Tag Archives: trial pit

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 159: Trial By Combat

Zack stepped from the preparation cave and into the arena. A circular, rock-festooned pit made of the world’s ruddy soil, coupled with Mandrake’s oppressive sun, created a humid, radiating heat and a cloying odor that made it difficult for him to breathe. The opposite side of the arena wavered in the heat, but Zack assumed it wouldn’t be an issue for most of the combat. Sthenites slithered around the top of the pit, eagerly looking down to witness the first true trial by combat since their leader became the latest Suzerain.

Nectra clambered in from a preparation cave on the opposite side of the pit. She twirled her staff while looking around, saw Zack, and waved cheerfully. He lifted a hand in acknowledgement, and drew his pistols. Nectra took a step deeper into the arena and almost convulsed when she left the shadow covering her edge of the pit. She waited, allowed her eyes to adjust to the brighter light, and finished moving fully into her starting position.

Zack noted the reaction to the light after the shadow. It was stronger, he thought, than his own reaction to the smell, and while he could get used to the ever-constant mephitis of what amounted to damp, baking mud, the shangmere might have more difficulty with transitions between the shade and light thanks to her larger eyes. He’d need to cross all the way to her side of the pit to take advantage of that fact, though.

The susurrus of hissed conversations above subsided and Zack looked up. The cobra-like Suzerain had crawled into position, flanked by two smaller guards wielding spears. She began speaking, repeating phrases in the Sthenite tongue that Zack couldn’t begin to understand, though a few words were becoming recognizable. She continued speaking and waving her arms meaningfully, but without context Zack’s attention quickly drifted to Nectra, who was alternating between the Suzerain and Zack. She pointed at the Suzerain inquisitively, but Zack shrugged, just as lost as she was.

Whatever she was saying, she was reaching a crescendo, and the rest of the Sthenites were muttering and hissing to themselves, quietly at first but quickly getting louder as their leader did. Within moments, her speech was practically being shouted, and her audience was cheering and chanting with it, some even brandishing weapons at the sky, or the Suzerain, or even, Zack noticed, at the competitors in the arena.

Suddenly, the Suzerain cried out and struck an imposing pose, with her fist raised skyward. The crowd grew tense and the hundreds of serpentine eyes focused on the pit, their collective gaze almost having a weight of its own. Zack and Nectra looked at each other, uncertainly.

On the rim of the pit, resting just opposite the Suzerain, a yellow-scaled Sthenite twirled a bone from a recent meal, and struck the gong that had been quietly erected while Zack and Nectra’s eyes had been focused on the Suzerain. The two competitors jumped at the unexpected sound, a quick motion that prompted the crowd to begin cheering. Taking the cue, Nectra jumped into the air and stretched out her wings while Zack carefully took aim with his Purcellian Striker.

***

Captain Ortega let out a long, low whistle. He had envisioned a smaller room, and possibly a platform surrounded with the traditional electro-tethers, or possibly even archaic ropes depending on Harold Zamona’s wrestling preferences. Instead, the room reminded him of a pack-park, with patches of green grass interspersed with ramps, staircases, and spires on the ground, along with floating rings, hovering catwalks, and even a waterfall suspended high above that fed a gentle pond. Rocket-pack and jet-pack enthusiasts would compete on similar fields of play that weren’t half as detailed.

“Pretty picture, I say,” said Zamona. The captain of the Astroguard tore his eyes away from the room and watched the towering herald of the emperor swagger up next to him.

“I’d say so,” said Ortega. “Not quite what I was expecting.”

“Took some time to get it made. The hovering hydromill gave us problems of all sorts. Believe it or not, it was already partially finished when you went and made a fool of yourself in front of Veskid.”

“Lots of jet-pack joy-riders in your conscripts?”

“Keeps the morale high,” said Zamona. “I think you’ll find there’s nowhere in here that you’ll be able to jet to that I can’t get you, so I still don’t know how you expect to survive.”

“I’ll get by. Really going through with this?”

Zamona snapped a gauntleted finger, an action that produced a surprisingly musical chime, and soldiers bearing the logo of the Dyson Empire approached, one carrying the rocket and the other carrying Ortega’s Astroguard-issued blaster. Ortega nodded and began strapping the rocket to the back of his flight suit, hearing the familiar click of the internal motors that held the hardware in place.

“Thanks,” he said, picking up his rifle and checking it for signs of tampering.

“No problem,” said Zamona. “We’ve already started filming.”

Ortega looked up and around the environment. He couldn’t see any cameras, though he knew that hidden or microscopically small cameras didn’t need to be visible, though he didn’t imagine Zamona wanted to skimp on the spectacle.

“We have?”

“Oh, yes. Since you and I walked in. We have any viewers yet?”

Zamona glanced back at the entrance to the park where a small booth held a soldier who checked a readout and gave a thumbs-up.

“Well… glad we have an audience, then,” said Ortega. He looked to the far wall of the park and saw a massive window that revealed the stars beyond. Veskid was just rolling into view as the ship continued its rotation. He smiled, relieved to finally know exactly where in space he was.

“Same here. I didn’t much care for you trickin’ the poor folks of Veskid into thinkin’ that we had a deal. But since I never back down from a fight or back out of a deal, I wanted to make sure it was the best these people could ask for.”

“So, when do we start?”

Harold Zamona’s massive, boulder-sized fist slammed into the side of Ortega’s head, almost too quickly for his flight-suit’s collision-detection to snap the protective helmet into place. The powerful impact sent Ortega flying, rolling through the air and dropping to the ground at the base of the spire.

“Right now!” shouted Zamona.

Episode 113: Tight Squeeze

Zack surged through the cramped tunnel toward the light ahead, thinking of it as the alley from his dream. Alleys were, as many had pointed out to him, his natural habitat, and he couldn’t deny a certain understanding of how they worked. His understanding of caves was shakier, but he trusted that Nectra would be as unfamiliar with them as he was with jungles and hoped that the shangmere wouldn’t be able to keep up without any real room to use her wings.

He rounded a corner and expected to see an opening that would lead him to the outside world, but instead saw the overseer of the trials, the primitive-looking Sthenite illuminated from above. She smiled as Zack stared, confused.

“I… thought you were sunlight. The way out. I thought that-”

“You don’t have long,” said the overseer of the trials, her voice not quite matching the shapes her mouth made.

“Until the exit? Or until Nectra catches me?”

“Either. But I meant the first. Your language delights again. Zack… Tzak… I am sorry that your trial did not go as planned. The alien that I plucked from your mind found you. She was more immediate than I guessed.”

“So what does this mean for the trial?”

“Oh, you are not done,” she said. “But as a sign that you are not leaving without my consent… Dojurbu and Hansha are the names of the first two Sthenites that you will see when you leave the cave.”

“So I… tell them that I know their names and they assume that you told me?”

“No, but tell the third Sthenite you see.”

“I don’t speak th-”

“Shyese tzanara Dojurbu Hansha. Say that and gesture to the two you see.”

“You sure I can remember that?”

“No, but you have a remarkable mind for detail. I trust that you will at least warrant investigation if you do your best. The trial will continue beyond the cave. Dojurbu and Hansha will take you as their messenger. Go.”

“Shyese tzanara Dojurbu Hansha?”

“Yes. Go.”

Zack didn’t waste time. He ran forward, looked over his shoulder, and almost imagined that he saw Nectra gently leap into the light just before it went dark. A fainter light was visible in the sudden darkness, one just around another corner.

Zack turned and resisted the urge to shout in triumph at the sight of a narrow crack in the wall with light pouring in. He raced for it, slowed as he neared it, and turned sideways. He gently started moving through the crack.

“Pretty tight in there, isn’t it?”

Zack took a deep breath and started moving faster. How close was Nectra? How long was this crack leading outside? He didn’t have the room to turn his head.

“Zack, I’ll catch you sooner or later,” she said, almost pleading. “This really isn’t doing anything except making it harder for me. I understand that that might be what you want… I wouldn’t want to just wait for someone to kill me either… but you can’t win, you know that right? I can track you anywhere and, okay, I’m not some super assassin trained on a distant planet like the DMA’s agents, but I won’t stop. They’re only worried about money. That’s not me.”

Zack ignored the shangmere’s voice. She was a good four feet behind him, probably just starting to move into the fissure. He picked up speed and shimmied the last foot out, taking a deep breath as he stepped out of a rock wall and onto a pleasant jungle trail.

Two sthenites, one with purple scales and feathers and the other with green scales and feathers, were on the ground, dead, with clean, cauterized wounds along their chests and limbs. Zack stared at the two corpses in shock.

“Dojurbu?” he said. “Hansha?”

A high pitched shriek, like a bird of prey declaring its kill, was accompanied by the sound of a basket dropping to the floor. Zack looked up to see another sthenite, green scaled, staring at him from along the trail with a woven basket on the ground, dropped in the shock from what it had just seen. Zack took a shaky breath.

“Shyese tzanara Dojurbu Hansha?”

Episode 112: March From The Trial Pit

Zack knew the situation was wrong, but he couldn’t put his finger on why. He shambled along in the state between dreaming and waking, still trying to discern why it felt like someone was holding his arm behind his back. The path was long and narrow and dark, just like his dream had been.

“Not far now, Mister Gamma. This place is making my head swim. Do you ever say that?”

“Nnh?”

“The shangmere don’t say that. We don’t do a lot of swimming, though it’s really fun when we do. Our idioms are a little different. I love human idioms, though. And most of human society. I was really excited to move to the Angelor Republic proper. Humanity gets a lot of flak out there, but it always seemed so nice to me. It’s like your race is made up of social structures that clumsily get by on nothing more but dumb luck and mishmashes of traditions and quick-fixes, but all the individuals are so suave and refined.”

“Hhng… suave? Y… you think humans…”

“Well, not ALL of them, obviously.”

Zack shook his head. The conversation was pulling him out of his walking dream. He wasn’t in an alley, he was in a cave. The trial pit’s cave was stretching before him, and he could just see light ahead. His hands weren’t restrained behind him, they were just held in place.

“I mean, now that I’ve lived in the Angelor Republic for this long I know that even humans have their downsides. In some ways that makes you better, though, don’t you think? I mean, perfection would be boring. Everyone has to have their little quirks and failings, and humans pick ones that are-”

“Nectra? Is that… you’re Nectra.”

“Yes?”

So he hadn’t dreamed Nectra. He was really being escorted by the shangmere.

“I don’t mean to… I mean, I know you want to kill me, but could you have waited until after I was done in the trial pit? It’s really important that I finish this, and I’ve got a feeling that there’s some kinda penalty for taking a mulligan on spirit quests.”

“Oh, that’s what you were doing? Okay, that explains a lot. Zack, this probably isn’t the right time, but you know that you live the best life, right? I mean, you get to do so many fun things.”

“Yeah, try it for yourself some time, I think you wouldn’t like it so much. Listen, I-”

“And you’ve always got the perfect comeback lines. Do you think that if I wasn’t out to kill you and otherwise imprisoned for life that we might’ve been able to be friends?”

“People like me don’t get many friends, but I guess anything’s possible. Look, Nectra, you’ve gotta let me go back there.”

“One thing at a time, Zack. I need to kill you first.”

“You’re not thinking straight.”

“I’m not craz… well, maybe the fumes down here are getting to me.”

“Right,” said Zack. “And even if they weren’t, I wouldn’t think you were crazy. You’re a little eccentric, sure, and I think you’re a very… emotional person, but I don’t think you’re crazy.”

Nectra stopped walking Zack forward. She leaned into Zack’s field of view, and the almost-human, vaguely bat-like face slid into his peripheral vision.

“I think that’s the nicest thing anyone’s ever said to me.”

“Well-”

“You really think I’m not crazy?”

Zack stared into the wide, uncanny eyes of the shangmere and gave the question some serious thought.

“I really don’t,” he said. “You sound… well, you sound like someone who could probably stand to talk to some therapists about everything you’re going through, but I’ve met insane people before and you’re not like them.”

“Really?”

“Yeah. Sure, I’ve only known you for…I lost track of time in there, about half a day maybe? So, I’m just working on first impressions here, and I’m not what you’d call an expert, but I don’t get an ‘insane’ vibe off you. You seem more desperate than anything.”

“Oh, thanks!” she said. “Zack, that really means a lot. Really. I know I’ve already said this, but I’m really going to regret killing you.”

“Then don’t kill me!”

“It’s not that simple.”

“I think it is,” said Zack. “Look, you’ve gone through some desperate times, I can tell that just by looking at you, so you’re jumping at some sort of straw to prove that you’re innocent of… something, I wasn’t clear on that whole situation, but the fact is the option you’ve been given is clearly immoral and probably illegal. I’ve helped a lot of people who wanted to turn to options like that… and believe me, some of my clients have been in pretty dire problems… but in my experience, when you’ve been thrown a bone like that to get out of trouble, you’ve not been given anything good to work with. You’ll keep your head above water, and maybe someday you’ll even get out of the jam you’re in, but you’ll have sidestepped a better life.”

“Wow,” said Nectra. “You might have a point. Was that off the cuff?”

“Well-”

“That’s another human idiom I like. We don’t usually wear the kinds of sleeves that humans do, which means we don’t really have shirt cuffs, so-”

“Yeah, it’s a great idiom. So, why don’t you let me go?”

“Oh, Zack, I wish I could,” she said, her eyes twisting into a recognizable expression of genuine sadness. Zack wondered if shangmerian eyes worked like that, or if she’d picked up the habit from humans.

“Why can’t you?”

“It’s great that you believe everything you just told me,” she said, leaning her head back so that she was entirely behind Zack again. “It makes me think of the great heroes of human books and movies. But do you really think civilization works that way? From what I’ve seen, it doesn’t.”

“It does if enough people work to make it work that way,” said Zack, feeling the gentle push to begin walking forward again.

“I think you’re right,” she said. “But that’s the fatal tragedy of humanity. I don’t think enough people will ever work together to make it something that sweepingly epic and beautiful. Human society can’t exist without its flaws, after all. It’d get boring otherwise.”

“Don’t make a joke to dodge actually thinking about the topic.”

“I’ve thought a lot about this, Zack, I was in prison for a while. And right now, killing you is the only way that I can prove that I’m innocent and that my research works.”

Zack sighed.

“All right. Nectra, I’m really sorry.”

“About wh-”

Zack jumped forward, dragging Nectra with him. He ducked and somersaulted, pulling Nectra into a whirl as she opened her wings to try to stop the pull of the air. The loss of momentum caused Zack to land on his back halfway through the twist, on top of Nectra.

The surprised shangmere, having just had the wind knocked out of her, loosened the grip of her clawed hands enough for Zack to pull his wrists away. He jumped up and ran down the corridor as fast as he could, heading toward the light.

“No!” she shouted. “No, don’t go! Zack! Get back here! I’ll find you! You can’t hide from me, I have a tracker!”

Zack ignored Nectra’s betrayed cries and moved quickly. He didn’t know how fast she could run, but wasn’t going to wait to find out.

Episode 111: Westminster Quarters

The alley was beautiful, dark and cold. Zack stepped through it and looked up at the sky. Stars shone overhead, glimmering with an immediacy that suggested an absence of atmosphere. It looked like the sky of a space station, one large enough to have a city. The alley was perfect, with just the right combination of narrowness and twistiness to be atmospheric but without the cramped quarters that Zack was familiar with from the many times he’d worked in alleys like these. His only complaint was that it was too clean. None of the grime from foot traffic, litter, or good old fashioned air pollution had settled into place, confirming Zack’s suspicion that he was on a space station.

“It isn’t fair to judge every warrior by the same rubric. The strength of some is speed, the strength of others is physicality, the strength of others lies in their venom. You are weaker than most Sthenite warriors, though surprisingly fast for a human. But is speed sufficient? What will your greatest challenge be? Can you clutch victory from death and defeat?”

“Who’s there?” said Zack, looking over his shoulder. The alley was darker now. A familiar set of four notes chimed through the air, notes he always associated with old clocks. He turned toward the voice, reaching into his green trench coat and drawing his Purcellian Striker Pistols.

“You’re sure about this alley, then?”

Zack passed a storefront and paused. Why was the storefront wrong? He looked at it, and saw an analog clock ticking away the seconds next to a digital clock that flashed 12:00:50. It wouldn’t be long until the analog clock caught up to the flashing time.

Another set of notes passed through the air, four notes that seemed to answer the first four. It was strange to hear a break between them. Were they part of the same notes playing, or was there just a delay?

Zack turned left, ignoring the store.

“You’re alone,” said the voice. “You have friends. Have they abandoned you? Betrayed you? Or have you finally reached a place where they can’t save you? Your strength lies in webs of community. Will you finally get in a problem so deep that not even the most generous friends will be able to help you in time? After all, they can’t be everywhere you are all the time. And what sort of stranger would help you out without even knowing who you are?”

Four more notes echoed through the alley.

“You’re not sayin’ anything I’ve not thought about before,” said Zack.

“Then why do you keep going into alleys? You know what they say about people in your kind of work and alleys.”

“Lotsa work to do,” said Zack. “Long way to go yet.”

“There are miles to go before you rest,” said the voice. “And you won’t be able to help everyone you try to help. How can you when you can’t help yourself?”

“Shut up.”

“Did you help Azar?”

Zack winced, and everything went dark.

“That’s incredible. I’ve never seen a mental block like that. I suppose it’s possible for one to form through your own willpower, but it’s unlikely. Do humans possess such technology?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” said Zack.

“Then tell me about Azar.”

“I don’t know WHO you’re talking about,” said Zack.

Why did the storefront open onto an alley? That was the problem.

Zack turned and walked back to the alley, finding it closer than he expected. The clocks were nearly at the same time. A final set of four notes chimed, finishing the musical phrase, just a few seconds before midnight.

“Midnight is different in your mind,” said the voice. “It’s the turning point of the day in Chala’s mind. But for you… why fifty seconds later?”

“Chimes don’t end at midnight,” said Zack. “They end after midnight. Thirty seconds, a minute maybe, but never right at midnight unless you change the chimes to start before midnight arrives. There’s a clock on Veskid that rings, used to listen to it all the time. I timed it out to fifty seconds. I should go to Earth some day, visit the original.”

The chimes started ringing, announcing the arrival of midnight. Zack opened the door of the store and stepped in.

“Wait, who are you?” said the voice.

“Zack. Or Tzak, if you need me to be a Sthenite.”

A doctor’s office was inside the store, looking out of place after the clocks he’d expected on the storefront. Zeta, the Doctor that helped the asteroid racing federation, waited behind a desk.

“Hello again, Tzak.”

“Hi,” said Zack. “I don’t know what’s happening.”

“I can’t help you,” said Zeta, shaking his head. “No appointment, and no medicine here. Should’ve taken a different route to find medicine.”

“You shouldn’t be here,” said the voice.

“I don’t know what’s happening, but I feel like this is where I should be,” said Zack.

“I’m sorry,” said the voice. “I don’t know why this… this has never happened before, you’re supposed to be alone.”

“I’m not alone,” said Zack.

“No, but I can’t help you,” said Zeta. “I have a little time before my next appointment though, I might be able to administer another brain scan.”

“I don’t need my head examined,” said Zack.

“Right there with ya,” said Nectra, leaning in to Zack’s field of vision from the side.

Something was wrong.

“You’re not here,” said Zack.

“Yes I am,” said Zeta. “Are you okay?”

“I hate to do this to you, this looks important,” said Nectra.

“Stop,” said the voice. “No one is supposed to interfere. This is delicate. It’s meant to be solitary.”

“Hey, you okay?” said Nectra. “Zack, your eyes are… and your voice is weird, too. Snap out of it, okay?”

“Nothing’s wrong with my voice?” asked Zack.

“If you say so,” said Nectra. “But I’ve waited too long. You’re comin’ with me.”

Nectra put her clawed hand on Zack’s arm and suddenly he was in the cave. The Overseer of the trials was gone, and there was no trace of an alley, clocks, or chimes.

“N-” he said, feeling very ill.

“I think the air’s a little weird down here,” said the shangmere, smiling. Zack took a slow step back, but Nectra yanked his arm forward and spun his wrist behind his back.

“This way,” said Nectra. “We’re gettin’ out of the crazy death cave. And then, once we’re both safe and sound away from the flying snake people, I can kill you.”

Episode 110: Delicious Flaws

The cave was dark.

He had taken for granted the fact that he was descending. It was a reliable sensation of motion in a lightless environment, and along with the scent of damp stones and soil and the refreshing coolness of the air it was just a part of the backdrop for the trials he expected to start at any moment. What he wasn’t expecting was for the descent to stop so abruptly.

He shifted his gravity to avoid teetering over the edge, and adjusted his grip on the vines holding his platform. Did the vines stop lowering because there was no more vine to lower, or because the platform had reached solid ground? It felt like the ground. He tried rocking back and forth, but the platform didn’t sway beneath him. He carefully moved his hands up and down the vines, and felt the faintest hint of slack. He nervously reached down from the platform and felt solid stone.

Zack took more steadying breaths and cautiously stepped off the platform. He reflexively clutched his hand, but remembered that he didn’t have his lumisphere anymore.

“Where’d I put that?” he muttered, checking all of the pockets of his coat. He needed to start carrying actual light sources with him.

Except the light was dangerous, yes? The darkness was confusing but safe, while the light was illuminating for… whatever was in the darkness. That’s why someone told him not to use the lumisphere too often. Without the lumisphere there would, at least, be no risk of overuse.

“Hello?” he said, taking a careful step forward. “I’m looking for some sort of… trial? People who… don’t speak my language. Tsaya lassar, tsara yaurala? Am I saying that right? …do tsaya and tsara mean different things, or are they different forms of the same word?”

A rustling came from the darkness in front of him. Soft hissing? Feathers ruffling? Shifting air pressure from an elevator closing on poor terms?

An electric hum sounded as a bright green crescent of light unfolded in the air in front of him. Zack stared at it, not sure why it looked so familiar. When it danced through the air, the way it moved reminded him of an old image of the Grim Reaper he saw a long time ago. Suddenly the light of the arc increased and he saw the manic smile face of Nectra, the shangmere assassin, illuminated by the light of scythe. Her wings spread and she seemed to surge through the air toward him, and Zack jumped out of the way. As Nectra drew nearer, he realized that she looked stranger than normal. Scales covered her face and her wings were graced with feathers, making them appear more like a bird’s than a bat’s.

The scythe vanished, and the light went with it.

“Nectra?”

“You are hunted,” said a voice behind him. Zack turned as his eyes adjusted. A dimmer light coming from somewhere above illuminated something that looked like a Sthenite but with vibrantly colored scales, fewer feathers, and strange spikes and ridges protruding from its skull.

“You speak English?”

“No,” said the creature. “But you can understand me right now. I should learn English, though. It appears to be the language of choice for Veskid’s children.”

“It’s a trade language,” said Zack. “Did I just see what I thought I saw?”

“An image taken from your mind. An assassin, Nectra. She was clearest, but colored by recent events. You are anxious about how the Sthenites will treat you… but you hold a deeper fear of being discovered.”

“I’m surprised you didn’t use Vox Cul-Dar or Murk. Or the… other one. The really scary one. …Fletch. She’s the DMA’s best.”

“By which you mean most skilled. Already I am learning some of the curiosities of English. Yes, there are many you fear discovering you. And many of them carry more weight than Nectra. But discovery, capture, loss of life… these are your strongest fears, but not your deepest. The one you saw tugs at your deepest fear as well.”

“Lady… sir?”

“Lady.”

“Lady, if you think I’m afraid of anything more than being caught by those people-”

“Do not presume to know your own psyche, just as a man who has never seen a mirror believes he knows his own face by the touch of his hands. So far we are still in the realm of fears to which you can give name. I would not be so cruel as to show you your greatest fears, the wordless terrors and designs that rise formless in the back of your mind. There are emotions you fear voicing and that your species has never defined, as well as racial memories of terror that go back a long way… I wonder what put them there? Charlotte had many of them as well.”

“Charlotte?”

The feathered snake creature tilted its head and a trill rolled in the back of its throat. She threw her head back and, despite the visual disconnect, Zack heard the sound of laughter.

“What? I don’t know any Charlotte.”

“The one you call Chala. It is more like the name of the Sthenites, and so she took it for her own before joining them.”

“Weird name for a human. Wonder why she didn’t tell me.”

“Hmm… dare I yield to temptation? There are so many ways to go… you already knew her name.”

“You sure about that? She’s not had long to tell me, you know.”

“And yet she has. It came up quickly. Close to your meeting with… hmm… the Haktorash.”

“Wait, the… giant worm thing? The Phantom Judge?”

“Yes…”

“Say, do you know if there’s more than one of those things? Or if there are a lot? Apparently there’s some debate about that.”

“I do know.”

“Would you tell me?”

“Would it matter? After you leave here, you will learn about the fungal spores that cause mild hallucinations in these caves. Not strong enough to cause something like me, but strong enough that you will always wonder if I was all your imagination.”

“So… are you my imagination?”

“No,” she said. “But I wish you good fortune in your endeavors to believe my claim later. For now I am the overseer of your trials. We must see if you are worthy of walking with the Sthenites.”

“Even though they don’t walk?”

“Ah… yes. Your language again… ‘trips’ me. So many delicious flaws… like the ridges and knobs on a log in a forest.”

“Yeah, sure. Look, for what it’s worth… I’ve got a feeling honesty’s important here. I don’t plan on being one of the Sthenites. I’m leaving as soon as my friend comes back for me.”

“Your friend may be delayed, though… she will need a way to land other than her asteroid.”

“Oh,” said Zack. “Right. …yeah, I’d… missed that.”

“So had she. And she has already encountered some troubles. Hmm… She guards this world, but not for the world’s sake. Only for yours. Friendship is admirable, as is your honesty. But neither are factors. The trial tests your worth, not your intent. And your worth shall, in fact, be tested.”

Episode 107: Public Hearing

The Suzerain of the Sthenites was a monstrous snake creature, and Zack initially mistook her for one of the guards. She wore the same gold-colored armor that the guards wore around their torsos, and featured the same red and orange scales and cobra-like hood that he saw on the guards, menial workers, and others who relied on strength. She slithered around a fire that was the focus of an amphitheater, hissing and rattling and yawning strange words that reminded Zack of a grizzled police chief he once knew.

The Suzerain stopped on the far side of the fire and stared down at Zack. He stood on the slope that led up to the gigantic gourd that had been carved into the stage in the center of the city, and a crowd of other Sthenites watched curiously.

“Kneel,” said Chala, quietly speaking behind him.

“What?”

“Kneel,” said Chala. “Ordinarily you’d fall onto the ground, but they let me just kneel, so here’s where you kneel.”

Zack awkwardly looked into the emerald, predatory eyes of the Suzerain. He dropped to one knee and looked at the ground leading up to the fire. The Suzerain resumed speaking and, judging by the sudden appearance of orange and red scales between him and the flames, she resumed slithering as well. Soon she was out of view again, her oddly bird-like voice the only sign that she was still present.

“Now stand,” said Chala.

Zack rose and the Sthenites behind him began whispering rapidly to each other, creating a tense skirring of voices and feathers.

“Say ‘Tsaya lassar, tsara yaurala.’”

“What?”

“It means ‘I agree and await judgement, Suzerain.’”

“You didn’t say Suzerain.”

“They don’t speak English. You need to say ‘Tsaya lassar, tsara yaurala.’”

Zack stared into the eyes of the Suzerain. They seemed predatory, but not cruel.

“Tsaya lassar, tsara yaurala?”

The Suzerain growled with a purring rumble. Soon she began circling the fire again.

“She accepted it,” said Chala. “We need to work on your pronunciation for later, though.”

“What did I agree to?”

“Not important right now,” Chala whispered.

The Suzerain continued finished a circuit around the fire, coughed twice, and began speaking again. As she spoke the voices of the Sthenites behind them became louder and more scattered.

“What’re they concerned about?”

“They’re just debating the decision the Suzerain reached. Some feel she’s made the right call, some feel that she’s being too merciful. Others feel that she’s been too harsh.”

Chala’s voice was distant, further away and no longer whispering. Zack looked over his shoulder and saw Chala no longer standing just behind him. Instead, she stood on the ground near the other Sthenites.

“Chala?”

“I can’t help you in the next part. You’ll be fine.”

“Next part?”

A large, cobra-like guard surged from the crowd and grabbed Zack by the arm, trilling angrily in Zack’s face.

“Hey!”

“Don’t fight him,” said Chala. “Yell or scream if it’ll make you feel better, but don’t resist it. He’s following the Suzerain’s orders.”

Zack was already being slithered down the ramp and through the crowd, but listened to Chala’s instructions. The guard pulled Zack through the gathered Sthenites and across the village to a small building made of stone. Some smaller, green-scaled Sthenites chirped excitedly at the approaching guard and worked together to open the heavy stone door.

Zack saw torchlight through the door, a green fire burning from the alien tree branches within. Something about the scenario felt off to Zack, but it was too late to avoid being pushed into the enclosure. He landed on a surprisingly soft bedding of leaves and branches.

“Good luck in there,” said Chala, peering from behind the other Sthenites.

“I thought you said I’d be in for some kind of… trial pit?”

Before Chala could respond, the bed of leaves and branches shuddered and started to descend into a hole carved in the floor. Zack saw four winches controlling ropes on the platform as it began descending into darkness. He instinctively moved to step off, but Chala held up a hand, warning him to stay on.

Zack watched the floor rise up and looked back at Chala, locking eyes with her until the ropes lowered him out of sight.