Tag Archives: Phantom Matador

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.”

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Episode 154: Flight Delay

Zack and Nectra continued moving the body of The Phantom Matador. Zack had wearied of transporting The Phantom Matador by lifting his limbs quickly, and Nectra had recommended the switch to carrying the criminal by keeping his arms over their shoulders. Appearing to walk side by side, the three trudge through the jungle. Zack was definitely moving slower, and looking paler. He coughed violently and slowed to a stop.

“Hey, mind if we take another break?” he asked. “This heat’s gettin’ to me… maybe Igneous’ ice tub wasn’t such a crazy idea after all.”

“Ice tub? And no, I don’t mind.”

“Yeah, she was… overheating or something? And so she made or bought a kind of hot tub that was cold. Who knows why.”

“Well, I don’t think we can do that,” she said, awkwardly lowering the Phantom Matador’s body to the muddy floor of the alien jungle. “But we can rest a bit. I can even scout ahead if you’d like!”

“Yeah, sure,” said Zack. “Don’t be too long, though. I dunno what Fletch drugged Matty with but it’s not deadly, so he’ll come to eventually. We should both be on the lookout for that.”

“Right,” said Nectra. “I’ll… get our bearings. Make sure we’re on the right path. Ooh, or maybe ask one of those snake people for directions!”

“I dunno how well that’d go over,” said Zack. “I said you might’ve been involved in those murders. Plus you don’t speak the language, do you?”

“Right, the murders… rest here, I’ll be back.”

Nectra’s wings opened, and she pulled her staff off of her back. Using the leverage that it granted, she easily jumped to a low branch, kicked herself even higher, and began gliding away.

Zack watched the flying shangmere until she was out of sight before turning back to The Phantom Matador, half expecting the criminal to already be up and pointing an energy blade at him. Zack reached into his coat, and pulled out a Purcellian Striker.

“Not a bad idea, imaginary Mat,” he said, charging the Striker and aiming it at his prisoner. In time he found a suitably dry log didn’t look poisonous and he sat upon it. Minutes later he drifted off to sleep.

Much earlier, on another world…

Zack checked his passport again before looking out the window. The pilot for his charter plane was running late, and the other two passengers at the private terminal weren’t talkative. One was a haukreen carrying a glowing glass tube over its shoulder, and the other a human wearing a business suit and checking a watch while reading a small pamphlet on the ecological impact of human civilizations on non-human planets.

An orange skinned vantarian neared, the first that Zack had ever seen with his own eyes. The four-legged creature approached, looking comfortable in a captain’s uniform that looked like it had been designed for humans but altered to accommodate humanoid employees. The vantarian tipped its hat.

“Apologies, everyone,” he said. “We can begin boarding now, there was just a last minute charter service that I needed to attend to. Which one of you is Zack Gamma?”

Zack shifted uncomfortably and looked at the other two passengers, who were similarly looking at each other and him. Zack looked back.

“Who wants to know?”

“Oh, it involves the delay,” said the captain, smiling. “Are you Mister Gamma, then? Someone came here to meet you. Is that fine?”

Zack looked at the captain in confusion before glancing at the entrance to the comfortable sitting area that acted as the private terminal’s waiting area. A grizzled, though well-groomed and decidedly sheepish, Azar stood at the door. He raised a hand in a friendly half-wave. Zack returned the gesture and turned back.

“Yeah, yeah that’s fine. I just go through the double doors when we’re done talking?”

“Oh, yes,” said the captain, turning toward the doors himself. “Take all the time you need, he tipped generously to earn a little extra time for your plane before we take off.”

The vantarian walked toward the double doors and the two other passengers followed, eying Zack and the stranger curiously. Zack watched them go as Azar neared, looking almost apologetic.

“Hello, Zack,” he said. “I found your folder and realized you were slipping off without saying goodbye.”

“I said goodbye last night,” said Zack. “And again before you came out to Ravelar with a former pro-wrestler for your secret vacation, if you’ll recall. I don’t belong here.”

“We’re your friends here, Zack. Seems to me you belong where friends are. Plus, if memory serves, you weren’t thrilled with the plan to head to Ravelar.”

“I was wrong about that,” said Zack. “Zamona wasn’t waiting to get you alone to turn in the bounty. Or if he is, he’s playing a longer game, one I wouldn’t expect him to have the patience for.”

“You don’t give him enough credit, Zack. He’s actually very bright.”

“Maybe not. You could see the silver lining of a smog cloud, though, so forgive me for being paranoid. It’s in the job.”

“One you do very well. Stay safe out there, Zack.”

“And you stay safe here. Take care, okay?”

“I will. Goodbye, Zack. And one more thing?”

“Yeah?”

Azar reached into his pocket and pulled out a small, glowing disk, a coin made of energy. Zack recoiled, but Azar was faster, quickly slipping it into Zack’s hand. The detective almost dropped it in surprise.

“Hey!” he shouted, while his brain processed. “Wow, that’s… that’s heavier than I thought. And… almost hot.”

“Hold onto that for me, would you?” said Azar. “I don’t like keeping all my eggs in one basket. One’s in the bank, and the interest alone is paying for everything here… the other I keep with me. And I think that you should take the third.”

“Azar, that’s crazy. This thing should be-”

“In a bank? In a safe? Zack, it does no good in either of those. If I lose one, I have two others. Just keep it until we meet again.”

“Azar, I appreciate that we’ve been through a lot here, but this is a lot of money. You still don’t know that I won’t just run off with it, abandon you, and drop this in a bank somewhere for myself.”

“Are you saying you will?”

“Well, no… but that’s not really the point, is it? You shouldn’t trust someone with this much money.”

“I shouldn’t,” said Azar. “I will though. Bring it back in one piece for a nice bonus. Or use it for expenses.”

Zack looked at the coin and gulped.

“Azar, this technically makes me one of the wealthiest people ever by proxy.”

“It makes you one of the wealthiest people ever literally, at least while you have it. The oddity with wealth is that you need a place to spend it.”

“I can spend it all I like after I finish this job for the monasteries.”

“You can’t spend it in one place, though,” said Azar. “I’ve looked. Look, this is just for emergencies. And after what I read in that red folder you slid under my door-”

“You’re a fast reader if you read all that already.”

“I was in the habit of double-checking the fine print when I signed on for my hazard pay jobs,” said Azar. “Teleporting rigs don’t build themselves, after all. You need to know what you’re getting into.”

“Fair point. Look, Azar, this is still crazy even if you DO trust me.”

“I’ve earned the right to be eccentric, Gamma, and I’d ask you to respect that. We all have lives we want to live, and I’d like to do things that I like to do. Just like you enjoy helping people, and like Zamona enjoys wrestling. Did you hear about his first match the other night?”

“Yeah, it’s crazy,” said Zack. “He was good, they say… though I think it’s bad for our cover.”

“Of course you do,” said Azar. “Look, it’ll be a while before you can access a bank and take payment from me. Just hold onto this in case you need it, all right?”

Zack narrowed his eyes but Azar stared back with large, friendly eyes that lacked any real concern about the world or the reasonable dangers it contained. Zack eventually closed his eyes.

“Fine,” said Zack. “But you’re takin’ this back as soon as we meet again.”

“Do you think that’s likely? Your notes in the red folder were… thorough.”

“Look, just follow those exactly. I’ll keep in touch eventually, I’ll just have to keep tabs on how it unfolds.”

“Are you sure you can do that? It’s a complicated scheme.”

“Hey, did you forget who you’re talkin’ to?” said Zack, taking a step away and tapping his hat with the coin. “Mind like a steel trap. Look, I don’t wanna delay the fine folks on my plane any more, so…”

“Goodbye, Zack,” said Azar. “And good luck.”

Episode 150: The Unmasking

“Let’s go, then,” said Nectra, moving to the Phantom Matador’s legs and picking up his shoes.

“Not just yet,” said Zack. “One piece of business first. This guy’s got a bad habit of vanishing right when we think we’ve got him. I say it’s high time that I see what he looks like without his mask.”

“Ooh, yes,” said Nectra, dropping the feet. “Yes, you should do that. He looked friendly to me.”

“Wait, you saw him without a mask?”

“Yeah, back on the asteroids.”

“You were on some asteroids?”

“Oh, yes, following you. It was exciting.”

Zack held his chin, and thought. Asteroids were be a viable way to travel between worlds if you had a method for making sure they had an atmosphere and heat, and more than a little thought put into making sure that changes in direction didn’t fling a person off into space or kill them from the sudden increase in gravity. He thought he could remember a starry night sky on top of a mountain while he climbed a great chain or vine to another mountain top. The mountains were moving? Had he been on an asteroid? He shook his head.

“Great,” said Zack. “You can point him out in a line up. He says that I said I knew who he was… I’m not sure what happened that made me figure it out. Maybe I was bluffing. Either way, time to erase any doubt. Mister Matador, it’s time to figure out who you really are.”

Zack grabbed the mask with his left hand and the hat with his right hand. He took a deep breath and, in one fluid motion, pulled down the mask while pulling off the hat. The man had black hair, which had always been partly visible, and a thin, surprisingly kind face. Zack stared at the figure and sighed.

“Well then,” he said. “Now we can both pull him out of a line up.”

“You mean you don’t know who he is?” said Nectra.

“He looks familiar. Face like that, I’ve probably seen him on a movie poster somewhere.”

“Wait, no,” said Nectra. “No, you seemed so sure that you’d know who he was.”

“Well, the Matador said I’d be sure,” said Zack. “I wanted to believe him… and honestly, old Matty probably wanted to be caught and recognized on some level.”

“Why?”

“Beats me, but they say that about these flamboyant cases. They want attention, to be remembered. Usually, I mean.”

“You think he might be a special case?”

“No such thing as a case that isn’t.”

Nectra looked at the Phantom Matador’s face and shook her head.

“No, I know who he is.”

“You do?” said Zack. “Who?”

“He’s the guy we’re about to drag through miles of jungle so that we can turn him over to the Sthenites.”

Zack stared at the shangmerian assassin until she broke into a nervous smile with her too-wide mouth. Zack caved, shook his head, and smiled.

“You’ve watched too many of humanity’s bad movies, Nectra.”

“Was it good? Was it a good tough line?”

“Not bad for a first attempt,” said Zack, picking up the Matador’s arms. “You’re right, though. Time to get moving. I don’t know why he’s out like this, but we’d better take advantage of it before he wakes up. I think we go… that way, toward those three spongey tree things.”

“Great!” said Nectra, picking up the Matador’s legs. Together they carefully lifted the Matador and started to walk him out of the clearing. As they neared the tree line, Nectra watched the face of the Phantom Matador and cleared her throat.

“Zack, I’m sorry that you don’t know who this is.”

“Don’t worry about. He said I’d already claimed to know who he was, and that’s good enough for me, at least until I figure out why I can’t remember things anymore.”

“Good. So… is this the best way to move an unconscious human?”

“Honestly, it’s not come up for me very often,” said Zack. “We can switch it up after we take our first break.”

Episode 149: Detour From Memory Lane

The silence that followed Fletch’s question echoed through the clearing. He scratched the back of his neck, looked at the ground, and walked a few steps away from the assassin.

“Well?” she asked.

“I’m thinking.”

“This isn’t the time to play dumb. Tell me now.”

“I don’t know,” said Zack. “I really don’t know.”

“I don’t believe you.”

“Then… then I don’t know what to say. Better fry me with your blaster there…”

“Stop it,” said Fletch. “You’re… trying to be noble or help the greater good or something, but stop it.”

“I’m not!” said Zack. “Look, Fletch, I don’t know why the price showed up on my head. I just know that it’s there.”

“Zack, what’ll happen if I know? Will a planet be vaporized if the wrong secret gets out? Will it put me on the trail of a former client who’s also got a bounty on his head? Do you think it’ll make the last member of a dying race be executed somewhere? Were you sworn to secrecy about the Void Pilgrim?”

A flash of neurons zipped through Zack’s brain, and he almost thought he had the shape of a resurfacing memory to hold onto. Before he could grab it, he coughed and spluttered, staggering back. Zack waved his hand.

“Sorry,” he said. “I really don’t know. Look, my walks through memory lane’ve been going on detours lately. Either I did something and I forgot about it, or me being listed there is a mistake. That’s really all I know. Kill me and get it over with, spare me any more of this crazy cold.”

Fletch’s reticle flashed, zipped back and forth as if studying Zack, and went dark.

“Well, you’re either a better liar than my gear can detect… unlikely for a human, but not unprecedented… or you’re telling the truth and just can’t give me the information. You don’t have a cold though.”

“Lady, the way I’ve been breathing lately-”

“I can’t study your blood itself with just my reticle, but you’re not showing any of the most common signs of the cold apart from breathing. You’ve got some strange lung issues, but it doesn’t look like a cold.”

Zack stood up straighter.

“Just how good is that reticle of yours?”

“It’s not bad. If I wasn’t going to kill you in six hours I’d ask you to get your head examined… you’ve sustained a lot of blunt damage there within at least the last fortnight.”

“Thanks for the sympathy. Wait, six hours?”

“The deal stands,” said Fletch. “I’d kill you now if you were lying, but frankly you’re not. Improbable as that is.”

“Wow,” said Zack. “Wow, great. You’re a real stand up gal, you know that?”

Fletch frowned.

“I don’t think I’ve ever been called a gal before.”

“Sorry,” said Zack. “Won’t happen again.”

“I’ll see you in six, Gamma,” said Fletch, turning to walk away and pulling a strange device with a screen out of a compartment on her belt. “Tell your friend thanks for not swooping in here to try and stop me. I still need to repay Miss Shift for that.”

She walked away from the Phantom Matador’s campfire, and soon blended into the shadows before reaching the treeline. Zack shook his head.

“I’ve still gotta get some more yellow for my coat.”

“Yellow?”

Zack turned just in time to see Nectra’s feet touching down at the end of a glide, her staff extending to keep her balance. Zack shook his head.

“Something I was thinking earlier, not important.”

“Who was she?” asked Nectra. “I wanted to fly out and help, but it looked like things were civil after you two started talking. Oh, is she an old friend? An old friend from your agency? Was she sent here for the Phantom Matador, but then you triggered a trap for him and narrowly avoided it while she recognized you, and then you had to explain to her that she might need the bounty, but you need him for your trial, and then her old feelings for you won out leading her to walk away so that you could keep your word to the Sthenites?”

“Nah, nothing that fancy, she just wants me dead. Probably best that you didn’t fly out here. Help me move this body, we’ve only got a six hour head start.”

“Six hours?”

“She gave me six hours in exchange for some information. Turns out I didn’t have the information, but her word’s got more weight to it than most people at the DMA. It’s one of the reasons why she’s the best, I think.”

“Wait, in six hours she’ll just show up again and kill you? Zack, we can’t let that happen. I need you to reopen my case. Or to kill you myself.”

“Don’t worry about it,” said Zack, waving his hands in front of the Phantom Matador’s face. “Six hours from now, we’ll be back with the Sthenites, and I’ll be able to hide anywhere I want on this planet.”

***

Fletched walked through the treeline, checking her device. It wasn’t useful for much except for tracking a certain kind of radiation. However, by a fortuitous set of circumstances, the radiation it detected was given off by Samodiva Cannons. Zack had almost ruined everything by not moving quickly enough, even after the Samodiva Cannon had its charging sequence slowed to give any potential victims more time to dodge.

She made her way the short distance to her ship, The Bakekujira. The bone-white protrusions outside the black hull of the vessel were fitted with anti-detection hardware to give her a fighting chance of sneaking past nearly any no-fly zones that might otherwise slow down her missions.

She checked the screen of her radiation meter and shook her head. It would only work across short distances, and the radiation signature wouldn’t last long. Eight hours would have been too risky, after all, but six hours would keep Zack from slipping away one last time.

Episode 148: Haggling

Zack leaned against a tree until he felt the wave of nausea pass. His throat was scratching like a flea circus pitchman, but he couldn’t cough until he had the Phantom Matador in point blank range of his strikers.

He lifted his head. The clearing was large, and the glowing fire cast long shadows which Zack tried to use as he left the tree line. The Phantom Matador was sitting near the fire, his cape pulled behind him and his hat pulled down in front of his face. He might have been dozing, an ideal situation that Zack wouldn’t count on.

He stepped closer, covering the distance. He checked Nectra’s scanner one last time, and determined that The Phantom Matador was, in fact, right in front of him. No strange psychic projections were hampering the scene.

Zack slipped the tracker into a pocket of his coat and reached for his holsters. The twin Purcellian Striker pistols lifted and aimed at the Matador. He stepped closer. Hey, Mat… that’s what he’d say. Hey, Mat. It’d give the upper hand conversationally.

Zack closed to within five feet of the Matador. A gentle wind was blowing through the clearing, pushing the smoke from the fire to the side.

Zack heard a click from the treeline ahead of him.

The whine of a powerful capacitor charging sounded from the darkness.

Zack panicked and started jumping to the right. Time slowed as a glowing sphere of blue-white energy launched from the darkness. Zack fell on the ground and the blast of energy passed over his head. Zack rolled to a kneeling position and aimed his Strikers at the darkness. He watched and listened carefully as the analytical part of his mind started processing.

“Vodianoi Cannon?” he whispered to himself, watching the trees carefully, and missing the sound of the footsteps behind him.

“Samodiva Cannon,” said a voice. Zack looked over his shoulder and saw a woman in a blue cysuit with a cybernetic reticle over an eye. She held her near-legendary Chernoblaster, keeping it at a point-blank range.

“Fletch?!” he said, instinctively trying to jump back, but tripping over his own feet as he did so.

“The Vodianoi Cannon is built to be submerged under water. The Samodiva Cannon is built to hide in clusters of trees, caves, other dark wilderness locations. Now, I would’ve preferred to use a Jinmenju Snare instead of a Samodiva Cannon… and if we were near water I actually brought a Jorogumo Striker… but you work with what you’ve got!”

Zack’s mind raced. He didn’t know military-grade munitions the way that Fletch did, but there was a definite pattern.

“I don’t… I don’t understand. Fletch, the Samodiva’s not deadly.”

“What if you’d picked up the poor Phantom Matador to use as a human shield?” she said. “I can get his bounty if he’s alive.”

“But… the Jinmenju Snare, that’s just a trapping device, isn’t it?”

“Doesn’t leave much mess to clean up, and doesn’t take away so much evidence that they’ve only got my say so that I finished the job. The DMA’ll award a bounty if there’s no body, but only if you can prove that you caused the death.”

Zack narrowed his eyes.

“That blaster of yours would leave the evidence, though. And I can’t help but notice that I’m still noticin’ things, almost like you hadn’t killed me yet.”

“I haven’t.”

“You’re a professional, Fletch,” he said. “Best in the business. Not that I’m not grateful, but why’re you not finishing me off? What do you want?”

“Make no mistake, I do want to kill you,” said Fletch. “I wanted to kill you before, at Murk’s stronghold in Helix. There were too many other mercenaries crawling around, though. Too much competition. Especially from your friend Igneous.”

Zack slowly rose to his feet, keeping a close eye on the gun.

“You think she’d stop someone from gettin’ to me? She’s not stupid. The DMA’d put a bounty on her head just like on mine if she helped me.”

“She could still injure another assassin and claim it was an attempt to catch you. A moot point, though, as she helped me to find you here on Mandrake. Practically arranged it, even.”

Zack opened his mouth to respond but couldn’t. Fletch paused and watched his face carefully.

“Did she, now?” he said.

“She did. Now, I do plan on killing you, Zack Gamma, the bounty’s only good if you’re dead. But I need some information first, and fortunately there aren’t any other bounty hunters or assassins on this planet who might overhear, assuming he knows what’s good for him.”

“Him?”

“Had some competition when I first got here, but it’s been handled. Ready to tell me what I want to know?”

“Why should I? You’ll kill me anyway.”

“You want a five minute head start?”

“Pass. I’ll take a day’s head start, though.”

“You think I’d let you last a day out there?”

“I think you’ll let me last however long we agree on.”

Fletch paused and, after a moment, lowered the gun to her side.

“Two hours.”

“Twelve hours.”

“Six.”

“Eight.”

“Six, or I kill you right now,” she said. “I want to know, but I don’t want to know that badly.”

“You’re tryin’ to lowball me. We can push this to seven.”

Fletch raised the Chernoblaster.

“Or six,” said Zack. “Six hour head start… and I get the Phantom Matador.”

Fletch lowered her weapon and looked over at the unconscious figure that she’d propped by the fire.

“He’ll just be dead weight while you put distance between yourself and me. And with no way off the planet he’s just going back into my custody after I catch you.”

“You’ll have to pry him away from the Sthenites,” said Zack. “I’m in the middle of a trial, and I’m about out of time, but he’s important to it.”

Fletch looked up to the sky, then back to the Phantom Matador. Her reticle swiveled and focused on Zack while she stared at her sleeping prisoner.

“I suppose six hours would give me time to make some more preparations at the Bake-Kujira.”

“The what?”

“My ship,” said Fletch. “Fine. You’ve got your six hours, and the custody of the Phantom Matador. Congrats on another fourth of a day of life, Zack Gamma. Assuming, of course, that your information is good.”

“Shoot,” said Zack. “Well, I mean… go for it. Ask your questions, I mean.”

“I’ve only got one,” said Fletch. “What did you do to get the DMA to put this bounty on your head?”

Episode 142: Knowing What To Look For

“Not much further,” said Nectra, looking over the scanner while perched in the branch of a tree, holding her staff for balance. “He’s only a few hundred yards away.”

“He’s slowing down, then,” said Zack, catching up to the tree and shaking the latest clump of dirt off of his shoe. “Not sure what’ll happen when he decides he’s found a defensible position. I don’t think he likes the idea of being cornered. Hopefully he’ll make a mistake.”

“Is that common?” asked Nectra. “Sorry, I mean… are the mistakes common? I assume that manhunts don’t happen often. Do they? I mean, the DMA has a pretty big percentage of its operations dedicated to it, so I suppose they might. But I was asking about people making mistakes.”

“Well-”

“When they’re cornered. Mistakes when they’re cornered. People make mistakes all the time.”

“They make more when they’re under pressure, and this place is just the kind of pressure cooker that we need. He’s smart, though. He’s not gonna run until he’s exhausted, unless we get more luck than we deserve down here.”

“Ooh, I like that,” said Nectra. “You need to say something like that when you find him.”

“Don’t know about that. Talking’s one of the things he does best, and it gives him an edge. I’ll just let my strikers do the talking.”

“Right, something like that,” said Nectra, nodding eagerly. “In fact… I don’t have anything that could record us catching him. But maybe if I rewire the tracker…”

“Nectra? We’re on a timetable here.”

Nectra fixed a piercing gaze at Zack, and he could almost feel the waves of focus boring into him. Her too-wide mouth broke into a toothy smile as her eyes widened.

“Right! Right, sorry, I’m new to this. Let’s go… this way, he’s this way…”

Nectra jumped from her branch and flew forward, vanishing into the trees. Zack nodded and followed.

***

The Phantom Matador held the hilt of his deactivated energy blade, pushing his back up against the rocky outcropping. He’d actually seen Nectra leaping between trees behind him at one point; his pursuers were closing in. He took a deep breath and readied himself for the great dance, reaching out with his mind to locate all of the rocks and boulders in the area. It would be an inelegant end to his relationship with the detective, and likely with Nectra as well if it came to that, but he was prepared.

A tiny dart lanced from the foliage and connected with his throat. The Phantom Matador gasped, felt his knees weaken, and fell to his knees. His vision blurred, but he could see the leaves of the bushes part. A figure in a blue cysuit emerged. The cysuit was built for stealth, and the simple reticle over her eye told him everything he needed to know even before he realized that she was holding a rifle. He started reaching for the control on his sword, but the woman was too fast and pinned his arm to the stone behind him.

“You’re lucky I’m in a good mood,” she said. “It’s always tempting to see how people do when they’re woozy and trying to operate dangerous equipment. It’ll be easier to move you if you’ve got both of your arms and legs, though.”

“Who… how-”

“Phantom Matador, I’m an operative of the Desperate Measures Agency, and I’m prepared to offer you leniency. I’ve been tracking you for some time now… it’s hard to know where you actually are, but my scanners can pick up petrakinetic frequencies. If you hadn’t just tried to use that fancy brain of yours, I probably would’ve waited all night without knowing that it was you.”

“But… but they-”

“They’re actually easier to track than most people think. They’re energy waves like any other, you just need to know what to look for. The right military hardware makes it easy, and I collect things like that. Now… you’ve got two people tracking you, and I could do very well if I bring all three of you in. So, before I take you back to my ship, I think it’s time that you play bait.”

Episode 135: Falling In

Zack pushed his way through the tree branches and vines, keeping an eye on those places in the vibrant foliage where it seemed likely that someone else had already stepped through them, bending the vegetation out of place. He wasn’t sure what the extent of the Phantom Matador’s powers were, but he was working on the assumption that the Matador couldn’t actually teleport. While not unheard of, such capabilities were well beyond the standard feats of psychic ability. Some suggested that the reason for the rarity was that governments were quick to detect those who were gifted with teleportation and arranged for such people to quietly disappear into various medical experiments or spy training groups, but such people also claimed to have seen things like the Void Pilgrim. Zack, while willing to accept a lot as possible, chose not to believe such theories without actual evidence.

“You’re dedicated. I will concede that much.”

Zack stopped and looked behind him. Was there something in the tree branch? A humanoid figure, obscured by the shadows, was standing overhead. Zack looked at the tracker in his hand, and the direction of the Phantom Matador was ahead of him, not behind.

“Not much else to do,” said Zack. He coughed, and kept following the faint traces of the trail, keeping his eyes on the direction suggested by the tracking device.

“I don’t know what you told Nectra,” said the Phantom Matador, his voice coming from ahead now. “But I don’t approve. If she doesn’t kill you, she returns to a life of imprisonment.”

“I don’t like her tryin’ to bump me off,” said Zack. He wiped his brow and took a long look at the screen of the tracker, just to make sure it was lining up with what he expected.

“I don’t mean to say that you should surrender yourself to her. I am an advocate of escape, after all. But leading her to the mistaken belief that you can offer her another way out of her situation? Your false hope will do more harm than good as she struggles against the faceless corporations and spineless bureaucrats who wield all the power.”

“Did good when I did it before,” Zack said, quietly. He stopped moving forward to catch his breath. The voice sounded like it was coming from overhead and forward. Would this be another trick of psychic ventriloquism, or was the Phantom Matador actually waiting in a tree?

A boulder arced through the underbrush. Zack gasped, stumbled backward, and narrowly avoided the rocky missile as it collided into a tree, sticking into the spongy bark with a dull thud.

“You’re slow,” said the Matador’s voice. “Slower than when we dueled at the hotel.”

“Didn’t you peg me then?” asked Zack, clumsily getting back to his feet.

“I grazed you. And you had two boulders to worry about. Boulders that were moving faster. Either you had a wonderful day then, or you’re having a dark day now.”

“Not as dark as you’re about to have,” said Zack, continuing to follow the trail. He kept his eyes and ears open for more incoming boulders, but it was hard to focus on his surroundings while keeping an eye on the trail and the tracker.

“She’s quite taken with you, you know.”

“Excuse me?” said Zack, grabbing an oddly angled branch that was blocking most of the path and stepping under it.

“Nectra. I believe she’s enamored with you. She hasn’t said so in so many words, but you should hear how she talks about you. It makes your persuasion that you can help her all the more reprehensible, Zack. Tell me, has she ever had a clear chance at ending your life where you were spared only through her hesitation?”

Zack stopped for a moment but shook his head and kept moving.

“She’s not cut out for being an assassin,” said Zack. “That’s not something to be ashamed of.”

“Don’t dodge the evidence, Zack. Like me, she’s a romantic. She’s completely enthralled with humans and human culture. And from what she’s said of you, you’re exactly the kind of tragic figure who fits into melodramatic tales of star-crossed lovers, at least in her eyes. On the run from your previous employers, with a price on your head… and her being sent to murder you as the only way to prove her innocence and gain freedom… you can’t deny the dramatic appeal. You don’t have a disfigured twin who might want to ruin your happiness out of spite, do you?”

“Yeah, but I turned him in for fraud and he’s still got three years on his sentence. Makes visiting the parents awkward, but the bounty was nice.”

“I… can’t tell if you’re serious.”

“Buddy, I think you’re crazy about Nectra. But even if you’re not, it doesn’t really change anything. She’s still a rational… mostly rational scientist. Might be a little loopy from trying to wrap her head around Virellium, but-”

Another rock launched from the brush to his side. Zack jumped back, falling off the trail, and landing in a patch of soil softer than the rest. His feet immediately sank to his ankles and, quickly, to just below his knees. He tried to lift his foot out, but the motion only caused him to sink further. His eyes grew wide as he turned to look at the boulder that landed at his side, seeing it slowly sinking along with him.

“I was right! You’re definitely slower. And not noticing as much from your surroundings as you should. Are you feeling well? I’m sorry, don’t worry about that. I was delighted to find actual quicksand in this jungle. You’re probably struggling to remember everything you’ve heard or read about it, and trying to remember which facts about quicksand are real, and which are just the product of poorly researched adventure movies, and trying to figure out how this alien soil would make it different, if it would make it different at all.”

“Say, buddy, what say you help me out of this?” said Zack, looking around for something he could grab onto to pull himself out of the patch.

“But why would I do that after I spent so long carving away all the spare vines and branches that might have provided a lifeline? All that effort would have been for nothing. And then you’d just try to catch me again.”

“No, no I can… not do that,” said Zack. “I’ll give you a day’s head start. Or… heck, I’d stop trying to catch you entirely, you’ll probably die on this planet anyway.”

“That’s very generous of you, but I think not. Good luck, Zack Gamma. I leave you to your fevered thoughts and your inescapable fate.”

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 120: Trial by Verdict

Zack twirled his Purcellian Striker pistols and scanned the trees around him. He’d waited for more than two hours, and was hoping that he wouldn’t have to wait until the end of the six he’d been given by the Suzerain.

“Should’ve asked Chala for some ice water,” he said.

A distant squawking creature made itself known in the distance.

“I wonder if Chala even has ice on this planet,” he said.

“Good question,” said a voice from above. Zack tensed and started to look up, but not before Nectra dropped onto him from above, slamming into his back and pinning him to the leaf-covered, peaty soil. She twirled her staff triumphantly, and brought it down on top of one of Zack’s arms to keep it from moving the pistol, and one of her clawed feet pinned the other arm. Zack heard a familiar buzz of energy and realized that her staff was likely energized from its contact with him, meaning it had again turned into the Virellium Scythe.

He started to twist his head to look up at the shangmere, but Nectra kicked off his hat and held down his head with her other foot.

“Hello again, Zack,” she said. “You ran off from the cave. It’s a shame you delayed my progress.”

“Nectra, how are you even planning on getting off this world?” Zack asked. “If you kill me, how’ll you get back to Veskid to prove your theory?”

“My theory about Virellium trackers? Well, obviously, we’ll need to take whoever was coming to pick you up. You worked so hard to get to Mandrake, Zack, and a smart guy like you will have a plan to get off again. You probably arranged for a ride. It’s an educated guess, but I feel good about it.”

“Here’s another educated guess for you, then,” said Zack. “You’ve been in contact with The Phantom Matador. What’d you do, fly him all the way down to the planet from Carmen’s asteroid? That must’ve been quite the fall.”

“Oh, I was right about you being smart… yes, he’s been helping me to find you. With my tracker, he’s very capable of figuring out not just where you are but where you’ll be by observing how the signal changes. I can’t condone villainy, of course, but he’d have a huge future as a criminal mastermind if he applied himself.”

“He’s already a criminal,” said Zack. “He’s a stalker and a trespasser, and he also assaulted me with a boulder once. I can see how that last one might not count against him, though, since it seems like the universe has agreed that I’m a fair target.”

“I’m sorry about that,” said Nectra. “But it gets us back on track. Now, I don’t want to go to the trouble of smuggling you off this planet and back to Veskid while you’re dead, but you’ve got a habit of getting away while alive. So… Zack, do I kill you now? How would the DMA do that?”

“I didn’t work with the assassins,” said Zack. “I did the honest jobs. But yes, the assassins would probably kill me now.”

“Oh,” said Nectra, her excited tone suddenly slowing and losing its bright edge. “I see. Yes… well then. I guess this is goodbye, Zack? Zack, I’m… this is embarrassing. I know I just met you yesterday, but I’m really going to miss you.”

“Well, there’s a way other than killing me right now,” said Zack.

“Good!” said Nectra. “I mean… what?”

“I need to know some things first. When the Phantom Matador was using your tracking device, or helping you to use it, or whatever, did he kill anyone?”

Zack listened to Nectra’s breathing. It slowed. The sounds of jungle insects and beasts filled the air.

“I think so,” she said. “I think he used that energy sword of his. He wouldn’t say it directly, but I saw the bodies whenever I left. All he said was that they ‘saw him’ and he ‘needed to get away.’ They might have killed him, Zack.”

“I get that,” said Zack. “And they might’ve. They’re not unreasonable, though. Look, Nectra, I need your help in catching The Phantom Matador.”

“What? But he’s helping me.”

“Right, but he’s killed Sthenites. Nectra, he’s a murderer. Beneath that dark, mysterious persona, The Phantom Matador is a parasite on any society he’s in. I mean, in less than twenty-four hours he became this region’s most notorious murderer, and that was almost pinned on me.”

Zack felt the claws at the back of his neck loosen and lift. He looked over his shoulder and saw Nectra, looking confused.

“He said I should kill you here. He said you’d cause trouble for us if I saved killing you for later.”

“I would,” said Zack. “He’s right about that. But that’s not really the issue, is it? You shouldn’t kill me at all, Nectra. And the Matador’s gotta face justice from the Sthenites. One other issue: these bushes are filled with sthenite warriors. They’re mostly here to make sure I don’t escape… they didn’t believe my story about a winged lady swooping in to hunt me down… but they’re also here for you. Kill me, and they’ll attack you.”

“Zack? You set a trap for me?”

“No, no I set a safety net for myself. The flip side is this: I’m still in the middle of a weird trial thing. Help us catch The Phantom Matador, and I’ll agree to combat against you overseen by the Suzerain of the Sthenites, a combat that the Suzerain declared to be a sufficient conclusion to my trial if you turned out to exist. You win that combat, I’ll be your prisoner. I win, you leave me alone.”

“And if I try to abduct you or kill you now, I lose either way,” said Nectra, sounding crestfallen.

“Well… don’t look at it like that,” said Zack. “I’m the one in a trap here. You could always just fly away. So… help us find The Matador?”

Nectra closed her eyes and took some deep breaths. Soon she opened them again and nodded.

“Sure,” she said. “Let’s find that Phantom.”

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.”