“The Suzerain grants you welcome.”
Zack nodded, trying to avoid the irate looks that Chala was shooting at him. She was translating for the Suzerain during the Sthenite’s closing statements at the conclusion of his trial, but he could tell that Chala had more to say after she was done relaying the official’s words.
“You are free to move between any encampment that recognizes the leadership of the Suzerain, and afforded the protection and hospitality due any of the true people of this world. Welcome, Tzak, Starprey no more.”
The Suzerain finished speaking well before Chala did as she focused on translating, and the crowd of Sthenites reacted to the Suzerain’s statement well before Zack heard it in its entirety, with most hissing, whistling, and chattering excitedly to each other. He took a deep breath as he felt a single threat to his life suddenly nullified. He instantly regretted the inhalation as the moving air in the back of the throat triggered his cough again.
The Suzerain nodded approvingly and turned to leave, as did many of the other Sthenites who had gathered before the stage. Zack watched the majority of the Sthenites depart and quickly jumped to his feet. He didn’t have much time left in the head start that Fletch had granted him, and that was assuming he’d been keeping time correctly and that Fletch would honor her end of the deal.
He walked toward the perimeter of the camp, and moved to its outer wall, nodding to the two massive snakes who began pushing the boulder away from the way out of the camp.
“No! You don’t leave yet, Gamma!”
Zack winced. The boulders weren’t far enough apart yet. He couldn’t dive forward and race into the jungle. He turned around, saw the incoming fist, and nearly avoided Chala’s punch. He fell backward from the impact, tripped over his own shoes, and landed on the ground. Nearby Sthenites who had been chattering excitedly had begun whistling and murmuring nervously at the sight of the two human-Sthenites suddenly engaged in an altercation, and the two by the door paused, wondering if their services were still needed. Zack waved to them to continue as Chala pulled the bow off of her back and aimed it at him.
“How could you, Gamma? What you did there-”
“Look, if you’re worried about me shooting Nectra-”
“No! You didn’t shoot Nectra. I’ve seen that energy burst before.”
“Thought you might’ve,” he said, slowly inching back to his feet and massaging his chin.
“That was the Oborosian Stone!”
“Excuse me?” said Zack.
“The Fact. Don’t tell me you don’t know what it does. This whole thing… this whole set up, you and Nectra were trying to steal it right from under my nose!”
“No!” said Zack. “Look, I’m sorry, but when I figured out what the stone did, I realized-”
“And you thought you could mask it with your guns. The Sthenites might know pistols, but you’d guess they don’t know what yours look like on the different settings.”
“Right,” said Zack. “You’re right about that. But only that. Look, I’m not trying to steal anything. You can have it back, even.”
Chala lowered her bow, but kept rolling her finger around an arrow. Zack watched the weapons carefully.
“Sure!” said Zack. “Look, when I figured out what it did, it was an accident. Tossed me back a few minutes in time, only shifting my position a little. I had… I had literally no idea what was happening until I saw the Sthenites carrying me back to the hut where they were keeping me.”
Chala looked at Zack uncertainly, but still accusingly.
“How did you keep it from the Sthenites? The Phantom Matador had it.”
“I lifted it off him when Nectra and I were moving his body through the jungle. Hid it in my hat, which would be a good hiding place even if it wasn’t teched out. A good smuggler always keeps a false top in those things, at the very least.”
“So you had the Fact… you recognized it while moving the Matador… hid it in your hat where no one thought to look for it… and then figured out it was the Orobosian Stone?”
“Well, I didn’t know it’s name,” said Zack. “I recognized it as a Fact initially and wondered what it was, then I just… look, you hear about time travel in stories all the time, and I was stunned to realize the Fact allowed it, but I couldn’t pass up using it. I wasn’t gonna kill Nectra… and frankly, I’m glad I wasn’t planning on it, the state I’m in. But I sure wasn’t gonna let her kill me either. This was an out.”
“You should have told me, Zack.”
“I couldn’t! You might have thought it was cheating, and you’re a Sthenite.”
“And you don’t think it was cheating?”
“It was guile. I brought the real murderer to justice here, and got the nod of approval from the Suzerain, who just needed an out herself, as you put it. I think the Suzerain, and the weird hallucinated snake-person who talked to me, would both be fine with this.”
Chala shook her head.
“You should’ve told me, Zack. I wasn’t done studying the Orobosian Stone, but I’ve figured out a lot. Plus, a Virellium energy wave is required to kickstart the Fact. If she hadn’t been wielding that scythe of hers when she activated it, I don’t think it would’ve worked for her.”
Zack blinked and rethought the last moments of the trial, considering how high he’d turned the damage on his Purcellian Strikers to help sell the show. He briefly considered Nectra’s last moment being a realization of betrayal and quickly pushed that thought from his mind.
“You’re right,” he said. “I should’ve mentioned something to you. So… fellow Sthenite, will you help me track down Nectra? I left a note for her in my hat, but I don’t know if she’ll find it, and even if she doesn’t a smart assassin like her’ll probably be just outside waiting for us, but no sense making her wait too long.”
“Especially since she’s Starprey.”
Zack and Chala stepped into the jungle, and the titanic, cobra-like Sthenites began rolling the boulder back into place.