Tag Archives: trials

Episode 156: Polite Awakenings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Do you mean pokey?” asked Chala.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why?” he asked.

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

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

“No, she’s right,” said Zack.

“What? Why?”

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

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

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

“Why?” asked Zack.

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

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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.”