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!