netic signatures swirled on all sides. It blinded, blocked, and overwhelmed him. His flight was far from stable. It would have been considered miraculous even in ideal conditions, but if there was any place Entrycii could show off, it was here in the reorder competition.
He grinned as his foot slammed halfway up the wall. It slipped against the annoying glass before he bounded away.
Arms encircled his waist, and he shrieked, concentration shattered. He and the apparently no longer unconscious Zalerit/Knalcal woman plummeted.
Shrugging free of her embrace, he tried to regather his wits, outstretched arms directing his fall. He struck a mirror, and glass rattled as he leapt. His feet scraped the opposite wall as he vaulted again, cracks left behind like tracks.
As he once more approached the glass, a smaller object hit it first. He balked and crashed against his own distorted reflection.
The projectile lodged in the mirror and formed a handhold. He grabbed it and swung from one arm as more stone spearheads stabbed the wall around him. Catching another, he scrambled higher.
The Zalerit climbed just beneath him, another Knalcal below her. Amid the chaos of signatures, Entrycii couldn’t be sure, but he was willing to bet the lower Knalcal directed the handholds. He didn’t perform any obvious gestures, but the spears remained in place until he was done with them, then they pulled out of the wall and rose to continue forming the path above.
As Entrycii grimaced, Stevalok snatched his collar and towed him onto the slender platform atop the wall. “Thanks for your help! We can take it from here, so go find your own route.”
“That’s how you treat those who help you?” The woman clambered over the partition’s edge. Panting, she sat, booted feet dangling over the side.
Stevalok leaned above her. “Don’t get all offended at me simply expressing gratitude.”
She ignored him, and Entrycii ignored them both. She wasn’t the one at fault.
He glared at her Knalcal partner. “Don’t follow us, and don’t steal my ideas. Come up with your own shortcut.”
“Just be proud I considered your idea good enough to be worth stealing.”
Entrycii’s eyes narrowed further in what he hoped was a harsher glare, but the other Knalcal only grinned, adding a sharpness to his sleek features. As he surmounted the wall, the unused handholds hovered around him, edges glinting.
“I thought we weren’t allowed to bring any tools in here with us,” Entrycii grumbled.
He forced himself to hold his ground as the other Knalcal stood, tall but willowy frame draped in a loose jacket of a hazy celadon with charcoal raglan sleeves. A myriad of pleats and folds hinted at an endless supply of pockets.
If he attacks, I’ll stay low. I’ll aim for his sides, steal one of those projectiles.
“You’re right. No tools are allowed except for those wooden staves we were given. I found them much more useful in this form.”
One by one, the spearheads sunk into a pocket somewhere on him as if he were made of quicksand.
Entrycii’s jaw dropped. “Are you saying you changed one substance into another?”
Icy lavender eyes blinked. “That’s my specialty, but I’m surprised a prodigy like you would find it impressive, Kix Entrycii.”
“You know my name?” Falling back a step, he scoured his memory. Had he met this man before?
Aghast, the Zalerit threw in, “You’re a descendant of one of the original founders. Everyone’s been waiting to see how you perform in this competition.”
Her partner shrugged lazily. “The hype to see you pull off something amazing is probably only second to how much everyone wants to see what Tyko Sep will do.”
Entrycii swallowed. People watched him? Not just his family, teammates, and teachers. Random strangers like this Zalerit halfling and incredibly Talented Knalcal.
He stood sideways, trying to keep them both in his sight at once. The woman’s weird skin glowed pastel purple. Most of her fluffy, bronze hair was twisted in two lumpy spheres atop her head, reminding him of thorns. The other Knalcal had pale cerulean birthmarks, a rare compromise between the more common silver and cobalt varieties. They shone brightly against his shadowed taupe skin—a metallic splash across his face like the design of many Aberrant battoos.
Entrycii was meant to share this spotlight with Sep, his older, more flamboyant teammate. Sep cast a large shadow, and Entrycii had always been content to play in it, but…
Stevalok shoved past the Zalerit to stand alongside him, gaze on the ground and hand rubbing the back of his neck. “Sep’s not here.”
Silence grew and scratched at Entrycii’s throat. He wanted to tell what had happened, but the words buzzing about his brain wouldn’t form a sentence.
“He decided not to compete?” the Zalerit supposed. “But you must enter as a complete hrausq.”
“I apologize,” her partner cut in with a slight bow, forearms crossed. “I’m Izeko of Hrausq Five-One-Four, by the way, and this is my amaraq, Sažka.”
“Nice to meet you and all,” Stevalok said with a wide, vague gesture at their surroundings, “but you seem to have forgotten that this is a race. If you want to watch us be awesome, that’s fine, but it’d be great if you could go get in someone else’s way.”
Izeko laughed, and Sažka snorted.
Stevalok flipped over her and pushed at the onlooking official. “Break’s over, old man. Let’s get a move on.”
As they trotted off and Entrycii followed, he searched the area with darting glances and ’netic senses stretched to their max. The maze was huge, and nothing specifically said it was the finish line, but at least they were safe up here, able to see what was ahead, behind, and all around. The punishing lights swayed on tracks above, but they only shone into the sunken paths between walls. In that respect, the darkness up here was comforting.
But Izeko and Sažka still tailed them. Entrycii gritted his teeth.
“Left!” he called, and Stevalok obeyed with a leap in the indicated direction. Arm extended, Entrycii pushed him further. ’Netic strings tugged and guided as Stevalok’s fingers caught the edge of the next wall. He swung sideways into a handstand, back bending to bring him to his feet.
The official was next, given no warning, simply shoved and thrown. Stevalok caught him and continued to run.
Entrycii’s muscles shook. A stabbing tingle shot from his hands to his heart.
“Don’t,” Izeko cautioned. “Damage from ’netically lifting things heavier than you is worse than a physical sprain or break.”
Entrycii leapt, influence flowing out at all angles. It pushed at the floor and walls. It pulled on the ceiling and lights.
The lights. One snapped on above him, and everything stopped. His eyes were open, but he couldn’t see. Warmth seeped into every cell, giving the notion of brightness. Soft arms held him securely and whispered he could stay here forever.
But he couldn’t breathe. Panic niggled at the back of his mind. Dread bubbled up, giddy at the prospect of welcoming a terrible foe. It replaced the warmth with a chill that burned, and he knew what would happen next.
The lightning didn’t come. The outside world slammed back into focus as gravity grabbed him in a crushing fist. His shoulder cried as a hand gripped his wrist and his fall stopped.
Izeko clung to the side of the cylindrical lamp, oblivious of Entrycii’s gasp and widened gaze as he flung him toward the wall. A flash forced those shocked eyes closed. ’Netic senses reported heat, danger, and a protective solidifying of air.
Entrycii landed hard with Stevalok cradling him. He rolled to his feet, gaze darting back to the light to find a melted, smoking mess.
Izeko stood on the opposite wall. His specialty, he had said, was the transmuting of one substance into another. ’Netic alchemy, basically. Had he changed the lamp into something that exploded, shielded them with forcefields, and used the momentum of the blast to propel them to their current positions?
Izeko was Knalcal. To call upon fire was abhorrent. He wouldn’t.
Yet, did he?
Entrycii dared not ask, as if answers would come if he just stared hard enough.
“I have a question,” Stevalok called, and Izeko looked at him, brows raised. “Why do you have shoes coming out of your sides?”
Grinning, Izeko turned to reveal a granny on his back. The two-tiered, silver bun atop her head was nearly as large as her entire body.
“No fair! Why do they get a tiny official?”
“She specifically requested them,” their own official explained, “just like I requested this team.”
“Wait, it wasn’t random?” Stevalok stepped back, one hand over his heart.
As Izeko’s party ran on, their tiny tag-along threw back a finger wave.
“Will you shadow them?”
Entrycii shook his head and turned his back to Izeko’s vanishing form. “We head this way.” Swiveling around the official, he followed a ninety-degree turn in the wall.
“Ah. You’re angry he helped you. You don’t want to be anywhere near where that could happen again, lest those watching attribute any part of your victory to him.”
Entrycii slowed. As if he’d ever admit that. “No, there’s this sparkle over there that has me curious. Jump, Stevalok.”
Again, his amaraq did as bade, and Entrycii stretched his strings of influence, helping him glide to another wall.
As Stevalok alighted, Entrycii turned to the official. “You next.”
“Stevalok, do you see this sparkle?”
The further Lettaplexal squinted as he scanned the distance. “Nope, but if Entrycii says it’s there, then it’s gotta be.”
Entrycii grabbed the official’s jacket and threw him. Influential strings snapped. His limbs shook, but he pushed beyond it, looped those invisible threads around his amaraq, and cinched the pair together. Once the official slammed into Stevalok’s arms, Entrycii leapt, reeling in those same strings.
“It’s there.” He landed in a run. “It’s screaming at my ’netics even louder than these mirrors.”
“You think it’s the finish line?” Stevalok loped just behind him.
Entrycii ran faster. “Or a trap.”
“So, you want to run headlong into the trap?”
“Better than sitting here until times runs out.” Entrycii jumped again, pushing away from Stevalok and the official.
His knees barely caught him, but he kept his momentum and sprinted on. This wall ran parallel to the previous one, where Stevalok still ran, now side-by-side with him. He counted his amaraq’s footfalls, synced his every move to them, ready when Stevalok grabbed the official and tossed him across the chasm. The moment Stevalok’s fingers left him, Entrycii’s influence laced through his attire and guided him to a heavy landing.
Stevalok alighted a moment later.
The wall forked, and Stevalok took the hollered route, dashing faster.
The official kept up with him. “Why does your amaraq get to dictate your actions? Is it because he is Knalcal, and they are better?”
Stevalok glanced over his shoulder. “Yeah, what if I wanted to make the plan?”
“If you have a plan, share it.” Entrycii leapt to another wall, trusting the others to follow.
Sharp white teeth like a beacon in the darkness, Stevalok landed ahead of him with a triumphant grin. “My plan is: We’re gonna come in first in this competition.”
“But how exactly will you accomplish that?” the official pressed.
Another leap. Another throw. Another shaky landing, but they were still together, still moving, still coming closer to that eerie ’netic call at the maze’s center.
Stevalok shrugged. “It’s Entrycii’s job to come up with details.”
“You do realize your hrausq is very youn—” the official began, last word chopped as he flew. His face scrunched as he landed hard, then evened out in a grimace. “Teams never rank well in their first reorder.”
“Well, when you claim you’re the best, people get picky and want you to prove it,” Stevalok professed with a dramatic twirl.
Entrycii wished he wouldn’t. He worried his amaraq would fall, and he wasn’t sure he could catch him in this state. His lungs stung. Every muscle did, as if a million needles had stabbed him everywhere. Yet, as they spiraled toward the maze’s center, the paths grew narrower, the valleys to leap over less wide. Those leaps were nearly constant, but Stevalok and their weightier companion needed less help.
Almost there. We can do this. Just keep moving. Don’t let anything stop you. Don’t let all those people watching see you slip even a little.
“Do you believe you’re proving you’re the best?”
“Well, yeah.” Stevalok added a twisting side roll to his leap, smile wider than the path. “I’m number one. Entrycii’s number two. Twi’s like one point five, I guess.”
His amber eyes glistened brighter than the spotlights shining into the maze. Those lamps lit up the entire space below now. Entrycii wasn’t sure how someone traveling the conventional path was supposed to get by without touching them.
“Do you have a rank in mind for all of your teammates?” the official wondered, airborne again.
“Not really, but Rifo and Ekymé would be last.”
The dark glint returned to the official’s eye. Entrycii recoiled and landed crooked. His ’netics shoved at the walls to correct his balance, one string still keeping tabs on his partner.
Entrycii coughed. Warm liquid slid down his nostrils, but neither of his companions noticed. Good. Maybe no one else did either.
Wiping a sleeve across his face, he leapt again, determined to catch up.
“Speaking of our most notable new immigrant, what do you think of Xlack Ekymé?”
Stevalok clacked his teeth. “I have no opinion whatsoever of Scum-for-Brains.”
“He means he won’t forgive Ekymé for the waking nightmare where he experienced losing his hand.” Entrycii hated how weak and rough his voice sounded. He turned his head, face hidden in his elbow as he tried to clear his throat.
“The hand would have grown back,” the official pointed out.
Stevalok slapped the path as he landed, and the hollow wall responded like thunder. “That’s beside the point.”
“It was Master Myr’s fault, though,” Entrycii chipped in.
“That’s also beside the point!”
“Master Myr? You interact with Adjuvant leaders?”
Would he ask fewer questions if one of these times I let him land on his head?
That was probably a bad idea. Entrycii shook it away.
“Hey, what are you scribbling?”
As they flew again, the official gave Stevalok a disparaging look. “My comments.”
Stevalok ran a hand through his ponytail of dreads. “Well, they’d better be nice compliments about my hair.”
“Serious mode, Stevalok. We’re here,” Entrycii warned, and his amaraq straightened, face gaining the hard edge of a warrior’s.
They stood on the lip of a cylinder, two notches missing from the walls as if cut with a giant knife. The spotlights were all behind them. Only a dim sparkle to the floor provided illumination.
“It’s the very center of the maze,” Entrycii explained. “I think it’s the way out.”
“We just jump down there?”
Entrycii nodded. “And be ready for anything.”
Stevalok smiled and cracked his knuckles. “My favorite.”
“What’s yer favorite song?”
Xlack leaned against a rail of metal lace on a platform hanging far above the floor of Mumir Ravine, gaze glued to the screen gripped in both hands. It showed his teammates leap down into the maze’s center. Stevalok landed first, a roll expending his momentum. Entrycii and the official touched down just behind him, clothes relaxing as the Knalcal released his influence.
A roar shook the walls, and a giant four times Stevalok’s height manifested in front of them.
Xlack grimaced. Rifo had told him often not to be so quick to judge by appearances, but this monster had spikes protruding from all over its body, a belly that draped over its knees, sagging jowls spilling slobber, and eyes that flashed with what could only be evil intent.
Keeping low, Stevalok charged, pointy stick in hand.
“Sometimes ya can hear an exhale several rooms away.” Rifo huffed. “Other times it seems ya hear nothing at all.”
“I heard you. I’m just trying to figure out how your song question is relevant.”
“If ya answered it, I’d tell ya.”
A title hung on the tip of Xlack’s tongue, The Victory of Ekymé the Great, but embarrassment barred its way. It was a composition of dueling strings and deep choral voices, epic, harried, and ambitious. But wouldn’t it sound pretentious to admit his favorite song was the one with his name followed by ‘the great’ in the title? So what if it was actually written about his ancient ancestor? Here in the Alliance, Xlack was the only Ekymé they knew.
“I can’t remember the name of it.”
Rifo raised an eyebrow. “Hopefully ya at least know how it goes. The official will try to goad ya into doing something stupid, so just run through the song in yer head and tune him out.”
“I thought we were supposed to answer his questions.”
Rifo shrugged, wind rummaging through his spiked hair. “I’ve only known ya for six months, but I know ya are really bad at answering questions.”
The low ceiling groaned, and Xlack straightened as twelve curved cracks blossomed into a lowering floor. Rifo mirrored him, stance wide against the swaying platform and the wind’s insistence they not be so still. Its chill nipped at Xlack’s ears.
“The monster was fake, a hologram,” the official ranted from the middle of the descending elevator. “Surely you knew that, Knalcal, even before your amaraq flew right through it.”
“That doesn’t make Stevalok’s bravery any less real,” Entrycii argued as their platform settled into a round depression in the floor. “All you did was hide behind me.”
Rifo extended a hand to their living baton. “The poor gentleman’s already been through a lot today.”
Stevalok snorted, but the official accepted the offered greeting.
“I’m Alez Rifo, and this is my amaraq, Xlack Ekymé. We will be yer escorts for the next leg of the relay, Mister...”
“Names are unnecessary. If you must call me anything, call me the official.” His overlarge eyes cut to Xlack, and his curiosity felt like itchy thorns.
Xlack glared back.
“Have fun!” Stevalok called as he and Entrycii stepped onto a separate railed platform. With a flip of a lever, it rose. “See you in phase two!”
“If your team passes.” The official still stared at Xlack. “There are two links left in this relay, after all.”
“We are skilled at what we do.” With a polite smile, Rifo gestured toward the nearest bridge. “We’ll take ya safely across these hanging walkways. There are traps, but my amaraq will venture ahead and disable them while I keep ya company.”
Arms crossed, the official still did not look at Rifo. “You’re welcome to use any strategy you like, but I will stay with the Aylata.”
Xlack flinched at the title. Aylata were the hybrid offspring of the Napix and Magni races, and true, that was something he couldn’t change about himself, but it also came with a duty he had abandoned to become an Adjuvant.
“I’m not Aylata anymore.”
“So, stop staring at me.”
Would they get in trouble if he suggested this official just shut up and be happy?
‘Easy,’ Rifo warned in a private whisper heard only by its intended recipient. ‘Think of yer song.’
‘It doesn’t help. My song’s about beating up anyone who annoys me.’
Rifo gave him a sideways, skeptical look. ‘Ya should pick a different one.’
‘The song is not the point. It makes more sense for me to go ahead.’
Rifo slid between the official and Xlack. “Ekymé’s Talents are more adept at discovering hidden dangers than mine. He should be the one in the lead.”
The official sidestepped him. “You would be boring to talk to, and I feel safer next to this one. You have to take the delicate mental fortitude of a potential rescuee into account, don’t you?”
Like a frightened princess, he latched onto Xlack’s sleeve. Xlack jerked away, but the man had hooked a thumb through the straps that crisscrossed his forearms.
‘Can I just knock him out and we carry him through the relay?’
‘It’s a test.’ Rifo already trotted across a bridge suspended between platforms. ‘Humor him.’
‘So, no tossing him over the rail either?’
‘Only if ya want the whole team to be severely disappointed in ya.’
Which no, Xlack did not want. How dare Rifo even plant that worrying possibility in his mind because now he was sure he would mess this up.
Xlack stepped onto the bridge. It was too narrow for him and the official to fit side-by-side, a problem since the guy still clung to his arm.
He walked faster. “Would you let go?”
“Wherever there is one Adjuvant, there is always another. That is the saying, yes?”
Xlack nodded, biting the inside of his lip. In the past six months, he had heard that phrase so often it had lost its meaning. It was now just a patterned jumble of syllables, a monotonous mantra to repeat on cue.
“So, you should keep your amaraq in sight at all times.”
Rolling his eyes, Xlack launched over the rail with the official in tow and landed on another bridge two stories below. “I don’t need to see him to know where he is.”
His tag-along’s grin revealed sharp teeth. While Xlack had seen plenty of Stevalok’s similar smirks in his short time with this team, this one seemed more sinister. He finally pulled his sleeve free as the official fished a note square from his pocket and scribbled away on it.
What’s he writing?
The note square had no screen, but he studied the man’s finger as it input the text. The official used a form of shorthand—an oblique line, a horizontal line, a semi-circle, a curved line somewhere between oblique and horizontal. Each stroke represented a different letter to the device but meant nothing to Xlack.
As annoyance spilled through him, he turned away and focused on locating the marks Rifo left. Tiny scratches in the polished stone showed where to jump for a shortcut or where he had disabled a trap.
“Do you find this planet pretty?”
“What I’ve seen of it, yeah.” Towing the official along, Xlack stomped across another wobbly bridge.
“How much have you seen of Knalz?”
“Mostly just this canyon.”
He could see this largest of Knalz’s ravines being a favorite tourist spot. Rough granite, described by Rifo as pale blue, formed tall precipices. While most of Mumir Complex was underground, built within the walls of the ravine, this part of it hung from the underside of the slanted cliff. Towers stretched downward to mirror a city far below. Constructed of metallic lace, walkways wove in and out of the walls and platforms, disconcerting in how they shook with every step. The wind sang through them, rustling Xlack’s curls and tugging at his long jacket.
“You don’t get out much.”
“My team consists of low-rankers assigned to Vlavaran, Tala, so most of our assignments are in that area.”
“Would you take over this planet if you could?”
Xlack stopped. “What kind of question is that?”
The man blinked at him, finger poised to swipe more cryptic symbols into the note square.
You can’t throw him over the rail. Just use your words. Think up something clever.
With a deep breath, Xlack resumed walking. “I’m one person. What would I want with a whole planet?”
Flesh scraped plastic as the official wrote.
Maybe all his encouraging comments are only written?
Xlack doubted it. More likely he scribbled things deemed too harsh to say aloud.
Spotting another shortcut marker from Rifo, he grabbed the official’s wrist and hopped a rail, slid along a column, then leapt onto a rocking platform.
Write something good about that.
As they traversed another unstable bridge, he watched the official, waiting for his finger to move on the note square. It hovered uselessly above the input surface. Why did their baton have to be a living, annoying person? Couldn’t they have escorted a silent stick like the pointed staff that was supposed to serve as his weapon in this contest?
“What are the two legs upon which the Adjuvants were founded?”
Xlack’s fists clenched. “Couldn’t you walk faster if you didn’t talk and write the whole time? This is supposed to be a race.”
The official adjusted his too-small glasses, though they remained obviously crooked. “Your elapsed time is only part of your score. You’re supposed to impress me. If I do not approve of your performance or your responses to my questions, you will not pass.”
I haven’t heard as many questions as criticisms, and even the questions sound cynical.
A baton with a recorder in it would have served just as well and would have had the bonus of not looking at him with overlarge, judgmental eyes.
A high-pitched whirring heralded a cloud of a dozen sharp-edged discs. Xlack dove in front of the official, staff swinging, and two discs bounced off the dense wood. As they shattered against the porous walkway, he impaled four more.
The official threw himself flat on the path as the remaining six discs crashed into them.
“Only the illusionary ones got you.” Xlack held out a hand to help the official up. “I got all the real ones.”
Back on his feet, the official scribbled on his note square, wrinkled face sporting a frown. His glasses were even more crooked than they had been, and his loose jacket looked faded under the metallic dust acquired in his dive.
‘Missed a trap, Rifo.’ Xlack swiped the staff in a flustered arc as they walked on. He would have rather had his Ier. Its burning tendrils would have vaporized those discs. ‘Want to switch places?’
‘If ya think yer job is annoying, why would I want to switch?’
‘To keep me from doing anything to the official that might disqualify us.’
‘Ya are barely to the sixth platform. Try to bear with the babysitting duty a little longer.’
Babysitting. That was an apt description, though Xlack doubted the official would appreciate the term. Maybe he should bring it up, and they could have a nice discussion.
“Are you going to answer my question, or should I assume you don’t know?”
Xlack shrugged. “I was too busy saving your life, so I don’t remember what your question was. Something about legs?”
More disgruntled scribbling.
‘Answer his questions, or we’ll fail.’
Xlack swung the stick again. ‘Maybe it’s a trick question, and we’re not supposed to know the answer. It sounded silly.’
‘Except it’s from the founders’ documents.’
‘There are founders’ documents? Are they interesting for once?’
‘No, but every real Adjuvant is required to memorize them when we’re little.’ A sigh gave a cloud-like texture to Rifo’s whisper. ‘They say, “Loyalty and trust are integral parts of the Adjuvant persona. To take one away will lead to failure, for they are the two legs upon which the organization is founded.”’
‘Yeah, they sound as boring as any other official documents.’
‘Just answer his question before we get disqualified.’
Xlack glanced sidelong at the plodding, scribbling official. “That legs question, my amaraq says the answer is loyalty and trust.”
The official looked up, one thin, too-short eyebrow slanting above an eye that took up at least a quarter of his face. “What do you say?”
“I agree with him. Honestly, I’ve never read the founders’ documents.” Xlack walked backward, and still the official had a hard time keeping up. “I’ve only been an Adjuvant for about six months, and I spent my childhood memorizing other official documents that were just as dull.”
“What would you have said had your assigned partner not supplied the answer?”
Xlack shrugged. “Probably amaraqs. Teamwork is everything to Adjuvants.”
“‘To take one away will lead to failure, for they are the two legs upon which the organization was founded. Without one, the other will buckle.’” The official’s finger floated above his note square. “Do you believe that applies to amaraqs as well?”
Would an amaraq crumble without the other? He wasn’t sure Rifo would miss him very much, but they hadn’t been amaraqs or even known each other for very long. Most received their assignments in infancy, like Stevalok and Entrycii, less than four months apart in age, one never far from the other. If one was lost, would the other be able to continue?
Silence overcame Rifo whenever anyone mentioned his former amaraq. Rifo rarely spoke of him, and sometimes he sat in dark corners staring into the sky.
“I think it must be very tragic to lose one’s amaraq.” Xlack voice was soft. He didn’t want the wind to carry his words to Rifo. “But tragedy can be overcome.”
The official scribbled away, and Xlack swiveled to scan the path ahead. A sprawling platform waited at the end of this bridge. Only a hundred steps more, and they would reach that goal. They could pass this living baton on to Twi and Lanox.
Twi sat in the pilot’s seat of an Oha, an arrowhead-shaped ship with a tail split into four fanned prongs. Lanox posed at one wingtip, slanted shirt, pale vest, and mass of platinum curls waving in the breeze. Her hand shielded her eyes as she waited to help the official board.
Rifo loitered with them in a crouch on the Oha’s opposite wing, one knee against the ship’s metal, the other raised to support his arm, pocket-riddled jacket open and ever-wrinkled shirt scrunched.
The playful wind carried a heady herbal scent from the overgrown vines that decorated the platform’s curved edges. Etched white marble glistened in the morning light, so bright Xlack almost missed the faint shadow that swept the scene.
Terror flashed, brilliant and overwhelming but brief.
Pulling a grapnel line from his pocket, he burst into a sprint toward the edge of the platform, leaving the official behind. Rifo jumped off the Oha’s wing and followed.
Vines tangled Xlack’s feet as he threw the wiry cable. Its weighted end coiled around a plummeting object. Yanked forward, he fell to his knees. One hand folded over the platform’s edge.
Rifo arrived an instant later to take the cord and help reel in the catch: a Knalcal child.
The kid panted. Waves of fear poured from him amid snapshots of pain as the taut rescue line cut into his arms and chest. Distrust clawed through the child’s skin as they hauled him onto the ledge. With grace that seemed impossible for one so young, he took up a defensive stance. His dark, watery eyes noted everything, even Lanox as she helped the official into the Oha.
Very Talented and well-trained.
“Get out of my way! I’m not afraid of you!” The kid’s tear-streaked face added little credence to his brave words.
Rifo scanned the scene above. “He’s terrified, but not because of us.”
As Xlack disentangled his hand from the cable, his eyes remained fixed on his defensive rescuee. “What happened?”
“I don’t answer Adjuvants’ questions.”
“Tell me what happened,” Xlack suggested.
The kid blinked several times. “My hrausq was attacked.”
A team of Aberrant here in the Adjuvant main base?
A faint scream dropped into Xlack’s ears, and he looked up. The sound was already lost, drowned out by an engine’s shrill cry as another team’s ship dashed alongside their platform.
Still, the scream had definitely come from above.
A snap decision brought Xlack to a sprint again, and a reckless jump landed him on the passing ship’s wing. It rocked under his weight, and the pilot glared at him through the clear canopy.
‘What’s the big idea?’ The pilot was of the Tala race, able to communicate in whispers.
‘I need to go up. It’s important.’
Continued in Chapter 5
Thank you for reading!
Alliance ch 5: Demise of the Prodigy
Rifo stared agape as his amaraq leapt onto a passing ship and flew off. He blinked a couple times. Technically their part in the relay was over, but he hadn’t thought he would have to explain that jumping onto another team’s ship was not the proper way to exit the scene.
Lanox’s lilt rang across the platform. “Ya said he sounded flustered in his whispers. Maybe the official made him go insane.”
Rifo turned back to her. ‘Lanox, the official is right there and can hear ya.’
‘So, use a broadcast whisper to say things he might find offensive. Twi and I will hear it, but he’s a Lettaplexal, so he can’t.’
‘I don’t need ya explaining the universe to me, Rifo.’
He couldn’t see her. The oha’s canopy had already closed, and the metallic red hull was almost too bright to look at anyway.
The kid they had rescued broke into a run, and Rifo caught his shoulder. “Wait.”
Wincing, the kid jerked away. Rifo captured his arm, this time careful to avoid touching any injury.
“Let go of me!” Tears streamed down the kid’s face, and warmth gathered in Rifo’s own eyes, vision blurring. Sometimes Mind Talents were cumbersome.
He knelt to the kid’s height, granite cool beneath his knees. “We’re going to help yer team, so tell me where they are.”
“Why would you help us?” Sweet confusion flashed through him, overtaking some of the spite in his expression. “You Adjuvants hate us. You make no sense!”
With a sigh, Rifo pulled the kid into a tight embrace. “We don’t hate ya. We think ya are annoying, yes, and ya do things we cannot agree with, but ya are our family. Adjuvants and Aberrant are related.”
The boy squirmed, trying to twist and kick free, but Rifo’s grip was firm. He rose, lifting the child, and ran to Twi’s ship. She waited for him to leap on and brace himself against a raised tail wing before she spiraled higher, following the vehicle that carried Ekymé.
What kind of an impression had the official gotten of their team, Hrausq Seven-One-Nine? What did he really think of Zeln’s flames and shortcut? Stevalok’s sarcasm, Entrycii’s pride, and their throwing him every couple of steps?
Why had he insisted on interviewing Ekymé?
He asked the others about him, too.
Rifo shook his head, and some of his scarlet spikes of hair fell across his vision.
Ekymé has as much patience as an explosion.
“We’re related to Aylata, too,” the Aberrant kid grumbled. He had ceased trying to get away, smart enough to realize he would fall to his death if Rifo let go.
“They’re our more distant cousins, I guess. What do ya know of Aylata?”
The kid’s face scrunched. “My teacher says telling secrets to Adjuvants is like jumping off a cliff.”
Rifo sighed. “Says the boy who just fell out of the sky.”
A Tala child teetered over the edge of one of Mumir’s highest platforms. She screamed, feet stabbing empty air, and her terror sliced at Xlack’s heart. The ship he rode dashed as close as it dared, banking hard to avoid the ravine’s wall. Fighting the wind, he sprinted up a steepening wing and jumped.
“Never expect the sky to catch you,” a teacher had lectured him once. “To the wind, you are an amusing trinket unless you prove yourself its master.”
“With our Kinetics, right?” Xlack had guessed, hand raised but too impatient to wait for permission to speak. “If we use it to control the wind, can we fly?”
The answer to that was no, though the teacher had used bigger words.
Now, his Kinetics yanked at the platform’s stone, and it was a little like flying. He couldn’t have jumped this far without it. He caught the girl, cradling her as they crashed down on dark marble and plowed into a pair of legs.
As he dropped, the owner of those legs fired a dose-dart—a liquid-filled needle meant to inject, not kill. Unlike a darter, its metallic casing bowed to Xlack’s influence. He sent it into the man’s thigh, leapt to his feet, and released the girl. She retreated only a few steps behind him, hands lifted in loose fists and stance solid.
She’s had training, too.
The man already rose, eyes unfocused as he took aim. Light glinted off a pond in the middle of the platform, undulating over the deep gray of his skin and the too-familiar sigils on his Adapt jumpsuit. With a click, his ammunition switched.
Xlack snatched at the weapon, but it refused his Kinetic call.
The soft ping of a released exa-darter rang in his ears, and he dodged left. He stayed low, caught a physical grip on the shooter’s barrel, and yanked. A kick came at his side, but he stepped back and captured the man’s boot. A spin flung his foe at the pond.
The platform boasted little aside from this water feature. Potted plants littered the space, and a thick column in each of the five corners held the ceiling and floor together.
Across the pool, a Knalcal leaned against one of the these. A scarf covered the lower half of his face, and shining birthmarks seemed to drip from the mask burned into the skin around his eyes—a battoo, a mark of adulthood for Aberrant. This one resembled roaring flames, and his wild hair’s asymmetrical slant added to the idea of an explosion.
Azin, the first Aberrant he had met.
The kids must have been with him, but why would they come to the main Adjuvant base? What was he doing here, staring down two men in the mottled gray jumpsuits of Napix troopers?
Xlack started toward them, eyes widening. Those were Napix troopers, down to the sigils identifying their rank and legion. One remained motionless, gaze and aim locked on Azin. The other whirled and fired.
Xlack dove. The pond stilled beneath his step, but ice wasn’t as instant as he hoped. His right leg submerged to his knee before the water solidified in an expanding sheet.
Luminous exa-darters sliced through the ice and exploded some distance below. If only they had stuck with the dose-darts he could control. The laser-shields protecting these faster projectiles were just as beyond his influence as the morphometal was.
Tugging his foot free, he somersaulted. His heels splashed into the pool, and ice locked them in place. He leapt anyway, stretching full-length across the pond’s surface, and it froze under him. Rolling, he grabbed the morphometal shooter from the first man’s sinking hand.
On his feet, he took aim, finger hovering over the trigger. Aylata didn’t shoot troopers. Adjuvants didn’t use shooters.
Aberrant had no qualms about either. Azin wrangled a weapon from his attackers and fired, but the dose-dart had no effect on the trooper. With as impaired as the Aberrant seemed, he wouldn’t figure out how to switch ammunitions.
Dread sunk its molten claws into Xlack’s gut. If the drug didn’t work on the troopers but it did on Azin, he had a horrible suspicion what it was.
His finger curled against the trigger.
A hand clutched his ankle and yanked him backward. As he splashed into the water, burning muscle gripped his wrists and trapped his arms behind him. A kick between his shoulder blades wrung air from his lungs, and his stolen shooter hurried off to find the bottom of the pond.
He returned the kicks, but he wouldn’t allow instinct to match his attacker’s heat. He forced his temperature to lower, to take the energy he sapped from the water and hoard it. It wanted to be chaos. He molded it into a motionless dance.
Questions sought to distract him. The sigils on his opponent’s shoulders touted allegiance to the hundred-and-fifth legion of Yakru, but they said nothing of rank. This man wasn’t a trooper. Though he wore no scarf, cape, or clan embroidery to reveal his caste, his Fire Talent spoke in their stead.
This was an Aylata.
Despite the cold, he held on tight. Myriads of bubbles waltzed through the pond’s slushy state and twirled with their thrashing kicks. Xlack wrenched one wrist free and twisted to face his attacker. In the flickering light from the surface, the dull chrysolite of the Fire Aylata’s eyes effervesced.
Had he known Xlack had Mind Talents, he would not have let their gazes meet, but how could he have guessed? Xlack had already shown his Kinetics and Ice. By the time he noticed the third Talent, he couldn’t look away. His frustration was a simple string wrapping itself around Xlack’s Mental fingers.
Neither of them could breathe here underwater. Silent suggestions were exponentially more difficult and dangerous, but this had to end quickly. Xlack gathered all the strands of their desperation, wound them around the cord, and yanked.
The Fire Aylata’s eyes slid shut.
Xlack towed him to the pond’s edge and left him strung over the side like a discarded fish. Azin lay nearby, a limp arm across his chest. He didn’t appear injured, but if the drug was what Xlack suspected, he wouldn’t.
Except, the drug Xlack knew wouldn’t have killed him, not in such small quantities. He should only have been comatose, but Azin wasn’t breathing, and his life-signature had faded almost beyond detection.
At the edge of the platform, a trooper limped away, and the Tala girl lay slack in his arms. Xlack reached toward them, Kinetics shoving at the trooper’s jumpsuit. As the man backpedaled over empty air, Xlack’s influence found a grip on the girl’s non-Adapt belt and towed her to the safety of his embrace.
A glider’s wings unfolded from the trooper’s pack, and he swooped away. The other snatched the Fire Aylata and did likewise.
Xlack watched, gulping air. At least he had managed to save the kids, but as the troopers shrank in the distance, his sightline fell to Azin. Why had any of them been here? Was he a teacher, a sutae charged with raising Magni hybrid children?
“You said you were going to help him!” The Knalcal boy charged across the platform, seeping a noxious combination of frustration and fear. It was a horde of flaming arrows. They shouted his intention before he pulled a silver circle from his pocket and snapped it open.
Xlack couldn’t see the color of the Aqkashi’s searing tendrils. He never could if they were anything other than silver. They were merely a slight distortion of what lay behind them, arranged in the shape of a narrow whisk that extended from either side of the handle, ends broken and pointed. Yet, their heat still bathed his skin, promising to shred it if they came any nearer. They pulsed in tune with what had been Azin’s life-signature.
Holding the girl to his chest, Xlack caught the boy’s hand and stilled the weapon. The child’s wrist fit easily between his fingers, all attempts to yank free inconsequential. A squeal escaped as he met Xlack’s gaze.
The boy collapsed over his teacher.
Rifo knelt alongside Azin, and two fingers pressed against the Aberrant’s neck confirmed what Xlack already knew.
“I’d have rather gotten some answers from him.”
Xlack agreed, questions an avalanche within. He deactivated the Aqkashi and pocketed it. “He’s dead, Rifo. He can’t answer anything.”
“I meant from the kid. We should call an official.” He stood, spikes of hair wild in the breeze as he tapped the sys clipped to his ear.
Xlack’s attention dropped back to Azin, eyes narrowing as if answers were written on the dead man, readable to anyone who bothered to look hard enough. Why had Napix troopers attacked him? What was the drug that killed him?
Call ended, Rifo knelt again. “He looks familiar, but I don’t remember his name.” He gestured at the scar on Azin’s left hand, scaled silver like his Knalcal birthmarks but thicker. A caricature of fire had been carved into him at a young age. “He was true-talent, apparently. To be branded so is considered an honor among Aberrant, though it must hurt like swallowing a pooff whole.”
Xlack didn’t get the analogy. Pooff were creatures that appeared to be about the size of his fist, but seventy-five percent of that mass was fluff. Still, most idioms that included pooff were equated with unpleasant experiences.
“Did ya see who killed him?”
“Yeah.” But Xlack didn’t feel like telling Rifo. Not yet.
“I feel like all this verbiage is a deliberate attempt to avoid telling me something,” the official grumbled, chin in hand.
“I’m simply answering yer question.” Lanox sat at the official’s feet in the back of the oha, cascades of golden-silver curls as radiant as her smile. “Now, where was I? Right, so the basic Adjuvant unit is a dyad, a pair assigned together before age two called amaraqs, usually not of the same race. Four pairs of amaraqs close in age are collected in hrausqs with one member termed hrausq leader.
“Hrausqs also have sutaes who are younger than the rest of the group. They’ll teach future generations. Sutaes don’t have amaraqs, and they don’t compete in the reorder.”
“I asked your opinion of this competition. Telling me things about our organization that a toddler should know doesn’t answer that at all.”
“Hush, I’m getting there.” Lanox wagged a finger. “One of the Adjuvant founders said it was a leader’s duty to bring order to chaos and that he would do so to the advantage the world. So, the reorder competition is a way of organizing chaos. Every fifty years, it shuffles the hierarchy, so ya always know who will be best for what job at what time.”
“Oh good, you paused. Are you through?”
“I just want to say I think it’s wonderful and thank ya so much for this opportunity.” She bowed, folding over her crossed legs. “Ya know we were an incomplete hrausq just a little while ago, and Ekymé’s not the most conventional replacement member, so we almost didn’t get to compete.”
In the pilot’s seat back to back with the official, Twi stiffened. Distorted and backward reflections of her passengers hovered in the windows all around her, and what they failed to reveal, her ’netic senses filled in.
“I see,” the official drawled, twang thick. “Do you want to win, or is simply competing enough?”
I want to win, Twi thought as Mystis’ words rang fresh in her head. My pet hrausq will not fail.
“Ya insult yer competitors if ya don’t try,” Lanox responded. “Simply being there should never be enough.”
Twi tugged the steering staves to the right, and the oha yawed, red flashing on all sides. The sky dazzled with colored rings. Compact, gray spheres invisible against the pre-dawn horizon shot to a programmed height and twirled into widening hoops. Once fully open, they shrunk down again and exploded in one last cascade of color.
The red ones marked Twi’s course, matching both her oha’s hull and her outfit.
Sep would have blamed Mystis for setting up that coincidence.
She shook her head, chiding herself for letting her mind stray to their fallen teammate. That distraction would only bring tears and an inability to act as she must.
He was a difficult image to shake, though.
“What are ya writing?” Lanox’s rushed lilt helped ground her in the moment, and the official’s twang contrasted her melody.
“I ask the questions, not you.”
“Why would ya write that?”
“Do not mock me. I did not say that was what I wrote.”
“Then share what ya did write.”
“You are not to give me orders either.”
Lanox bit her lip. “Ya would like to share what ya wrote. Hey, ya just wrote my name!”
Twi banked a sharp right and rolled through a crimson ring as it spun open. The official’s fingernail scratched across the note square and came close to Lanox’s face before he righted himself.
“Can you not fly straighter?”
“Twi doesn’t miss things,” Lanox countered with a challenging grin, “but if ya are a baby who can’t handle the ride, ya should have told us so we could have wrapped ya up tight in the cargo hold.”
‘Twi, ya have to see this look he’s giving me,’ she added, sending a flash with the scene from her eyes. The official’s brows furrowed so far they met, pulsating with every beat of his heart and hovering above his nose like a fuzzy creepy-crawly.
Twi held in a chuckle, lips pressed against one another.
“Pilot,” the official called, and her amusement broke, corners of her mouth sagging, “why did you decide to fly an oha in this competition?”
Great question. The vehicle only had two seats, and sitting at the official’s feet, Lanox hardly won them any favor. Also, oha were an unknown to the public, sure to generate a myriad of rumors since this portion of the relay was on display as an air show sponsored by the Knalcal queen.
Again, she shook her head, this time hard enough that her plethora of dark braids fanned over her shoulder. “I chose what was familiar to me.”
“When Twi flies, the oha is an extension of her,” Lanox praised. “It does exactly what she wants. Ya can write that down.”
“Do you usually choose the familiar, always shying away from the unknown?”
Lanox’s mirth waned, leaving the air a little colder. “Twi doesn’t shy away from anything.”
“You, nosy Tala, may answer when I ask questions about you.”
“Then ask questions about me.”
Twi agreed. Lanox was always ready with a multitude of words, and Twi was busy. Why insist on distracting her with these frivolous queries?
A scarlet flash shot in front of their left wing. Pulling into an upward arc, Twi flipped the oha upside-down to take them through the opening circle. She spun, rolled right-side-up, and dashed through the same hoop from the correct direction as it spiraled closed.
She smiled, scanning the panorama of flashing hues as the official’s question waltzed through the corridors of her mind. Did she shy away from the unknown? Did Lanox?
Lanox appeared to be inquisitive, but her impatience did not usually allow her to dig for deep answers, leading her instead to rash conclusions she held as fact. When such were proven undeniably wrong, she threw them aside easily, but often her staunch belief in her own intuition caused the assumption to become truth.
It was these occasions that made Lanox’s quick acceptance of Sep’s death so disturbing. Just because she believed something didn’t make it true, but it made it more likely—made it possible.
Uncertainty fueled Twi’s nightmares. What if he still waited for her?
“I await your answer, Twi. Do you always shy away from the unknown?”
No trace of her smile remained.
It is easier to look at others than yerself, Master Myr had once warned her, but that is not how the Tala Talents work. Ya must recognize and know how to use yer emotions before ya throw them at others.
She sighed, voice soft. “The unknown remains unknown until sought out and faced by someone.”
“You realize that.” Mockery crept into the official’s tone. “Just, you would rather that someone not be you.”
The edge of Twi’s lips quirked upward. “If I let others take the tasks set before me, then I would not be here now. That is the demise of the prodigy.”
Like dawn, Lanox’s grin returned. “Twi believes she can do anything.”
“Do you share her overconfidence?” The official leaned over her. “Do you also so rashly believe Twi can do anything?”
Lanox hesitated, a finger tapping her lips. “I know Twi can do whatever she believes she can.” She sent a worried glance at the back of her amaraq’s seat. It did not go unnoticed.
The oha dove, spinning through yet another red ring, and the official returned to scribbling.
Continued in Chapter 6: Insanity Thrives
Thank you for reading!
Alliance ch 6: Insanity Thrives
Puddles left by the recent rain formed scribbles of moonlight across the landing field beside the emperor’s palace. Imino Lake was a glittering blob stretched out behind it as Revel K’alaqk walked down the ramp of a vaguely bird-shaped transport. Its team of pilots bustled about the vehicle as a flurry of officials needing the emperor’s immediate attention descended upon him.
Watching through a tall window, Atok did not comprehend how Revel could stand this. Did he not prefer to fly his own ship, and would he not rather that ship be small, fast, and maneuverable? Atok tolerated hordes he could hide in, but he certainly did not want to be the center of a crowd’s attention. Nor would he stand in front of recorders spreading their data across the media and speak to masses of people he could not see or hear.
Revel was an Aylata Watcher, too, but he was also emperor now, as bespoken by the traditional, intricately wrapped robe he wore. No diadem or headdress yet topped his leaning pikes of black hair, but an official coronation at the end of the month was set to change that.
As the emperor entered his palace, a smile grew. ‘Welcome back, Atok.’
‘Sentiments returned.’ He abandoned the window and ghosted through the third-story hall, overly fancy rooms on his left. To his right, the view of the foyer peeked between gargantuan pillars and a lattice railing, all formed of foggy crystal.
Revel accepted the greeting with a warm mental hum. ‘I trust you know where I have been.’
Revel had been tight-lipped about this project, even more so than for any of the others, but Mind Aylata saw secrets as easily as they saw lies—a twinkle like a lone star in a dark sky. These snippets had been scattered across a great many individuals, leaving Atok to collect and piece them together.
He was Revel’s closest confidant. Why had Revel told him nothing?
He knew, deep down. He had planned a trip to Skaelao. If his father had gotten ahold of him, nothing short of death would have kept his secrets. Yet, it stung.
‘We need not a new Aylata Tower,’ Atok whispered, as he knew Revel knew he would. ‘Especially not one in Reiceilako. That is the middle of nowhere.’
The current Aylata Tower was here in Kobolast, attached to the emperor’s palace by a deep tunnel. The pair of massive buildings sat on the shore of Imino Lake surrounded by an ancient forest, many of the trees wider than most transports. Noble mansions dotted the soft hills.
In contrast, Reiceilako was on the Yakru-Tsira border in the middle of world’s largest desert. Sand poured into its rocky canyons, their gaping maws never satisfied. Caves and mines hid beneath the ever-changing surface. It rarely rained, but when it did, it poured. Reiceilako went through Protectors like Topeca went through shoes—Atok could not recall ever seeing her wear the same pair twice.
Plus, if he remembered correctly…
‘Your mother disappeared in Reiceilako.’
Revel did not respond.
‘You think your mother’s disappearance and your father’s death are in any way connected?’ Atok threw that out there, then waited, crouched in the shadows of the pillars.
After a long hesitation, Revel replied, ‘Could be. I did pick Reiceilako because of my mother, in part.’
‘You grew up in this Tower. Why not let them fix it?’
‘That was not his plan.’
Ah, the stupid plan. No matter how far Atok dug, he never found the end of it, and it made no sense.
‘He planned for the computer to break?’
‘Yes and no.’
‘Either he did or he did not.’ Atok snorted as a third choice materialized in his mind. The Ravida, ruler of the Aylata race in all but name and the mediator between them and the emperor, had planned for their capitol tower to go dark. Its computer would break, but in a different way, at a different time, and by someone else’s hand—someone other than the Tala/Knalcal prisoner named Navaria Twi.
Really, how could he have planned that? He had never met the girl. Ravida Vuet K’alaqk may have been a master strategist, but his plans could only be as good as the information he used to craft them.
Atok’s hallway curved over the main promenade as if a wave aiming to swallow the chandeliers of floating, luminous prisms. He kept low, invisible behind the railing, but Revel aimed a nod at him.
‘You are on the right track.’
The guards and others surrounding him exchanged skeptical looks. None of their questions would have elicited a nod with such a victorious grin.
Atok stopped behind a column, annoyance smoldering. Like his father, Revel could launch someone’s train of thought with nothing more than a word and have it arrive at his predicted destination. Most vexing of all, it worked even on those who knew this, and Atok was not the only one who felt that way.
Seven years ago, he had hidden behind a similar column and heard the Ravida vent his frustration. “I cannot rely on Revel. Sense abandons him.”
“Your son shares your incredible talent.” Fear had dripped from High Defender Bril Dekkom. What got in the Ravida’s way was wiped out of existence, and, as Atok would come to learn, the same fate awaited whatever did not fit in his plans.
“It is worse,” the Ravida had fumed. “He is not a wildcard I can set aside and ignore. He affects the reactions of others, like how you worry more about protecting him than the danger I tell you he is.”
Once they had gone, seventeen-year-old Atok had resumed his mission with doubled zeal. His entire life, Revel K’alaqk had been painted as his rival, and this overheard conversation only confirmed the monstrous picture in his mind.
Yet, Revel was nothing like he had thought. Yes, he was two years older and taller, but he was not a laughing maniac. He did not draw his Ier or throw laser-bladed kanabers as soon as Atok entered the room. He did not even acknowledge his presence, just continued to read.
Atok had not known what to do. Surely, Revel knew he was there. It had to be a trap.
Finally, Revel lowered the datapad and stared at the spot where Atok indecisively hid. “You are from Skealao?”
Atok started at the unexpected words, then jumped up. “You say that because I’m short?” He tried to affect a blurry Yakru accent, but offense muddled it.
Doubt shoved at Revel’s eyebrows, one arching higher, the other lowering. “Atetu are known for their lack of height, not Skaelao.” His gaze rested on Atok’s collar.
Feeling stupid, Atok raised his hand to cover the Skaelao insignia there. As all Aylata emblems were, it was of polished srassamene, more luminous than the finest silver. Its simple curves representing an abstract weeping eye had likely caught the light.
“In this tradition-bound society of ours, I can tell a lot about you by your attire,” Revel continued. “You are a Watcher, for instance, and you are a Quanko. You are too young to be the Refraction Leader, however, or either of his two oldest sons, but they are Protectors anyway. You must be Atok. I am Revel.”
After that odd introduction, Revel had been able to tell this would-be assassin how he had gotten in and how he planned to leave once the deed was done. He even rattled off Atok’s backup escape plan and claimed he had already told Messenger Pozan all this, so Atok had better come up with a new plan.
“Insanity thrives in you!” Atok had shouted.
Revel had shrugged. “Perhaps. Do you still plan to kill me?”
No. Instead, he had saved Topeca that day from other Skaelao agents, though he still did not know why she had been dressed as her brother and wandering the halls of Aylata Tower. Topeca, it seemed, was always getting into trouble.
‘There are too many memories of this place,’ Revel whispered now.
Atok ran to catch up. ‘You mean the fact that I was able to sneak in so many times?’
‘With as young as we are, consider how much we know, then compare that with how much someone like your father has been able to learn in his lifetime.’
‘But the Raveshna—your mother—vanished in Reiceilako. That makes not the best of recommendations,’ Atok argued.
‘Reiceilako has secrets of its own. I plan to use them.’
‘Do you know what those secrets are?’
Revel had been there when his mother went missing. The empress had found him, and he had remained unconscious for weeks, unable to remember any of his ordeal even after waking. Yet, perhaps his amnesia was not as deep as implied.
‘My father himself searched for answers within me.’ A speck of anger slipped through Revel’s eternally calm façade. ‘If answers were there, he would have found them. No, I do not know what the secrets are. Not yet.’
Curiosity stirred within Atok, eager to find these secrets. They must have been amazing if not even the Ravida could figure out what had befallen his wife. Now he was dead, and it might all be connected. Atok longed to figuratively dig into Reiceilako’s sands and…
He shook his head. He would not let Revel win him that easily.
Too late, he had to admit.
‘I still think it is a bad idea,’ he whispered, but his tone lacked true heart.
‘Noted. Enough about my trip. What did you find in Skaelao?’
Revel stiffened, alarmed gaze scanning the upper levels, but Atok was well hidden. The guards raised their weapons, methodically scouring the scene above, but they found no target.
Atok grinned. He deliberately used the most general word for cousin, not specifying relative age or relation through paternal or maternal lines. Inevitably, the first of his cousins to come to Revel’s mind would be Xlack Ekymé.
‘My mother’s nephew. Not my father’s,’ he corrected.
‘Farav or Vyvio Kwask, then.’
‘Vyvio has agreed to work with us. He will keep tabs on my father and report to me when he can.’
‘To spy on Refraction Leader Quanko is hardly safe, even for a relative of his.’
Atok’s stare was unfocused, a sadness there he would never have let show had anyone been able to see him. ‘It was odd, going unseen in my own home. I let not my mother know I was there, and not even…’ He folded his emotions in once again, veneer back in place. ‘No one unnecessarily saw me, I am certain.’
‘You are skilled at sneaking,’ Revel teased.
‘As any Watcher would be. Which reminds me…’
He sent a memory flash of his encounter with Topeca’s security. Revel continued the conversations around him as he watched, and two flavors of envy simmered in Atok’s chest. One wanted that level of skill for himself. The other wanted Revel’s undivided attention on this matter.
He finished with, ‘They are pathetic.’
‘You should not pick like so on the guards,’ Revel warned.
‘She will get kidnapped or worse right under those guards’ noses.’
‘If you were the one that meant her harm.’
Atok vaulted over the rail and landed in the middle of their gathering. To the guards, he appeared out of nowhere, and their unease urged them to shoot first and ask questions later.
“Stop!” Revel shouted, voice unnaturally loud and commanding. Its authority froze everyone in place.
The shout suggestion hit Atok like a wall, but he shook it aside. “Who, think you, would they send? A Skaelao Watcher? That is what I am!”
Anxiety swirled around the guards, grips tightening on their shooters.
“Leave us,” Revel ordered.
As non-combatants slinked away, the guards’ questioning eyes shifted between their emperor and the Watcher standing before them. Surely, he did not mean for them to abandon him.
Atok caught one’s gaze, snatched up a handful of their wild emotions, and hurled it in the man’s face. “Leave.”
His target fled. Another triggered a shooter. Revel pushed its barrel down, and the darter scarred the floor.
“Leave,” Revel commanded again, and this time the guards discreetly departed.
Though his gaze did not follow them, Revel waited until the last one disappeared into a far-flung side room. “Did you learn of this plan while in Skaelao?”
Atok’s hair slapped his cheeks as he shook his head. Perhaps it was time for a haircut. “No, but it is logic’s conclusion. You set her up as a symbol against them, then leave her virtually unprotected. I could almost guess you use her as bait.”
“Topeca has proven to be good bait in times past.” That grin again. Too calm. Too confident.
“Do you view her as a person or as just another tool?”
The grin morphed in a frowned. “I love Topeca. I would not trade her for anyone or anything.”
“How about everything?” Atok met his gaze, and defiance stalked around them. “Would you trade her for everything?”
Revel let the question hang far too long as his scrutiny slithered across Atok’s skin, cold and sticky like a reptile’s feet.
“I thought I heard your voice, Revel!” Topeca raced around the corner, silken locks flying behind her. Seeing Atok, she stopped short and drew her sheer robe further closed, though her lacy nightdress was just as decent as anything she wore during the day. “Why the tight faces? What have you been talking about?”
Revel smiled warmly at her and spread his arms in an invitation for a hug. “Everything.”
She flew into his embrace.
Atok continued to glare. ‘Always with these evasive answers. By “everything” I mean your father’s plan. What if it gets her killed like it did him? Which would you choose, the plan or her?’
Revel peeked at him, arms still tight around Topeca, and the longing that had plagued Atok as he snuck through her room renewed. He had no one to hold. Much as he did not want to admit it, he was alone here.
‘I ask for trust.’ With a sigh, Revel released his wife, though she continued to cling to him. ‘That is my price.’
Xlack wondered if someone—Mystis maybe—had bribed the official. Despite his seeming abundance of dislike for them, his report on Hrausq Seven-One-Nine’s performance gushed with praise. That combined with their impressive time completing the relay, and they passed the first phase of the reorder.
“Par-oh-shee tournament,” Xlack read from a screen above the door as they walked into the arena where phase two would be held. “Sounds like fun, whatever it is.”
“I have no particular fondness for parooshee,” Rifo grumbled.
“Is that because you’re not very good at it?”
Rifo shot him a dubious look.
“How does it work? Not more racing and babysitting, I hope.”
“Parooshee is played in the dark,” Lanox cut in, boundless energy transforming her ankles into springs as she skipped alongside the rest of the group. “Oh, sorry, Rifo. Did ya want to tell him?”
“Go ahead.” Rifo waved her on.
She smiled bright as a daystar. “All the important pieces glow, like the stripes on our jumpsuits, the staves we swing, the jewels we guard, and the eight spheres we hit at each other. A net that goes all the way to the ceiling separates two teams of eight, and it doesn’t glow, surprisingly, nor do its roving holes. Only the team members with the title Recovery can touch a sphere with their hands. Everyone else has to use their staves.”
“To do what, exactly?” Xlack surveyed the stadium. Stretching into shadowed heights, tiered rows of seats surrounded a circular floor cluttered with hard, rectangular mats. A line bisected each court, gems of different sheens stacked along the edges of either side. “How do you win?”
“Ya have to hit the spheres through the holes and knock down the jewels lining the opposing team’s court.”
While that sounded simple, after changing into an appropriate jumpsuit, picking up a staff, and trying his own hand at this game, Xlack concluded that the net’s migrating holes were annoying. Most of the occasions when a ball finally made it past the net, the opposing team just volleyed it back anyway.
At least the crowd seemed mildly entertained, even oohing at times. With fifty-six matches played simultaneously, there was plenty for them to watch. He spotted several familiar faces in the audience—members of other low-ranker teams living in the same base who evidently hadn’t qualified to compete in this phase. They hollered encouragement and advice at their favorites.
When their opponents’ last gem toppled, several cheered for Hrausq Seven-One-Nine. As the team walked to an adjacent court to face their next rivals, Xlack waved to their supporters.
‘Look at ya, acting like a celebrity,’ Rifo chided. Nervousness rolled off him, heavy and thick as mud.
‘I was a celebrity back on Napix, you know,’ Xlack replied. ‘Ravi are to succeed the Ravida as the highest-ranked Aylata. We’re always in the spotlight, everything we do watched and judged.’
He understood Rifo’s unease, though, after six months of dodging the public’s eye as an Adjuvant and the never-ending lectures if he failed to do so. The same discomfort radiated off their competitors.
Xlack didn’t care about the attention of other hrausqs, and as the second matches started—twenty-eight simultaneous games this time—he easily tuned them out. The ones who kept calling his attention were the quietest, the ones that didn’t belong. Knalcals, Tala, Lettaplexals, none of them with a drop of Magni blood according to their life-signatures, sitting in packs segregated from the rest by imaginary fences.
“Why are they here?” he asked as they waited for the third team to face them to get in position.
“Good question.” Rifo shifted his gaze around the arena.
As Xlack did the same, his eyes caught on a group of stiff Knalcal Military Officials uniformed in long, wide pants and high-collared jackets. Rows of diagonal sashes flowed from their left shoulders, and self-importance hung over them like a cloud, thick enough he could smell it. His nose crinkled.
“The queen invited them,” Twi answered, “but she will not see what she hopes.”
The lights dimmed, signaling the start of the third matches, but while Xlack could block out the crowd, his own racing thoughts were not so quickly quelled. What did the queen hope to see? If Adjuvants and all Magni were believed to be myths and such views were encouraged for good reasons, why would these outsiders be allowed here?
Something to do with the Knalcal queen?
He didn’t know much about the woman or her relationship with Adjuvants. Was it similar to the Napix emperor and Aylata?
Speaking of which, what were those Napix troopers up to? Why had they killed an Aberrant teacher in Mumir Complex and stolen most of his students?
Adjuvants and Aberrant aren’t friends.
They were more like felere and giela—the former were Magni, the latter Napix, both fierce predators respected and avoided by creatures of their own worlds. Put them in the same room, and the fight would be bloody. One or both animals would die.
But the Adjuvants took in those two Aberrant kids I rescued.
He had been assured they were now in the care of capable Adjuvant teachers, but ultimately, they were Aberrant. How were they being treated? Did they feel as conflicted and confused as he did?
It was mightily hard to turn on one’s own people.
He recalled scrambling for the shooter, hands moving on instinct, then stopping before he could fire. Aylata did not shoot troopers. It was beneath them.
Troopers did not fire at Aylata either. They took orders from Messengers and Defenders and warily avoided Protectors and Watchers.
They had fired at him.
Maybe they didn’t recognize me as an Aylata.
His attire didn’t mark him as such—no family sigil on his pant leg, no territory insignia at his collar—and his eyes’ green-gold chrysolite overlay only heralded his Magni heritage.
It still hurts.
He had left Napix six months ago and had said himself he could never go home, but the true meaning of those words sunk in now like a knife, hilt disappearing in his gut.
What would they have done if they knew they found Xlack Ekymé, First Ravi and ultimate deserter?
He stopped, glowing staff lowered. It was now the fourth and final match of the tournament, and he panted from the constant motion the sport demanded. Six other matches played around them, visible as motion-blurred light beyond the glass-like forcefields.
The crowd’s roar was unbearably loud. Most of its Adjuvant members were on their feet, hiding others from his view.
“Ekymé!” Frustration and anger coated Rifo’s call as he deflected a glo-sphere from the back of the court. “Lend Entrycii some maturity, will ya?”
Entrycii hit the glo-sphere back toward Rifo. It evaded his defending staff, careened around him, and slammed into his backside.
“Sorry. I’m such a klutz,” Entrycii excused with a shrug.
“Ya are doing it on purpose! If ya can hit a target so well, hit their jewels.”
“Their jewels don’t get so satisfyingly worked up about it.”
“Enough, Entrycii,” Xlack warned.
“As if you have any right to tell me what to do.” The teen scoffed. “I mean, obviously everybody’s watching me, and not just because the pale azure assigned to our uniforms’ stripes goes so well with my hair.”
“Ya aren’t trying because ya are afraid to mess up in front of everyone?” Rifo guessed.
“The stage fright pouring off you reeks,” Xlack added. “Rifo’s right. You think it’s better to lose on purpose than try and fail. And I think that’s annoying.” Xlack batted a sphere at him.
Entrycii conjured a forcefield. The sphere scraped across its uneven surface, cool glow highlighting the ethereal waves.
Unwilling to let the sphere bounce back, Xlack jerked on Kinetic strings. The ball curved, aimed to circumvent its target and catch him from behind. Entrycii fought to steal influence over it.
Neither paid attention to the game anymore.
Twi skidded to a stop just in front of Xlack and gained influence over a sphere about to smack into him. As Recovery, she had no staff, just a pair of luminous gloves. Having come to a standstill, the sphere Entrycii and Xlack argued over ceased glowing, no longer in valid play. She would have to touch it before it could be thrown back in.
“Pay attention, you two.”
Xlack dropped the sphere, face burning, and Entrycii tossed her the dead ball.
“Heads up!” She lobbed the pair of glowing spheres at Stevalok.
One-two, he sent them racing toward the net. Both missed the migrating hole he had aimed for and ricocheted with the sound of a box of dishes crashing to the floor.
Determined to make it up to Twi, Xlack dove and caught one of the rebounding spheres between the strands of his staff—a mock Aqkashi, yet another common object reflecting Magni design.
And still people believed Magni were myths.
What would they think if he pulled Azin’s real Aqkashi from his pocket and chopped at the annoyingly elusive holes? Considering officials had taken everyone’s weapons and stressed such were not allowed in the competition, he guessed they would not respond favorably.
As he neared the net, he swung the staff and its captured sphere in a wide arc. A cavity appeared in front of him, and he hurled the ball through.
An opposing team member leapt to the defense of their last jewel stack and barely deflected the ball. The power behind it knocked him down, and his teammate paddled the sphere back toward the net.
‘They only have one stack left to guard,’ Twi advised. ‘You have to try something they’re not expecting.’
To his left, Stevalok slammed into Lanox. Pale curls and dark dreadlocks flew as he shoved her out of the way of a hurtling sphere.
“What are you doing wandering around with your eyes closed and swinging aimlessly?” Excitement and exertion flushed Stevalok’s cheeks. His sharp teeth and large irises ominously reflected all the glowing objects.
Lanox peeked out of one eye as she got to her feet. “I don’t want to get hit!”
“Then try not closing your eyes.” Stevalok smacked away a second sphere, and it crashed into yet another ball, one Zeln had hit.
If not for this interference, Zeln’s sphere would have made it through the net. Instead, both globes bounced in harmless directions.
Zeln threw Stevalok a furious glare.
An idea formed in Xlack’s head.
He caught a sphere as another hit by Entrycii made it into the opposing team’s territory. Entrycii’s sphere headed for their opponent’s last jewel stack, obvious and lacking the power to topple it.
As the sphere was deflected, Xlack sent his through. The globes collided, and Entrycii’s reversed, racing toward the jewels. Caught off-guard by its quick return, the team failed to stop it, and the ball crashed into the base gem.
The fragile construction rocked.
The stack did not fall. Though some of the small, top jewels tumbled off, the main structure only swayed, then stabilized.
“Give me two spheres!” He barely heard himself over the crowd, but Twi complied, and he sent both orbs through the net.
The first would have missed the stack completely, but an opponent dove for it anyway. The second sphere slipped through a moment later, aimed at its companion. Yet, since the first had been deflected and was not where Xlack expected it to be, the second smashed through empty space and soared over the still-diving opponent’s back. By the time his teammates behind him saw what was happening, it was too late.
Xlack’s second sphere rammed the chest of one who hadn’t seen it coming. He fell back, shoulders crashing into the base jewel. The gem’s long, flat side hit the floor with a resounding thud.
End of match.
Xlack dropped to his knees. He didn’t think it was possible, but the crowd grew louder—in praise of him or something that happened in one of the other six matches, he couldn’t tell.
Jumping, Lanox threw her arms around both Xlack and Stevalok, then headed for Entrycii. Before she reached him, her glowing boots fled from beneath her, and she dropped full-length on the ground.
“Brat!” She picked herself up and launched into a rapid-fire barrage. Xlack couldn’t discern where one word ended and the next began, sentences either for that matter, and he didn’t feel like trying to figure it out. After the race across Mumir’s chilly walkways, the fight with the Napix visitors, and now four matches of fast-moving parooshee, just sitting here on the cold floor was fine with him.
Stevalok had the same idea, though he lay facedown.
To his left, Zeln, his inborn fire bright and flickering beneath his glassy, charcoal-shaded skin, stood back to back with Aarex. Her overlarge, Lettaplexal eyes and sharp smile were just as disconcerting as Stevalok’s but somehow cuter. Both panted, staring in wonder at the boisterous crowd.
Rifo threw himself in the middle of Entrycii’s and Lanox’s disagreement.
With the end of the match, the net disappeared, and Twi limped toward where it had been. In watching her, Xlack’s gaze fell on the other team, in particular, the lanky Tala he had knocked over for the win. He seemed reluctant to rise, and Xlack hoped he hadn’t seriously hurt him. Maybe Twi headed over there to check.
Xlack started to get up. He should go, too. Technically, Lanox should have walked with Twi, but Lanox was...Lanox. Though Twi wasn’t going far and the other team were Adjuvants as well, he had a suspicious feeling about this whole situation. He would feel a lot safer with himself at Twi’s side.
Officials rushed in. Some surrounded Twi. Others hurried toward the rest of Hrausq Seven-One-Nine. Instantly on his feet, Xlack slipped past the latter administrators and raced toward his hrausq leader.
A Lettaplexal twice his size stepped in his way. “Go back with the rest.”
Xlack walked on. The official’s burly forearm swung at him, but he parried it. The foot wasn’t so easily dodged. As it swept his knees out from under him, he flipped backward, landed on all fours, and charged. A huge hand grabbed the back of his neck but immediately released him, fingers and palm coated in a dark, frozen sheen.
The man flexed his hand, staring in bewilderment.
Twi’s icy glare halted Xlack. A moment later, he sensed Rifo approach from behind and adjusted his temperature so as not to hurt the hand that clasped his shoulder.
“Only hrausq leaders compete in round one of phase three,” Rifo explained, but Xlack's eyes remained glued to Twi as she followed a pair of officials. “We’ll meet up with her at the end of it.”
He didn’t like this idea, not with outsiders speckling the crowd and Napix showing up. If anybody would be a target for those troopers, it would be Twi. He had an awful feeling that if she walked through those doors at the far end of the court, he would never see her again.
“Ya hurt an official,” Rifo said quietly. “Sure, no one expects us to win, but ya aren’t helping our case.”
“What do you want me to do, heal him?” He couldn’t, even if he wanted to. Healing others wasn’t a Talent with which Menageries were endowed. Not that Rifo was well informed about the specifics of his or any Aylata’s Talents.
‘Why are ya so worried about her?’
Xlack flinched as doors closed behind Twi, blocking her from sight.‘The Aberrant sutae was killed by an Aylata and Napix troopers.’
Rifo squashed his own surprise, a worse realization dawning. ‘Ya think they’re after Twi?’
‘Spycykle had her once. K’alaqk did, too.’
Rifo shook his head. ‘This is the main Adjuvant base with insane amounts of security overflowing from its figurative ears. Any Napix intruders would be dead before they reached the front door.’
That fact also bothered Xlack.
Continued in Chapter 7: Unwanted
Thank you for reading!
Alliance ch 7: Unwanted
Don’t let it bother me, Ardinzo Neezon censured himself for the thousandth time. No matter what they say, I am not unwanted.
He had a family that loved him. Though, being rebuked by the emperor and slapped by his father in front of such an important figure could constitute as shame enough, he supposed. Maybe his family really had rejected him.
Still, he couldn’t bring himself to believe he belonged here among the Unwanted.
Unwanted had no recollection of their families, either handed over at birth or ripped from their mothers’ arms. Second generation troopers—sons of highest-ranking officers and the wives given them as a prize for attaining such status—were sparse. Most surnames touted by the Unwanted were made up. One wore a name like a cloak and discarded it just as easily if it didn’t retain the glory sought.
Only one’s number didn’t change.
Numbers ruled life here: identification, quarters assignment, group placement, food allotment, rankings, grades, deadlines. Numbers were the brick, mortar, and grease of this place.
This was Yakru’s largest training base, located in Aznalo District, a wide peninsula bordered by a deep, dark bay. The land on the other side of Aznalo Bay belonged to Skaelao. Constant wind had carved massive karst formations. The base’s towering pyramids seemed flat in comparison.
When it wasn’t raining, it was snowing.
That might not have been such a big deal had the concept of “inside” not been so loose. The base comprised five pyramids, all connected by covered walkways, nothing more than a rail to deter the howling wind. Ramps of similar design spiraled along the structures, granting access to a maze of cubbies where the trainees slept. Higher floors hosted actual suites for the instructors and visiting officers. High Defender Bril Dekkom’s residence was at the apex of the central pyramid.
Yet, despite the buildings clearly having tops and how Neezon was fairly certain the upper rooms were dry, precipitation fell inside the pyramid—in the mess hall, on the training fields, in the lavatories—some of it channeled to the plants coating every wall.
These were “to maintain good air” he knew, a tradition kept also in his noble home, but there he had not been involved in pruning, weeding, or anything else that repaid him with fingers full of thorns.
Frigid mist pecked at his cheeks as a bag of weeds—perfectly fine plants that had simply grown where an instructor didn’t want them—dropped into a recycling chute. The hatch bonged because he hadn’t bothered to “close it like he cared” as he had been warned a million times to do. His attention was on the horizon, languid steps carrying him to the thin rail.
Ninety percent of Yakru’s grain came from the vast fields of Aznalo District, gray waves rippling in the wind a reflection of the perpetually overcast sky. How Neezon wished a ship would appear out of that hazy line—a ship carrying his family come to bring him home. He stared, willing them to hear his wish, his need for them. Some Aylata could whisper from this distance. It was mightily unfair.
It often was with Aylata.
Had he really been here six months already? His first day was simultaneously a distant nightmare and a moment ago, edges rendered sharp by fear, excitement, and betrayal.
Lady Azlyn Dekkom liked to watch the troops, encouraging her favorites with baked sweets. Observing Neezon’s first sparring test, she had called him “at this moment pathetic but not without potential.” Patting his closely cropped hair, she had given him a caramel glazed pastry and walked on.
His new classmates had named him Pathetic for a few days, the most logical and mildest of the sobriquets bestowed upon him in the following months. Still, Neezon clung to his true name, his last connection to his family, even if he would never see them again.
He closed his eyes, trying to remember his father’s proud smile, his mother’s shining gaze, the slow, proper, and deliberate cadence to their words. When he had first arrived here, the orders barked out and the snickering gossip had sounded like a foreign tongue.
Now they were all he knew.
He had no way of knowing if his family had tried to visit him. He thought often of running away, but the emperor himself came to check on him at random intervals. And there was the collar. He scratched at the itchy cord—a tracer of some sort. It didn’t come off. He had tried.
The others don’t wear such inconvenient collars.
Spite gripped his shoulders as he scanned the busy practice yard far below. Rain poured, blurring the trainees’ straight lines. Others laughed on lower ramps, headed this way, no doubt.
His face twisted in a grimace, gaze dropping to his arms as if he could see the bruises hidden by his sleeves. Were they permanent now, layered as far as his bones? Fresh shades blossomed over yesterday’s wounds, marking how often he shielded his face. No, he was not as good a fighter as the other boys, but they were soldiers trained from birth. Neezon had never seen some of the weapons they drilled with, much less used them.
He would improve. He would stand up for himself. If there were any chance of him getting ahold of a sword, that he could use.
What he really wished for was an Ier, the laser-formed, tendrilled staff that was the traditional weapon of Aylata. For centuries, the Neezon company had per contract been the sole manufacturers of Ier, and Ardinzo Neezon knew the device inside and out. If he could just acquire one, then he would show these half-wit Unwanted.
Then what? He would have to run. It all came down to running, and he had never known a hard life. He had always had four meals a day prepared by professionals and brought to him by servants and slaves who jumped at his beck and call.
I am not unwanted.
“I feel the same sometimes.”
Neezon whirled and met a pair of bright chrysolite eyes. Their owner was of the same height and had a similar thin build, but his eyes’ coloring identified him as Aylata. His ebony attire, including the wide, pale scarf draped casually over one shoulder, marked him as a Messenger.
A young Messenger, seemingly equal to Neezon’s fifteen years, and a recent graduate as proclaimed by the shade of his scarf. Unlike most Unwanted training facilities, Aznalo did not double as an Aylata school due to its proximity to Aylata Tower in Kobolast a short distance to the south.
Neezon stepped back quickly, right hand flying to his temple. His palm faced down, first finger perched above his ear, eye peeking between second and third. “Master.”
The Aylata grinned. “Don’t do that. It’s awkward.”
Letting his hand drop, Neezon did his best not to gape. He thought the same about the salutes.
“Are you a Mind Aylata? Can you hear my thoughts?”
The Messenger gave a light chuckle. “Mind Talents don’t really work that way, or so I hear. Maybe if I had them, they’d want me.”
Neezon’s attempts not to gape utterly failed. “But you’re an Aylata. They always want Aylata.”
“So they claim,” the Messenger countered with a shrug, “but what they really value is Magni blood and extraordinary skill with limited Talents. They care nothing for ingenuity if it isn’t theirs.”
“Are you saying you don’t have an Aylata Talent?”
The grin grew, and the Messenger shook his head, soft, dark hair billowing before settling back into a spiky mess. “Oh, I have a Talent they are all too familiar with. What I mean is they want Watchers and Protectors and Defenders.
“Think about it. Defenders lead squadrons, going on to command whole legions and have the opportunity to acquire the title High Defender. Protectors are given rule of a district just because they survived to the age of twenty. There is only one Lead Protector per Refraction, and they have almost as much power as Refraction Leaders. Watchers—”
“Watchers are feared,” Neezon put in.
The Aylata nodded, hair billowing again. “Yes, no one wants to offend a Watcher, so they always get their way. Messengers live in the shadow of the other three, still Aylata but sent to do the dirty work the others won’t do. When a doctor proclaims a new son will be a Messenger, no parents jump for joy. They have another kid and hope for better results.”
“Is that what happened to you? Do you have a younger brother who’s something”—he stopped before saying ‘amazing’ or the like. He didn’t want to seem rude—“something other than a Messenger?”
The Aylata glanced sideways at him. “Inquisitive, aren’t you? I’ll make you a deal. You agree to keep me informed of anything...exciting going on around here, and I’ll consider us friends. You need friends in a place like this.”
Neezon narrowed his gaze. “First, tell me how you knew what I was thinking.”
“You whisper in your sleep.”
He didn’t know which was more alarming, the fact he blabbed his secrets while he slept or that this Aylata watched him do so. He had a divided opinion of them, half wanting to be one, half hating them. They were creepy. He couldn’t trust them. This one was different, too. His gut told him to trust this one least of all.
Yet the Messenger’s stare was so penetrating, so trustable and innocent. Maybe he did have Mind Talents.
“I’m Neezon, and if I see you around when I’m not busy, I’ll talk to you.”
The Aylata smiled. “I’m Crao.” His pronunciation made it sound more like a growl than a designation.
What an odd name.
He didn’t have time to ponder the subject. Six boys from his practice troop sauntered noisily around the corner, mottled gray jumpsuits identical to his. The pattern of dark and light supposedly corresponded with the numbers in one’s group assignment, but he hadn’t yet figured out how to read the differences.
Everyone in a practice troop was also supposedly of equal rank, but he had quickly learned that wasn’t true. The teens made no secret of their personal hierarchy, loud as they jostled for position behind the group’s self-proclaimed leader.
Crossing his arms as his peers filed in around him, this one called, “Hey! What are you doing slacking off up here? I’ve been looking for you.”
The voice sent a shiver through Neezon, his first instincts pleading for him to run, but he had just made friends with an Aylata, and said friend still stood there, right next to him.
Neezon’s confidence soared, and he stood his ground, straightening, head held high. He did not answer.
“After much careful thought, I’ve come up with a good name for the newbie,” the bully announced. “Mykuro-butt. What do you think, Scan?”
The largest laughed. “That’s a good one, Trickshot, but you’ve overlooked an important detail.”
“And that is?”
“His face’s missing the split down the middle.”
“That’s easily fixed.” Trickshot reached for Neezon’s collar.
As he swallowed, nervousness shifting his feet to pull him backward, Crao stepped between them and shoved the bully’s outstretched arm aside.
“What type of person do you want to be?”
Trickshot flinched at the Aylata’s appearance. “Excuse me?”
“At the moment, you are a person who picks on any fault you find to make your own little pedestal seem higher. You think it gives you power over them. By knocking down others, you make yourself feel tall.”
“I am tall!” the bully yelled, and Neezon had to agree with him. He was a lot taller than Crao.
“Figuratively, of course.” Crao hummed. “Emotions and thoughts are your real targets. You make self-doubt your ally because contentment is not something you understand, and how dare anyone find it before you. You are one who tramples the emotions of others because you do not understand your own. Is that the person you want to be?”
The bully shoved Crao back half a body’s length, and the Messenger extended one nimble foot behind himself to keep from tumbling over the rail.
“Don’t,” Scan warned. “He’s an Aylata.”
“So what?” Trickshot sneered. “Aylata always hide behind their Ier and Talents. They don’t know how to really fight. Besides, this one’s just a Messenger.”
He shoved Crao again, and the Aylata’s eyes slid to Neezon, the look haunting as it drove home a hollow assurance: Messengers really were held of little account.
If you have an Ier or Talent, use it now.
Crao didn’t fight back. One more shove, and he tumbled over the rail, gravity stealing him away.
Staring in wide-eyed horror, Neezon hoped Crao’s Talent was flying. Then he realized flying was not an Aylata Talent. His hope fell with Crao.
Scan grabbed the back of his collar and hauled him off his feet.
Arms crossed once more, Trickshot taunted, “Why don’t you jump, too, Mykuro-butt? You think you’re so special, I’m sure you’ll be fine.”
Neezon scratched at Scan’s arm to no avail. The ledge loomed closer. On impulse, he grabbed one of the others’ large practice shooters.
Scan snickered. “That’s not a real weapon any more than a glowstick.”
Neezon knew that. The fake shooter would only send a dull, harmless spot of light at its target, but the long, heavy casing would make an excellent club. He swung it at Scan’s head.
In evading the blow, Scan dropped him, and Neezon fell on his knees, swinging the shooter at Scan’s shins. The swipe knocked the trainee’s legs aside, and in the slow-motion state from which Neezon watched, he appeared to float for a moment before crashing to the metal walkway with a clang.
Neezon scrambled to his feet, shooter held in both hands and swung back over his shoulder, gaze shifting between the trainees closing in around him.
A familiar shout cut the air, and everyone froze. Defender Lioden Nyoki rarely yelled, and his anger was to be avoided.
“That Watcher made a mockery of my men!” Nyoki appeared around the corner, not acknowledging the group of saluting teens lined up along the rail. “And then to leave saying he was going to see the emperor. They only knew he was a Skaelao Watcher, not that he was on their side. He left them in utter panic!”
“We hold no authority over Watcher Quanko. He is Skaelao.”
“I know,” Nyoki growled. “The real question is how much authority they hold over him. He can’t just go around doing whatever he wants.”
Shock held Neezon’s breath as a second Aylata came into view: Elder Watcher Vlial Muukan.
He only knew his name from an Ier Bestowing Ceremony two years ago, the first Neezon had been allowed to attend, where Elder Watcher Muukan and his lady had come to support their son on such a momentous occasion.
Watchers slipped from one shadow to the next, more often recognized for what, not who, they were. So, even if he hadn’t recognized this one’s vulpine features, how chrysolite only seemed to grace his right eye, or the clan pattern that vaguely resembled whirlpools devouring each other, this last’s location on his left thigh identified him as a Watcher. The pattern repeated in the silver metal srassamene on his back marked him as an Elder Watcher, a title only earned by those with copious experience acting under extraordinarily trying circumstances.
Defender Nyoki had some audacity yelling at an Elder Watcher.
Yet, Muukan maintained the ideal Aylata aloofness. He let the Defender expel his bluster before countering, “You chide him for toying with them, but he did have a point. Had Watcher Quanko meant them harm, ordinary guards would not have stood a chance. At least give them a Messenger and means to contact a Watcher.”
“In a serious fight, would you win against Watcher Quanko?”
Muukan grinned. “I’ve taken down Ravi before. Held one squirming on the ground, fear heavy in his eyes.”
“Then perhaps I should assign you to guard Lady K’alaqk.”
“You know the order of things, Defender.” Muukan tsked. “You cannot assign me anything. Elder Watchers answer only to the leader of their Refraction and the Ravida, or in his absence as now, the Lead Protector.”
“And I don’t suppose you’ll volunteer.”
Disdain clouded Muukan’s tempestuous eyes. “Babysitting little girls is a task for a Messenger.”
“If you didn’t want to be involved, why come interrogate me?”
A thin, coy smirk conquered the Elder Watcher’s face. “The Lead Protector had questions. Now I have answers.”
“Glad I could help,” Nyoki grumbled, waist-length, black cape swirling as he turned away. His eyes alighted on the group still saluting by the rail, hanging on every word. Calculation flicked across his countenance.
Neezon swallowed. Defender Nyoki’s features were a little too pinched, forming a glower more easily than a smile. If the troopers here all had one thing in common, it was that they were wary of this dark-eyed Aylata who was to succeed High Defender Dekkom.
“You.” That shadowy glare singled Neezon out. “Can you use that weapon hiding behind your back?”
Uncertainty trapped Neezon’s words in a tight throat. Surely the Defender meant “use” as in actually shooting the weapon, and he hadn’t seen this model before today. He could figure out its controls if they gave him a few moments, but Nyoki took the shooter away and made a show of examining it.
“It’s not a club,” the Defender lectured. “This is a mock Angui Five, and in poor condition, too.” His eyes jumped from the dented weapon back to Neezon. “Can you tell me what’s special about the Angui Five?”
Neezon had spent long nights studying endless manuals on the various weapons of the Unwanted, and while he had memorized all he could, constantly comparing the new information to what he already knew, one fact had become clear: Shooter was a generic term for practically any weapon that shot projectiles. Though its connotation lent itself more toward high-tech weapons, excluding, say, slingshots and hands throwing rocks.
Every shooter was different. Some were smaller than his palm while others were longer than his arm span. Their triggers varied, too, some toggled by nimble fingers, the strength of a clutching hand, or activated by subtle movements of the wrist.
Their choice ammunition were darters, and that opened up a whole other class of options.
All of this swirled through his mind like one of Zalerit’s infamous winter storms and froze him just the same, words stranded in his throat.
Nyoki gazed at the model in his hands, tossing it slightly to test its weight. “Your choice weapon is a sword, isn’t it?”
Or an Ier, Neezon added mentally, but he deemed it best not to tell an Aylata that. He nodded.
Mockery danced in the Defender’s grin. “Quiet, aren’t you? You haven’t been here long.”
Six months was forever, but Neezon simply shook his head.
“You don’t get along with your company.”
Neezon looked up, trying to keep surprise from widening his eyes. He could tattle, but would this Aylata even care? They would brand him a weakling. Yes, particularly the Elder Watcher who already looked at him with disdain.
“But of course we get along!” Neezon clasped a hand on Scan’s shoulder and dragged the bigger boy closer. “We’re best friends.”
Nyoki’s pinched eyes slimmed. “You dare lie to an Aylata?” He paused, pure ire unhidden in his lowered brows and clenched jaw. Then the expression broke, making way for a small smile. “It’s that stupid, blind courage I need. This troop will be transferred to my legion.”
“That one is a nobleman’s son,” the Elder Watcher revealed. He hadn’t moved from his place near the corner. “And of special interest to our new emperor.”
“How fascinating. Seems I’ll have another question for Ravi K’alaqk.” Nyoki turned to leave.
Neezon trembled, muscles ignoring any command for stillness. What did this Defender want with them?
Before he realized it, his feet carried him forward, his right hand raised in a beckoning gesture he had seen his father use a million times.
“You have something specific in mind for us, Defender?” he queried, voice as calm and aloof as he could make it.
Nyoki turned back, gaze sardonically flicking to Muukan before the Defender answered, “I want to train a special troop to defeat a Watcher.”
Muukan’s response was something between a grunt and a chuckle.
Neezon smiled in stunned silence. He probably looked like an idiot. Both Aylata took their leave, but it was such an excellent proposal.
Continued in Chapter 8: Revenge is not Becoming
Thank you for reading!
Alliance ch 8: Revenge is not Becoming
In a moment of brilliance, Izeko had suggested the hrausq leaders pose as they were lifted into the arena. Twi thought it a great idea when riding next to him on the tram through Mumir’s tunnels, but here alone, standing in a circle delineated by a luminous line, she drew a blank.
Perhaps something flirty?
She stood on her toes and leaned forward, behind accentuated. Her scarlet suit and black bolero stretched with her, embracing her curves a little too much.
Her back twitched, and she flowed into another stance, booted feet planted and hands facing one another in front of her collarbone.
Maybe it should be an inside joke with my hrausq. I’ll copy Entrycii when he’s trying to keep a wetsphere round.
She felt ridiculous holding the pose for more than three seconds.
A cylinder dropped, bordering a slender space around her, and her platform rose.
This wasn’t a good idea after all, not just Izeko’s stunt, but this whole situation. Distorted light rippled through the gelatinous window above, and her heart mimicked that wavering illumination, flickering and uneven. Her ankle throbbed a warning that standing was hard enough. Don’t ask for too much more. Her lower back echoed the sentiment.
Why did I think I could do this?
She bent her knees, one shin crossing over the other to relieve her still-healing ankle. The pose was a warm-up stretch, but it would have to suffice. Her head and shoulders pushed at the clear portion of ceiling, and it gave, resembling melted slush as her platform met the arena’s floor seamlessly.
Forcing a smile, she waved at the crowd ten stories above, barely visible beyond the curved sheet of light that drew the arena’s edges. Per Aberrant tradition, this game would be played within a spherical field.
This isn’t the Aberrant version of shymgo, though, she reminded herself.
In this iteration, one Controller could not order his team to kill another, for instance. Same as in their version, however, white dominated the scene. “So you can see the blood easier,” a professional had told her.
We are not Aberrant. We are different in the best possible ways.
Seven stories above her head, four Controller thrones waited on the goal platform. Discs formed the path there, variously sized and orbiting at diverse heights and speeds. Six other hrausq leaders stood on the blindingly bright floor, waving to their teammates in pie-slice boxes around the sphere’s equator.
Sorry, foot. Standing around isn’t an option. Please don’t make me disappoint my team.
Izeko approached, wonder hovering within his narrow features. “Seems larger than life.”
Twi’s smile blossomed. “See you at the top?”
“Of course.” His icy, lavender eyes remained glued to the clockwork above as he zipped up his jacket over his lean frame. He only did that when he was serious.
I can do this. I will win this.
A blend of chime and gong sounded. The seven racers dashed for the lowest disc, and its elliptical orbit carried all of them three stories above the floor. Despite her limp, Twi kept up. Confidence surged, a warm tingle from her chest to her toes. She could do this.
She sighted her next target, feet spread wide for balance, ready to leap the instant it came within range.
As soon as her toes were in the air, an elbow slammed into her gut and threw her back.
She would not land on a disc. Breathless, she reached for anything, and Izeko caught her hands, pulling her back to the first saucer.
He fixed a glare on the hrausq leader who had so rudely displaced her. “I suggest staying away from Ezu.”
With a palm on her bruised stomach, Twi silently agreed.
Gaze locked on a disc about to pass above, she announced, “I have an idea. Forgive me.”
She placed her hands on either side of his collar, slipped her foot into the crook of his elbow, and catapulted into a handstand on his shoulders. Her toes barely reached the edge of the passing disc, but her ’netics locked on to the brushed metal.
Izeko steadied her forearms, sprinting to stay under her as she slid one foot higher and wrapped a knee over the circle’s edge. With a twist, she planted a hand next to her thigh, but Izeko ran out of lower disc. His grasp locked around her arm, and he swung, a painful strain on her shoulders.
The disc’s repulsers buzzed to her ’netic senses, changing pitch as Izeko curled, grip flipping upside-down. They hissed as his heel fell into the bend of her elbow and took his weight. She tightened her call on the metal, willing her grip to last long enough for him to finish whatever he planned.
With a final ’netic shove, he bounded to the disc’s surface, towing her with him. She landed on one knee, fingers splayed on either side of her foot. Her back was a bed of coals, her ankle a vein of magma.
Breathe, Twi. I can do this. Just stand up like Izeko.
His cerulean birthmarks glistened, adding to the radiance of his smirk as he searched for their next disc. “Teamwork for the win.”
Shymgo wasn’t supposed to be about teamwork. It was a cruel game invented by a Tala of the same name when the seventeenth Aberrant high boss had requested this potential teammate first prove his power.
Lulii Stella knew its lore and bloody history, yet she had supported Mystis’ suggestion to use a modified version for this third phase of the reorder. As she stood, face nearly pressed against the window of her viewing box, regret roiled in her core.
Twi isn’t ready for this.
Myr and Dr. Qcoice had even advocated against using the sport. Stella had been the tiebreaker, siding with Mystis and Terkis. She could kick herself. Had she really not believed her own student would make it this far?
Qcoice sprawled on the pew behind her, twang sharp. “Did Izeko just use Twi as a ladder?”
“After she used him as a stepping stool.” Stella swallowed, gaze flicking to her fellow Adjuvant leaders.
As expected, Mystis had declined to join them. Myr’s absence was surprising, though. Frown etched deep across his red-bearded mien, Terkis sat, arms crossed, on what little remained of the bench alongside Qcoice. The doctor lounged as she did just to irk him, despite how the furniture had been scaled to fit her lengthy Lettaplexal frame. The giant pillows everywhere made Stella feel like a doll.
She tsked. “Should Twi be moving around so much?”
Qcoice threw her a sharp-toothed grin. “You doubt my skill?”
“She could barely even sit up when you let her traipse out of the med-center in search of that Aylata.”
“Only once,” Qcoice tutted. “The Ier damaged her mind as much as her body, and without the mind’s strength, the body is at its weakest. If she did not find him, she would not have healed.”
“So you have said and why we have allowed him to be.” Stella turned back to the window, pulling her wrappings tighter around herself. Her reflection formed a midnight blue blur, face concealed by the shadow of her cowl and the scarf pulled over her nose. “Even if I imagined Twi would walk again, I dared not hope she would hop about with such agility.”
“She’s a determined little one.” Qcoice chuckled. “A bit of a limp persists, though you avoid her so adamantly, I doubt you’ve noticed.”
Shrugging off the jab, Stella backed away from the window. In lieu of an available seat, she dropped onto a pillow larger than she was. “Twi and Izeko work well together.”
Terkis huffed. “Someone needs to remind those two this is a race.”
“Teamwork is never a flaw.” With a heavy sigh, Qcoice spread herself even further, hip pressing into Terkis’ side. “If he performs well here, many expect Mystis to make Izeko her third agent.”
Stella smiled. Izeko had succeeded her as her master’s student, and she felt a strange mix of pride and responsibility for him, especially since…
No, she would not think of those long gone.
With a deep breath, she fixed a challenging stare on Terkis. “Twi and Izeko recognize the subtler purposes of this competition better than others. Perhaps more than even you.”
Ezu seemed wild, an image not disputed by the tattered rips in his long coat, his shock of viridian hair, and his baggy pants messily tucked into spike-sprinkled boots. His fierce strikes at any who attempted to pass him earned a lengthy lead on the others.
Twi peered at him from a higher disc as the gap between them shrank. She kept up with Izeko, but he was holding back, every move conscious of where she was, only choosing jumps they could both make.
Her gaze slid to the sphere’s equator. Had his team noticed?
“We’re still competitors.” He leapt to the next disc.
She followed. “You only wait on competitors if you need to use them, and we’re level with the goal platform now, Izeko. You don’t need me.”
“On principle, I need you to beat Ezu.” He sent a tight grin over his shoulder, but it didn’t reach his eyes. “Just hurry.” Another leap, another saucer, another pause to make sure she was right behind him.
With a shake of her head, she lined up the jump, knees bent, feet pushing off.
A forcefield shot at her from behind, a rippling net of blurred, pale blue lightning. Tucking into a backflip, she wrapped herself in her own forcefield to cushion the blow. Ezu slid beneath her, but his momentum carried him past the disc’s edge, and he desperately clung to it. Twi landed on its center, eyes set on the next one. To reach it, she would have to leap over him.
Izeko waved her forward, the hypocrite. He was two discs ahead, but instead of advancing toward the goal, his route was lateral, still waiting for her.
She knelt, hands pressed against the ribbed metal, and the life pulse of her cells called to the molecular movement around her. It was a symphony with infinite parts, and she was the conductor. She was the disc. It was part of her, and it called another, willing it nearer.
Both discs shuddered and slowed, deviating from their orbits. Caught between them, Ezu’s ’netic grip failed. He clawed at the metal but gained no purchase, losing the battle with gravity smidgen by smidgen.
With a snarl, he hurled another forcefield at Twi. She jumped, and as the released disc jerked back into orbit, it scooped him up. She dove for its edge, hands flexing against its warm surface as she dropped into a somersault and rolled to her feet in tandem with Ezu. They faced each other, motionless but vigilant on opposite sides of the rotating disc.
The Ier scar on her back was a raging inferno now, but she would be a proper Knalcal and ignore it. She forced herself to breathe calmly, to watch this pain-in-the-rear hrausq leader and be alert for her way out.
Get out of there!
Here in the hrausq waiting area, Xlack could do nothing useful. He paced in front of the clear shield that marked the edge of the arena. What would it take to make that barrier go away right now? He needed to be out there. Twi needed him, needed her team.
If she were allowed to have them out on the field, then the other teams would be running loose, too, but that didn’t matter, and if it was hrausq against hrausq…
His gaze cut to an adjacent waiting area. They must have been the other guy’s, all crowded close to the edge of the field, hollering for Ezu to knock her off or out.
With a scowl, Xlack stomped across the stretchy net that served as the floor. Said net made stomping difficult, but he didn’t care.
Before he reached the much thinner shield stretched between teams, Rifo stepped in his way.
“No fighting, or ya will get us kicked out of here. Just ignore them.”
Xlack traced his pointed look at the leaders’ viewing box and nodded. The leaders weren’t fond of him.
He stepped back, but his eyes swept the other hrausq again, committing their faces to memory.
As Twi glanced at a disc approaching from behind, Ezu charged. She leapt, evading the forearm aimed at her throat, but they both flew off the edge of their disc. Her boots hit his shoulder, and she jumped again, but he grabbed her left ankle, hand a vice—as if the fire door from Napix was back, shattering it again and again.
She choked on her cry, tumbling into a dive as her other foot scraped at his hand. He barely hooked an arm over a disc’s edge, and her fall stopped.
Pain poured in, no longer fire. It was ice. It formed a thin sheet over her body, crackling with every movement. It was a reminder that she could walk only because of the transplanted Lettaplexal cartilage framing her ankle bones. She was not invincible. Her broken parts would re-shatter if she asked too much of them.
Ezu was slipping. He threw her aside.
Flipping head over heels, she tried to shove pain from her mind.
A proper Knalcal.
Her eyes closed, but her ’netic senses painted a too-detailed picture of the world rushing past. She stretched out her arms to shape her fall.
Down was in front of her. She kicked out and flipped upright, arms thrown over her head, palms swiveled back. Her hands caught the edge of another disc. There she hung, her back to its repulsing current.
A buzz filled the waiting area, signaling the hrausq members to don their blindfolds. As others complied, Xlack stood motionless and wide-eyed in front of the border shield.
She didn’t answer. She looked like one hung out for execution. The pockets that diagonally striped her thighs and torso suddenly resembled claw marks.
“Yer blindfold, Ekymé.” Rifo dropped the thick black cloth over Xlack’s face.
He ducked, keeping his eyes on Twi. “No.”
“Ya have to.” With a hand on his shoulder, Rifo pulled him back a step.
Xlack shoved away, and Rifo stumbled into the shield. It hissed at his touch, and he flinched, cradling his arm, grimace unhidden. Pain and frustration wafted from him like smoke.
A burnt odor accosted Xlack’s nose, and he turned to him, an apology on the tip of his tongue, but Rifo spoke first. “Have a little faith in her, will ya?”
Xlack nodded, taking the blindfold from his amaraq. With one last look at Twi, he draped the cloth over his eyes and let it snap itself tight around his head.
Twi threw a leg over the edge of the disc and rolled onto the safety of its surface. There, she stole a moment to hold her screaming ankle. Her back echoed its pain, pulsing with each beat of her heart, and she breathed deep and deliberately.
Four other Hrausq Leaders were still below her. Izeko had reached the goal platform and commandeered a seat, a sys clipped to his ear. Ezu was nearly there as well. No sense desperately chasing after him. Twi could come in third. There was no shame in that.
Gathering her determination, she raced on.
Antsy behind his blindfold, Xlack shifted from one foot to the other as he searched his surroundings. The border shields dominated what his Kinetics could sense, but as he attempted to feel further, he got an idea.
He darted toward Ezu’s hrausq and jumped at the shield separating them. It threw him back, his feet stinging, but the shock didn’t steal his focus. He twisted, toes meeting the border between him and the playing field at a sprint.
The shields were not unlike a forcefield created by Kinetics. His Talent pushed against it, and it allowed him to run up its nearly vertical surface. Each step earned an unpleasant shock, but repetition stole the punishment’s effectiveness, fading it into an ignorable tingle.
Once released, hrausqs were expected to hop out onto mid-height discs level with the goal platform or slide down to the sphere’s floor. They would search for tracers, working their way up. Yet, in all the rules Rifo had dutifully recited for him, Xlack hadn’t heard any that forbade starting at the top.
Entrycii followed him.
Their headsets crackled as Twi took her seat. A few moments later, the fourth hrausq leader arrived, and a high-pitched ring echoed through the waiting area.
The forcefield beneath Xlack disappeared, and he landed with a metallic clang on one of the highest discs. Entrycii’s panic slammed into him, and he leaned over the edge to shove at his plummeting teammate.
Entrycii landed on his back, all breath knocked out of him. Motionless moments passed before his chest rose. His gasp turned into a cough, then gave way to complaint. “You couldn’t have tried to slow me down?”
“You didn’t die.”
Xlack sat on his feet, Kinetics scanning the scene. The blindfold was inconvenient, but similar exercises had been a staple throughout his schooling, limiting his other senses to hone what he perceived via his Talents, and these drew a more detailed view than his eyes could have.
A new shield had snapped into place, vertically bisecting the sphere. The discs’ orbit had stilled.
According to the rules, six tracers were scattered across this half of the field, each sending out a signal. Not all signals were tangible to Kinetics, though, and those that were often felt vague. Wherever the tracers waited, they were well hidden in the chaos of false signals, floating discs, strong shields, and the life-signatures of fourteen people running around blind.
Xlack wrapped a hand over the scanner strapped to his wrist. It would pick up the tracer signals and relay its information to Twi. In turn, she would direct her blindfolded teammates via their headsets.
He pressed a finger to the sys on his ear. “Anything up here on radar?”
She didn’t answer—a side effect of trying to instruct seven people at once, he supposed. Impatience slipped him another idea.
‘Send me a memory flash. Let me see what you see.’
‘That would be cheating.’
‘If that jerk was allowed to whack you with a forcefield, why can’t we use our Mind Talents?’
Reluctantly, Twi agreed, and Xlack smiled as he analyzed what she sent. With the scene in color, the floating discs shone bronze. The crimson of Rifo’s hair and the jade of his jacket popped against the sphere’s white wall as he slid to the floor.
Xlack wouldn’t admit it aloud, but it did look better this way.
Comparing what she saw with what he felt, he gained a sense of exactly where he was but not where he needed to be.
He scowled. Ezu sat next to Twi, and his sniveling minions roamed the field, trapped in this vertical hemisphere with Hrausq Seven-One-Nine.
Twi’s warning wafted into Xlack’s mind. ‘Revenge is not becoming, especially when one must give up an advantage to pursue it.’
‘That whole team is made of jerks.’
‘They are nowhere near you. Collect the tracers.’
Oh sure, that would be easy, but she still offered no hints as to where exactly he would find them.
He grunted and got to his feet. Was there any way he could wreak havoc on Ezu and his hrausq from up here without letting Twi know who had done it?
Entrycii finally stood and slowly swung his arm in a horizontal arc.
“What are you doing?”
Spine facing Xlack, Entrycii paused, then leapt to a further disc, fist outstretched before him like a tether. “I’m following my scanner.”
“It only talks to Twi.”
Entrycii shrugged. “I speak computer.”
“Of course you do,” Xlack muttered, rubbing his scanner again. Throughout the past few months, Twi had helped him with direct device communication, but it was complicated. The language was basically ‘on/off,’ and if it were just that, it would be easy. Unfortunately, most codes he encountered were long combinations of ‘on/off’ strung together way beyond his reading level.
Twi had also warned that despite training, most never mastered it. Entrycii followed his scanner easily enough, though. On the middle of a disc adjacent to Xlack’s, he picked up a coin-like object.
“I got one, Twi!”
“Stay put. You’re so far up there, it’ll be hard for them to reach you. Actually, scratch that. I don’t want to waste your ability to track tracers on your own. Aarex is on her way. Once she has it, go find another one. And good job.”
Xlack smiled, proud of their team. Down on the sphere’s floor, Rifo, too, collected a tracer and evaded pursuers. Each individual was only allowed to hold one at a time, so now that Rifo had his, he just had to hang onto it.
“Sitting that close to Entrycii, you’ll only pick up the tracer he holds. Go find your own.”
Xlack would love to, but still she gave him no instruction as to how to find it. Maybe she tested him, seeing if he could find it on his own?
He searched the field again.
One of Ezu’s hrausq grabbed a tracer, but Stevalok jumped on him, wrested it away, and retreated. Placing it firmly in Lanox’s grasp, he turned toward their opponents and defended her.
Xlack wanted a clash with them like that, to pay them back while still accomplishing the objective of this game. His legs shook, ready to get moving already, but as far as he could tell, none of them had any tracers yet.
He tried to come up with an excuse to go whack Ezu with a couple of unfriendly forcefields, but no matter what he said, Twi wouldn’t buy it. She would give him that stern, over-patient, disapproving look she always affected when he did something stupid.
Relieved by the small and nimble Aarex, Entrycii tracked down a second tracer. Close to the floor, Zeln had retrieved another and was circled by two opponents. Xlack decided to go help him, but as he raced to the rescue, his scanner’s signal changed.
Now on a mid-level disc, he stopped, arm swinging in a slow arc as Entrycii’s had. The scanner’s reading adjusted as he moved, strongest directly to his right. He took a few steps in that direction, then stopped again.
“You’re correct,” Twi said. “There are two tracers over there: the one Lanox has and…” She trailed off as sharp fear permeated the field.
Dr. Qcoice’s hand flew over her mouth in an aghast gesture. “We’ve got a Blamooka trapped in an enclosed space with Knalcals? How idiotic.”
Stella’s back was to the view, a glare on her associate. “It’s disturbing how you can say that with such amusement, Qcoice.”
“What I find intriguing is how someone decided to put that little Blamooka in the same hrausq as a true-talent Knalcal. In a doctorly way, I see them more often than I should. You silly Knalcals.”
“Sona tusa cannot be overcome,” Stella growled.
Few languages had a translation for the ancient Magni phrase, “gift take.” For everything that was gained, there was a price to be paid. Everything had a weakness. Knalcals feared fire, and the power that came with Magni heritage turned that fear against them. That was sona tusa, what the gift took.
Safely in the observation box and protected by a shield, Stella could turn away and pretend to forget the Blamooka’s terrifying flames. Twi, Ezu, and his two Knalcal hrausq members had no such luxury.
At least Entrycii, high up at the far edge of the field, hadn’t noticed.
Hrausq Seven-One-Nine held five tracers: Aarex and Entrycii each guarded one up high. Rifo played keep away down on the arena floor, and without their leader’s shouted instructions, the opponents who had chased him stumbled about, blind and lost.
Not too far away from him, Zeln also held a tracer, fists ablaze. The two opponents who had cornered him were as stiff as stone artwork at the center of a fountain. Instead of water, they gushed terror.
Near the field’s equator, Lanox remained just as still, tracer clenched in a two-handed grip in front of her chest. Stevalok stood before her, alert as Xlack passed them, headed for a disc partially in both hemispheres. There the last tracer waited.
‘What’s wrong, Twi?’
Several seconds passed, and by the time she did supply an unsatisfactory, ‘Sorry, Knalcal thing,’ he already knelt on his target disc. According to the scanner, the tracer should have been just under his feet, but it wasn’t. He swept his hands across the brushed metal, but there was nothing.
‘Under the disc,’ Twi said.
Lying flat, he slithered over the side and pushed his fist into the repulsing currents of the disc’s belly.
Another chime sounded, proclaiming one team held all six tracers in the other hemisphere. The hrausq that held none there was out, and as soon as a team on this side achieved the same, the dividing shield would drop.
Xlack’s scanner had gone silent, overwhelmed by the current. It felt like sticking his hand in boiling water. What idiot decided to place a tracer here? If he didn’t have Kinetics, this probably wouldn’t hurt, but without that Talent, he would have fallen already.
He slid further, groping closer to the disc’s center. His finger brushed a coin-like shape, but he couldn’t grab it, not while keeping his face out of the current. He should have told Stevalok where the prize was and switched places with him, guarding Lanox. That would make him the only team member who hadn’t acquired a tracer, though.
He jumped for it, cringing as the current seared his face, neck, and chest, but his fingers locked around the coin.
He was falling. Then he wasn’t, Stevalok’s grip around his ankles. A swift tug swung him toward another disc. As he flew, the dividing shield disappeared.
A spicy Zalerit scent hit him first. The air cackled, a shield spreading across knuckles. They punched his face.
Though Rifo had finally convinced Zeln to squelch his flames, Twi still couldn’t breathe. She watched Ekymé reel. The tracer soared out of his hands.
Stevalok caught it, dropkicking the one who had punched him. In true Zalerit fashion, Sažka changed color with the impact, from lavender to light orange. She plunged toward the floor so far below.
Another of her team caught her ankles and redirected her toward Lanox.
Twi and Izeko were on their feet as their amaraqs tumbled across the disc’s wide surface, coming dangerously close to its edge. One stood, held the tracer above her head, and returned to her usual lavender.
Sažka ripped her blindfold away, four, black-orb eyes finding her hrausq leader with a celebratory smile.
Hrausq Five-One-Four had won.
Continued in Chapter 9: Dumbest Mission Ever
Thanks for reading!
Alliance ch 9: Dumbest Mission Ever
Dumbest. Mission. Ever.
Lorm Spycykle dropped another shovelful of soil into a sample tube. Excitement and adventure waited out there, along with someone strong and clever enough to kill the highest-ranking Aylata, and he was stuck out on desolate Magni looking at dirt.
They told him what he was doing was important. He was supposed to be looking for any sign of life that might have survived Magni’s untimely end or a microbe that would explain why Magni genetics made a body produce Talent-evoking chemicals, but he couldn’t even see that stuff. He had to look in a microscope, and that was beyond boring.
At least everyone else banished here had enthusiasm for their project, and they were thrilled to have an Aylata Defender helping them. He couldn’t believe most of them had volunteered to be here.
“This one will be the one!” the prime example of such a volunteer announced as he put a seal on a sample tube, voice distorted by the mic in his hazardous environment suit. “We’ll find what we’re looking for in this hunk of dirt. I can feel it!”
Skepticism sparked in Spycykle’s gut. Did this random guy have Kinetic Talents? Could he actually feel living things in that dirt? He highly doubted it, unless something weird had happened to these guys here on Magni.
That thought just made him want to get out of there even more.
Definitely the dumbest mission ever. There has got to be some way off this dirt ball.
Shaking powdered grime from his feet, he trudged toward the research compound, a squat web of domes against a backdrop of craggy mountains and a too-brilliant horizon. The colors here were supposed to be spectacular. Too bad he only saw it as a smear of grays. Color was evil anyway.
Just inside the airlock, a Messenger waited.
Spycykle caught the tossed datapad, hoping this wasn’t some malicious joke and it didn’t have a bomb in it. His personal datapad had been confiscated. For six months, he had been stuck here with these microbe huggers without the ability to call anybody or surf the dataseas. “What’s this for?”
“You’re supposed to call Emperor K’alaqk.” The Messenger picked a piece of lint from his dark scarf and dropped it on the floor. Spycykle’s eyes tracked it. One of the microbe huggers was going to have a conniption.
“I could just knock you out, take your Oha, and run.”
“Wouldn’t work. My Oha won’t accept commands without my fingerprints.”
Spycykle shrugged. “I could steal your fingers, too.”
“You’d use your Kinetics to tweak the computer’s reading the exact way I do?” Another fuzzy bead released into the wild. The dude wasn’t even looking at him. An attack would be easy, but he had a point. Spycykle didn’t have Kinetic Talents. Supposedly, he had no Talents whatsoever.
With another shrug, he looked at the datapad. “K’alaqk’s address programmed into this thing?”
“It’s programmed to do nothing other than call him, so I’d assume so.” The Messenger accepted a warm cup of SuperCaff off a tray presented to him. “There’s only one button on the screen. Just press it.”
He did, and after the third beep, Revel K’alaqk answered. “Some suspected you would attempt to run before you actually called.”
“Maybe I missed you.” He allowed his eyes to roll. K’alaqk couldn’t see him through the audio-only call, and the Messenger’s opinion didn’t matter.
“Set creepiness aside, Spycykle. I have news.”
“Regarding a more dazzling mission than sifting dirt?”
“Regarding evidence that Ject Sirvette lives.”
“Does that mean I get to go home?” If the answer was no, he didn’t want to hear it. “Where’s he been?”
“Hiding from us.”
“It’s not hard to hide from me, stuck on this hunk of rock.”
K’alaqk sighed. “That ‘us’ does not include you, Spycykle. I do, however, have a task for you. It will take you to Tsira.”
Excitement fluttered in his chest. It was a trip to Tsira that had gotten him in trouble in the first place. Though the charges included other things like stealing morphometal for his own use instead of bringing it straight to the capital, his greatest mistake had been allowing Ject Sirvette to die, Tsira’s precious fluke. Now, apparently, he wasn’t dead.
Land-wise, Tsira was the largest of the five Napix territories, encompassing nearly all of the planet Zalerit. Chances weren’t high that this mission had anything to do with Sirvette or Xlack Ekymé, Tsira’s other treasured heir, but he hoped it did.
“What do you need me to do?”
“Bring Ject Sirvette’s younger sister, Aalee, to Reiceilako District, unofficially.”
Though K’alaqk still couldn’t see him, he saluted, the traditional, finger-splayed gesture spanning from ear to cheek but performed with less snap and more flare than the Unwanted strove for. “Consider it done.”
“The Messenger will arrange your transportation. I hope you were nice to him.”
The Messenger smirked, and Spycykle had a bad feeling he would ride in a cargo hold.
‘If I trip over any part of this outfit, you’re not allowed to laugh at me,’ Xlack whispered.
‘That statement only guarantees my laughter.’
According to Xlack’s Kinetic senses, Rifo leaned against a wall in a narrow, curved hallway, staring in the general direction of one of the many closed doors. Xlack was in the room beyond, ushered through the entrance by their resident fashion expert, Pongoi, a bag of formal attire shoved in his arms. At the same time, Rifo had been tossed a similar bag and directed through the door across the hall.
‘Time ran away, and I think it stole my patience.’
‘Don’t blame me. Blame the myriad of buttons Pongoi put on here,’ Xlack shot back. ‘It’s taking me forever to figure out what goes where!’
‘So, ya don’t have a problem with a myriad of straps, but buttons are yer weakness?’
Xlack opened the door. “Your outfit also looks like a tripping hazard. That makes me feel slightly better.”
Shoving off the wall to stand upright, Rifo grunted. “Ya insult my ability. I am as graceful as a pooff king, a creature who floats without wings, and also, if ya make him late so that there’s no food left when he gets to the party, will eat ya.”
Rifo strode down the hall, ankle-length coat swishing. Straps in sets of three curved around his ribs and shoulders and encircled his belled sleeves at the wrists.
Xlack scrambled to keep up with his long strides. “Please tell me this outfit at least looks cool, because I don’t think I can even reach my nose.”
Giving him barely a glance, Rifo shrugged. Their outfits had similar silhouettes, but Xlack’s coat had two layers, the outer velvet and the inner soft silk. The latter stretched longer, folded back, and buttoned down to form cuffs. A cape of the same materials hung over his left arm, fastened by three cords looped around his right side. It reminded him too much of an Aylata Defender’s mark of rank.
“Pongoi didn’t even tell me what colors it had,” Xlack lamented, inspecting his sleeves.
“The silk is red, and the velvet’s gray.”
“Red? Can you send me a memory flash so I can see it?”
“No.” Rifo shook his head. “Ya are getting addicted to that. If ya like seeing in color all that much, ya should learn to see it for yerself. Or get a Zalerit to teach ya how to feel color.”
Xlack flinched. “I’m not that desperate.”
‘Help!’ Teree cried in a broadcast whisper.
‘What’s wrong?’ Rifo responded in like manner, suspicion throwing his gaze around the hall. Teree was hidden in one of the rooms provided for them to change.
‘Entrycii swiped my fancy pants! They’re not in my bag!’
‘How do ya know it was Entrycii?’
‘He left a note square in the bag with the first clue for a treasure hunt. He probably hid my pants in the cake!’
‘Just wear your normal pants,’ Xlack said.
‘Pongoi would disapprove.’
‘Pongoi doesn’t rule your life.’
Petulance enfolded Teree’s reply. ‘Are ya wearing exactly what Pongoi told ya to?’
Of course, after the enigmatic lecture Mystis had given him concerning hidden messages in fashion and not offending the Knalcal queen. But how could he word that so he wouldn’t sound like a hypocrite?
Zeln sauntered by, Aarex trotting alongside him.
“Zeln,” Rifo called, “give Teree his pants back.”
“How’d you know it was me?” Zeln squealed, defensive stance reminding Xlack of a startled lyoko. Aarex paled, ready to run.
“Ya reek of mischievousness. Now hurry up.”
Zeln crossed his arms. “No. I worked hard on that puzzle, and he has to solve it first.”
Rifo leaned close. “Zeln, I know yer secret.”
Zeln’s dark eyes doubled in size, and he retreated a pace. “You overheard me say that in confidence.”
“Then have confidence that if ya don’t listen to me, I will confidently tell Lanox exactly what yer secret is.”
Zeln’s surprise fell into a glare, as if his thoughts alone were capable of impaling Rifo. “Aarex, you know where we hid the pants. Go get them for Teree. I’ll follow Rifo and make sure he keeps his big Tala mouth shut.”
With a nod, Aarex scampered off, and Rifo resumed his fast pace toward the ballroom.
‘So, what is this secret?’ Xlack asked.
Rifo looked back at him with a subtle grin. ‘No clue, but I was sure Zeln had one.’
Because we all have secrets, Xlack recalled his Mind Talent mentor saying once, but he didn’t share the sentiment aloud.
Thinking of secrets and unknowns summoned worry for a return visit. Just what had he interrupted on Mumir’s hanging sidewalks?
‘Rifo, do you think Aberrant will show up at tonight’s celebration?’
Rifo quirked an eyebrow. ‘If ya had to boil down what ya have learned of the Aberrant into one sentence, what would ya say?’
‘The Aberrant stick their greedy, sneaky, powerful hands into everything, and they always know the worst time to show up.’
‘Not an eloquent tagline, but accurate,’ Rifo acknowledged. ‘They’ve even slithered their way onto a seat in the Conglomerate and crammed the Alliance government into their strong grip.’
‘But I thought the common people didn’t believe in our existence, that Magni are only legends.’
‘There have always been observant people who know of us, and most of those in high station want to use us or take us apart to find out how we work. But, while I’m sure there are still plenty who would gladly dissect us, the Aberrant have thrown a new card on the pile.’
‘The cards are figurative moves, and the pile represents history as remembered by the public.’
‘Then just say that.’
Rifo sighed. ‘The Aberrant are making it more and more obvious Magni exist, and if they come out of their shell of incongruity, we have to as well or risk making enemies of the government we work in the shadows of. That’s why we’re here at this party.’
Right. Rifo had already told Xlack that the two top-placing teams in the reorder would form a new Unit One and they always had a formal ceremony with the Knalcal queen because of some super-secret pact the Adjuvants had with her. But that would happen later. The queen was this party’s host, but this was all a show for Alliance dignitaries.
‘All this considered, what do ya conclude about the likelihood of Aberrant visitors?’ Rifo quizzed.
‘They’ll hardly accept their lack of formal invitation as meaning they weren’t invited.’
Rifo nodded. ‘Therefore, yer worry has reason. Yet we rarely have no reason for worry, and this is a party. Try to have fun.’
On the highest level of the queen’s Visiting Tower on the cliffs above Mumir, the heavy door to the ballroom cracked and slid aside with the grating hiss of stone on stone. Despite Rifo’s concern, the banquet tables lining the walls were still replete with food, and he wandered off toward one.
Partygoers in all their finery mingled and chatted. Shallow domes graced the ceiling three stories above the polished floor and played with the sound of the crowd, tugging the blend of voices into a wavering buzz. As if playing harmony, chandeliers chimed, swaying in a strong, heavily perfumed breeze.
Regardless of the ample space—thrice as long and wide as it was tall, with arched hallways, alcoves, and balconies extending beyond every wall—there was not a place to stand where one wouldn’t be close to someone else.
As a Refraction Leader’s son and a Ravi, Xlack was accustomed to state gatherings where strangers all pretended to know one another. On those occasions, he had been able to discern the identity of most faces and determine the reason for their attendance. This crowd was a blur of details he didn’t know the meaning of. Did the massive, shredded feather in one woman’s hair have any significance, or was it mere decoration? What about the fuzz pasted beneath a gentleman’s nose?
He didn’t trust any of these strangers, and that put a damper on his party mood.
He searched the crowd for Napix life-signatures, finding none.
The word “Congratulations!” soon rang in his head.
“We’re keeping score,” Stevalok told him. He and Entrycii were also dressed in long coats, as were most of the men here.
“I’m winning,” Entrycii bragged.
“You cheated!” Stevalok’s punched his amaraq’s arm. “You told those two Tala girls to see which one could say ‘congratulations’ more times in the least amount of time.”
Entrycii smirked. “Don’t be jealous of my cleverness. Come up with something better. If you can.”
Xlack grumbled, “Well, ‘congratulations,’ has been said to me now fifty million times.”
“Dude, you need to hear Rifo’s speech on obvious exaggeration,” Stevalok said with a reproving hand on Xlack’s shoulder.
Lanox pranced by, soaking up attention like a dehydrated sponge, and though Xlack still thought his formal attire was a tripping hazard, he had to admit hers was even more so. Her bell-shaped dress ended at her knees in the front while dragging the ground behind her, platinum linked-circles forming a net over softer, near white fabric. This outer layer chimed with her movements, the perfect sound effect for her beaming smiles.
A dozen media men trailed her, having already given up on getting a picture of Twi, who, with a subtle command, melted any recorder that tried. Xlack wondered where she had run off to.
“Congratulations!” a Tala woman giggled, throwing her arms out for a sloppy hug.
He scrambled back, fake smile transforming into a sour frown.
Concern dripping from her bulbous features, the congratulator asked, “What’s the matter, Ekyou?”
Great. Another person who couldn’t correctly remember his name—the most famous name on Napix.
“Yo, manners review!” Rifo dragged Xlack back by his shoulders. He smelled of hot sauce and fruity liquor. As Xlack flailed to keep his balance, Rifo placed himself between his amaraq and the enthusiastic party guest. “Do ya hug Knalcals?”
Her face twisted in a grimace. “No, they go all apocalyptic!”
Rifo grinned and gestured around the room. “Knalcal party.”
The woman made an annoyed noise and stomped away.
“Just keep smiling, buddy. It’s almost over,” Rifo murmured.
Xlack tried, but he was sure his enthusiasm looked less real than the painted-on eyebrows of the older woman flirting with Stevalok. He stood alone in a crowded room, awkward grin shying people away from him, and that thought almost made his smirk genuine.
Such a powerful shield—a fake smile.
Or maybe it was how that grin showcased his scabbed lip. He healed quickly. The wound would be gone in a couple hours, but for now he couldn’t hide where that Zalerit from the winning team had punched him.
Another who didn’t fit drew his gaze. Also Zalerit, according to his life-signature, but the cowl of an ochre cloak shadowed his face. Xlack stepped toward him, smirk gone, but Lanox stopped him with a tug on his arm.
“Yer constant paranoia is freaking me out! Just try to have fun.”
He nodded, pulling away from her and turning back to the suspicious Zalerit, but the cloaked stranger was gone.
From across the room, Terkis stared at Xlack Ekymé, face impassive. Four Adjuvant leaders stood together, three in formal attire. Stella wore her norm. All this pomp and decoration was preposterous.
Qcoice nudged Terkis. “You watched that Napix boy the whole time.”
His eyes flicked to her. “I do not like him being here, and now he’s in Unit One.”
Nodding, Myr, rubbed his gray-bearded chin, voice so soft, Stella had to step closer. “When we accepted him, we thought he would bring us an alliance with the Aylata.”
Terkis snatched a drink from a passing tray and downed it. “Harboring him is worsening their impression of us.”
“You don’t know that,” Stella countered, “and we can’t let him go. He holds information we wouldn’t want the Aberrant to acquire instead.”
Again, Myr nodded. “He is also very protective of Navaria Twi.”
“He’s too attached to her.” Terkis threw down his crystalline cup, but Stella ’nectically caught it and returned it to a tray. “He should not be on her team.”
“No other team would accept him as well,” Qcoice argued.
Stella agreed. “He fills a hole in Hrausq Seven-One-Nine.”
“However, he is not Tyko Sep,” Myr admitted. “Twi needs to understand that. Ya should speak with her, Stella.”
Qcoice grinned, sharp teeth peeking over her lower lip. “Yes, you’ve been avoiding her long enough.”
Stella felt her cheeks flush. “I have not been avoiding her.”
“Discounting your presence at his initial interview, you have not even formally met this Napix teammate of hers.”
Hidden in her sleeves, her fists curled. “Twi is no longer an infant that needs my constant supervision.”
“Yet, she still needs yer guidance.” Myr stepped forward, not quite too close, but standing on the border of Stella’s strict line of personal space. “She needs to understand the distance she must keep from this Aylata.”
Stance too stiff, she folded into a bow. “I shall do as you ask.”
I’ve always done exactly what they asked, and hasn’t it paid off? I’m in Unit One. It’s such an honor, the highest position for any Adjuvant team. So why can’t I smile?
Twi stood on a balcony of the Queen’s Visiting Tower, staring at the starry sky, fists clenched. She wanted to be happy, to celebrate with her team and mentors, but emptiness gnawed at her insides.
Sep should have been here. It wasn’t fair.
This guilt hung heavily. It pulled down on her heart and the corners of her lips. Smiling felt wrong. Her eyes fell to the golden glow of Tala on the horizon.
Yet, if Sep were here, a piece of her argued, we would not have Ekymé.
She chided herself for this thought, too.
You cannot love him. You bring danger to those you care about. You can only protect so many.
She assured herself Tyko Sep could not be dead. The thought of him ceasing to exist was too cruel to be reality, but she had replaced him anyway. In so doing, it was as if she, the last one holding onto him, his last lifeline, had let go.
She felt alone, and it was terrifying.
But she was no longer alone on the balcony. Ekymé approached from behind, the heat of his hand close to her shoulder. He was always so warm, even warmer than Tala. The Knalcal part of her cringed. Did he, too, have Fire Talents like those of Zeln?
His hand paused, then pulled back. He knew she knew he was there and she would slide away from his touch. She always did.
“Are you upset we came in second?”
Twi shook her head.
“You’re upset about something.”
She carefully tucked away all thoughts of Sep. “We’re part of Unit One now. Our lives will be different.”
“In a good way.” He said it not quite like a statement, but it wasn’t a question either.
Finally turning, she put on a shallow smile for him. “We’ll be involved in the deepest mysteries of the Alliance. I worry for the safety of my team.”
His brows drew together, nearly concealed in his mess of pale curls. “That’s why we had this reorder contest, right? To see if we’re up to it? We’ll be fine.”
Before she could give in to the impulse to brush those curls out of his face, she looked back to the sky, a hidden laugh turning into a smirk. He looked at things so simply sometimes.
When he swallowed his words, arms hesitantly moving to wrap around her, she let the corners of her lips sink again.
He settled for leaning against the balcony’s rail. “I’ll protect you, Twi. No matter where they send you, I’ll come for you.”
The vow yanked her gaze back to him. For so long, she had childishly viewed her hrausq as invincible. As Mystis’ two agents, she and Sep had been chosen to go to Kelis because they could handle it. When things had gone horribly wrong, she expected to go back for him. Hadn’t she promised as much?
But the leaders had said no. They had abandoned him, these people she had been so sure would always make the right decisions. Now, she took their orders but not with the view that everything would work out just because they said it would.
The Twi of the past had always gone into a mission believing there would be a way out. Now, she did not believe they would do everything possible to ensure she returned home.
She believed in Xlack Ekymé, though. No matter what the leaders said, he would find her. He would drag Rifo and the rest of her team with him. He was a force against order and obedience, and the leaders could not tolerate that for long.
“We must all do as we’re told,” Twi whispered, “even if it means forgetting about someone.”
His face tightened, one eye narrowing more than the other. “Watching that first round of shymgo was torture, not being able to help you. I don’t want to lose you, Twi. You’re precious to me.” His stare had the touch of a million needles.
She shook her head. “Precious and fragile are two separate things. Consider symarr as an example.”
He had been the one to describe these hard, clear rocks to her, these gemstones carved from the hearts of dead stars. Symarr were the most precious jewels on Napix, yet they were harder than nearly all other natural materials.
“Symarr also appear to be clear.” He shifted, his unease like insectile feet scurrying across her shoulders. “But they’re impossible to accurately see through.”
“You’re not so easy to see through either.” She fought the urge to look at him. He wanted to touch her. The desire was a flickering flame in the stroke of his gaze. She couldn’t encourage that behavior. “There are questions you avoid answering, like why you really came here.”
“I came to the Alliance because K’alaqk told me to.” He stayed where he was, but he wanted to step closer.
Twi bit her lip. “You left without doing what he had ordered.”
He shrugged. “I recovered the Isike.”
“And you came back to the Alliance.”
“To bring you home. To save you.” The distance between them shrunk.
“Then you stayed.” She finally looked directly at him. “Why did you stay?”
Why did I stay?
Xlack had saved Twi because he couldn’t imagine doing anything else. Saving her was right, though doing so meant he couldn’t go home. But why stay? Why work so hard to be part of an organization that distrusted him for what—not who—he was?
Because Twi needed him. Because after a life of being told he would be something great or accomplish this or that spectacular feat and having all that ripped from his fingertips, he needed someone to know he was still here and worth something. Someone who could and would rely on him, no matter how much she pushed him away.
That last was the challenge of it all, he supposed.
Twi wasn’t bad to look at either, especially when she smiled. She was fancied up like everyone else at this party. Braids and bandanas hung from her twintails, crisscrossing to form seven curved arrowheads pointing at the ground. As if heeding that direction, a soft suede shirt dripped off either shoulder.
He questioned his choice not to embrace her. Rifo’s recent advice on not hugging Knalcals rang fresh in his mind, but Twi was only part Knalcal. She was within arms’ length. All he had to do was reach out.
His hands rose. “I stayed because you asked me to.”
“Greetings, Master Stella,” Twi said quickly, and Xlack froze.
“Greetings,” Stella responded as she joined them on the balcony. “I thought it past time I was properly introduced to your newest hrausq member.”
Turning to face the Adjuvant leader, he extended his hand.
Stella stood motionless. Billowing wraps and scarves concealed every part of her except for the galactic swirl of her eyes. “You have been quite influenced by Tala.”
As part of a low-ranking hrausq, he had mostly been assigned missions within a short distance of his home base near Vlavaran, Tala. Of course he defaulted to the local custom’s handshake greeting.
“Tala is where I live.”
“Where you lived,” Stella corrected.
To Twi, he whispered, ‘Knalcal greeting?’
She sent him a memory flash, first of Sep, then abruptly another of Entrycii. He mimicked their motions, crossing his forearms, then shins to form two X’s and bowing deeply from the waist.
Returning with a curtsy, Stella also formed the two X’s, but hers were crossed the opposite way, with her left arm closest to her instead of her right. Was that a gender thing, or had he just done it wrong?
She straightened. “Know me as Lulii Stella.”
“Master Stella is my sutae,” Twi added. “She taught me nearly everything I know.”
“I’m honored to make your acquaintance,” he recited, glad Twi hadn’t picked up her habit of hiding her form. Beneath all that fabric, was Stella just as beautiful?
“An honor for both of us. You are now members of Unit One. Rruugavoj.”
‘What’s Rruugavoj?’ Xlack questioned.
“Thank you, Master,” Twi responded aloud as she answered Xlack. ‘A word from a language native to Knalz’s southernmost continent, probably.’
‘Do we just assume Rruugavoj means congratulations?’
Her reply had a laugh attached to it. ‘At least she didn’t actually say congratulations. That word is starting to annoy me.’
“How extremely rude,” Stella said, tone sharp.
Twi flinched and hastily apologized. Xlack couldn’t see most of Stella’s expression, but in the shadow of her hood, her eyes glowed in the moonlight, and they looked unfriendly. She was an Adjuvant leader. Had she been the one to order Twi to kill him not long after they first met?
He very much felt that she wracked her brain for an inoffensive way to tell him to scram.
Enter Mystis, oldest of the leaders, rarely with them, and who had the uncanny ability of showing up at the most unexpected but convenient moment. “I’ve been searching for you, Ekymé. Come here.”
He excused himself and did as bade, trailed by curious looks from Stella and Twi.
As soon as Ekymé was out of earshot, the teacher turned on her student. “Alone on the balcony with him? Do you know how that looks?”
Twi’s eyes narrowed. “I dare not guess.”
“Do not let yourself get attached to him.”
“He is a member of my hrausq.”
“And when whether such would be was a heated debate, I pled for your side. Do not make me regret doing so.” Stella stepped closer hands falling on Twi’s crossed arms—an invasion of personal space, a claim on the one touched. By blood, Stella was not Twi’s mother, but in her heart, she was, so Twi didn’t pull away. “He is a Napix Aylata.”
Sažka’s image flashed in Twi’s mind. The Zalerit Knalcal had made her opinion no secret of late. Keeping the Aylata around was treason, and it would be equally treasonous to let him walk away. He should die.
Would Stella now ask that of her again?
She forced herself to stiffen so as not to tremble. “He tries so hard not to be Aylata-like, to fit in here with us.”
“He said Tala is where he lives. He did not call it his home,” Stella noted. “He is still Napix, and put in a setting with them, he might not choose you.”
“He already chose me once.”
“Did he? This could all be an elaborate trap.” Stella’s head tilted as it always did when she didn’t deem Twi analytical enough. “Has he informed you yet of his adventure with Napix visitors during the competition?”
Continued in Chapter 10: The Dead Never Age
Thank you for reading!