Zack surged through the cramped tunnel toward the light ahead, thinking of it as the alley from his dream. Alleys were, as many had pointed out to him, his natural habitat, and he couldn’t deny a certain understanding of how they worked. His understanding of caves was shakier, but he trusted that Nectra would be as unfamiliar with them as he was with jungles and hoped that the shangmere wouldn’t be able to keep up without any real room to use her wings.
He rounded a corner and expected to see an opening that would lead him to the outside world, but instead saw the overseer of the trials, the primitive-looking Sthenite illuminated from above. She smiled as Zack stared, confused.
“I… thought you were sunlight. The way out. I thought that-”
“You don’t have long,” said the overseer of the trials, her voice not quite matching the shapes her mouth made.
“Until the exit? Or until Nectra catches me?”
“Either. But I meant the first. Your language delights again. Zack… Tzak… I am sorry that your trial did not go as planned. The alien that I plucked from your mind found you. She was more immediate than I guessed.”
“So what does this mean for the trial?”
“Oh, you are not done,” she said. “But as a sign that you are not leaving without my consent… Dojurbu and Hansha are the names of the first two Sthenites that you will see when you leave the cave.”
“So I… tell them that I know their names and they assume that you told me?”
“No, but tell the third Sthenite you see.”
“I don’t speak th-”
“Shyese tzanara Dojurbu Hansha. Say that and gesture to the two you see.”
“You sure I can remember that?”
“No, but you have a remarkable mind for detail. I trust that you will at least warrant investigation if you do your best. The trial will continue beyond the cave. Dojurbu and Hansha will take you as their messenger. Go.”
“Shyese tzanara Dojurbu Hansha?”
Zack didn’t waste time. He ran forward, looked over his shoulder, and almost imagined that he saw Nectra gently leap into the light just before it went dark. A fainter light was visible in the sudden darkness, one just around another corner.
Zack turned and resisted the urge to shout in triumph at the sight of a narrow crack in the wall with light pouring in. He raced for it, slowed as he neared it, and turned sideways. He gently started moving through the crack.
“Pretty tight in there, isn’t it?”
Zack took a deep breath and started moving faster. How close was Nectra? How long was this crack leading outside? He didn’t have the room to turn his head.
“Zack, I’ll catch you sooner or later,” she said, almost pleading. “This really isn’t doing anything except making it harder for me. I understand that that might be what you want… I wouldn’t want to just wait for someone to kill me either… but you can’t win, you know that right? I can track you anywhere and, okay, I’m not some super assassin trained on a distant planet like the DMA’s agents, but I won’t stop. They’re only worried about money. That’s not me.”
Zack ignored the shangmere’s voice. She was a good four feet behind him, probably just starting to move into the fissure. He picked up speed and shimmied the last foot out, taking a deep breath as he stepped out of a rock wall and onto a pleasant jungle trail.
Two sthenites, one with purple scales and feathers and the other with green scales and feathers, were on the ground, dead, with clean, cauterized wounds along their chests and limbs. Zack stared at the two corpses in shock.
“Dojurbu?” he said. “Hansha?”
A high pitched shriek, like a bird of prey declaring its kill, was accompanied by the sound of a basket dropping to the floor. Zack looked up to see another sthenite, green scaled, staring at him from along the trail with a woven basket on the ground, dropped in the shock from what it had just seen. Zack took a shaky breath.
“Shyese tzanara Dojurbu Hansha?”