Tag Archives: Chala

Episode 167: Rock Beats Pauper

“You sure picked a great place to head, Gamma,” said Chala, cutting through a branch with her machete.

“It looked close,” he said, wheezing as he followed behind. The pain in his chest was growing sharper instead of staying at the dull and hollow pain he’d been managing with. “And it’s… more or less on the way to the field where I landed. Carmen’s gonna need to get me off the planet eventually.”

“If she survived reentry,” Chala said.

“I don’t think she’ll be coming down on an actual asteroid, I think she’s gonna get a ship… Hope she hasn’t already landed, honestly. Hope she’s not too worried about me…”

“I think she’ll have other things to worry about, if you’re anything to go by,” she said. “How’re you holding up back there?”

Zack coughed and waved his hand dismissively. Chala stopped and looked over her shoulder.

“I’m fine,” he said. “I mean… I feel like I’m dying, but apart from that I’ll be good.”

“If you say so,” she said, turning forward again and resuming the walk. “We’re almost there, but between you and me I think that fight with Nectra took a lot out of you, and I’m pretty sure she was holding back.”

Zack didn’t comment, but continued his walk through the ill-defined “trail” that Chala was either discovering or creating as they moved. The scent of the world’s humid air, baking clay, steaming mud, and spongy trees wasn’t comforting. Why was he dying despite being, as far as he could tell, healthy?

Chala reached the edge of a clearing, but paused and held up a hand. The field before her was clear and covered with a crumbly, moss-like vegetation, and a cool wave seemed to be coming from it.

“What?” said Zack.

“We can’t go this way.”

Zack resisted the urge to say that it looked fine to him. He stared into the cool clearing and couldn’t see anything immediately dangerous. He glanced at Chala’s eyes and saw calculated concern, though not immediate worry.

“What’s the problem?”

Suddenly, from the trees above, a figure in a green robe dropped into view between Zack and Chala, an insect-like figure who swept his leg in an arc that immediately dropped Zack to the ground. The trajectory of the leg sweep continued, but Chala was both faster and had more time to react, jumping back and aiming her bow at the figure.

Zack looked up, and stared into the bug-like eyes of Vox Cul-Dar. He jumped up and backward, twisting over Chala’s leg and throwing off her aim before landing. She twisted in place and fired the arrow at the alien, but Vox’s hand was faster, sweeping forward to connect with the projectile and continuing the arc to effectively throw it into a nearby tree.

“The next one goes into you or Gamma,” he said, staring into Chala’s eyes.

“That’s not likely,” she said. “My aim was off that time.”

“Mine wasn’t,” he said, smiling. “And it won’t be. The gift of the tea is fading, but I feel certain of this.”

“Tea?” said Chala, letting the tip of her arrow drop. The humidity seemed to intensify and the heat of the jungle seemed even worse than a moment earlier.

“I wouldn’t push him,” said Zack, shakily massaging his ankle. “I’ve never seen him do that before, but if he can do it once he can do it again.”

“You stay on the ground, Zack,” said Vox. “Until victory is assured, I won’t have you ambling about. You have a talent for misdirection, and opportunities for evasion are always in abundance.”

“Just lucky I guess,” said Zack.

“Don’t sell yourself short, Gamma. These opportunities are everywhere. You just know how to take advantage of them.”

“Get up, Zack,” said Chala, pulling another arrow from her quiver and feeling another wave of heat. “Even sick you were almost a match for Nectra. Between the two of us, odds are still on our side.”

“Before he could get to a knee or pull one of his pistols from his holsters, I would destroy your bow and nullify your ability to assist,” said Vox. “You seem martially sound, so I will do you the honor of not assuming that you would be dead so quickly, but that would follow shortly thereafter.”

“Martially sound?”

“He’s good enough at physical combat that he knows what he’s talkin’ about,” said Zack. “Studied it professionally, and that was before he joined the DMA and got hands-on experience. He’s not as good as he thinks he is, but he probably thinks he’s good enough to gauge how good someone is in a fight before fighting ‘em.”

“I may have overestimated my capabilities before,” he said. “But I’ve got an extra ace in the hole this time.”

Another wave of incredible heat rushed in, heralding the arrival of Igneous, pushing her way through the trees that singed at her touch. Her molten eyes glared with stern determination, and her gravelly fists easily cleared the path.

“You were right,” said Igneous. “They came right here. …Hello, Zack.”

Zack looked at the towering figure of Igneous and his heart sank.

“Well then… rock beats PI. We can’t win this, Chala.”

“So, what, you want me to just stand here while you kill Zack?”

“No,” said Igneous. “Vox and I have a deal. Zack lives.”

“For now,” said Vox. “If you wouldn’t mind, now that my reinforcement has arrived, would you help your friend up? We have a bit of a walk to go, and Gamma looks like he’s in no shape for it. Then again, neither is Igneous with how long it took her to arrive. She should bring up the rear to keep an eye on you two.”

Episode 161: Starprey No More

“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.”

“I can?”

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.”

“Seriously?”

Zack and Chala stepped into the jungle, and the titanic, cobra-like Sthenites began rolling the boulder back into place.

Episode 160: Blinding Blasters

Captain Ortega instinctively activated his jet pack, and spun to a gentle stop. He shook his head, still not sure what had just happened but feeling like a grenade had detonated to the left of his helmet, which hadn’t been active moments earlier. Alarms rang in the suit’s audio notifier and flashed on the display inside his helmet relaying a substantial amount of damage, damage comparable to being struck by a mag-lev. He turned in the air, frantically looking for his assailant and seeing the titanic figure leaping, nearly filling his vision entirely. Instinct prompted the triggering of his jet pack more than rational thought, and the captain launched higher into the air, narrowly missing Harold Zamona’s enormous fist.

He zipped through the sky in the domed section of the vessel, saw a ring hovering in the air, and instinctively moved toward and through it, keeping his eye on the giant figure below. He issued a diagnostic command for both his suit and his weapon, using both the Astroguard standard commands and the customized diagnostic commands that a friend made shortly after it became clear that Doctor Rogers was taking their frequent altercations personally. While neither diagnostic program indicated any immediate tampering with his equipment (apart from damage comparable to crashing onto a slow Class-C asteroid on his helmet from Zamona’s punch), he decided to leave the processes running in the background.

As the antigrav thrusters built into the rocket pack sent him through the hovering ring, he caught movement out of the corner of his eye, rotated to the side, and saw Harold Zamona leaping off a ramp at the top of a nearby hill. The former wrestler sailed through the air, propelled by the power of muscles alone, and just missed a chance to swat Ortega out of the air thanks to the captain’s quick downward dive. Ortega looked up and over his shoulder to see the monstrous figure clinging to the hovering ring up above.

“Don’t think you’ll hide down there,” shouted Zamona. “I know I said there was nowhere in here I couldn’t get to you, but at least make me work for it!”

Ortega eased into an arc that allowed him to skim just over the grass while he examined the environment. He raised the laser blaster, took aim, and pulled the trigger just a moment too late to hit Zamona, who dropped from the ring, fell, and landed in the soft grass, an act that left a noticeable impression in the soil. Ortega slowed, took aim, and fired again, just as Zamona charged at him. The blast of energy connected with the forehead, making Zamona slow down and shake his head, as if momentarily dazed. Ortega’s eyes widened, and he took advantage of the wrestler’s slower speed to zip into the air.

“No offense, but you move and take a hit like some of the meaner dinosaurs. Hiding’s a viable strategy!”

“Like you know how dinosaurs hit…” said Zamona, holding his hand to his head and scanning the skies for his target.

Ortega pushed away a memory of an ill-fated temporal engine that Doctor Rogers had employed and focused on his surroundings. The laser had affected Zamona, but it did little more than daze him, which shouldn’t have been biologically possible based on what he knew of the blaster’s stun setting. Neurological scrambling should occur no matter how much musculature a human (or even human-like alien) possessed, but the wrestler remained standing.

With a final shake of the head, a look of clarity crossed over Zamona’s eyes and his gaze snapped toward Captain Ortega. Ortega quickly flew further away, and adjusted settings on the rifle to increase its lethality.

***

Zack’s aim was off.

Nectra was zipping leaping through the air quickly and not, he noticed, making the mistake of opening her wings to slowly glide, exactly the kind of opening he needed to make her drop. While he didn’t expect the cheering Sthenites to be pacified by simply rendering an opponent unconscious, he’d rather have that case be made with Nectra being the one taking the nap.

He coughed violently, feeling it deep in his chest. It was stabbing now, and if he ever figured out just how he picked it up he was going to dedicate a portion of his increasingly short life to making someone miserable. He looked up just in time to see the shangmere fall from the sky, kick his shoulders with her claw-like feet, and strike his head with her staff.

Zack fell back as Nectra lit on the ground, twirling her weapon as the multicolored blade of Virellium-fueled force energy activated. At first she was backlit by the bright sun hanging in Mandrake’s green sky, making her seem like a moving shadow with a single blue-tinted rainbow of a blade swooping away from her staff, but she thankfully stepped closer and reduced the glare. He couldn’t easily see her face during the fight, but standing closer to her now she looked genuinely morose. She shuffled forward, clutching her staff, but moving with a purpose that Zack never liked to see.

“Y’look like a kid who’s gotta put down a stuffed animal,” he said. He lifted an arm with one of his Strikers, but Nectra was still moving fast; she twirled her staff to knock the weapon out of his hand, and sighed.

“Bye, Zack,” she said, lifting the curved energy blade over her head. “I’m really gonna miss you.”

“Wait,” he said. “Nectra, there’s still a few ways this can go down. We didn’t really have time to talk earlier-”

Nectra’s eyes flashed and she looked up at the ring of Sthenites.

“I think the time for figuring out a quick escape was before we got here. This is… this is probably the worst time to say that you didn’t want to try to run away. They don’t sound reasonable. I don’t… I don’t think what you’re thinking will work. I thought you were going to k-… Zack, is this a trick? Is this-”

“Yes,” he said. “Definitely a trick. But not against you. It’s a longshot, but… look, we’ve got less time than a fish out of orbit. Win or lose, would you like my hat?”

“What?” asked Nectra, blinking a confused blink with her giant, unsettling eyes.

“If I die here, keep it,” he said, taking the green hat off of his head with a practiced roll of the arm. “But I’ve got a feeling I’m gonna need that back. Think you can hold it for me?”

“I… yes?” said Nectra, stepping forward.

Zack tossed the hat to the shangmere, who caught it easily. Nectra held it up, examined it, and carefully put it on her head while the cheers of the Sthenites became confused mutters and started the transition into angry hisses.

“This is weird,” she said. “I couldn’t wear this while flying. This would… not stay up, I’d need a pin or something.”

“Looks great, though,” said Zack. “Sorry.”

“Hmm?”

A bright flash of light lit up the pit and Zack twirled his remaining pistol, hidden under a fold of his coat. A tangy scent of ionization filtered through the air and mixed with the incredible stench of the superheated mud, breathing new life into the sensation for Zack, now alone in the trial pit of the Sthenites. The crowd looked stunned, but, after a few cautious verbalizations of approval, transitioned into a chorus of cheers and screams. Zack shakily rose to his feet, coughed, and looked up.

First, he saw the Suzerain, crossing her scaly arms and baring fangs approvingly. Then he saw Chala’s angry glare.

Episode 158: Dressing to Kill

Zack wiped the sweat from his brow and looked over the array of daggers, spears, and swords before him, barely suppressing a cough. He could tell from the cloth of woven reeds that these were wrapped in that the Sthenites kept these weapons with care, but none of them truly felt appropriate for the situation.

“And the Purcellian Strikers are definitely out, then?”

“They’re only permissible if your competitor agrees to it,” said Chala. “And if your competitor has a suitably comparable weapon. Nectra doesn’t have a gun.”

“I’m telling you, she doesn’t need one,” said Zack. “Her staff is deadly, and I might die out there otherwise.”

“There are plenty of staves and cudgels here that you could take,” said Chala, gesturing to another rolled up parcel of woven reeds. “I think there’s one not unlike a shillelagh from Earth over there, actually, it might even be superior to her staff, weapon-wise.”

“Her staff can turn into a virellium-powered energy-scythe!”

“So you say,” said Chala, unrolling the new parcel and withdrawing a sturdy looking branch. “For what it’s worth, this is a legendary item that the Sthenites believe to contain magical properties. You won’t need to escape from your hut again to go looking for better weapons.”

“I’d rather use my strikers,” said Zack. “If she has a weapon she’s comfortable with, then I should have one as well. And I didn’t escape.”

“Fine, but pick another weapon anyway in case the Sthenites don’t let you use them. And you might not call it an escape, but when you get out without the guards seeing you I don’t think the Sthenites will know what else to call it.”

Zack sighed and looked over the options. One dagger in particular seemed dangerous enough to deal actual damage while also being simple enough for him to use. It was a hard, red substance not unlike chitin, and bent at the tip so that it was almost a sickle. He picked it up, and felt its weight.

“What can you tell me about this one?”

“It’s made from one of the mandibles of a threzh, a kind of cantankerously territorial plant creature. If it still has any of its poison in it, that could be a useful counter to a fast-moving energy scythe.”

“What’s the poison do?”

“A threzh can use it to slow or weaken its prey, sometimes fully paralyzing a creature for hours to make it easy to drag the prey back out of its territory. The Sthenites would only leave this weapon here if they thought it still had some of its kick, but this isn’t the first ritual duel it’s been available for. It’d probably slow down a person’s metabolism, at least, and make them slower.”

“That might give me an edge where a speed-freak like Nectra’s concerned,” said Zack. “I’ll take it. But I still want to use my blasters.”

“Great,” said Chala. “Hold onto them. I’ll make sure that Chala’s preparations are going well as well. If she’s using her staff, that might give you grounds to use your own weapon of choice. And practice with it a little instead of your pistols, it smells light lightning in here.”

“Wonderful. And I will.”

Chala turned to the door but stopped at the frame.

“So… are you really going to kill Nectra?”

“Maybe,” said Zack. “I don’t want to. I don’t think she wants to kill me either, but she was definitely willing to not too long ago. You’re one of the Sthenites yourself since you endured your own trial, right? Do you know of any such trials by combat ending peacefully?”

“No,” she said, stepping through the door. “Good luck, Gamma.”

***

“You look surprisingly relaxed.”

Nectra’s massive eyes fully opened without, it seemed, any transitional time from being fully closed. Chala mostly succeeded in not flinching as she gestured to the two pillars of stacked rocks in Nectra’s guarded hut. The shangmere herself was hanging upside down, using her feet to clutch the staff that stretched between the miniature towers. Nectra’s mouth stretched into an alarming smile, one almost made less disconcerting by being flipped.

“Thanks!” said Chala. “I’m trying to meditate before killing Gamma.”

“That answers that, then.”

“Answers what?” Chala’s wings opened and beat once, flipping her upright and letting her perch on the staff.

“I wasn’t sure if you were actually planning on killing Zack.”

“I don’t think I have a choice,” said Chala, her smile crashing into a morose frown. “The Sthenites will kill him anyway if I don’t… and while I’m not happy with blood on my hands I have to admit that this was what I wanted to do anyway when I first started hunting him. And sure, Zack said he could help reopen my legal case using evidence gathered here on Mandrake, but if I kill him I wouldn’t need that anyway and now I just wish I hadn’t made friends with him first.”

Nectra stood, stretched out her arms and wings, and fell back. Chala gasped, but realized that the shangmere was falling slower than a human would, and that she was falling onto the bed of reeds that the Sthenites had given Nectra to use when they remanded her to the hut. Chala watched Nectra lie motionless for a few moments before she sighed, rolled onto her side, and pulled one of her wings over her face like a blanket.

“This shouldn’t be so complicated. Or… actually, it should be complicated. I like complicated. I can work with complicated. This shouldn’t be so simple and horrible. The Sthenites have awful customs if this is what they make people do, just awful. If I kill Zack, do you think he’ll be mad at me?”

Chala didn’t mentally stumble over the question, but felt like it was a question that should cause stumbling. She walked to the mat between the rock pillars and knelt by the bat-like alien.

“No,” she said. “I don’t think he’d be mad at you for killing him. He’d probably prefer the alternative, but he understands how delicate the situation is. He’s constructed a situation where a Suzerain might even be able to step in to prevent a trial from being completed. With a different Suzerain who had more support from the different tribes, that might even be a remote possibility.”

Nectra flapped her wing back into place and sat upright.

“I guess we’ll just have to cross that road when we come to it. Thanks for not saying anything about claws earlier.”

“What?”

“When I talked about getting blood on my hands. I’ve used that expression before… sometimes I have humans stop expressions I’m making where I talk about hands, saying I should use claws instead. I love human expressions, though. And that expression involves hands.”

“You don’t exactly have claws, either,” said Chala. “They’re a bit pointier than human hands, but they’re definitely hands.”

“I know, right?” said Nectra. “Though I sorta do if you count my feet.”

“Those aren’t really-”

“Nah, my feet have claws. They’re really good for catching fish.”

“I-”

“Like, amazing. I’m great at catching fish. Fishing for humans is so slow, they just get in boats and wait for ages forgetting that the point is catching fish, thinking that waiting in a boat is the point, and I normally really like how humans do things, but catching fish is supposed to be active. Fly over the water, wait to see the ripples, splash in, and bam! Lunch. And, yes, I know that some humans hunt fish with spears, but there’s still a lot of waiting involved in that even if it’s more proactive. And don’t get me started on humans who fish with nets.”

Chala nodded, following the conversation flow.

“The Sthenites prefer hunting the native fish equivalent with spears. A few tribes use nets. Some just slither into the water to see what they can grab with their bare hands.”

“Ooh, now that’s nice… I couldn’t do that. I don’t see underwater very well if I’m actually under the water.”

“Speaking of nets and spears, though, I’m supposed to ask what sort of weapon you intend to use for the trial?”

Nectra pointed at the staff stretched between the rock pillars over Chala’s head. Chala glanced back up at it.

“Because there are plenty of weapons we can also offer-”

Nectra shook her head and pointed at the staff again.

“My staff can turn into a scythe around Zack. An energy scythe. Why would I use anything else?”

“Are scythes actually good as weaponry?”

“They’re better than good,” said Chala. “They’re awesome and cool as weaponry.”

“But are they capable?”

“Look, I’m using the scythe. Even if for some crazy reason a scythe wasn’t a good weapon, it can also be a staff which is also an amazing weapon, plus Zack is scared to death of this thing. You should see the look on his face whenever I activate it.”

“Zack feels there’s a disparity here, and that he should be permitted to use his pistols if you get to use your staff.”

“That seems fair,” said Nectra.

“For him to have a ranged weapon while you only have-”

“My awesome scythe? Of course it’s fair. I’m a little insulted by this anti-scythe attitude you’ve got.”

“Fair enough,” said Chala. “If there’s nothing else, I’ll take my leave now. Good luck prepping for the fight. Someone will be along shortly to deliver some fruit and… if you’re interested… I can have them include some fish as well.”

“Oh, yes, please,” said Nectra, rising to her feet and leaping back to her perch on the staff. “I’d love to give some of the local food a try.”

Chala nodded and walked out while Nectra clutched the staff with her feet, rolled forward, and resumed her attempts at meditation.

***

“Where is it?”

The Phantom Matador lifted his head and turned to look back, expertly revealing only his eye as Chala entered his hut. The two Sthenite guards rose to a firmer attention and lifted their spears at the sight of the new company, though the humans ignored them. The Matador turned back to resume looking at his cell wall, tapping his foot and creating a gentle clink as the wrought-iron manacle at his leg jingled.

“I don’t know what you mean,” he said, his sonorous voice echoing through the room, theatrically enhanced by either natural skill, his deceptive psychic abilities, or some quirk of the acoustics of the hut. “I do, however, see that you have my hat and my mask.”

“These are to trade. I give these to you, and you tell me what I need to get it back.”

“I think I agree… but sincerely, I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“The Oborosian Stone,” said Chala. “The Fact. You broke into my hut and stole it, Starprey.”

“Oh, that was your hut? I’m sorry, I should have known. Knick-knacks from Veskid and articles of clothing not suited for the serpentine form, and you being the only humanoid I’ve seen here apart from Gamma and myself should have made it obvious.”

“Now that you know what it is, how about that deal?”

The Matador tapped his foot again and sighed.

“I would agree, but I can not help you. I don’t have it.”

“Then where did you hide it?”

“I didn’t. The… Oborosian Stone? The Fact wasn’t on my person when I woke. I assumed that, like my hat and mask, it had been taken by Gamma.”

“He didn’t take those,” said Chala. “He’d passed out by the time the Sthenites located him. They removed your hat and mask.”

“Then they have the Fact. Or Gamma does. Or the bat.”

“Nectra.”

“So she told you her name. She may be a brilliant researcher, but she knows nothing of maintaining mystique.”

“She knows it’s childish and accomplishes nothing.”

“It’s an art. I won’t be appreciated in my time. Now… considering that I don’t have what you want, and don’t know where it is, I have no more to offer you. Might I have them back as a matter of courtesy?”

“Why? Zack seemed interested in knowing who you are.”

“You mean he still hasn’t come to see me?” said the Matador, turning to look at Chala. She’d already seen his face when the mask had been removed, but she was still struck by how memorably average he looked. His face didn’t quite match the back of his head, with neither appearing strange except in relation to each other. She considered the possibility that he was using his psychic abilities to confuse something about his appearance in her mind, but dismissed the level of effect it might have.

“No,” she said. “Like I said, he passed out after you did. You woke up before he did. He’s not had time.”

“Not even to gloat?”

“He’s on the run from someone.”

“Nectra, yes, but I thought they were patching things up.”

Chala coughed, not sure what to say to that.

“Wait… are you telling me there’s someone else after him? Even here on Mandrake? That poor man… he’s blessed with an inordinate amount of bad luck.”

“That might be true,” she said. “I don’t know many details myself, only that he’s in a hurry and Nectra’s on his side. He and she will be fighting to the death soon, and then he has to leave.”

“I feel that I’ve missed something,” he said. “Please explain. I still haven’t picked up on the finer points of the language, and I doubt my wardens would be talkative even if I had, but under what circumstances do people on the same side fight to the death?”

“No,” she said. “You don’t need to know anything while you wait for your trial. Which will begin shortly after Zack’s concludes.”

“I see,” he said. “Then we have little more to discuss. Except for… my hat and mask?”

“Why do you need it on a world where I already know what you look like and literally no one else cares?”

“It’s an art form,” he said. “You’ll appreciate it after my time. I’d ask for my sword to complete the picture, but as I understand it I’m being tried as a criminal, so that might not be reasonable.”

Chala narrowed her eyes but cautiously folded the mask and set it into the hat before tossing the wide-brimmed sombrero cordobés to the prisoner. He smiled, bowed his head, and extended the hat forward with his hand as if having just doffed it.

“Many thanks. Even without the sword, I have everything from my Traje de Sombras. I can finally dress to kill.”

Episode 156: Polite Awakenings

Zack smelled oatmeal that came with a healthy portion of cinnamon, milk, and honey, a reminder that every day could be sweet. He also smelled the black coffee, a blackness like the cold, unfeeling emptiness of space, or like the soot or mud that covered dumpsters in back alleys. Coffee that black would be bitter and real, a reminder that if you forced yourself to like something that tasted awful, the side benefits could help you to last until the next breakfast where there’d be more coffee.

His eyes fluttered open, and the strange thatching of mud and leaves reminded him that he wasn’t home. His ceiling didn’t look like that. He was struck with the realization that he never truly thought about what his ceiling looked like, but he knew it wasn’t what was above him.

“He’s up!” shouted a voice. Zack winced at the noise and looked across the room, gasping in shock at the gangly, inhuman being before him before he remembered Nectra. The shangmere stepped across the hut, stepping away from a Sthenite he didn’t recognie, and a human that he groggily recognized as Chala.

Nectra moved in front of him and he shook his head.

“Hey. I’m sorry, I… how’d I get here?”

“The Sthenites carried you,” said Nectra. “And The Phantom Matador.”

“She was very resourceful,” said Chala, stepping forward. “She encountered the guards who’d gone to facilitate your trial and the hunters who’d been sent to make sure you didn’t try running away. They recognized her from your description, and gave chase, and pursued her… right to you, where she quickly surrendered. They found me and brought me into the action so that I could translate.”

The orange-scaled Sthenite watched the conversation between the three aliens and slithered out. Zack followed its departure but turned back to Chala.

“Excellent,” said Zack. “So, the Matador is…?”

“In the slammer!” said Nectra. “The, uh… hokey?”

“Do you mean pokey?” asked Chala.

“Probably,” said Nectra. “He wasn’t up when we left.”

“That’s good,” said Zack. He leaned back into the cot and almost started relaxing before a sobering thought anchored his mind back in reality.

“How long was I out? Wait, why was I out?”

“The healer wasn’t sure,” said Chala. “But you’re sick. I wasn’t sure if we could break you out of it, but Nectra suggested familiar smells.”

“Humans like familiar smells,” Nectra said, nodding.

“Right,” said Chala. “So I tried making some coffee, and getting some instant oatmeal from my supplies cooking. I’ve not broken into that box in a while since I got used to the local food. Up for a bite?”

“Maybe,” said Zack. “But how long was I out?”

“About three hours,” said Nectra. “Don’t worry, though. We’ve still got plenty of time to stay ahead of Fletch.”

“I hope you’re right,” said Zack. “We’ll have to leave pretty quickly now.”

“You can’t,” said Chala, concerned. Zack tilted his head.

“Why?” he asked.

“You’ve got a trial to finish,” she said.

“We don’t have time for that,” said Nectra. “There’s an implacable assassin who means to see him dead, and she’ll be tracking him relentlessly. Zack’s only chance is to run while he can!”

“No, she’s right,” said Zack.

“What? Why?”

“I met someone in the caves when the trial first started,” said Zack. “But… the trial didn’t finish. I’ve gotta finish the trial, otherwise the Sthenites’ll kill me. I might be able to evade Fletch on this world, but I can’t evade the Sthenites. Not for as long, at least. And I’d rather have them as friends than as enemies.”

Nectra frowned and looked to the door. After a moment she sighed, walked to the door’s frame, and picked up her staff.

“I guess I’ll need this after all,” said Nectra.

“Why?” asked Zack.

“Don’t you remember?” she said. “Zack, if you’re going through with the trial, then we’re fighting to the death.”

Episode 131: L’esprit de le Salon

Surshen’s story yielded confusing bounty. The Starprey was different than any other, so different in fact that it was decided, after much deliberation within the tribe, to not be Starprey at all. Prey was what you hunted, not what you found struggling to live.

No sport could be had with such an intruder, and like a child taking in a wounded flame serpent so did the tribe decide that, at least in this case, the wounded would be cared for.

***

The sun was setting, and the stars were just becoming visible in this region of Mandrake. The Phantom Matador finished balancing the logs and twigs in front of the cave he had chosen for the evening. Carefully, he maneuvered the handle of his energy blade and activated it so that the searing sword would be in contact with the pile without destroying it. In moments it began to smoke and, with a few quick breaths, it caught fire. Satisfied, the Matador pulled the mask back in front of his face and deactivated the blade.

“Lots of secrecy for someone just trying to make do in a jungle.”

The Phantom Matador looked over his shoulder and saw Zack Gamma. He placed the deactivated pommel of the sword into its mostly-decorative charging sheathe, and turned to face the detective.

“There are those on this planet who would profit by my identity, Gamma. The price on my head may not be as high as yours, but it remains. How did you locate me so quickly?”

“I spoke to Chala… the lady you stole the Fact from.”

“She had no idea where I had gone.”

“No, but I also spoke to Nectra, and she had some amazing insights into finding you.”

“I see… so, Nectra has decided to work with you instead of killing you. Pity. She needs you dead to get the support she needs for her case to be reopened, you know.”

“That’s a bridge to cross later.”

“Yes. It still doesn’t explain how you found me. She’s hidden with me a few times, but never when I’ve been hiding on my own.”

“I couldn’t have found you without Nectra’s help, though. Or Chala’s. Or yours, really.”

“Excuse me.”

“Hate to say it, Mat… can I call you Mat?…”

“Mat?”

“Short for Matador. Hate to say it, Mat, but the Fact wasn’t the only thing that Chala had in her forge.”

“Yes. She stockpiled Virellium, though it was unpurified. A suitable treasure, but not one that interests me more than my own survival.”

“Yeah… about that. It’s everywhere in there, buddy.”

“I fail to see the relevance.”

Zack reached into his coat and pulled out a device, a box with a screen and an antenna that the Matador had seen in operation before.

“The tracker,” he said. “The device that Nectra used to find you.”

“The Gamma Tracker’s an astounding piece of technology, I’ll give ya that. It led me right to you. Unfortunately, it doesn’t track me specifically. It tracks Virellium and people who’ve been exposed to it. So right now… right this second… there’s only three humans on the planet that it can find. One of them’s me, and I’m not interested in tracking Chala. But buddy, you spent more than enough time in that forge to qualify.”

“Incredible,” he said. “The device works wonders, then. It’s hard to believe that Nectra couldn’t prove it worked.”

“There aren’t that many people who’ve encountered Virellium,” said Zack. “It’s not common, she couldn’t do any tests. Heck, if Chala hadn’t been stockpiling it, I’d probably be the only person on the planet that it came after. Scientifically speakin’, that wouldn’t even be a good test, it’d just mean that it could track me for some reason. Tracking two wanted fugitives who only have this single thing in common, though? That’s scientifically noteworthy. Might even help to get Nectra’s case reopened. Plus, now it doesn’t matter that you’re so good at slipping away. This thing will find you anywhere. No matter where you go or how fast you run, Nectra’s tracker can follow you. And with her notes, more can be made. We’ll figure out who you are before you know we’re looking. Turn yourself in now, Matty, and maybe I’ll get you off this planet and into police custody on Veskid instead of seeing whatever passes for justice among the Sthenites. I’ve got a feeling they’re tough but fair, which is great news for folks like me but just awful for murderers like you.”

The Matador turned and walked a few paces from Zack, holding his chin. He looked up at the sky, and saw the pale green fading to a beautiful black.

“So… you say you want to figure out who I am?”

“Of course I do.”

“Does this mean, then… does this mean that you were mistaken about who you thought I was? Or are you no longer so sure?”

“What’re you talking about?” said Zack.

“When we were up in the sky… in that big, black, beautiful dance of stars and planets and asteroids before we fell into this unforgiving world… you said that you’d figured out who I was. And you said some things… some things that made me wonder if you had.”

Zack thought back to the asteroid. Something about the Phantom Matador’s words rang true. He didn’t recall the event, but there was definitely something there.

“I… don’t think you can blame a guy for wanting to double check.”

“Tell me who I am, detective,” said the Phantom Matador. “I challenge you. Tell me who you thought I was, at least. Earn your parlor scene. Or am I to remain ‘Mat’ to you, then? A harmless nickname to mask your own failure?”

“This ain’t about me,” said Zack. “You comin’ quietly or not?”

The matador looked back at Zack Gamma, just as a breeze caught his cape and lifted it behind him. He reached down to the hilt of his energy sword, drew it, and activated the shimmering blade of light just as a shooting star fell through the night sky behind him.

“Never,” said the impossibly cinematic phantom before fading from view.

“Nice exit,” said Zack, checking the screen of the tracker. “But let’s see how long you can keep ahead of me.”

Episode 125: The Matter of Facts

Nectra jumped from branch to branch, using her wings and her staff to balance as she spiraled over the obstacles of the jungle floor. Zack, following along, was getting mud in his shoes and manually pushing the thick vines and reeds of the terrain out of his way where he could while slowly climbing over or moving around the trees, fallen logs, and boulders where he couldn’t. Nectra would often vanish while moving ahead, but would always either turn back or wait for Zack to catch up.

“Nectra, you’ve gotta stop moving so fast.”

“I’m sorry,” she said, looking down. “We’re almost there. I don’t want him to suspect anything.”

“I doubt he will at first. Nectra, do you-”

“Wait… someone’s there, but it’s not him.”

“What?”

Without another word, Nectra jumped from the branch, opened her wings, and left Zack’s field of vision. Zack waited a moment, sighed, and resumed wading through a tangled mesh of reeds. Soon he pushed through and saw a comparatively open patch of jungle. Nectra perched on a branch above, gesturing down quietly at a human who stood with a bow and arrow.

“Chala?”

She turned and looked in Zack’s direction. She smiled, but looked anxious.

“Hello, Zack. I’m sorry, I’ve ruined your trial, I think. Or made it worse.”

“What? What do you mean? How?”

“When you arranged the ploy to find Nectra, you thought this Phantom Matador would be nearby. I decided to find him myself while you were still waiting for her to find you. I circled a lot… but really there are only a few places in this area that someone might comfortably wait. I found him.”

“Why did you do that?” he said.

“From everything they said about him, I guessed that he’d taken something from my forge. And he did. Only it’s not the stockpiled Virellium like I’d hoped, it was… he stole something else.”

“What was it?” asked Nectra.

Chala shouted, pulled her bow up, and shot an arrow straight toward Nectra. Nectra screamed and fell backwards, avoiding the arrow but dropping off her branch. She turned in the air and opened her wings, but not quickly enough to avoid slamming into the peaty soil.

Zack ran to Nectra, but the shangmere was already pushing herself up. She looked at Zack and Chala, smiling sheepishly. Chala, unprepared for the sudden appearance of shangmerian physiology, winced.

“Nectra, are you okay?”

“Sure, Zack,” she said. “Just scraped. Thanks, though. I forget that humans don’t think in three dimensions most of the time. Sorry!”

“Chala, this is Nectra.”

“Good meeting you?” she said. “So I guess your hunter isn’t out to kill you, then?”

“She’s out to clear her name,” said Zack. “And right now, she was helping me to find the Phantom Matador.”

“He was right here,” said Chala. “He left when I shot an arrow at him. Or… he didn’t leave so much as he faded.”

“He did that to you, too?” said Nectra. “I thought it was just me starting to lose it.”

“I think he has a rare psychic ability that lets him cloud people’s minds,” said Zack. “I’m not sure exactly what the extent of the ability is, but he’s had a lot of practice learning when and where to use it. He might not’ve even been in the clearing when you shot the arrow at him, for all we know. I think we need the answer to Nectra’s question, though.”

“Sure,” said Chala. “Sorry about that arrow.”

“Oh, I’m fine,” said Nectra. “What was it that he stole?”

“It was a Fact.”

“A fact?” said Nectra. “Like… a true concept?”

“No, a machine. They’re called Facts.”

“Oh,” said Zack. “Oh! Oh, I see… One of those… one of those things.”

“So, what is it?” asked Nectra. “I’m afraid I still don’t know.”

“It’s short for Artifact,” said Zack. “Bit of an ironic name to give something brand new. I think that was their name when they were new, but that was a century or two ago I think. They didn’t come from the Angelor Republic, though, right? I was never really a history student.”

“No, you’re right,” said Chala. “They came from a rare period of trade and information exchange between Glorien space and the Angelor Republic. They were allegedly brand new devices. We didn’t have any eyes or ears in Glorien space to let us know if they were legitimately new or not, but we had no reason to doubt it.”

“Then why call them Artifacts?” said Nectra. “Doesn’t the word mean something left over or… evidence of something that used to be around?”

“I think the emphasis was more on the word Fact than Artifact,” said Zack. “Artifact might’ve been a nod to them leaving the things around for us before they left and vanished into their own region of space again, though.”

“Right,” said Chala. “In addition to being shorthand for Artifact, the Facts were items that did one definite, specific thing, and did them well.”

“That’s what I never got about it, honestly,” said Zack. “We’ve got all sorts of things that only do one thing.”

“Yes, but most can be programmed to do more,” said Chala.

“Oh!” said Nectra. “So, it’s a hardware issue instead of a software one? Brilliant!”

“What is?” said Zack.

“Well, most devices are multi-purpose, even if they don’t look like it,” said Nectra. “Almost anything with a computer chip, really. Most things humans make use software, and that software can be upgraded or changed so that the computers can do different things, or do the same thing but better. Software takes time and memory, though, and uses resources to load, read, and enact. If something’s all hardware, it just does it automatically without any need to update anything. My Virellium tracker is like that, actually.”

“It’s usually more expensive,” said Chala. “To suit everyone’s needs, it’s easier to make generic computers that can have software instead of making very specific computer components that only do things one way. Plus the obvious problem of being hardware focused is that if a product has a flaw, you can’t just fix it with a software upgrade. If you come up with a better way of doing something, you can’t improve to the latest model without buying an all new system. Still, fans of hardware have a lot of speed and ease of resource management going for them. Glorien space allegedly had more of a hardware base, but generally as an artisanal practice rather than an industrial one.”

“So, what were you doing with one?” said Zack.

Chala took a breath.

“It’s what brought me to Mandrake. I’d learned that one might have been in the possession of an industrialist who came here quite some time ago. His ship never made it off the planet alive, though. I found it in his old ship, but it was broken. I’ve been trying to repair it ever since, and using the Virellium I’ve been gathering to power it whenever I think I’ve got another component working.”

“What’s it look like?” asked Zack.

“The base is like the lower end of an hourglass,” she said. “The glass curves in on itself, though, and isn’t what I’d call… orientable, apart from the copper base beneath it. Above the pinch, it sort of divides into two helically rising planes of glass surrounded by occasional copper plates. All the electronic components connect to the copper. I think the glass is there for conducting.”

“Glass doesn’t conduct electricity, though,” said Zack.

“It’ll conduct vibrations well enough, I bet,” said Nectra.

“Right… so, you’ve never been able to figure out what it does?”

“I’ve got some guesses,” said Chala. “Nothing I’d feel safe publishing and staking a career in anthropology on, even with a stockpile of Virellium to take home.”

“How dense is the Virellium, by the way?” asked Nectra. “I didn’t stop to check it out once I realized Zack was there.”

“You didn’t take any for yourself?” asked Zack.

“No, why would I?” asked Nectra. “Finding you’s always been the important thing here.”

“It’s not purified, if that’s what you’re asking,” said Chala. “It’s mostly tiny amounts bundled up in other substances or intermingled with other energies. I’d say there’s enough for me to retire on, though. It’d probably power a planet for a few weeks.”

“Incredible,” said Zack. “So… this story time’s great, but it doesn’t get us any closer to finding The Phantom Matador. We should pick up the trail again.”

“How?” said Chala. “He could be anywhere by now.”

“We’ll track him down,” said Zack. “Nectra knows where they’ve been crashing. Between my skills and her knowledge and skills, I think we should be fine.”

Nectra smiled, her mouth stretching wide enough to make her teeth apparent to anyone watching. Chala nodded.

“Okay,” Chala said. “Okay, good plan. I’ll pitch in, too. You’re going to need my knowledge of the terrain.”

“Can we take it, though” asked Nectra. “You live with these snake people, right? And Zack couldn’t take their help before, when he and I came here. It’s part of his trial or something, right?”

Zack rolled his eyes.

“I think catching the Phantom Matador before he causes more harm trumps that, Nectra,” he said.

“Actually… no, she’s right,” said Chala.

“What?”

“Seriously, Zack,” said Chala. “If you were a fellow Sthenite, I could probably help you to at least track him down without anyone caring much. But the Suzerain’s going to have to explain you very well to the other tribal leaders who don’t like us. Two humans helping each other on trials breaks too many rules for her to smooth over without ordering your execution. You’ll be fine without me.”

Zack cupped his hand over his face and thought. Nectra curiously stepped in front of him to take a look before she looked to Chala questioningly.

“You’re right,” he said, finally. “Which way’s your forge from here?”

“Northwest,” said Chala, pointing.

Zack looked up and followed Chala’s finger. He nodded.

“Come on, Nectra. Wish us luck, Chala.”

He turned to move through the jungle again, and Nectra spread her wings to leap into the trees. Chala waved to the departing shangmere and human as they vanished from view.

“Good luck, Tzak,” she said.

Episode 122: Getting the Facts

“He’s nearby,” said Nectra, hopping back from Zack and twirling her staff. She set it into the soil and leaned into it, almost clutching it, with the shimmering blade of Virellium energy curving over her head. Zack carefully stood and inspected his pistols for damage.

“Near enough that he heard us planning, or near enough that we’ll find him in five, maybe ten, minutes?”

“The second,” she said. “Maybe longer if he sees you coming. He’s got sharp eyes.”

“I’ve got deep shadows,” said Zack. “We’ll see which one wins. Baurik? Or… Barik? Bar… Chala’s friend?”

“What?”

“I’m calling someone, I think his name is Baurik. He’s a Sthenite.”

A gentle shake of leaves sounded and the yellow and green-scaled Sthenite stood between them, ruffling his feathers and tasting the air with his tongue.

“Oh, look at him!” said Nectra. “Oh, he’s adorable! Don’t you think?”

“Yeah, you only get teeth like that on the cutest puppies and venom like that on the nicest echidnas. Hey, Baurik. Shtothro Nostrauhara?”

“Vashtara thaul Tzak vash.”

“You can tell what they’re saying?”

“No, but I’m good with sounds. I think I’m asking if we can leave and chase the Phantom Matador without all of Baurik’s friends in the bushes making us pin-cushions. I think he said that it’s fine. Where to?”

“Just across a stream west from here,” she said. “Will your friends come along to help us?”

“I doubt it,” said Zack. “This is part of my trial now.”

“Okay, then. Follow me.”

***

The Phantom Matador paced beneath the jungle canopy, his black mask and hat still covering his face despite the incredible heat. The shangmere had taken too long, and he wondered if he would have to rescue her again.

The snapping of a nearby twig brought a stop to his pacing. He stared in the direction of the disrupted foliage, wondering what kind of animal would care to stay so still after making a careless noise.

“It’s you, then,” he said. “Very well. Step out of your hiding place so that we might settle this face to face.”

An arrow sailed from the underbrush, but missed the Phantom Matador by over a foot. The black-garbed man tossed his head back and laughed with a musical tenor voice.

“The Phantom Matador won’t fall so easily! From the moment you laid eyes upon me, you were already deceived. It may be a breach of etiquette when I ask you to stop hiding when I continue to do so, but the conversation will be much less tiresome for both of us if you comply!”

A rustle of leaves to the left of the Matador announced the arrival of a human woman with black hair and a bow made from a machine. She neared the Matador, who raised an eyebrow.

“I confess, I expected you to be hiding elsewhere… was the twig snapping a diversion?”

“I moved after I shot the arrow,” she said. “I almost didn’t believe Zack when he said how you dressed. That cape has to be sweltering.”

“Fashion is always worth a little suffering,” he said. “It is a pleasure to meet you. I expected the only other human on the planet, and was not disappointed. It is curious that you know Zack Gamma, but not entirely surprising, given the circumstances.”

“Why did you kill the Sthenites near my hut?”

“They were trying to stop me,” he said. “They seemed very taken with the idea of preventing me from leaving.”

“Give it back.”

“Give what back?”

“What you stole.”

“Can one truly steal in a world with no laws?”

“There are more laws here than you know,” she said, nocking another arrow.

“Yes, yes, the tribal concerns and rules of the wild and all that,” he said. “You and I know better, though. Miss…?”

“Chala.”

“Miss Chala, I come from a more civilized and enlightened world view-”

“Most visitors to this planet feel that way. They all believe the Sthenites are worth exploiting.”

“Oh, I’m sorry,” he said. “I wasn’t saying that humanity is more refined than the Sthenites, though from a biased point of view one might make that case. No, I was saying that within humanity I am more refined than your average individual.”

“Which led you to murder innocents in a village.”

“It was self defense,” he said. “And I certainly wouldn’t have been there if someone hadn’t been stockpiling a highly dangerous substance.”

“It isn’t dangerous if handled properly. And they would have only attacked you if you were handling it improperly. It’s not a secret to them. I’m not exploiting them. They know I have it, and that I can treat it with care.”

“So you DO believe that I stole Virellium from you.”

“Yes, of course,” she said. “Assuming you’re not just an insane murderer, you must have taken something, and Virellium is what there was to steal.”

“Are you sure you have… the Facts straight?”

Chala lowered her arrow.

“What?”

“Don’t play coy now. You heard me, and there was legitimate need to clarify when I did it. Do you have your Facts straight?”

“Facts?”

“Exactly.”

“So you did steal something,” she said. “But not the Virellium. …Why would you steal that?”

“I knew what it was the moment I saw it,” he said. “It may not be in my field, as it were, but the value is unmistakable. And say what you will about not exploiting these people… you KNEW the value of it. Why else would you even have it?”

“Give it back to me,” she said. “Give it back, and I won’t kill you right here.”

“Miss Chala, you are more than welcome to try,” he said.

Chala pulled back her arrow and released it, launching it directly at The Phantom Matador. The Matador seemed to vanish just before the arrow struck, allowing it to embed itself in a tree.

Episode 116: Usual Suspect

“Tzak, you remain the only figure held captive with a connection to these crimes,” said Chala. Zack knelt on the ramp that led to the Suzerain’s fire, listening to the translation of her decree and ultimate judgement. It was much like the preamble before being thrown to the trial pit, though Zack could tell, even with the massive language barrier, that the Suzerain was deliberating before speaking instead of reciting well-rehearsed, ritualized phrases. He also had two of the red-scaled guards on either side of him, a very immediate reminder not to step out of line. The Suzerain waited on the far side of the fire instead of slithering around it, and after a long, contemplative pause she issued another series of chirps and hisses.

“Your tale of an assassin who can glide through the air and seeks your destruction is intriguing, but as yet there has been no other witness who can attest to such a creature. The sign of foreknowledge that allowed you to speak the names of two you had never encountered is impressive and in line with the more harrowing tales of the trial pits, but it is also well within the realm of a… the best translation would be ‘a cheap parlor trick.’ The literal translation is ‘charred hashthal meat’ and that loses some something in translation.”

Chala had warned him to refrain from comment, advice he was following. He understood the Suzerain’s point of view: there may be a mystical source of knowledge sufficient for testing personal merit beneath the settlement, but believing every potential murderer who claimed to have mystical information when standing over the slain bodies of two people could set a bad precedent.

“Your trial in the caves has extended to the surface if your words are true,” said Chala in response to more speaking from the Suzerain. “In the event of a lie or a failed challenge, your death will be swift. These two guards will accompany you until this winged murderer is found.”

“If sh-” Zack started. One of the guards swung a mighty fist, a backhanding that provided enough lift and thrust to spin him onto his back, and growled a warning. The Suzerain glared at Zack, willing him to freeze in place. In time she looked at Chala and hissed rapidly.

“She’s telling me… sorry, she’s asking you what you were about to say, and cautions you that death is nearer than you know.”

“I was about to say ‘If she did it,’” he said, narrowing his eyes to shield them from the brightness of the sun in the sky.

“What? Zack, of course she did it.”

“We don’t know that,” said Zack. “I really don’t think she’s a mad killer. She might sincerely wish me dead, but I don’t think she’d hurt anyone else otherwise, even if discovered.”

“Zack, the murder victims were all slashed with some sort of energy weapon, one that you say she carries.”

“True,” said Zack. “I never actually saw her use the scythe in the cave, though. She needs Virellium to activate it. That might’ve just been an issue of timing or luck, but she liked showing it off before. Also, I’m still a bit vague on the distances being described here, but she wouldn’t have had time to kill the person at your forge and then come after me while I was still in the pit.

Chala nodded and spoke to the Suzerain. The large, snake-like being hissed a response.

“If not her, then who?”

Zack thought about the situation. From what he’d seen, the sthenites lacked anything close to the technology required to wield a weapon anything like Nectra’s. He considered the known factors, and an image of a news report came to his mind.

“Assuming the suspects are limited to people in the Nebula Cup… a big assumption if the DMA learns where I am, especially with some of the exotic weapons at work in that place… the only other person with an energy weapon similar to the ones we’re seeing here was the one person who wasn’t supposed to be there in the first place.”

“That’s… isn’t that Nectra again?”

“She wasn’t the first place party crasher, though,” said Zack. “I think we should capture Nectra as well to be on the safe side, but the one person who might fit the location, timing, and weaponry requirements is someone who’s needed a dedicated hunt for a long time. Tell the Suzerain that the actual murderer might be The Phantom Matador.”

Episode 114: Bite of the Red Guard

The sthenite shrieked again at the sight of Zack, standing over the corpses.

“This isn’t,” Zack started, honestly not sure where he was going with it. He looked at the two sthenites on the ground, and at the scorch marks that were left behind by their assailant.

“Shyese tzanara Dojurbu Hansha!” he said again, holding his hands up in what he hoped was an acceptable sign of non-aggression. The sthenite slithered backward, a visual that Zack hadn’t been prepared to see. It tilted its head like a nervous bird.

“Shyese tzanara,” Zack said, slowly pointing to the two corpses just as the overseer had said, “Dojurbu Hansha.”

He thought about the situation. Was he actually pointing at the first dead sthenite that he had seen when he pointed at Dojurbu? Or the sthenite that he hoped was Dojurbu?

Another Sthenite rounded the ledge, and began climbing up the rocky path. Zack saw the red scales and cobra-like hood that he’d come to recognize as common among the physical laborers and guards. The new sthenite saw an alien in a green trench coat and horrible hat standing where and how a murderer might stand. The guard hissed and jumped at Zack, baring its fangs. Zack tried to dodge, but was too slow to avoid the lightning-fast strike.

***

“Zack!”

Zack coughed and sat up, feeling a sense of overwhelming dread.

“What?”

“Zack, I need to talk to you.”

He blinked. The light was dim. He was lying on a small bed made from woven reeds. Was he in a hut? Someone was sitting next to him.

“Chala?”

“Zack, how did you know Dojurbu and Hansha’s names?”

“How… the strange… thing that managed the trial, she told me what their names would be.”

Chala didn’t answer. Zack’s eyes were starting to adjust. It was definitely her.

“She told me that those would be the names of the first two sthenites I saw when I left the cave. I didn’t know that they’d be… I really don’t know why all this is happening. Someone followed me into the trial pit.”

“Not possible. The location of the exit is a secret to those who haven’t finished the trial.”

“She has a way of finding me. She’s an alien.”

“So are you. So am I.”

“No, like… not a sthenite and not a human. She’s a shangmere, and she’s got a way of tracking me.”

“How?”

“She says that it tracks Virellium Force Energy, and anyone who’s come in contact with it.”

Chala stood and walked to a wall. Zack dimly registered the image of her leaning against it, but she was right at the edge of his vision.

“The phrase you said to the one who found you with the bodies? It saved your life. She saved your life, I mean. She told the guard what you said, and stopped him during the venom injection. She said that you knew the names and that it was important.”

“That’s a relief.”

“There was a third murder,” she said. Zack tensed and stood, ignoring the sudden headache that standing caused after his venom injection.

“A third murder?”

“Someone else was killed in the same manner as Dojurbu and Hansha. She was killed in front of my hut in a different village. A messenger arrived to report it.”

“Do they think I killed her as well?”

“She died while you were in the trial pit. It lends some credence to the mystery surrounding your appearance outside the trial pit, a place you shouldn’t have found until much later.”

“The attacker in the trial pit, she wants to kill me.”

“And others as well, it seems. All while trying to find you.”

“That doesn’t make sense, though,” said Zack. “Why would she track me to your home in a different village?”

“Because of my forge,” she said, just as Zack’s eyes finished adjusting. “It’s where I keep all of my supplies. Everything I work on. And, unfortunately, where I’ve hidden a substantial amount of Virellium.”