Zack smelled oatmeal that came with a healthy portion of cinnamon, milk, and honey, a reminder that every day could be sweet. He also smelled the black coffee, a blackness like the cold, unfeeling emptiness of space, or like the soot or mud that covered dumpsters in back alleys. Coffee that black would be bitter and real, a reminder that if you forced yourself to like something that tasted awful, the side benefits could help you to last until the next breakfast where there’d be more coffee.
His eyes fluttered open, and the strange thatching of mud and leaves reminded him that he wasn’t home. His ceiling didn’t look like that. He was struck with the realization that he never truly thought about what his ceiling looked like, but he knew it wasn’t what was above him.
“He’s up!” shouted a voice. Zack winced at the noise and looked across the room, gasping in shock at the gangly, inhuman being before him before he remembered Nectra. The shangmere stepped across the hut, stepping away from a Sthenite he didn’t recognie, and a human that he groggily recognized as Chala.
Nectra moved in front of him and he shook his head.
“Hey. I’m sorry, I… how’d I get here?”
“The Sthenites carried you,” said Nectra. “And The Phantom Matador.”
“She was very resourceful,” said Chala, stepping forward. “She encountered the guards who’d gone to facilitate your trial and the hunters who’d been sent to make sure you didn’t try running away. They recognized her from your description, and gave chase, and pursued her… right to you, where she quickly surrendered. They found me and brought me into the action so that I could translate.”
The orange-scaled Sthenite watched the conversation between the three aliens and slithered out. Zack followed its departure but turned back to Chala.
“Excellent,” said Zack. “So, the Matador is…?”
“In the slammer!” said Nectra. “The, uh… hokey?”
“Do you mean pokey?” asked Chala.
“Probably,” said Nectra. “He wasn’t up when we left.”
“That’s good,” said Zack. He leaned back into the cot and almost started relaxing before a sobering thought anchored his mind back in reality.
“How long was I out? Wait, why was I out?”
“The healer wasn’t sure,” said Chala. “But you’re sick. I wasn’t sure if we could break you out of it, but Nectra suggested familiar smells.”
“Humans like familiar smells,” Nectra said, nodding.
“Right,” said Chala. “So I tried making some coffee, and getting some instant oatmeal from my supplies cooking. I’ve not broken into that box in a while since I got used to the local food. Up for a bite?”
“Maybe,” said Zack. “But how long was I out?”
“About three hours,” said Nectra. “Don’t worry, though. We’ve still got plenty of time to stay ahead of Fletch.”
“I hope you’re right,” said Zack. “We’ll have to leave pretty quickly now.”
“You can’t,” said Chala, concerned. Zack tilted his head.
“Why?” he asked.
“You’ve got a trial to finish,” she said.
“We don’t have time for that,” said Nectra. “There’s an implacable assassin who means to see him dead, and she’ll be tracking him relentlessly. Zack’s only chance is to run while he can!”
“No, she’s right,” said Zack.
“I met someone in the caves when the trial first started,” said Zack. “But… the trial didn’t finish. I’ve gotta finish the trial, otherwise the Sthenites’ll kill me. I might be able to evade Fletch on this world, but I can’t evade the Sthenites. Not for as long, at least. And I’d rather have them as friends than as enemies.”
Nectra frowned and looked to the door. After a moment she sighed, walked to the door’s frame, and picked up her staff.
“I guess I’ll need this after all,” said Nectra.
“Why?” asked Zack.
“Don’t you remember?” she said. “Zack, if you’re going through with the trial, then we’re fighting to the death.”