Tag Archives: Purcellian Striker

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.

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Episode 92: Haktorash

Zack tried ducking, too late for it to have done any good. Chala’s arrow sailed past his ear, and collided with something just behind him. Zack spun and saw a towering creature, like a centipede magnified to incredible size and pushing its way out of the earth. The segmented arms spasmed painfully, reacting to the arrow embedded between plates of its exoskeleton. Zack jumped from it and toward his dropped pistol as one of the arms lashed, an instant too slow.

He scooped up the Purcellian striker and took a better look at the creature. He saw other injuries on the thing, scars and scratches along with some still-protruding arrow shafts and larger pieces of wood… nothing as advanced as Chala’s arrow, however.

He looked at Chala and was surprised to see her running, furiously covering the grass of the clearing and heading for a tree line. He turned back, but the beast was gone. The clearing grew eerily silent apart from the distant noise of insects and Chala’s receding footfalls. A large hole in the ground was the only sign that the creature had ever been there.

Time froze. Part of Zack’s brain was arguing against the evidence of his own eyes, rationalizing that nothing so large could move so quickly or quietly. Another part of his brain was screaming, furiously, that whatever he’d just seen COULD move that quickly and quietly, and was likely doing so right now. Why was Chala, who seemed at home in this dangerous environment, running after a successful hit? Time started to unfreeze and slowly picked up speed as the shouting part of Zack’s brain gradually overruled the rational, confused part.

He ran. He followed Chala. Something large and heavy slammed into the ground behind him. It continued slamming in a long, rumbling roll. He risked a look over his shoulder and saw the creature falling like a tree, its arms prepared to grab and slice and a nearing pincer-ringed maw opening wide. It was falling faster than he could run.

Zack screamed and jumped to the side, too-late realizing what evolution had made the creature realize millions of years earlier: you could crush more prey beneath you if you could change the direction of your fall. It twisted at a segment in its armor, altering the vector of its descent to match Zack’s attempted zig-zag.

Zack fell on his back and reflexively lifted the hand holding his pistol. He pulled the trigger and a surge of energy blasted up and into the monster. The creature shrieked and reared back, more surprised than wounded. Zack didn’t hesitate to clamber to his feet. He was too slow.

Denied its chance at crushing its prey, the creature snapped its head forward toward the fleeing detective. Zack never knew how close the jaws came, running for the thick collection of trees ahead of him. He saw, for the second time in less than thirty seconds, Chala staring at him, pulling back her arm, and releasing an arrow. Again it sailed past Gamma, this time striking the beast in its mouth.

Zack ran past Chala, made it almost a dozen feet into the tangle of vegetation, and tripped over a vine. He fell onto the ground, looked up, and saw Chala staring into the clearing. He slowly got to his feet, looked behind her, and saw an empty field. Once again, it had softly and suddenly vanished away.

“What was THAT?” he asked.

“Haktorash,” said Chala, almost reverently. “It roughly translates to ‘Phantom Judge.’ Last year an industrialist from Veskid wanted to name it The Boojum, but fortunately it killed him before he could get the venom he wanted from it.”

“Shouldn’t we keep running?”

“It won’t follow us into the trees,” she said. “I don’t know why. I think the roots give it trouble when they get thick enough. It’s an incredible creature, really… logically I know there must be more than one of it, but every time one is seen it still has all the scars and injuries from the warriors who’ve failed to kill it.”

“Maybe there are dozens of them and they’ve all got their own collection of black eyes. Has anyone ever really cataloged each injury on it to make sure they’re the same each time?”

“I think the guy last year did, but his data would’ve been lost on his ship when it went down in Swamp Savage, grabbed by a noose tree. It’s probably still there if you want to go look. Keep away from its gallows vines, though, they’ve got a longer reach than you might guess.”

“I think I’m fine,” he said. “Like I said, I’m only here a few hours, a day at most.”

“And like I said, you don’t have that kind of time. Although you might’ve just gotten lucky.”

“How?”

“Haktorash is the Phantom Judge,” said Chala. “In some ways it’s the measure of evolutionary adaptability, in others it’s the measure of a warrior. It attacked us. We survived.”

“You survived,” said Zack. “I got lucky.”

“Luck is part of survival. The Sthenites acknowledge the favor of fate as a trait that can make a good warrior, though it’s impossible to train for it or rely upon it. Luck means you live, at least for today. And I live because of a little less luck, and a little more skill. We both left our marks on it, you from an energy blast and me from an arrow. Here’s hoping I’m lucky enough for at least one of those arrows to stick in it…”

“How’s that lucky?”

“It’ll bring prestige,” she said. “I’m an outsider. I could claim that I hit Haktorash and survived, but no one would believe me on my word alone. My arrows, though, are unique on this world. No one who sees Haktorash with an arrow like that in it could doubt that the arrow came from my bow.”

“Nice,” said Zack. “What’s it mean if the arrow doesn’t last, though?”

“Nothing for me, it’d be about the same as telling a big fish story. It would be bad for you, though.”

“Why?”

“Because then it looks like I’m just trying to protect a member of my former tribe,” she said. “If the arrow doesn’t last, you will be no longer judged fit to survive by Haktorash and will once again be valid for the hunt.”