Book: Secrets of Ilythia Boxed Set

Secrets of Ilythia Boxed Set

Secrets of Ilythia Boxed Set Memories of Earth, Books 4 - 6

James David Victor

Copyright © 2020 Fairfield Publishing

ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. Except for review quotes, this book may not be reproduced, in whole or in part, without the written consent of the author.

This story is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to actual people, places, or events is purely coincidental.


Secrets of Ilythia

The Mondrauk Complication

The Quantum Well

Thank You

Secrets of Ilythia

Memories of Earth, Book 4

Secrets of Ilythia Boxed Set


Are We Nearly There Yet?

Sector 5

In the starry vault of space, something moved. The hazy gleam and glitter of the distant stars shook and doubled, and a new star was born. With a flash of purple and white light, a craft phased into view, refracting and melting the light waves around it in ripples before the Code-X craft finally solidified back into normal space.

The matte-black infiltration and reconnaissance vessel was shaped like an angry tooth, a wedge of approaching threat. The only physical field lights that betrayed its position after the warp-fires of its jump had faded were dim and diffuse.

The second craft, however—the smaller throne clipper that the Code-X craft had docked under its belly—was much more apparent. If there were any observers, then it might have seemed as though the far brighter, blockier, and rustier clipper was being held immobile by some strange, deep-space predator.

Which was, somewhat ironically, exactly how the Ilythian agent Dchllyiealoparisaan—or ‘Dalia’ to those humans who knew her—felt.

The pale-skinned, oval-eyed, and platinum-haired Ilythian sat in one of the bay chairs in the throne Code-X craft, and she glared at the assassin whose craft this was, and whose guest she supposedly was. The woman opposite her was named Rose—or Black Rose, Dalia knew. A super-assassin. A secret throne asset who had been trying very hard to kill Dalia and her comrades for quite a while now.

So, how can I kid myself that I can ever trust this woman? Dalia narrowed her eyes slightly as she looked at the red-haired, seemingly young and attractive human female in her close-fitting mesh-suit. There was something a little off about her, Dalia’s training recognized.

She’s more composed than any other human I have ever known, Dalia thought. Black Rose calmly sat across from her, staring back non-plussed, and Dalia didn’t see any of the more usual tics and subconscious mannerisms—not even enlarged pupils or shallow breathing—that most humans couldn’t seem to control.

Yes, this human is dangerous, Dalia thought. There was a grace to her movements that was almost Ilythian, and an economy of action that indicated she had been trained very well indeed.

And then Black Rose casually cleared her throat and raised her chin just slightly.

“Are we nearly there yet?” she said with a faint quirk of a smile to the corner of her perfectly-rouged lips.


Three Hours Prior

Dalia tried not to bite her lower lip as she concentrated. In front of her was the pale face of MPB Lieutenant Anders Corsigon, and he appeared ill.

But this is no natural illness, is it? Dalia let out a slow hiss of breath. The thirty-something human male with short, dark hair and a scattering of white-tinged stubble was breathing rapidly as he lay on one of the medical beds of Black Rose’s Code-X craft.

The Ilythian felt a sort of nausea as she looked down at the human male who had saved her life on more than one occasion—and whose life she had saved, in turn. The sub-psychic PK abilities of her people had allowed her to see glimpses of the man’s soul. He was a widower, he believed in justice, and his whole being was wrapped tight in the notion that every man has to stand, alone, for what they believe in.

“I could admire that about you,” she murmured, if my own upbringing hadn’t taught me how catastrophically stupid it is to think that every individual is an island.

But right now, the lieutenant was overwhelmingly interconnected with the medical devices of Black Rose’s ship. Dalia was looking through a clear plastic visor-plate at his sweaty face, and she saw where pipes were attached to his suit’s injectors, keeping his body stable with tranquilizers and painkillers.

Dalia let out another slow, annoyed breath and looked up to the pull-down holo-readout over the shelf-like medical bed the human was ensconced in.

PATIENT ID: Corsigon, Anders (Lt)

Prognosis: Unknown.

Heartrate: Erratic.

Blood Pressure: Erratic.

Cellular Injury: Healing (60%)

Muscular-Skeletal Analysis: Healing (75%)

Brainwave Analysis: Unknown.

Anders had sustained a lot of injuries in just a short time, Dalia could see from the multiple holo-images of various bodily systems. Not only from his one-man space flight through the garbage field known as the ‘Meat Grinder’ of the human Void-pirates, the Night Raiders, but also from falling thirty feet or so from a collapsing gantry inside the raider base known as Bonetown, and then enduring at least two deathmatch ‘duels’ against the psychopathic aforementioned raiders.

But even those injuries cannot explain this… Dalia thought, her alien eyes deciphering how the throne technology worked. Black Rose had expertly stabilized the human’s condition and was pumping him full of what gene-serums her craft had been supplied with, which would reconstruct and re-knit every cell in his body, if given enough.

“So, why is your prognosis unknown?” Dalia wondered aloud. “And why are your brain patterns unknown?”

Of course, it was a rhetorical question. I already know what caused this. She glanced across the room to the glittering blue containment field generated in the center of the Code-X craft’s main bay. The field surrounded a simple metal plinth, and hanging in the air above the plinth was the strange hook device that Anders had been attempting to recover.

The jammer. Dalia’s eyes naturally slid to the next of the medical beds where another of her human companions, the young Voider engineer known as Patch McGuire, currently lay similarly sedated and unconscious.

But he is a far simpler matter, Dalia considered, although she checked the young Voider’s medical holo all the same. Patch McGuire was recovering from a laser blast to the chest, one that had been powerful enough to damage his suit and cause multiple, miniature explosions against the young man’s torso. Devastatingly dangerous, but it was only cellular injury, after all. Already, she could see that the gene-serums had almost completed their work in speeding up his body’s natural healing processes and knitting his chest back together.

Patch McGuire had made that thing, Dalia thought about the jammer hanging in its containment field. “And the sooner you wake up and tell us how to disable it, the better!” Dalia murmured.

The jammer was one of two sister inventions, both of which had originally been designed as transmitters, Dalia remembered Patch’s excited—and somewhat feverish—explanation. It had been his already stellar life’s most important achievement: a way to contact across far greater distances using the sub-quanta alternate dimension of warp travel, which would have extended the Golden Throne’s reach almost to the entire Milky Way Galaxy!

But that was when everything had gone wrong, Dalia presumed. The ruler of the Golden Throne of humanity—Eternal Empress Helena—had used the first of the transmitter devices to make contact, and somehow channel, the world-killing energies of a far-off ancient weapon called the Archon device.

And I don’t even know what race built the Archon device! Dalia cursed her misfortune.

Patch McGuire had turned the second sister-transmitter into a jammer, seeking to stop the empress’s insane plan, but then it was stolen by the Night Raiders.

Who somehow turned the jammer back into a transmitter… The Ilythian’s eyes narrowed as she regarded the thing.

As soon as Anders touched it, this happened. She took another look at the feverish, haggard face of Lieutenant Corsigon, lying next to her with his strangely unknown brainwave patterns.

“If I didn’t know any better, I would say that it was…” Dalia’s gaze now turned to the final occupant of Black Rose’s medical beds—the young human youth called Jake, or J-14 as his original designation stated.

Dalia knew that J-14 was a PK—a psychic, like her. But he was strong, and he had been kidnapped by the empress along with many others throughout the Reach of the Throne to create some kind of psychic battery that would allow her to harvest the power of the Archon device.

It was the boy’s strength which was his undoing, Dalia thought as she watched the sedated youth murmur in his torpor. His incarceration and torture at the hands of the Golden Throne had meant that he couldn’t control the dark energies inside his head and could emit rolling waves of anger and terror in equal measures.

The Ilythian paused in her consideration, looking between Jake, the transmitter, and Anders. He looks as though he is suffering a severe psychic attack, not a physical one!

“Maybe it was connected to the empress’s psychic battery?” Dalia frowned at the transmitter, hanging secure and contained. That was the only explanation she had for why Anders could be suffering like he was.

But then the answer is simple, isn’t it? The Ilythian slowly started to smile. All she had to do was to make a psychic bond with Anders, and to do for him what she had done for Jake when he had been about to drown in the maelstrom of emotions:

Find your inner sanctum. Find your inner balance.

Dalia moved immediately to the officer’s medical bed, certain that she knew precisely what to do to revive him. There were simple psychic procedures and mental exercises that every Ilythian child was taught in order to keep their own powers in check.

But the humans do not appear to have the wherewithal to teach them! Dalia thought irritably. Or maybe the Eternal Empress didn’t care if her PKs ended up going mad…

But either way, I can make the connection, and allow Anders’s mind to center itself again.

The Ilythian examined the medical bed for a moment, and then spared a look to the open bulkhead door that led to the forward cockpit of the Code-X craft, where Black Rose was currently piloting the boat through warp.

Black Rose appeared silent—as she always does, the Ilythian thought—but also focused on her tasks. She wouldn’t notice…

And then, with Anders awake, we can overpower Black Rose and turn this boat away from whatever throne base she is taking us too!

The Ilythian slid off one of the sleek gloves that protected her long-fingered hands. All Ilythians had a form of touch-PK, meaning that it required skin-to-skin contact for her to read emotions and get a sense of a person’s thoughts or memories. Many other Ilythians had a far greater range of PK abilities of course, their telepathy extending beyond the confines of their skin—or even clairvoyance or psychokinesis—but not Dalia. She was actually pretty glad that she didn’t have to worry about the burden of greater PK powers.

Although the idea of throwing a chair across the room at the back of Black Rose’s head is appealing, she had to admit.

The Ilythian lightly ran her fingertips across the visor-plate of the lieutenant’s medical containment unit. She felt cold metal, the subsonic vibrations of the instruments as they maintained Anders’s life.

And maybe something else? She thought for a moment that she felt the slightest shiver of unease, but metal had no feelings, so the feeling must be her own.

Dalia scanned for the release mechanism before pressing on the two rubber depressors on either side of Anders’s visor-unit. There was a slight hiss of compressed air and the angular box raised itself a few millimeters from its rubber seal.

Hss! The Ilythian froze, concentrating on sending her hearing behind her to the rest of the main bay of the Code-X craft and the cockpit beyond. She heard the soft taps and bleeps of the command desk as Black Rose worked. She didn’t hear the medical unit opening.

Very, very carefully, the alien woman raised the solid-form, clear plastic visor to reveal the pale and fevered face of the human male who had been her companion.

“Hgnh?” Anders made a low murmuring sound as he moved his head slightly, but the noise was as light as a whisper. His eyes were closed, and there were tubes extending into his mouth, presumably feeding him the disgusting nutrient-sludge that was keeping him alive.

Okay… Dalia had no idea how much time she would have, so she got straight to work, half-closing her eyes and breathing softly until she felt herself center and her emotions die down to a murmur. She felt calm and purposeful as she extended her long-fingered hand into the medical bay and lightly lowered it to brush Anders’s forehead—

—to feel a universe of pain.


A Universe of Pain

Anders fell—if that was what you could call this thrashing, tumbling, drowning sensation.

The lieutenant had no awareness of his body, or of where he was. Only that wherever he was, he really didn’t want to be there anymore. Everything was black, and yet there was the sensation of rushing currents that he fell through.

And pain. There was always the pain.

Anders opened his mouth—or his dream mouth—to scream, but he couldn’t hear a sound.

How long have I been here? At last, a singular coherent thought in the sea of torment. Where am I? How did I get here? In his—admittedly few—saner moments, Anders remembered the few times that he had been in similar positions to this. When, as a child in the Hecta System on his home world of Hectamon 7, he had contracted a rare strain of Umedi Virus. His body had swollen at the joints, and ugly red welts had erupted everywhere. He remembered an interminable time of being both boiling hot and freezing cold, and the constant state of agony.

But that was a piece of cake compared to what he was going through now. And what was more, that had blissfully ended after only an afternoon and a night, when his parents had rushed him to the local branch of the Gene Seers and they had administered antivirals that had been especially constructed to quench the outbreak.

There was no such blessed savior coming for the ex-officer now.

Or perhaps this misery was similar to when he had been shot on the streets of Hectamon 7’s docklands. It had been an old-style gangland shooting, with the criminal even using projectile weapons.

Usually, an MPB officer’s service suit would have absorbed most of the damage from that bullet, but it was Anders’s misfortune to be shot in one of the few places where a projectile could get through—where the rubber seals joined the scale-carapace of his spine guard to his MPB utility belt. The bullet had missed his spine, thankfully, but had instead grazed his kidneys, involving a huge amount of internal bleeding, nausea, sickness, and of course agony.

Anders was the wolfish sort of man to be able to push himself back into a firing position and take out the two gang-members who had attempted to silence him before collapsing, however, for the Gene Seers to reconstruct his damaged kidneys and back.

No. The cold realization hit the lieutenant as he was tortured and spun, thinking that he must be losing his mind. Those events had been overwhelmingly physical, whereas this pain was more akin to when he remembered—


Like a magic mantra, as soon as Anders’s mind alighted on the name of his dead wife, it conjured her image to him, born out of the black and shadowy just like this was a dream.

Cassandra had been his young, beautiful, and pragmatic wife. She had waited for him during his Throne Marine training years, and his deployment to the border-control scouts before eventually he managed to get reassigned into the Military Police Bureau. It was in the very first month of his return home that she had suggested they go to the family planning clinic and get their already harvested, fertilized eggs finally implanted.


That had been the name of their beautiful daughter.

But we only had a handful of years together, didn’t we? Anders thought, his misery feeling total. In fact, his pain and misery seemed to fuse into one until it was a physical sensation, a second skin of despair and hurt that he wore every moment of every day and would never leave him.

“Cassie?” Anders whispered at the ghost-shape of his dead wife. He could hear his voice now—or was it because these were his own thoughts?

His wife stood with her back to him, her hair now blonde—she liked to change the color often—and in a thick braid. There were always escaping strands, just as there was now. Anders wanted to reach up to smooth those strands of flaxen hair back in place, but he didn’t. He knew that it annoyed her.

“Cassie, is it really you?” he whispered to the shade. All around them was the black of his night, a black that some battened-down part of the man’s soul could never fully escape from.

Again, his wife said nothing, but stood as still as a statue, just like she would when she would get ‘lost’ looking out into the cerulean seas of Hectamon 7’s bay. Their low-built house sat on one of the residential rises just a little way above and outside of the city, and Anders knew that his wife would take her morning coffee out to the porch often and look down on the city and the sea, silently communing with some spirit or god, or the sea itself.

Anders would see her like this sometimes in the early mornings, and he wouldn’t say a word. He would just watch her in these unguarded moments, marveling at how vulnerable and open she was.

But now, with so many years between the serial killer’s laser-shots that had taken both his wife and their daughter from him, Anders could no longer be silent. He stepped toward her in the dark.

“Cassie, where’s Sibbi? Where’s our daughter?” he asked, and his confusion at why he should be seeing the dead shade of his wife and not his daughter was profound.

“If this is a fever-dream, does even my own mind hate me?” he murmured to himself.

No,” a voice said, and it came from Cassie. It almost even sounded like his wife. Almost.

“Cassie!” Anders reached out quickly to touch her shoulder, to turn her around, to enfold her into his arms once again—

But as soon as his outstretched hand touched her shoulder, he felt a momentary resistance, and then nothing. Looking in alarm, he saw that his hand had moved through her, and the stuff of her form was dissolving like ash where he had touched her.

“What— What is happening, Cassie? I don’t understand…” Anders stumbled back, terrified and ashamed of what he had caused.

But the dissolution of his wife was inevitable now. As if the shade knew this was coming, she started to turn to face her husband, but every fraction of a movement sent more cracks through her shoulders, back, and arms, causing more of her to slowly disintegrate.

“Cassie, no!” Anders breathed in horror as his wife spoke some final words.

It isn’t your own mind that hates you, Anders,” his wife said, now only half there, one side of her completely collapsing into gray, charred fragments.

“It’s me,” her strange voice said at last as she completed her turn, a heartbeat before the shade of his wife completely collapsed into dust.

And in that last second, Anders saw that her eyes were complete orbs of perfect, shiny black.

Anders howled in misery, anger, and above all, guilt. The man felt guilty for not saving them, for letting the serial killer that he had been chasing escape him. For not doing enough. For not being enough.

But even in Anders’s complete misery, his wails faded as he noticed that something else was happening around him. The clouds of dust that had been his wife had turned into billows, and everything around him was turning the same storm of gray.

The black was lightening, lighter and lighter, until Anders saw that he didn’t stand in the pitch night looking at the place where his wife had been, but on a vast, empty, gray plain.

What? Anders thought as he looked down. The ground was solid, like rock, but everything was covered with those same flakes and granules of charred gray dust. Some insane thought told Anders that this was what his life was now, after the destruction of his wife. He was left wading through her ashes forever.

He took a step forward, to hear and feel the crunch of the ashes underfoot, and the soft crunch only set up ripples of further collapses in the landscape.

Ander raised his head to scream, but the sight of one object hanging above him stilled his voice.

He was looking at a star-lit sky above the collapsing ash plain, the sort of nighttime horizons that you might see if you looked up on a super-clear night from any planet the galaxy over.

But there, hanging in the sky, was a perfectly round circle of black. The only reason that Anders knew it was even there was because it was far bigger and closer than any planetary moon should be. There was a sheen across its surface of reflected radiance from the lighter ash field, and Anders realized that he knew this sphere.

It was one that he had seen before, that the Void engineers had shown him when they had discussed the empress’s apocalypse weapon.

The Archon device.


This time, the voice was different. It wasn’t the strangely cold version of Cassie. In fact, it didn’t sound like Cassie at all.

It sounded like…

“Dalia?” Anders gasped. The waves of both physical and mental pain buffeted him once again.

“You are Lieutenant Anders Corsigon. And you are my friend. You are brave and resolute, and there is nothing in this world or the next that can change that.” Anders heard Dalia’s voice hiss the words, but it sounded like she too was battling extreme pain or fatigue. He could hear her gasp of anguish and knew that she must be experiencing the same awful feelings that he was.

“Get out of here!” he started to shout, but she began to speak even more fervently.

Anders… You need to…find your center… Remember…who you are!” The voice of the Ilythian was growing fainter and fainter, dissolving just as surely as his own wife had done right before his very eyes.

“Dalia!” Anders shouted into the eternity of torment. “Dalia!”


Girl, Interrupted

Dalia heard the shout of outrage a moment before she felt Black Rose’s hands grasp her shoulders and fling her easily across the length of the bay to crash into the opposite bulkhead.

Normally, someone as highly trained as the Ilythian could have used the warning of Black Rose’s scream to turn, to duck, to avoid the pain that she was feeling now as she crashed against the metal grillwork of the floor.

But Dalia’s mind was ringing like a bell as misery flooded it.


“No!” Dalia begged for the emotions to stop. It was like the dark emotions of hatred and desire for revenge that flooded out of Jake at times, but it was much, much worse.

“What have you done to my ship!” Black Rose’s screech was furious, but Dalia could hardly even see her, her mind was in such torment. It had happened the second that Dalia had touched Anders’s forehead, she remembered. The tide of terrifying, horrible feelings and mental anguish had rushed into her.

And, apparently, into the ship as well. The internal lights of the Code-X craft were flickering erratically, and there was the rising klaxon-wail of alarms.

Oh stars, we’re still at warp, a tiny part of Dalia’s mind thought in absolute horror. If their navigation computers lost their connection to the sub-quanta coordinates that their field generators were locked onto, then they were just as likely to get blasted across the known universe in a thousand molecules as make it to their destination.

“Answer me, Ilythian!” Dalia felt hands seize her platinum-white hair and painfully drag her head back. Through tears of agony, Dalia saw Black Rose’s face, twisted in rage. She had never seen the assassin even looked perturbed—not even as she had killed people.

“I… I…” Dalia wheezed. She shot out with her gloved fist, delivering a classic Ilythian Kun-Pa blow to the woman’s solar plexus. If she had been in full crouch, and used her full range of both technique and strength, Dalia knew she might have cracked the woman’s sternum, maybe ruptured internal organs. But as it was in her weakened state, all that she could do was make the Golden Throne military assassin release her hold and fall back, coughing and wheezing.

It was enough to allow Dalia to fall forward in her mental misery, catching herself on the floor and start to push herself up on a shaking, weakened hand—


to receive a vicious knee to her cheek, spinning her over and back onto the corner where floor met wall.

“Stay down!” Black Rose snarled as Dalia coughed and spat blood.

But she didn’t kill me. Dalia’s mind raced as well as it could, given the nightmare in her mind. Black Rose was the best physical fighter that the Ilythian had ever seen. Dalia knew that she could easily have delivered that blow to snap her neck, or break her nose or jaw, but she didn’t.

In the next second, the groaning Dalia got her reason why. Black Rose stumbled and braced herself against the wall. She was also injured. Either my blow was stronger than I thought or she’s suffering from the same psychic attack as I am…which is about to destroy this ship.

“Stop. Listen to me—” Dalia winced.

“Shut up!” There was a blur of movement, but this time, Dalia had enough warning to roll across the floor, back towards the medical beds, each of which were flaring red and clamoring with alarm systems.

A dull clang and a grunt of pain as Black Rose’s foot struck metal wall, and another scrape as the human assassin stumbled.

“The ship is in danger!” Dalia said urgently, pushing herself up into a crouch.

“No crap,” Black Rose growled, and then, “Frack this—”

Through doubling vision, Dalia saw the woman’s hand move lightning fast to the main holster on her thigh, and for the assassin’s hand to close on the pistol handle there.

Dalia threw herself forward with a grunt of desperation, barging into Black Rose with her shoulder as her other hand closed on the assassin’s wrist drawing out the pistol to shoot the troublesome Ilythian in the chest.

And it was Dalia’s bare hand that touched human flesh, and the Ilythian instantly felt the PK connection between them surge and bond.

Secrets of Ilythia Boxed Set

Black Rose had never been born. Not in any conventional sense, anyway. Instead, she had been made. That was a thread of knowledge that ran around her mind like a scaffold, inside of which every other thought, feeling, or memory made sense.

What the— Dalia had joined with Black Rose’s mind, and she found it unlike any other human mind that she’d ever made contact with.

Usually, an Ilythian could only ever pick up surface thoughts and emotions on skin-to-skin contact—it was considered rude to try and pry deeper—but humans were often the easiest race to read. They were a race that was spectacularly bad at mental and emotional control.

So, Dalia was used to being presented strong, deep emotions and memories when she first made touch-PK contact with a human. This was what had happened when she first met Anders, and this was how she had known that he was a good man, an honorable man, and a widower.

Over time, Ilythian society had evolved to the point where the selective sharing of emotions and memories became one of the fundamental modes of conversation—as vital as a wave or saying hello.

But right now, Dalia was flooded with the strong, conflicted, and violent overview of Black Rose’s soul.

It was a mind divided against itself, and everyone else.

It is a mind that is only partly human… Dalia knew.

Iso-tubes. In Black Rose’s memories, these were the first. Of looking out of a greenish liquid and a heavy glass shell into a ward of moving white coats and blinking, blipping machines. There were other such tubes around her, and her body hurt.

And when the little girl screamed, no one could hear her.

I have seen these before, Dalia thought as she rode the assassin’s mind. These were the same sorts of tubes that had held the human PK clones they’d rescued on the planet of Benevolent. Had been grown in, the Ilythian thought.

“Well done!” a voice was saying, and Dalia blinked to see another of Black Rose’s memories. She was standing on a dull blue vinyl practice mat in front of a much taller blonde man, wearing a black mesh bodysuit.

Commander-General Cread. Dalia recognized this younger version of the man from the intelligence reports that the Ilythian Council had made her study. The commander-general was rumored to be one of two men right at the heart of the empire—the hands of the Eternal Empress herself.

Cread is the master of the Throne Marines, and Architrex Vasad is the master of the Gene Seers, Dalia recalled.

But now, this younger Cread was not immersed in battle reports or strategies. He appeared to be paying the utmost attention to his star-pupil, who could be no more than nine or ten, Dalia thought, given their comparative size.

“Now, again!” Dalia heard Cread say through Black Rose’s younger ears. Ears that have been gene-created to function at the very peak of human capabilities, she knew.

Suddenly, the image that Dalia was seeing blurred and moved as the younger Black Rose threw herself into a dizzying set of spins, rolls, and ghost-strikes towards imaginary opponents. But as soon as the assassin moved, and her heartrate started to pick up and for adrenaline to surge around her body, Dalia saw the woman’s vision start to slow, and for her senses to sharpen.

This is incredible. Even the Ilythian had to be impressed. Whatever the Gene Seers had programmed into her, the human assassin could utilize the exact neurotransmitters, hormones, and other assorted body chemicals to ensure that she worked at peak capability when she needed to.

This intimate sharing of Black Rose’s existence gave the Ilythian many other revelations, too: that she could shut off pain completely, that she could regulate her own heartbeat and healing rate, and that her body manufactured its own stem cells and sent them to injured areas!

She is no natural human, but a clone! Dalia immediately realized. A biological weapon. Perhaps the perfect warrior…

And then the image changed again, and Dalia heard an older Commander-General Cread’s voice once more.

“Not for you, I’m afraid, Rose.”

The assassin was standing at a viewport, looking down from a great height to where a gangplank was disgorging a steady river of humans in fatigues and under-mesh suits to the surface of some nighttime colony world. In the distance, the assassin’s eyes could make out the glittering lights of some throne city.

Black Rose, now a teenager, said nothing in the memory. She was the perfect pupil, after all. But Dalia could feel the girl’s moment of frustration. Why did it have to be this way?

Because she was special.

Because there was no one else like her.

Because she wasn’t a real girl at all, was she?

Dalia knew all of these things as the often-repeated thoughts and conversations that Black Rose had over the years of her young life. The Ilythian saw a flickering slideshow of emotions and images as the woman grew deadlier and deadlier, and trained with weapons both mundane and elaborate. She became humanity’s most perfect killer, and she had already been dispatched to kill, torture, poison, or intimidate any number threats to the Golden Throne’s interests.

Everyone from pirates to foreign diplomats, to human traders who wouldn’t pay their taxes, or even human nobles who had somehow insulted the Eternal Empress in some way, Dalia saw in horror.

But behind it all was a girl. A frightened girl.

Dalia could feel that thread of the lost, hurting girl in the iso-tube right through Black Rose’s soul. Dalia knew that the she too knew this was the case. Black Rose had been sent especially to ‘clean up’ the mess that was the escaped convict Lt. Anders Corsigon, and that had meant that she had been there to investigate the wreckage of the human clones’ iso-tubes on Benevolent.

She feels a familiarity to them, Dalia realized. She feels empathy for them.

But as Dalia tried to push deeper into the emotions of the human, trying to see the threads that she would be able to pull on when back inside her body, she was in for a surprise.

There was another current that ran right through the middle of the human girl. An unconscious coloring that had no name, and yet exerted a constant, psychic influence.

And, if Dalia knew anything about anything, she would swear that what she was sensing was that the perfected clone assassin hadn’t just been made from a slew of human gene-codes but from Ilythian as well.

That feels like an Ilythian mind. That feels like an Ilythian! Dalia gasped in shock.


Not So Different

“Get off me!” Black Rose gasped, pushing back angrily against the Ilythian woman who held her wrist. In her shock, Dalia was only too happy to agree, stumbling backwards and then to the floor as the waves of psychic pain, transmitted through the Anders’s mind, continued.

“We’re not so different—” Dalia started to say to Black Rose, but the woman had slid down the opposing metal wall to sit, knees in front of her, glaring in pain and anger at everything around her.

“I’m nothing like you!” Black Rose spat. Dalia saw then just how young the human woman was. Perhaps only in her middle to late twenties.

Far too young to have killed a hundred and forty-four people, the Ilythian thought.

“I am nothing like ANYONE!” Black Rose shouted, and it seemed that all of her carefully-composed restraint had finally broken down. She was once again a young human woman, scared and alone and confused as to what she was, or even why she was.

“You can feel it too though, you saw it, didn’t you?” Dalia pressed. Her ears were still ringing with the Code-X craft’s warning klaxons, and if anything, the ship appeared to be in a worse state than it had been before, as it was now shaking.

Not much longer, and we could break apart at warp. The thought lent desperate urgency to the alien’s voice.

“You know what a part of you is,” Dalia said. “You’re like me—Ilythian!”

“Pfagh!” the Black Rose growled, animal-like. “A micro-percent maybe. A few strands of genetic coding. That doesn’t make me anything like you…” Dalia saw the woman’s eyes suddenly blink, and her face fell. “That makes me unlike anyone or anything that has ever existed. That makes me a freak.

“No,” Dalia tried to say. “No, not at all—”

Dalia didn’t know if it was the imminent threat of being scattered over the physical universe or whether it was seeing the terrified girl behind the fearsome assassin, but something made her reach out to the human girl with her gloved hand. Dalia held her hand open for Black Rose to see that she meant no harm, and that she was there to help.

“The Ilythians have a concept,” Dalia said. “We call it the Sul’imar…”

Black Rose said nothing, but her tear-filled eyes remained fixed on the Ilythian’s open and offering hand.

“We believe that there is no such thing as an individual soul, but instead there is a…” Dalia struggled for the right words in human speech. There were none. “A tapestry of forces that creates each individual. When an Ilythian dies, we return to the Sul’imar, as does every living thing, and although we do not know how long we stay there, or what happens, we Ilythians believe that the Sul’imar is given back to us.”

“You’re talking about reincarnation?” Black Rose sounded scornful.

“Yes. No.” Dalia gritted her teeth. Why do humans have such a limited concept of time and reality? “Just as our bodies are made up of star-stuff, and plant-stuff, and minerals and every other molecule, so is our soul. But Ilythians, given our PK abilities, choose to give our soul-stuff back to Ilythia. We become reborn in many people, or perhaps only one.”

Black Rose squinted her eyes even deeper. “You think I’m a reincarnated Ilythian!?”

Yes. No. Dalia growled silently in frustration. “What the Sul’imar means is that all Ilythians are one. We are all one family. We are involved with each other, and with the fate of all Ilythia, throughout history and to the end of history. If you have but one drop of Ilythian blood—or DNA—then you are my sister,” Dalia said, holding her hand in the air.

And you were once a hurt and frightened little girl, with no one around you, Dalia added inwardly. Whatever you may believe, you need not be alone anymore.

The klaxons and alarms raged around the two women, looking at each other with their sharp eyes. For a moment, Dalia was certain that Black Rose was going to refuse her offer of friendship…until the young assassin reached out with her own unsteady hand and grasped the Ilythian’s.

“Good.” Dalia grinned savagely. “Now let’s stop this boat from disintegrating and killing us all, shall we?”

Secrets of Ilythia Boxed Set

“Algorithmic stabilizers?” Dalia said tersely as she sat at the adjacent command chair in the Code-X craft’s cockpit. Next to her in the pilot and command chair sat Black Rose, and ahead of them, the fractal-cockpit window of the deep-reconnaissance craft was flaring with white, blue, and indigo.

The Code-X craft shook as Dalia tried to work out how to operate this human vessel. The waves of PK energy that had flooded from Anders’s mind—through Anders’s mind, Dalia corrected—had infected everything.

PK operates on a sub-quanta level, Dalia knew, although her Ilythian people didn’t usually think of it in such human terms as particles and quanta. But the Ilythian agent was working hard to try and translate what she knew of PK energy into human terms.

If PK has a non-localized, sub-particle effect, then it creates cascade-reactions in the physical world, she reasoned. And the thing with jumping and warp travel were that they were essentially sub-quanta fields around a larger, complex physical object—in their case, the tooth-like shape of the Code-X craft.

The field engines create a gravity field that destabilizes space around us, and the waves of PK are working to disrupt that field.

As well as every electrical and field system on board this Yvee’l craft! Dalia swore. She wasn’t the sort of Ilythian who swore often, but sometimes, the situation deserved it.

As if to prove her point, the lights flickered across the command and control boards, and for a terrifying moment, it seemed as though all of the controls had been lost. There was a violent judder throughout the ship, and the screech of metal.

Another thing about fields, Dalia growled to herself. They were all that separated their ship from the chaotic energies of the between-dimensions that they traveled through. They created a paradox, in effect, and all of reality was constantly seeking to tear them apart.

“Field equalizers,” Black Rose answered Dalia’s question. It was the throne equivalent of the stabilizers that Dalia had been talking about. The human clone flickered a hand over the controls and had to gesture her hand several times through the air to get the holos to initiate correctly.

As soon as they did, however, a patch of the sleek black-glass board in front of Dalia lit up with what appeared to be a slowly cascading picture of green and purple lights.

“These are the fields?” Dalia thought in horror. It looked like a sped-up image of rust, slowly taking something over. She heard a grunt of agreement from Black Rose beside her as the assassin struggled with the more physical dangers of their situation. She was trying her best to keep the Code-X craft stable, and to mitigate the damage that had already been done throughout the vessel’s structure.

“Okay…” The Ilythian’s hand flashed across the control boards. She had a broad training—enough to kill someone with her bare hands, but also enough to pilot a spacecraft.

Dalia saw the cascade of the code that was fragmenting, all the time. “We need to replace the field-code…” she murmured, and her hands blurred once again over the consoles.

“We’ve got another problem…” Black Rose hissed through clenched teeth. “The field generators are running at maximum. They’re burning themselves out!”

Dalia understood immediately. “Then we need to jump this ship out of warp right away.”

“The navigation system is down. I have no idea where the nearest throne installation is!” Black Rose said, earning a grimace from the Ilythian beside her.

I can’t let her take us to any throne base, the Ilythian thought, and then she thought about the ebbing pulse of horror and evil that was coming from behind her. She could have sworn that she felt it almost like a physical wave to the back of the head.

The waves of black emotions, combining with the PK disruption, had subsided an awful lot, but they were still bad. Dalia thought that Anders’s distress had somehow triggered the young PK Jake, as well.

Thank the stars they’re both heavily sedated, Dalia had to agree. But for how long? The Code-X craft juddered, and the warning screens continued to blare all around the two women.

ALERT: Critical System Malfunction. Multiple Issues.

Chance of Complete System Failure: 46%

“That’s too damn high,” Black Rose snarled at her own vessel. Dalia could only agree. Once that percentage reached 51%, then it was going to be more likely that the field generators, and the life-support systems, and the navigation arrays, and everything else that was keeping them alive inside this metal box hurtling at warp would suddenly stop working.

And I cannot allow that to happen… Dalia thought, but even more so, she couldn’t allow Black Rose to take Patch’s transmitter to the Golden Throne.

For a brief, morbid second, Dalia wondered if she was prepared to let everyone die rather than let the Eternal Empress get her hands on the second transmitter.

No. The strange, elf-like Ilythians might not believe that death was the end, but that did not mean they didn’t hold life as sacred. And besides, what would our deaths achieve, other than allow the Eternal Empress to continue with her insane apocalypse?

“I know somewhere we can go,” Dalia said, her hands blurring on the console as the terrible percentage on the alert notification above moved from 46% to 47%...

“How? We have no way of contacting the deep-field satellites!” Black Rose snapped. “Without their network, if you jump us out of warp, we could materialize inside a planet, or a star, or anywhere!”

Dalia knew precisely what Black Rose was talking about. The throne operated a vast network of deep-field satellites—glorified data-nodes that flew in space, and whose constant sub-quantum signaling provided the navigation and directional framework for every jump and all space travel in throne space.

But the humans aren’t the only ones who have warp travel, are they? Dalia knew.

“It’s called an Ilythian beacon. I know the coordinates for one…” Dalia said, her hands moving even faster.


“Absolutely not! I cannot allow this craft or myself to become hostages—” Black Rose burst out and was swinging around in her command chair to be able to reach Dalia.

But it was already too late. Dalia had punched in the set of memorized coordinates and initiated them.


Special Guests

The two women sat opposite one other, Black Rose glaring at the Ilythian agent.

“You took us to an Ilythian colony world? In the middle of a war?” she said, and Dalia could see the hurt that the young woman was trying to hide underneath her years of training.

The layers of hurt. Dalia studied the human clone with alien eyes. Black Rose might not understand it, she might have been presented with every opportunity and luxury as Commander-General Cread trained her to be the deadliest fighter in the civilized galaxy, but Dalia knew that underneath it all, the young woman felt betrayed.

Betrayed by everyone. Betrayed by the one man who had been as close to a father and mentor as she might get. Betrayed by her own biology to not be one thing, ever, but to be a chimera.

And now, she feels betrayed by me as well… Dalia thought.

“Sul’imar,” Black Rose said bitterly. But with perfect intonation, Dalia thought. “You lied to me. Told me we were one—” The assassin’s mouth twisted into an ugly sneer. “—family.”

“We are,” Dalia said quickly. “And that is why I brought you here. Why I have saved all of our lives.”

The Code-X craft was still juddering into a panicked existence in the starry expanse of space, and the alarms were still ricocheting around the internal bulkheads of the cabin.

Black Rose was clearly intelligent enough to see that Dalia spoke the truth. If the Ilythian hadn’t brought them out of warp, then they would probably be scattered across the galaxy by now.

But, amidst the warnings and distress calls of the Code-X craft, there was also one fainter noise: a friendlier chime as the ship’s remaining sensors identified a familiar planet.

“What did you do?” Black Rose whispered menacingly, casting a glance at the screens to see the friendly green vector triangle over the recognizable planet.

Dalia heard her intake of breath as she knew the throne assassin would be surprised at what she found. It was no Ilythian colony world that Dalia had brought them to.

The signature that Black Rose saw was of a human colony world. In fact, it was a human garden world named Terevesin.

“We always suspected that the garden worlds were conspiring with Ilythia.” Black Rose frowned. She has clearly inherited all of her prejudices from Commander-General Cread, Dalia thought. That was going to be a problem.

“Terevesin has always been a friend to us Ilythians, so much so that they allowed us to install one of our navigation beacons there,” Dalia said. Which was all true. “And Terevesin will be able to help—” Dalia threw a look to the three sedated men in the back of the Code-X craft. “—with our patients.”

Black Rose said nothing, and Dalia knew that the woman must be assessing the merits and pitfalls of Dalia’s actions. Terevesin was a Golden Throne colony world, so doubtless there would be a way to contact the Throne Marines. And then she could continue with her mission.

Unless I can convince her that her mission is flawed, Dalia thought.

Secrets of Ilythia Boxed Set

The Code-X craft was reduced to relying on actual thrusters to get to the green and blue orb of Terevesin, as its field generators were almost fried. Dalia knew that the assassin would already be making plans to ensure the success of her mission as the Ilythian left the command cockpit to check on Anders, Patch, and Jake.

Ach! Even drawing closer to Anders brought with it a renewed sense of dread and nausea in her gut. Even though the psychic waves of pain weren’t anywhere near as strong as they had been when Dalia had made actual physical contact with the man, they were still there, and still affecting the nearby ship’s systems. The holo-medical unit above his bed glitched and faded before coming back online, only to do the same thing just a few seconds later.

I need to understand what is happening to him. Why it happened, Dalia thought. She could tell that there was something happening here that was much stranger and more important than just the Throne-Ilythian War. It was something to do with the Archon device and PK energy.

And the Golden Throne hasn’t got anyone who knows half as much about PK as us Ilythians do, Dalia thought. Now, all she had to do was make Black Rose see that…

“Terevesin Port Authority, this is a Priority One Message. My craft requires immediate assistance,” Black Rose said over the ship’s communicator.

Through the cockpit windows above, the orb of Terevesin was gradually growing larger. Even from this distant height, it looked like a welcoming gem of life, with swirls of white clouds over deep blue seas.

Unknown craft, this is Terevesin Port Authority. Your vessel has no identifiers and no registration in our database. Given that all throne space is currently on red alert, Terevesin has closed its near-space and we will be refusing you permission to land. If you attempt to draw any closer, I will be forced to take defensive action,” the human voice on the other end of the communicator reported back.

“Pfft.” Black Rose almost laughed. “Terevesin, stop kidding yourselves. We both know that your planet doesn’t have any defensive capabilities, and as for any security satellites that you do have, in their current state, I could easily out-fly them. This was a courtesy call. Prepare your docks and workshops for emergency repair work.”

Unknown craft! I must insist!” the voice started to sound panicked. Which well they might, Dalia thought. Although the garden worlds were throne colony worlds, they were also worlds that had eschewed the use of violence and instead devoted their energies to the production and development of agricultural and plant-based sciences.

“Seriously, Terevesin. I haven’t got the time for this. You can verify my voice as an alpha-bronze security access. Need I say more?” Black Rose said, and Dalia caught a glimpse into the terrible life that this woman had so expertly led. She existed at the top echelons of throne society, and she was used to travelling anywhere, and everywhere, with impunity.

But even an alpha-bronze level operative had bad days, and as Rose argued with the Terevesin Port Authorities, Dalia made her move. The Ilythian agent had nominally been a hostage of Black Rose, before the PK accident that Dalia had caused.

And being a hostage meant that Dalia had all of her own weapons confiscated. She had hoped to not allow the situation to come to this. She had hoped that she would be able to win the Black Rose over to their side.

But sometimes, humans seem to need a little bit of persuading…

Black Rose had taken her eyes off of the Ilythian as she had talked on the communicator. She had seen Dalia move back to the medical bays in the main body of the craft and had assumed that the Ilythian would be a docile captive.

Which was definitely not the case. Dalia ghosted back towards the cockpit and the unsuspecting assassin.

“Unknown craft, please hold on while I verify your voice ident—” the male voice of the Terevesin Port Authority came back as Dalia ghosted closer.

“Well, don’t be long,” Black Rose was saying, right as Dalia snatched the assassin’s laser pistol from her belt and calmly hit the power button as she pressed it into Black Rose’s side.

“Hss!” she growled but sat statue-still in her seat. “I knew it,” the human assassin said, her voice thick with hurt.

“I’m sorry that it came to this, Rose. I really didn’t want it to…” Dalia said honestly. “I thought that you would listen to me after I told you about Sul-imar, after I saw inside your mind—”

“Ilythian tricks!” Black Rose’s voice wavered, cracking with taut emotion.

“No, it wasn’t,” Dalia said sadly, but there was no way she was going to take her pistol from Black Rose’s back, either. There is just too much at stake, she told herself. Not just the Ilythian-Throne War, but also the safety and sanity of her friends. “I meant what I said earlier, Rose. You are my sister, and I am saving you from yourself.”

“Maybe I don’t want to be saved!” the assassin snapped.

“Everyone does,” Dalia said seriously. “Human and Ilythian.”

The clone-girl made another scornful growl at this piece of Ilythian wisdom, but she said nothing as the Code-X craft’s communicator crackled back into life. This time, the man’s voice from the Terevesin Port Authority sounded hesitant and anxious.

Probably because he’s just checked Black Rose’s voice identifier and realized that she was telling the truth, Dalia thought. She does have a high level of alpha-bronze clearance.

Unknown craft, please approach the coordinates I am sending to you, where you will receive our best engineers, medics, and mechanics.”

“Change of plans, Terevesin,” Dalia said out loud. “I want you to give us a direct route to the Council of Terevesin. Please send a message that they have special guests coming to visit,” Dalia said, knowing that the phrase would mean a whole lot more to a few key members of Terevesin society than this port authority clerk.

You see, while Black Rose might have been one of the best fighters in the known galaxy, she had met her match in the best Ilythian spy-agent.




The Code-X craft wobbled and shook its way through the garden world’s upper atmosphere. The fact that it made its way to the surface of without breaking up was nothing short of a miracle.

Dalia couldn’t tell if there were any more alarms and warnings from the ship’s haphazard computers, but the ones that were already there certainly seemed to get louder as the ship trembled and swerved. The view screens of the cockpit and the bulkhead portholes hazed a burning white, and then green and yellow, before finally the plasma burned off in an angry crimson

Both women inside the craft suddenly saw the surface of the garden world and were captivated for a moment.

Terevesin was naturally a habitable, carbon-rich planet, with the added benefit of running a ‘hot’ core that heated underground aquifers, geysers, and streams. Adding to this already humid and nutrient-rich landscape came the Golden Throne’s terraforming-drones, intelligent missiles that had unloaded billions of tons of mycorrhizal fungi and bacteria. Within just a couple of generations, Terevesin was teeming with planet life, everything from fungal shelves to trees, moss, corals, and a thousand more species in between.

The colony humans of Terevesin had over the centuries also developed their own approach to their duties here. Some of the garden worlds gave themselves over to vast, continent-prairies for harvestable bovines and ungulates. Others dedicated their land, sea, and air farms to the production of grains.

Terevesin, however, had from the start established their name as specialists in plant science. They studied and cross-bred, mixed and matched plant genomes to create ever more niche, adaptable organisms. Rumor had reached the Ilythians that the Terevesins could almost mimic every product of the Gene Seers with editable DNA sequencing—apart from re-growing limbs, perhaps.

So, as their craft threatened to disintegrate, both Dalia and Black Rose found themselves looking at a land of green-topped plateaus over dark jungles and snaking rivers. Waterfalls played out from weirs at the edge of the plateaus, creating unique humid environments of sky, water, and rock. Dalia could see small white domes glinting on the ground between each table-like plateau, surrounded by odd-shaped meadow-farms. The tops of the plateaus appeared to be where the Terevesin humans had placed most of their townships, with white and steel towers glistening in the sun, and more buildings and narrow streets clustered at their base.

Terevesin didn’t look like a Golden Throne colony, in many respects. It almost reminded Dalia of home.

“Unknown craft, you are cleared for landing,” the voice of the port authority spokesperson said. They transmitted the locking coordinates to their vessel, which auto-guided itself not toward the towers but instead to a large white dome, surrounded by what appeared to be landing pads, walkways, and gardens. The Code-X craft fired stabilizer rockets—only half of which were actually working—as it lowered itself out of the sky to the teardrop-shaped landing pad, where there was already a delegation of people rushing toward it. Dalia and Black Rose felt their ship land with a heavy thud, and then hiss with steam.

“And so, just what is your plan now then?” Black Rose growled at Dalia. “Kill me? Take me as your prisoner?”

To be honest, I hadn’t even thought about what happens next… Dalia had to admit to herself as she spared a glance at the mumbling, moaning forms of her three friends behind her. I need to get them help, and Terevesin is the only place in all of Golden Throne territory that I can trust. I hope.

“As much as you might not believe this, I have zero interest in keeping you captive,” Dalia said. Which was true.

“It’s hard to believe that when you have a gun pressed into my ribs,” Black Rose said.

If I could be certain that you weren’t going to try and kill me as soon as I took this gun away… Dalia hissed, cat-like, to herself. “Up,” she said, moving the assassin carefully back into the main bay area of the craft, where she hit the door release button on the Code-X craft’s airlock.

“I’ll kill you for this. You know that, don’t you?” Black Rose said as the door hissed open with bursts of steam, revealing a bright sunny day outside and the approaching group of Terevesins.

“You probably will…” Dalia murmured, looking over Black Rose’s shoulder

The woman in the lead of the delegation wore strange robes that appeared to move and flutter of their own volition. She had blonde hair, freckles, and looked to be in her middling years. She also had a very serious frown on her face and a heavy laser pistol in both hands, which she leveled at the two women.

“Black Rose? You are charged with the murder of Mahria U’Losani, the Envoy of Terevesin, and my sister,” the freckled woman snarled.

Dalia froze in shock. She hadn’t expected this. “What did you do?” the Ilythian hissed at the woman, only to feel an answering shrug from the young clone in front of her.

“My job,” she said calmly.



“My sister, Mahria, was asked to attend the opening ceremony for the Challenge on Hectamon 7,” the blonde woman confided as she led the taller Ilythian at a quick march through the bright, clean corridors.

Ahead of them floated the medical beds containing Anders, Patch, and Jake. Dalia could still feel the waves of PK torment ebbing out from Anders. Occasionally, she would see the man groan and mutter in his feverish half-sleep.

“Are you certain?” Dalia asked, her mind racing as she tried to adjust to this new complication. Would it be such a bad thing for Black Rose to be imprisoned? she thought. She was a murderer, after all. Maybe it would even be the safest place for her in the war to come.

Behind the two women, the gaggle of Terevesin guards surrounded and marched the assassin forward with four guns trained on her at all times. The group had entered the council building, where their leader—the blonde woman—appeared to already have been expecting them.

“Yes. I am certain,” the blonde woman sighed. She lowered her voice. “We were contacted by the Oracle.”

“I see.” Dalia nodded. The Oracle was the one who had started all of this, although neither Dalia nor Anders had any idea who she or it was. All they knew was that she was a powerful PK, presumably in the service of the Eternal Empress, who had been leaking information relating to the farmed-PK clones and the Archon device.

It was the Oracle who tried to free the clones, and to get them to contact Anders and the Terevesin envoy to tell them what the empress is up to, Dalia thought. Before Black Rose killed them.

“And it was the Oracle who informed me that I should be expecting friends…” The woman cast a dark look over her shoulder at Black Rose. Dalia’s eyes followed, to see her walking with her chin high and without a hint of remorse in her features.

“It seems that even the Oracle can be wrong sometimes…” the woman murmured as she indicated a door to their right, hissing open to reveal a large medical bay where automated drones buzzed from humming and flashing wall units to tend to the three injured.

“Don’t be so hasty to judge her. She might surprise us yet…” Dalia murmured as they came to a stop, her eyes still on Black Rose.

Judge her is exactly what I will be doing!” the sister of the murdered envoy said. “That woman murdered my sister!”

She took a deep breath, and Dalia saw that the shimmering and fluttering robes that she wore were actually made of the trademark plant technologies of Terevesin—a type of living, mossy gauze that appeared to ripple in reaction to light and noise.

“My name is Elaine U’Losani,” the woman said. “And I am standing in as the Terevesin envoy until we can hold an election. But, given the war…” Elaine looked darkly at Dalia, and the Ilythian knew what she was thinking. There was a war between their peoples, and even though the Terevesins had always been allies to Ilythia, Dalia knew that as soon as word got out that they were harboring one, all hell would break loose.

“I know that you risk much by having me here.” Dalia murmured.

“You’re damn right I do!” Elaine said hotly. The medical drones settled over the bodies of the wounded humans, like feasting insects. Dalia saw small beams of field energy lancing down from the medical drones’ bellies, coupled with injections and tiny steel arms as the patients’ clothes were cut away and the damage repaired.

“We haven’t got a lot of time,” Elaine said seriously. “I have no way of knowing if there are throne spies on Terevesin—or should I say how many there are.” Another dark look at Black Rose, waiting patiently behind them. “When word gets out, the Eternal Empress will brand us as traitors to the throne, and, well…”

Dalia nodded. She knew what that would mean for the garden world. Occupation at the very least.

“But we can get you out,” Elaine said heavily. “Your beacon is still operational, and we have a small cloaked craft that should be able to make it across the front lines.”

“Thank you,” Dalia said, “I have no way of repaying you—”

“The Oracle said that it had something to do with stopping the war,” Elaine said heavily. “That would be payment enough—”

“Urrgh?” There was a sound of surprise from the medical units as the advanced systems revived the injured party. The first to get up from their bed was Patch, as he only had physical injuries.

“What the— Where—” he murmured, blinking as he looked around the bright medical room and the tatters of his mesh suit with the puckered red lines of freshly-healed flesh underneath. “Dalia?” He looked across to see her.

“Patch!” The Ilythian was surprised at the warmth of her feelings toward the young Voider. He had taken those laser shots to save her.

“We’re at Terevesin,” Dalia explained quickly. “I’ll tell you later, but we have your transmitter, and we have a way to get across the border. My people will keep us safe until you can get it to work—”

“Too late,” murmured the second waking form—Jake. He was groggy as he swung his legs around but appeared insistent. For a moment, Dalia feared another PK outburst from the untrained psychic, but he seemed to be keeping his powers in check.

“What is he talking about?” Elaine said quickly beside Dalia.

Despite the medical intervention, Jake looked harrowed and haggard. He was still so young, and yet his eyes were deeply shadowed and appeared as though they had looked into hell.

“Can’t you feel it?” Jake said, looking up.

And then Dalia heard it too, a deep, low vibrational hum in the air. In any other circumstance, she might have thought it was the medical machines whirring and busying themselves… But it isn’t, is it? Dalia looked quickly at Elaine. Even the thick, crystal-glass windows appeared to be juddering now.

Something is coming, Dalia thought. Something outside…

…a moment before Dalia heard a grunt and a thud from behind them, and then Black Rose’s voice.

“Nobody move, and I’m sure we’ll get all this cleared up right away.”

Secrets of Ilythia Boxed Set

Elaine was the first to give a snarl of rage as she spun around, but Dalia was quicker. The Ilythian threw an arm across the Terevesin’s chest, knocking down the heavy blaster she held as she stepped forward

Somehow, Black Rose had managed to incapacitate the four guards who had been set to guard her and now held a heavy blaster of her own, pointed at Dalia.

Dalia looked at the guards on the floor, and back at Black Rose as the humming and thrumming in the air only grew louder.

“What did you do!?” Dalia said, aware that she was echoing the precise outrage that Black Rose herself had said to her just a little while ago.

Calmly, Black Rose lifted one hand from the gun to wave her palm in the air. It looked like any normal human hand. “I have a tracking node implanted in my wrist. It’s field-linked to the commander-general’s personal servers.” The sound only grew louder above them, and now Dalia was sure that she could hear the whirr of propulsion engines as something very large, and very menacing, broke through Terevesin’s thin envelope of atmosphere.

“And I guess that will be him now,” Black Rose said happily. “And you don’t have to worry.” She casually kicked one of the Terevesin guards on the floor. “I didn’t kill any of them. Just a few broken bones. A ruptured lung in one, I think.”

“You’re so kind,” Dalia sneered. She felt at the same time appalled and impressed. “But why? After what I told you?” Dalia said. After what I had seen inside of you, she thought. The clone-woman’s rage and ever-burning sense of betrayal.

“You told me lies, Ilythian,” Black Rose snarled, losing her mask of control for a moment. Dalia could see the sea of confusion and hurt that the young woman was constantly battling.

Imagine living like that. Knowing that you are a creation. A tool. Having nothing to call your own apart from the deadly purpose that you were designed to do.

“They weren’t lies, Rose,” Dalia tried to say. “What I said about our connection, the Ilythian DNA, Sul’imar—it’s true.”

Lies!” The assassin took another step towards them, her anger only getting stronger. “You held a gun to my back! What sort of sister does that?”

“One who cares what you become,” Dalia said severely. “You don’t have to do this. You felt the awful power that is coming from that transmitter. Some part of you must know that it is evil—that we cannot let the Eternal Empress get her hands on it!”

We don’t have to do anything!” Rose snapped. “And what I know is that I have a job to do. Which was to recover that transmitter and bring the criminal Anders and a dangerous Ilythian saboteur to throne justice!”

She is clutching at the only sense of self that she’s been given, Dalia thought. I have to try and break that—

Urhk…” There was a groan and a cough behind Dalia and Elaine as Anders rose to something like consciousness. The medical machines had done what they could for his battered and broken body, but it was the dark energies that had invaded his mind that were far more damaging.

Cassie? Sibbi?” the man muttered, flopping to one side of the medical bed as suddenly the wave of dark feelings flooded out of him once again.

PAIN! TORMENT! AGONY! Dalia was buffeted by the blind force of PK energy. But Anders wasn’t a PK. This energy was acting through him.

“Stop it!” Dalia heard Jake scream, and even Black Rose whimpered.

Rargh!” Elaine took her chance, even though she was suffering like everyone else from the horrible, twisted emotions pouring out of Anders. Dalia, being naturally PK, was too susceptible to them. She couldn’t react fast enough to stop what the grieving sister was doing.

No!” Dalia managed to gasp, just as Elaine barged past her and fired her heavy laser pistol almost point-blank into Black Rose’s chest.

Ach!” The human assassin shot back across the medical bay, hitting the wall opposite and causing the units to spark with discharging energy.

How could you!? Dalia looked in horror at the blonde Terevesin, feeling sadness well up inside of her. “I could have saved her…” Dalia whispered.

“No, you couldn’t. She was a murderer,” Elaine burst out savagely. “And we have no time for this now anyway.” The Terevesin ran to the windows, looking up before flinching visibly and stepping back. “It’s a stars-damned dreadnaught!” she said breathlessly, stepping back from the window to brace herself against the wall. “You have to get off the planet now. Get to the beacon!”

“Dalia?” Anders groaned, holding one hand over his own head as if afraid that it might burst. From the waves of agonizing pain pouring out of the man, Dalia wondered if it might.

“It’s okay, Anders. We’re getting out of here,” Dalia said quickly, turning from the body of the clone-assassin to start helping Patch, Jake, and Anders to their feet. She turned to Anders and crouched in front of him, trying to look him in the eyes, since she dared not touch him.

“Breathe, Anders. Remember what I told you. Find your center…”

“The transmitter.” Patch, the most able-bodied of all of them, was already moving across the bay. “Where is it? Did you get it from the Night Raiders?”

“It’s still in the ship!” Dalia cursed herself for her stupidity. Why hadn’t I picked it up? She scolded herself…before she remembered seeing what just holding it had done to Anders. “We need to keep a containment field around it, at all times,” she said.

Patch nodded. “Gotcha.” He was already reaching down to grab an injured guard’s blasters and heading for the corridor.

The ceiling shook, and a plume of dust, smoke, and heat burst along the corridor.

“They’re attacking us!” Elaine was shouting, hitting her own node in her robe’s collar. “Port Authority? This is Envoy U’Losani. What’s happening? Send out immediate emergency broadcast. Tell everyone to get underground!” She was shouting, but from Dalia could hear, it appeared too little, too late.

“The corridor’s blocked!” Patch cried, peering past the drifts of smoke and ochre dust back the way they had come.

“Elaine, is there any way back to the landing pad?” Dalia said as the ground shook and there was another rumble of murderous thunder. “We need that transmitter!”

But Elaine was backing away in horror from the crystal-glass windows, as Dalia saw smaller shadows spear downwards, breaking the light. “Unless you want to fight an entire company of Throne Marines, I suggest you get to the elevator at the end of the corridors.” The envoy looked at the weapon in her hands, grimaced, and Dalia saw her visibly steel herself for the firefight that she had no hope of winning. The Terevesins used to be a peaceful colony. They had no natural soldiers or fighters.

“But—” Dalia said again in consternation. Is that really it? Had it all been for naught?

The walls shook once again, and this time, a crack appeared up the outer wall, bursting medical units into showers of sparks.

“Go!” the envoy shouted.

“She’s right,” Patch said, running back to tug at the Ilythian’s shoulder. “We can’t defeat the empress if we’re dead. I don’t know what we’ll do, but if I made a jammer once, I can make one again, right?” he was pleading with her, and reluctantly, Dalia had to agree.

“Anders?” she whispered, reaching toward him before stopping herself. The waves of dark fear and agony were still there, but they were tighter now, centered around just this one man.

“I got this.” He breathed heavily through his nose and wobbled to his feet. “Patch is right. We regroup. We…” He winced as some psychic pain shot through him. Whatever power they channeled through the transmitter is still infecting him, Dalia could see. If it was a PK blast this powerful, then she was amazed that he wasn’t a jabbering wreck by now.

“Breathe, center…” she reminded him.

“Come on!” Patch shouted. He and Jake were already at the corridor, which was now shaking with weapons blasts.

Dalia spared a final look at Elaine U’Losani, readying herself by the window and preparing to fire. “Thank you. For everything,” she said, before she turned and, staying close to Anders, followed her two companions out into the corridor and beyond.


The Black River

Anders tried to concentrate, but every time he closed his eyes, it was like there was a roaring black river rushing through his head. Like the worst hangover you’ve ever had, he told himself.

Although, in fact, it was much worse than even that.

He stumbled, pushing himself off from the clean, bright walls of this place that he didn’t even know how he’d gotten to. The last thing that he remembered for certain was reaching up to grab hold of the transmitter, and then—


No, that wasn’t quite true either. He remembered the falling. He remembered seeing his dead wife, and hearing Dalia, who was repeating the same things to him now as she had then.

“Just breathe through it, Anders,” she repeated over and over, hovering around him as they stumbled down the corridor. “It’s only pain. It can’t kill you. Find who you are.”

The ex-officer perhaps wasn’t the best person to remind this to. Who am I, really? Anders thought a little hazily. The only answer that Anders came up with, time and again, was that plain of omnipresent ash. A devastation inside, a destruction of his soul, brought about by the death of his wife and child so long ago.

“Which floor?” he heard Patch saying, and he was glad that the young Voider was up. The last time he remembered seeing him, well, the Voider had been in a wrecked encounter suit with its front plates mostly a charred, fractured mess.

Dalia must have saved him, he thought as he rebounded off the wall once more. The river in his head was a surging, roaring torrent.

It was like the first month after he had lost Cassie and Sibbi—not the first few days, as those had been numb. He had little recollection of them. The pain always comes later, he thought. The same with heartache as with physical ailments, Anders knew there was a strange ‘grace period’ where the shock of the loss or damage prevented you from truly realizing the damage that had been done to you.

But now, Anders had no such grace period. It felt as though all the pains of his life, all his losses, were now glaringly clear.

Nowhere to hide. Nowhere to forget this, he thought, until suddenly the ground shook and he was rebounding off the wall again. He might be in the middle of some sort of psychotic breakdown—the tiny spark of rationality inside of him advised—but there was still a very real danger of this building collapsing on him!

“The beacon is at the bottom, all the way to the ground floor!” he heard Dalia say as she moved past him to where Patch was. It was hard for Anders to concentrate on his vision and his thoughts at the same time. Again, he asked himself, “What is happening to me?”

There was a shadow that eclipsed his vision, thumping on the wall beside him. Through blurry eyes, he knew it to be Jake.

“You’re getting lost,” the young PK said.

Well, ain’t that the truth, Anders thought as the teenager continued talking.

“I don’t know how, but it’s like you suddenly got what I got,” Jake was saying, and his voice sounded tight with his own inner torment. “Like you suddenly became a PK.”

I’m not, he thought. He thought that he had spoken the words out loud, only he hadn’t.

“Dalia helped me find myself,” Jake was saying as the alien they were talking about and the Voider appeared to be having trouble at the door. The rumbling sound was only getting closer now. Is it an orbital bombardment? the officer thought in alarm.

“But she didn’t teach me everything,” Jake said. “I spent years in that iso-tube. Whole decades of my life stolen from me, and all I had was my mind, and my powers to keep me company.”

And then Anders felt the youth’s cool hand pressing over his own.

“Ach!” There was a hiss of pain and the bare hand over Anders’s own suddenly tightened into a painful rictus as the PK youth opened himself to the horrible feelings flowing through Anders.

No! Don’t! Anders opened his mouth to scream, but whether he did or not, he had no idea. This time, it felt as though he really was lost in a dark river of anger, frustration, and pain.

And it was all flowing into Jake.

Secrets of Ilythia Boxed Set

“What are you doing!” There was an inhuman screech of disbelief that Anders recognized as Dalia’s as he slumped against the wall, panting. His head still ached and rang like a bell, but it was the clear, high sort of ache that happens in the later stages of a fever. More of an echo of the memory of the pain, rather than the pain itself.

He could see again, and he blinked to look down the corridor. Its far end was filled with twisted metal and rubble, and his friends.

And he saw Jake, now huddled against the floor beside him, shivering uncontrollably. Dalia stood over them both, and Patch was by the open elevator, his face a picture of nerves.

Anders understood immediately what had happened. “He took the pain away. Whatever was happening to me…”

“Dear stars!” Dalia knelt beside the youth. “Jake? Jake, can you hear me?”

Don’t touch me!” the youth suddenly shouted, and the force of his words were coupled with a physical blast of power like a gust of wind. Both Dalia and Anders moved back, sharing worried glances.

“I can hold it together,” Jake said through gritted teeth, and, amazingly, he started to straighten himself up again, although Anders could see that his fists were balled and his shoulders were trembling. “I’m a PK,” he slurred. “He isn’t.”

“You shouldn’t have—” Anders started to say, before Jake’s words arrived with another blast of power.

“But I did. Deal with it.” The youth tottered forward, took a deep breath as if fighting his own tidal waves of pain, and nodded toward Patch. “Come on,” he said to the others.

Just then, a beam of scintillating orange light struck the wall where he had been huddled.

“Down!” Anders said instinctively, flinging himself forward to push Dalia out of the way. Now, without the burden of the black river surging through his body and mind, he could remember and feel what it was to be himself again. A trained officer. A fighter.

FZT! There was another blast of laser-light that hit the ceiling, and Anders was rolling, glancing back to see that there was now a hole in the corridor ceiling, further back from their position. There appeared to be people on the roof—or the next floor up, at least—and they were shooting at them. Anders’s hand moved to his belt, only to realize that he was unarmed.


But Dalia wasn’t. She had a heavy blaster in her hands and was firing a volley back at the roof, buying them a second.

“Get in the lift!” Anders crabbed backwards, shouting at Patch and Jake. “Dalia, rear-guard!” he shouted, although a part of him was certain that was what the Ilythian had intended to do anyway. He wished he had a weapon.

Dalia rolled backwards, almost to Anders’s position, but the Throne Marines attacking them were also fast. Anders saw a shadow appear in the ruptured ceiling…

He seized the back of Dalia’s utility belt and threw them both backward, just as another blast of laser hit the spot where Dalia had been. Neither human nor Ilythian spared a moment before they were breaking apart and rolling once again, just as more shots rained down.

Dalia fired behind them in a wild burst that had no chance of hitting any of their attackers, but it was enough to secure their exit as they leapt into the large metal lift. Patch was repeatedly punching the button.

Thump. Anders was panting with the effort, turning to look back through the ever-diminishing gap between the closing metal doors. The Marines were jumping down into the corridor, holding their crouches in defensive positions. In their center landed what appeared to be a handsome, blonde, human man in a black encounter suit, black scaling edged with dimly-glowing lines of field energy.

Dalia opened fire on them, but the man had some sort of close-proximity field generator. Anders saw the laser blasts erupt into sparks over a blue-purple shell.

Anders’s last vision of their attackers before the lift doors closed was of this handsome, square-jawed man in the center of his protective field, and he was grinning.


Scales of Hate

“Let them go,” Commander-General Cread said to the black-clad Throne Marines around him. They didn’t wear the more traditional golden battle-armor, but instead their suits were as dark as their commander’s.

My Scales, the man thought with admiration. They were his experts, his trusted soldiers. Each one had the latest Gene Seer advancements, included delayed ontogenic aging processes, maximum strength and metabolic rates, a decreased pain threshold, and of course hours and hours of psychological training.

They’re almost machines, Cread thought somewhat proudly. He was a man who was given to pride, even though the Eternal Empress—the message delivered through her representative, the gold-skinned herald—thought that pride was a dangerous sign in her subjects.

But it was pride that motivated Cread. Pride in what he had achieved, and what he could achieve.

Which was why the loss of Black Rose was so…unsettling.

“We believe that they’re making their way to the beacon,” said Sergeant 03—none of his Scales were allowed to have personal names, at least not during a mission—who was consulting the small holo-field thrown up by one of his suit’s crystal-nodes. The nodes were lattices of synth-crystal and silver, a portable transmitter, field-generator, and data-storage unit. They were ubiquitous across Golden Throne space, so much so that every human citizen under the Reach of the Throne had some sort of access to one. But the nodes available to Cread and his Scales were of a higher caliber, and right now, Sergeant 03 was using his to track the movements of the four criminals who had escaped, as well as using a strategic-analysis program to extrapolate their likely next actions.

“As expected,” Cread said seriously, throwing one last glance at the closed lift doors and shrugging to himself. He had known that the Terevesins—all the garden worlds, really—had a close alliance with the Ilythians.

But the empress wouldn’t allow me to punish them, Cread reminded himself. Maybe now she would.

“Commander, sir!” the voice of Scale Marine 08 interrupted Cread’s consideration of the shattered and burn-marked corridor.

“We have U’Losani,” 08 said. He was standing by the scorched entrance to what appeared to be a medical bay, and there was a sound of whimpering from the other side. “And…” He hesitated to say what Cread already knew. I’ll have to get 08 back to emotional correction, the man thought.

“You have found Black Rose,” Cread finished the man’s sentence for him. Of course, Cread knew this already. His own network of nodes, interlinked to the visor of his helmet, had informed him of where the woman’s tracker was.

And the fact that she appears to be dying, Cread sighed to himself.

“What do I have to do to make these people do their jobs?” he muttered to himself, nodding to 08 and stalking towards the medical bay.

“Monster…” he was met by the coughing, pained gasp from the huddle of flesh that was Elaine U’Losani, replacement Envoy of Terevesin. The blonde woman was crouched awkwardly, one leg splayed out at a crooked angle, one arm hanging bloodied and lifeless at her side, and with another wound sheeting blood from her head.

It looks like 08 used his fists on this one, Cread thought. Although he appreciated the punishment delivered, it was a sign that 08’s emotions were running high and near to the surface. Definitely indicative of a need to retrain him.

“I’m sorry that your appointment seems to have lasted such a short time,” Cread purred casually as he stepped into the shattered medical bay. It looked as though there had been a brief but very violent struggle in here, and a Terevesin woman such as U’Losani had no hope against his Scales.

“Liar!” Elaine spat, looking up at him through one good eye. The other had swollen so much that it was almost invisible.

Cread frowned at her, before turning his attention to the form of Black Rose, sprawled against the wall and bleeding out from a point-blank laser blast to her chest.

At least she secured the transmitter, he thought. Maybe her death wouldn’t be totally without its upsides.

“You won’t win, you know,” Elaine murmured. “People like you—like the empress—they never do. Tyrants fall.”

Cread laughed, turning back around. Is that what this woman really believes? After five hundred years of throne rule?

“The problem with people like you Terevesins,” he said in a charitable manner, “is that you are just so filled with noble ideas and principles. You truly believe that because you read a few fairy stories, and that your parents cuddled you as a child, that all it takes is your conviction, and the whole universe will fold itself to your bidding!” Cread raised his eyebrows in puzzlement. “Honestly, I think you and people like you are mentally ill.”

“I would rather be mad in this society than sane and accepting it!” Elaine said.

Cread sighed once more. “I would expect nothing less of you.”

“Shall we take her in for questioning, sir?” 08 said—a little eagerly, Cread thought.

The commander-general considered. The Eternal Empress would doubtless want to make a spectacle of this treacherous Terevesin, but that carried the problem of this woman’s testimony reaching the empress herself. She would reveal how Cread’s most important asset—the Black Rose—had been outmatched here. This woman’s testimony would reveal to the empress how close Cread himself had come to failing in his mission.

Well, that is simply an embarrassment, isn’t it?

“No need,” Cread said to Scale Marine 08. “Leave her. She won’t be of any further use to us now.”

“And, sir, the, uh—” 08 looked hesitantly at the form of Black Rose. She looked as pale as death, and the last readings that Cread had taken from her implanted node had indicated that her blood pressure was dropping faster than a meteorite.

What a waste, Cread thought. But there was nothing that could be done, was there? And more importantly, nothing that Cread had to worry about now. He had secured the transmitter, and a team of Scales were currently transporting it back to his personal dreadnaught, hanging in the skies above this plateau.

And so nothing will stop the empress’s war, Cread thought. He knew that his position was as high as it could possibly be in throne society—only the architrex and the herald occupied similar positions.

But now, after my victory here, maybe I will have greater influence over the empress, Cread thought. He could start to shape the Golden Throne according to his wishes, his desires…

“She stays too.” Cread blinked. It would be better to leave all evidence of his near failure here in the ruins. “Her use to us is finished.”


How to Wage a War

“That’s it,” Anders heard Dalia say as they ran, stumbled, limped, and lurched down the darkened corridor, their boots clanging on the metal grillwork floor.

The lift had shot down through the center of the Terevesin plateau, passing numerous other levels and removing the sounds of the distant attack on the peaceful garden world far above. The lift’s very last stop had opened out into this: a metal corridor with emergency-orange lights glowing dimly above.

But there was another glow that matched it—an eerie blue-white light seeming to come from the room ahead.

“The beacon,” Dalia said, sounding almost reverent to Anders’s ears. The party stumbled into what was a rocky cavern, with grillwork floors and metal buttresses lining the walls.

And there was a ship in the center of the cavern, raised on twin tracks, ready to be launched toward the large metal doors at the far end.

And a shining blue-crystal star.

“It’s like a Voider node,” Patch breathed, seeing the immense size of it. Anders had to agree—it did look a little like the super-large nodes that the Voiders had secretly developed, although the ones he had seen were encased in their own gold filigree cages. This appeared to be a glowing crystal without any electrical or metal connection, hanging inside the field of its own radiance. Anders felt the hairs prick up on the back of his neck as they entered the beacon’s energy field.

“What powers it? How did you make it?” Patch was already entranced, true to his Voider fascination with technology.

“We Ilythians have our own sciences,” Dalia murmured, slowing to a walk as she reached up to touch the crystal lightly, affectionately. “We have only made a few of these. They act as lodestars at warp speeds, allowing us to navigate between them. This was a gift to the garden worlds to allow our peoples to stay in contact,” Dalia said, just as a low tremble shivered through the ground.

It was barely a vibrational murmur, but it set Anders’s teeth on edge. An explosion big enough to affect even down here? “They’re destroying Terevesin!” he murmured in shock.

“Then let’s waste no time,” Dalia growled, walking to the craft which also appeared to be Ilythian. It was a small craft—much smaller than even the clipper that Anders and Dalia had confiscated, and it looked as though it could only perhaps accommodate ten people at most.

Anders heard Dalia murmur appreciatively as she stepped up to the strange ship. It looked a little like some sort of sea creature, with a bulbous, smooth prow that rippled into almost organic forms of bone and sinew before flaring out and ending in four, fan-like points. But it was made of some kind of metal, Anders saw, one that shone and gleamed iridescently. As Dalia lightly ran her long, alien fingers along its edge, Anders could swear that he saw the metal flush an appreciative blue and green hue, as if it recognized the Ilythian.

There was a hiss, and one of the plates of metal or bone slid back, revealing what was a surprisingly spacious main hold with rounded, smooth-form chairs along the sides. There was a cockpit at the very front with two more of these smooth chairs at the control boards, and another two chairs set behind it, more of the metal control boards around them. Anders took these for what must be the assistant crew roles—engines, weapons, and the like.

Dalia took the helm, and as she sat down, the control panels flared to life with bright orange, green, and red holos appearing in the air. Lines of the strange, curling Ilythian runes moved across them.

“Well, looks like I’m gonna be absolutely no use here,” Anders thought a little irritably as he sat in the co-pilot chair and looked in confusion at the readouts.

“Ha,” a chuckle from the Ilythian beside him, her hands already moving through the holos, selecting first one line of commands and then another as more lights flared into life throughout the ship. “Here.” She gestured through one, and instantly, the runes in front of Anders translated in rolling human script.


Forward Lasers: Active.

Outer Shields: Standby.

Close Shields: Initiating…

“Just treat them like any other holo-command,” Dalia said, when suddenly the entire craft trembled and shook once again as the cavern around them rumbled. On the view screens, Anders could see small chunks of rock starting to fall around them, some of them hitting the close shield just a foot or so from the surface of the Ilythian vessel and disintegrating in a ripple of eerie blue light.

“It’s bad…” Jake murmured from one of the seats behind them as he struggled to lodge home the buckle-strap. “Up there, it’s bad. I can feel their pain.”

The cavern shook once more, and this time, larger pieces of rock were falling from the ceiling. Ahead of them, the double metal doors were starting to open, as if automatically synced with the awakening Ilythian vessel. Anders urged them faster, seeing the mat of vines and greenery on the other side shredding and tearing as they were pulled apart, revealing the top canopies of a thick jungle, and skies that were already filling with pillars and pyres of thick, black smoke.

“But why bombard an entire planet!” Anders snarled in fury, wishing that he had a throne ship in his sights. “It doesn’t make sense. Terevesin is an asset to the empire!”

“Not when your empire is built on ashes,” Dalia murmured. She brought her hand down on the side of her chair as a holo-control flared into life—a virtual flight-stick, which Dalia seized and thrust forward.

Behind them, the four points at the end of the ship glowed an ever-deepening orange, and then a ruddy hue, before the air shimmered around them and the scout shot forward, out of the cavern, through the last stubborn stands of vines and out into the Terevesin skies.

“Where are we going?” Patch called out.

“This craft will auto-jump as soon as it’s safe,” Dalia said breathlessly as they hurtled forward at a break-neck speed. “It’s going to a place called Dolrin….”

But Anders was barely listening. He was far too preoccupied with what he could see outside of the view screens. The scout vessel was flying low over the jungle canopy that sat between the tall plateaus. Suddenly, the jungles ahead of them would break to reveal small farm-domes and pleasant green meadows.

But there were vast plumes of black smoke rising in the sky. So large, in fact, that Anders almost thought it had to be a crash-landed ship.

“Dear stars!” Dalia suddenly breathed as they soared over a large, roughly circular area of the jungle, still smoking, that held inside it nothing but black and gray churned land.

“The size of that thing!” Anders coughed, just before there was a rattling chime of alarm from the holos around him.

“Atmospheric Entry Detected,” the Ilythian warning holo dictated. There, in the middle the cockpit, was a simulated attack vector showing a sliver of something spearing toward the planet’s surface.

“What the—” Anders heard Patch say, but Anders knew just what they were. He was military trained, after all.

“Orbital spears,” he hissed and grabbed Dalia’s shoulder. “Up, now!” he said urgently.

The Ilythian reacted without question, shrugging off his grasp and pushing the holo-controls so that the scout vessel took a severe turn and shot up toward the clear skies.

Their trajectory allowed them a full view of the throne weapon as it shot past them—a rod of titanium easily sixty meters long, whose pointed edge burned an incandescent red from re-entry.

They weren’t subtle weapons, Anders thought as he ground his teeth, gripping the arms of his chair from the pressure of the sudden G-force. The orbital spears were brutal, devastating weapons, second only to atomic weapons for their power to destroy. But they were also far simpler to deploy, making them a favorite of the throne military. Some bright spark in the throne had realized a long time ago that when you had the full gravity well of a planet working to increase acceleration and velocity of any object dropped to it, you didn’t need to develop reactors and containment field units. All you needed was an object durable enough and with enough mass for planetary physics to do the rest.

The orbital spears had sheaths of steel wrapped around iron tubes with titanium cores. No need for explosives when you had that much mass hurtling at such high speeds.

The Ilythian vessel was pointing toward a sky that was gradually growing darker as they climbed to the lower atmospheres, but that didn’t stop their scanners picking up the sound of the impact underneath them.

The communicators roared and then stopped suddenly as they glitched, followed by a terrifying moment as every holo faded from view and the craft juddered as the natural electro-magnetic wave of the blast swept past them. Thankfully, the holos and field generators surged back to life a second later, and the scout continued to climb.

What did you do… Anders found himself furious, and his eyes swept to the tactical image scan. Thankfully everything was in stylized greens, oranges, reds, and blues, so Anders couldn’t see the real effect of the weapon.

But the Ilythian graphic appeared terrible enough. The spear had hit the side of one of the plateaus, near its base. Although tiny compared to the grand table of rock and overflowing vegetation, its acceleration increased its kinetic force many times over.

There was an expanding bubble of dust and detritus flung out from the impact over the jungles, farms, and habitat-domes underneath it. At first, it would appear to be a terrible dust-cloud as the shockwave pulverized rock and instantly turned the outer shell into particulate matter.

But then, following less than a heartbeat later were giant fragments of rock that had been fractured and splintered from the plateau walls. Anders watched in horror as boulders and plates many times bigger than the Ilythian vessel tumbled slowly through the air to land in the jungle, causing a secondary bombardment.

Holy stars…” Patch breathed in horror as he determined what the sensor image was showing.

The destruction didn’t stop there. Although the initial impact was over, and the meeting of space-flung titanium and rock had run its course, there was more to come. The plateau that had been struck started to lose its own cliffs around the injured side, and vast acres of mountain and forest collapsed to the jungle floor.

The plateau was still standing after the landslides stopped, but it was skinnier than it had been before, with one entire side appearing as if it had been scooped out by a giant hand.

What are you doing! A dull, black rage was filling Anders’s head like the black river of pain that he had so recently been host to. But this time, Anders didn’t feel any pain. Only fury.

The Marines are supposed to protect us. To protect the empire. The words beat around the inside of Anders’s head in time with his thumping heart. If he had ever needed proof that the rule of the Golden Throne had to be brought down, this was it.

There are innocent civilians down there! Anders visibly shook with the effort of controlling himself. No matter what war you think you are fighting— A war that Anders knew had been manufactured. –this is not how you win!

As if to add insult to injury, there were Throne Marine craft making re-entry into Terevesian’s smoke-filled skies. They joined the super-massive dreadnaught in loosing meson cannons at any structure they deemed a target, which appeared to be every structure, without pattern, rhythm or rhyme to their attacks.

“They’re killing a planet. They’re killing everyone…” Patch breathed. Beside him, Jake shivered and trembled.

“I can feel them…their torment…” Anders swiveled in his seat in horror to see the young PK bent over almost double in his chair, and a thin dribble of blood emerging from his mouth where he was biting his lip to hold back the rivers of pain.

He’s holding my pain and is now feeling the agony of all those others! Anders was partly in awe at the teenager’s strength and terrified of what was going to happen when he could hold on no more.

“Patch, on your left by your foot. The wall gives way to a medical unit,” Dalia hissed in concentration, clearly arriving at the same conclusion that Anders had.

“Uh… I got it!” Anders saw Patch bending down and hitting the scale-like plates of the wall, before one hissed open, revealing a tray of small tubes with whorled designs up and down their body.

“It should have a blue gem on it, and a sign like an upside-down human question mark,” Dalia said. “It’s an Ilythian sedative. I need you to pour that down Jake’s throat now!”

Maybe it was Anders’s cold fury at the injustice that was protecting him from Jake’s powers, but the ex-officer could see the hands of the young Voider shake as he scrabbled for the right tube before grabbing it and turning back. Jake, for all his own torment, was able to seize the tube from Patch and, popping the cork end, throw the contents into his own mouth. An instant later, Anders saw the youth’s shoulders start to slump, and his rapid breathing become heavier as the chemicals took effect.

And then the Ilythian vessel was shaking with the force of exit from Terevesin’s gravity well. White, green, and red plasma burned over their screens on the outside as Dalia punched more and more power to the field engines.

The shaking increased, matching with a rising hum, before suddenly they broke free of the bombarded planet, and Anders was looking up into the glittering expanse of space.

There were other throne ships approaching the surface, and Anders could see them clearly, creating coronal glows and flares about them as they punched their way through the thin envelope of sky to join their murderous friends below.

Before Anders could advise that they get their outer shields up and start preparing for evasive maneuvers, there was a muted chime from the control boards in front of him as the four field engines at their tips recalibrated and started to initiate the jump cycle.

“You say this vessel will auto-jump?” Anders asked quickly, earning a nod.

“We’re jumping to the nearest Ilythian outpost-colony,” Dalia said as the holo-screens started showing a glyph that was quickly filling with a deep yellow.

But then something interrupted the process.

The half-yellow glyph paused its transformation, glitched, and then a new one took its place, which flashed alternate yellow and red. This new glyph looked like three intersecting spikes, sharp and angular. Dalia flinched—something that Anders had never seen the cool and expertly-trained agent do before—at the mere sight of what Anders took to be a designation for the jump engines.

“Uh, is it supposed to do that?” Patch murmured from behind them, sharing Anders’s worry.

“What is it? Have we got enough power?” Anders asked. He was certain that one of those throne battleships was going to fire on them at any moment.

That was clearly the least of Dalia’s concerns as she waved a hand at the new, three-point angular glyph flashing a faster and faster yellow and red. Whatever she was trying to do, nothing appeared to change.

“What’s wrong!?” Anders hissed.

“That’s not right. Something has reprogrammed the auto-jump!” Dalia said, urgently gesturing to a whole other set of glowing Ilythian data-controls. Again, nothing appeared to change.

“What?” Anders asked tensely.

And outside, the light of the distant stars started to bend and double in view outside of their cockpit. The gravity field necessary to travel at warp was being created, bending both light and space in preparation of flinging them across known space.

“That’s not the colony Dolrin,” Dalia repeated, finally slumping in her chair as she gave up fighting. “We were going there—that was the first glyph—but then there was a command override function of our jump engines.”

“What? Well, where is it taking us now!?” Anders burst out. Behind them, the orb of Terevesin was growing smaller, and with dark smudges of destruction-clouds appearing like some new and terrible virus across its surface.

Dalia was silent for a moment in consternation as the stars around them started to fade, and the white and purple glow of the initial warp replaced it.

“That second glyph didn’t belong to Ilythia Prime or Dolrin. It was the sigil of the House of Tularin,” Dalia breathed in horror, glancing up at Anders in the final moments before they jumped.

“The who-now?” Anders asked in confusion, wishing that he had paid more attention in Ilythian xeno-culture classes.

“The House of Tularin is the name of the fiercest sect of Ilythian fighters that have ever existed,” she said, just as reality phased white, and the ship threw itself into warp and off between the stars.


Nnedi Spore

The ground shook, and more pieces of the ceiling fell around Elaine U’Losani.

At least the floor is cool, the woman thought hazily through her fog of pain. The envoy knew that she had been beaten pretty badly. There were bodily aches that were deep and undeniable. Every time she attempted to move, it felt like someone was plunging a knife between her ribs.

He should have killed me, the envoy thought, her mind concentrating into a single, bright laser beam of determination. She didn’t know what was happening outside to her beautiful garden world, only that the wrath of the Eternal Empress had finally come. A woman like Elaine, who was more hot-tempered than her murdered sister, had been expecting and dreading a day like this all her adult life.

For those few that knew her, Elaine U’Losani was an unusual woman in Terevesin society. It would have been no surprise when she picked up the Marine’s blaster and started firing back, as opposed to Terevesin’s usually nonviolent stance.

My sister would have found a way to talk out of it, Elaine thought as she once again tried to crawl.

Ach!” The woman hissed and suddenly slumped to the floor as pain shot through her once again. Yeah, that Marine who had taken her to town had seemed to like what he did.

But even though the Terevsins were, as a rule, a nonviolent, diplomatic people, there were lessons that they had grown up with. Adaptability. Resilience. Opportunism. These were the kinds of lessons that let a wildflower cling hundreds of feet up on the cliff walls, fighting for every scrap of nutrients and moisture. It was the kind of resilience that allowed a plant to produce thorns, and to protect its own life, vigorously.

If the chosen Envoy of Terevesin, Mahria, could be as glamorous and compelling as a rose, then her sister Elaine was as tenacious as a briar. It was this fierce strength that forced her to lift her throbbing head and move again.

Another terrifying shake of the ground brought down more ceiling panels crashing around her. It was complete luck that none of them speared through the blonde envoy’s already tormented flesh.

They’re trying to destroy the world, Elaine thought, and she was surprised at her lack of surprise. Maybe it was her injuries, dulling every consideration to just the desperate need to move, to survive.

The envoy’s hand brushed something that wasn’t unyielding metal or stone. It was soft. It was a leg.

Peering through her one good eye, Elaine saw that it was the leg of the assassin she had killed. Black Rose. The one responsible for killing her sister.

I got you, you— Elaine was thinking savagely, when she heard a tiny, wheezing sort of a sound.

The assassin wasn’t dead.

What!? This time, Elaine was shocked. She had fired at her with the stolen heavy blaster, only a couple of feet away from her chest. Even though the woman appeared to be wearing some kind of mesh encounter suit, nothing short of full reinforced battle-plate would have stopped the strike at that range.

Instead, Elaine could see the ugly, blackened mark just to the left of Black Rose’s torso where her shot had hit, and the flicker of the woman’s chest as she breathed raggedly.

I should finish the job, the fierce Elaine U’Losani thought—but there, caught in that moment with the building threatening to fall apart at any moment, something stopped her.

Perhaps it was the knowledge that she was probably going to die. Even if she could reach the medical bays, and even if she could find one that was still working, she was sure that she would never get off-planet.

The Throne Marines are occupying the atmosphere, Elaine figured, and that meant that any ships trying to flee the garden world would most likely be shot down. And if they weren’t?

Then the Eternal Empress will take us all to a prison planet for our supposed ‘treachery’, Elaine growled.

Maybe it was this fatalism that stayed the new envoy’s hand. Or maybe it was, as she watched, the fluttering breath that animated the near-dead woman. She felt a sort of admiration.

Even for you. Even for my sister’s murderer.

Elaine’s sister was not one given to revenge. She had been a diplomat through and through—a born spokeswoman and representative of Terevesin. She believed in the rule of law, and in making connections.

And it was her sense of justice that forced her to forge ever closer ties with the Ilythians, Eliane thought.

No, her sister wouldn’t kill this woman, the dying Elaine realized. In fact, her sister would probably marvel at the way this woman was stubbornly clinging to life.

There in the shattered room, as the ground and the walls shook and the Throne Marine craft continued their bombardment of the once-rich Terevesin, Elaine groaned and started to chuckle.

It’s kind of ironic that you’re going to be the stars-damned last person that I see… Elaine thought. It was the wry sort of dark humor that Mahria would sometimes share with Elaine, secretly, late at night after a long day of meetings and negotiations, when the pair would relax on the terraces and share a cup of Terevesin Port.

But this is also the woman the commander-general threw away, isn’t she? Elaine’s chuckling broke into a dusty cough. “He wanted you dead,” Elaine said, and then an idea for a different form of revenge took hold in her mind.

“I can’t make it out of here, but maybe someone like you can…” she wheezed, once again thinking about how Black Rose had incapacitated four of her own guards—without killing them—and how her body was still stubbornly clinging on to life.

A new determination surged through the blonde woman as she slowly forced herself into a weaving crouch, leaning on the walls with one arm, since her other arm and one leg were both shattered.

Every lurch was a torment. Every breath was gulping down a firestorm.

But somehow, after a length of time that could have been seconds or minutes, Elaine reached the nearest medical unit that still appeared intact.

“Nnedi,” she gasped at the machine, which flickered its active-green lights but little else. “Nnedi spore,” Elaine said a little louder, to be rewarded with a whirring sound as the unit selected components from its internal bank, and a soft pop as the unit unfolded open. A tiny ampule on a robotic arm was extended.

The envoy seized the ampule and fell backward from the effort.

“Agh!” A grunt of pain as Elaine’s leg felt like it was breaking all over again. The blonde woman breathed short, rapid breaths through her nose as she clenched her eyes against the tears and moved. She scrambled and rolled back to the body of the assassin.

“You’d better goddam listen to me when I’m done,” she growled through her tears as she emptied the tiny ampule over the woman’s wounds before slumping against her body, breathing heavily. There had only been enough in that ampule for one person, and although Elaine knew that she could make it back to the unit for another one, the woman also knew when she was beat.

Let me die here on my once-beautiful world, she thought woozily as something miraculous started to happen beside her.

The Nnedi spore was one of the most advanced examples of plant science that Terevesin could produce. It was a simple cellular replication spore, relying on the plant’s innate, inbuilt desire to grow and grow and grow.

The Nnedi spore was little more than a small puff of dust to the human eye, but in fact, it was a collection of hundreds of thousands of tiny, colony-organisms like seeds. They settled over Black Rose’s wounds and were immediately taken into the woman’s body. They were so small that they passed by whatever auto-immune responses she had. The spore replicated, divided, and replicated again. They formed loose ‘bonds’ around injured cells, growing threadlike through her body at the tiniest level.

The spore was the Terevesin answer to the miraculous technologies of the Gene Seers. Whereas the Gene Seers were able to re-code and re-invigorate the body’s inbuilt DNA processes, the Terevesins had found a way to replicate that using plant biology. The spore adapted to its environment, taking on the cellular commands of Black Rose’s body and magnifying them.

Hyurk!” Black Rose took a sudden, shuddering breath as the spore re-knit her damaged body back together. The assassin opened her eyes, feeling pain washing up and down her in waves, but also something else.

It felt like she was ill, feverish, which was a new sensation for the clone assassin, who had never had a natural illness in her life. Unbeknownst to her, but the Nnedi spore married sympathetically with her already unbelievable clone abilities. The spore threaded its way throughout her system, increasing her nutrient uptake and her metabolic rate, her immune responses and natural healing abilities. Not even the Terevesins could have been able to predict the speed with which their medicine worked in her body.

But, unlike Gene Seer gene therapies, which routinely shut down pain receptors as they worked, there was no such charity from the Terevesin arcane plant science. Black Rose flopped to one side, gagging on the feverish pain that shook and trembled its way through her limbs. But she was alive, somehow.

“You… You remember…” Black Rose heard a hissing whisper beside her, looking to see that her body was almost entwined with another woman’s—the woman had shot her.

The assassin flinched, a sudden need for a weapon in her hand filling her, before Elaine gurgled again with blood flecking her lips.

“They did this to you…” the envoy gasped through gritted teeth. “Your boss… Cread…”

Black Rose blinked in confusion. Half of her mind was screaming at her that this woman was the enemy, was her enemy, was the woman who had shot her.

But the clone assassin’s remarkable biology was already starting to work. She was taking in the sights, sounds, and smells of the room around her. The vibrations coming up through the floor, the crashing ceiling panels, the sparks, the whine and burr of propulsion engines as ships moved above.

“That’s right. He left you for dead.” Elaine saw the realization take root in Black Rose’s cerulean-green eyes. The assassin blinked once more.

“You remember—” the envoy hammered home her point once again, “—that he left you, and I saved you.”

The dying Envoy of Terevesin saw the assassin nod, just once.

“You find a way off planet. You can kill Cread for what he did here,” Elaine breathed raggedly, using the last ounce of her strength to speak the words she had revived the assassin to hear: “You kill the Eternal Empress for us all.”


Whose War?

Ilythian Space

The Ilythian vessel moved at warp cleaner than any craft Anders had ever been in. The ship did not judder and shake as any throne craft would do, but instead felt like a stone lightly skimming the surface of reality.

But Anders had no time to be enamored by this craft’s prowess. His heart was too full of a cold, furious hatred at what Cread had done.

“How long will it take?” he heard Patch murmur behind him, the Voider sounded worried, as well he might, given that he was sitting next to a powerful psychic who had rage galore roiling inside him.

And whose powers appear to be growing stronger. The thought flashed through Anders’s mind, but he pushed it away. He knew next to nothing about the development of PK abilities. Maybe the Ilythians would have the answer.

Even if Dalia is worried about the particular bunch of them.

“It won’t take long. The beacons provide stable navigation points, far more so than an internal ship’s jump-computers,” Dalia replied, sounding preoccupied.

That’s not like her. Anders spared the Ilythian a glance. She even looked pensive, biting her lower lip in a mannerism that was completely un-Ilythian.

“Who are they? This House of Tularin?” Anders asked quickly.

“A warrior sect,” Dalia said. “Ancient. Their history goes right back to the tribal prehistory of Ilythia,” she explained, although Anders had no knowledge of Ilythian history. He cursed his throne ignorance and arrogance. “They’re fanatics, and have long been mistrusted by the rest of Ilythian society. They believe in strength and savagery alone.”

“But why would this craft auto-jump to them?” Anders hissed in alarm.

Dalia shook her head. “I have no idea. The beacon and this craft at Terevesin were meant to be an emergency contact between the Ilythian Council and our friends. It should have been taking us straight to Dolrin, the nearest colony.” Dalia bared her teeth in an almost feral manner. “But someone must have reprogrammed the beacons. Maybe since the war broke out…” Her voice died down briefly. “Maybe the House of Tularin have a stronger role in the Council of Ilythia now. I cannot say until we arrive and I get word to my mentors.”

Dalia was perturbed, and that made Anders nervous. She was the only Ilythian here, after all, and their only way to survive on the other side of this war.

And I am about to become a traitor to my own species, Anders thought. It was an odd realization, since he had not considered anything that he had done so far—even escaping from Barakar Training Camp or fighting fellow Throne Marines—as treachery.

“We haven’t got the jammer,” Patch admitted quietly. “I can make another one, I’m sure of it, but what if it takes too long? What if the empress uses that Archon device?” His voice sounded young and plaintive, almost hopeless.

“Well,” Anders growled, unbuckling himself from the seat and standing up. He could feel the cold fury condensing inside of him, becoming something like a white dwarf, a bright star inside of his heart. He looked at the others he shared this cockpit with. Patch McGuire with his haggard face, already having seen too much for his twenty-something years. The even younger Jake, trained and used as a psychic tool by the empress, slumped and barely conscious, whose powers appeared to be accelerating. And finally Dalia, the Ilythian agent sent to investigate the words of the mysterious Oracle, who had saved his life.

“This is what I do know,” Anders said heavily to them all. “And that is that we have been running ragged around half the galaxy. We’ve been getting our asses kicked, always just a half-step ahead or two steps behind.”

Anders’s fury removed any diplomacy or inspiration from his words. This was not the time for motivating speeches, the policeman inside of Anders knew. This was the time for hard truth.

“The Eternal Empress has her PK clones, and now she has two of the transmitters needed to contact this Archon device,” Anders said. “And any minute now, we are about to officially be classed as defectors.” His words were for the humans alone, but he saw Dalia listening just as intently.

“There is no guarantee that Ilythia will take us in,” Anders went on. “But there is also no guarantee that there will be anywhere left in civilized space to hide.”

Patch’s face fell even further, if that was even possible.

“But what I do know,” Anders repeated, “is that I have seen enough. I have seen enough of children being abducted and kept alive in iso-tubes, harvested for their PK abilities. I’ve seen enough of how the Eternal Empress treats those who stand up to her.” The white star of his fury started to burn hotter, raising the man’s voice.

“I am not a traitor,” Anders said, catching and holding Dalia’s eye seriously as he said it, and earning a nod from the Ilythian in turn. “All I am is a police officer in the wrong place at the wrong time. But the Eternal Empress and her servants have committed a dire crime against all of us. All humanity, and all of Ilythia. If I have to fight alongside the Ilythians in order to stop her, then I will.”

Anders looked between Patch and Dalia. He saw Patch nod, the young man’s jaw tightening.

“She has to be stopped,” Patch said seriously.

Anders nodded. “Good. Then right now, we’re going to be as ready as we can be in order to get the job done.” He cleared his throat and looked to Dalia. “What kind of personal equipment has this ship got?”

Secrets of Ilythia Boxed Set

Within just a little time, the occupants of the Ilythian craft were transformed. Dalia had showed them where the part-plate ‘scout’ armor could be found, and now Anders stood with one large shoulder pad that gleamed an iridescent blue-green like a shell, and with a spray of similar scale-light plates across his upper body.

Added to this was a set of Ilythian laser pistols, as well as a cocktail of Ilythian medicine injections that lent a new energy and strength to the humans.

The only downside is Moriarty. Anders held his old suit node in his hand, seeing where it had lost its inner light and now appeared gray and lifeless. It had happened at some point when the black river of PK energy surged through him, he knew. Had it been burnt out?

“Patch? Can you get Moriarty back for me?” Anders was referring, of course, to the MPB simulated intelligence that lived inside his node. It was nicknamed ‘Moriarty’ and was intended to be a strategic data assistant to officers, but Moriarty had proved itself capable of providing insights into both intention and behavior of those around him.

“I’ll see what I can do, boss,” Patch said, taking the node out of Anders’s hand and quickly moving to extract Ilythian tools from the main bay.

“Anders?” He turned around when he heard Dalia breathing his name. She stood in the cockpit, looking out at the strange seas of warp plasma outside.

“What is it?”

“There is something else that you should know about the House of Tularin. I should have mentioned it earlier,” the Ilythian agent said. “They are not like other Ilythians. Not like me,” she said with a grimace. “They hate humans.”

Anders shrugged. “I’ve had plenty people hate me before.”

“And one other thing.” The agent took a deep breath. “The House of Tularin is led by a man called Father Iktin’yvarolassan. Who is my father.”

Secrets of Ilythia Boxed Set

The Ilythian vessel rippled into a patch of space unfamiliar to Anders’s eyes. He did not recognize the constellations or star-groups that hung around them.

But he did recognize what was happening in that strange space.

They had warped into the middle of a firefight.

“Yvee’l!” Anders heard Dalia swear as she pulled hard on the field-controls to send their vessel into a sudden barrel-roll.

Ahead of them, Anders saw a brightly-colored shape flicker past on trails of gleaming orange and red field radiance. It looked like a smaller version of the scout ship, with three curving ‘wings’ stretching back from a tooth-like nub of a cockpit.

And Ilythian attack craft, Anders recognized.

An instant later, something else shot past them on a pursuit course. It was the singular, charging lines of torpedoes. Golden Throne hammerthrow torpedoes, Anders recognized them, too.

“On our nine o’clock!” Anders shouted to Dalia as he saw the vessel that had fired the torpedoes rising towards them. It was the classic heavy, blocky shape of a Golden Throne Titan-class battleship.

“What?” Dalia was saying.

“On your left!” Anders hissed, looking at his available holo-controls, and now really wishing that he had paid more attention in Ilythian studies classes.

The Titan-class battleship had detected them, but Anders could see that it was already committed to its attack vector. Instead, the officer saw a line of lights glitter along its side as it threw a barrage of lighter laser-fire at them.

“Dammit! Which ones were the outer shields!?” Anders grunted, selecting the holo that he thought indicated them and pushing it to its maximum. On one of Anders’s screens, he saw the double-bubble of the scout vessel’s shields suddenly expand, a fraction of a second before the laser barrage hit.

Impact Warning! Outer Shields 62%. Inner Shields 88%.

“Crap. These things really aren’t designed for combat,” Anders said as Dalia was already turning them under the trajectory of the battleship as the flares erupted over their outer shields.

“You don’t say,” Dalia hissed through gritted teeth.

Just then, there was a giant fireball on the far side of them when the torpedoes successfully found their mark.

For a crystal-clear moment, Anders knew that he would have to make the choice whether to fire on the Golden Throne vessel or not. He had never been on board a Titan-class battleship during his compulsory posting as a Throne Marine, but he knew that it would contain exactly the same sorts of Marines he had trained with and fought alongside before joining the MPB.

They are good people, he reminded himself. Soldiers just doing their jobs…

But right now, those soldiers and sailors inside that Golden Throne craft could only see the fact that they were an Ilythian scout vessel during a time of war. In short, they would do anything in their power to kill them.

Total domination of the field, Anders recalled grimly as Dalia threw them into another spiral, this time completely avoiding the next barrage of laser fire as the giant ship roared over them.

Total domination was always the Marine way. Charge in, disorientate, and overpower, Anders knew. It was one of the reasons why he had chosen to become a planetary police officer instead, after all—where he could concentrate on tracking clues, finding evidence, hunting.

Tracking Warning!

The translation blared out from Anders’s personal set of holo-screens. He saw a small digital image of the battleship with four glowing green lights appearing under its prow, indicating activated weapons pods.

The ship itself had roared past them, almost to the expanding debris field of the Ilythian fighter that it had so recently destroyed, but in the higher strategic scans, Anders could see that it was slowing and turning.

Turning back to its newer target. Which would be us.

“What’s our heaviest weapon?” Anders asked as he rapidly scrolled through the strange Ilythian controls.

“Heavy?” Dalia said incredulously. “This is a scout vessel! Designed for light exploration and escapes. Our heaviest weapon would be if we slammed her into the side of that thing!”

Outstanding, Anders growled, returning to what were apparently the only available weapons: the four light laser guns. The Marine-trained police officer doubted that they could even get through the battleship’s shields.

Weapons System Fired!

The scout vessel’s computers informed them, and Anders saw two attack-vector lines appear from the prow end of the battleship as it fired two torpedoes at them.

Anders found the tracking controls and quickly targeted the racing torpedoes as Dalia spun them in space, throwing more energy to the field engines.

As they turned away from the battleship, Anders saw that they were just in one part of a larger stellar battle. There appeared to be one battleship listing on one side, spilling fragments and indecipherable pieces of its innards, whilst more of the Ilythian attack fighters were harrying a third Golden Throne battleship a little way off.

Where are we? Inside Ilythian Space? Are we close to Ilythia? These questions raced through Anders’s head, and he once more wished that he had Moriarty on hand to help him. Moriarty was an investigations intelligence, really, but could compute attack vectors and analyze weaknesses and potential operational successes in nanoseconds.

It’d be able to find a way out of this, Anders thought anxiously, and he fired.

The scout vessel’s guns, clustered towards the front, swiveled in place and started firing repeating shots at the approaching torpedoes. Even as Dalia threw them into crazy rolls and swerves, the guns auto-tracked what Anders had commanded them to and continued firing.

He watched as the twin lines of attack vectors—torpedo and laser shot—raced toward each other, finally meeting just a couple of hundred meters away.


One of the torpedoes swam straight into a field of laser-barrage and promptly blew apart in a ball of short-lived flame and light. The hammerthrow torpedoes were not designed with any individual field-generators, so they had no shields, Anders knew.

But that still left one, shooting through a gap in the laser barrage and now closing in on them. It moved so incredibly fast that it was only a hundred meters away in space, fifty, forty—

Anders fired again, but the torpedo was coming in too hot and too fast.

“Brace!” he shouted, grabbing the seat buckles and praying that watching angry little attack vectors ahead of him wasn’t the last sight that he was going to see in this universe.

I’m sorry, Cassie, the thought welled into his mind.

Target Destroyed!

Anders blinked. Everything had happened so fast that it was hard to recall what had actually happened. A beam of steady meson light had shot out from behind them, perfectly striking the approaching torpedo with pinpoint accuracy and making it explode in a widening circle of plasma and fire.

But the torpedo had been so close that even in its destruction, it was still dangerous. The blast radius hit them, and Anders saw a line of white, burning particles wash over their cockpit screens.

Impact Warning! Outer Shields 48%. Inner Shields 76%.

The scout vessel rolled on the expanding bubble of flame and destruction, and Anders heard Patch shout in alarm. Beside him, Dalia was wrestling with the flight controls and stabilizers to stop their roll and bring them back under control. The digital image of their own vessel showed bursts of smaller rocketry-assists up and down their hull as Dalia finally managed to right them.

Their vessel been had turned completely around, and now all the occupants could see the shape of their unlikely savior.

An Ilythian warship.

The ships were many times larger than the smaller Ilythian fighters that they harbored and the scout vessel, so much so that each warship could probably accommodate ten or more vessels of their size. But there were some similarities, Anders saw. The same almost organic-looking metals, making them appear like deep-sea creatures, the iridescent, hard-shelled mollusks of deep space. They had tapered, pointed prows of bone-like material, which flared outwards along the hull of the craft to end in a star of backward points. The Ilythian craft had nodules like nubs of bone dotted all along its side and clustered along its prow, which Anders presumed were either portholes or weapons modules.

“Tularin craft,” Dalia hissed in agitation, although Anders didn’t know what color or style she had recognized in them.

“I don’t care who they belong to, just so long as they scare off the throne!” Anders said, an instant before the Tularin warship did a whole lot more than scare off the attacking battleship.

Weapon Systems Fired!

The battleship started its slow, ponderous roll out of the way and fired another two torpedoes at the same time. Anders watched as the weapons turned fast in the space between the two much larger craft, arcing straight for the Tularin—

—to be instantly shot down once again by the Tularin warship’s meson cannons. They fired like singular beams of burning orange light, lancing through the torpedoes in an instant.

To Anders, it was like watching an experienced fighter batter down the attacking strikes of an amateur. The Tularin warship did not slow down as it charged toward the battleship, even when Anders saw the outer blue field of its shields erupt and glitter with explosions of lasers in front of its prow.

Then the Tularins fired their meson lances again, punching out at the battleship’s shields for there to be seen great explosions of sparks. The shockwaves generated by the blows were enough to send the battleship listing to one side, even behind its shields.

And still, the Tularins kept firing. This time, they added their own barrages of laser shot to the mix, causing the rippling dance of sparks and plasma flame to glow fiercer and brighter in front of the battleship.

“Okay, you’ve proved your point—” Anders whispered, just as the throne ship’s shields clearly failed under the onslaught.

With a sudden flash of light, all the weaponry of the Tularin craft overloaded and breached the shields, slamming into the underside of the slowly turning battleship. Anders saw multiple explosions erupt along its hull.

And then the chain reaction started, as first one then another rear nacelle ruptured and blew. Even this wasn’t enough to end the onslaught, Anders saw in horror, as the Tularins kept firing. The glare and flash of explosions merged into one plasma ball that overtook the entire structure of the battleship, causing it to break apart into at least five large, broken-open segments.

“They didn’t have to do that…” Anders breathed. On the other side of them, the squad of Ilythian fighters eventually managed to cripple the remaining battleship, and then continue to harry it until it too was engulfed in plasma fire.

The battle had been a complete victory for the Ilythians, and Anders was left wondering why he felt so hollow. This feeling only got worse when their ship’s communicator blared, and a male voice broke into their cockpit, translated a heartbeat later for the humans:

“Scout vessel, this is the Tularin Warship Acar. Thank you for distracting the invaders. House Tularin recognizes your bravery.”



“I suppose the fact that your father is—” Anders started to say, before a sudden, dark look from Dalia cut him off mid-sentence.

Ah. I see, Anders inwardly groaned. Just great. A fanatical human-killing cult and a family feud, all rolled into one.

The scout vessel hung in space as the glare of explosions and plasma quickly faded. The smaller Ilythian fighter craft were returning gracefully to dock with the Tularin Acar, latching onto its side like strange insects.

And the Acar itself had turned sedately toward them, easily overshadowing them with its bulk.

“Dchllyiea’, my daughter.” The scout’s communicator suddenly burst into life, and with it came a holo-image of an Ilythian man glaring sternly out at them.

“Master Iktin’.” Dalia nodded slowly before returning the glare. “Father.”

Great. Just great. Anders growled. Well, there’s certainly no love lost here, is there?

Dalia’s father was an Ilythian in his middling years, although he still looked about the same age as Anders. He had the same bluish-white skin of his people, the oval eyes, and the tapered ears, but his hair was jet black and streaked with silver, which he wore long and flowing over his shoulders.

Surprisingly, Iktin was the first Ilythian that Anders had ever seen with tattoos—lines of dots across his cheeks and brow. He wore the Ilythian ‘petal’ armor that Anders had seen from news and documentary holos—thin, overlapping leaf-shapes of green and gold metal that didn’t look strong enough to resist a punch, and yet Anders knew could absorb most lighter laser blasts.

“Daughter, although the house recognizes your combat prowess, I also see that you have failed in your original mission,” her father said sternly. “You were tasked by the High Council of Ilythia to get to the bottom of the Oracle’s message, and to do so without incurring suspicion or wrath from the humans.” Anders saw the warrior’s eyes flicker towards him for a second. “And you have breached the Law of Integrity in bringing these humans here.”

“Master,” Dalia returned formally. “I would talk with the High Council directly. There is much to discuss, and so very little time…”

“Less even than you think,” her father said in a drawn-out, slow way. “You see how brazen the humans are getting. This is the third incursion across our borders, and you must have heard that the humans have already attacked Eadaryn—”

“I know.” Dalia nodded, and he knew why her voice was so traumatized. He had been with her when they had been shown the footage of what had happened to the Ilythian ring-world of Eadaryn. The throne had used orbital spears, just like they had done with Terevesin, on the looping, ribbon-like ringworld.

And they completely destroyed it, Anders thought. Thousands of Ilythian lives lost, maybe even tens of thousands…

“These savages are testing our border defenses while they amass their forces,” Iktin said severely. “The war is almost upon us. The war that we had hoped your actions would avoid.” Dalia’s father spoke just as formally, and Anders for a moment wondered if that was meant as a criticism of Dchllyiea. Dalia.

He can’t seriously be suggesting that the war was Dalia’s fault!? Anders thought in alarm.

“Father. My words have to be for the High Council—” Dalia was saying, before her father cut her off with a snarl of anger.

“Daughter. This is not the time of the spy or the diplomat, of riddles or intrigues anymore. It is the time of the warrior!”

“But, Father—” Anders heard the frustrated desperation in Dalia’s usually measured voice.

“Prepare to be boarded, scout vessel,” Dalia’s father said impassively. “And we will take charge of the rest of your flight back to Ilythia, and the Tularin Stronghold. And we will take these humans into Tularin custody. Perhaps they have information about the Golden Throne which will aid us in our war effort.”

“Father, you cannot—” Dalia was saying, but it was already too late. The holo of her father vanished from the air in front of them.

What!?” Patch burst out from behind them. “This has to be a mistake—”

“I’ll fix this,” Dalia said desperately, although Anders wondered if she could. The giant warship of her father hung over their tiny craft as if about to devour them.


The House of Tularin

Despite that Anders currently had two very tall and heavily armored Ilythian guards standing over him, he still looked out of the portholes of the Ilythian scout vessel at Dalia’s home planet and felt a sense of wonder.

He and the crew of the scout were, after all, about to become some of the few humans ever allowed to make planetfall.

The globe that rose in front of them was not a planet, but instead a milky-white sphere studded by an ever-moving ring of bright metal objects. Satellite field generators, Anders thought. The milky orb wasn’t the real planet, Anders saw, but was a heavy cloaking field, meant to shield Ilythia from the prying eyes of its enemies.

Which currently count as me, Patch, and Jake, Anders grumbled. All three humans had been moved into the main bay of the scout vessel, their weapons taken from them—but their light Ilythian armor kept on—and each one flanked by two Ilythian guards. Their armored suits were heavier and more elaborate than the light scouting versions that Anders and Patch wore. Jake, still only semi-conscious, had been left in his civilian mesh-suit.

The Ilythians had tall, oval helmets that completely masked their features, and from the backs of their heads sprayed decorative topknots of some kind of animal hair, each of which was a deep crimson red.

In their hands, the Ilythians each held some sort of halberd. It looked to be a small lance with a curving blade, but whose opposing tip ended in a blocky meson rifle.

Their guards didn’t talk much, or at all.

“Boss…” Patch whispered a few guards across from him, and the young Voider’s voice was filled with fear.

So much for my pep-talk earlier, Anders grimaced. “It’s going to be alright, Patch. We can trust Dalia.” This much, at least, he could offer his concerned comrade. Although he couldn’t be certain that everything was going to turn out alright, he felt with an iron sensibility that he could trust Dalia.

Wherever they’ve taken her… he thought. Dalia had been escorted from their scout vessel as soon as the Tularin warship had docked.

We just have to trust that there is some residual affection between father and daughter, Anders grumbled to himself as the scout was piloted into the white murk, for the portholes to glaze over into an opaque cloud, and then reveal the surface of the alien world.

It’s beautiful, was Anders’s first thought, despite the circumstances. They had clearly made atmospheric entry directly over one of the major cities, and Anders could look down to see a city that appeared to be draped over a vast estuary, hedged with tall rocks and spires.

Everywhere, Anders saw silver, greens, and blues. The shimmering reflection of the sun—whose light was miraculously unimpeded by the planetary camouflage—on the water was matched by the gleaming blue-steel of the Ilythian buildings. These people appeared to have evolved with no great love for right-angles or straight lines, given that even their towers appeared to have faces that twisted and spiraled around as they grew, like they were made from bone and not metal.

Anders could see precincts of this metal city edged with raised walkways that curved around neighborhoods, before darting to the floor and up again.

The city was as green as it was blue, though, with truly giant trees—the largest one appeared to be a couple of hundred feet tall by Anders’s reckoning—everywhere.

The capital city of Ilythia was striated by five out-pouring rivers, lined with green banks and metal jetties and wharfs. Anders could see small, fast-moving hover-vehicles plying their trade back and forth across the surface of the water, before lifting off on field generators and flying through the air.

These weren’t the only airborne devices at Ilythia’s disposal, Anders saw. There appeared to be at least three separate entirely field-borne citadels floating above the city, and the largest of these was where their ship was being flown toward.

It looks like a metal palace. Anders studied what must surely be the Tularin stronghold. It even had long pennants that fluttered from its spiral-tower turrets, each one the same deep crimson red of the guards’ helmets. The stronghold had high walls, planted into a bulb of rock which was strangely floating many hundreds of feet above the cityscape. As they drew closer, Anders saw the soft glimmer of blue in the air underneath the floating island, like a heat-haze, and realized that the entire mass was suspended on a bed of field-energy.

The power required for that! Anders thought in shock. It would be next to unthinkable for any Golden Throne city…

Still not making a sound, the guards gestured for the three humans to stand up as the ship lowered itself to a landing platform beyond the walls. Anders caught a glimpse of what lay inside the stronghold: halls and streets, no greenery anywhere at all. It reminded the officer a little of some kind of monastery.

Urgh…” Jake didn’t make a move behind them, and Anders saw the Ilythian guards lower their halberd-rifles towards the youth.

“Wait!” Anders said quickly. “He’s ill. Very ill. He has—” Anders paused. Was it safe to tell the Ilythians that Jake was PK? What was the Ilythian attitude towards human psychics? “Human Scolotomorosis,” Anders said, pulling a word out of the air.

The guard paused and made a small gesture with its head, which Anders took to be a shrug.

“It’s totally contagious…” Anders added. At least they can understand the Empress’s English, he thought.

At that, the guard stepped back slightly, then gestured to Anders to pick the teenager up.

“Anders…” Patch gave a low warning.

“I know,” Anders muttered. As soon as any of us touch him, we might get filled with that black river again. But even having experienced the feverish horror and pain, Anders didn’t hesitate. He stepped forward, looping an arm under one of Jake’s.

Ach! Anders gritted his teeth as a headache jumped behind his eyes. He could feel his jaw tightening, and his vision narrowing as the pain started to pulse in a steady heartbeat. I faced this before, he told himself. And I can do this again.

“Breathe. Center,” he whispered, remembering Dalia’s words as he spoke both to himself and to Jake as he stumbled to his feet. But the pain and waves of fear emanating from Jake were much lighter than they had been, the ex-policeman could tell. Once again, he marveled at how young Jake was, and at how powerful he already appeared to be, if he was able to contain whatever nightmares the transmitter had, well, transmitted.

I got this…” he heard Jake mumble through heavy lips, his eyes opening a fraction but only focusing on the middle ground.

Dear stars, Anders groaned as the guards urged them toward the airlock, already hissing open to reveal a line of Tularin guards waiting for them. Anders wondered how long it would be before Jake finally lost control of the horrors he now contained.

Secrets of Ilythia Boxed Set

“Father! I must insist—” Dalia burst out as she followed the long, familiar strides of her father while his warship docked at one the stronghold’s towers.

It was strange for Dalia to once again be surrounded by such familiar architecture and people. She knew that she should feel at home. After all, she had been trained here as a younger Ilythian and had learned from her father all of the many ways to disable, maim, or even kill.

The House of Tularin were considered an anomaly in ‘modern’ Ilythian society. Or they had been, before the war, Dalia thought. She was trying to catch up with her father as he strode down the gangplank to the small sky-bridge that led straight into her father’s personal council rooms.

Just like I have always been trying to catch up with him ever since I was a girl… she thought.

Over the archway into the tower fluttered two of the red pennants of the house, and they were as red as the setting sun, as they had always been.

As red as a human’s blood, she thought. Which was apt, given their creed.

The House of Tularin were originally just another tribe of ancient Ilythia, Dalia knew her histories. A fierce mounted tribe, who rode the three-legged Var-Beasts across the High Steppes to attack and dominate the other local tribes.

But that had been far, far in the past. Dalia scowled as her father, Iktin, ignored her pleading for a little understanding as they walked into the tower. There on the metal walls were laser-etched reliefs of the history of House Tularin, and Dalia was confronted by the very sight of those Var-Beasts, spilling onto a battlefield with the Tularin riders, spears held high.

The family of Tular had been feared for almost a thousand years, Dalia recalled. Until the peace concords and the unification of the tribes of Ilythia, of course.

This very event—actually recorded as one of the great achievements in Ilythian history by every other Ilythian—was only given one small panel halfway along the frieze, where the tall Tular, the warrior-hero of their house, stood head and shoulders over the assembled other house and tribe elders as they came to a settlement.

Dalia saw her father’s head turn a little to see the same depiction, and a slight sigh escaped the man’s lips. He had thought it the downfall not only of Tularin, but of the Ilythian spirit, Dalia reminded herself.

But that unification had set the Ilythians onto what they had become in this day and age, she knew. It had fostered the ideology of the Sul’imar, and the interconnection and interdependence of all Ilythians. The entirety of Ilythian culture, from their technology to their customs, was built around that sense of a unified whole.

“Our family has come a long way,” her father said heavily as they walked past the final friezes, where House Tularin fought battles against the Secari crab-men or the Mondrauk invaders from other worlds, and usually won.

Her father sounded proud of their journey, which Dalia thought strange, as they reached the familiar double metal doors at the end of the hall.

“I thought you believed our house was in decline?” Dalia said a little bitterly. It had been the belief that he had espoused often through her younger years—that the family of Tular were the only ones to truly remember the savage strength that was every Ilythian’s birthright, and that the unification had led to a weakening of their species. Even the camouflage field around the planet he saw as a disgrace to the species—an acquiescence to furtiveness, hiding instead of displaying strength and courage.

“We were.” Her father paused at the door, one hand raised to activate it’s biological code-lock. “But the war is proving good to us.”

The doors opened, and her father stalked into the room that was his personal council chamber. Stands of ceremonial armor and weapons stood by the walls of the upper level alongside weapons, both personal and exemplary. He hasn’t changed one bit, has he? Dalia thought, seeing the large curved two-handed swords, the lances, and rifles and feeling her heart sink.

The chamber was built on two levels, with a depressed floor in the center, shaped as an oval, and along the inside edge of which sat low stone benches. Her father’s desk sat at the edge, looking into the miniature amphitheater in judgement.

“Master Iktin! What is the meaning of this!?” Dalia realized they weren’t alone as a figure stood from the depressed lower floor and turned to glare at the intrusion. It was a male Ilythian, dressed in long, black robes like a human monastic. This Ilythian wore his hair short-cropped to his scalp, and his face was lined with ancient wrinkles.

“The recordist,” Dalia breathed. This was Ulaminbarin-var, the ancient Recordist of the Council of Ilythia who worked partly as a clerk, judge, and historian of their peoples. At his side stepped up the only other figure in the room, a female Ilythian in light sea-green and blue smock, over white leg and arm wrappings. Her hair may have once been blonde but was now a deep white like Dalia’s own.

“Spokeswoman Wenoraibara,” Dalia lowered her head immediately. Both figures were influential. They could even be considered the ‘leaders’ of the Ilythian people, if Ilythia had such things as leaders. As it was, they were the two constant, steadfast presences in the council that ruled their race, alongside the changing faces of various house and colony masters. There wasn’t a time that Dalia could remembered that there had ever been other recordists and spokeswomen, and she wouldn’t have liked to guess at either of their real ages.

“Spokeswoman, Recordist, thank you for attending.” Her father continued his march around the edge of the amphitheater floor to his desk, where he calmly gathered himself together to sit down.

The fact that his seat was above the other members of the council was not lost on the recordist, Dalia noted, who hissed his contempt for this disrespect.

“Master Iktin, if you have a matter for the council, then I suggest you present yourself at a proper time and place in the proper council hall!” he snapped, as Dalia’s father apparently ignored him to pick up data-sheets from one side of the desk. “I’ve had enough if this insolence!” the recordist said, turning to hobble towards the low steps that led out of their amphitheater, presumably to leave the Tularin stronghold entirely.

“You will want to listen to what my daughter, and your agent, has to tell you,” Master Tularin cleared his throat and announced.

What? Dalia blinked. She had been under the impression that her father would not allow her an audience with the council—even though he had no right to command her, did he?

Maybe he has changed, she told herself.

“Daughter, tell these council members what you have discovered of the Eternal Empress’s plans,” her father said dryly.

Gladly, Dalia thought, opening her mouth to tell her tale.


Black Sun Rising

“As you know, I was tasked with entering Golden Throne space to unravel the mysterious message that we received,” Dalia updated them.

“This message, I have since learned, has been sent to us by a powerful psychic in the Eternal Empress’s employ, whom we call the Oracle. This Oracle has been seeking to alert other civilizations to Eternal Empress Helena’s plans, but they cannot communicate often.”

Dalia saw the spokeswoman nod with pursed lips in agreement, as it had been Spokeswoman Weno herself who had charged her with that task.

“And what did you discover?” her father prompted.

One thing at a time! Dalia frowned at the interruption before continuing.

“The Oracle’s clues led me to contact a human MPB officer called Anders Corsigon, and together we unearthed that a series of clones had escaped the empress’s tanks and been murdered before they could reach us.”

“Clones?” The recordist frowned deeply. “That technology is not without precedent, but it has been forbidden by every intelligent species.”

“Well, the Eternal Empress of the Golden Throne has found a way to recreate it, and she has made for herself a PK clone army,” Dalia said. She heard a gasp from the spokeswoman. “I am afraid, ma’am, that the horror does not stop there. The empress has been kidnapping her own natural PKs in human territory—of which the youth Jake that accompanied me here is one. Together, this psychic army was being trained to power and channel the empress’s apocalypse weapon.”

“Excuse me,” the recordist interrupted. “While we can all agree that this is an evil plan of course, we do have to note that what the Eternal Empress does with her own subjects is, well, a human matter.”

“Not if that matter affects the lives of every civilization in known space,” Dalia countered.

“Can this apocalypse weapon really be so very terrible?” the recordist, ever pragmatic, pointed out. “Space, after all, is a truly vast place.”

“Daughter,” her father snapped, clearly getting tired of the recordist’s prevaricating. “Please describe the device, as you told me.”

Dalia bit her lip at being ordered and treated like a child once more, but she forced herself to swallow her pride. This was her chance to get the most important people of her society to do something about the coming horror, after all.

“The device is called the Archon, and it is not human in origin,” Dalia began. “The human group known as the Voiders have studied what little they know of it, and the other human, Patch McGuire, who traveled with me here is one of them. The Archon device appears to hold a vast, a truly vast, store of potential energy, which appears to have been unleashed in times past,” Dalia explained what the Voiders had shown them. “There are entire planets out there, near the galactic center, which appear to have been pulverized, burned, and broken by the same energy signatures as given off by this ancient device.”

“Near the galactic center?” Spokeswoman Weno clarified, with a hint of worry in her voice. Dalia saw her eyes flicker to the recordist for a second, but his ancient face remained impassive.

“Yes, ma’am. The Voiders believe that the device transmits energy utilizing sub-quanta and PK fields, which is why the Eternal Empress has been creating her psychic clone army. Once she knows how to operate it in concert, she will be able to target and destroy any planet in known civilized space that she wants to,” Dalia said, looking down at her audience for her voice to fade out.

The spokeswoman and the recordist stared at her in abject horror.

“I understand, esteemed Council Members,” Dalia said humbly. “It is a truly great evil, but it is my belief that if we free the humans that arrived with me, then we have a way to—”

“No, Agent, you do not understand,” the recordist berated her. “Not at all.” The old Ilythian turned with surprising alacrity to look up at Dalia’s father, sitting impassively above them. “How long have you known, Iktin!?”

Known what? Dalia thought. She saw her father look gravely at the recordist, his emotions as far away and as distant as they had always ever been.

“I have had my suspicions. There were clues that reached my ears from various contacts and agents, but it wasn’t until I heard the words from my own daughter’s mouth that I knew I could believe them.”

“You should have informed us!” The recordist seemed consumed with outrage.

What is going on? Dalia looked from one man to another.

“Would you have believed me, Recordist? If I had ever told you that the old legends were true? That the Era of the Black Sun had returned?” her father said.

The Era of the Black Sun? What nonsense is this! Dalia shook her head.

“Councilmen,” Spokeswoman Weno interrupted them all. Her voice, although lighter than either of them, carried with it enough gravitas and natural authority to stop their bickering. “Enough. We cannot wish to turn back the days. It is happening. The Era of the Black Sun is finally upon us all.”

“The what?” This time, Dalia couldn’t stop her confusion from spilling out.

“Agent Dchllyiea.” The Spokeswoman looked up at her, her face was serious, but she spoke gently. “There is something that has been kept from you, that has been kept from all Ilythians, probably because we thought it to be a myth, a scare-story told by our ancient ancestors. There is an ancient cycle of tales that tell of a race of gods that fought for the soul of this galaxy, each god fighting the other. No singular one was either good or bad, merely selfish.”

“It sounds like a children’s story…” Dalia muttered, and the spokeswoman smiled sadly.

“We believed so, too. Until we started studying the other races and their cultures, to find that most of them had a similar myth at some point in their prehistory. And always, there are these elements: a war between the gods, and entire realms, lands, or worlds destroyed.”

The spokeswoman’s voice rose, as if she was pronouncing some terrible judgement. “No more was thought of the myth-cycle as, after all, there are many such ancient myths and many ancient civilizations in space.”

The woman shrugged. “However, over the centuries, small pieces of evidence started to accumulate, and a team of Ilythian researchers found artwork in prehistoric caves depicting a black orb—what they called the black sun—and with pictures of rays beating down, destroying everything underneath it. It wasn’t until we found corroborating images on other planets that we knew that the myths were true.”

Dalia struggled to get to the bottom of what was being told to her. “And… you believe that this Black Sun is the Archon device? The orb? That it’s some kind of ancient interstellar weapon?” That is nothing new, Dalia thought. That is precisely what the Voiders surmised.

The spokeswoman paused uncertainly, looking at the recordist and Master Iktin for a moment, before licking her lips and continuing.

“No. Not exactly,” she stated. “We believe that the Black Sun is an ancient being. That these galactic gods are these Black Suns. That they are another form of life, of terrible, ancient life, which time and luck has kept from our door. Until now.”

Dalia shook her head, remembering the image of the featureless black orb captured on the human probe. “Impossible. It would have to be unlike any life ever discovered.”

“It is. They are.” The spokeswoman nodded and drew a data-crystal from her robes. They were like the nodes that the humans used—a crystal matrix capable of computing and retaining vast amounts of information—but unlike the human nodes, these had no metal components, and each one glowed with a dim blue light.

Dalia watched as the spokeswoman placed the crystal in the air before them all, then gestured into its field of radiance, subtly selecting data that she had stored there.

In the glow of the data-crystal’s radiance, a picture started to appear. At first, Dalia thought it was an image of the Archon device, as there appeared a dark two-dimensional circle. However, as the crystal built up the layers of the image, Dalia realized that she wasn’t looking at an orb, but instead at a funnel in stony ground.

“Sector 3. We call it simply the Well,” the spokeswoman said. “Our explorers discovered the site almost two generations ago, and from that day, all record of it has been classified.”

“Sector 3?” Dalia echoed. “That’s a long way out.” Or a long way in, she corrected. It was a sector that was closer to the galactic center than their own.

“Yes,” the spokeswoman agreed. “On the inside of the Well, there are inscriptions, left by some ancient race. We do not know who they were, or how they lived, only that this is all there is left of their culture. And their inscriptions show designs like the Black Sun, repeatedly destroying whole peoples, worlds.” She drew a breath. “And there is script. Not all of it is translatable, but it seems to bear some markers to early Ilya that we speak, root-humanoid, even Mondrauk.”

Dalia was staggered at this revelation. That meant that someone had learned the earliest languages of all their races. Of entire species.

But there had always been other alien civilizations in the galaxy, hadn’t there? Dalia argued with herself. While the Ilythians prided themselves as amongst the oldest in this half of the galaxy, that did not mean there couldn’t have been countless others even older than theirs.

“From what we could gather, these inscriptions seem to suggest that the Black Suns are the gods spoken about in many proto-myths throughout intelligent life. That they waged wars against each other for unknown purposes, and that they punished and tormented the lesser races around them in whatever strange games that they played.”

Dalia gasped. “But, what, wait…” She shook her head. “But that would mean that the Archon device is…sentient?”

“Yes.” The spokeswoman nodded. “So it is not so much a case of the Eternal Empress discovering an ancient weapon, but instead making a pact with an ancient being. One that we had hoped had grown so ancient as to forget our little corner of the galaxy.”

Dalia’s mind was racing to an altogether different, and more terrifying, conclusion. The transmitter in Bonetown had been linked with the distant Archon device. As soon as Anders had touched it, he had seemed to be injured, or ill…

Or infected.

Anders hadn’t been hit by a PK blast, Dalia thought. He had gazed into the mind of a god—and one which was now attempting to be contained by Jake, a human boy with little psychic training, and barely at his second decade of life.

“I have to go!” Dalia said, horrified. She had to get that thing out of Jake’s head. Somehow. She didn’t know how, but she would have to find a way.

“Daughter, wait!” Her father’s voice paused her. “All that matters now is that we have the confirmation to take action against humanity, to prevent them from awakening the Black Sun.”

As Dalia still struggled with the ramifications of everything that she had learned in the last few minutes, her father drew forth from his desk his own holo-images, flinging them into the air above their heads.

It showed a picture of Golden Throne space, with various colony worlds highlighted in green. And there, in the center of that image, was a glowing green circle.

“These are the most important strategic worlds for the Golden Throne, at which they refuel, re-provision, and resupply,” her father said. “And the central marker is where we believe the location of Imperial 1 to be, the space citadel of the Eternal Empress herself.”

“Surely we have more important issues to consider now, Master Iktin!” the recordist snapped.

“On the contrary, Recordist. If we make decisive strikes now, surprise attacks using viral agents against the colony worlds, and a full-scale bombardment of Imperial 1, I believe that we can halt the empress’s plans in their tracks,” her father said with a hint of contentment.

“You’re talking about genocide,” the spokeswoman said seriously. “Our fight is against the Black Sun, not against the human civilians of the Golden Throne.”

“The human civilians allow the Eternal Empress to continue her insane plans!” her father said, rising from his seat. Dalia saw the fire spark in his eyes. “These humans you are so easy to forgive are as culpable as the Eternal Empress herself! And besides, what I am proposing is the only way to ensure that we put a stop to this nonsense, forever and for good!”

Dalia knew that her father was a military-minded man. It ran in his blood, being from House Tularin after all.

Doesn’t that mean it runs in mine, too? Dalia had to consider.

But her father was looking at this problem with the eyes of a warrior—that the only way to ensure that humanity never got a chance to awaken the power of the Black Sun was to punish them so terribly, so awfully, that they would never be able to build up to this point ever again.

“There will have to be a special convening of the Council of Ilythia to even discuss your plans.” The Spokeswoman was frowning deeply.

This isn’t just a split between my father and the spokeswoman, Dalia thought. It was a split between the House of Tularin and the peaceful unificationists like the spokewoman and the vast majority of Ilythian society.

“Actually, Spokeswoman…” The recordist cleared his throat. “Given the circumstances, Master Iktin has the right to invoke a closed session of the council, owing to the extreme danger that we are facing.” The recordist glanced at her father. “Do you invoke that right, Master of House Tularin?”

“I do,” her father stated proudly, and Dalia suddenly felt certain that this had been her father’s plan all along. That was why the beacon led to the Tularin checkpoint, and that was why he brought me here to argue his case with the other senior members of the council!

“How many human lives lost, Master Iktin?” Spokeswoman Weno said severely. “A billion? Two? Three?”

In answer, her father just shook his head at what he clearly considered to be a trivial question. “This is a war. And we lose lives in a war.” He pounded his fist on his desk. “How many hundreds of thousands do you think we lost on Eadaryn?”

“Three hundred and forty-six thousand, two hundred and eleven souls were returned to the Sul’imar,” Spokeswoman Weno stated without skipping a beat.

Dalia watched as her father blinked slowly. “And just how many do you think we will lose when the Eternal Empress asks the Black Sun to destroy Ilythia?”

The Ilythian agent looked between her father and the spokeswoman, who clearly seemed to have a difference of opinion for how to conduct this war. Which was hardly unsurprising. The Ilythians hadn’t been in an offensive war against another civilization for generations.

But then, the Spokeswoman Weno hung her head, and her shoulders drooped. “Your plan is approved by my vote also,” she stated, and there were only three possible voters in the room. It didn’t matter what the recordist declared, even though he nodded his agreement as well.

“Motion carried,” the spokeswoman hissed the words bitterly. “Master Iktin’s dual attack on the Golden Throne is approved.”

Dalia couldn’t stand to hear any more. As far as she was concerned, this was all madness. Utter madness.

And right now, one of my friends is trying to contain the mind of a god inside his own, she thought, spinning on her heel and making for the door.


Prisoner of War

Anders looked at Jake and felt fear. He sat beside the youth in a small alcove room—cell, Anders reminded himself—with his arm around the youth on the low stone bench to stop him from falling onto the marble floor below. This close, Anders could feel the waves of terror emanating from the young PK, and it hit Anders’s mind like waves crashing against the shore.

“Boss…” Patch murmured, nudging him in the side to avoid the detection of the Ilythian guards who stood outside the archway.

To be fair, at least their cell didn’t look like a prison. It was a roughly octagonal room with stone benches around the inner walls, stone walls and stone floor and one narrow but high arched doorway. There was no door occupying the gap, although Anders could see the semi-visible heat-haze that indicated a field separating them from their guards. The two Ilythian soldiers were visible through the field, and they were as immobile as statues.

Anders waited a moment to make sure that neither outside guard turned to look at them, and then whispered back, “What is it?”

Patch half-opened his hand to reveal Anders’s damaged node, which Patch had been working on before they’d been intercepted by the House of Tularin. It looked just the same as before—a smooth orb of crystal with the visible intricate traceries of gold wire like microchips threading through its heart. But there was also a faint white radiance emanating from it, pulsing in a slow, steady rhythm.

“I meant to tell you before…” Patch said. “I managed to get the subroutines back up and operational. Your simulated intelligence should be working now.”

“Patch, you are a genius!” Anders gasped, taking the node and palming it quickly as one of the Ilythians slowly looked over his shoulder at them. The guard didn’t say anything, but Anders froze all the same.

Have I been caught? His mind was already trying to formulate a plan of how he would deal with it. There is room for only one Ilythian through the door at a time. A bottleneck. But he would have to rely on the idea that they would be so stupid as to walk in without raising their weapons.

“Huj,” he heard one of the Ilythians grunt to the other, and he gritted his teeth in frustration. If he had Moriarty up and running, then the intelligence would have been able to translate for him. As it was, he would now have to rely on body language alone.

Luckily for Anders, the body language of soldiers appeared to be the same the world over when he saw them suddenly stand to attention.

Someone is coming, Anders thought. A superior officer, by the looks of it.

There came the sound of soft shoes padding on stone, and then a third Ilythian appeared—another male with a somewhat squarish jaw, as opposed to the finely tapered one that most Ilythians had. He had black hair cut in a short style and carried himself like a solider, although this one was wearing robes rather than the full plate that the guards were.


“Ossia-oronwe, alei!”

Anders tried to follow their conversation as best he could. This was some kind of superior officer, checking on the prisoners, he thought, and was rewarded by the unarmored Ilythian now turning to regard them directly.

“Hi,” Anders said with a scowl.

The unarmored officer raised an eyebrow and continued to mutter to the guards, who nodded and stood a little straighter. Anders was surprised when the officer then turned back to him and cleared his throat.

“Lieutenant Anders Corsigon,” the Ilythian said with a heavy accent. “You and your compatriots have been accused and tried of breaking the Law of Integrity, which forbids enemy races entrance to Ilythian Space.”

“Hold on—” Patch burst out. “Do you know why we jumped out here? We’re trying to save—”

But in our leniency,” the officer raised his voice to speak over the Voider. “And given the fact that you appear to have proved useful to a daughter of the Ilythian people, Agent Dchllyiealoparisaan, we are forgoing the traditional punishment for one breaking such a crime, which would be death, and instead offering you the traditional House Tularin punishment.”

“This is outrageous—” Patch burst out. Despite all the terrors and near-death events that he had gone through, Anders was aware that Patch McGuire was still young. Full of fire and passion. Which could get us killed, Anders thought, clearing his throat.

“And what is the traditional punishment of House Tularin?” Anders stated.

“Trial by combat,” the officer said, giving one perfunctory nod. “We are already preparing the arena and will be with you shortly.”

“How many of us fight?” Anders stated.

The officer frowned. “Why, each of you do, Lieutenant, as each of you broke the Law of Integrity.”

That can’t be allowed to happen. Anders cast a glance at his two companions. Patch was young, and he was no fighter. And Jake was even younger, and half-conscious.

“It is only proper to inform you all,” the robed officer said smoothly, “that it is common for one, or other, or both of the contestants to die in this punishment. Each of you should consider making peace with whatever deities you humans observe.” The Ilythian turned to go.

“Wait! Where is Dalia—I mean, Dchllyiea!?” Anders called out loudly. He mangled her name, but the officer still paused.

“She has been returned to her rightful place in Ilythian society.” The officer looked at him carefully. “I would advise you to start making new Ilythian friends, Lieutenant Corsigon. There is, after all, a war between our two peoples, which would technically make you prisoners of that war.” The robed officer gave a small shrug. “But that does depend on whether you are still alive in order to make friends, of course.”

Anders growled. Stuck-up, son-of-a—

But the officer was already nodding at the two guards and returning to his soft-paced march back through the stone corridors. The guards regarded their prisoners on the other side of the field for a moment, before seeming satisfied that they wouldn’t cause any trouble and returning to their posts.

Carefully, Anders slipped the node up to the inside of his Ilythian suit’s collar—since they hadn’t been ordered to take them off yet—and pressed the node inside, where he felt its reassuring cool crystal surface against his throat.

“Good morning, ah, excuse me, calibrating for local differences. Afternoon, approximately fourteen hours and twenty-three minutes, season of Tmau,” Moriarty’s voice chimed. It was muffled, but still it made Anders wince. “I take it that you are in a spot of bother, sir?”

“Nice to hear you, too,” Anders barely had to whisper the words since he knew that the vibrations of his throat would transfer his words to the simulated intelligence. “No time to explain. Conduct a full scan of the locality to bring yourself up to speed.”

“Operating, sir…” the curiously cultured and well-mannered voice of the intelligence said, at several gauges lower than before so that only Anders seemed able to hear it. A second later, it returned.

“Ah. I see. Congratulations for being one of only one hundred and forty-eight humans who have ever seen the surface of Ilythia, and one of only three who have seen the inside of the Tularin Stronghold,” Moriarty said with the characteristic confidence that all simulated intelligences had.

Lucky for him, he can’t feel the waves of fear being generated by the boy beside me! Anders thought. He also noted that of the three humans ever to be inside the floating stronghold of House Tularin, all three of them were currently sharing the room—cell—with him currently.

“Moriarty. Can you disable the field on the door?” Anders breathed.

There was a pause, and Anders felt the node grow a little colder as it worked against his throat. “I can create an interference field, sir, but as I no longer have access to the Nova’s memory-banks—”

He was referring, of course, to the clipper ship that had been Moriarty’s home, which Anders realized was presumably now lying in a broken, melted heap on the surface of ruined Terevesin.

“—it will take all of your node’s available processing power.”

“What are you telling me, Moriarty?” Anders growled.

“That, tactically, sir, it would be considered an unwise move. The two Ilythian guards have heavy phase weapons, and my field-generating skills would be better deployed producing a light shield for you and your companions.”

“We have to get out of the damn room first, Moriarty,” Anders said. That was one of the few problems with tactical intelligences like his—they were accurate to a fault and could precisely indicate just how foolish and insane any of his battle-plans were.

“Do it, Moriarty,” Anders said. “Let me worry about the guards.”

“Sir, I presume that I do not have to remind you that you have no weapons?” Moriarty stated.

“No, you really don’t,” Anders muttered, closing his hands into a fist. He was a good brawler, he knew that much, but he had also seen the way that Dalia fought—whirling kicks and back hands and elbows and heavens knew what else. All he could do was hope that Dalia was some kind of prodigy.

But I cannot let the other two get into any arena against a trained Ilythian fighter, Anders thought. They’ll be torn to pieces in minutes.


Daughter of House Tularin

“Sir? Ready to execute,” Moriarty said, his voice low as the node was pressed against Anders’s neck.

Anders spared a look at Patch, who returned the glance owlishly. “You know what to do?” Anders whispered.

“Sure thing, boss… Cover Jake. Find a ship,” Patch breathed.

It’s a terrible plan, Anders thought. But it was the best that he could come up with in the scant few minutes he had. That Ilythian officer said they were preparing the arena right away, which meant that by the time that even an hour had passed, Anders might be looking at the dead bodies of his friends unless he did something.

“It’s just…” Patch murmured, looking at his hands disconsolately. “The Ilythians were supposed to help us. They were supposed to be on our side against the Archon device…”

“I know that, Patch,” Anders said, not altogether unkindly. He’s too young for this, too trusting, Anders thought grimly. He knew that this was probably Patch McGuire’s first experience with serious conflict, and he was the sort of guy who thought that as soon as you explained the real threat, everyone would give up their arms, become best buddies, and work together.

“Unfortunately, it doesn’t work like that,” Anders answered both his own thoughts and Patch’s. The Ilythians were on a war-footing, and they would probably not spare a thought to whatever Patch and Anders had to tell them about the empress’s apocalypse weapon.

Which means we have to do this ourselves. Anders focused, breathed. “Execute,” he sub-vocalized to Moriarty as he stood up.

Anders felt a shiver of field-energy pass over him as the node at his neck pulsed. It felt like a sudden, light breeze of chill air that made his skin prickle. He couldn’t see the interference wave visibly, but he saw the way that the blue of the field over the door shimmered once, then disappeared.

“Holding the field… Processing power at eighty-eight percent,” the node stated, his voice sounding crackly and distorted as Moriarty used all of his available processing power.

Right then. Anders moved. Let’s see how good you really are.

The two Ilythian guards stood on either side of the door, meaning that Anders had to pick one to attack first. He chose the one on the left, mainly because he could lead with his right hand.

The policeman stepped into the archway as smoothly and as softly as he could, bringing up his hands as he prepared to strike—

—but the Ilythians were a people with very fine senses, which were only enhanced by their helmets’ capabilities. The left-side Ilythian must have spotted a movement out of the corner of his eye, or heard the pad of Anders’s feet, as he flinched suddenly and turned toward the human bearing down on him.

Anders popped him dead in the center of the helmet, where the Ilythian’s nose would be if it wasn’t covered by the strange, shell-like metal.

“Ach!” The strike hurt Anders probably much more than it did the alien, but it was enough to disorientate the guard for just a second.

“Anders, behind you!” Patch was shouting as Anders stepped into the Ilythian’s guard, both hands grabbing the halberd-rifle that he was trying to raise.

The other guard was also moving, and Anders didn’t have any time to strike his target again as he threw himself out into the corridor, still holding onto the alien’s weapon as he swung the Ilythian around. Anders’s back hit the opposite wall at the same time as the guard he was locked in a wrestling match with hit the second guard. There was a clash and a grunt, and Anders stamped forward with one boot.

Hss! Another lance of pain as the Ilythian’s suit was far tougher than even Anders’s service boot, but this was all diversionary tactics anyway. He had achieved his goal. The Ilythian he was struggling with fell back, and Anders was now reversing his grip on the stolen weapon, bringing up the rifle end and—

Frack it! Anders swore as his hands tightened on nothing at all. These guns have no triggers! How in the void of space do you fire them!?

Anders saw a trio of buttons on the side of the hand grip. That had to be it! The two Ilythian guards were disentangling themselves from the floor and rising toward him.

PHZT! Just as something struck him in the back, and Anders was flung back against the wall as pain spasmed through him.


“Anders!” He heard Patch shout, but Anders’s head was ringing like a bell as he tried to push himself back from the floor. Only to find that he couldn’t move.

What? How bad—

“Sir. Processing at ten percent. You’ve been hit. Some kind of muscle tranquilizer— GZZZT!” Moriarty whispered before there was a faint pop and he went silent. The blue field snapped back into place over the door, and Anders was left on the floor, wincing in pain as the two guards jumped to their feet. The one he had stolen the halberd from kicked him savagely in the side.

“Ushimo! La’vol, hy-ulian!” He heard a different, angry voice coming from behind him, and the attacking guard stepped back.

Huj!” his assailant said, before quickly followed by another.

It’s the officer. He’s come back—

And then a shadow fell over Anders’s face, and alien hands grabbed him by the shoulders and flipped him over.

It was Dalia.

Secrets of Ilythia Boxed Set

“Dalia! What the crap are you doing?” Anders wheezed as the strong Ilythian agent seized him and lifted him up to balance against the wall. Even though Anders’s head still felt like it was filled with an angry swarm of bees, he could see that the Ilythian appeared perturbed. She was squinting and biting her bottom lip.

“I’m sorry, Anders. Just do as I say, and I’ll figure something out,” she said as more Ilythian voices broke around them.

This time, it was the Ilythian robed officer from before, and he had brought a quartet of guards, each one seeming as unemotional as the first two had been—before Anders had dared to steal one of their weapons, that was.

The superior officer looked from Dalia to Anders and made a scornful expression addressing Anders directly. “Lieutenant Corsigon, were this any other situation, I would be forced to recommend the first punishment we discussed for this.”

“You can’t expect a prisoner of war to not attempt an escape,” Dalia pointed out defiantly.

The robed officer gave a low growl. “Sister, you would do well to remember what side you are fighting on!” He nodded for the guards to step forward and seize Anders.

“These humans saved my life, Captain Uval,” Anders heard Dalia say as he was roughly manhandled and Ilythian hands patted him down to check for any weapons.

“I will tell you just what I told my father—that these people are working on the same side as us!” Dalia burst out.

Anders heard the officer snort in disgust. “Then I would suggest that you return to speak to your father,” the Ilythian called Captain Uval stated, “because it was he who ordered me to present these three humans to the arena for Tularin judgement. I believe that Master Iktin has decided that we cannot trust them until they prove themselves.”

“Prove themselves!?” Dalia snapped, stepping between Anders and Uval. “Are you serious? Have you any idea how many times they fought the assassins and Marines of the Eternal Empress to get here?”

Captain Uval took a step forward too, so that he was standing almost nose to nose with the daughter of the Master of House Tularin. “I am merely following the wishes of your father, and so yes, I am deadly serious.” The captain held Dalia’s gaze for a long moment, and when it was clear that he wasn’t going to back down, Dalia let out a cat-like hiss of annoyance and looked away.

“Take them to the arena,” Uval said, and Anders felt himself hauled backward down the corridor.

“Dalia!” Anders managed to cough as he struggled—to no avail—against his captors. “It’s Jake! You must calm Jake!” he said before they turned a corner and he could no longer see her.


The Arena

“Moriarty? Moriarty, are you operational?” Anders breathed as low as he could, before coughing a little louder to hide his sub-vocalized commands.

There was no sound from the node at his neck, but Anders knew that didn’t mean that Moriarty was inoperable. He spent all of his available processing power. He might be recharging.

Still, Anders hoped that his simulated intelligence would recharge damn quickly, since it looked like he might need him in the next few minutes…

Anders sat on a low stone bench in a small gallery, looking out onto a circular flagstone arena. His gallery had two sets of Ilythian guards at either end, and then there was one of the three archways that led into the arena, and another two galleries that appeared to be slowly filling up with other Ilythians.

None of them wore armor, Anders saw, but they all appeared to be people of some importance in Ilythian society. He wished that Moriarty was working, because the intelligence would have access to the entire data-field of the Golden Throne and would be able to tell him what was going on.

The robed Ilythians were tall or short, broad or thin, male and female. Their clothes were simple tunics and trousers with over-robes of rippling colors, but there was always a predominance of crimson-red, which Anders was coming to understand was the color of House Tularin. They chatted together in groups of twos or threes, appearing jovial, excited even over the blood sport they were about to witness.

These people are just as bad as the Eternal Empress. Anders sneered at them. Although he instantly knew that wasn’t true. So far, he hadn’t heard anything about House Tularin or the Ilythians attempting to destroy entire planets. But their callousness is the same, he thought, his anger only concentrating.

In the furious middle of his rage, Anders suddenly felt his mood plummet to the deepest gloom. It’s useless, he thought. All of this has been for nothing. The thoughts surrounded him, threatening to cast aside all hope.

Maybe I was stupid for thinking that the Ilythians would help, he castigated himself. Perhaps all that he had done was to hand over to them the secrets of the Golden Throne. Maybe all I did was to make the war worse.

Anders had been trying to stop the war. And now, here he was surrounded by the very people he had wanted to listen to him, only to find out that they were as bloodthirsty as the people he had left behind.

I should have stayed on Hectamon 7. I should have—

But no, even Anders couldn’t lie to himself so completely. It was not in the man’s nature, a police officer who had devoted the majority of his working life to uncovering the truth, no matter where it had taken him.

Anders knew that he couldn’t have stayed on Hectamon 7, and that he would have done precisely the same again if he’d the time back. He had wanted to bring the killers of the strange clones to justice, and he would want to do the same thing again, and again.

Because that is who I am, Anders consoled himself. I’m a policeman. I protect people. I catch the bad guys.

But a niggling little thought struck him: what was he supposed to do when everyone around him seemed to be the bad guys?

“Sir.” It was Moriarty, his voice distant and muffled, sounding weak.

“Thank the stars, Moriarty!” Anders hissed as the galleries slowly filled up around him. “I need you to find a way out of this,” Anders whispered, before adding, “even if that means through every Ilythian contestant and guard.”

“Right away, sir.” Even Moriarty managed to sound subdued.

“Boss!” He heard a shout and looked up to see that it was Patch, being manhandled to the side of one of the galleries by two guards.

“Patch!” Anders half-stood, eliciting a leveling of the halberd-rifles of the guards around him, but there was nothing he could do to help his friend.

And then Anders staggered as a headache opened between his eyes like a rose of pain, and he felt that once-again familiar buzz and roar of what he called the ‘black river.’ It happened at the exact same time that Jake was hauled into the arena from the opposite door to Patch, to similarly be held on the edge of the galleries.

The young PK was having trouble controlling his abilities, Anders saw, and he was still clearly infected with whatever had passed from the transmitter to Anders’s mind back in Bonetown. The ex-officer could see across the arena how Jake was shaking and trembling, half-hunching himself over, hands cradling his head.

No. Anders felt his pulse race. The wave of psychic energy was ebbing, but it had not gone unnoticed by the nearest Ilythians, including Jake’s guards, who all flinched and appeared upset by the subconscious disease that Jake was spreading.

“Friends, calm yourselves!” A new, stronger Ilythian voice broke over the low murmurs of alarm, and Anders looked up to see that above the tiered gallery was some kind of box, and the familiar form of Master Iktin, the leader of House Tularin and Dalia’s father, stood at the edge of the box, looking down. He no longer wore the heavy golden plate, but was instead dressed in different variations of the same crimson red. He looked like some ancient sort of king, Anders thought.

“Friends, be seated!” Even Master Iktin appeared to be a little perturbed by the low ebb and flow of unease and fear spreading from Jake. Anders wondered if it was a good thing that the Ilythians didn’t know that Jake was the cause of their upset.

Can I use that to our advantage?

Eventually, the galleries of expectant warrior Ilythians settled down into an almost shuffling sort of a silence, and Anders watched as Master Iktin raised his long-fingered hand in some sort of ritualized gesture.

“Who you see before you are three invaders to Ilythian space. They are humans who have dared to break the Law of Integrity!” he said sternly.

Kill them!” an exuberant sort of Ilythian called out, followed by a chorus of claps and cheers at the suggestion.

Wow, thanks, Anders grumbled to himself. At least Moriarty was translating the Ilythian language for them.

“Customarily, I would agree with you!” Iktin responded directly to the heckler. “However, we have to also consider that these humans here are defectors from the Golden Throne—”

Another hiss of anger at the merest mention of the Ilythian’s enemy.

“And that they may prove a valuable service to House Tularin!” Iktin continued.

“What good can a human be to us!?” This time, it was another heckler who called out, and Iktin paused to allow the crowd to laugh and cheer.

“Perhaps you are right, but my own daughter, Dchllyiealoparisaan, has assured me of their loyalty to the Ilythian cause,” Iktin said.

There was another mutter of angry, incredulous voices, and Anders suddenly saw what it was he was dealing with. Whatever he said to convince Master Iktin or even the famous Council of Ilythia, these aliens had their own internal politics, and Anders would never be able to receive their unanimous aid.

“Of course, we cannot allow them to roam the streets of Ilythia unchecked!” Iktin continued. “So, I have decided that they are to be tested, each one, in the traditional House Tularin way.”

There were a few cries of anger from the assembled representatives, but Anders saw that there were more considering faces amongst the aliens. This warrior sect seemed to place a lot of importance on these barbaric customs, Anders realized.

“Every one of us here has undergone this challenge, hopefully not as a punishment but as a rite of passage. It is by the testing and the spilling of blood that we know who our true allies and friends are,” Iktin said, which appeared to be a favored adage of the house, because there was an immediate outbreak of clapping.

“And so, let the challenge begin! Bring on the first accused!” Iktin said, and the guards savagely pushed Patch forward to stumble a few steps into the ring.

“No!” Anders stepped forward, shouting. He now saw that there were two blades lying on the floor in the middle of the small arena. Each one was long and double-ended, with a handlebar in the middle.

This wasn’t supposed to go like this! Anders thought in alarm as Patch, looking small and thin and so very young, turned to look fearfully back at Anders.

“Boss?” the young Voider whimpered.

“NO!” Anders roared again, pushing as close to the blue-edged field that separated him from the arena floor as he could. “NO! Take me! I will fight in his stead!” Anders was shouting.

“Sit back down, human!” One of his guards leveled his halberd-rifle at him, and the Ilythian guard next to him chuckled.

But Master Iktin had heard Anders’s outburst and turned to look down at him. “Challenger, you do not have the right nor the jurisdiction to claim your fight. You are a prisoner of war.”

I will fight in his stead!” Anders shouted once more. He was out of options. He had no clever plans to get his friends out of this mess now. All he had was his conviction. “I will fight each of their fights myself—just spare my friends!” Anders shouted.

The galleries around Anders burst into an uproar of both cheers and hisses. These Tularin favor strength, Anders thought. They believe in courage, and bravery…

And savagery.

“I will fight every warrior you send at me!” Anders called out, loud enough for the gallery around him to hear his words. “I will fight them all. And if I have to, I will kill them all too!” He snarled at them all. In that moment, Anders even believed what he was saying.

The galleries of Tularin Ilythians appeared to like his outburst, however, as there were more cheers, and even the occasional shout of “let him fight! The human has a little spirit, I see!”

“Easy, easy…” Master Iktin waved the crowds back to their seats, then he cleared his throat and addressed Anders. “You would fight in the stead of your two accomplices, as well as your own? Three fresh Ilythian warriors, back-to-back, while you have not had a moment’s rest or healing?” Iktin asked.

“I would. And more,” Anders called back defiantly. And in this, he knew he was speaking the truth. I will stand between every one of you and my friends if I have to, he knew.

“And if you should fall, or submit, to any of the fighter, you are willing to doom your friends to execution?” Master Iktin said.

What? Anders rocked on his feet.

“Tell me, Lieutenant, are you so very sure of your skills?” Iktin said, and the galleries all around them went silent as the Tularin Ilythians listened with eager, pointed ears.

“Sir, the chances of you surviving three back-to-back fights, depending on the quality of your opponents of course…” Moriarty informed him, “…well, it has a downward cascade of probability.”

“Thanks for the vote of confidence Moriarty,” Anders whispered, before he stepped forward once more, lifting his chin and his voice.

“I am sure, Master Iktin!” Anders said, and the gallery of war-like aliens burst into rapturous applause.

“Then by all means, Lieutenant, come and meet your first challenger!” Master Iktin called out grandiosely. Two Ilythian guards rushed forward to seize Patch and drag him back into custody.

“Boss, no!” Patch managed to whimper amid the clapping and roaring.

“Don’t worry, Patch. Everything is going to be alright,” Anders said, but not even his fierce anger could make him believe it.


Blood on the Stone

“Sir? Have I ever informed you how surprised I am that you have managed to survive this far?” Moriarty mumbled against Anders’s neck.

“I thought simulated intelligences couldn’t get surprised,” Anders muttered back. He was currently standing in the middle of the stone arena, looking down at the two bladed weapons before him. Strange, he thought. This is just like the Night Raiders of Bonetown. Everyone had thought that they were the psychopathic ones. Maybe the truth was that every civilization was bat-crap crazy.

“You’re quite right, sir. I cannot feel surprise, but I remain statistically interested in how you continue to remain outside the curve of probability,” Moriarty demurred.

“Is that your polite way of saying I’m screwed, Moriarty?” Anders grumbled.

“Colloquially speaking, sir, that would be an affirmative,” Moriarty informed him, without even a hint of irony or sarcasm.

Outstanding, Anders grumbled. The gallery around him had quieted down to a low muttering as they waited for the blood-letting to begin.

But what was worse was that Anders could still feel the twinge of pain from his lower back where he had been shot with whatever tranquilizer or sedative that Dalia had shot him with—he presumed that she had been trying to stop him from getting killed.

I’m not even at full strength, Anders thought irritably as he started to limber up, stretching and shaking out his long limbs and cricking his neck from one side to the other.

Huj!” Anders heard a shout. It was the Captain Uval again, standing opposite him. Immediately, all the guards snapped to attention and an air of nervous anticipation filled the room.

“Your challenger has been selected,” Captain Uval said, in the Empress’s English even, for Anders’s benefit. Uval turned and nodded as a shadowy shape walked out from the passageway behind them.

“Welcome to the arena, House Tularin warrior, Kibet’ia the Strong!” Uval shouted, and Anders was reminded of the boxing matches on Hectamon 7. His home system was also home to the Golden Throne deathmatch known as the Challenge, with Hectamon 7 as the nearest, large throne colony world. That meant that it had become an unofficial supplier and supporter of the three-day event, and there were numerous fighting bouts held throughout the city at any time.

But none of the gyms nor the fighting rings had ever played host to an Ilythian fighter, Anders knew. He knew this because it had been his job to police the sometimes overexuberant crowds. The Ilythians had always painted themselves as a peaceful people and had deigned to never enter the empress’s only blood sport.

But this fella doesn’t look peaceful in the slightest, Anders thought as a large—a very large—Ilythian stalked into the arena. Many Ilythians tended to be tall and thin, but this one was easily 6’5” and broad-shouldered to boot. He wore the same light Ilythian scout armor that Anders wore, and he had a topknot of white hair that added another five inches to his height.

The Ilythian had parallel white scars running down either cheek, and his eyes, although a viridian green, were sharp with cold determination as he marched.

It also seemed like the crowds recognized him and approved. Shouts of ‘Kibet! Kibet! Kibet’ia!’ broke out all around Anders with a feverish glee.

Wonderful, Anders groaned, pausing to study his opponent. Looks like I’m fighting the hometown hero.

“Sir , he has a limp on his right leg. I ascertain a twenty-three percent loss of mobility,” Moriarty whispered. “Possible hip displacement or historic knee injury.”

At last, Anders thought, Moriarty is paying off.

Anders stayed where he was as Kibet’ia sauntered up to him, to each stand over the two long blades on the floor. The Ilythian didn’t say a word, and Anders was forced to look up at him.

“Hi,” Anders couldn’t resist saying, his voice heavy with sarcasm. Even though this Kibet’ia was much taller and a little broader than he was, Anders thought that he had already got a measure of him, in the way that he projected calm authority.

He knows that the eyes of the crowd are on him. He knows that everyone thinks he’s going to win. Anders had met humans like this before.

And in my experience? Anders glared at the Ilythian. They all went down like anyone else.

“Contestants! Pick up your weapons and break!” Captain Uval shouted, and Anders did so, lowering himself into a crouch as he kept his eyes on Kibet’ia opposite him, who was doing exactly the same.

He is favoring his left leg, Anders realized. Moriarty had been right. Some kind of hip injury, not noticeable to anyone who wasn’t either a tactically trained super-computer or an investigative police officer.

Anders copied Kibet’ia’s movements as he stepped back a few more feet, holding the awkward weapon in his hands. Ah. That was one other problem that Anders knew that he had to solve, and quickly. Apart from having a murderous giant Ilythian ready to kill me.

Anders had received Throne Marine training, which had included a wide variety of weapons styles, but the Marines didn’t specialize in hand-to-hand combat—not at basic training level, anyway. Although Anders knew the basic parries and thrusts with a polearm—which was what the nearest human weapon to this style would be—he was much, much better as a brawler and a shooter.

Well, I guess I’ll just have to learn quick, Anders thought, not realizing just how quickly that would have to be, as Captain Uval’s voice shouted:


Kibet’ia sprang forward, clearing the few meters in a single bound. But he didn’t perform the attack that Anders had been expecting—a direct overhead slash with the blade.

Frack! Anders had already half-raised his own weapon to counter what he had been, but Kibet’ia instead made a sweep with the blade, letting go with one hand to allow a wider reach.

Anders had no option but to jump back, sucking in his stomach as his opponent’s blade soared harmlessly past his gut. Anders kept on skipping back a few paces as Kibet’ia kept pace with him but did not attempt another attack.

Instead, the Ilythian had returned his weapon to a guarding stance in front of his body.

The two contestants slowed to a skipping sort of a walk around each other, and Anders realized that the entire first few movements had just been a test. This Kibet’ia is actually good, Anders thought in dismay as he jabbed forward with his own blade, for the Ilythian to easily sidestep and return a similar jab that was easy for Anders to dodge.

The two men were testing each other’s reflexes, building their own muscle-memory as their bodies read the way that each other moved, reacted, assumed…

But he’s still a big warrior at the top of his game, Anders told himself. He’s still certain that he is going to win…

This was information that Anders could use. And what was more, it was information that Anders knew how to use. As a police officer, he had excelled at reading body language and intention and knew that the difference between life and death was often just a matter of mistaken perception.

Kibet’ia jabbed again with the weapon, and this time, Anders knew that it was a test. He gave ground, not even attempting to parry.

“Combat analysis: he leads with his left side, sir,” Moriarty informed him.

Kibet’ia was a big fighter, and like all big fighters that Anders had ever known, he got annoyed when his smaller and weaker opponent appeared to be not presenting much of a fight. He stepped forward and swung, leading from his left.

Clang! This time, Anders stepped into the alien’s swing, bringing the strange bladed weapon up to parry the blow. He made sure that he was holding the handle with both hands, but the impact still juddered down his arms and woke the pain in his side where he’d recently been kicked.

Now! Anders thought.

Kibet’ia snarled as he reversed his swing, rebounding easily off Anders’s blade to bring his own weapon slicing down, about to cleave Anders in two.

But although Anders might not have been much of a bladesman, he was one hell of a brawler. He stepped forward, swiveling his hip to bring a stomping boot down in the Ilythian’s right knee.

“Argh!” Although the blow wasn’t enough to snap the alien’s kneecap underneath the light mesh armor he wore, it was enough to cause Kibet’ia to stumble back on his bad hip, wobbling as he started to topple.

“Back!” Moriarty said suddenly as Anders was moving to press his advantage, but the simulated intelligence was many times faster than he was. True to Moriarty’s prediction, Kibet’ia flung a desperate upward swing with his blade as he toppled over, a blow that would have probably disemboweled Anders if he’d stayed on his original course.

The Ilythian roared as he hit the stone floor, already twisting to roll away from the expected lunge that the policeman was sure to make.

But Anders didn’t spear forward to skewer the large Ilythian. He was a policeman, not a murderer. Instead he flung himself onto the larger man, hitting him with his knees as he grabbed the creature’s arm—holding the blade with one hand while holding his own weapon high.

“You’re out!” Anders hissed, but he should have known that a fighter as proud as Kibet’ia wouldn’t give up so easily. The Ilythian bucked and kicked, threatening to topple Anders to one side, but the policeman wouldn’t let go of the Ilythian’s blade. Anders had always been a brawler, and his years of wrestling weapons from criminal hands only gave him the advantage. He slammed the Ilythian’s hand down on the deck, once, twice, and again.

Kibet’ia the Strong proceeded to hammer Anders in the ribs. It turned out that he was aptly named. Anders gasped in pain, but he still wouldn’t let go.

“Throat, sir!” Moriarty whispered, and Anders seized the opportunity. He allowed the big alien to keep on hitting him even though it hurt like hellfire as he swung his own weapon down to almost slice the Ilythian’s neck.

Instantly, Kibet’ia’s attacks stopped as he was now staring at five inches of glitteringly sharp metal.

“I said, you’re out!” Anders slammed the Ilythian’s hand on the deck once more, and it was strong enough to make Kibet’ia drop his own weapon.

Silence fell over the arena as the two contestants stared at each other, panting. Anders kept on piling the pressure on the Ilythian’s arm and kept holding the blade in place until he saw Kibet’ia the Strong look down and away. The wolfish part of Anders’s heart knew what that meant. It was a universal gesture of submission. Any mammal would do the same; it was hardwired into their biology, dating back to whatever time when every race had evolved from whatever forests or savannahs they had all come from.

Anders grunted his approval, groaning as he rolled off Kibet’ia and staggered to his feet, looking around for the box where Master Iktin was sure to be standing.

“Sir!” Moriarty warned him.

Frack! Anders jumped to one side, but he wasn’t quick enough to avoid the tip of Kibet’ia’s blade as it sliced the back of his upper arm, just under where the light scout plate ended.

Ach!” Anders hissed in fury. “I told you to stay down!” Anders roared as he spun around. Kibet’ia had snatched up his weapon and jumped to the attack as soon as Anders had rolled off him. And now Anders was wounded, and Kibet’ia wasn’t.

Maybe not all mammals are the same, Anders was forced to consider as the Ilythian charged.

But despite his injury, Anders knew that Kibet’ia was shamed. He swung wildly, spinning on his heel to perform a whirlwind of blows that forced Anders back, and back, and back.

Anders didn’t counterattack, he only parried. He let himself be pushed almost to the edge of the gallery wall.

The policeman waited for his opportunity, knowing that every second he didn’t attack was only sending the big, impressive fighter into a rage.

“Now, sir!” And then Kibet’ia did it. He raised his leading right leg to stomp Anders into the gallery wall, balancing on his injured hip.

Anders ducked and swerved, kicking out at the same knee that he had hit before, but this time, the sweep hit the leg from behind, causing Kibet’ia to almost spin in the air as his head came crashing down on stone.

Crunch. There was a sickening sound of popping bones as the back of the Ilythian’s head met rock, and his neck snapped before his body thumped to the stone beside him. Kibet’ia died in an instant, and Anders was still crouching beside him, weapon raised.

“I didn’t mean to kill him!” Anders whispered desperately.

“Threat neutralized,” Moriarty said in his deadpan, suave, and cultured voice.

Anders was still looking at the dead body at his feet, noting how the Ilythian’s eyes were closing. I killed him, Anders was thinking, gritting his teeth. It wasn’t the fact that he had defended himself that so upset him; it was the fact that he seemed to be traveling further and further from the man that he had wanted to be. To protect people. To do the right thing.

In his dismay, Anders hadn’t noticed how the rest of the House Tularin spectators were reacting. It slowly dawned on him that he was crouching in complete silence. When he looked up, he could see a throng of silent, judging alien faces glaring down at him.

Oh dear…

Until one of the Ilythians started to clap. And then another. And another. In a second, most of the Ilythians had gotten to their feet and were roaring and cheering their praise for this alien who had killed one of their own.

You brutes. Anders slowly straightened up. Is this what I have to become in order to win? In order to save my friends?

Not everyone, however, in House Tularin appeared to be as enthusiastic about Anders’s win. As the human was slowly rising to a look at Captain Uval stepping forward into the ring, Anders saw a flicker of movement to one side.

“Sir! Gun!” Moriarty said, seconds before one of the Ilythian guards—the same one that Anders had wrestled the halberd-rifle from—raised his weapon and fired.


The Archon

“Urgh!” Anders slammed into the floor, skidding across the blood-speckled stone. My own blood, a pained, dislocated thought reminded him. His side was in agony. The lights were too bright, and his ears were filled with the sounds of shouting and screaming.

“Sir, you’ve been shot. Concentrated fourth-degree burns to the latissimus dorsi and lateral oblique muscles. Internal second-degree burns—” Moriarty was saying.

I’ve been shot. Anders’s head was pounding with the thunder of his own pulse. But it was a laser shot. A burn. Burns aren’t as bad as puncture wounds.

Hyagh!” He heard a shout as a shape landed in the arena. It was lithe and thin, and even without being able to fully focus on it, Anders was sure of what he saw. It was Dalia, and she was engaging someone in combat.

“Get up, sir. You have to get up. Bodily shock is your number one threat,” Moriarty informed him.

“I know that,” Anders hissed through the pain, which felt like he was being stabbed in the side with a red-hot poker. But the intelligence was right, after all. Anders knew that since he wasn’t bleeding out, then it would be his own body’s natural need to shut down and recuperate, to slow his heartrate and force him into unconsciousness, that would be his downfall.

Don’t think about it. Move. Anders had known other police officers and Marines who’d had special Gene Seer therapies to block their pain receptors. Some could even turn on and off their awareness of pain at will. But Anders was not one of those. Not only was it expensive, but the ex-officer had always thought that it was, well, cheating.

Anders was the sort of man who knew that he needed the pain. Just like he needed the memory of Cassie and Sibbi and had never even considered attending psychotherapeutic reconditioning to deaden the hurt. The pain made him sharp. It kept him awake.

But even so… Anders hissed through gritted teeth as he pushed himself up, tottering to his feet.

Even so, sometimes he still wondered if he really should have opted for those pain-blockers.

“Frack it!” he growled, staggering one step, then two. He found that Dalia was now backing toward him, a halberd-rifle in her hands as she lowered it defensively towards a group of Ilythian guards gathered around the body of Anders’s would-be assassin.

“You killed him?” Anders wheezed as he saw that two more guards on the other side of the arena were stepping forward with their own weapons raised. They were surrounded. And he only had this ridiculous blade-weapon in his hands.

“He was trying to kill you,” Dalia whispered back, sweeping her halberd-rifle before her in a low arc, making the angered House Tularin guards flinch and growl.

“What is the meaning of this!” Captain Uval was demanding, the Ilythian officer’s thin voice rising to cut through the surge of shouts, cheers, and hisses.

They seem to be enjoying the spectacle, Anders realized, suddenly feeling a wave of light-headedness wash over him. He couldn’t stand up for much longer. He knew that he had to fight now, or collapse—

But before he could make his choice, or the Ilythian guards take their revenge, something else happened that changed everything.

The young human named Jake, or J-14, suddenly lost control of the ancient alien god-thing that he had been attempting to contain.

No! The thought hung, crystalized in Anders’s pain-filled mind as around it there washed a storm of horrible, dark feelings.

Get out! Get OUT!” he could hear Jake screaming, but the psionic blast was so strong that it forced Anders to his knees.

Everywhere around him, he could hear moans and rising wails of anguish as alien feelings burst into the arena. Anders heard a surprised grunt from Dalia, and her hands were on his shoulder, both to support and for support as she too staggered to a crouch under the onslaught.

Anders had been pitched into this black river before, so maybe it was that experience which gave him the small amount of preparation for what was coming. Or maybe it was the fact that Anders had already had his entire life disemboweled by the loss of his family, so that whatever could be thrown at him now was just a continuation of the constant state of his heart.

Whatever the answer was, Anders could feel the rushing, terrible emotions batter him, and he knew in that moment that he had survived this before. And he could survive this again.

There came the pain of migraines, as well as a deep dread like the frozen cold of winter. As Anders’s head and body surged in nausea and pain, his soul was also hit by waves of every dark emotion that a man might never want to experience: terror, fear, hatred, anger…

“Center, please, center—” he heard Dalia whisper beside him. He didn’t know if she was talking to Jake or himself or herself, or maybe all three.

Sacred heavens!” He heard the anguished wails of the House Tularin crowd as the emotions battered them, too.

“Shoot him! Someone, shoot him!” he thought he heard Captain Uval shouting, and even in his own physical and mental torment, Anders knew that he had to do something.

No. He gritted his teeth and forced his eyes open. No! he repeated, willing his eyes that were welling with tears to look. The arena was in total disarray, and Anders could see the clear radius of the psionic blast emanating in pulses and ragged waves from the human teenager.

Those Ilythians nearest to Jake, his guards, were on the floor, crippled and writhing, scrabbling to claw off their helmets. The next closest were also Ilythians, the members of House Tularin attending as spectators. They had stumbled and fallen to their feet, some frozen in fear and others attempting to crawl away from the human PK. The outermost circle, to Anders’s side and behind him, were filled with rushing, shrieking, and hooting bodies as those fierce and savage Ilythians of the warrior house fought each other to get to the doors and flee.

But the psionic waves of fear and anger, coupled with nausea and headaches so bad that Anders thought his head might burst, weren’t subsiding. As the arena emptied of all of those farthest away who could still run, the psionic terror reached a steady state.

“Get out…” Anders heard Jake whimpering. The teenager was huddled in the epicenter, hands wrapped over his head as he rocked back and forth. Anders didn’t know if he was begging with the emotions to leave him or for everyone around him to flee.

There was a sudden gasp from one of the Ilythians beside him as the guard started to shiver and tremble. Anders watched in horror that the guard’s limbs danced a rictus spasm before suddenly falling still.

That Ilythian died. He died from fright! Anders wavered where he stood. Anders wasn’t even sure that a thing like that could happen, and yet it just had.

“Shoot him!” Anders heard Captain Uval cry out once more, and he turned to see that Uval was one of the ones writhing on the floor, the stern Ilythian attempting to crawl further and further away.

Further toward where one of the guards had dropped a halberd-rifle.

“No!” Anders shouted, gritting his teeth against the pain as he forced himself to stagger forward, toward Jake. “Jake!” he gasped as the nausea and pain from both his headache and his side forced him to his knees.

“Jake, it’s me. It’s Anders,” he groaned, dropping the blade weapon so he could support his aching body against the floor.

If I can get to him, I can make him see he’s not alone… Anders was thinking. It was the only hope that he had.

But Jake, or J-14, was already not alone.

“I see you.” Anders heard an inhuman voice coming from the teenager’s lips.

It felt as though a dreadful cold had swept into the room, although there was not a ripple of air, and Anders felt feverish. Without realizing it, he had fallen completely to the floor as soon as the voice appeared and was now gasping and blinking in confusion.

“Sir! Unable to process. Unknown energetic frequencies—” Moriarty was saying, and, if such a thing was possible, even the simulated intelligence sounded scared.

“So. This is what has become of the little races,” the voice purred through Jake’s lips, but Anders knew, with a dreadful certainty, that it wasn’t coming from Jake.

“You are small. And weak. You do not deserve to be lifted up,” the voice stated, and each syllable was like the clash of icebergs against each other. Anders heard another juddering gasp and a terrible crunch as another of the fallen guards nearest to Jake suddenly and inexplicably shook itself to death.

This is not Jake. This is something else. Something talking through Jake, Anders’s mind attempted to seize onto the bare facts, even though every instinct was to curl up into a ball and hide.

It’s like how the Oracle speaks through the ansibles, Anders thought. The Oracle that sounded like a young girl, that had sounded like Sibbi. The psychic whistleblower had found a way to communicate through the sub-quanta ansible network, and whose impact was something like this.

But not like this, Anders realized. The few times that the Oracle had spoken to him, her voice had destroyed machinery and thrown people to their feet as this voice did, but the Oracle had felt like a gale and a storm in full flow. All strength and childish power. Whereas this voice channeling through Jake sounded cold and chillingly intelligent.

“Let. Him. Go,” Anders hissed through a clenched jaw. His side was on fire, and his brain felt like it was trying to force its way through his eyeballs.

But the pain is keeping me sharp, he told himself, again and again. Not the pain of his headache or the nausea or the dread of the black river. It was the pain of his burnt ribs and back that allowed Anders to withstand the onslaught of the terrible voice.

Anders concentrated on the throbbing, bodily ache where he had been shot. It was so bad that it was making the rest of his skin twitch, but at least it was real and physical. At least it was his.

“I said, let him go!” Anders repeated, concentrating on that physical pain as a shield against the mental as he pushed out at the floor with one fist, slowly forcing himself to half-kneel in front of the haunted human.

Jake was still crouching on hands and knees, but no longer kneeling. The teenager had his head up and his eyes and mouth wide open, but his eyes were as pitch-black as obsidian. Anders could see a thin trickle of blood running from the teenager’s nose, and his skin looked as pale as he had ever seen human skin go.

How long can you hold that voice inside your mind before you too die of fright? Anders thought, shaking with the effort to withstand all that was emanating from Jake.

“You.” The voice spoke again through Jake’s lips, and Anders felt the sensation that he had called the black river to rush toward him. Again, he could feel the tide of dark emotions rising against his sanity like floodwaters.

“You are so small. And yet I know you,” the voice greeted Anders, but the terrible attention was almost too much to bear. Anders started to remember tumbling and thrashing in an endless dark, and a world of ash, under a black orb.

“Interesting. Such loss for such a limited being,” the voice said. Anders couldn’t tell if the thing was being sarcastic or complimentary. He knew that the psychic being was looking into his soul as easily as he might look at a holo. It could read the ashen contours of his own heart, the utter desolation left by the murder of his family, and the only spark that animated Anders’s will anymore: the need to do the right thing. To make them pay for the hurt they had caused.

To not give up until his mission was over.

“Let. Him. GO!” Anders roared again, finding the strength in his pain and in his broken heart to push back at the alien voice.

There was a cough and a splutter—a human teenager’s cough. It was Jake, and for a second, the black radiance was lifting from his eyes.

“Jake! Jake, find your center!” Anders said quickly. “Remember what Dalia taught us. We are us, our own people, no matter whatever is happening—” he was saying. He saw the youth’s terrified nod, a second before Jake’s body arched and the obsidian black filled his eyes once again.

“You, Anders Corsigon, have an understanding of what it takes.” This time, the terrible voice congratulated him. But to Anders, it did not feel like praise. It was as if a wolf had told you that you were tasty.

“Leave Jake alone. We don’t want you here!” Anders growled desperately, knowing that he was using the last of his willpower to push back against the this horrific presence.

“Want? You fools. Your wants are like dust in the wind to me. I am here for the strongest of you, and all the rest will perish upon my arrival!” the voice said, and then, just as suddenly as it had filled the arena, the voice disappeared.

Anders groaned and slumped to the floor, just as he heard a gasp from Jake as the youth did the same. Anders did not know what had happened, only that it had gone, but he somehow did not feel any safer.

He felt like he had just picked a fight with a god.

Secrets of Ilythia Boxed Set

The Mondrauk Complication

Memories of Earth, Book 5

Secrets of Ilythia Boxed Set



Ilythian Home World

“Will he be okay?” Lt. Anders Corsigon, ex-military police officer and now defector from the human empire, asked.

Anders stood in what he was told was a medical bay, but to the human’s eyes, the Ilythian architecture made it look more like a monastery cell than a scientific facility. The room was roughly egg-shaped, light and airy, with walls made of exactly-built stone blocks leading to a vaulting ceiling. Tall and rubbery green plants with giant orange flowers that were alien to the eyes of the human dotted around the curving walls, and there, under an arched window of colored crystal-glass, was the only piece of visible technology.

It was wide white unit, looking vaguely like a shuttle or a silo, with the faint blue shimmer of field energy acting as a window to view the person that lay inside.

Jake. Anders looked nervously at the youth. Teenager, really, the MPB officer thought. Jake—or J-14, to use his Golden Throne designation—had pale skin that was just starting to fuzz with stubble, shabby dark hair, and looked like he was sleeping. Jake was a PK—a rare human with psychic abilities, which only appeared to be growing stronger ever since his encounter with…

No. Anders’s mind shied away from thinking about the strange, terrifying being that had spoken through Jake’s mouth and turned his eyes an obsidian black.

The Archon. What Anders had thought to be an ancient alien weapon that the Eternal Empress of the Golden Throne wanted to use in the war against Ilythia had turned out to actually be something more akin to an ancient alien god.

A being of such ancient and vast power that it seems to have evolved beyond any ‘normal’ biology… Anders struggled to comprehend what he had felt pulsing in psychic waves from Jake’s mind.

And the Archon—what the Ilythians called the Black Sun—had been consumed by hatred, scorn, and cruelty for the ‘small’ races of the galaxy.

“We cannot say,” murmured one of the Ilythian healers who hovered over Jake’s medical bed. There was a small trio of them tending the youth, each one tall and slender and dressed in white robes topped with hoods and gauzy veils over their faces. The Ilythians were—a little derogatorily—called ‘elves’ by most humans, owing to their large eyes, delicate bone structure, and pointed ears. At the moment, Anders couldn’t think of a better description for these beings, who did not seem to be doing any ‘healing’ at all, but instead would murmur a low, chanting refrain from time to time over Jake.

“The human experienced something that no other living person on record—human or Ilythian—has ever experienced,” the healer replied softly. “How can one mind contain the…” Anders saw the alien woman’s eyes flicker behind the veil, superstitious and wary of naming the Black Sun out loud.

I don’t blame her. Anders shuddered just thinking about it.

“Lieutenant Corsigon?” A new voice greeted them from the open door to the medical ‘cell,’ and the tone was urgent enough to make Anders turn on his heel in alarm.

It was Lord Iktin, the Ilythian master of the war-like sect of aliens called the House of Tularin—and also Dalia’s father.

Lord Iktin was not actually tall by Ilythian standards, but there was a fierce light in his eyes that appeared to make up for it. The skin of his face appeared tighter and more austere than many other Ilythians, a perfect epitome of the House of Tularin philosophy.

“Master Iktin,” Anders said in a low, serious tone as the eyes of the two men locked together for a moment. I will not bow to you, or call you sir, Anders thought. Just a day ago, Iktin had demanded that Anders, Patch, and Jake fight any House Tularin challenger to the death in order to ‘prove’ themselves to be worthy of the Ilythian’s trust.

Despite everything that I have given up and risked to get here! Anders once again felt that flash of anger that awakened the wolf in his heart. He had just been another MPB officer on his home world of Hectamon 7 in Golden Throne space. He had just wanted to get to the bottom of who was murdering people, and for that, his own empire had sought to assassinate him and call him a traitor.

And when I sought to stop the evil of the Eternal Empress by coming here… Anders gritted his teeth. It had turned out that the Ilythians were just as cruel and arrogant as the human generals and nobles he had walked away from!

The feeling of suspicion was apparently mutual, as Anders saw Iktin’s eyebrows deepen a fraction into a frown. The House Tularin Master didn’t let that stop what he came here to do, however.

“You will come with me. There is something that you need to see.”

And behind Iktin, in the stone corridor beyond, stood two House Tularin guards, fully armored in their strange, fluted plate-armor, with their halberd-rifles in their hands.

Secrets of Ilythia Boxed Set

“What is this about, Iktin?” Anders hissed as he was escorted through the quiet stone corridors, past hurrying lines of other House Tularin guards and the occasional Ilythian citizen in robes. Even though this place was strange to him, Anders could detect the slightly tense air in the small looks that passing Ilythians gave each other. Something was building here, his policeman’s instincts told him.

“About, Lieutenant?” Iktin scoffed as they stepped into a lift, really an alcove with a seemingly solid stone floor, which started to glow with a soft yellow radiance as the platform rose with them upon it.

They arrived at what Anders would call a nerve-center, were he in Golden Throne space. It was shaped a little like an auditorium. There were clearly-visible command chairs in a gentle semi-circle at one lower end of the room, and then raised terraces of more chairs and glowing screens, with Ilythians in House Tularin robes—red, white, and gold—working quickly.

And at the end of the room, and forming the entire back wall, was a vaulted screen like three conjoined windows, but Anders could see that really, they were fields, as they showed a grand expanse of space, dotted with stars—and ships.

Many ships. Gigantic ships, the sort of which Anders knew by heart, because he had served as a Throne Marine in his early career aboard their type.

Anders was looking at a massive fleet of the Eternal Empress’s ships. The largest mustering that he had ever heard of, in fact.

That, Lieutenant Anders, is what this is about,” Iktin, standing beside him, said seriously. “And I want you to tell me everything you know about Golden Throne capabilities, vulnerabilities, and weaknesses.”


First Contact

“What on earth do I know about Throne Marine ship capabilities!?” Anders burst out, only to hear the cultured voice of Moriarty—the voice of the simulated police intelligence that only he could hear owing to his node—speak up.

“If you’ll excuse me, sir, but you did spend two years in advanced Marine training as well as basic,” Moriarty supplied. “And I believe that your curricula covered basic engineering as well as battle tactics—”

Not helpful, Moriarty,” Anders muttered under his breath, earning a slightly questioning, accusative frown from Iktin.

But the truth was, Anders didn’t want to give away the secrets of his fellow throne soldiers, Marines, pilots, and ancillary staff. It’s not that I don’t want to stop the Eternal Empress, he battled with his own conscience, it’s that there are going to be good men and women up there who would die because of me!

“Let me make myself clear, Lieutenant,” Iktin said gravely. “I am struggling to find a use for you, as the other elders of my house have some very deep reservations about what they saw your crewmate, the psychic boy, do—”

“That wasn’t Jake’s fault! That was the Archon!” Anders burst out, but all he got was a sharp, cat-like hiss from the House Tularin leader.

“Fine. As you wish, Lieutenant.” Iktin fluttered his long fingers in the air before them, and there was a flash of field energy from whatever the Ilythian version of node-technology was.

The screen above them changed, zoomed out, and suddenly Anders wasn’t just looking at an assembled throne fleet but two fleets, facing each other, and one of them was Ilythian.

“Aradni Sector, three by twenty-four,” one of the Ilythians at the screens said, their voice amplified. Anders knew that it had to be some sort of designation of space, but he had no idea what internal system these aliens used to order their territory. The words meant nothing to him, but he saw that wherever this Aradni Sector was, there was also a close-by planet, milky-blue and white, behind the Ilythian fleet.

The Ilythians are outmatched, Anders saw. On one side of the screen was a spread-out collection of small wedges where the dreadnoughts and battleships of the Golden Throne sat, immense wedge and barrel-shaped ships in gun-metal gray, glittering with lights and beaded with the golden logo of the empress. The human ships looked blocky and leering compared to the graceful, seashell and star-shaped ships of the Ilythians.

Even the largest Ilythian ships—four gigantic destroyers looking like flaring-backward triangles—were nowhere near the size of the Golden Throne dreadnoughts. And clustered around each of the human battlegroups were the smaller Reaver-class ships, fast fighter-bomber craft that were devastating in battle. As Anders watched, the space around the smaller Reavers started to ripple and blur as they activated that camouflage fields, one by one.

How many Throne Marines are out there? A thousand? Two? Anders wondered.

The assembled lines of combatant ships hung in space for a long pause, and Anders could feel the tension in the room grow thicker and stronger by the second, until—

“Initiate,” Iktin said softly, and bright lights suddenly glared from the small number of Ilythian destroyers.

Secrets of Ilythia Boxed Set

Anders watched anxiously as the first major offensive of the Throne-Ilythian War began. As soon as the Ilythian destroyers had lit up, the throne forces started to separate and lance forward. Anders saw the Reavers ripple like mirages through space. The only signs that gave them away were the sudden, boiling, ruddy-orange meson beams from their heavy cannons.

The throne dreadnoughts, giant wedges like bulbous pyramids, moved slower, but they had in place not just meson cannons, but ion cannons too, which were really in the same class as orbital defense lasers—gigantic beams of burning white-blue light that could puncture holes through metal, stone, and entire cities.

Spears of orange and white light shot across the no-man’s land of space, and Anders forced himself not to look away from what he was sure was going to be a bloodbath.

But before the particle beams could hit the smaller Ilythian defenders, the glaring, brilliant light of the Ilythian destroyers suddenly brightened into a crescendo, and Anders saw what appeared to be sudden bolts of static lightning leap from one destroyer to another.

What under the stars is that? Anders blinked. Ilythian technology, although much-coveted, remained a mystery to the physicists and engineers of the Golden Throne.

In that same heartbeat, Anders’s confusion was answered as the static lightning vanished, and it had seemed to release a giant ‘shell’ of white energy, rolling forward like a wave towards the throne ships.

“My observations conclude a chain-reaction field-wave,” Moriarty said from the small node of crystal and steel pressed against Anders’s throat on the inside of his suit lapel.

What do they do? Anders thought as the rolling wave of white light hit the forward-reaching ion and meson beams.

There were monumental, stellar eruptions of energy as each beam hit the wave, creating expanding bubbles of light or showers of brief-lived sparks. Not one of the throne’s largest energy weapons managed to get through, and the wave continued to roll toward the human fleet.

“What is it going to do?” Anders breathed in horror, not sure if he was asking for Moriarty’s opinion or Iktin’s.

“Sir, I believe that it is designed to—” Moriarty started to inform him, before suddenly there was a flash of blue field energy from the expanding wave and a blur as, tumbling out of the inner side, was a Reaver ship, and another, and another as they appeared to lose their camouflage and propulsion for a several moments. Anders saw the red and blue burns of their field generator propulsion systems flare and ignite, go dark and flare once again before their engines re-started.

“—do that, sir,” Moriarty ended as the Ilythian fleet broke formation and used the momentary advantage to launch their own attack of meson, ion, and more conventional warheads, lasers, and torpedoes.

Anders watched as the struggling Reaver craft tried to right themselves, tried to take advantage of their situation, but that momentary loss of power left them on the back foot. Orange and white laser beams found them, broke against their armor and their shields, spinning them over and around as a child throwing a tantrum might kick their toys.

The chain-reaction ‘Ilythian wave’ continued to roll forward, striking the main complement of the human fleet.

“Dear stars!” Anders breathed with a moment of horror as he saw the heavy-bellied tankers and oblong-shapes of battleships and warships suddenly rock and list to the side, one starting to roll bodily over until, with a silent crash, it ground into the body of its neighbor, who was also attempting to reinstate control.

Anders started to see explosions and blow-outs as nacelles and weapons pods detonated under the extreme pressures of actual ship-to-ship contact.

No sooner had this happened than the smaller Ilythian fighters—tiny, three-winged craft that looked more like some strange insect than an attack-fighter—were darting in behind the wave, striking at anything and everything around them with their smaller lasers.

All of a sudden, the entire battlefield was chaos.

They might just win, Anders thought, and he felt strange, cold, ashamed, and guilty all at the same time. The Ilythians might win… They had seized an incredible advantage by deploying a new sort of weapon that the Golden Throne—and Anders—had never seen before. But their numbers were still fewer than the human fleet. Anders gritted his teeth in agonizing confusion.

Who should I be supporting? My Throne Marine brothers and sisters who are intent on doing the empress’s will? Or the Ilythians fighting for their lives?

The lieutenant didn’t have much time to debate the issue any further however, as there was a sudden rumble through the auditorium battle-chamber, and one-third of the screens flushed a deep, warning red.



“Report! What just happened!?” Iktin shouted over the ringing alarms.

“Master Iktin, sir!” One of the Ilythians at the affected consoles threw their hand up to one of the giant screens above them, flinging the small energy holo to replace one third of the battle playing out before them.

It was a picture of an Ilythian city. Ilya, Anders thought—the very Ilythian capital city that was green and tall with more of the strange shell and stone towers and where the House of Tularin floated above…and there were plumes of black smoke rising amongst the alien trees and buildings.

“We’re under attack!” another Ilythian staffer called out, and the image split in half, zooming in to individual streets and groups of buildings.

Anders saw stone rubble scattering across the wide avenues, and trees that were splintered and smoking with fire. One low, flat-roofed Ilythian building appeared to be entirely broken up, and in the ruin of its body was a svelte-black pod, like a ship.

“That’s a throne deep insurgency vessel!” Anders exclaimed. He’d never been in one himself, as he’d transferred to the ‘civilian’ arm of the Throne Marines in the form of the military police, but he knew what they were. Deadly torpedoes with every sophisticated cloaking and shielding technology that the Golden Throne had to offer, but they were not loaded with explosives. Instead, they were loaded with the best killers that the Throne Marines could train.

“It was a diversion!” Iktin looked back at the battle, where the Ilythian forces were spreading out amongst the human ones, many lightyears away from their home planet.

“How many of your forces were committed?” Anders asked in alarm as the cityscape holo showed another flash of an explosion and a rising plume of black smoke. There was a ripple and a flash of purple light high over the city, and a deep rumbling boom that Anders thought would be deafening to anyone out there underneath it.

“They’re warping into near-atmosphere,” Anders breathed. Such a tactic had been discussed hypothetically, of course, but the dangers of creating vast, thermo-nuclear explosions as the chaos of cascading particles met gravity physics had always deterred the Marines from deploying it. Well, until now, that is, Anders thought.

The throne lured the Ilythian fleet out to their battle site so they could warp these deep-cover troops straight to their home world! Anders realized.

Out of the warp bubble came another of the large, sleek, black torpedoes like a spear thrown by some vengeful god, striking the cityscape with a flash of light and a spray of rubble.

“Oh, don’t worry, human,” Iktin snarled. “We still have ground forces…” the alien was saying, before he suddenly turned back to Anders. “You want to help, Lieutenant? After your psychic friend killed my kin before my very eyes!? You ever want a chance to be allowed off my planet ever again? Then make yourself useful by stopping those Marines!”

Being who he was, Anders had heard plenty of superior officers ordering him to do things over the years. And he knew the tone in Master Iktin’s voice as the alien shouted at him.

It was the sort of tone that said that Anders had better get the job done—and that he wouldn’t want to find out what would happen if he failed.

“Aye.” Anders nodded.

Secrets of Ilythia Boxed Set

“Anders!” There was a shout from behind him as two guarded marched Anders at a fast jog to the hangar bays. He turned to see Dalia—or Dchllyiealoparisaan, in her own tongue—racing to match him. She wore a cleaner, less shot-at version of the formfitting blue and gray bodysuit that she had always worn, with its legs, belt, and shoulders bulging with utility and weapons pods. Anders saw, slung over one shoulder, an Ilythian heavy rifle—stubby, and not unlike a whorled seashell.

“We’re heading to the surface,” Anders said as they ran into one of the wide hanger bays with high stone arches supporting its open launch-doors, making the space remind Anders of some kind of old-time cathedral.

Only one that has Ilythian fighters parked inside it, Anders had to correct, noticing the heavily-plated Ilythian fighters, and the pilots running back and forth as they prepared to depart.

“I know. You’re attached to my unit,” Dalia said, raising a hand in a three-fingered gesture to the guards beside him. Anders was momentarily surprised when they immediately stopped, bowed their heads, and moved away from them.

“I forget you’re some kind of super-spy,” Anders muttered. Dalia nodded for them to approach the nearest line of cubicle-like lockers to get equipped. “What does that make you in Ilythian society, a major or something?” Anders asked, shaking his head as he stood before the transparent glass of the cubicle, for the glass to lower into the floor and reveal an Ilythian battle suit, heavy rifle, small arms, and other combat gear.

“Something like that,” Dalia grumbled, reaching in to pull the Ilythian breastplate free and show Anders how to loop it over his shoulders and allow the automatic mechanisms to take over, the locks sliding home and adjusting to his spine and height and width. When it was finished, Anders’s entire upper body was covered in what appeared to be moveable ‘scales’ of metal. It was the most comfortable and flexible armor that Anders had ever worn.

“No time for the full-plate, you’ll have to work on not getting shot anywhere else,” Dalia said, slapping shut the few seals and gears that remained for Anders.

“Well, getting shot probably won’t be the highlight of my day, so I think I’ll follow that advice,” Anders risked a caustic joke, but either Ilythian humor was very different to that of humans, or Dalia had learned to ignore him by now.

“And, here… I thought you’d appreciate these back, rather than working out our weapons.” Dalia pulled from the holsters on her back two heavy throne pistols—Anders’s pistols, in fact.

“Thank you.” As soon as Anders had their worn grips in his hands again, he relaxed just a little. He felt as though he might have a chance against the best-trained killers of the Golden Throne.

“That’s our ride.” Dalia was already moving off, not bothering to explain or take any other equipment from the locker cubicle. Anders followed her.

It was a small Ilythian craft, larger than one of the three-winged fighters perhaps, with a rounder belly, but still with an arching, bird-like prow at one end. As Dalia and Anders approached at a fast jog, the side bay door opened and unrolled to the ground, revealing that there were already three Ilythian warriors inside, each wearing the same close-fitting body-form suits, with the raised armor-plates of the secretive intelligence cadre known as the Ilythian agents.

Three, plus Dalia, myself, and the pilot, Anders thought. How many Throne Marines were down there again?

Dalia pushed the human hard in the chest, indicating where he was to attach his belt to the seaweed-green webbing at the back of the hold, before doing the same for herself. She shouted a sharp Ilythian word, and the rolling ramp-door flowed back into place with a smooth hiss, and Anders felt the familiar judder of field engines as the Ilythian craft started to rise and slowly turn inside its own halo of light, moving sedately and with absolute precision as it hovered to the front of one of the launch doors.

The pilot kicked on the more conventional propulsion system, and the counterinsurgency craft roared forward into the skies over Ilya.

Secrets of Ilythia Boxed Set

“Target acquired,” Anders heard Dalia say. Although she spoke to her crew in Ilythian, the simulated intelligence against the lieutenant’s neck translated for him.

The Ilythian shuttle flew fast, but a whole lot smoother than their throne counterparts, Anders noted. The insides were white and bright, with walls and lockers molded in flowing lines, appearing to grow out of the metal walls and floors. Somehow, the Ilythians always managed to create a sense of space, even in tight conditions, Anders marveled momentarily.

“Visual,” Anders breathed, as beside him the three other agents made small movements to similarly check their suit calibrations and weapons.

“Accessing Ilythian shuttle servers. Access granted,” the simulated intelligence stated as Dalia agreed to allow the throne intelligence to hook up to the Ilythian mainframe. In front of Anders’s face, there appeared a flickering, blue-haze holo cast by the S.I. in Anders’s node, showing a not-very clear but discernible picture of the city below.

Low, rounded buildings flashed by beneath them, most built of the same white metal or stone, but with the occasional sheen of iridescent shale ‘plating’ or insulation—Anders didn’t know which. Each of these buildings were placed with their own trees and green swards beside wide avenues that never seemed to follow the straight, gridded lines of a throne colony.

The shuttle swept over these idyllic suburbs before suddenly, the scene changed. Trees were burning and splintered, buildings broken open and spilling black smoke, and the streets were scattered with rubble and scorch marks. As Anders watched the holo, he saw the bright flash of angry red lights—heavy laser fire from Throne Marine weapons.

“Deployment point isolated,” Moriarty translated for Anders as the simulated intelligence flashed a series of green targeting vectors over what appeared to be a small park. It was a large oval of green, gently rolling with small, landscaped hills, and a small hut built of rough, natural stones. It sat just a street behind the fiercest fighting, and Anders saw that it was here that their shuttle was taking them to begin their mission.

“I can’t offer you better cover than that,” Dalia was saying to her agents, “so expect anything. Permission to suppress and eliminate as soon as we make the drop—” The shuttle suddenly shook, making the agents jerk and stumble in their webbing.

“What was that!?” Dalia shouted as the internal lights of the shuttle flickered and was replaced with an insistent, flashing orange. Anders didn’t know much about Ilythian operational procedures, but he was pretty sure he could recognize an emergency alarm when he saw one.

“The shuttle has come under fire,” Moriarty said to Anders, while Dalia’s voice continued to urgently flow in the alien language of her people. “From the shield and hull damage, I would predict a low-range, surface-to-air launcher.”

Just like the ones that can be added as attachments to Throne Marine heavy combat troops, Anders growled. His stomach started to swim as the shuttle ducked and swerved once more, then spun lazily on its axis.

The orange lights flashed faster and stronger, and Anders saw Dalia come to a sudden conclusion. She was checking her wrist, running her fingers over the small screen she was wearing there, before cursing and thumping the overhead controls of the bay door.

Suddenly, Anders and the rest of the agents were buffeted by a blast of fast-moving wind, and Anders could see the flash of tree, building, ground, and sky outside of the raising door, oscillating in an ever-faster carousel.

“Detach! Prepare to jump!” Dalia shouted.

Whatever that missile was, it did enough damage to the shuttle for Dalia to be worried, Anders thought briefly, while the expertly-trained agents around him were already detaching from their webbing and holding onto the door frame as the wind caught at them, crouching for a heartbeat as Dalia counted them out.

“Go! Go! Go!”

Anders struggled with the Ilythian webbing for a moment before he was released, only for the wind to grab at him and stumble him towards the open, wildly-spinning door.

Ugh” He felt Dalia’s strong hands grab his shoulder forcefully to stop him from falling out of the craft. “Bend your legs, roll!” she said in a fierce, alien whisper, and Anders nodded. He’d done low air-to-surface jumps before as a part of his training, but it had been a long time. He took a breath and concentrated, waiting for Dalia’s slap on his back to tell him when to jump. Was it his imagination, or was there a lot more green ground and stone buildings in front of him now, and a lot less sky?

“You follow me!” Anders hissed back urgently to Dalia, just as her hand hit his back.


Maybe it was his military training, or perhaps it was the trust that he had built with this alien woman over the last few months, but as soon as he felt her hand hit his back, he was moving, ducking as he leapt from the edge of the door to see the ground spinning up to meet him.

Bend knees! Roll!

Anders hit something somewhat soft. No limbs instantly popped from their sockets or bones snapped with the force of the impact, but it still hurt like hell.

Anders was rolling, shoulder-over-knee, before he finally skidded to a halt, panting and feeling like he had just been dropped from an aircraft. Funny, that, he groaned—

Just as a bolt of orange fire seared across the blue Ilythian skies he was looking up at, his pain and surprise washed away in the sudden need to find cover.

“Shooter on your seven o’clock, sir. Forward ten meters,” Moriarty said as Anders, trained to half-listen and respond to the tactical intelligence almost as fast as he would respond to his own senses, kicked himself into a leaping dive over grass to where the low, stone hut sat in the middle of the park area.

The shooter is behind me, Anders’s mind registered as he pushed himself off the wall of granite-looking stones, skidding around the edge of the building to thump his back against the near side, finally allowing himself to gasp for air.

“Well done, sir,” Moriarty congratulated in his cultured, serious voice—just as there was another crack and hiss of laser shot, and fragments of blackened stone were blasted from the edge of the building.

“Dalia?” Anders asked, but he didn’t need Moriarty to access the Ilythian mainframe, given he could see the sudden rolling swerve of the Ilythian shuttle screaming through the air overhead. It was trailing clouds of smoke from a nasty hole in its rear where the throne surface-to-air launcher had hit it, and it disappeared over the trees that lined the edge of the park, and…

Anders felt the vibration through the ground at the same time he saw the flash of light as the shuttle crashed out there beyond the park somewhere. There was a deafening boom and a great cloud of smoke, and Ilythian screams.

“Dalia! No!” Anders shouted, already pushing himself toward the devastation.

“Sir! Field-of-fire!” Moriarty said, in an uncharacteristically urgent tone for the machine intelligence.

Grargh!” Anders got about two meters out from the hut before he pulled himself up short. He knew what Moriarty was saying. He would be putting himself directly into the kill zone of the Throne Marine behind him.

With a hiss of frustration, he pulled himself back to the hut wall, powerless to do anything about the plume and wreckage beyond the trees. She can’t be dead. She has to have gotten out, right? Anders was breathing in a turmoil of frustrated emotions.

And they were frustrated emotions that quickly turned to a cold anger directed at the Throne Marines who would dare take his friend from him.

“Triangulate target,” Anders hissed, turning to crawl the other way around the hut to attack from a different direction. He had no idea where his attacker was, or whether the other three Ilythian agents had been picked off as they disembarked from the injured shuttle, but all he wanted to do now was get his revenge.

“What I wouldn’t give for some grenades,” Anders groaned as his back scraped against the far wall while he peered around the edge of the hut.

There was the ‘front’ of the park—a wide area of gently-rolling rises, with the line of large trees sitting around the edge of the entire green. It might have been a pleasant place to walk and talk along the ambling, chalk-lined paths—if it wasn’t for the body of one of the Ilythian agents sprawled awkwardly in the middle of the green, their injuries still smoking from laser shot.

“I can’t see the shooter.” Anders scanned the rises and dips, the edge of the park.

“Heat signature one o’clock. Human life-signs,” Moriarty stated. Anders now also wished he was wearing a full tactical suit. That would have meant that Moriarty could have lined directly with a suit’s HUD, displaying attack and targeting vectors over Anders’s vision.

Instead, Anders had to rely on good-old clock directions, with the twelve o’clock position always being dead ahead, three o’clock on his right, six o’clock always behind him, and so on.

One o’clock. Anders snatched one of his pistols from the utility harness. That was almost directly in front of him. He saw the green, and the far trees… A little to the right—

Flash! A momentary orange light, and the stone wall near Anders’s corner was hammered by a heavy laser blast. Anders ducked back to cover, but he had a good idea now of where the shooter was. He was using one of the distant trees as competing cover and firing at anything that moved in the park.

Fine. Anders waited for a breath, took out his second laser pistol, and made sure that each one was set to maximum. Another pause, before he ducked one hand around the corner and fired repeatedly in the general direction of the shooter.

Anders had no faith that any of these shots would hit, but they weren’t meant to.

They were just meant to distract.

Still firing wildly, Anders then leaned out with both shoulders, and this time aimed his pistol fire at the tree in question. He couldn’t see his attacker, but he could only guess that the Marine was hiding on the far side of the tree.

Anders concentrated his fire on the lower branches and canopy, sending smaller darts of angry orange energy into the vegetation, making limbs crack and fall, smolder and catch fire.

Agh!” There was a muffled grunt of pain as burning branches came crashing down. The Marine broke cover, leaping for the next tree.

“Gotcha.” Anders stopped firing in the blink of an eye, followed his pistol a fraction of a whisker ahead of the fast-moving form—

—and fired.

There was a flash and a sudden thump as Anders’s dead-eye shot hit the man in black-and-gold armor, spinning him through the air and slamming him to the ground. Anders held the shadow in his sights for a long moment, until he was sure that the Throne Marine wasn’t about to move again.

Good. Anders snarled, blinking as he took stock of the situation. “Report, Moriarty.”

“No more active shooters in your locality. But multiple human bio-signs spreading through the streets on your two o’clock,” Moriarty said, and as Anders turned a little more, he thought he caught a glimpse of running black-and-gold bodies as the Throne Marine insurgents ran up the near street to suddenly duck against the houses and trees.

It was a running skirmish out there, Anders saw. Their charge was complicated by the occasional whump of blue-white energy from Ilythian weapons. Anders hoped that at least the other two agents he had flown with were out there, trying to secure the park.

I should join them, Anders’s military mind told him. Overwhelm the enemy. That was what the Throne Marines had always told their recruits and trained soldiers alike.

But instead, Anders was pulling back from the grisly scene to run back toward the far side of the park—and the smoking ruin of the shuttle.



No… Anders’s booted feet took him to the edge of the park, under the eaves of a large, rubbery-leafed tree and to a low stone wall that he vaulted over.

On the far side was one of the wide, curving ‘streets’ of the Ilythian capital and more of the white buildings, each one standing independent of its neighbors, and none over two stories high.

And the particular building he was looking at now had one entire wall broken open, the roof hanging in plates over the gap-tooth hole, and a great gouge of black earth running beside and through it. The shuttle had hit the building and crashed to the ground, Anders quickly saw. Fires had already started, the ground smoked, and there were strange, large bits of wreckage, curved and oddly angular here and there, which could have been the shuttle’s fuselage or something from the Ilythian house for all Anders knew.

It didn’t look as though anything could have survived that.

“Moriarty?” Anders was breathing.

“Scanning the wreckage for Ilythian life-signs sir,” Moriarty said. “I’m afraid to say…”

Down!” Anders was suddenly pushed to the stone street by a strong, long-fingered hand as a form fell from the trees. He rolled, raising his pistol before he realized that the person who had pushed him was none other than Dalia, crouching by the side of the tree.

“You’re alive!” Anders breathed, pushing himself up from the stone street before a warning hiss from Dalia made him freeze. The Ilythian looked well enough, for someone who must have jumped from the shuttle and into the tree at the very last possible moment, but her suit was scuffed and scratched, and she had her heavy Ilythian rifle held up and tight to her chest, sighting down the street.

“What is it?” Anders rolled to the shadow of the park’s containing wall, looking down the street to see what Dalia was so concerned by.

There were figures down there, no more than thirty meters away. And they weren’t Ilythian figures.

They’re humans. Anders frowned, but they weren’t moving like Throne Marines, and they weren’t wearing the heavy Throne Marine battle-plate, either.

Instead, each of the five or six humans appeared to be wearing the same gray jumpsuit, and each one—whether male of female—had a shaven head.

The sight reminded Anders of something, but it was hard to remember what.

The jumpsuit-wearing humans appeared scared and nervous, with hunched shoulders, looking furtively around as they walked. But they were not making any of the decisions that the military-trained Marines would make. They were not shouting orders or moving from one cover point to another. Anders watched them curiously. They appeared to be fanning out in a rough group, clearly visible for all to see.

“But how did they get here?” Anders asked, before kicking himself for his stupidity.

“Well, they weren’t here before the throne vessels warped into our atmosphere…” Dalia muttered.

The Throne Marines were transporting what, engineers? Civilians? To a war zone? Anders was thinking, just as he remembered where he had seen people who wore those kinds of jumpsuits and who looked like that before.

On the frontier world of Benevolent, where the Eternal Empress had imprisoned them in isolation-tubes, keeping them sedated as they were farmed and transported across the Reach of the Throne…

They were PKs. Psychics. The Eternal Empress had found a way to weaponize them.

Secrets of Ilythia Boxed Set

“We have to help them!” Anders was already half-rising from his crouch, intending to signal to the PKs, who he knew could be a part of the empress’s clone program, or they could just be hapless throne citizens, snatched from testing facilities across the entirety of human space.

Wait.” Dalia’s tone was low and threatening, and it made Anders pause with her ferocity. She had never spoken to him in that way, and when he looked at her, he saw that her eyes were intent on the tramping, shuffling psychics.

This is her home, Anders thought, although it was hard to remain still. But those are my people, the policeman thought. He knew what he had to do.

“I have to try to help, Dalia. I’m sorry…” he said, starting to rise—

—when the PKs started to do what they came to do.

Anders felt the wave of psychic energy roll down the street around the PK humans like an invisible wind. It made his teeth ache and a sick feeling curl in his belly. It wasn’t the same sort of surreal, ethereal feeling that he felt when Dalia used her touch-sensitive telepathy powers on him.

No, this felt…different.

The PK humans had stopped walking, and each one had their head bowed, as if meditating or praying. Anders thought he could see their lips moving.

The air around the PKs started to haze and shimmer like a heat haze, and Anders watched as something started to happen to the street around them. Things started to shake. The overhanging tree limbs that crossed into the haze began to twist and flick wildly. Anders saw the teardrop crystal-glass windows on the affected houses warping and rattling, before they exploded with the noise of projectile gunshots.

Whatever this is, it’s not good… Anders was thinking as the nausea rose in him, reaching a crescendo—

And something strange was happening. The fragments of windows weren’t falling to the ground but hovering in the air, and smaller bits of grit, stone, dust and the everyday detritus of any busy city started to rise as well, rising at a sedate, balletic rate. Anders had never seen any human telekinetic, although he knew that they existed. They were just exceptionally rare. And the policeman had certainly never seen any human display of so much PK power, ever before.

Ihk’ul!” There was an alien voice raised in challenge a little further ahead of them as one of the agents from their shuttle stepped out from the park trees, raising their shell-like heavy rifle and aiming it at the strange assortment of newcomers.

“No!” Anders breathed, knowing a little of the torments that these people must have gone through at the hands of the Eternal Empress’s laboratory programs.

But Anders soon realized that he needn’t have worried for the safety of the human PKs. The Ilythian fired, and there was the lancing bolt of blue-white energy spearing between them, heading to the nearest head-bowed, muttering PK.

But the bolt exploded in a shower of sparks before it could ever reach the human body. The haze of PK energy was acting as a forcefield, Anders saw in astonishment.

The agent raised their gun to fire again, but before they could do so, the nearest human PK’s head snapped to the side to look at him. Anders caught a glimpse of whitened, opaque eyes, and the sudden nausea in his stomach doubled.

“Urk!” There was a cracking sound as the Ilythian agent was lifted invisibly into the air, and their limbs were bent backwards and twisted by eldritch forces, as if the trained Ilythian killer was nothing more than an annoying insect.

With a final pop and a whimper, the body of the Ilythian fell to the floor, and the nearest glaring, white-eyed human PK youth—who looked to be a young man of perhaps twenty or so—was now looking directly at Anders and Dalia.



Far above the scenes of horror and alarm playing out on the streets of the capital, the floating citadel of House Tularin was in a similar state of turmoil.

And little did they know it was only about to get worse.

The monastery-like stone halls and corridors were flushed with warning orange light as Master Iktin put his entire household on high alert, and the sound of running Ilythian feet in metal boots and soft-soled shoes was everywhere.

But in one particular room of the floating citadel, which had taken its place in the skies some three hundred years ago, the orange warning lights suddenly blinked off.

For a moment, the medical cell that housed the comatose human PK Jake was blissfully quiet. The scent of something sweet, like frankincense, could be detected in the air from the healing fragrances and vaporizers that diffused calming properties for the sick and injured. Nothing appeared wrong…until suddenly, it was.

Every medical alarm from the white, coffin-like pod Jake was ensconced in went off, ringing chimes and alarm bells that brought the white and silver-robed healers running from the nearby rooms.

The bright but gentle lights of the room flickered, went off, then glared brighter.

The first healer to arrive, an Ilythian woman called Kala’voran who had tended to the injured soldiers of House Tularin for near thirty years, halted suddenly as soon as she had rushed into the room, her lips pulling back in the cat-like hiss of alarm and scorn that was instinctive for Ilythian kind.

As soon as she had run into the room, it had felt as though she had stepped through the gentle rain of an energy field, an electric prickling of the skin that her subtle senses picked up. Even the temperature had dropped by several degrees.

And every alarm bell, chime, and light from the walls and medical bed suddenly clicked off, plunging the room into total silence.

“Stay back!” Kala’voran snapped at the other healers rounding the arched doorway. “I don’t know what this is, but…”

But she didn’t have to explain what she felt, because they were all Ilythian, and so all had PK sensitivities. They could all feel the waves of psychic energy emanating from the medical unit, which now had its blue forcefield shell turned off.

And Jake, the human PK, the teenager who had been stolen from birth and subjected to psychological and biological experiments at the behest of the Eternal Empress—and who had so recently contained the mind of the distant Archon—opened his eyes.

And they were the purest obsidian black that Kala’voran had ever seen…



Anders froze as the white-glazed eyes of the human PK looked straight at him. For an awful second, he felt his heart jump in his chest and his breath catch in the back of his throat.

Am I about to die? Will I be thrown up into the air and have my limbs mangled, one by one, just like the agent? he thought.

Before suddenly, there was a flash of light and the sound of explosions as blue and white sparks erupted at the forward edge of the PK forcefield. They were being attacked by House Tularin defenders, and, like a mirage through the haze, Anders could see a group of Ilythian guards in heavier gold and red ‘elvish’ plate approaching down the adjoining street, firing their halberd-rifles as they did so.

With the spell of almost-death over, Anders moved, jumping up to the tree line of the park next to Dalia as laser blasts ricocheted from the PK forcefield, hitting the street and buildings around them.

“Anders!” he heard Dalia say, and he turned to her voice to see that she was already aiming at other figures, now running through the park behind the PK clones. They did not move with the grace and speed of the Ilythians, and they wore the far bulkier, heavier armor of the Throne Marines.

“They’re using the PKs as point-guards!” Anders said, seeing how the shield of the PKs stopped the Tularin guards from being able to attack their enemy and allowed the Throne Marines to take up perfect positions to pick off their enemy.

With an inhuman snarl, Dalia fired through the trees, and the blue-white flare of her shell-rifle took out the legs of one of the leading Throne Marines with a pained grunt, sending the human spinning through the air.

Immediately, Anders saw the Marines respond the same way as he had himself responded on countless training missions. Their forward charge pivoted and changed like a flock of birds in flight, as each Marine threw themselves to the ground or the nearest cover, turning to concentrate fire on their new attacker.

Total domination of the target, Anders recalled the first and foremost tactic of the Throne Marines. Not that he needed to remember the lessons, as it was made painfully obvious from the hailstorm of dirty orange laser blasts that struck their end of the park.

“Multiple attackers in a forward forty-five-degree attack vector,” Anders heard his simulated intelligence saying, a little bit unhelpfully, as Anders threw himself toward Dalia.

The trees they were using as cover were being pounded by angry orange light, and the air smelled like smoke as Anders barreled into the crouching form of the Ilythian agent, rolling both out of the park to fall on the far side of the low stone wall that marked the street.

He heard Dalia hiss beside him, just before there was a mighty crash as one of the trees behind them splintered, burned, and fell to the ground across the street.

But at least the tree gave them a little extra cover, Anders thought, turning on his heel to peer past smoking trunk and branch.

This entire far side of the park had become scorched and blackened with meson blasts. Within moments, the Throne Marines had turned their cover into a blasted wasteland.

But Anders had once been a Throne Marine, and he knew what their next play would be. A less arrogant, more cautious fighting force would hold their positions, resorting to taking potshots at the tree and the defenders hiding behind it to conserve energy and resources, but not the Throne Marines.

“Close combat,” Anders hissed as he tensed his legs.

Out of the mists and heat-haze of burning foliage, there was a sudden movement, and the first Marine was leaping up to the fallen trunk, their rifle in their hands like a short-spear with the heavy blade attachment at the end.

Total domination. Anders stood up, firing with both laser pistols at the flying, leaping Marine almost directly above them.

“Argh!” There was a flash of soft blue from the Throne Marine’s field generator, but Anders’s double-shots had been almost at point-blank range. His laser pistols easily overwhelmed the weak field and burst apart the Marine’s breastplate in a flash of sparks and energy, sending him flying backwards.

And suddenly, the fight was on. It seemed as though everywhere around Dalia and Anders, Throne Marines were attempting to overrun their position.

“Gah!” Anders grunted, spinning around to throw a fist clutched around the trigger of his pistol straight into the shoulder of the Marine attempting to bring his rifle down on Anders’s back.

There was a discharge of orange meson light and the Throne Marine was spinning back against the tree, his shoulder a smoking ruin.

There were sharp exhalations of breath and muffled grunts from behind him as Dalia spun and fought—using her Ilythian shell-rifle as a close-combat weapon as she hit one Marine against the heavy helmet before continuing to swivel on her hip as she delivered a leaping roundhouse kick to the same spot a second later.

The Marine went down, but even the expert blows of the fighting Ilythian wouldn’t be enough to break through that armor.

Not that Dalia was attempting to kill. She was already moving onto the next Marine attempting to surround them, landing from her roundhouse kick and swinging the shell-rifle to knock the Marine’s rifle to one side before jabbing him in the soft rubber seals between helmet and breastplate. The Marine gurgled and staggered back, momentarily shocked as the Ilythian didn’t let up but continued fighting, fighting for her life.

How many are there? How many have I fought already? Anders thought as he turned, firing a blister of shots past Dalia’s shoulder to bring down an advancing Throne Marine. Again, the Marine was probably only wounded, as his battle-plate was far tougher than either of the Ilythian suits that Anders and Dalia wore.

There was no time to strategize or calculate as Anders fired and ducked, spun and struck. He was sure that he was fighting some of the same Marines he’d already hit, but his laser pistols could only rarely incapacitate, just distract and injure.

And he was starting to tire, the ex- officer knew. He was already turning to the sound of a Marine vaulting the burnt-out tree behind him, but his limbs just weren’t acting quick enough. The Marine stamp-kicked him in the chest, sending him crashing to the tree. He dropped one of his two laser pistols.

With a grunt of victory, the Marine leveled his heavy rifle at the sprawled Anders—

—before flying to one side when Dalia kicked the Marine in the head, following it up with a blast from her own shell-rifle.

And suddenly, there was quiet. Or as near to quiet as there could be, given the burning wood and the distant screams of Ilythian civilians falling to other knots of throne insurgents.

But their skirmish was over. Anders panted, his adrenaline slowly starting to peter out as he realized that there wasn’t anyone around to kill him. Not in the immediate moment, anyway.

And he saw that lying on the street and in the shadows of the felled tree were the shapes and forms of an entire squad of Throne Marines. He counted eight bodies, with some of them still moaning and moving with broken or burnt limbs. Dalia was quickly moving between them, taking their rifles and smaller weapons, hastily calling for support from her wrist-screen as she leveled her gun on them. “Here,” she kicked one of the heavier throne rifles for Anders to do the same.

“Don’t move,” Dalia said in human English to the first of the insurgents threatening to push himself upright.

The Throne Marine made a grunting sort of snort of frustration in response, but did as he was told, freezing in place, with his helmet staring up at Dalia.

Or just past Dalia, to be exact, Anders noted.

And then the wave of PK energy hit them all, exactly like last time. Anders felt his stomach knot and his teeth ache, and immediately a sheen of sweat appeared on his brow. The effect wasn’t reserved for the defenders of Ilythia, however. Anders saw those Throne Marines who were still conscious—and not wrapped up in their own various pains of broken limbs or third-degree burns—flinch, and they started moaning.

The feeling forced Anders to look past the tree to the end of the street, where the assembled gaggle of PKs were standing. They had only moved a little way since Anders had been convinced they were going to kill him, and now the humans stood in a rough group in the middle of a T-junction of wide lanes.

The low alien buildings around them had been transformed into a warzone. No crystal-glass window stood intact, and several of the buildings were smoking ruins, while others had laser-blast marks on their walls. There were great gouges in the street, around the PK forcefield, where apparently the House Tularin defenders had attempted to fire heavier weapons against the strange invaders.

Clearly, it hadn’t worked. Anders couldn’t see any more House Tularin guards attacking or even standing before the psychic squad. But there was a litter of twisted and mangled bodies, stretching up and down the streets everywhere that the PKs could set their eyes on.

And now, as the feeling of nausea and unease rose in Anders, he saw that every one of the PKs had tilted their heads up and were staring into the sky—straight at the gigantic floating citadel of House Tularin.


A Battle of Minds

“Dear God,” Anders whispered when he realized just what the psychics were doing.

There, above the trees and the smoke columns that rose over the city, was the floating citadel of House Tularin—a monastery of pale stone built out of a deeply whorled and ridged island of natural rock. It had towers of shining silver or steel sticking up from its center, and a flower of landing and docking ledges fanning around it. Even now, Anders could see flights of Ilythian shuttles shooting from its hangars to counter the various throne insurgents attacking the capital city.

But something was happening to the entire citadel. It was starting to wobble and from its sedate station, as if some terrible force was slowly rocking it, side to side—

It’s them. Anders’s gaze swept to the human PKs as they glared skyward.

There was nothing that he could do to stop it.

The sense of nausea and bone-ache was only rising in Anders as he looked from one thing to the other. He saw small puffs of glittering glass from high above as the windows of the floating fortress started to shatter and burst.

“Ach!” Dalia, however, didn’t feel so helpless. She turned her shell-rifle to fire at the human PKs in a rapid succession, but her blasts had the same effect now as they had every other time someone had tried to halt the psychics. They either exploded in a bloom of sparks or ricocheted off the psychic field, leaving its occupants unscathed either way.

And meanwhile, the floating citadel was starting to judder and twist in the air, turning on a twenty-degree angle, then thirty… Bits of the natural bedrock that the citadel was built on broke free with booms like landslides, spiraling through the air before crashing to the city below and causing even more mayhem.

Anders saw a shadow of movement and heard a grunt from behind him. He spun to see that one of the injured guards had taken the opportunity to leap to his feet, kicking Dalia in the back of the legs before turning to flee into the park. The other Marines who were uninjured enough to move were likewise getting up.

Rargh!” One of them swung a metal-clad fist at Anders, and he was forced to take a step back, leveling the rifle and firing.

The man went down in a snarl of pain and with a sickening thump, but it was chaos once again all around. They had lost at least four of the captured Marines, who had escaped back over the downed tree to rejoin their comrades worming their way through the city. The only Marines that Anders and Dalia had to look after now were the incapacitated.

“Leave them,” Dalia said in an urgent, annoyed whisper as she looked back at the citadel of her family, and the home of her father. Anders saw the alien woman grit her teeth in a snarl of frustration.

The citadel was now starting to lower itself in fits and starts as more of its bedrock was broken off. Anders saw, with horrible clarity, unpowered shuttles and equipment starting to slide out of the lower hanger bays, tumbling end over end to crash to the city. It was as if the humans had found a way to bombard the Ilythian city after all, only they were using the Ilythians’ own tools to do it.

And without the House Tularin war-servers… Anders wondered. Did that mean the Ilythians wouldn’t be able to coordinate the battle between Ilythian and human forces happening out there on the borders?

The policeman was absolutely clear that up there, too, was the human Voider Patch McGuire, who had saved his life and made the jammer that might be able to block the Archon’s power. And Jake, the human psychic. His friends.

But there was nothing that either Anders or Dalia could do. Nothing he could do at all to stop their destruction.

Secrets of Ilythia Boxed Set

“Master!” the horrified whisper from one of her junior healers brought Kala’voran crashing into the present. It was a present of sliding floors and alarms and flashing lights as the House of Tularin started to turn and shake.

“We have to get you out of here!” the junior healer was exclaiming, even daring to reach forward to tug at the master healer’s silver-and-white robes.

“Get to the shuttles! Take those that can move!” Kala’voran ordered urgently, sliding to one side of the room where the wall was now at a lowering angle. “Go!” Kala’voran shouted at the young healer, who was also scrabbling and stumbling to the hold their balance.

The younger healer looked seriously at her master for a brief moment before nodding and flinging herself down the corridor.

I’m too old anyway, Kala’voran thought as she held onto the walls. I am too old to move the injured or run for the shuttles… And she was not the sort of Ilythian who would want any of her people killed because of their sympathy and loyalty to her.

A sudden crash made the Ilythian yelp in fright. It was the white medical pod containing the comatose psychic smashing into the wall that was trying its best to become a floor, alongside gigantic rubber plants and crashed medical equipment.

The white, coffin-like medical bed had burst apart, one side of its seals broken and ruptured, but the human teenager wasn’t in it.

No, Jake was instead floating in the center of the slowly twisting room, his limbs oddly hanging limp at his sides, and his head bowed.

“Fekari!” the master healer swore as Jake slowly raised his head, his eyes a gleaming, solid, iridescent black.

And suddenly he opened his mouth, and he howled

Secrets of Ilythia Boxed Set

Down on the streets of the capital, stones rained from the sky, along with shuttles, equipment, and the contents of the open hangar bays of House Tularin. The city was in turmoil, and Anders could hear the long, mournful Ilythian equivalent of air-raid sirens ringing everywhere.

But then a singular note in the middle of the sirens started to grow, clearer and clearer through the screams and torment of battle.

It was a high note, one like a sustained vibrato, but it was also eerie and unnatural. It was a sound no mortal voice could ever have made.

And the shaking, twisting, juddering citadel paused in its descent. It was only a hundred meters from the tallest of the Ilythian city buildings, glimpsed through the shifting haze of smoke and impact-dust.

Are they firing their field generators? Anders watched in horror and awe, but the deep blue gleam around the blackened circles placed here and there on the rocks did not appear to be gaining in intensity or strength.

But somehow, still, the citadel started to right itself in the air, slowly pulling its towered head up and up until it was once again hanging in the sky—albeit much, much lower than it ever should have been.

“They’ve done it!” Anders gasped. He didn’t quite know what they had done to avert the city-killing event, but Anders could see quite plainly that at least something had happened.

And through all this, that sustained, vibrato note remained loud and clear…until it suddenly sharpened in pitch and intensity.

Anders saw a disturbance in the air, like the way that a heat haze shimmers over a hot road surface, or ripples flash through water. The policeman heard a rising whine like an approaching gale, getting louder and louder.

Something hit the PK field, and the shockwave of the impact was so great that it flung both Anders and Dalia off their feet, turning and hitting the street and scraping across the stones as the ground shook.

“What happened? Who attacked!?” Anders asked, to hear Moriarty’s voice glitch in static, before responding.

“Unknown, sir. A powerful kinetic blast—” the simulated intelligence said as bits of rubble and dust rained down around them.

“Dalia!” Anders managed to shout, although the roar of the wind or the shock wave was so high that it made it nearly impossible for Anders to make out any returning answer. The ground still shook, and all Anders could do was hold onto the street and hope that nothing fell out of the sky and crushed him.

Suddenly, with a grunt, there was the long-fingered Ilythian hand of Dalia closing over his own, and she was there beside him as they attempted to shield each other from the fallout.

Which was slowing, and the noise receding, and the ground ceasing to shake.

“What was that?” Anders breathed again. He had heard Moriarty’s analysis, but a kinetic blast could be anything from a missile to an asteroid.

“I think…” Dalia raised herself from where they had huddled, with a layer of gray dust completely coating her already-pale features. She was looking back up the street towards the intersection—or what was left of it. “I think I know who is responsible, anyway…” Dalia whispered.

Anders groaned, turning over to raise his head and look.

The wide T-junction had been transformed into a steaming crater. Drifts of hazy smoke left the ground where it must have been super-heated. The crater wasn’t a perfect circle, but instead the edges were puckered and broken street stones and buildings, as if the ground had been repeatedly pulverized by insanely-strong forces.

Of the human PKs, there was no sign at all. Not even a scrap of jumpsuit remained. Anders wondered wildly if they had done this to themselves—an act of mass suicide rather than get caught?

But why would they do that when they were winning? Anders blinked and shook his head at the strangeness of it. Whatever it was, or whatever secret weapon that the Ilythians had used to atomize them, the strike had been insanely powerful.

Then Anders looked up and struggled to comprehend that it was an insanely powerful force that could only come from the one small human form hanging in the air in front of the crater.

It was Jake.

The human PK, his friend, floated like a lifeless mannequin for a moment, head bowed and limbs loose at his sides. He appeared to have no blue field energy supporting him or sustaining his unnatural flight.

And then, Anders’s sense of unease and the grinding ache in his jaw abruptly turned off as all psychic energy evaporated from their surroundings, and Jake fell to the floor, landing in a heap at the edge of the crater.



“I’ve never seen anything like it. It’s completely unprecedented, even among our own kind,” said Kala’voran, the Master Healer of House Tularin.

The elderly Ilythian stood alongside Anders, Dalia, and Patch McGuire in Tularin citadel, no longer in the medical bay but in Master Iktin’s audience chambers. It had a depressed lower seating area, where the council’s speaker and recordist were already assembled.

In the center of the lower circle was a chair, upon which sat the slumped form of Jake.

Anders saw Iktin cast a quick look at Dalia, and although he wasn’t an expert in xenobiology, he thought he could see what the master was thinking. That Jake is dangerous. Maybe too dangerous to stay on Ilythia…

And the problem was, Anders was wondering if the alien was right.

Below them, the capital city of Ilya had been returned to law, if not necessarily order. Large screens over the walls reported on and analyzed the state of the premier city, showing that the central metropolitan areas looked as though they had been bombed by the falling wreckage.

But the Throne Marines had finally been contained and—Anders grimaced slightly—had nearly fought to the last man, though a few were now somewhere inside the city’s holding cells.

The Throne Marines are fanatical, Anders knew, because he remembered the training and psychotherapeutic regimes well.

“Well.” A cough came from Master Iktin on one side of the low benches. He leaned forward to look inquisitively at the human psychic, before raising one eyebrow and settling himself back in his seat. “Despite this…situation, I can report that the first Battle for Ilythia has been a success.” He gestured with both hands and there was a flash of blue field energy. On one of the larger screens above their heads, the images of the wrecked city turned into one of the starry vaults of space.

Scattered before the stars were the slowly revolving, still sparking and occasionally even exploding, ship parts. Anders let out a breath. It was perhaps one of the largest battle-sites he had seen in his lifetime, rivaling that of the Eternal Empress’s earlier attempts to pacify and push back the Mondrauks. But Anders could see that there were many fragments of the iridescent, shell-like Ilythian ships alongside the bulkier, gray-and-gold machine parts from the Golden Throne.

The cost was high, he thought.

“Master Iktin.” The speaker—an older Ilythian woman with hair as white as ice-frost—turned to her colleague. “How many ships were lost?”

“The humans lost sixty-eight vessels in total, with a possible twelve more fleeing into jump before we could neutralize them,” Master Iktin said, with a clear hint of pride in his voice.

“You misunderstand me, Master Iktin. How many of our ships were lost?” she asked gravely, and at this, Master Iktin fluttered his eyelids, momentarily seeming embarrassed.

“Forty-three,” Master Iktin said grimly, and next to Anders, Dalia let out a gasp of shock.

“But the entire fleet is only—” she began, before another of her father’s cold glances silenced his daughter. But the interruption was spotted by the speaker—who appeared to Anders to be some sort of council administrator for all of Ilythian kind. The white-haired alien raised one finely-sculpted eyebrow at the Master of House Tularin.

“Remind me again how large is our entire Ilythian fleet, Master Tularin?” she said.

Anders saw Iktin’s eyes flutter. “Seventy-eight vessels prior to the throne confrontation, Master Speaker. Not that it matters, now that we have effectively broken the back of the Golden Throne forces—”

“You haven’t,” Anders heard himself say, a sick feeling spreading through his stomach. I know what I am doing. I am betraying my race. My species.

“Lieutenant Anders.” The speaker nodded for Anders to continue.

“Excuse me, ma’am, sirs,” Anders said gravely. “It has been a long time since I was in the battle-ranks of the Throne Marines—twelve years or more—but even back then, the Throne Marines boasted being able to field at least two hundred battle-ready ships,” he said, and the most ancient amongst them, the wizened form of the recordist in deep and heavy plum robes, let out a low moan and slumped his head into his hands.

Anders knew what horror he was bringing to the Ilythians, but he also knew that he had to be clear about the dangers that they faced. They may have destroyed seventy-odd throne warships, but that was only a fraction of the throne fleet. “And those numbers were over a decade ago, before the Eternal Empress began this insane quest for a war with your peoples.”

She might even have doubled those numbers by now, Anders thought. As it was, just on the lowest estimate, the remaining throne warships would still outnumber the Ilythians five-to-one.

“Oh, believe me,” Master Iktin said tersely, “I think from what we saw on the streets of the capital today, we can trust that the Eternal Empress has been planning this offensive for a very long time!” He glared with obvious hatred and blame directed at Anders.

The lieutenant could only nod. The war-master of the Ilythians was probably right. How long did it take to grow PK clones? To test and develop them?

“Gentlemen, please,” the speaker cut in with a sigh of exhaustion. “We can take heart in the fact that for today, at least, the borders of Ilythian territory is safe, and we have won our first battle—”

“Which is why it is time to strike an offensive!” Master Iktin took to his feet, turning to stride back and forth across the circle, ignoring the slumped form of Jake sitting there.

“Strike with what, Father!?” Dalia burst out. “Twenty-five ships!?”

Hsss!” Master Iktin hissed, cat-like, at the apparent disloyalty of his own blood. “I have already prepared a plan.” He gestured once again to the screens and moved his long fingers to manipulate his way through various flashing lines of code until the screen showed a technical, three-dimensional diagram of a large, tubular, pointed object.

A missile. Anders blinked, but he couldn’t understand the Ilythian glyphs that explained what it was and how it did it.

“I already have these in development. I call them the Hokkai missiles,” Iktin said proudly. Anders heard the speaker hissing as she stood up slowly from her bench.

“Absolutely not—” she began.

“What is it?” Anders whispered to Dalia, who had appeared to have become even paler than usual. “What’s the payload?” Anders asked urgently, imagining some terrifyingly large gigaton of explosive force, capable of destroying entire cities.

“The Hokka virus,” Dalia breathed back, glancing at Anders with fearful eyes.

“A virus? Biological warfare?” Anders started to frown. “How bad is it?”

“It’s bad,” she said.

Anders had been trained as a soldier, and then as a policeman. He knew that war and battle and crimes were often bloody, dirty, and from dark parts of the human psyche, but he also knew that biological weapons only had once purpose: to kill as many innocent civilians as possible.

Master Iktin isn’t suggesting going after military objectives, or even the Throne Marines entire, or the Eternal Empress, Anders’ fists started to ball at his sides. He’s suggesting going after humanity itself.

“No,” the speaker said again, firmly, waving her own hand for the screen containing the Hokkai missiles to go thankfully dark. “We do not want genocide on our hands—”

“What hands would that be, Speaker?” Master Iktin rounded on her abruptly. “The cold and dead hands of a blasted home world once the Eternal Empress has overwhelmed us? You must see the danger that we are facing. The Eternal Empress means to wipe us out!”

“We still cannot support the wholescale eradication of millions of fellow living beings!” The speaker appeared adamant, as the recordist beside her still sat with his ancient head in his hands, apparently too appalled by everything.

“We?” Iktin asked. “Perhaps I will have to put this to a vote. To the full Council of Ilythia, and their choice will be clear: To cripple the human race before they completely drive us to extinction!”

The man was only finding his stride, however, as he nodded at Jake’s slumped form. “And look at what the Eternal Empress has created. You must have seen what I saw, Master Speaker! The Eternal Empress is harvesting the power of the Black Sun to create an army of psychics able to tear entire cities apart with their minds! Do you really believe that she intends to do nothing with that power?”

“The full strength of the Black Sun has not yet been unleashed—” the speaker started to say, but even to Anders’s ears, her argument sounded weak, fearful.

“Precisely. Not yet,” Iktin snapped. “But it will only be a matter of time!”

“Not if we can stop it!” Anders was surprised when Dalia suddenly spoke out.

How? Anders shared a look with Patch. Is she talking about getting Patch to make another jammer to block the signal of the Archon?

“The Well,” Dalia said, looking seriously to the speaker. “Just a few days ago, you told me here in this very room the legend of the Black Sun, what the humans call the Archon device, and how there are ancient inscriptions telling its story at a place called the Well, is that so?”

“You are dreaming, daughter, if you think you will find some golden answer to our problems there!” Iktin spat. “You have lost your sight of the way ahead. We have no time for riddles and quests.” Another sidelong look at Jake. “Just look at the danger that this…being has been able to cause while he has been here!”

“Jake saved our lives from the empress’s psychics,” Anders growled.

“And not three days ago, he also killed some of my household when he could no longer control the power that the Black Sun has put in him!” Iktin countered. “No. This is no time to try and juggle fire and hope that we are not the ones who get burnt! We must act, decisively and finally, to eradicate this threat that the humans have been posing for a long time.”

Anders let out a low, angered grumble from the back of his throat. It sounded to him that Master Iktin was saying that humanity itself—not the Eternal Empress—were a pest across the galaxy.

“But we have to try, Father!” Dalia stated. “If we can sever the connection with the Black Sun that the Eternal Empress has, then we might have a chance against her conventional forces.”

“Not at five-to-one odds, we won’t,” the recordist said, his alien voice quavering but clear. Anders saw how everyone else fell silent in respect for the archivist, historian, and apparent judge of the Ilythian peoples.

“Even if you manage it, Dchllyiea, the humans still have a far bigger fleet than we do,” he said seriously. “So, when we meet with the full council, I will be encouraging the others to ratify Master Iktin’s Hokkai missiles.”

There was an angry hiss from the speaker, and a gargled cough of outrage from Dalia.

“The Mondrauks! The Secari! We get allies in our fight—” she attempted desperately, referring to the devil-like gigantic race called the Mondrauks, or the marsh-dwelling crab-men of the Secari.

“The Secari are the humans’ pawns and slaves, child!” the Master of House Iktin said. “And the Mondrauks have never been friends to the Ilythian peoples.”

“But…but when they see what the Eternal Empress is intent on doing, the injustice that she is committing against our people—” Dalia was saying, but the look on Master Iktin’s face was enough to show how little credence he gave to her plans. Anders could even feel Dalia’s shame at the way her own father wouldn’t deign to answer her idea, he looked so disdainfully upon it.

“This meeting is adjourned,” Iktin said, turning to ascend the steps up to the control screens of his chambers. “I will be calling a full meeting of the Council of Ilythia forthwith!”

“You are making a mistake, father.” Dalia was standing now, her voice hot and angry. But it appeared that no one here in the stronghold of House Tularin had the right to challenge its master, who walked purposefully out of the room.

“I am afraid that I can only concur with the Master of House Tularin,” the recordist said seriously, who turned to also ascend the low steps and walk slowly out of the room, leaving behind the speaker, Dalia, Patch, Anders, and the master healer alongside the slumped Jake in the chair.

“May the stars forgive us for what we are about to do,” the master healer bowed her head before sighing, then standing to check Jake’s vital signs with a small handheld sensor. Anders could see that the idea of biological warfare brought the healer the deepest shame.

“Master Speaker.” Dalia turned instead to the white-haired chairwoman of the Council in desperation. “Is there really nothing that can be done?”

Anders looked at the speaker, seeing that for the first time since he had met her, the wise and ancient Ilythian had lost that aura of dignity and grace. She looked suddenly slumped and frail.

“You know our laws, Agent Dchllyiea,” the speaker breathed. “If your father and the recordist manage to convince the council, then that will be the action that we take. And as your father is the most experienced military leader that we Ilythians have…” The speaker opened her hands apologetically, but it clearly cost her to admit this.

“But…” The speaker’s head rose abruptly. “While the war effort of the Ilythian peoples might be set, that does not halt the actions of brave Ilythian individuals and their allies.” She nodded graciously toward Anders and Patch.

“Are you saying that you…” Dalia breathed.

She’s going to let us leave the planet, Anders thought.

“As the spokesperson for our people, I can authorize a diplomatic mission,” the speaker said urgently. “I will send you to Jakka.”

Jakka, Anders blinked. The home world of the Mondrauks.


Leaving Home

“Ready?” Dalia whispered to Anders sitting beside her in the cockpit of an Ilythian scout vessel in one of the lower launch bays. The cockpit held two forward seats and one moving seat behind them, where Patch was swinging to one side or another of the ship, checking readouts and screens.

“Engines ready,” Patch said, his voice low. He’s freaked out by all of this, Anders thought, making a mental note to try and find time to reassure the young Voider when he got the chance. Patch McGuire was only in his twenties and had already seen war and ancient alien god-things, and he had the full weight of the Throne Marines after him…

“Anders?” Dalia asked, and Anders looked at the surrounding curve of screens around his control chair. Moriarty had patched up with the ship’s servers and helpfully translated the controls for Anders, but he was painfully aware that his learning curve was much steeper than it was for the technically-minded Patch.

“I think so,” he said with a hesitant grin.

“I have done what I can,” said Kala’voran from behind them, where she had seated Jake in one of the main hold chairs, still slumped with his head forward. Jake hadn’t fully woken up since he had atomized the enemy psychics, but his life signs were strong and healthy, they’d been told.

The young PK now wore a circlet of white modules, strung together with silver wire, over his brow. “A PK dampener.” The master healer gently touched a few of the white, rounded modules on the youth’s temples. “It won’t halt his abilities, but it might give him some relief for a little while.”

“Thank you,” Anders murmured. They had realized almost straight away that they couldn’t leave Jake behind, not with Master Iktin feeling the way he did about him.

And I feel better being able to keep an eye on him myself, Anders thought, although he was forced to acknowledge the shiver of fear that said that, if Jake lost control once again and the full force of the Black Sun—or Archon—came through, there was little that he could do to help.

But we have to try, he remembered Dalia’s words to her father and the others. At the end of the day, that is all that we can do.

“Then all I can ask is that the stars guide you,” the master healer said seriously, before there was the hiss of the hold door.

For a brief second, there was silence as Anders looked out of the forward viewscreen to see the rest of the hangar, its tall, arching bay doors covered with a thin film of blue field energy. On the other side, Anders could once again see the smoke-scarred skies of Ilythia, but not the destroyed city. There were House Tularin workers and guards hurrying from one station or ship to another, but none of them had seemed to notice Agent Dalia commandeering one of their scout vessels.

“The blade is sharp,” Anders heard Dalia breathe as she pressed on the holo-field controls that sprung up to her hands as soon as she moved. There was a shudder, and the small Ilythian scout started to rise—

BWAR! In an instant, their cockpit was filled with a flashing orange warning light.

“What is it!?” Anders ground his teeth.

BWAR! “It’s the engines…” Patch said breathlessly. “Something is interfering with them!”

“It’s Father, it must be! He is trying to stop us leaving!” Dalia spat, pushing her hands down further to make the Ilythian scout shudder and rise a little higher.

“Attention, Scout Vessel!” Their console glitched with the sudden arrival of a new voice. “This is Tularin Launch Control. Your vessel has not been cleared to takeoff. Please power down your engines.”

BWAR! BWAR! The alarm chimes continued to ring loudly, and the orange lights flashed.

“I think I can shield the jamming signal.” Patch was working feverishly at one of the consoles.

“Do it!” Dalia said, before saying in a clearer voice, “Tularin Launch Control. This is Agent Dchllyiea, acting on behalf of the Council of Ilythia. Are you suggesting that you have the right to stop the council’s business?”

The scout shuddered in the air, and now Anders could see that there were guards running towards their vessel. Well, House Tularin guards, he corrected. They wore the heavy red-and-silver battle-plate, sculpted to their bodies, just like rest of House Tularin, and they held their long halberd-rifles in their hands.

And at their head marched the red-robed Master Iktin, gesturing angrily at the vessel.

Please wait for clarification, Scout Vessel,” Launch Control spoke.

“Don’t,” Anders said quickly. He had been in the military and security services long enough to know this tactic well. “If you wait, then we won’t be going anywhere.”

“Patch!” Dalia said, her hands almost forced as far as they could go as she fought with the jamming signal attempting to cripple their field generators.

“Almost got it—” Patch said, his hands moving in a blur. The ship shuddered once more, swerved suddenly to the right and wobbled before Dalia dragged it back into the air.

Halt! Halt!” It was Dalia’s father, his voice coming through the ship’s intercom system. “Daughter! I forbid this! What do you think you are doing!”

Anders saw Dalia hesitate for just the briefest second. He had no idea what it must have been like, being raised by the most war-like faction of the Ilythians, destined to be a great soldier—before she became an agent.

“Father, you cannot hold me here. You have to let me go,” Dalia said, but she didn’t sound angry. She just sounded sad.

Dchllyiea! I order you to power down your generators and engines now!” Anders could hear Master Iktin shouting the words as he pointed a long finger straight at the cockpit. His palace guards leveled their halberd-rifles in response.

He’s going to fire on his own daughter!? Anders’s hands twitched toward the solidifying holo-controls of his own seat. They glittered into life, looking like handles—with triggers.

“Got it!” Patch said, slamming the last few keys of code in, and suddenly the orange light and the alarm bells turned off.

“Vent forward nacelle heat-sink!” Dalia snapped.

Anders had no idea what a forward nacelle heat-sink was, but Patch did. With a burst of activity, the ship shuddered, and a plume of thick white steam erupted in front of and around the vessel.

“Hold onto your seats,” Dalia said, bringing both levers back toward her as the vessel’s nose rose, and she shot forward as the fogged guards fell back.

“Anders, the door shields!” Dalia said, and Anders pulled on the field-generated trigger handles.

Multiple volleys of flaring white light lanced out from underneath their cockpit, striking the faint blue shimmer in an instant, sending sparks, creating a white haze, and then—

With a flash of light, the door shields collapsed under the sustained attack, and the elongated triangle shape of the Ilythian ship flashed through the now-open launch bay doors and into the Ilythian skies beyond, as Dalia’s father behind them howled in anger and frustration.


The Impressions Left by a God

Ilythian Territory Space

The Ilythian scout vessel bearing Anders, Dalia, Patch, and Jake shot through the cerulean blues and greens of alien skies before the viewscreen misted with the white of Ilythia’s planetary defense shield. Anders breathed a sigh of relief when, one by one, the Ilythian near-orbital tracking satellites pinged them, and apparently let their vessel go.

There is some benefit to having the Spokeswoman of the Ilythian Council as an ally, Anders thought. He noticed that no similar relief was felt by his friend Dalia, however, as the alien’s hands and arms were still clutched tight on the holo-controls, and the lieutenant could see her grind her teeth together in agitation.

But then, the viewscreen was suddenly flaring the last brilliance of white and was replaced with the darks of space. Looking at the smaller external scanners, Anders could see the pearlescent orb of the planet’s shield, completely obscuring every feature of the surface below, dotted with the whirling silver dots of the satellites. Ilythia had always prided itself on being un-scannable and un-invadable. Not anymore, Anders thought. He wondered then how much data the Throne Marine insurgency unit had managed to capture on their enemy and send back to the Eternal Empress before they were finally captured or neutralized.

But the lieutenant’s worries were replaced as Patch made a low, surprised cough behind him.

“Dear stars,” he breathed, and Anders’s eyes rose to the forward viewing screen to see the state of the Ilythian fleet.

The near space of the alien planet was studded with craft, but to Anders’s eyes, it looked more like a wreck yard than a star port.

“Ah,” he said.

There were the large Ilythian destroyers, looking like strange fish being pulled toward small, white, automated robotic platforms on blue tractor beams. In each one, Anders could see signs of some sort of catastrophic damage. Whole fan-like wings were ripped from their hulls, burnt-out holes were scored through the vessels as if some vengeful god had thrown spears through them. Some appeared only in parts, breaking apart even as they were dragged. And beyond them, the flashes of white and purple light as more ships from the distant battle were being brought in, whole shoals of slowly revolving, useless Ilythian fighters.

“Technically,” Patch murmured, “you didn’t actually lose—”

Urgh!” Dalia’s opinion on Patch’s attempt at optimism was clear as she snappily brushed her hand through the holo-controls and the field generators at the back of the scout shuddered to life.

“Jakka System, two jumps,” the Ilythian said through tight lips as she hit the jump activation.

The Ilythian vessel started up a vibration murmur, moving from a slow hum to an increasing whine, before suddenly the sight of stars and ships around them blurred and swam, and Anders felt the drop of vertigo in his stomach as they entered warp.

Secrets of Ilythia Boxed Set

“Approaching Maldava Sector,” Patch read from the human-translated readouts on his engineering screens. The scout had been skipping over the dimension of normal space for almost an hour of regular time, indicating quite a considerable distance had been traveled in material space, and they were approaching one of the outer-most territories of Ilythian space.

“Maldava points hub-ward, towards the galactic center,” Dalia breathed, the first words that the Ilythian had said in all that time.

“Good.” Anders knew that was on the other side of the Golden Throne-Ilythian war, and so should be at least a little safer than the contested warzones of space.

But the goat-like Mondrauks could still present enough dangers of their own. Anders had only had few dealings with them before, and although they were rare visitors to Golden Throne space, even the arrival of one Mondrauk traveler could spell trouble if they became irate.

“Moriarty, give me the Mondrauk briefing,” Anders murmured, patching the simulated intelligence through the scout’s speakers as he unclipped his harness and got up to check on Jake.

“Throne Galactic Survey, vol. 23.1.b

ENTRY: Mondrauk (the)

CLASSIFICATION: Xeno lifeform.

HOMEWORLD: Jakka, Sector 8.

RANGE: 1 Sector, scattered ‘nomadic’ station-ships, predominantly encountered in smaller, one to twelve-person deep-space expedition vessels.

The Mondrauks are a six-point-five to seven-point-five-foot humanoid mammal, with a body mass of one-point-five of human average. Physically stronger than the human mean. Notable for their backward-sweeping bone-growths at each side of the cranium, plus reversed (‘dog-like’) knee joints to human average, making them capable of leaping bounds many meters higher and further than the human norm.

The Mondrauks are considered a belligerent race by the Golden Throne, given to their highly war-like nature. Their society, however, appears open to the extent of trade and travel, and they rarely engage in acts of piracy or banditry. Their home world of Jakka is a medium-class large planet that has had a high degree of seismic and volcanic activity throughout its history, creating continents with large mountain ranges. It’s theorized this encouraged the Mondrauks to evolve their particular leg structure and movement characteristics.

Mondrauks are ruled by the jhan, a supreme war-lord position responsible for forging together several of the Mondrauk tribal clans in centuries past. Individual towns and settlements are usually ruled over by the largest tribal grouping in the locality, under their own lesser jhan-il.

Mondrauk culture favors strength and tribal loyalty above almost all other factors and encourages the displays of such. Jhan-ils can request the jhan to perform ohtma—short and intensely violent crusades based on revenge, punishment, or perceived injustices. These crusades can involve individual Mondrauk up to entire tribes, and, although usually directed at other Mondrauk individuals or communities, can be directed at other xeno-individuals or communities. The success and failure of these ohtma greatly enhance or decrease the social standing and prestige of the participating/sponsoring jhan-il.

Occasionally, the entire Mondrauk society can be called into a jhan-ohtma, or holy war, in which all Mondrauks are expected to participate. The last such jhan-ohtma was the Mondrauk-Golden Throne Belligerence one hundred and fifty years before the modern age, in which the Mondrauks were defeated.”

“Nice bunch,” Anders heard a murmur from ahead of him as he left the open cockpit and saw that Jake’s eyes were open, even if he looked sleepy.

“Jake!” Anders crossed the space to his chair quickly, kneeling beside him to look at the youth’s eyes. The pale teenager looked even stranger with his circlet of modular PK-suppressants, like a crown on his head.

“How do you feel?”

“Terrible,” Jake said, but he managed a ghost of a smile, before blinking and looking out through the distant cockpit viewscreens. “We’re at warp. We’re not on Ilythia anymore…”

Anders winced a little, then explained what had happened back on the Ilythian home world, and the need to get him off-world before Master Iktin made a decision about the young PK’s fate.

“And so, we’ve been tasked with a diplomatic mission on behalf of the Ilythians to the Mondrauks,” he said with a sigh.

“Ugh.” Jake rolled his neck. “I guess that the Ilythians really don’t like us then?”

“Ha.” Anders presumed it was a joke, but he had to wonder if there was some truth to what the teenager said. “But what is done is done. Do you feel strong enough to do this?” Although he’ll just have to, I guess, he had to admit to himself.

“I feel…” Jake’s eyes narrowed a little as he stared into the middle distance. “Different. Almost like normal, but not…”

Anders watched as the youth sought for the words to describe the effect of the Ilythian PK-suppressant.

“You wouldn’t believe what it was like, Anders,” Jake whispered. “After the Archon left—”

I just might, Anders thought grimly. The Archon had jumped into Anders’s mind first after Anders had tried to take the transmitter that connected to its psychic wavelength. It was clear now, from what Anders had seen on Ilythia, that since the Golden Throne had recovered that transmitter from them when the throne had attacked the garden world of Terevesin, the Eternal Empress had found a way to empower her own psychics to perform incredible feats with the Black Sun.

“It was horrible, but also so powerful.” Jake’s eyes refocused on Anders. “Even without the presence of that thing in my mind, I felt capable of so much more.” The teenager’s voice grew soft, almost inaudible. “It was like my thoughts could travel anywhere, and all I had to do was to reach out and the whole galaxy could be putty in my hands—”

FZZT! There was a sudden flicker of lights up and down the scout, and the holo-controls glitched the moment Jake’s eyes went blurry, before everything snapped back to normal.

“What was that!?" the irate Dalia hissed.

“Can’t track it… Field interference…” Patch studied his screens, but everything seemed to have returned to normal now.

“It was nothing,” Anders said gravely, looking at Jake. The youth was frowning, clearly worried he had caused the glitch. “You can do this, Jake,” Anders whispered, before rising to retake his seat.

“Leaving warp in three, two, and—” Patch counted down, and suddenly the brilliant white light on their viewscreens wavered and was laced with purple, before they appeared in normal space once more.

And all of the ship’s targeting alarms went off.


The Maldava Sector Incursion

“Sensors registering multiple target locks tracking our position,” Moriarty said from Anders’s throat node.

Uk-mia!” Dalia swore as multiple orange triangles appeared on the screens ahead, flashing at an increasing rate. Whatever the crafts were behind them were too far away to see with any precision at this distance, but Anders could see the vectors growing larger and faster with every passing heartbeat.

“Moriarty, analyze energy signatures, what are we talking about here?” Anders said as he pushed his hands forward to feel the electric fizz of the holo-controls sweeping upward into his hands.

“Scanning…” Moriarty said, and Anders’s half of the split viewscreen in front of him suddenly started to fill with green writing.

Energy Class: Field Generators (Red Shift Engines)

Energy Output: 2.5 (small-medium class craft).

Energy Analysis:

•Maximum of Four Vessels.

•Indicative of Throne/Republic/Non-aligned human.

Anders hissed angrily. “Pirates,” he said.

“How do you know?” Dalia snapped.

“It’s the engine signatures.” It was an old trick that Anders had been taught in his short time as a Marine when he’d been deployed to the border patrol. There were many different types of space-capable ships in the twenty-fifth century, everything from Secari saucers to Mondrauk ‘titan’ ships to the strange near-organic Ilythian vessels.

But there’s one thing they all have in common, Anders thought. Which was that they had to utilize their own individual and unique forms of field energy: the generators that could affect the sub-quanta level, creating radiation fields that bent gravity forward and behind them to allow jump travel.

“The current field technology is blue-shift,” Anders said tersely, which referred to the glare of color that each field-generating engine was capable of producing. The red-shift glows were the older, less reliable forms of the engines, phased out almost eighty years ago through most space. Anders had heard it was even possible to differentiate which alien civilization used which engine by careful analysis of the field generator output, but he had never studied as a quantum engineer and couldn’t make that call.

But Anders knew that the non-aligned humans of the Void worlds—such as Patch McGuire behind him—still used a lot of red-shift engines, although they were able to hack and modify their vessels to perform feats that even occasionally outstripped the more modern blue-shift ones.

And the Void worlds are eight sectors away from here, Anders knew—right on the outer rim of the galaxy. It was next to unthinkable that a group of Voiders would be out here, nearing the opposite of their space, and also targeting them.

Which only left one group of people who used the older engine forms: the pirates, bandits, and non-aligned raiders who cobbled together a living from out-of-date engines and ex-military craft wherever they could get their hands on them.

“Stable target lock acquired from enemy vessels,” Moriarty informed them.

“We’ll see about that!” Dalia said, pulling down sharply on one of the holo-handles while she threw the other forward. The scout jumped into a barrel-roll before swooping to one side as the flashing orange vectors reached a constant critical glare, and suddenly there were tracking lines lancing toward their positions.

“Three medium meson canons fired,” Moriarty said, and his words were echoed in the bird-like Ilythian language of Dalia’s computers.

“Reserve power to outer shields!” Dalia shouted, reversing the holo-handles positions. Anders felt his stomach lurch to one side as they suddenly swerved and spun in the opposite direction, flattening out into a downward curve.

“We got a spare twenty percent. Outer shields on full.” Patch slammed home his own controls, and the viewscreen ahead shimmered with a slight blue glare as the outermost skin of the Ilythian two-shield system took prominence.

There was a sudden flash of orange-red sparks to the right of their screen, and Anders felt the entire ship judder.

“Right outer shielding down by thirty percent!” Patch called, just before there was another judder as another of the pirates’ meson cannons hit their ship somewhere beyond their view.

“Rear-hull outer shielding down twenty-five percent!” Patch called.

But there was a sizzling orange line of power as another bolt of burning particles shot across their prow, missing them completely.

“They’re packing punches!” Anders said through gritted teeth, indicating the damage screens. Another couple of shots and they’d be through to the inner shields, which were far weaker than the beefed-up outer ones.

Pirate vessels aren’t usually that powerful, Anders thought, just as Moriarty’s voice broke through his thoughts.

“Enemy vessel’s retargeting. Close enough for visuals,” he informed Anders.

“On screen,” Anders said. At the same time, Dalia had moved into taut concentration as she threw the vessel into ever faster and tighter turns, seeking to lose the targeting locks.

Moriarty did as he was ordered, and Anders’s half of the split screen suddenly zoomed in to show the four vessels that they faced. They might once have been considered sleek, but had long-since been pocked, patched, and re-soldered, just like many pirate vessels that Anders had seen before.

They had long, tapered noses, indicating that they were truly an old style of scout or fighter craft, with two large rounded nacelle tubes on either side of their hull.

“Warthog class,” Anders said. They were a type of Throne Marine vessel that was almost a hundred years out of date and had once been used as a heavy combat fighter, before improvements in field generator and hull manufacturing could compact the large nacelles and hull plating to a fraction of the size they were then.

“So!?” Dalia growled. “I don’t care what sort of ship they are, only that they’re about to punch a hole through my ship!”

“They’re vulnerable at the nacelles,” Anders said. “Too heavy. Too large a target.”

“Computer, rolling target lock on nacelles for all vessels,” Dalia said as she threw both holo-handles forward and attempted to swerve below the next brace of meson-bolts.

There was a sudden heavy whump as the entire vessel shuddered and was thrown off course, momentarily spinning out of control.

Uk-mia!” Dalia wrestled with the engines and the controls.

“Outer hull shield down!” Patch said breathlessly. “Inner shields taking a beating. We’ve got damage to our top hull plate!”

One of the pirate’s attacks had gotten through, and it had been a dead-eye hit on their back. Anders flicked his fingers as Dalia had shown him how to do, feeling the electric pressure of the firing triggers appear solidly underneath them.

“Moriarty, I need a targeting pattern to disable these schlubs now!” Anders growled.

“Calculating. Done.” Moriarty—who had been designed as a military strategic and tactical intelligence first and foremost—calculated the options and the appropriate responses in micro-seconds. “Assisting firing.”

Anders felt the firing handles start to press forward and assist his own movements.

“Vessel one, four o’clock, spray pattern, two-second burst,” Moriarty said as Anders swung the handles to his right. On the top of the Ilythian scout, a series of four weapons modules that looked more like smoothed shells suddenly petaled open. Long guns jumped outward, swinging to the right and just behind the scout vessel.

Anders fired, and smaller bolts of burning meson orange light shot out from the four-gun units in a synchronized tandem volley.

“Vessel two, two o’clock down, negative thirty degrees, spray pattern, three-second burst,” Moriarty said. Anders felt the handles already unlocking for him to swing backward as another four-set of weapon modules petaled open on the under-hull and an exactly identical set of guns fired down at another of the vessels.

“Vessel three, dead-eye six o’clock, sustained fire,” Moriarty said, and Anders did so, swinging the handles in a small circular motion for all eight guns to swivel around and target behind the vessel at the Warthog pirate raider lining up for a straight shot into the scout’s rear field generators.

“Get some!” Anders muttered the Throne Marine saying out of habit as all eight guns fired and a cloud of burning orange blistered across the pronounced nose of the pursuing raider craft.

Anders watched the burst of orange and the glitter of the pirate’s blue shields before they were broken down in an instant, and then the sustained volley crashed into the nose and forward cockpit of the vessel.

Ripples of fiery sparks burst up and down the vessel as the craft was easily overwhelmed. Its front half was almost completely blown apart as its rear body flipped over, revolving and spinning crazily into space.

“Where’s number four!?” Anders was shouting, just before they found out.

The Warthog pirate vessels were harrying them, chasing them and flinging themselves towards the scout vessel in desperate abandon. The fourth, untouched vessel had managed to swoop below the Ilythian scout and shot past their left side as it fired, and the scout was suddenly rolling and rocking to one side.

“Below hull outer shields down!” Patch called. “Inner shields down to twenty percent! Damage to carriage. I’m diverting power from all available systems.”

The scout rolled off to its right through space, which was a blessing, as more bolts of angry meson fire flared ahead and around them where the remaining attackers sought to bring them down.

“Stabilizers!” Dalia called on her computer, for their action to steady as the physical combustion rockets fired in multiple places over their hull, nullifying their desperate roll and turning it into a swerve.

There were still three pirates out there, but only two appeared to be attempting a weapons lock on them. Anders, with Moriarty’s firing plan, had managed to disable one of the three remaining craft, which was slowly turning end over end, firing its engines and rockets in fitful glitches as the remaining two shot past.

“Seven o’clock, full-fire, sir,” Moriarty said, and Anders wasted no time in turning his firing handles to do just that. All eight guns swiveled to recoil and fire into the night at the nearest pirate vessel, sending bolt after bolt of energy out across space. Anders watched with a wolf-like snarl as the bolts rippled across space to explode along the Warthog’s hull. Blue flashes erupted as the meson fire hit the pirate’s shields, and then, with a sudden plume of orange, ruptured the nacelle. Anders knew only too well that those old engines were clunky at best, and before he had even finished the thought, the explosion had torn its way through the entire tube-like unit and extended into the main body of the hull, completely engulfing the ship in flame.

“Where are you, then!” Anders was already swinging the firing handles around to track the last pirate vessel, but it had already turned on its edge and was heading at full burn away from them.

“Initiating targeting, sir,” Moriarty said.

“No. Leave them.” Anders took a deep, shuddering breath. As good as it felt to follow the small tracking triangle with his eyes and to feel his fingers itch on the solid-light triggers, Anders forced himself to release his grip, and the handles disappeared in a flash of glittering blue.

Cassie wouldn’t have approved, Anders thought, thinking of his dead wife. Nor would Sibbi, his dead daughter. The wave of excitement and battle-exultation crashed inside of him as the adrenaline slowly subsided, leaving Anders just what he was: a police officer.

“We don’t kill unnecessarily,” Anders murmured, sure that he could feel Patch’s confusion emanating from behind him. He remembered the Throne Marine’s orbital spears lancing down through the skies to hit the peace-loving Terevesin. “That is what the Eternal Empress does. Not us.”

There was a low growl of agreement from the alien beside him, and when Anders turned to look, he saw that Dalia was smiling.

“Boss? I’m picking up something from the disabled ship,” Patch said. Boss. Anders smiled a little at that. Patch had to only be a short span of years ahead of Jake, leaving him somewhere in his mid-twenties, and he appeared to look up to Anders as some sort of leader.

“She’s the boss, engineer,” Anders said, mimicking his old training days.

“What is it, Patch?” Dalia asked.

“Telemetry. A restricted, narrow-band frequency, but luckily…” They heard him mutter and mumble. But luckily, field energies and transmission frequencies appear to be one of Patch’s specialties, Anders thought, just as the young man behind him exclaimed, “Gotcha! Patching through to main comms.”

A holo sprang in front of the viewscreen of a wide ribbon of red, constantly rising and falling before it shrank and narrowed, becoming a singular red sine-wave line, and human voices suddenly jumped out of the scout’s speakers.

Secrets of Ilythia Boxed Set

“—but listen up, there was no way that we would have taken this job if we thought you were serious about—” a man’s voice said, sounding stressed and panicked.

It was immediately cut off by another voice, more refined and austere, and one that Anders recognized. “You have your orders. Your family will receive their compensation, just as agreed.”

“No, you can’t—” the first, worried voice said. “We’ll just be hostages until this is all over. My crew won’t say anything, I promise—” The first man’s voice wobbled, and sounded terrified.

“You’re right, Captain Hasbald. You and your crew won’t say anything.”

There was an abrupt squelch of static as the second man’s refined voice cut his side of the connection. Anders, Dalia, Patch and Jake all heard a shocked intake of breath and a panicked mutter.

And then the pirate Warthog that Anders had disabled erupted in brilliant plumes of yellow and white. The explosion was too bright to look at and sent out an ever-widening bubble of shock-waves that hit the Ilythian scout and set it rocking. It probably would have turned it over if it hadn’t been for Dalia’s stabilizers.

When the glare cleared from the screen and from Anders’s eyes, he blinked to see just a glittering cloud of fragments. The destruction of the Warthog had been so complete that there were hardly any pieces left bigger than Anders’s clenched fist, the man reckoned.

“What? What!?” Dalia was frowning in alarm. Anders could only close his eyes as he pinched the bridge of his nose in consternation. Ilythians culture didn’t, as far as he knew, condone battle-field suicide. Although any Ilythian might die in battle, he presumed, he had heard Dalia talk of the lifeforce that pervaded all living things and the entire universe.

“Pirates don’t do that,” Patch murmured, sounding similarly shocked by the apparent auto-destruction of the pirate vessel. The young Voider, too, had experience with the most criminal elements of human society, as out on the edge of the Milky Way Galaxy where the Voiders liked to roam inside their ancient, fantastical space-hulks, there were also the people called the Night Raiders, a cult-like form of space pirates who were brutal and savage.

“You’re right, they don’t,” Anders growled, recalling the refined and austere voice on the other end. It was the voice of the Throne Marine officer who had been the one to capture him and Dalia at the finale of the Hectamon Challenge—and the same man who had almost killed them as they had tried to escape Terevesin.

“But Commander-General Cread does.”


The Beacon

“How much time for the second jump?” Anders asked Dalia as she ran diagnostics on the scout. They had sustained—not severe but certainly not dismissible—damage to their rear hull plate from the pirates’ meson canons.

Which were tougher than they usually are. Anders frowned, his eyes glancing to the patch of interference on the screen where the energy signatures of the self-exploding vessel had recently been.

“The Mondrauk territories aren’t far from here, but if they come in hostile…”

“Which, knowing the Mondrauks…” Patch continued.

“Okay. So, we take the time to perform repairs,” Anders stated, which actually felt a little like a relief, as he was in no rush to try and negotiate with the stocky, aggressive aliens. In fact, I have no idea what even to say to Mondrauks, he thought with a sigh.

“Initiating automatic repairs,” Patch said, and several green Ilythian glyphs flashed as small drone-robots were released from their various modules on the hull and started work welding and repairing the damage. Within a few moments, Anders could even hear the dull clunking and scampering of their insect-like legs as the robots scuttled over the cockpit, chasing cracks and weaknesses.

“So…” Dalia engaged the ship’s stasis mode. The distant vibration of the stabilizers grew even quieter to a low murmur, and the field generators slowly de-cycled their power outlay. Their Ilythian pilot and captain had turned her smooth, ergonomic, white-padded control seat to face Anders. “Commander-General Cread. The leader of the Throne Marines,” she stated heavily.

“Yes. The leader of all of the Eternal Empress’s armed forces,” Anders confirmed. “That was him, his voice that we heard. I know it.”

“The pirates were working with the Throne Marines?” Patch muttered as he worked to redirect the repair drones. “That’s never happened before.”

It was unprecedented, Anders thought. There was, after all, a reason why the many pirates and bandits of the Milky Way had taken to their profession. And that reason was almost always to spite, evade, escape, and outwit the empress’s military.

“I know it sounds insane, but that is who I heard,” Anders said.

“But pirates don’t do that,” Dalia said with a hint of disgust in her voice. “Do you think they knew who we were?”

Anders shook his head. “I don’t think so.” He thought about what little he knew of Commander-General Cread. He was a blonde, square-jawed, fairly handsome man in the clean and gene-cleaned way that many of the higher echelons of throne society were. Anders presumed that the man was probably far older than the forty-something years that he exhibited—roughly the same age as Anders naturally was—after the extensive sessions with the Gene Seers to maintain peak physical fitness.

He always was an odd one, Anders thought with a policeman’s mind. He remembered the commander-general’s short, stirring, and always combative speeches relayed via holo at the graduations and call-to-arms deployments.

He was vindictive, even back then. Anders scowled at the viewscreens, now devoid even of energy signatures and debris.

“He must be employing space pirates to harry Ilythian borders,” Anders said. It was technically an illegal act according to the Laws of War that the Golden Throne supposedly fought under. You didn’t attack shipping routes or perform functionless raids on unprotected worlds and stations.

Marines are supposed to target the enemy, overwhelm them, and convert the defeated to the rule of the Eternal Empress. Anders knew the mantra well.

But that was always a lie, wasn’t it? Anders’s bad mood only grew deeper. The Eternal Empress wants nothing less than total domination.

“I’m going to have to send word back to Ilythia,” Dalia said, turning back to start moving her hands through the holo-controls. As they waited, Anders considered what this could mean. Was the commander-general getting desperate? Had the defeat of the throne’s first fleet versus the Ilythians hurt the Golden Throne deeper than they had thought?

“Scout Vessel Ala-3c to nearest Ilythian Beacon—” he heard Dalia saying, and then repeating as she attempted to transmit messages to the static, giant crystal ‘beacons’ that functioned as satellites across Ilythian space.

“Scout Vessel Ala-3c—” he heard Dalia say again, but there was a sudden, and loud, glitch of static, and a warning orange Ilythian glyph flashed in the corner of the screen.

“That’s odd,” Dalia said, and Anders was starting to get a sick feeling of premonition in his stomach.

“What is it?”

“The beacons are a stable network, a really stable network,” Dalia said, “and my scanners aren’t registering any connection with the nearest just a few lightyears ahead of us.” The Ilythian bit her lip in consternation. “They are crafted by our best neural-programming smiths. I’ve never even heard of one malfunctioning, unless…”

“Unless it’s been damaged?” Anders said. Maybe that was why Cread was relying on pirates! “We should go investigate,” he said. He knew that even though their ship was under repairs, and it would be foolish to divert energy to the jump engines, a journey of a few lightyears was very short even at normal propulsive power.

“Agreed.” Dalia set their course, and the rear, flaring wingtips of the Ilythian scout glowed a dull blue as it pushed itself through space, leaving the destruction behind.

Unfortunately, what they found when they eventually got to the Ilythian border wasn’t good news at all.

Secrets of Ilythia Boxed Set

“Someone blew the beacon into a thousand pieces, and I’m guessing I know who’s behind it…” Dalia was growling as the tracking vector grew bigger and bigger in the viewscreen, but the space it showed was littered with sparkling fragments of the crystal-and-steel structure that Anders knew had once been a beacon.

“Cread,” Anders growled, just as multiple flashes of light appeared across the velvety blanket of stars.

“Multiple jump signatures!” Patch called out in alarm. “Three, five, seven, ten—"

Dalia snarled, her hand shooting forward to increase the power outlay to the outer shields.

“I can give you an extra thirty percent,” Patch was saying as the blue glimmer of a shell appeared around their own schematic of the scout. “But the repairs are still in operation until we get the rear hull completely secure and fixed.”

“It’ll have to do,” Dalia said. “I want full scans and identifiers on those vessels as soon as—”

“Moriarty?” Anders forwarded.

“Already working on it, sir. Red-shift engine signatures, as before,” the simulated intelligence said.

“Pirates,” Patch said darkly.

“No, a pirate army,” Anders corrected as they looked at the mass of ships jumping to the edge of Ilythian space.


Run Before the Storm

“How many are there?” Anders heard the engineer breath in horror from behind them. And well he might be horrified, Anders thought as he looked at the force still jumping into space.

It wasn’t a small party of pirate raiders. Nor was it even one of the rarer brigades of ten or twelve pirate ‘bands’ that formed under some dread and notorious captain—usually for a short-lived career of terror, which officers, such as Anders used to be, in the border patrol would have crushed.

No. Anders’s eyes were steady as he measured up the new enemy.

There were at least thirty ships. Almost half the number that the Golden Throne lost to the Ilythians, Anders thought, and there were still more arriving every second. The pirate vessels appeared of every size and shape imaginable, with the only commonality that Anders could see being that every ship was at least a decade out of production.

Not that their age had apparently decreased their usefulness, or the pirates’ ability to mod their vessels. Anders saw aging Warthogs beside expedition clippers, a few four-man fighters, and many merchant vessels that had their hulls reinforced with plates and entirely new assembly rigs on their sides, tops, or wings, where newer-looking weapons modules were mounted.

“I’ve never seen so many pirates in one place before,” Anders muttered. As a rule, the life of a space pirate meant that they weren’t usually the most collaborative of people. And now there were fifty vessels approaching, arriving from jump, and none of them were attacking the others.

“This is another invasion,” Dalia said in alarm, already starting to pull back on the flight handles for the ship to rise ahead of the wall of rusted reds, steels, blacks, and golds. The pirate ships hadn’t seemed to notice them yet, but Anders was sure they would.

“Where are you taking us?” Anders asked as the alarms continued.

“Back to Ilythia! This is an enemy fleet right on our borders. That is obviously why Cread is destroying the beacons—to launch a counterattack against the heart of Ilythian space!” Dalia said tersely. “Patch, I need more power!”

“I can divert from the shields—” Patch began.

“Do it!” Dalia said, just as the viewscreen suddenly erupted into flashing orange vectors.

“Sir, I’m registering multiple tracking locks on our location…” Moriarty was saying, which must have clearly been just what the alien glyphs on the viewscreen were also saying, as suddenly Dalia said, “Patch, don’t do it!”

“Weapon ports opening, sir,” Moriarty said, just as the holograms over the viewscreens sent lancing, strafing lines of meson-orange toward their position.

“Evasive maneuvers!” Dalia alerted them, in the same breath as she rolled the scout first one way and then the other ahead of the cloud of approaching laser fire.

Thwap! One of the heaviest bolts hit their outer shields so hard that the entire ship shook and rang like a bell. The shield icon on the three-dimensional holo-schematic started to flash and waver.

Anders groaned as they were suddenly thrown downward, and then to the sides, and then up and around once again as meson bolts hurtled past their viewscreens and port windows.

“We have to jump. Cycle field generators!” Dalia commanded Patch, who moved with the fast-paced precision of the Void engineers around machines.

But we can’t go back to Ilythia, Anders thought, as alarms blared across the viewscreens in front of them. “We have to go to Jakka,” Anders said to Dalia.

“What?” the Ilythian burst out as she threw the ship into another extreme roll. “These pirates will run through unprotected Ilythian space—”

But Anders, hanging onto to the edge of his chair and the side of the cockpit as they were thrown one way or another by Dalia’s evasive actions, knew that was a hopeless gesture. Maybe it was his Marine training, or maybe it was just his nature.

“Then we’ll die beside everyone you know, Dalia!” Anders shouted, earning a snarl of anger from the Ilythian. But I have to make her see the stakes!

“Then it would be a worthy death!” she countered, before demanding of Patch, “The jump engines, Patch! Where are they?”

“Cycling at sixty percent, Cap’,” the engineer called out. “What are the coordinates?”

“Ilythia Prime,” Dalia said without hesitation, just before the viewscreen flared an angry orange.

“Impact warning! Outer shields at critical level,” the scout’s mainframe chirped, with Moriarty auto-translating.

“Dalia! Listen to me!” Anders said desperately, even turning to grab the alien’s shoulder as she wrenched and flew the vessel ahead of the pirate army. “You can’t save Ilythia. Not like this. Don’t throw your life—and ours—away!”

Anders remembered the countless hours as a Throne Marine and as an MPB officer. One thing that you learned pretty quickly in both roles was that no matter the enemy before you, or the orders that came down from above you, the only people that you had to trust, and could trust, were your brothers and sisters in the force. To stand by them was always the first priority.

“But if we get to Jakka, then the Mondrauks might do what we can’t. This is how we save Ilythia!” Anders ended desperately.

The Ilythian scout swerved violently, and then was suddenly rolling, seemingly uncontrollably.

Ach!” Patch gasped as the crew held onto their positions.

“Dalia!” Anders urged once again. She has to see the sense of this, she has to!

And the Ilythian did.

“Activate jump engines! Get us to Jakka!” she called. Patch hit the coordinates and released the pent-up energy amassed in the field generators. The burning orange meson blasts all around the ship were eclipsed by washes of brilliant light, threaded with purple flashes.

The damaged, teetering Ilythian scout jumped.



Mondrauk-Controlled Space

Anders involuntarily gasped when they slammed out of jump and continued to barrel-roll through the expanse of stars. They had brought with them the evaporating steams and glares of meson-blasts, and it took Dalia several moments to stabilize their flight.

“Computer? Where are we?” Dalia’s arms were visibly shaking with the effort, but instead of the smooth, automated Ilythian voice answering them, they heard just a glitching line of static.

Dalia snarled. “Damage diagnostics!” she demanded of the vessel, but there was only stubborn silence.

“Sir?” Moriarty’s smooth, unperturbed tones entered the cabin through the interlinked speakers. “I am able to diagnose the problem. Several key systems failures. Outer shields are running at twelve percent, and there is extensive hull damage throughout the vessel.”

“Great,” Anders groaned as they slowly listed to one side. Most of the lights were still on in the cockpit, but it was clear to him that the ship was in a critical position. “Patch?” He turned in his seat and saw that the engineer was sweeping his hands through the few remaining holo-controls he had, looking more agitated by the minute.

“Massive drain on the field generators causing chain-reaction failures throughout the vessel,” Patch grumbled. “If I can get hands on the generators with some tools, I might be able to get them back online”

“Do it,” Dalia said, but her order was overturned with the sudden rippling of light and stars on the viewscreen ahead of them.

A ship was shimmering into existence, losing the cloaking shield that it had been hiding behind.

It was a large ship, Anders saw immediately. It was many times larger than they were, anyway. And it rose slowly ahead of them with its two forward-punching ‘arms’ like pincers before a very blocky body, and the entire thing was a deep, ruddy red.

Anders knew precisely what sort of ship it was, and who it belonged to.

It was a Mondrauk Man-o-War.

Secrets of Ilythia Boxed Set

“Ilythian vessel, explain yourselves!”

The ship-to-ship communicators still worked, Anders thought glumly. Super-imposed on the forward viewscreen sprang an image of the opposing craft’s captain.

It was indeed a Mondrauk, their skin almost blue-gray with jet-black horns sweeping back from their temples. This Mondrauk sported braids of dark, ragged hair, decorated with tiny gold and silver beads.

“This is the Ilythian Scout Vessel Ala-3c, empowered by the Speaker of the Ilythian Council to entreat with the people of Jakka,” Dalia said, and Anders was surprised how quickly she assumed control of her emotions. It’s her agent training, of course, Anders thought. The Ilythian agents were not only trained killers but worked as diplomats and spies for their council.

“Pfagh! What talking do you expect to do here, elf?” the Mondrauk captain laughed, displaying blackened teeth. “Your ship is dead in the dark. You have nothing to offer me except your slavery!”

Anders instinctively growled, his hands tightening at his sides as the holo-controls of the firing handles leapt into existence.

“Easy,” Dalia whispered from the corner of her mouth, before fixing the chuckling, scornful face of the alien with a steely glare.

“Captain, if that is truly who you are, what sort of respect do you think that you will garner from your leaders by taking a damaged ship, incapable of fighting?” she said steadily.

The Mondrauks respect strength. And war, Anders remembered. Dalia is appealing to their strange sense of honor.

“But the respect that you will gain by having the entire Ilythian peoples in your debt?” Dalia shrugged, as if it were an easy thing for her to give.

“Lies!” the Mondrauk said loudly.

Too loudly, Anders thought. The policeman might not be an expert on xeno-culture, but he thought that he could detect uncertainty in the Mondrauk’s tone.

“The elves are weak!” the Mondrauk captain proclaimed. “They have never been friends to us, and neither would we want such weak allies!”

“Is that your decision to make, Captain?” Dalia countered. “Imagine what your leader would think if you were to act alone, throwing away an opportunity to have the entirety of Ilythia in Mondrauk debt?”

That suggestion gave the Mondrauk pause for thought. The alien turned his head to look out of the corner of one eye at Dalia, before hissing.

“It will be a pleasure to see the jhan eviscerate you before the crowds,” the Mondrauk leered, before the screen abruptly glitched off, and instead there was a flash of indigo light from the Man-o-War.

“Tractor beam!” Patch exclaimed as the helpless Ilythian ship was drawn inexorably closer to the Man-o-War, before being held in snug between the pincers, like it was a giant insect about to devour them.

“Does that count as a win?” Patch murmured uncertainly as the alien vessel slowly rose and turned back towards Mondrauk space.

Anders wasn’t sure if it did, but he forced himself to shrug. “I guess at least it’s not being blown out of space by an army of space pirates,” he offered.


The Jhan

The Mondrauk’s home world of Jakka appeared a short time later, swimming out of the blanket of space toward the entwined vessels. Some trick of the planet’s atmosphere gave Jakka a slightly ochre hue, making Anders think of the unfortunate comparison to Hell, aided by the devil-like appearance of the Mondrauk people.

But the world wasn’t isolated, Anders saw. It had two smaller moons—one as dirty orange as its mother-planet, and the other a bleached-bone white—but both were studded with lights and striated with the shadow-and-contrast lines of colonies and stations. Anders was surprised, especially at the level of industry he could see through viewscreens. Small and dark objects spun and whizzed around the planet, momentarily catching the light of Jakka’s distant sun as the Mondrauk satellites orbited.

And then there were the ships. More of the Mondrauk Man-o-Wars clustered in loose, geo-synchronous corrals, making Anders think of horses kept in stables. The entire planet looked as though it was permanently ready for war…which Anders figured it probably was.

There was an explosion of guttural, harsh Mondrauk-talk over the speakers before Moriarty subtly chimed in from Anders’s node, translating the speech.

“Jhan-il Harg requesting audience with Jhan Col! I have captured spies and intruders into Mondrauk space! Long live the jhan!”

“Nice to know we made a friend,” Patch muttered. There was a flash of signaling light from one of the nearer stationary satellites, and the Man-o-War powered toward it, obviously given the go-ahead to land.

But Jhan-il Harg and his Man-o-War did not appear to take his ‘captives’ to any capital city that Anders and the others were expecting to see. Instead, the larger vessel broke through the envelope of the world’s skies to fly over sharp and torturous mountain ranges of gray rock, heading for a place where the mountains’ feet broke into deep canyons so large that they were almost miniature plains. From this great height, Anders and Dalia could see the canyons running like titanic ditches, weaving between mountains and foothills and out to the lower Mondrauk lands, studded with boulders and scrubby, spiked trees.

They passed over what Anders could only assume were Mondrauk communities, collections of domes clustered together by rivers, on plateaus, or in the shadows of dark and gnarled woods. Small, one-person hover-transports like bikes moved between the settlements, reminding Anders of the tribes of ancient humanity riding horses in the free and fierce wilds.

“Sir,” Moriarty broke into Anders’s musings, the simulated intelligence alerting his master to their destination up ahead.

“The voudj of Jhan Col,” the simulated intelligence said, using its store of Golden Throne databases to analyze and identify the large geodesic dome growing larger as they drew closer.

It was a much larger version of the smaller settlement huts, Anders realized immediately. Its external dome was made of geodesic panels that looked like metal but flowed tight and thin like fabric. The metal was pulled down to form arches at the base, supported by thick steel girders, and around this dome, Anders saw more Mondrauks moving in their stalking gait. There was smoke from external braziers dotting the wide, sandy space outside of the dome, with smaller corrals of animals like long-legged cows nervously held there.

“Jhan Col is the three hundred and forty-fifth jhan, or war leader, of the Mondrauk people, notable for the peace agreement that he made with the Golden Throne. Underneath him are some thousand jhan-ils, or tribal war-chiefs, who each control their personal villages and settlements in a familial hierarchy,” Moriarty advised.

“Thanks. Know anything on how to sweet-talk this Jhan Col?” Anders muttered as the Man-o-War’s propulsion thrusters engaged, and the dome voudj was obscured by rising smoke and swirling dust.

“I’m afraid that my tactical computers do not stretch to etiquette, sir,” Moriarty said in what Anders thought was a sarcastic tone.

The occupants of the scout vessel felt the lurch as their ship was disengaged from the tractor beam, wobbling and dropping a few meters before Dalia took control to limp to the surface. Although, technically, they were momentarily free, neither Dalia nor Anders had to say anything about how free they actually were here, in the heart of Mondrauk territory and surrounded by very large, generally hostile aliens.

“There.” Dalia settled the scout down with a heavy sigh, turning to the rest of the crew. “I suppose we might as well go introduce ourselves,” she said with no small amount of cynicism.

Secrets of Ilythia Boxed Set

“And now the hour is drawing late, and the elves come crawling to us for aid?” growled the booming voice of Jhan Col, who was probably one of the largest Mondrauks Anders had ever seen.

Upon landing, Dalia, Patch, Jake, and Anders had been met at their ramp by a group of armored Mondrauks, each one holding their heavy blasters pointed at the ragtag ambassadorial unit. Their armor was a dark, almost black metal that plated onto their bodies with heavy buckles and straps, and each wore a small visor-like helmet that opened at the sides of the temples to allow their backward-sweeping horns to flare out behind them.

The assembled humans and Ilythian were marched straight across the sandy landing area, past teams of other Mondrauks guarding, haggling, or roasting great joints of meat on the braziers. Anders heard the muttered snarls and gales of scornful laughter from these onlookers, as clearly every Mondrauk assumed they were slaves.

Inside the voudj, wide avenues clustered with more Mondrauks talking, shouting, and occasionally even fighting as Anders and the rest were hurried along. Anders was astonished by how haphazard this society seemed to be, and how advanced the Mondrauks had clearly managed to become. He saw Mondrauks in small makeshift booths cooking and selling food, and other ancient, white-haired Mondrauks in robes casting rune stones or passing to each other steaming horns of some strange substance.

It’s like this voudj is the Mondrauk city, Anders realized. Or a place of pilgrimage. He had seen no obvious signs of other buildings or residences on the wide empty plain in the center of the canyon. So all of these hundreds, thousands of Mondrauks came here just to…

See their leader, Anders realized as soon as they were escorted into the central hall.

The hall was vast, and its outer circumference was thick with the press, shove, and shuffle of Mondrauk bodies. The noise of their cheering, shouting, games, and arguments was almost deafening, and once again, Anders had that superstitious sensation that maybe, just perhaps, he really had been taken to some sort of hell. Everywhere he looked, he saw the blackened, double-iris eyes of the Mondrauks scowling and glaring at them, and he heard the soft growls and threatening hisses as their passage was noted.

There were large tables—actual wood!—around the outer edges of the hall, thick with the feasting and negotiating jhan-ils, as well as generally thinner, smaller, and harrowed-looking Mondrauks moving from table to table in simple gray robes, working as servants.

Anders heard Dalia hiss as she stiffened beside him. The crowd was parting before their warrior escort, and Anders could see into the tabled crowd where several Mondrauks had others—even some humans—wearing the gray robes of servants, but with fine steel chains attached to ankle shackles or neck braces, and the other end held by some opulent alien enjoying their feast.

“Any society that needs slaves is a society that cannot stand on its own feet,” Anders heard Dalia whisper, which he thought was presumably an Ilythian saying.

Anders tended to agree, but he was surprised when it was Jake who replied.

“But doesn’t every society have slaves, in some fashion or another?” he said, his voice sounding a little dreamy and distant. When Anders looked at him, his eyes were slightly glazed, and the PK-suppressor circlet on his head looked like some parasitic insect, eating the teenager’s thoughts.

“We Ilythians don’t!” Dalia muttered harshly.

“Everyone is a slave to something, Dalia,” Jake said in his slightly distracted voice. “Your father to the idea of Ilythian honor. Anders to his own idea of duty… The Eternal Empress herself uses PKs and her protectorate worlds as little better than slaves…” Jake tilted his head. “Perhaps the Mondrauks are just more honest than any of the other races?”

“Hm,” Anders grumbled. He didn’t like this new change in the PK and wondered if this was a different symptom of the youth’s recent brush with an alien god-thing.

KNEEL BEFORE THE JHAN!” one of their escorts bellowed at them as they stepped out of the press and before a large, raised dais in the center of the room.

And so, Anders and the others had their first chance to meet Jhan Col, the supreme warlord of an entire race.

Secrets of Ilythia Boxed Set

“Well!? What does the noble and ancient Ilythian race have to say for itself?” shouted Jhan Col from his wide throne bedecked with shaggy furs and pelts of creatures that Anders did not recognize. He said the name of Dalia’s race like an insult.

The Jhan of the Mondrauks was massive, wider than he was tall by Anders’s reckoning, with long arms, hairy and thickly corded with muscle. He sat shirtless, but his chest was a nest of thick, wiry hair almost like fur and layered with amulets and chains of gold and onyx stones. On the alien’s wrists were more precious bands of gold studded with jewels, and what Anders saw were small information ports and data-modules. The jhan wore no crown or sign of his office, but Anders could see that each of his long, whorled horns had been tipped with gold.

The signs of the jhan’s strength were written across his visible body in the thick lines of white scars. No gene-therapy for the Mondrauks, Anders thought. He wondered if that was a point of pride for the domineering, powerful aliens.

“Jhan Col, I bring you greetings from the Council of Ilythia,” Dalia said from her kneeling position beside Anders. “I extend the hand of friendship to you and your people in these dark times, on behalf of all Ilythians, now and in perpetuity,” she said, although Anders had to wonder whether she truly had the right to make such a claim.

“Friendship?” Jhan Col barked a savage laugh. The murmurs, shouts, and humor of the assembled jhan-ils and warlords around them had subsided to a low murmur, as the chieftains nearest the dais watched eagerly for the outcome of this strange meeting.

“Mondrauks have no need for friends,” the jhan said, earning a chorus of cheers from those behind them. “And we have no time for liars!” He spat on the floor.

“Sir, I am no liar.” Anders watched as Dalia lifted her sharp-featured face to look at the alien resolutely. It was as if she were willing the jhan to see the truth of her convictions through her eyes alone.

“Really?” the jhan asked with a scornful chuckle. Anders started to get the sinking feeling that this wasn’t going well. At all.

“Then tell me, elf, why have the Ilythians waited so long to extend this hand of friendship? What in all of the unnumbered stars could knock them from their pedestal and force them to send you here, to my hall, on my planet?” the jhan said.

It’s a rhetorical question, of course, Anders thought. The jhan knew full well why Dalia was here. He’s just enjoying watching her squirm. The police officer tried to control his temper.

“It is true, my lord,” Anders heard Dalia say, “that we Ilythians have been remiss at reaching out to the strong and powerful people of Jakka.” Dalia nodded humbly. She’s good at this, Anders thought, seeing the flicker of a self-satisfied smile cross Jhan Col’s face at the self-deprecation on the part of Dalia. Once again, Anders had to control his hands from clenching, white-knuckled, into fists. Anders had never liked bullies.

“As you are no doubt aware, my people are engaged in a fight for our very survival, and it is the belief of the Council of Ilythia that your people and mine may have common cause against the Eternal Empress of the Golden Throne.” Dalia said, without a hint of embarrassment or evasion about what she was suggesting.

Fight for us, Anders paraphrased. Fight with us.

“At last.” Jhan Col appeared to appreciate the blunt honesty. Anders heard the approval in the warlord’s voice. “For your honesty, I will talk with you. But I find myself wondering, little elf, if you have such enmity for the humans, then why are you traveling with three of them, and not with those toy soldiers of House Tularin?”

Anders saw Dalia flinch slightly as she slowly breathed through her rage. The human lieutenant had to remind himself that she was House Tularin. Her father was the master of the defenders of Ilythia.

And maybe Iktin isn’t so different from Jhan Col, either, Anders mused. Both appeared self-righteous, arrogant, and aggressive.

“These humans are friends of Ilythia, as I hope the Mondrauks will be—” Dalia said, and Anders realized her mistake the instant the words met his ears. The Ilythian agent must have been more angered than even she was letting on, as she had said the perfectly diplomatic response if she were entreating with any other race but totally hopeless when dealing with a warlord like Jhan Col.

Grargh!” There was a sudden clang and skitter across the floor as the jhan had thrown a gold goblet out onto the dais in his frustration.

“Friends? Friends!?” The jhan’s eyes started to narrow in apparent rage. Anders saw cords of veins or tendons swelling in the hairless part of the Mondrauk’s neck. “Have you not been listening to what I have been saying, elf?” the jhan berated Dalia as if she were an ignorant child.

“Does the Council of Ilythia think so little of us that they have sent a halfwit and a simpleton to beg and scrape before me?” Jhan Col was warming to his ire, and Anders felt a bright scarlet coal of indignation flare in his chest. Beside him, he saw Dalia’s jaw tighten as she too attempted to quell her shamed anger.

“I told you that we Mondrauks have no need of friends! When has any Mondrauk ever needed a friend?” he snarled, earning roars and cheers from the assembled the jhan-ils all around him.

He’s playing to the crowd, Anders realized. The jhan of the entire Mondrauks has to embody everything that the Mondrauks are if he is to maintain power

Which meant that he couldn’t be seen as soft, or weak—or friendly.

“If all you have come here to do is beg us to be your friends so that we will die in your ill-advised wars, then you really are simple-minded fools!” Jhan Col bellowed. “You have no right to call yourself a negotiator. Your heart is too weak! You slither into my hall, whispering words that mean nothing, and lying with every breath that you take!”

Anders saw Dalia tremble and react with every insult. She was a proud Ilythian, Anders knew, and it was taking all her self-composure to keep her emotions in check.

And she made the wrong call, Anders had to admit. On the other side of him he saw Patch looking wide-eyed and owlish at the floor, the sweat beading on his brow as he must be considering how densely surrounded they were by very angry, very bloodthirsty devils. On the far side of Patch, however, Jake was merely looking out at the crowd with apparent nonchalance and interest, again with that mooncalf look upon his face.

Neither of them can help, Anders knew, as Jhan Col continued.

“You elves are all the same, and have always been the same. Arrogant. Stupid. Weak!” Jhan Col proclaimed. “It is clear that you aren’t strong enough to stand up to the humans, and in your weakness, you cry out to us!”

He’s not wrong, Anders had to admit, but Dalia was already starting to tremble with rage.

“I came here with the offer of an understanding between our peoples. Something that has never happened before in all of the history of either Ilythia or Mondrauk,” Dalia hissed.

Anders saw a gleeful smile flash across the Jahn’s features. He’s enjoying this, Anders realized, and then he realized something else.

He had met people like the jhan before. On the streets and in the late-night clubs of the city he had worked on Hectamon 7. Bullies. People who only respected strength and little else—if anything else at all.

In Anders’s memory, sometimes the only thing that had got them to stop acting tough had been a punch to the nose. Not that he would dare to attack the warlord of the entire Mondrauk people right now, but there were other ways to show your strength.

“Cowards,” Anders grunted, loud enough for Jhan Col and several of the nearest jhan-ils to hear. There was a gasp as Anders slowly got to his feet.

Kneel before the jhan!” one of their escorts shouted, earning a hiss of alarm from Dalia in the seconds before Anders felt something slam into the back of his legs and bring him to the floor.

“Ach!” Anders just managed to get his hands up in time to protect himself from knocking his own brains out on the floor, before he coughed, spat onto the floor, and looked up at Jhan Col above him.

“I don’t kneel for cowards,” Anders said steadily, pushing himself up first to his knees, then getting his feet underneath him.

I said KNEEL!” The over-eager Mondrauk escort stepped in once again and, as Anders held onto Jhan’s Col’s snarling eyes, Anders this time felt the blow on the back of his head.

“Sir!” It was Moriarty, as Anders found that he was once again on the floor, and this time with blood pooling in front of him. “Impact-concussion to the rear skull. No broken bones or fractures detected, sir,” the simulated intelligence was advising him.

But there was no time for Anders to worry about the state of his own health, as there was the thud of heavy feet from just in front and above him.

What did you say to me, human scum?” It was Jhan Col, stepping towards the human on the floor, and the warlord’s voice was full of menace and threat.

Oh crap. Maybe I went too far, Anders thought as he slowly pushed himself back to a kneeling position, slowly raising his head to glare angrily up at the warlord.

But Anders knew a bully when he saw one. And he knew the only thing that they respected, too.

“I was wondering why the jhan of all of the Mondrauks is too scared to face the Golden Throne in battle?” Anders said in a clear, steady voice.

There was a gasp from Dalia beside him, and a low moan from Patch. But louder still were the cries of outrage from the assembled jhan-ils who had overheard what he had to say.

But whatever Jhan Col was going to say in return, Anders didn’t get a chance to hear it. There was another sharp and sudden pain against the back of his head, and everything went black.


Not Your Friend, Not Your Ally

“Not the finest diplomatic strategy,” Anders woke up to hear Moriarty sagely advising him.

Anders groaned. His head felt like, well, like a Mondrauk had jumped up and down on it. He was somewhere that was light and smelled of cooked meat. A brief moment of panic crossed his mind as Anders wondered if the jhan had decided it was time to roast this human alive for his insolence.

But no, Anders didn’t feel any part of him burning, and as his vision cleared, he realized he was in a small room, lying on a very stiff bed that was little more than a thin rubber mat over a metal table. The smell was coming from a steaming bowl of broth set on the floor beside his head.

“Where am—” Anders began, mumbling the words thickly.

“Still in the voudj, I’m afraid, sir,” Moriarty informed him helpfully. “I believe that this is what counts as a Mondrauk medical facility, although their take on medicine seems to be to leave the afflicted person and see if they get back up again.”

“Sounds like the Mondrauks to me.” Anders groaned painfully, rolling and sitting up on his cold bed for a wave of nausea to wash through him. “Ach.”

“Yes, given that you have no access to gene-delivery or activation systems, nor any basic anesthetics, I suggest that you don’t overexert yourself, sir,” Moriarty said.

“Screw that.” Anders started to shake his head, but the sudden painful dizziness almost made him throw up. “Where are the others?”

“I believe that they are in a Mondrauk holding cell, awaiting the final decision of the jhan,” Moriarty said. Even though the simulated intelligence was incapable of emotion, and that all of his kind were held back just so that they would not be able to achieve true sentience, Anders was still certain that there was some admonishment in the machine intelligence’s voice.

“Oh,” Anders said, holding his head.

“But luckily, sir, I can reliably inform you that my scans indicate you still do not have any fracture or break to your skull,” Moriarty said. “The substrata of your cranium were strong enough to withstand the impacts.”

“Are you saying that I’ve got a thick skull?” Anders said. Or maybe that I’m just thick, he thought.

“The colloquialism seems to capture it, sir,” Moriarty said, not very helpfully.

“Oh, Moriarty, what have I done?” Anders asked. “I thought that the Mondrauks respected strength. I thought I knew a way to negotiate with the jhan…”

“Sir!” Moriarty said in alarm, just before there was a hiss of an energy field as someone walked through the door to Anders’s medical cell.

“We do respect strength,” said the Mondrauk standing there. “Just not stupidity.”

The Mondrauk standing before Anders was not one that the lieutenant recognized, but then again, he had never paid much attention to news reports or data-simulations in the past. If he had, then he might have known that the Mondrauk standing in front of him was actually an important jhan-il, a chieftain of one of the larger settlements on Jakka and thus an influential figure in Mondrauk society.

“My name is Jhan-il Poul,” the Mondrauk said, who was surprisingly shorter than Anders, and whose thick, curling hair was streaked with silver. Anders could still see that Jhan-il Poul wasn’t wearing any of the ceremonial armor plates or even any of the weapons that the other Mondrauk chieftains did, and yet his soft, deep, purple and umber robes were still tight over his large, muscled shoulders.

“What do you want with me?” Anders asked, his eyes studying the Mondrauk carefully.

“What I want?” Poul said with a flash of blackened, ferocious teeth. “I believe that it is far more useful to think about what you, and your Ilythian friends, need, Lieutenant Corsigon.”

I never told him my name. Anders blinked, his head still pounding with pain.

“Yes, I know of you. We Mondrauks are often considered a primitive or backward species, but there are some of us who keep ourselves…informed about what happens in the other sectors.”

Everyone has their spies, Anders thought sourly.

“Yes, I have heard of you, Lieutenant. The police officer charged with treachery to the Golden Throne and wanted in relation to a terrorist attack on a throne passenger cruiser.” Jhan-il Poul looked at Anders, and the human could see that he was assessing his reactions.

“Lies!” Anders growled, one hand massaging his pained head. “It was a set-up! The throne itself orchestrated that attack, and then blamed Dalia— Dchllyiea, the Ilythian I am traveling with!” It was hard for Anders to express the complete contempt that he had for even the notion that he or Dalia were involved in the Eternal Empress’s madness.

“And then there have been reports of strange, uh, developments in the empress’s forces?” Anders watched as Jhan-il Poul moved a heavy hand to the golden bracelets on display on the Mondrauk’s wrist, there to depress some of the onyx gems. A holo-field came to life between them, though it took the policeman a little while to register what it was he was actually looking at, given his aching head. Once he did, he realized that it was some kind of township on an arid planet.

There were three tall towers of gleaming white, functional and rectangular, and clustered at their base were more domes and low-roofed buildings. Anders didn’t recognize it, but from the logo of stars and scales, he recognized it as a Proxima Republic outpost.

The Proximians were a cosmopolitan protectorate of the Golden Throne, mostly humans, but who chafed under the Eternal Empress’s rulership. This Poul really does have spies everywhere, Anders thought. What the chieftain had said before had been true—Anders had never previously thought of the Mondrauks as being that interested in the affairs of the other civilizations.

But then, walking across the arid landscape came a small collection of figures. All humanoid and human, and none over the age of thirty, Anders figured. Each one had a clinically-shaved head, and each one wore the silver-gray jumpsuits that Anders recognized from the PK clones that had infiltrated Ilythia.

No… Anders felt a surge of panic as he realized just what the PK clones were about to do. There really wasn’t anything else he thought they could do.

They stopped a hundred meters out from the Proxima outpost, just as a hover-quad started to pull out from the main drag to their location. Presumably a patrol guard, Anders thought.

The hover-quad sent up billows of dust and sand on either side of it as it approached the clones. Anders could see someone standing up in the copilot seat, waving at the figures in big, dramatic gestures—

Before the entire quad jumped twenty feet straight up into the air, flipping and spinning as if a massive, invisible landmine had detonated right underneath it.

“Dear stars.” Anders blinked. Even though he had seen the devastating power of this new type of psychic warrior before—and firsthand—it was still shocking to see their potential. The hover-quad hit the dirt and exploded in a greasy-black pall of smoke, and now the PK troops were turning their attention to the township itself.

“Shortly after this footage reached my hands,” Jhan-il Poul growled, “the Eternal Empress released a statement that she was routing out coconspirators and traitors to the throne…”

Traitors? Anders thought. He knew that the Proximus Republic had an indirect military arm through the guerrilla group called the New Dawn, but not every Proximian was a sworn revolutionary, were they?

And certainly not every person living in that outpost. Anders glowered at the holo-field image as the psychics did their work.

Each of the handful of jumpsuit-clad people stopped stock still in the dusty plain and appeared to be looking up at the shining towers before them. For a moment, Anders could have been looking at a collection of students, being told to admire a view.

Only each student suddenly tilted their head in perfect unison, the way that a flock of birds suddenly turns on some instinctive, animal urge.

And just like what Anders had seen happening to the floating citadel of the Tularins, he watched the first of the towers start to shake and break. First to go were the windows, sending glittering plumes of glass out over the streets of the small township. The windows exploded floor by floor, and then the entire tower quaked. Tiny shadows of furniture or people exploded out of the rooms as the tower toppled, hitting the next.

And then, as if some critical mass had been reached, the other buildings started to shake and collapse. Anders was watching the same symptoms everywhere across the holo. It was like a psychic disease that couldn’t be halted.

Finally, the entire holo-field was engulfed by the rising smokes and dust clouds as the Proximian Republic outpost shook itself to pieces.

How many had lived there? Anders wondered. Several hundred? A couple thousand?

The clones were getting stronger, there was no doubt about it, and Anders knew that it had to be because that the Eternal Empress had found a way to channel the power of the Archon device the way that Jake had.

The holo-field clicked off with a movement of the alien’s strong hands, and Anders was left looking at Jhan’il Poul’s appraising expression. It was clear that the Mondrauk wanted answers, but Anders didn’t even know how to begin explaining what he had learned recently.

There is an ancient race of alien god-creatures called the Black Suns. And the Eternal Empress has found a way to wake at least one… Who would believe him if he said that!?

As it turned out, however, he didn’t have to. He was surprised at the diplomatic intelligence of the usually aggressive Mondrauks as the chieftain cleared his throat with a guttural cough.

“It is clear that Ilythia and the elves will fall. That is not why I am offering to help you,” Poul said seriously, in a tone that was so deadpan that Anders could only believe it.

“I couldn’t care less if the Eternal Empress wipes out the elves,” Poul said pragmatically. “But what I do care about is the fact that the Eternal Empress appears to have a power that can bring us all to our knees,” he said. “It is only a matter of time before the empress turns her attention to Jakka, which is right and proper, as a society only deserves to survive if it has strength!” Anders detected another hard-won piece of uncompromising Mondrauk wisdom.

The jhan-il’s eyes flickered. “And that is why I am offering you, how do you humans put it…an olive branch?”

He means to make a peace accord with us? With Ilythia? Anders was astonished.

“I am in a rather special position, Lieutenant Anders,” Poul said gravely. “I have some power and influence here in Jakka, and even in this voudj of the jhan. I am party to certain secrets about the jhan that will help you, if you help me.”

Here it comes, Anders thought. He knew that the idea of a peaceful Mondrauk elder was just too much to ask. “What is it? What do you want in return?” Anders asked through clenched teeth.

“Just that you and your allies do as I request, when I request it, and the outcome will be beneficial to both of us,” Poul said with a savage grin.

“I’m not here looking for new employers,” Anders said tightly.

“And neither would I wish to be!” The Mondrauk barked his croaking, guttural laugh. “Do not misunderstand me, human. I am not your friend, nor your ally. I just am interested in the future of the Mondrauk people.”

Anders nodded. “I understand,” the human said, and there was steel in his eyes as he said it. “Now, tell me what I and my friends have to do to get Jhan Col to fight the Eternal Empress.”

Secrets of Ilythia Boxed Set

“Our glorious leader has a problem, one that very few know about,” Jhan-il Poul said, now standing before the assembled delegation. The chieftain had arranged to have Dalia, Patch, and Jake brought to Anders’s medical cell.

Dalia looked tense and angry, pacing the small room in apparent scorn, but she didn’t interrupt the powerful chieftain as he outlined what he wanted them to do. Beside Anders, perched on his metal-table bed, was Patch McGuire, again looking a little pale, withdrawn, and owlish in the presence of these aliens.

The only one of their company who appeared entirely at ease was the circlet-wearing Jake, who was looking between Jhan-il Poul and the blue-field door as if trying to work out a particularly intriguing problem in his head.

Good grief, Anders wondered when he considered the state of each of his friends. And we’re supposed to be the shining hope for the survival of the Ilythians?

“And that problem comes in the form of Ganna Col, the jhan’s only child,” Poul said. “Ganna is coming up to his maturity, but he has been kept from the rest of the jhan-ils and Mondrauk society because of his condition…”

The way that the Mondrauk said that last word, with a slight sneer of distaste, made Anders clench his jaw.

“Ganna has a progressive disease that affects his growing tendons, muscles, and joints,” the Mondrauk’s voice wavered just a little, as if he was trying to give himself courage to even speak of it. “Ganna is not strong. Ganna is weak, and he will only grow weaker for the rest of his natural life, which, thankfully, is likely to be short. Ganna should have been terminated upon birth of course, or as soon as the disease made itself known, but Jhan Col had a moment of weakness.”

Dalia turned on her heel and let out an angry hiss. Anders knew that the Ilythians—most of them, anyway—believed that all life was sacred, so to her, the Mondrauk’s words were an insult.

“But the jhan’s mistake is your gain. Our gain,” Poul said with a slow, toothsome smile. “Jhan Col knows that when the boy reaches maturity, he will not be able to hide his existence for much longer. There will probably be an outcry. There will probably be jhan-ils attempting to challenge him for his position. We may even see a tribal civil war across Jakka!”

And do you want to be one of those challengers, Jhan-il Poul? Anders found himself wondering.

“With the Eternal Empress appearing to want to burn through every one of the races before her, this is no time for Mondrauk disunity,” Poul said. “So, I have been researching for some time the whereabouts of a famous Mondrauk healer, who is the only one on Jakka who may be able to help,” the chieftain said in what was as close to a reverential tone as a Mondrauk could manage. “Woak Edja. The Woak Edja.”

“Never heard of him. Her. Them,” Anders grumbled.

“No,” the chieftain said sharply. “I am not surprised. Woak Edja is almost a creature out of myth, an ancient Mondrauk who himself could have become a jhan a long time ago, and who had already killed a thousand enemies by the time he renounced our society.”

“Sounds like the only Mondrauk with any sense,” Anders muttered to himself, earning a hissing growl from the jhan-il.

“I never said Woak Edja was a pacifist!” Poul appeared to take Anders’s suggestion as the deepest insult. “Merely a mystic. A scholar, and a healer. Since his departure from society, there have been many accounts of Woak Edja returning from the wild places, able to cure plagues and outbreaks and the severest of injuries, before disappearing again. And ever since hearing of little Ganna’s ailment, I have been researching the old accounts and believe that I have found a pattern to the appearances and wanderings. I believe that I am able to predict precisely where Woak Edja will be, right now!” Poul appeared impressed with his own abilities, but Dalia beside Anders was more practical.

“Why didn’t the jhan himself approach this healer?” Dalia said tersely. Anders could tell that she didn’t trust the Mondrauk before them, which was a feeling he shared.

“To do so would be to accept that he made a mistake, and the jhan is a proud leader.” Poul made a gesture of helplessness with his hands. “I wish for you to travel to him, to get the cure for Ganna Col, and to bring it back here to me.” The Mondrauk smiled. “In return, I will speak on your behalf to Jhan Col, who will undoubtedly be so pleased that his mistake has been rectified that he will agree to help you in attacking the Eternal Empress.”

“Sounds simple…” Patch murmured, but the policeman knew what the young Voider meant. Sounds too simple. Anders frowned.

“Why us? Why not use your own contacts?” Anders asked quickly.

There was a flash of something in the Mondrauk’s eyes. Annoyance? Recognition? Concern? Anders couldn’t be sure.

“Do you wish for my aid, or do you wish to remain here as the jhan’s slaves until such a time as he tires of you all?” the chieftain countered.

“Well, when you put it like that…” Patch said morosely.

Anders spared a look to Jake—who wasn’t interested—and to Dalia, who returned his questioning look with a roll of her eyes.

“We’ll do it,” Anders said, pushing himself into a wobbling standing position, his head still pounding. “Where do we find this miracle healer of yours?”



Although they attracted stares, none of the seven-foot tall aliens that Anders, Dalia, Patch, and Jake encountered on their escape from the voudj halted their flight. Not with Jhan-il Poul proudly stalking ahead of them.

Anders wondered at this apparent obviousness, or obliviousness. Won’t people be asking where Poul is taking the aliens? Why?

However, it soon became apparent that whatever strange codes of honor these people had, a component of it was to never question a chieftain as powerful as Jhan-il Poul.

They walked through corridors with arching roofs, past smaller open-doored rooms where Mondrauks were engaged in noisy, angry, and garrulous games of chance that seemed to involve small, scuttling creatures, or else the Mondrauk equivalent of lounges, where the giant and powerful beings lazed on a variety of plush recliners, while they picked food from trays or drank horns of something that smelled to Anders’s nose like cinnamon and lemon.

But eventually the party made it out of the palatial tent to return to the flattened ochre plains of the outside, where the sun was beginning to set, and the two moons of the home world were only just starting to rise on the eastern horizon. The sky above was deepening to a rich purple-blue, and string-lines of blinking satellites were starting to appear, threading their way across the sky like the lines of some cosmic spider’s web. On the distant, half-shapes of the moons, Anders could see more pinpricks of light every time the dusted airs of the plains eddied and moved.

“We’re not heading to the ship,” Dalia murmured through tight lips. It was true, the lieutenant noted. Although he could see their damaged Ilythian scout sitting where it had been deposited by the Mondrauk Man-o-War, and still more of the bullish Mondrauk ships squatting on the plains around the voudj like giant metal beasts, it seemed that Jhan-il Poul was threading them away from the vehicles to an entirely different mode of transport.

“Are we expected to ride those things or be fed to them!?” Patch gave an appalled hiss at the creatures that the mixed party were being led to, and, given the fearsome appearance of the beasts, Anders could only share the Voider’s concern.

“Doku-beasts.” Jhan-il Poul saw his companions’ wary looks and gave a loud, rumbling laugh in response. The beasts in question were six-legged, almost three times the height of Anders, and with a hide of thick, gray-tawny skin. Although their legs ended in goat-like hooves that suggested some sort of bovine docility, their strong necks and cruel-looking heads made them appear nothing if not carnivores. They had horns like the Mondrauks themselves, two large protrusions that swept back away from the bony brow-ridge, and two smaller nubs behind that. Their eyes were small and dark, and their maws were four flaring mandibles like some kind of insect. Patch flinched as he saw one of the corralled doku-beasts turn and snap at their nearest fellow, making a rattling sort of hiss as it did so.

“Idj! Doku-dakka mor vak!” Their guide was gesturing to one of the nearest collections of Mondrauks standing around one of their large, burning outdoor grills. Anders watched as the small huddle snarled and bared their fangs at each other as they spoke their guttural tongue, but one of them did indeed break away from the others to spring with a Mondrauk’s ease over the wooden fence. He started to pick up what looked like gigantic harnesses and saddles and approached the doku-beasts.

“If he thinks that I am going to get onto one of those things, then—” Patch was murmuring as they watched the trials of the doku-handler to get the saddle in place. There were many straps and clips, creating a high ‘seat’ between the first pair of the beast’s legs. At several moments, one or other of the various unwilling beasts of burden reached around with its flaring mandibles to attempt to snap at the handler, who was forced to duck, growl, or else thump the beast with one of his meaty fists to get the creature to obey.

“If this is how we manage to save Ilythia, I’ll do it,” Dalia said through gritted teeth. She lightly hopped herself over the fence and approached the nearest saddled doku.

Anders watched as the creature turned its head to flare mandibles at the Ilythian as she strode forward. Dalia pulled herself up short and uttered a sharp, caustic word in Ilythian.

Elf…” the Mondrauk doku-handler nearby growled at her, but surprisingly, her bark of command halted the beast. Anders felt his teeth grind as he watched the doku-beast open and close its mandibles, as if tasting the air before the Ilythian’s face. And then Dalia was making a singsong, almost musical tone with her voice as she took a step forward, raising one of her fine, long-fingered hands.

The doku-beast tasted the air before her hand once again before Dalia suddenly vaulted, grabbing the leaper-straps by the creature’s shoulder and swinging her legs into the saddle as the creature bucked.

“Watch out!” Anders heard himself say, breaking into a worried run toward the enclosure.

But Dalia was continuing her mixture of sharp commands interspersed with the more singsong whistles and sighs as she struggled to maintain balance on the rearing alien beast.

And, amazingly, the creature seemed to accept her, stopping its wild resistance and lowering its head to pick at the ground.

“And without even any herbs!” Jhan-il Poul said with a bemused expression, or what Anders thought was bemusement. He found it hard to tell with Mondrauks, as their default facial expression to non-Mondrauks appeared to be one of disdain.

But for the rest of the party, the sacks of dried and foul-smelling herbs appeared to be a necessity. It took Anders at least three handfuls of the dank mixture to get his own doku-beast to stop snapping at him, and it took a great deal more for Patch.

Jake, however, appeared just as dreamy and out-of-it as he approached his own beast, who tasted the air and shied away from the PK, but did not appear to want to eat the youth as the psychic climbed on its back.

Is that a psychic effect? Anders frowned, worrying that the teenager’s PK-suppressor might be wearing out. However, no answers to this riddle were forthcoming as Jhan-il Poul mounted his own beast with muttered curses, thumps, and handfuls of herbs. He ordered the corral gate opened, and for their journey to begin.

“We’re riding through the night, so keep your wits about you!” the jhan-il said as he steered them toward the distant canyon walls, which only made Anders wonder why they would need their wits about them.

It was some time past midnight, when the sky was bright with stars and satellites and one of the moons had already set, that the policeman found out exactly why.



The party trundled forward on the six-legged gait of their strange beasts across rock, grit, and sand plains turned silver by the night. The hooves made a constant crunching rhythm underneath them, and, despite the appearance of the doku-beasts, Anders found their passage almost soothing.

The walls of the canyon eclipsed half the night sky on their left as they walked, and already the voudj of the Jhan of Jakka was just a distant memory.

These things travel fast, Anders had to recognize. He yawned, lifting his eyes to scan the horizon for any sign of habitation. He saw the occasional fast-moving light far out across the canyon floor, weirdly mirroring the streaks of lights in the distant skies above as Mondrauk ships, cruisers, or strange transports went about their business.

Until, that was, one of the distant lights suddenly veered from its course and started to grow brighter and larger. It appeared to be heading toward them.

“Jhan-il?” Anders called out softly to the Mondrauk leading them.

“What is it?” the chieftain grunted gruffly, scowling back at the human.

“That over there, it appears to be coming closer—” Anders was saying, in the moment that the light abruptly winked out as if it had never been.

Edkh!” The effect the vanishing light had on the chieftain was galvanic. He snarled and pulled hard on the reins of the doku-beast, making it gutter-snarl and chitter warningly, rolling its head from side to side.

“Boss?” Anders heard Patch’s voice rise in alarm behind him.

“Poul, what is it? What does it mean!?” Anders was asking, just as the sound of a low mumbling drone came toward them, although no object or craft could be seen.

“Only one thing—” Anders saw the darkened silhouette of the chieftain hunch and move as he drew a long-handled laser rifle from his saddle. “Someone thinks we’ll be easy prey!”

“What!?” Anders said. Were the Mondrauks so aggressive, Anders wondered, that they would be attacked just a few hours out from their capital!?

Apparently, yes. Suddenly, there was a new flare of light and the unmistakable dirty orange of meson fire.

Secrets of Ilythia Boxed Set

“Separate!” Jhan-il Poul hollered in the Empress’s English as the molten ball of meson plasma shot out across the silvered plains toward them.

Someone is firing at us! Anders pulled on the reins of his doku-beast, trying to get it to obey him.

Luckily, either the doku-beasts were used to such things, or the rising hum of some kind of craft spooked them, as each one pranced away on their six legs. With a crashing boom, the ball of meson fire hit the canyon wall, sending fragments of heated grit and rock and scorched dust all over their backs.

Ach!” Anders heard Jake hiss in pain.

“Jake, stay low!” Anders called, but his nervous beast had already moved him away from the others. Doku-beasts did not have much of a herd instinct, it appeared.

Anders had one hand on the reins as his creature attempted to start a jerking, heavy-footed sort of gallop away from the noise and chaos. In the lieutenant’s other hand, he had already pulled his laser pistol—their weapons had been returned to them by some favor of the jhan-il.

And now Anders could see the bright white light of the craft suddenly flaring on again, growing dazzling bright as the raiders presumably attempted to blind them. It was a craft alright, and it was turning slightly, which revealed its shape: a torpedo-like structure with the turbines forming its body and tail. It was almost as wide as one of the doku-beasts, but it was considerably faster.

And on its back, there glinted and moved the shapes of Mondrauk bodies, bringing their own long-handled meson rifles to bear.

Stars!” Anders swore, instinctively digging his heels into the stirrups. With a chittering belch, it leapt to one side as two more balls of meson-orange erupted to smack into the desert-plain floor and boulders where Anders and his steed had so recently been.

“A raiding party!” Anders heard the distant holler of Jhan-il Poul behind them, not that the policeman cared who was attacking them just so long as they stopped it. Now.

Anders fired, sending his own brighter, white-blue laser shot back. He saw it flare in a ball of flame and sparks as it hit the side of the torpedo-craft, but he did not hear any grunts of agony.

Another flare of laser light, this time coming from behind Anders as one of their party fired.

It was a better shot than Anders’s had been. As the projectile-craft swerved around the group for a return attack, Anders saw the explosion of sparks and one of the large bodies of the Mondrauk raiders, silhouetted black against the silver plains, thrown from the carriage and sent tumbling across the plains.

“That’s it!” Anders heard the jhan-il’s appreciative snarl as he fired bolt after bolt of his own meson fire at the craft. Only half of them hit, but the few that did sent the craft swerving erratically.

Gragh!” There was a shout from Anders’s side, and a sudden movement on the plains. The ex-policeman barely had time to turn his pistol across his body as the form of a goat-like Mondrauk jumped from the plains toward him, swinging his long-rifle with a cruel bayonet-blade attachment on the end.

Anders fired. The shot hit the Mondrauk, dressed in part-plate armor and ragged hides, and sent him spinning in the air.

But either Anders’s shot hadn’t been sharp enough or the Mondrauk’s armor had protected it, because the Mondrauk was still alive as it slammed onto the back of the doku-beast. There was a chittered screech from the beast as the Mondrauk raider used its bayonet to stab into the doku’s back for purchase.

“Get off my monster!” Anders shouted, swiveling as much as he could to angle a shot at the raider attempting to climb his steed. But the doku-beast was rearing and bucking, and Anders’s shot went wide. He could hear similar shots and screams from behind him as the doku-beast jumped and spun, trying to dislodge its new passenger.

“Not yours, human scum!” he heard the raider snarl as the Mondrauk was scrabbling to the humped bone-ridge behind Anders, pulling his bayonet long-rifle out with a spurt of black blood and a further squeal of outrage from the beast underneath them.

The Mondrauk was far more adept at this than Anders and had already managed to close the distance between them as Anders attempted to free himself from the stirrups and turn around, raising his laser pistol—


The Mondrauk batted Anders’s pistol out of his hand with a heavy sweep of the butt of the long-rifle, and now the raider, directly in front of Anders and smelling of burning meat, was reversing the thrust straight toward Anders—

“Hgh!” Anders attempted to throw himself to one side, but he was too late. The bayonet blade stabbed through the thin encounter suit and into the meat of his thigh. Anders felt the sickening intrusion and the horrible, connecting thump as the edge of the thin blade similarly pierced the gray hide of the doku’s shoulder underneath him as well.

Ach!” Anders felt agony flare through him like a wildfire. He was pinned to the beast he was riding, and the raider was releasing the rifle to hold him there like one of the skewered bits of meat they appeared to love roasting on open fires.

In a moment of stop-time pain, Anders saw the Mondrauk grip the doku-beast with his thighs and strange, backward-jointed knees as it raised both hands wide, clearly preferring to keep the human stuck while it resorted to more brutal methods of murder.

“Sir!” Moriarty alerted him from the node at his neck. The simulated intelligence was only just waking up, having gone dormant. Anders didn’t have time for strategic analysis. He had no weapon.

Anders hunched his head and bent as much as he could as both hands seized the long-rifle that held him to the beast, wrenching the weapon from hide and his own sinew as the raider’s talons battered the sides of his neck, shoulders, and back.

“Agh!” More lines of fire as the snubbed ends of the Mondrauk’s claw-like nails found the skin of his neck after skittering across Anders’s armor.

“I said, get off my monster!” Anders reversed the grip and fired the long-rifle as he felt himself sliding from the doku’s neck. It was a point-blank shot, absolutely impossible to miss even as he fell, and the Raider was hurled from his stolen seat in a plume and explosion of ruddy meson light.

Anders hit the ground with a painful thud. The human was too winded to even gasp in pain, but he did have a moment of terrible blankness before gasping for air and rolling out of the way of the beast’s fleeing legs.

Anders coughed and sputtered, and his punctured leg wasn’t behaving as it should. He could hear the shouts, screams, and snarls of the battle behind him, and as he rolled over, he could see the interplay of meson-orange and blue-white as Dalia, Patch, Jake, and the jhan-il engaged with the raiders.

“Sir. You need to tourniquet that wound,” Moriarty was informing him in brisk but unemotional terms. “If you don’t, you will suffer significant, hazardous blood loss in approximately one hundred and ninety-two seconds—”

Gee thanks. Anders attempted to push himself up from the floor before collapsing again with a painful grunt.

“Sir, the long-rifle. It is ten inches to the right of your right hand,” Moriarty informed him.

Anders seized it, using it almost like a spear to stab into the ground at his feet as he pushed himself upward.

“You have no available materials, and no time,” Moriarty continued. “I have analyzed the scenario. Forward four meters with haste!”

Anders, who had long learned to rely on the simulated intelligence to think faster and better than he could, lurched forward into the night to immediately see the shape of Moriarty’s plan. There on the floor was the dead body of the raider he had blasted from the fleeing beast’s back.

“My scans show a medical kit,” Moriarty was saying. A wave of lightheadedness washed over Anders. He didn’t know how many seconds had passed, but he didn’t want to find out how little time he had left before he collapsed, either. “Left hip!” the intelligence informed him, and Anders let himself stumble-fall onto the body of the goat-like Mondrauk, to scrabble with shaking gloved hands at the strange-shaped modules on the alien’s utility belt.

“Not that one. The next,” Moriarty said as Anders seized the faintly tubular thing. Another wave of dizziness as Anders’s hands pawed, scratched, and slapped at the surface of the module until the top suddenly hissed and popped open. Inside was an awkward-looking pen, appearing like a tube made of scales, with a sharpened, curving point like a steel tooth at the end. Anders could recognize a medical injector when he saw one, and he wasted no time in jabbing it into his blood-drenched thigh. He felt the shock of cold spread up and down his thigh as the Mondrauk healing drugs were dispersed throughout his body.

“Ah,” Anders heard Moriarty’s as-close-to-worried-as-it-could utterance as he wavered in place. The pain of his leg subsided almost immediately to be replaced by a deep numbness. “I was going to advise only using half of the serum, given the differences in human and Mondrauk physiology…”

“Ah,” Anders echoed. His lips felt oddly thick and unresponsive, and even his face was tingling. He certainly couldn’t feel the pain anymore, and when he looked down at his injury, he could see the glistening bubbles of his own flesh as his leg knitted itself back together at an almost alarming rate.

Ugh—” Next came a wave of nausea as Anders’s much smaller human frame reacted to the heavy Mondrauk drugs flooding through him. In the next moment, he was bent over and retching a bitter drool onto the desert floor…

At least the bleeding has stopped, Anders managed to think in a disjointed, fuzzy way as his vision doubled and resolved.

What exactly happens when a human takes Mondrauk medicines? Anders thought, feeling a little floaty and sick all at the same time. He found that he was standing up now, somehow, but he didn’t remember how he had done so.

“Sir!” Moriarty called, just as a bolt of ruddy meson plasma flashed out of the night toward him. He lurched to one side, landing with a roll that should have awakened the recent pains of his skewered body, but the policeman couldn’t feel anything at all. Somewhere along the way, he had brought the stolen Mondrauk’s long-rifle with him and was now sitting up to take aim at the bounding figure of the raider coming his way.

Despite the fact that Anders was effectively poisoned on alien pharmaceuticals, and that he felt sick and nauseous, one side effect of the drug on the human’s system was to apparently slow down his perception of time. Or maybe it was just the complete relaxation of his mind due to narcotics. Anders didn’t know. He sighted down the barrel to see the leaping, scissor-kicking form of the Mondrauk rise through the starry airs directly in front of him.

Anders could see in perfect stop-frame time where to aim, and where to fire to make the perfect shot. And the intoxicated, poisoned policeman did. The Mondrauk raider thumped to the dirt with a clean hole smoking between their horns.

A slight buzzing sound followed Anders’s shot. It took him a moment to realize it was his ears ringing. He was suddenly standing up, as if time were flinging itself at him in fits and starts, and then he was walking across the plains to where he could see the shapes of the last remaining doku-beasts and the Mondrauk’s attack-craft, now a smoking and flaring ruin against the canyon walls.

His side had won, as there were bodies of raiders everywhere, mostly shot but a couple seemingly trampled by the doku.

Too many to just be in that craft… Anders’s bleary mind registered as he stumbled into the halo-glow of the burning wreckage, searching for Dalia, Patch, Jake, and the jhan-il.

The raider’s ship was only a decoy, he thought. The main body of the attacking Mondrauks had loped and sprung across the plains on their alien hooves while their tubular turbine craft had drawn the defenders’ fire.

“Anders?” He heard a gasp and turned to see that it was Dalia and Patch running across the grit of the canyon floor. Both Ilythian and human made faces of surprise when they saw Anders, and he was aware that they were looking at the lakes of his own dried blood that had almost completely drenched his lower body.

“Boss…you don’t look right at all.” Patch, as ever, made the understatement of the century, just before the blankness and nausea rose through Anders once again in a cooling wave, and Anders hit the dirt, already unconscious.


The Tunnel of Teeth

“You’re lucky you didn’t wake up with a set of horns!” Patch was peering a little nervously at the rather sullen, morose, and over-all pained face of his ‘boss.’—Lieutenant Anders Corsigon.

There were any number of reasons why the young Voider would be feeling nervous, given the midnight attack by the stronger, devil-like Mondrauks and, of course, being trapped on a seemingly hostile planet. The most pressing issue, however, was the foul mood that Anders had awakened with that morning after his sedation.

Anders grumbled back at the Voider, earning a wide-eyed stare before Patch returned to nervously throw more leaves in the direction of his doku-beast.

The party had only lost one of their beasts of burden, which was the one that Anders had been riding, and they had agreed that Anders was to ride with Jake, given the teenager’s seeming inability to concentrate for long periods of time. In his fog of medicated hangover, Anders managed to concede that it was probably this dreaminess that had saved Jake from the raiders, since he had apparently done nothing more than hunker down and clutch at his beast’s neck all through the battle until it had wandered back to rejoin the others just before first light.

I suppose it’s a blessing he didn’t blast a crater the size of Hectamon 7 in the middle of Jakka, Anders admitted grumpily to himself. The policeman felt awful, like he had drunk twenty-seven synth-shots from a dockside bar back in his home city of New Gate.

But his thigh was indeed healed, as Moriarty had pointed out at some point in the early ochre light of the Mondrauk dawn. Anders hadn’t been very respectful toward that little snippet of good news either, even though he had to admit the puckered and waxy-looking red skin clearly visible in the hole of his lower encounter suit was perfectly sealed and didn’t even hurt a bit. That torment was reserved only for his throbbing headache.

“If you dare say ‘I told you not to use that much serum,’ I swear to the stars that I’ll drop you in the dirt and leave you here,” Anders grumbled at his simulated aide, who wisely chose to remain silent.

“It’s only going to get worse.” Jhan-il Poul lumbered toward the group of red rocks that Anders had chosen to sit next to while examining his wounds. The light of the day was filtered with orange, making everything appear hotter than the cold it actually was.

Probably the dust, Anders grumped. Which will probably give us all bronchitis.

“They were a raiding party all right, but that’s not going to be our next problem,” Poul advised them as he set about gathering his things and feeding his doku-beast with the herbs that kept them barely in check.

“And do tell me what that is,” Anders groaned. He could see where Dalia was apparently feeding her doku-beast now by hand, given she had managed to develop some sort of bond with the otherwise grouchy creature. Beyond her and the beast rose the walls of the canyon, rising hundreds of feet into the muted gray-and-orange skies far above. A group of bat-like things circled far overhead, making Anders think of vultures hovering for a prospective kill.

“Mondrauks raid all the time. They raid each other, raid other civilizations, pirates, traders—” the jhan-il said. “Mondrauks die in battle—” He shrugged as if it was no big deal. “—and usually the families of the dead accept their loss as just another fact of life. But if the families take upset at the circumstances of their death…”

“Like being killed by humans and Ilythian visitors?” the sharp-eared Dalia called out, earning a serious nod from Poul.

“Precisely. Then the families can petition their village jhan-il, just as the citizens of my townships have petitioned me many times, to call for an ohtma.”

“A blood-feud,” Anders supplied. He remembered Moriarty’s description of the strangely tribalistic Mondrauk way of life.

“A crusade,” Poul corrected. “Mondrauks see no need to keep prisons or conduct reparations. An ohtma can be issued, and justice will be served in battle and in blood.”

“But there’s no guarantee that whomever the jhan-il of these raiders is would see a need to call an ohtma against us, is there?” Anders said testily. He wasn’t sure if he just wanted to believe the best, or whether he was arguing just for the sake of it. Probably the latter.

Jhan-il Poul made a barking sound of a laugh, full of scorn. “Well, I know what I would say, were I their chieftain.” He nodded back down the canyon, where a pall of black smoke was still rising from the wrecked craft.

“So?” This time, Anders pushed himself to his feet to feel his medicated, woozy head throb in pain once more. He took a deep drink from his water pouch. “You’re a jhan-il, and a powerful one at that. Which other chieftain would go against you?”

“None,” Poul said steadily, turning his head to catch Anders with one black orb of an eye. “But the real question is, which jhan-il would like to see me out of the way, so that they can get the ear of our supreme, glorious warlord Jhan Col?” Poul said, and the answer was obvious.

“I’m guessing the answer is all of them?” Dalia sighed wearily, earning another scolding laugh from Poul.

“Correct! The chances are good that whenever word gets back to the families of the dead back there, that we will be looking at a blood-crusade against us, against me!”

Even though what Poul was suggesting was a vicious attempt on their lives, to Anders and the others, it sounded as though Poul welcomed it.

I will never understand these people. Anders shook his head, instantly regretting it.

“So, I suggest we move quickly, get back to Jhan Col, and save his son Ganna to earn his undying loyalty,” Poul continued, pointing along the canyon wall to the obvious cleft in the red rocks a little way off, which appeared to be a passage through the cliffs.

“That way to this Woak Edja of yours?” Anders muttered as he waved at Jake, who was busy turning rocks over in mid-air, using small gestures with his hands. If he can do that even with the PK-suppressors… the alarmed thought flashed through Anders’s mind.

“That way to the Tunnel of Teeth,” Jhan-il Poul corrected. “And then the holy Woak Edja.”

“The Tunnel of Teeth,” Anders heard Patch murmur morosely to anyone listening. “This trip just keeps sounding better and better, don’t it?”

Secrets of Ilythia Boxed Set

The Tunnel of Teeth was well-named, the policeman thought. The four doku-beasts and their riders had tramped their steady, miles-eating pace into the avenue made by the canyon walls that soared over them. Despite that it was a sunny Jakka morning, the avenue was cast in a permanent cold shade by the orange and ochre walls.

And those walls were narrowing, turning into an ancient ravine, then a gulley, until they finally met with a perfectly round tunnel in the distant wall.

But that tunnel was edged with teeth, Anders and the others saw.

Real teeth. Anders reached out to the walls as he urged his beast after Jhan-il Poul. It was almost pitch-black ahead of them, with the only light coming from a small, hovering blue drone that the Mondrauk chieftain had released to hover a few meters in front of their troupe.

The thin light revealed tortured, complicated rows and nests of bleached fangs, some as long as Anders’s arms, lancing out into the tunnel, but still with just enough room for the doku-beasts and their riders.

“What are these?” he heard Patch murmur from somewhere behind him, his voice made clear by the echoing and confined space.

“These?” the echoing growl of the jhan-il said. “They’re dead things, human.”

Anders was about to ask what kind of dead things when he saw that the meters-long fangs weren’t the only teeth that made up these macabre walls. In between each of the more pronounced and impressive specimens were also many hundreds and thousands of smaller teeth.

As small as his were, he saw. And some a little larger, like Mondrauk teeth.

Anders started to get the terrible suspicion that these teeth were the remnants of every traveler who had dared to enter this dread hall.

And that was when the hissing sound began.

Secrets of Ilythia Boxed Set

“Beware!” Jhan-il Poul barked, reaching in the dim light not for his long-rifle but instead for the smaller, bulky-looking Mondrauk pistol.

“What is it?” Anders hissed, drawing his spare laser pistol from his side, since he had lost the other in his recent battle with the raiders. A moment later, he saw movement in the dark, caught by the blue drone-light, and it was coming from the walls themselves.

There were elongated shapes as pale as the bleached calcium of the teeth and fangs that sheltered them, unspooling from their nests. Anders realized then that not all of the shapes around them were teeth.

Some were snake-like creatures, dangling from the walls and awakened by their passage.

Hyagh!” Anders heard a muffled scream of horror from Patch and turned his head, just as the nearest downward ‘fang’ suddenly writhed in place. Fierce yellow, reptilian eyes flared open and the ‘fang’ split at the end to reveal that it was a mouth with serrated teeth inside. Each one of these snake-things appeared to have a large ‘foot’ of scale that clung to their bed in the wall by some unknown mechanism, but even though they apparently couldn’t leave their hunting spot, they could still flick back and forth in place.

The nearest fang-snake arched towards Anders’s face, and the human just managed to bat it away with his own pistol as the tunnel suddenly flared with bright blue laser-fire. Dalia was shooting, spinning this way and that on the back of her doku-beast as she sought to fend off her attackers.

Anders raised his laser pistol as the snake twisted back toward him.

He wished that he had a cleaver or any hand-to-hand weapon, but wishes were useless as he tried to follow the snake’s writhing, swinging, and flickering form.

He fired. He missed. The blue laser bolt exploded into the ceiling behind the fang-snake, causing one of the actual bone-teeth to shatter and send slivers and shards down into the tunnel itself, all over Patch’s doku-beast.

And then Anders realized just how dangerous this tunnel was. It wasn’t just the hissing, striking fang-snakes, it was the fact that every movement and attack was constricted by the very real bone-teeth all around them.

“Agh!” Anders saw Patch’s beast attempt to rear back on two of its six legs as Anders ducked to one side, with one hand clamped around Jake to stop either of them from getting a face full of snake.

Patch had flattened himself on his monstrous steed, and the doku-beast itself was only working to impale and gouge at its legs and shoulders in the tight space, its chittering roars echoing.

“Hisss!” The snake lunged toward them again, but it was too close and too fast for Anders to take aim. The snake lanced toward him and Jake, and Anders had no choice but to punch at it.

Chomp! The snake clamped onto the pistol in Anders’s hand, and Anders pulled the trigger.

There was a flash of blue light and green ichor as the snake blew apart, its messy viscera splattering the back of the doku-beast and riders.

Ach!” But there were still more of the terrible creatures, and now Anders could see that several were attached to Patch’s doku-beast, and one had even managed to clamp onto the Voider’s shoulder. With a horrible strength, he saw the fang-snake’s scaly body flex and start to lift the young human bodily from the back of his steed.

“Patch!” Anders fired his pistol, his reactions overtaking his worry as he fired at the fang-snake. His instincts proved a better shot than any carefully-aimed one, and the snake holding Patch burst apart just as the other one had, but there were still more.

Rargh!” Jhan-il Poul hollered, using his Mondrauk pistol like a club to bat away the snakes that lanced toward him. “Forward! We have to keep moving!” the Mondrauk managed to shout through clenched teeth.

Anders kicked his steed forward, feeling the creature shiver and tremble with the agitation of action. There were already several great welts on Anders’s beast oozing blackish blood where it had been bitten.

“Down!” Anders tried to hunch as the next snake snapped at them, its fangs closing just inches from his shoulder.

Boss!” Anders heard a shout from Patch as he swiveled to see that the Voider’s steed had only managed to move forward several meters before becoming completely stuck on the Tunnel of Teeth. The cries of the caught doku were unbearable, and its stuck position only meant that Patch and Dalia were now caught behind them, unable to flee as Jhan-il Poul was already doing.

“Come on!” the Mondrauk was shouting as he forced his own screeching, tormented beast past the tearing and scraping fangs of both snakes and teeth.

“Dismount!” Anders shouted as he swerved to fire at another snake. The policeman didn’t want to leave the beasts behind, not to this dismal fate, but Patch’s doku was already starting to weaken from its multiple injuries and constant fang-snake attacks.

“Nine o’clock, sir!” Moriarty interrupted him. Anders swung around to his left as the fangs of one of the snake-things opened wide, and he once again fired point-blank into the thing’s mouth.

“Oof!” He heard grunts and shouts as both Patch and Dalia slid from their saddles to hit the rock floor, then squeeze, clamber, and duck under the stamping feet of the doku-beasts as they ran toward Anders.

“Keep going!” Anders encouraged, picking off the fang-snakes that threatened to swing down to snatch at his friends’ ducking forms. Bolts of blue laser light illuminated their tense, panicked faces in staccato bursts.

“Sir!” Moriarty called.

Ach!” Anders felt a sudden punch of pain as one of the waving snake-things caught his shoulder. Only one fang managed to find the edge of his Ilythian shoulder-pad, but it was sharp enough to puncture his thin encounter suit and embed itself in his flesh.

“What is it,” Anders snarled, suddenly wolfish as he bent his wrist to punch the laser pistol against the fang-snake’s neck, “with everything trying to put holes in me on this damn planet!” He fired, obliterating his attacker and covering Jake with yet more ichor.

Dalia had thrown a long slender arm around the similarly-wounded Patch and was now using her own pistol like a club to fend off the attacks. Anders dared a look behind him to see that there was grayish light at the end of the tunnel, and no sign of Jhan-il Poul.

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. Anders growled as he shot at another of the snakes while urging his beast forward. Dalia and Patch were now sheltering as close to the rear of Anders’s steed as they could safely get, with the majority of the ceiling snakes attacking the larger doku intruder into their subterranean realm.

The Mondrauks favor strength. No surprise the chieftain left us to survive or die. Anders growled through gritted teeth as he fired again and again.

“We’re almost there!” Dalia yelled, and he realized that she was right. The Tunnel of Teeth was not so very long, it seemed—just deadly.

“Hiss!” Another snake flashed towards Anders’s face, and the man batted it away with the butt of his pistol. Dalia and Poul had been right—it was better to defend themselves like this than try to fight each and every one.

Another snake came, this time near his elbow, and Anders thumped his pistol so hard against its cone-like head that he heard the snap and crunch of scales and bones.

And then, suddenly, the light was dazzling as Anders’s injured and bleeding doku-beast, bearing the policeman and Jake as well as sheltering the Ilythian and the Voider, burst out of the end of the tunnel into warm, streaming, and dazzling sunlight.

“Halt where you are!” shouted guttural alien voices.

Apparently, the survivors of the tunnel had run straight into a semi-circle of armed Mondrauks.


No Questions

Ichtma! Cauol B’amna!” one of the Mondrauks was hollering, and, much to Anders’s surprise, the usually recalcitrant doku-beast pulled up short under the commands. The creature was tired and injured, and Anders could feel the tremors of pain coursing up and down its side.

Anders, Jake, Dalia, and Patch had found themselves gasping for air, still bleeding from their injuries, in a soft dirt clearing in what looked to be a lush jungle. The light was a slight orange, making every spiked and heavy leaf appear to glow with vitality.

The Tunnel of Teeth apparently led the way through the cliffs to another hidden canyon in the landscape. Anders cast eyes back and forth to see distant sandstone, red boulders, and rocky walls far around them, thickly covered with jungle vines and trees. The air was filled with the screech, cry, and hoot of strange Jakka beasts, with some of them sounding like mammals, while others had the same chittering speech of the doku-beasts.

Which I could ride through them, if the damn creature would even listen to me, Anders thought as his eyes slid to their new captors.

They were Mondrauks, of course, but they weren’t the same fur-wearing raiders that Anders had seen before. These wore full Mondrauk battle-plate and easily held their heavy halberd-rifles with giant blade attachments. Each one also wore a Mondrauk helmet, which was more of a partial mask that covered the forehead, eyes, and nose with wide cutaways for the horns to fit, and which ended just above the fanged mouths. The entire effect of the black-armored, apparently sightless aliens would have been terrifying if Anders and the others weren’t already too tired of being scared.

“What do you want?” Anders growled, not lowering his laser pistol, but also knowing that the twelve-strong crew of aiming Mondrauks could blast him and all the others out of their skins in a heartbeat.

“You don’t get to ask, human scum!” sneered the largest of the Mondrauks, whose helmet held a plume of long red hair like horsehair and whom Anders took to be their jhan-il.

“Diplomacy is the better part of valor, sir,” Moriarty murmured softly against his master’s throat.

“Balls to that,” Anders muttered back, slowly lowering his pistol so that his hand hung limp at his side. He watched as Dalia and Patch did the same, no one wanting to relinquish their weapons, and no one daring to move fast.

“You’re wanted for the murder of Mondrauks on Mondrauk land,” the red-plumed captain said. “You’re wanted for escaping the holy jhan’s custody. You’re wanted for intruding on Mondrauk space, uninvited—”

“Hey!” This indignation came from, surprisingly, Patch, whose eyes were sparking with fury. “We haven’t committed any crime! We’re under the protection of Jhan-il Poul!”

“Protection?” The captain of the armored Mondrauks appeared to find this suggestion vaguely hilarious, as he started to chuckle, and then to snigger, and finally to cough as he nodded to the edge of their lush clearing. “Only weak races need protecting, but either way, I don’t think your savior is much good to you now, is he?”

Anders’s eyes followed where the captain was nodding to see that there was a large, gray-skinned shape partly covered and collapsed against vines and large fronds. It was Poul’s doku-beast, dead as everything that had donated its teeth to the tunnel behind them. Anders couldn’t tell if the creature had finally succumbed to the injuries inflicted by the Tunnel of Teeth, or whether this war party had been its demise.

“And Jhan-il Poul? Where is he!?” Anders demanded.

At this, the red-plumed captain flicked one talon at the handle of his own halberd-rifle for the small coils along its body to start glowing as they generated meson energy. “I told you that you don’t get to ask questions, human. Not on my planet!”

Anders clenched his jaw and said nothing, but his arm holding the laser pistol shook with barely-contained fury.

“The alien-lover Jhan-il Poul is in my care,” the captain said proudly, as if capturing a chieftain as powerful as Poul must be a great achievement to the martial culture. “He is subject to an ohtma, as are you all. Jhan-il Poul will be taken before Jhan Col, where he will be executed for treason against the jhan and the Mondrauk peoples.”

“What for!?” Patch, apparently, had reached the end of his tether. “We’re trying to help your damn jhan—” he was saying, just as the captain gave a nod and the Mondrauk beside him moved suddenly and silently.

The blast of orange meson slammed into the ground at the Voider’s feet, flinging both him and the Ilythian backward. Anders felt his heart thump as he turned to see if they were alright.

But now the captain was barking orders to his team as they surged forward. Anders raised his laser pistol, but three of the twelve merely shot the doku-beast under him, sending Anders and Jake tumbling to the ground with gasps and pained shouts.

“Dalia!” Anders shouted, flipping himself from a roll as he scrabbled toward where Jake was sliding to a halt.

“Sir, look out!” Moriarty informed him, a fraction of a second too late, as—

Rargh!” A heavy boot connected with Anders’s ribs, winding him as he was flung to one side, and his chest was prodded with the blade and rifle’s business end. It was the red-plumed captain standing over him, ready to blast a hole straight through him.

Everything on this planet wants to put holes in me. Anders groaned in frustration and agitation before releasing his last remaining laser pistol. It was over. He had lost.


Woak Edja

“Hurry up,” the captain of the battle-plated Mondrauks grumbled as they trudged their new captives along a narrow, winding jungle path. Anders held his hands in front of him, now constrained with magnet-locks, as did the captives behind him.

“Moriarty?” Anders muttered under his breath. The crunching of their feet on dried leaves and the swish and crack of the foliage as they moved hid his question.

“Sir. Full report: Twelve heavily-armed Mondrauks, full battle-plate capable of withstanding low-to-medium laser burst, with meson-powered halberd-rifles, smaller side-blasters, and knives,” the simulated intelligence informed him. “My scans reveal no significant injuries or illnesses in the enemy. In fact, they each appear to be functioning at higher than the biological norm for their species. My best guess would be that they are not average Mondrauk warriors but are either mercenaries or have affiliation to the voudj of Jhan Col.”

“Outstanding,” Anders groaned to himself. Does this mean that these Mondrauks have been plotting with the jhan himself to take out Jhan-il Poul? It was a scenario that made a twisted sort of sense in Mondrauk society. If this entire planet was built on the foundation of honor won through conflict, then the supreme leader probably had every reason to try and undermine or even kill the next strongest leader in the regime.

“Deep-range scans show that we are approaching a structure. Wooden. No electronic signatures, but one Mondrauk lifeform, and—” The simulated intelligence gave a glitched flicker of a pause, indicating that the data-set it was processing from Anders’s node was large, or surprising. “And the Mondrauk in question is ancient. Older than any other Mondrauk recorded, according to Golden Throne Encyclopedia.”

“How old?” Anders whispered back.

“My scans cannot compute with accuracy, but I can safely postulate a range of between three hundred and three hundred and sixty years old,” Moriarty said.

“Woak Edja,” Anders said, forgetting to whisper.

“Silence!” A guard prodded him hard in the ribs with the butt of the rifle, making him stumble forward on awkward feet.

But the path was opening up now into another clearing, whose jungle-noise was complemented by the roar of a stream. When Anders looked up, he saw that there was a hut ahead of them, built out of multiple pieces of faded wood, taller in height than it was round so that it appeared a little like a tower. Its construction was crude but sturdy, as its stanchions were sunk into the ground, allowing it to cling to the boulder edge of a small pool underneath a waterfall.

The entire clearing was at the base of a small cliff covered with vines, whose only clear space was given to the spray of the constant water falling past the tower. A sward of green grass rolled down to where the Mondrauks and captives were walking out and clustered around the base of the tower, where there appeared a garden of many strange plants. Some had silver-blue leaves, others a vivid green, red, or midnight purple.

And there was a movement from beyond the darkened wooden archway of the tower.

“Who disturbs my rest!?” A Mondrauk appeared, and even after Moriarty’s report, Anders was still surprised at the ancient appearance of him.

Woak Edja.

The mysterious, much-fabled shaman of the Mondrauk people didn’t have a full set of horns but rather two nubs that appeared to have been worn down with age. But his horns were fat at their base on his temples, where they rippled into a heavy and pronounced brow ridge of toughened skin and bone.

The mystic’s hair was a silver-white, and when he stepped forward into the light of the clearing, it almost seemed to glow. His skin had even apparently been bleached by the centuries and was a much lighter tan, looking dried and deeply wrinkled.

Woak Edja wore simple gray robes belted at the waist with a wide plait of what appeared to be dried grasses or vines, and Anders thought he could see the hints and remnants of ancient designs on them, long since frayed and faded.

But if the rest of the healer proclaimed his age, it was his eyes that seemed to concentrate the very last of his vitality. They were the fierce and bright black of any Mondrauk centuries younger than himself, and they looked like darkened coals in an otherwise bleached-out body.

“Your time has come, old one,” said the red-plumed captain, leveling his rifle towards Woak.

No!” It was a gruff shout from the last of the captives behind them all, the similarly bound and humiliated form of Jhan-il Poul, who Anders could see now sported a vicious and dried cut across his brow and cheek. The chieftain had been uncharacteristically silent during their trudging march through the jungle, and Anders could see the wide-eyed horror at the thought of these younger warriors so easily eliminating a figurehead of their race.

“You cannot do this!” Jhan-il Poul said. “You will be insulting all Mondrauk-kind!”

“You have spent too much time in love with the aliens,” the captain hissed back as he nodded for several more of the guards to level their meson rifles against Woak Edja.

“Sir?” Moriarty said urgently in Anders’s ear as the captain continued to scold Jhan-il Poul. “I am picking up field energy. A craft is approaching our location…”

“You appeal to Mondrauk-kind as if there is any rule greater than that of strength…” The captain’s voice rose. Now Anders could hear the hum of an engine growing louder and louder over the sound of the waterfall.

“As if there is any rule greater than the jhan himself!” the captain said with feverish pride, just as the jungle trees swayed above them and separated, revealing a small, sleek black shuttle shaped like a fang itself moving steadily over their shared clearing.

Oh no. Anders suddenly realized what was going on. He had been half-right before, he thought as the craft slowly turned and started to lower itself towards the green sward. The raiders that had attacked them had been an ambush, an excuse for the fierce Jhan Col to allow an ohtma to be issued against Jhan-il Poul, and to use that opportunity to overthrow his nearest rival… And perhaps rid himself of the only other Mondrauk who knows his weakness—his son Ganna Col.

On the other side of the craft, Anders’s eyes scanned the face of Woak Edja to find that the Mondrauk’s expression wasn’t alarmed, angered, scared, or even horrified. He merely appeared watchful.

Maybe after nearly four centuries, you’ve seen it all, Anders thought.

The shuttle lowered itself to the ground to dwarf the tower, and as the field engines wound down, there was a hiss of steam as a two-panel door burst open and a ramp extended to the grass.

“Move it, whelp!” shouted the familiar voice of the supreme warlord of all the Mondrauk people. Jhan Col emerged from the tiny craft, his massive bulk barely appearing to fit inside it.

And he was dragging behind him a much smaller and younger Mondrauk, who gasped in pain with almost every step.

Ganna Col was decrepit by Mondrauk standards, although Anders reckoned that he would be almost as tall as the lieutenant if he straightened his gangly form.

But the teenaged Mondrauk couldn’t, and probably never would, Anders thought. The only child of the warlord of Jakka had a hunched back and one twisted shoulder that gave him an almost grotesque appearance. Anders saw that one of his hooves was turned almost completely inwards, and one arm was crooked at his side, as if unable to be straightened at the elbow at all.

The growing illness, Anders remembered Jhan-il Poul’s words. This Ganna was born with some kind of hereditary disease, and because the Mondrauks either didn’t use or didn’t have gene-therapies, it had slowly progressed through his body until he now occupied this twisted and mangled form. In throne space, they would have corrected that upon conception, Anders thought with a hiss of frustration and anger. Not that Anders had much faith in the Gene-Seers and their technology, but at least it allowed every human child born to have the same starting chances as every other.

“Father!” Ganna Col cried out, earning a vicious shove from the warlord that sent the crippled alien tumbling painfully down the ramp to lie on the grass below, panting.

Dalia hissed at the cruelty, and Anders saw Patch’s jaw tighten.

“Jhan! Now is your chance!” Jhan-il Poul called out. “Seek the wisdom of Woak Edja for your child. You can yet see a strong heir follow in your footsteps!”

“Bah!” But Jhan Col, angry and sullen, and wearing all of his gold bracelets and amulets, merely laughed at the chieftain’s suggestion. “You are too sentimental, Poul. That was always your problem. I have come here today to put right what should have been done a long time ago.” The jhan’s eyes glittered fiercely as he pointed at the mystic.

“Go to him, boy. Stand at the old one’s side!” The commanding tone of the jhan was apparently irresistible, because Ganna slowly and painfully moved to his feet to limp, stagger, and lurch toward the older mystic, who remained silent. Around the clearing, the captain’s armored Mondrauks all lowered their meson rifles at the two.

“Once these two are finished, we will begin on the rest of you.” Jhan Col leered at Anders and Dalia, Patch, Jake, and Poul. “Finally, I will have no more rivals. Not from you, Jhan-il Poul, not from my son, and not from any maddened mystic in the woods!”

“He’s insane,” Patch muttered. “He thinks everyone is a challenge to his rule.”

“He is. He does,” Anders murmured his agreement, flicking his eyes to the young Voider.

And seeing Jake standing beside him, his eyes passive and staring at Woak Edja. When Anders’s head turned, he saw that Woak Edja was looking back at the PK youth with the same apparent open curiosity.

And Jake is wearing the PK suppressor… Anders suddenly had an idea.

“Mondrauks! Take aim!” the red-plumed captain barked after an agreeing nod from his jhan.

I have to do it now! The electric thought that shot through Anders’s understanding was galvanic. On either side of the group of angry, bound captives, every Mondrauk there had raised their rifles for the coiled cylinders to start glowing a dirty orange-red.

Meson energy was powerful, and it would only take a few heartbeats for the guns to be ready.

“It is the way of things,” murmured the ancient Mondrauk Woak Edja, which he must have presumed would be his last words in this plane of existence.

But Anders moved.

“What?” The red-plumed captain was quick, gasping in surprise as he turned, rifle in hand, toward the suddenly charging police officer.

But Anders had brought up his magnet-locked hands almost like a prayer before him as he reached for his prize. “Do it, Jake!” Anders shouted as he heard the sharp fizz of a meson blast.

Anders barreled into the younger PK youth, and his hands tore at Jake’s PK suppressor, ripping it from its place on the boy’s temples.

“Kill him!” one of the Mondrauks shouted as the red-plumed captain fired. Anders felt the heat wave blast so close to him as to singe his hair and heat his back, but he and the PK were now both tumbling to the ground.

“Do it, Jake! Release the Archon!” Anders shouted as he hit the dirt. A little way away, Dalia had spun on one heel, bringing the other in a wide backward roundhouse kick to slam into the neck of the adjacent Mondrauk warrior. His meson-blast shot went wide, striking the wooden structure instead of the stationary mystic or the snarling Ganna Col.

Jhan-il Poul and Patch had similar ideas as well, as both fought the twelve greater and stronger fighters even with their hands bound. Patch used the only weapon that he had and threw himself bodily against the backward-jointed legs of his nearest guard, sending both tumbling to the ground.

The meson blasts scorched the nearby trees and shot into the jungle foliage.

Jhan-il Poul had clasped his hands around the horns of his guard and, even with wrists securely sealed together, the chieftain had managed to twist on his hips to hurl the armored, in the prime of their life Mondrauk warrior into two of his fellows.

Yargh!” Anders just had the time to turn as the captain landed, having leapt from where he had been, his hooves punching into the ground with the force of his jump.

Anders saw that Jake was curled in the mud and leaf litter beside the nearest tree, his face screwed up with anguish. Was I wrong!? Anders panicked for a heartbeat. What if Jake can’t access the power of the Black Sun? Or what if the power is so great that it kills him!?

But Anders had no time left as the red-plumed captain of Mondrauks spun his halberd-rifle toward him.

The policeman scissor-kicked with his back still in the soft dirt. He managed to hit the flat of the blade, kicking it wide as it discharged a glowing ball of meson fire into the dirt.

Human scum!” The captain stamped forward, one hoof catching one of Anders’s legs and scraping a line of fire down his outer calf.

“Ach!” Anders tried kicking again, his movements getting desperate as he tried to bat away the kicks and attempted attacks of the sweeping halberd-blade. Anders had never been an expert floor-fighter, but the promise of survival was a powerful motivator.

But Anders needed more than motivation, especially as the expert Mondrauk swept his halberd blade low. Anders kicked out to bat it away again, and the captain spun the weapon in both hands in a smart move, easily over Anders’s leg to turn and level it straight at Anders’s exposed chest.

Everything wants to blow a hole through me on this cursed planet, Anders had a moment to think as he saw the meson cylinders flare brightly.

Just then, the red-plumed captain rose into the air as if pulled by a tractor beam, flung easily fifty feet up and spinning head over hooves for a moment before suddenly exploding in a ball of guts and bone fragments.

Jake! Anders knew it could only be the PK youth, who was now rising from his tormented crouch. His eyes were jet black, and his face was cast in a deathly serious mask.

The next Mondrauk guard didn’t have a chance to scream as he soared into the air to similarly become alien confetti. Neither did the one after that, but the third, fourth, and fifth did. Not that it helped them in any way.

The clearing was in uproar, with the remaining Mondrauk guards dropping their rifles to flee into the jungle as the PK psychic picked them off, one by one.

But the supreme jhan was roaring his fury as he leapt from the shuttle’s ramp, swinging fists the size of Anders’s entire head as he came for Jake.

Thwap! It wasn’t Jake that met his charge. It was a bright orange meson bolt, hitting the supreme warlord of Jakka square in his unprotected back. The jhan hadn’t worn any armor for this visit, so sure was he of his success.

When Anders turned to see who had fired the shot, he saw that it came from the ragged and bloodied form of Jhan-il Poul, holding one of the still-glowing halberd-rifles that a guard had dropped in their haste.

With a thump, the warlord of Jakka hit the dirt, already dead and with smoke rising from the center of his back.

“Uh—” With a groan, Jake too slid to the floor in a crumpled heap as his powers left him. Instantly, Anders and Dalia were running to his side. The teenager was pale and unconscious, his breathing shallow and his brow crowned with sweat where it had once been crowned by the suppressor.

“Jake, wake up!” Dalia whispered, hesitant to touch him, given that her Ilythian touch-sensitive telepathy might infect her with the power of the Archon.

“Bring the boy to my hut,” a new voice said, and Anders looked up to see that it was Woak Edja, his ancient face now flat and serious as he nodded at Jake, then turned to Ganna Col. “You too,” the mystic muttered, turning back into the darkness as if exasperated by the chaos and calamities of the world.

Anders found that he was crouching by Jake, his eyes moving from Dalia to the hut, to the shocked and stunned face of the young Ganna Col and the silent glare of Jhan-il Poul.

Poul is the new leader now, Anders thought. But will he help save the Ilythian people?

Epilogue: Promises

“You have our Man-o-War destroyers,” the new jhan of the Mondrauk intoned as Poul looked out of the hut of the mystic at the gathering evening of Jakka.

Anders hovered awkwardly in the doorway of Woak Edja’s tower, listening to the new leader as he watched the ancient mystic do his work. It was a strange sight, like something out of a fairy tale. The white-and-platinum-garbed Mondrauk worked with plants and powders, selecting the actual ingredients, tinctures, salves, and smokes to apply or burn at the right times in order to help both Jake and Ganna Col.

The latter patient was an easier case than the human, Anders saw. Although Woak Edja couldn’t remove his illness, the salves and potions that he brewed seemed to greatly alleviate the suffering and pain that the young Mondrauk had experienced every day of his entire life.

“You will need to take this every day, but it will loosen the knots of your fibers, and it will remove the discomfort,” Woak insisted in his low, steady voice to the quiet, staring form of Ganna Col.

There was a cough from Poul, whose dark eyes flickered between mystic and heir. “He cannot return to the voudj. Not yet,” Poul said, and Anders felt the tension in the room increase.

“They’ll try to kill me. Or use me,” Ganna surprised everyone by agreeing with the new jhan. “And I have no desire to become jhan, or even jhan-il.”

“Then you will stay here,” Woak Edja decided, his age and wisdom carrying a quiet authority that would brook no argument.

Poul nodded gravely, and Anders could tell that the Mondrauk was already thinking of all the things he would have to put into place if he was to secure his control of the voudj and begin his reign. But the laws and customs of the Mondrauk were at least clear in that respect: Poul had won over the jhan in battle, and so Poul could assume all his titles and belongings, in whatever way the alien wanted. Anders didn’t think that would stop the ohtmas and assassination attempts against Poul, but it was a hazard that the new jhan appeared willing to accept.

“You’ll help Ilythia?” Dalia asked seriously, her sharp, star-filled eyes piercing the smoking gloom of the mystic’s hut.

“I promise.” Poul nodded sagely. “As soon as I have taken the voudj, I will be calling a jhan-ohtma against the Eternal Empress.” A savage smile flickered across the Mondrauk’s features. “I have waited a long time to be able to say that.”

Anders felt his shoulders start to unwind in relief. He had done it—they had done it—at last.

But their journey, it seemed, wasn’t quite over yet.

“Your friend will die,” Woak Edja’s voice broke through the negotiations as he turned to inspect Jake’s unconscious form.

“What!?” Patch, Dalia, and Anders simultaneously burst out.

“I have been alive a long time, and I have learned many things.” Woak Edja groaned as he lifted his head to the creak and pop of ancient bones. “And I have heard of his ailment but never seen it before.”

“The Black Sun,” Anders muttered, earning a sharp glance from the fierce eyes of the Mondrauk mystic.

“Aye. You know of it.” The mystic groaned once more, as if an infinite sadness had been laid on his shoulders. “I have studied a little of their accounts—a race of ancient beings that ruled and warred across our galaxy, so powerful as to be gods.”

Anders nodded. This was what the Ilythians had told him.

“It explains why the Eternal Empress wants to control the galaxy,” Woak said.

“It does?” Anders frowned. He didn’t see the connection.

“The Black Suns are a highly-evolved species who departed this galaxy many millennia ago—or most of them did, anyway,” Woak informed them. “And the most ancient legends indicate that they had the power to raise their chosen heroes and champions to their level, to make mere primates and mammals and mortals almost as powerful as gods.”

The Eternal Empress wants to be a god!? The thought that shook through Anders was strong enough to make him blink. It all made so much sense, didn’t it? The empress’s constant gene-therapies to keep her alive, her removed nature from society, appearing almost like a mythical figure herself…

“What is happening to your friend is what happened to those champions, chosen and empowered by the Black Suns, to fight in their arcane wars,” the mystic continued. “Most of those champions would die or be driven mad by the power of a god.”

And still, Jake has been managing to keep it together, the human thought, wondering at the hidden strength of the boy.

“But there was tell of one who rebelled, even managed to kill their Black Sun master,” Woak said in a low murmur.

“Really? What did they do? How could they have killed a god!?” Patch asked a little excitedly.

“The story is written on a world many lightyears away.” Woak nodded toward a particular direction out of the window. “It was a long time ago that I traveled there to study, over a hundred and twenty years, perhaps, but I can remember the route,” Woak said, finally sighing and looking with somber eyes at Anders, Dalia, and Patch.

“I will tell you how to get there. And maybe you will find the way to save your friend from a fate worse than being bitten or shot,” Woak said, and Anders’s eyes moved to gaze out the same window at the distant patch of dirty night-sky. And when Woak Edja’s voice rose again, it did not fill the humans and Ilythians with much confidence.

“Maybe you will help save all of us,” Woak Edja said.

Secrets of Ilythia Boxed Set

The Quantum Well

Memories of Earth, Book 6

Secrets of Ilythia Boxed Set

Prologue: Welcome

Fluorescent light shattered in the puddles of rain that gathered on the gray streets. The hum of the rain was a constant buzz, but the woman moving down the street could still hear the thrum of the communication and messenger drones that plied their ceaseless work through the air of this tiny world.

The small planet out in the middle-of-nowhere space, Welcome, wasn’t a colony world as such, the figure in the heavy waxed sheeter knew. Although it was officially designated as a ‘service colony,’ in all respects, it was a tiny, mostly metallized world covered with administrative buildings, entertainment industries, and the march of Throne Marines.

Welcome is a rock, the woman inside her heavy coat thought with a sneer, advertising lights reflecting off her expression. The woman’s face would have been considered beautiful by human standards, were it not for two things:

One. She had a fine tracery of darker lines spreading up her cheek, which her impressive genetic profile should really have been able to heal by now but strangely couldn’t.

Two. Even despite her mysterious scarring, there was still something a little odd about her bone structure, the sheen of her skin, and the color of her eyes. When she accidentally let her guard down and was seen by another of the many humans who worked here, they would later think that there was something almost alien about her.

Which there is, isn’t there? The woman grimaced, standing in place and waiting for the sound of the drones to at least subside for a moment before she did what she came to do.

There really was something alien about the woman, especially when she moved with a preternatural silence and grace, despite her recent, devastating injuries.

It was partly because at least a part of her genetic make-up was Ilythian, and also that this woman had been grown in an isolation tube in the most secure facility in all of the Reach of the Golden Throne.

Her name was Black Rose, the super-weapon that Commander-General Cread had discarded and believed to be dead.

But I am still very, very much alive, aren’t I, sir? The woman’s grimace twitched, becoming a savage grin with a hint of teeth.

Uch!” And then a cough convulsed through her ribcage, bringing with it a searing headache behind the elite assassin’s eyes. She stumbled a step forward, lowering her head as she breathed through the pain, waiting for it to subside.

It was the neurological programming, of course. Black Rose had never had a normal education or any sort of normal training. Every lesson and chore that she had been ordered to undertake had come with the accompanying psychological and physical programming that reinforced her unswerving loyalty.

It should have been impossible for her to think as she did, or to contemplate what she was contemplating. And every time she allowed herself to feel the anger, the outrage, or the glee at the thought of taking her revenge, Black Rose’s body betrayed her.

But she was committed to her path.

I can handle pain, she reminded herself. She had fought in a dozen skirmishes, after all. She had assassinated hundreds of people. She had been dropped into secure facilities all over the known universe—not just in human space but other sectors as well—because she could get those jobs done. She was used to being surrounded, and accumulating battle-scars on her way.

I know pain, she promised herself.

And that terrible gift was what forced her to stand up straight again and hold her head high. She was going to bring pain to the very heart of the Golden Throne.

She was on her way to kill Commander-General Cread, her master, and her creator. And not only that, but Black Rose was going to kill the woman who had set all of this in motion.

The Eternal Empress herself.



Jakka, Mondrauk Space

Lieutenant Anders Corsigon stared at the giant, brutish shape of the Mondrauk guard and did his best to snarl and bark in just as fierce a manner.

It was difficult, given that the alien species of the Mondrauks stood easily seven feet tall, had backward-curling goat-like horns—which was why the humans of the Golden Throne nicknamed them ‘devils,’ and this one in particular was dressed in part leather, part metal battle-plate, and held one of their people’s blaster-axes easily leveled at the human.

The human lieutenant stood in one of the wide, arching hallways of the voudj—or capital—of this aggressive, non-aligned species. Behind him glared the tall Ilythian Dalia in her blue-and-black encounter suit. Like all of the ‘elf’ Ilythians, Dalia—or Dchllyiealoparisaan in her own tongue—stood willowy and graceful amid the rivers of hulking Mondrauks who passed right by them.

They are allowed to pass, Lieutenant Corsigon growled to himself, and tried once again to inform the soldier of his determination.

“We are here under the personal request of Jhan Poul,” the outcast human said. Anders might have been far smaller than the guard who barred their way, but he was a former officer of the Military Police Bureau—the civilian arm of the human empire’s Throne Marines force. He had stared down plenty of aliens and humans who had wanted to kill him before. It was a kind of a knack he had…

Uh…” There was a small cough of surprise from Patch McGuire, the twenty-something human Voider in his outdated, repaired, and updated service suit and jacket. The Voiders were a strange sort at the best of times, Anders knew, and Patch in particular, with his fuzz of hair and eyes that always seemed widely naïve, was probably one of the worst.

“Not now, Patch!” Anders hissed from one corner of his mouth, frowning as he saw one edge of the Mondrauk’s wide, fanged mouth twitch up in a scornful grin at the charade in front of him.

Patch probably just noticed some really not-very interesting new lightbulb or drone or something… Anders thought as he glared at the warrior again. But for all of the Voider’s naïveté and strangeness, he still wasn’t as strange as the final member of their small entourage: the human teenager designated as J-14, nicknamed ‘Jake’ by Anders.

Jake was a PK, a human with rare psycho-kinetic abilities who had spent the first fifteen or so years of his life being used as a psychic battery. He had developed in one of the isolation tubes of the Golden Throne’s Gene Seers. He wasn’t one of the new breed of PK clones that the Eternal Empress was using to power her insane plans, but the ex-officer was willing to bet that the youth’s genetic codes had been used in their creation.

What made Jake even stranger than that, Anders was painfully aware of, was the fact that he had also temporarily become home to the distant galactic god-creature known as the Black Sun, or Archon—one of an ancient race of beings who had once ruled over the entire Milky Way Galaxy, and whom the Eternal Empress, centuries-long ruler of the Golden Throne empire, wanted to channel the energies of.

And I know a little of what that must feel like… Anders shuddered at the unbidden memory of uncompromising, infinite cold that had washed through him when he had broken the quantum transmitter that had been attempting to channel the Black Sun energy. Just that brief moment had sent Anders into a surreal coma for days, and so it was a marvel that Jake had managed to contain that awful, titanic power for so long.

Uhm… Boss?” Patch murmured once again, and this time, Anders lost his temper. They had returned not two Jakka days ago to the voudj—the vast metal-canvas dome where the warlord, or jhan, of the Mondrauk people lived.

Their multi-species party had returned with the full blessing of the dead jhan’s forces, as Jhan Poul, the Mondrauk who had helped them on their mission to the mystic Woak Edja, had killed the previous jhan, and therefore assumed his position.

But it looks like even being friends with the supreme warlord of the entire planet of Jakka only goes so far when you’re not from around here! Anders grumbled as he heard Patch shifting nervously behind him somewhere.

“Oh, for heaven’s sake!” Anders lost his cool, turning around to glare at the Voider behind him—to see that Patch, like all the other Mondrauks and non-Mondrauks alike, was standing still and looking at the sides of the curving walls, whose metal fabric now displayed the projected holo-image of Jhan Poul himself, who was apparently giving some sort of speech.

Wow. Great Timing, Poul, Anders thought as he felt the thrum against his throat when the personal node on his lapel activated, and the fine, cultured of his simulated intelligence Moriarty translated the guttural language.

“Good morning, sir. I am afraid that you might not welcome the words of the new jhan…” Moriarty said in a calm, if slightly cautious, way. The simulated intelligence was not supposed to have any personality, since actual artificial intelligences had been outlawed and criminalized from the very earliest days of the Eternal Empress’s reign, although Anders had no idea why.

Instead, the branch of simulated ‘machine intelligences’ were really just high-order data-collection devices, with overlays of speech software and simulated responses—hence the name. But sometimes, from the way that the ex-police intelligence program spoke, it made Anders wonder…

“Just tell me what he’s damn well saying that has everyone so rapt!” Anders sub-vocalized. With the nearness of the crystal-matrix node, banded with steel and magnetic field connectors against the base of his neck, the ex-officer had long ago worked out that he just needed to mutter and half-sound his commands to Moriarty, if he didn’t have time to order the node to generate a privacy field.

“If you insist, sir. I’ll recap and start from the beginning.” There was the slightest click in Moriarty’s voice as his translation software kicked in.

‘My brothers and sisters! Warriors and hearth-guarders of Jakka!

‘You all know of me, and you have all heard of my ascension to the war-throne of the jhan. This message is being broadcast planet-wide, because I will not be like my predecessor. No more hiding in the outskirts of the galaxy! We will reach out to them. We will venture forth. No more weak-willed doctrines of independence and isolation. We will have our place among the nations, just like the empire!’

Anders heard a scattering of low growls and even a few grunts of surprise from the Mondrauks. He was no expert in Mondrauk politics, but he knew that the Golden Throne generally regarded them as a belligerent species for their penchant for calling an ‘ohtma’ or holy crusade against any who had wronged them.

But—even given this behavior—it was common knowledge among the throne humans that the Mondrauks had been soundly bested by the Golden Throne’s forces when they had attempted to field a large battle-fleet, and that had made the previous jhan take on a “we’ll leave you alone, if you leave us alone” spacefaring policy.

But it sounds as though the new jhan is suggesting that the Mondrauks start negotiating with the Golden Throne!? Anders felt the twitch of panic in his belly. Had he seriously misread Jhan Poul, the very leader that he, Dalia, Patch, and Jake had helped throne?

Poul promised that he would declare a jhan-ohtma against the Eternal Empress! Anders thought in alarm. The Eternal Empress and her Throne Marines—with her latest weapon, the clone-PKs—were already tearing through the galaxy. They had sent ruin to the usually peaceful garden worlds and looked set to destroy the Ilythian Empire, too.

But why? Anders still wondered. Woak Edja, the Mondrauk mystic, had claimed that the Archons had the power to elevate other sentients to near-godhood and had reasoned that was what the empress was trying to do in contacting the god-thing.

But why does she feel the need to bring the entire galaxy into conflict if she is about to become some terrible new deity? Anders couldn’t see her reasoning—but right now, he had far more immediate matters to attend to.

‘Let me ask this question of you, warriors and hearth-guards: who is the strongest species in the entire galaxy? Who is the bravest? Who deserves to be ruling the stars?’

Anders watched as the newly enthroned jhan, sitting on the same gigantic throne in the center of the voudj, leaned back and grinned, displaying his blackened fangs.

‘JAKKA!’ he roared, banging one large fist—bedecked with the gold and onyx bracelets of his improved wealth—against the throne’s armrest.

‘It is us! WHY are the Mondrauks cowering out here!?’

He roared his enthusiasm, and Anders sensed the mood change among the observing goatish devils all around them, as proud and victorious chuckles and snarls started to swell from their lips.

Thank the stars for that, Anders thought with relief as he realized that Jhan Poul surely must be leading up to his declaration of the jhan-ohtma. Anders had a vision of the Mondrauk Man-O-Wars, each one a vast wedge of metal with two forward ‘arms,’ sweeping into the fray, perhaps even defending Ilythia against their shared enemy

So, it was a complete and utter surprise when Jhan Poul made his final pronouncement.

‘So, my trusted and brave family, my warriors and hearth-guarders, it is with great pride that I present this sight to you.’

The holoimage of the jhan flickered and was replaced by an image of the yellow-ochre world of Jakka and its two heavily industrialized moons. And a flickering blur of blue-white warp light as a new vessel entered Jakka near-space.

It was the sleek, black arrow of a Golden Throne embassy ship.

‘The Eternal Empress of the humans herself has sent her envoys here to beg for our aid! Shall we see how they beg?’

“What!?” Dalia hissed, her fury at the matriarch-queen of the Golden Throne even outmatching Anders’s.

Anders spun on his heel and stepped towards the Mondrauk guard. Something had changed in the lieutenant’s demeanor. It looked to any who saw him that he surely had murder on his mind.

And to the strange sensibilities of the Mondrauks—with their history and society and even their families bonded together through deathmatches and blood-feuds—that was apparently the only password that the human had ever needed.

“Take me to the jhan now!” Anders demanded, not stopping until he was nose-to-nose with the guard.

And, with a cool nod, the guard turned and gestured for them to follow.


The Throne of the Jhan

“Jhan Poul!” Anders demanded with the same fury as he stalked heedlessly through the central chamber of the voudj, past the tables of the assembled senior warriors and jhan-il chieftains.

There was constant feasting taking place in this wide, circular heart of Mondrauk society, which would break only occasionally if some particularly spectacular feud or wrestling match broke out. The jhans come and go from the center, Anders remembered Poul himself once stating, when he had been talking about his own chieftaincy position prior to being the supreme leader, but the circle remains.

Well, Anders could see just how much he could trust the words of Jhan Poul now.

“JHAN POUL!” the human roared, and although the voice of the man was nowhere near the decibel that any Mondrauk could reach, it was loud enough for those at the tables around him and the others to stop their own harsh conversations and ponder what on Jakka could a human be so angry about.

“Sir?” said the voice of Moriarty against Anders’s throat as he stalked down one of the lanes that led to the central dais, where Poul sat. “I wonder if this might be an opportune time to reflect on the difference-in-aggressiveness studies performed between humans and Mondrauks?”

“It wouldn’t,” Anders growled back, continuing his march. It was probably lucky that they hadn’t been given their weapons back after they had returned, triumphant, to the voudj with the new supreme leader. Anders felt as though he might have even fired a laser shot straight through Poul’s lying teeth if he still had his pistols.

“Er…boss?” This came from Patch, who seemed about to echo Moriarty’s sentiment.

Anders ignored everyone—even the rising forms of the massive Mondrauks on either side of him, stepping up from their benches and games of dice or chips to snarl at the intrusion.

Anders’s eyes fixed on Poul, who was currently leaning to one side of his throne, talking to a slightly thinner, narrower sort of Mondrauk holding a large data-slate, one that could almost become a shield in battle, should the alien have so wished.

“I’m with you,” hissed Dalia from between her perfectly white teeth, her eyes cold and hard with the same fury, although far more controlled than Anders’s beside her.

If either had noticed the crowd, they would have seen the mixture of outrage and amusement in the alien faces around them. Warriors in part battle armor bristled, whilst other Mondrauks with less armor and stranger social roles—depicted only by the colored bands in their braided hair, or the bracelets and bangles on their wrists—started to smile.

But none of these aliens overtly moved to stop or challenge the human policeman and his cohort. This was, after all, the way of the voudj. Any who had a warrior’s right to be there—those who had already killed in battle or feud—could stand and challenge any other, even the jhan himself.

“Lieutenant!” Jhan Poul flickered one black orb of an eye at the approaching human. There was a slow grin on his face, and he appeared entirely uncaring of whatever frustration or anger this smaller creature had to bring to him.

“You lied!” Anders continued to march, and only now, at this last accusation, did the Mondrauks nearby hiss and bang the tables. In their culture, that was an insult.

A challenge.

Anders was only a few strides away from the dais, and then it would have only been a few strides more to get to the jhan himself, but Poul gave a lazy wave. Instantly, two Mondrauk soldiers in full battle-plate—even larger than the Mondrauk guard who had first barred their entrance to the voudj itself—with their macabre-sculpted faceplates and holes for their horns, stepped forward to bar Anders’s way.

Even in his outrage, the policeman who had one been a Throne Marine wasn’t suicidal. He drew himself to a stop, glaring past the leveled blaster-axes and straight at the jhan instead.

“Answer me!” Anders said, his chest feeling tight.

In response, the Jhan of the Mondrauk just started to chuckle, and for that merriment to turn into guffaws of laughter.

“Poor human,” Jhan Poul said with a gracious wave in their direction, earning an answering wave of scornful heckling and laughter from the crowd. “This one seems to think that I, the jhan of the people of Jakka, owe him something!”

More laughter, and Anders’s cheeks burned with shame for just how completely gullible he had been. He had come here to the Mondrauks on the scantest of chances that they would aid Ilythia and stop his friend’s entire civilization from being destroyed. It had been a fool’s errand from the start, but with no way of knowing how to stop the PK clones or the Eternal Empress or the Black Sun, what choice had they had?

And I thought Poul understood, Anders thought, remembering how the then-chieftain had approached him after the previous, now-dead, jhan had laughed in his face just as Poul was doing now.

“You manipulated us,” Anders spat, still glaring at the jhan. The human could see it clearly now—that the Jhan had revealed the secret weakness of the previous jhan, and the ancient Mondrauk mystic who could help them understand the Black Sun. Woak Edja had even told them the route to The Well, a strange, ancient planet that was almost myth, with inscriptions from lost civilizations and lore about the Black Suns in ancient times.

But really, it was all a ruse to coax the old jhan away from the voudj, so that you could kill him and assume his position, right? Anders thought. He was angry, but a part of him was aware that he had no idea what impact this revelation must be having on Dalia. She was now facing the prospect of her home world, and perhaps a large percentage of her entire race, facing annihilation.

The silence stretched long between the jhan and the human as Jhan Poul’s smile started to lower into a serious, deadly line. When the Mondrauk spoke, his guttural voice was as sharp as one of the blades pointed at Anders’s chest.

“You should be careful, human, how you speak to a jhan,” Poul said, and Anders could have snarled in rage, were it not for the sudden, cooling hand on his shoulder. The hand was long-fingered and strong, and it belonged to Dalia.

But Jhan Poul paid no heed to Anders’s fury as he continued. “Mondrauks believe in strength, human. You have no position to barter or negotiate with a jhan!”

This time, even Dalia’s steadying presence wasn’t going to be enough. Anders pulled himself away from her hand to bang his chest against the muzzle of one of the blasters. There was a hissing growl from the guards, and Anders could see their gloved fingers tighten around weapon hafts and hover over the triggers.

“Then I challenge you, Jhan Poul. I challenge you to face me like a Mondrauk!” Anders snapped, his mind full of outrage and fire, but with a calm center of determination.

If I can beat him at any challenge he calls, then I will get the respect and honor of a Mondrauk, Anders reasoned. Then these warriors might listen to me when I ask them to fight against the Eternal Empress!

It was an entirely crazy plan, but Anders believed one hundred percent in it.

Which was why it was so crushing when Jhan Poul, the guards, and at least half the assembled aliens all around them burst into fits of laughter.

“You!? Challenge a jhan!?” Poul guffawed, slapping the armrests of the mighty throne in his hilarity.

It’s not SUCH a terrible idea… Anders thought as his face flushed with deep humiliation. He had been in worse fights, hadn’t he?

“You are just a human, little Lieutenant,” Jhan Poul said with a dismissive wave of his claw-like hand. “Your challenge is like a fly buzzing at a ruaj-beast!”

Anders didn’t know what a ruaj-beast was, but the contrast and similarity was apparently enough for the rest of the Mondrauk chieftains and warriors to suddenly break into entirely new gales of laughter, before Jhan Poul started to wipe his eyes.

“Seize them,” he said casually. Anders slid one of his feet back and swiveled on his hip, fully intending to seize the blaster-axe leveled at him to defend him and his friends.

“Urk!” But then, lines of purple-blue eldritch force snapped around his shoulders, waist, and legs, tightening in a heartbeat.

“We appear to be restrained by remote field energy, sir,” Moriarty said, rather unhelpfully.

Anders gasped and tried to move, but every time he did, the glowing lines of light grew tighter. They didn’t burn or blind, even though when Anders looked down at them, they appeared to pulse and glare like caught lightning.

“Boss!” Behind him, Patch’s frantic gasp and Dalia’s annoyed hiss seemed to indicate they were all in the same predicament, although now Anders couldn’t even turn to see what was happening at all. Instead, he was looking at the stern and humorless face of Jhan Poul, who gestured with one hand.

In response, the glowing blue-white lines of field energy tightened a fraction more and took their weight, easily lifting each to one side of the dais before depositing them before a small line of Mondrauk blaster-guards.

“Even a ruaj-beast can be annoyed by the buzzing of flies, if they keep at it,” Jhan Poul growled, turning to clap his hands in front of him and raising his voice.

“Brothers and sisters, warriors and hearth-guardians! Prepare to greet our guest: the Herald of the Eternal Empress!” the alien shouted, as the same gigantic, arched double-doors that Anders and the others had themselves stalked through opened once more, for one of the strangest humans that Anders had ever seen to silently walk into the room.


The Herald

The Herald of the Golden Throne was strange by every standard that one could care to name.

At a cursory glance, one of the strangest things would have been the fact that he was so very small compared to the Mondrauks peering to take a look. He was small compared to much of humanity as well.

The herald barely stood over four and half feet, and as such was almost a little over half the height of the Mondrauk guards at the door. Even though the herald was clearly an adult, there was a youthful sheen to his features, chestnut-brown hair, and darting eyes that further added to the illusion that a human teenager had been allowed to negotiate on behalf of the Golden Throne.

The herald was also dressed strangely, in a golden sleeveless jacket with no apparent field nodes or even advanced technologies on display. He wore long golden shorts over golden leggings, making him appear to Anders’s eyes like a ceremonial actor in a play.

And of course, the most compelling strangeness of the herald was that his skin, from head to toe, was gold.

Oh, yeah… Anders recalled hearing something about that from the data-wires when he’d been half-listening to the late-night documentaries during the long, slow hours of a stakeout back on his distant home world of Hectamon 7. There was a Gene Seer sequence for a certain shade of gold, one that shone and sparkled as this one did, and it was entirely private to the empress.

Anders, at the time, had thought that meant that the Eternal Empress had somehow surrounded herself with gold-colored plants or animals like dogs and cats, in an entirely obsessive way that wouldn’t have surprised him at all…

But now, with no small level of disgust, he saw one of the uses of that rare gene-produced color: the bodies of her most trusted servants.

Does that mean he is a clone? Anders wondered idly as he watched the diminutive man walk forward without a sound, almost seeming to glide towards the war-throne of Jhan Poul, without any self-consciousness of his attire or stature.

Anders knew that cloning, like the creation of artificial intelligence, had been outlawed by the empress hundreds of years ago, and instead the science of the Gene Seers—genetic editors, hackers, fixers, and modifiers—had made it entirely possible to heal almost any physical trauma, recover from almost any illness or disease, or to turn your flesh into a work of art. Some humans settled for glowing tattoos, others for different eye-colors or differently-shaped noses, stronger jaws, almost anything imaginable.

“Herald,” Anders heard Jhan Poul state.

The herald paused before the guards who still stood before the dais, inclining his head and frowning a little at the apparent discourtesy. There was a gesture from the jhan, and the guards took another step to either side so the two could speak clearly, face to face, although the herald looked tiny compared to the raised form of Poul.

“Jhan Poul.” The herald bowed deeply, even extending one leg in a formal, courtly fashion before rising. “News of your ascension has reached the ears of the Eternal Empress, and she congratulates you on your wit, your tenacity, and your glory,” he stated in a fine, high voice.

The jhan nodded in recognition. Not exactly a thank you, Anders noted.

Another slight turn of the head and raised eyebrow at the jhan’s apparent insolence, but the courtier appeared to disregard it in the next sentence.

“The Eternal Empress is pleased to see such a powerful and wise leader at the head of such a brave and fierce people,” the herald continued, and at this, Jhan Poul leaned forward suddenly, glowering.

“What matter is it to us what the Eternal Empress thinks and feels?” he asked in a low, menacing growl.

This is a play, Anders realized suddenly, his eyes raising to the agreeing nods and ripple of table-taps from the chieftains and trusted warriors of Jakka. Jhan Poul is using this to cement his position as a strong leader.

The herald appeared to have come to the same conclusion, as the small man smiled broadly at the challenge, and his tone was sweet and without rancor when next he spoke.

“The proud and noble warriors of Jakka keep their own counsel. This, the Eternal Empress recognizes and greatly admires,” he stated.

But the herald’s words were not winning him—or the empress—any friends in the crowd, Anders could see. There were dark looks and muttered voices, and Anders could quite clearly hear one nearby chieftains complain that the herald wasn’t on his knees by now, begging for his life.

“The Eternal Empress wishes to extend a bargain to the brave people of Jakka.” The herald drew himself up to his full height and stated his case loudly. “Agree to the rule of the Golden Throne over your territories, and you shall have full hunting-rights over Ilythian space! Every world can be yours, for slaves, profit or glory. Every palace, castle, outpost, war-machine, village, or field of corn will be yours to enrich your people as you wish.”

Dalia snarled, cat-like in her bounds, struggling with fury and hate, but her struggles only caused the glowing energy-bonds to bind tighter, until her skin clearly bulged on either side.

“You will join with the Golden Throne as valued protectorate-partners. The Mondrauk forces will be given first and full rights of pillage and plunder when you campaign together with our Throne Marines!” the herald started to crow, his oratory reaching new heights.

“Imagine the worlds and the civilizations that we, together, barely even know about!?” the herald said in a voice of low, coaxing wonder. “Together, none of our civilizations has even begun to explore the other half of our home galaxy. Imagine what awaits us. What peoples? What battles to be had? What riches we can amass? Together!” He finished on an excited note, even flinging one hand up to the roof of the voudj as if expecting the Mondrauks to fly off right there and then to the uncharted other half of the Milky Way.

“What rubbish,” Jhan Poul snarled back, earning shouts of thunderous approval.

The herald returned his hand and leg to a standing, self-contained position, looking expectantly at the jhan ahead of him. “Am I to understand that your answer is a no, Jhan Poul? And that all of the Mondrauks of Jakka and beyond will agree to your decision?”

The roars and shouts of the crowd faded and grew still as they awaited their jhan’s inevitable declaration. Anders could swear he could taste the anticipation in the room. The herald had angered them, and now a few hundred alien eyes were looking for blood.

Very slowly, Jhan Poul stood up from his war-throne, raising himself to his full height to tower over the little gold man. The voudj took a collective breath as they waited for their war-chief to speak.

“I had expected more wits from the Eternal Empress,” Jhan Poul said slowly, menacingly. “Instead of sending her most-trusted envoy to my home.”

Poul nodded to some unseen actor, and a giant holo-field suddenly came into life overhead. Anders blinked, looking at the picture to see it as a patch of stars, twinkling hard and bright through the night. He thought he recognized at least one of the constellations.

Suddenly, there was a flash of bright light and shooting plumes of incandescent, flaming gases…

“Your outposts nearest to our space have been destroyed, little man,” Jhan Poul said gravely, and suddenly Anders realized that yes, the jhan had been playing to the crowd all along, and this had been a part of his game.

“And that pretty little bauble of yours?” Jhan Poul grunted, for the holo-field to suddenly blink out, to be replaced with a near-space vision of Jakka and its civilized moons.

Another flash of light and an expanding ball of plasma as the herald’s sleek ship was destroyed. Had this been a part of Poul’s plan? Anders wondered. Had Jhan Poul been intending to hold the herald hostage, as a bargaining chip against the empress?

“Moriarty? Tactical assessment,” Anders breathed as the herald’s face appeared to harden just a fraction.

“Of course, sir. As you know, the Mondrauk sector lies on the inner arm of Ilythian space, with a number of unregulated light-years between the two,” Moriarty stated, who managed, even without having emotions, to revel in the practice of tactics and strategy.

“And a similar neutral zone lies between the Ilythian empire and the human,” Moriarty stated. “However, these are not exact placements, so there exists a long corridor of official ‘neutral’ territory that acts as a corridor from the Reach of the Golden Throne, down the side of the Ilythian empire, to the Mondrauk territory. Therefore, the nearest throne outposts to Mondrauk space would be the scout stations and drone stations that hedge that neutral corridor. They are the early warning system before any attack from this side of the Golden Throne into its territory.”

Anders winced. That had to hurt, even for a galactic empire as powerful as the Golden Throne. Not that it made much of a difference to their might and their numbers, but the fact that one side of the Reach of the Throne would now be temporarily blinded would only cause chaos across the neutral zone.

And might even give the Ilythians a chance to regroup. Anders blinked suddenly. Perhaps Jhan Poul had been intending to keep his bargain with Anders and the others after all. Not to fly to the defense of the elf-like aliens perhaps, but to give them a small amount of breathing space.

“Strategically, sir?” Moriarty continued. “The throne will have to now enforce the neutral zone, surveying the two potential threats of both Ilythia and Jakka, rather than operate against one enemy at a time.”

Granted. Anders nodded a fraction.

“But, if I may speak freely, sir?” Moriarty said, before continuing anyway. “My historical analysis of Throne Marine tactics—”

I know, I WAS one, right!? Anders thought briefly.

“—and a comparative analysis of times when the Golden Throne has apparently been attacked out of turn, suggests a very high possibility that—” Moriarty was saying, but Anders had already stopped listening by then. He knew full well what the Golden Throne did when it was annoyed.

Full-spectrum dominance, Anders recalled the term. In other words, destroy everything that walks, talks, breathes, moves, grows, or stands aboveground. And then poison the ground and irradiate the atmosphere too, if the world hasn’t got any resources worth claiming, that is.

And almost as if the herald had heard Moriarty’s advice and had decided to follow it to the letter…

“I will take that to mean you have turned down our generous offer. A pity,” the herald said with the slightest shrug—

—just as all the scarred and laden tables that the chieftains and trusted warriors sat at started to shake.


Seismic Events

“Herald, explain yourself!” the supreme warlord of Jakka demanded, striding to the edge of the dais. The two heavy-set Mondrauks braced their blaster-axes in anticipation, and Anders saw one of them slide a foot forward, taking aim.

To suddenly stumble to one side, as if the aliens had lost their footing on treacherous ground. A snarl of disbelief, before—

Crash! Splintering and crashing sounds erupted as cups, helmets, and sometimes entire benches wobbled and fell to the floor. The ground was shaking, and Anders and the others wobbled, banging against each other.

“Moriarty!” Anders said in alarm.

“My sensors are detecting rising seismic activity, sir,” Moriarty said, which, given the very clear evidence right in front of everyone’s noses, Anders thought was perhaps a little unhelpful.

“I get that! But what’s causing it!?” Anders once again hopped from foot to foot to avoid crashing to the floor.

In just these few seconds, the center of the voudj had turned to chaos. Mondrauk warriors and chieftains—many of whom had already been halfway down their flagons and cups of alien wines—were tumbling, clawing, and roaring as they battered against each other to get out of the way.

FZZZT! There was a sudden report of purple energy as someone discharged a blaster at the walls, intentionally or not. Anders swore as he saw sudden lines of steam—no, dust—rising from the floor as cracks burst apart.

And there, standing curiously still amidst the sea of turbulence, was the herald, just as nonchalant as before. The small man looked casually around him at the mayhem, again with the slightly tilted head, half-smile, and one raised eyebrow as if studying a rather fascinating experiment.

Herald!” Jhan Poul roared, reaching down to his calf to snatch up a thick-bladed knife and lunge forward.

Only for the edge of the floor at the edge of the dais to suddenly rise as if it too had lost its balance as the ground rocked like a ship at sea. “Hrrargh!” The jhan crashed to the ground, his dagger skittering across the floor.

“Sir, the results of my long-range scanners are in. They reveal both a mantle-level tremor event, rising in intensity, and an atmospheric disturbance,” Moriarty stated.

“What?” Anders said, completely baffled by this. An earthquake and some sort of low-orbit strike? But then the ex-Marine’s mind had a moment of clarity.

“Oh no,” he murmured. Unless, of course, the earthquake was the result of a low-orbit strike. Anders knew that particularly powerful thermonuclear devices could do that.

In which case, Anders’s mind informed him, the most effective thing to do was to scream and hope for it all to go away, because he knew there was no way that anyone could outrun a giga-ton nuclear blast.

But, wait a minute… The thought struck Anders between the eyes. Wouldn’t Moriarty have been able to detect it, given the fact that the long-range scanners in Anders’s personal node that Moriarty used could detect radiation. Couldn’t they?

“Moriarty! Scan for radiation!” Ander exclaimed.

“Oooof!” There was a thump as Patch hit the deck, and Anders knew that it was only a matter of time until he would too. When he looked up, he could see the room pitching and falling.

But still, the Herald remained upright in the middle of it all, now taking a delicate step over one of the scrabbling Mondrauks.

Creeeeaaak! There was a deafening sound of screeching metal, so loud that Anders felt like his eardrums were going to burst. The pain was too much for his already disordered senses, and he too fell backwards, remembering to hunch his shoulders and tuck in his neck a moment before he slammed into the metal-plated floor.

When he opened his eyes to the shaking diorama around him, he could see that the roof of the voudj had torn down one side, revealing the orange skies of Jakka.

And then came the darting shape of something very black, trailing smoke behind it.

What was that? Meteorite? Missile? Mondrauk defense craft? Anders didn’t know. Everything was happening too fast, and he wished that at least whatever field generator was controlling their bonds would disable!

But Anders’s constrictions remained stubbornly in place as he slammed into the raised foot of the dais.

“Ach! Get out of my way!” Moriarty’s translation software was still running, and Anders heard the angry shouts of Mondrauks fighting to get out of the collapsing structure. With an almighty thump, one of the steel ribs sheared free, impaling a Mondrauk to the floor.

“Somebody shoot him!” Anders heard Jhan Poul shout, and the human had a moment to think ‘not wise!’ before there was a trio of purple-laced blaster shots burning the air across Anders’s vision, each one going in cross-angles at each other as their shooters lost their aim in the confusion.

“Are you ready for the radiation results, sir?” Moriarty said in his calm, suave, and sophisticated voice.

“Yes! For star’s sake!” Anders breathed, trying his best to hunker down—not that it would do much good in a nuclear attack.

“Ah. You see, I thought that I’d better ask first, because the results might be psychologically distressing for biological lifeforms,” Moriarty stated.

“Just tell me!” Anders almost shouted—or would have shouted, had he not been juddered and pounded against the floor by all the tremors.

“The good news is that there is no direct sign or uranium, plutonium, polonium or any other of the most-used heavy metal compounds, sir,” Moriarty said.

That implies there’s some bad news, Anders thought between judders.

“There is, however, a very, very potent concentration of less radioactive, but arguably more dangerous elements in the form of sulfur, carbon monoxide, carbon-oxcylate compounds, oxygen…” Moriarty continued down the list, as if any of it was supposed to mean anything to Anders.

“English, please Mor—” Another painful thwap as Anders rebounded from the floor again.

“Lots of flamey, fire stuff, sir,” Moriarty said in as simple a way as it could find.

Flamey, fire stuff. Just great. Anders was pretty sure that was the simulated intelligence’s way of saying they were in the face of an inferno and were all about to get burnt to a crisp.

Anders was right.

Jhan Poul roared as he managed to swivel onto his side, drawing a tiny, concealed blaster from his utility belt and firing it at the herald.

The golden-skinned envoy, who was rumored to be the most precious object to the Eternal Empress, just ignored the imposition as the laser blasts shot past the front of his face, and two behind his back.

The herald was on the move; he had spotted something.

Anders was cursing as he saw another huge section of the metal roof break away, gray-white metal tearing under the force of its own weight, combined with the world shaking itself like a child’s toy. The voudj was built like an ancient tent or yurt, but with the topmost domed ‘canvas’ being made out of some sophisticated metal composite. The ochre dust-laden winds of the Victory Plains started to howl and blow inside instantly, and Anders could smell the soot and smoke.

“Interesting,” one lone voice cut as a counterpoint to the howl of the wind. Anders struggled to turn his body as best he could to see what had captivated the herald so much.

There were only two people standing in the voudj now. One was the gold-skinned herald, never appearing to waver or wobble despite the way the ground trembled and shook.

And the other was Jake.

Jake was the taller of the two, but he was growing even taller by a meter, as Anders realized that the psychic was floating from the ground.

Dear stars… Anders swore, as a rumbling, groaning sound started to draw near, like an oncoming avalanche.

The problem was that Jake had returned the device to his head that the Ilythians had fashioned for him. It looked like a strange circle of white wires, interspersed with white or black modular units and strapped completely around his head at the temples. Anders knew it had been one of the few things that stopped the awful god-power of the Archon from finding its conduit through Jake once again, and through him probably causing as much destruction as the Golden Throne was performing now.

But Jake was now so powerful that, even with the Ilythian suppressants, he could seemingly subconsciously perform some of the most challenging and powerful acts that any ‘regular’ human PK would be hungry for.

“Grakh!” A sudden surprised shout signaled one section of the voudj’s ruined ceiling falling inward, completely crushing the tables, benches, and struggling Mondrauks underneath.

“Where are you? I don’t see you!” Jake, however, despite being right in front of the herald, was shaking his head and looking back and forth as if the small figure wasn’t even there.

“Hmm…” Anders heard the gold-clad, gold-skinned herald say, stepping forward to raise one glistening finger in front of the PK’s face, as if about to tap him on the nose.

Jake!” Anders shouted, trying to warn him.

“Show yourself!” Jake said, his head snapping towards the herald’s voice, but still with his eyes blinking and looking off-kilter, not focusing on the strangest sight in the entire collapsing voudj.

Why can’t Jake see him? Anders thought, starting to twist and buck and turn to try to get closer to the scene. But every movement only forced his bonds to draw closer.

Which is worse, being strangled to death or burned alive? Everyone had always said that Lieutenant Anders Corsigon had a very dark sense of humor, and Anders guessed that perhaps they had been right all along.

“Very interesting indeed!” the herald repeated, pausing before his mischievous nose-tap and lightly hopping back as if it were a child’s game. The words that he said next, however, were not childish at all.

“I will have to make sure that the Eternal Empress hears all about you, J-14. Absolutely everything,” the herald said as Jake started to thrash his head around.

“Who are you! Where are you! SHOW YOURSELF!” the final demand was laden with Jake’s erratic, overflowing power. Anders saw the air shimmer as a current of force burst ahead of the youth, smashing into the already demolished room and the tangle of Mondrauk bodies clambering and beating each other to get out of the door, and at least crawl to freedom.

But the wave of psychic energy just washed around the herald as if he really wasn’t there.

No, not washed around, Anders thought. Washed through. He saw the lines and the edges of the herald’s body blur and shake before flickering into solidity once again.

No, how can that be? Anders thought, before all was revealed.

The herald turned to survey the room and the fighting, limb-breaking, fleeing Mondrauk chieftains with obvious pride, and then he started to waver and fade, the gold flecks of his skin remaining bright long after the matter colors disappeared until in the end, there was only a shimmering cloud of gold specks that finally vanished altogether.

“The herald was some kind of stars-damned hologram!” Anders shouted. But how was that even possible? How could the Mondrauk security systems not have detected it? How come Moriarty didn’t detect it!?

“Where are you! Who are you!?” Jake was shouting as more of the ceiling started to fall around him in jagged, stiffened sheets. None of them touched the floating psychic however, seemingly batted away by an invisible force.

“Human!” It was the voice of Jhan Poul, who had struggled to the edge of the dais with great difficulty as his new subjects all around him were panicking and dying. Anders saw that the jhan was fiddling with some device in his black-taloned hands, and then the constricting bands of field energy suddenly vanished.

The human gasped in relief, although that made him instantly aware of all of the myriad of pain now competing for his attention across his body.

“I was never going to deal with your damned empress,” Poul growled before coughing a thick, dark drool of alien blood from his lips. The alien had been skewered by one of the finer metal ribs of the structure, and as the ex-officer rose on shaking hands, he could see where the shining metal had entered the warlords’ body, just above his abdomen.

It was the sort of wound that could easily kill a human, Anders thought.

“I know,” Anders said seriously but hastily, as he was aware that Jake himself might be about to go thermonuclear at any moment. Around him, struggling out of the still-shaking wreckage, came the forms of his company, Dalia being the first to rise with her Ilythian grace, then Patch, all of them rubbing their limbs where they had been held.

“Your ship. If it is intact, it’s behind the voudj,” Poul said groaned, nodding in one direction. “And this—” he coughed, before tapping one talon to the buttons on the greave at his wrist.

“Data-package received,” Moriarty informed him. “It appears to be star maps, stellar coordinates, and some kind of archival documents.”

“Everything we have on the Well,” Poul stated weakly. “I don’t know if it will take you there, but you have to go…”

“We have medical bays on the ship,” Anders breathed, feeling oddly empathetic toward the warlord he had so recently thought had been about to kill him.

“Pfagh!” Poul snorted, with a shadow of his old, belligerent self returning. “Medical bays are why humans and Ilythians are weak…” And then, with a groan, Anders and the others saw the supreme warlord of Jakka start to push himself up on his thick arms, still with the rib of steel embedded in his body.

“Graorkh!” Jhan Poul roared, raising one fist to the rent rooftops. “To the ships, my warriors and hearth-guardians! Are we to lie here like mtheki-dogs!?”

It was unclear whether anyone could even hear their supreme warlord over the din of shouts, sudden screams, and the shrieks of protesting metals, but Anders knew that the Jhan of the Mondrauks wasn’t beaten yet.

“Jake? Jake…” Dalia was reaching her gloved hand up to the psychic youth where he hung in the air, his eyes glazed but his brow sweating and creased in confusion.

“Remember your exercises, Jake. Find your center. The place where you are you,” she told him, her fingertips touching the back of the young psychic’s hand.

Anders felt a sudden pressure ease in his head, the wash of psychic noise—which came whenever Jake was close to giving in to the terrible, monstrous forces trying to occupy his soul—reducing. Slowly, Jake started to lower toward the floor, panting and breathing heavily as Dalia’s strong arms seized him and pulled the youth toward her.

“C’mon!” Anders said, already turning to direct his bruised and battered group to the half-covered exit that led out of the voudj and toward the Victory Plains.


The Victory Plains

“Look out!” Anders shouted as one section of the arched corridor shook and suddenly rent inward with a blast of ochre smoke. The policeman grunted, fell to the floor, and rolled as the shockwave washed over them.

But in a heartbeat, they were back on their feet, running for the distant exit mired by wreckage and bodies. It was clear that most of the Mondrauks had already fled the voudj, but Anders’s boots found the bodies of those who hadn’t been lucky enough to escape falling wall panels or each other.

Several of them displayed blaster burns, savage scratches, or broken limbs where others of their own kind had apparently attacked them in their haste to get out. In an odd way, Anders was almost relieved to be traveling later than the tide of volatile warriors.

But it did make their journey even more precarious, he realized with sudden clarity as the voudj shook once more, and the floor in front of them suddenly broke. He jumped.

Hyagh!” Anders didn’t stop but lengthened his stride and hit the broken lip of the floor plates to jump over the tortured pipework and metal guts of the basements of the voudj.

“Ooof!” He landed with a roll, skidding to a halt against one sagging wall as he spun around.

“Haii!” Patch was the next over, landing with both feet like one of the Golden Throne long-jumpers.

But Dalia was still holding Jake in both arms, who looked barely conscious against her long body. The ground was shaking, and there was a thunderous crash as the floor broke upward again, disgorging steam from venting pipes.

“Boss!” Patch called, pointing ahead to where the ceiling near the glimmer of ochre-tinged light had lowered, now forming just the smallest aperture to squeeze through.

“Go!” Dalia said urgently, already taking several steps back.

“No!” Patch said without a moment’s hesitation.

“Not without you two!” Anders called, skidding to the edge of the lower floor. He held out his arms, and the Ilythian immediately saw what he intended. With a grunt of effort, she hoisted the psychic youth higher and started to struggle forward in a run.

She took three bounding steps and leapt, flinging Jake with all the strength she possessed toward Anders as she scissor-kicked.

Ugh!” Jake half-tumbled and crashed into Anders’s waiting form, and they both went down in a pained jumble of limbs. “I got you. I got you…” Anders comforted the near-unconscious boy as he heard a thump of boots, a desperate scramble, and finally a gasp as Dalia teetered, having caught the edge of the pit, the fall below her filled with sparking wires and sharp edges of broken pipes.

But Patch was already there, grabbing ahold of the agent’s wrist and pulling her away from the edge.

There was no time to take a breath or recompose themselves, however, as a sudden sheet of flame swept up from the broken floor behind them. Some sparks must have found a broken gas line.

“We can do this,” Anders said, his old Marine training kicking in as he got to his feet, one hand under Jake’s arm and around his shoulder. It was slow going, but the group hopped and stumbled forward—only to see that that the jagged aperture of twisted and sharpened metal had grown smaller. It would be a careful squeeze for even Dalia, who was perhaps the slimmest of the entire group.

“Okay. We just do it.” Anders was trying to sound encouraging, but perhaps was only really helping himself, as he nodded for Dalia to be the first through. “I’ll help Jake go after you—” he was saying, just as a wave of something like teeth-chattering nausea burst inside of him. Anders could feel all of the hairs on the back of his neck and his arms rise, and he knew at once what was happening.

Jake was losing control.

“Dalia!” Anders managed to breathe, seeking the help of the Ilythian, because they as a race all had some trace of PK abilities, and so all of them had been trained in the meditation and focusing techniques necessary to control it.

But Dalia didn’t even have a chance to turn her head before Jake’s head raised, and, despite the fact that he still wore the Ilythian PK-suppressor, his eyes were now just the pure, glittering black orbs that occurred with his transmission of the Archon.

Oh no. Dread pooled inside Anders, but he fought the animal instinct to let Jake go and flee. Instead, he only held onto the youth even tighter, as if he might be able to remind him of his body and of who he was—just another human, not an ancient, physics-defying god.

But Jake, surprisingly, did not unleash bursts of pure, destructive power over everything around them. Instead, the youth merely raised one arm with his palm facing outward—

—toward the sharpened edges and small aperture of ochre light.

Anders felt Jake’s shoulders bunch as he tensed, and then Anders could feel the wave of telekinetic power the youth summoned. It punched through Jake’s form and washed ahead of them all.

The invisible ripple of energy rolled forward, striking the tangle of bent and folded doors, walls, and detritus. Anders saw the metal peel outward as if there had been a slow-motion explosion before his very eyes, but without flames or sparks or plasma, and just the noise of the various distressed metals grating against each other.

“There. Open,” Jake said with clear effort, before slumping once again against Anders’s shoulders, and this time appearing to be completely unconscious. The feeling of nausea and unnaturalness faded from Anders’s body and mind as he marveled at Jake’s abilities, and no less, the ability that he had to resist the Black Sun.

But he couldn’t help but wonder: For how long?


Jakka Near-Orbit

“There she is!” Patch shouted as the staggering humans crossed the ochre and orange dirt of the Victory Plains. The Ilythian vessel was still sitting on its three extended legs where it had been impounded.

Everywhere around them, there was the howl of wind and sand as the Mondrauks took off in their assembled jets, transports, and fighters. The fleeing party could see the tubular shapes of the smaller fighters screaming into the air, their ends glowing with purple-blue field energy, at the same time ringed with the red and white flares of jet-propulsion systems.

Mondrauk transport craft and guard vessels—looking like three-dimensional, hulking trapeziums with galleries of portholes and the exposed snubs of heavy meson blasters—were turning slowly and attempting to rise higher and higher into the sky.

A sky that was not only crisscrossed with Mondrauk vessels rising to war, but also the dissipating plumes of black smoke.

What are they? Anders thought for a second time, bewildered by the smoke lines. He turned his head as Patch took the Jake’s other shoulder and arm to help.

Oh frack. Anders gulped, staggering as he saw the source of the black-smoke contrails, and the scale of the danger that faced them.

The voudj sat at the entrance to the vast yellow-brown plains, traditionally a site of many battles involving entire clans and tribes. The Victory Plains were ringed by cliffs that stood hundreds of meters tall in the distance, forming the horizon.

And those cliffs had a thick line of blackened smoke and fire at their tops, growing larger and larger by the second. Moriarty had been right, Anders thought in a sort of horrified awe. His feet slowed, then stopped. Flamey, fire stuff.

Anders saw sheets and spurts of flame bursting along the base of the boiling black smokes, and then the smaller specks of particles thrown outward from smoke-wall.

Only those specks flew high and wide of their birth, spilling plumes of black smoke before they came crashing down onto the as-yet undestroyed Victory Plains. Each speck was really a boulder or shard of mantle-rock, glowing red-hot at their hearts and hitting the surface of the world like bombs.

“But…” Anders blinked and shook his head. “How could the Golden Throne do this?” His feet started to stumble forward despite him. The man’s body wanted to live, even if the man’s mind was too stunned to even think about it.

“Well, the Eternal Empress isn’t known for her nicey-nicey attitude,” Patch gasped, his eyes wide.

“No,” Anders said, shaking his head and moving his feet faster. Much faster. “I meant how!?” he repeated. “There are no weapons in the Throne Marines arsenal that could do this, as far as I remember.”

The ground underfoot shook and rippled as the distant effects of whatever explosion it had been sent shockwaves through the mantle of the continent. Anders heard Patch gasp as nearby, a Mondrauk ship that had just managed to power up its lights was suddenly sent crashing to one side, sending up its own sparks and plumes of smoke.

But their Ilythian vessel appeared able to withstand even the worst of the quakes and shakes, as her impossibly thin legs wobbled and absorbed the damage, although almost one entire half of her was now covered in a fine layer of plains dust.

The Ilythian scout had been given to them by the Supreme Council of Ilythia, and, like all Ilythian vehicles, it looked faintly organic. She was shaped like an arrowhead, and her hull appeared to be made of blue-green overlapping scales rather than metals. Her weapons ports and sensor hubs looked like rounded bone-growths, not concentrations of highly-specialized technologies.

The ship somehow sensed the nearness of its designated operator, and Dalia didn’t even slow her long-legged strides. Anders watched as one of the hull-scales slid down, revealing an organically-fluted archway and a set of bone-colored steps spiraling to the dirt of the plains with the softest thump.

In seconds, Dalia and the others were inside the cool interiors, lit with soft lighting and revealing smooth, flowing shapes of control chairs and consoles, and one larger central room where stands held suits of Ilythian scale armor, equipment, and weapons.

“Prepare field generators!” Dalia said, sliding into the cup-chair at the nose of the cockpit as holo-control handles swept up underneath her arms, and lines of green Ilythian script started to flow around her in bands. The chair’s harness sprang to life of its own accord, and by the time Anders had settled Jake into the slide-out medical bed from one of the main hull walls, the ship was already rising.

“Keep an eye on him!” Anders told Patch as he joined Dalia in the cockpit, jumping into the corresponding weapons chair that was set just a little further back from the pilot.

More glittering bands of Ilythian holo-script started to flow around Anders, as well as his own two holo-graphic control-arms, which still felt firm when he settled both arms against them.

“Moriarty?” Anders whispered.

“Interfacing with vessel, sir. Contacting Ilythian server…” Moriarty informed him, and in a moment, the green swirling rune-script started to transform and reshape themselves into Throne English as Moriarty ran his translation software.

Forward Meson Cannons.

Siderail Guns.

Light Blasters.

The list went on, but none of them looked very useful to Anders right now, especially when Dalia gasped in Ilythian. With one thrown gesture of her hands, she opened a viewing field in the air ahead of them.

It was a scene of the Victory Plains, and the cliffs ahead of them—or where the cliffs that ringed the plains should have been.

Instead, the line of boiling black clouds was falling down their heights like gobbets of ink, bursting into super-heated steam at the base moments before the Ilythian and the human saw the cliffs explode.

“Frack!” Anders swore. The explosion was so vast that it was pushing through the mantle of Jakka, and when it reached the distant cliffs, it tore them apart like a child running through a wall of snow.

Rocks and broken fragments of cliff faces, each of which had to be hundreds of tons, were flung into the sky, tumbling and breaking apart as they did so, and shedding molten, boiling slag.

It looked like the end of a world. The final, apocalyptic days of a planet.

“Pull up!” Anders frantically hissed as cliff-boulders that were many times larger even than the voudj slammed into the Victory Plains, sending up more waves of dirt and small mushroom clouds. The Ilythian craft shook as the nearest of the shockwaves hit them, casting them to one side.

“Stabilizers!” Dalia commanded as the scout veered towards the slowly rising brick of a Mondrauk transporter. The ship righted itself just in time from its tumbling roll, for Dalia to push her holo-controls forward and for the nimble vessel to scream around the stubby nose of the transporter with meters between their hulls.

But now the scout was flying the wrong way across the plains—toward the mushroom-clouds and the barrage of rocks raining down all around them.

“Outer shields at sixty percent!” Dalia said. Suddenly, there were flares and ripples of blue directly in front of them, and they were struck by rocks.

“Impact. Forward shields down twenty-five percent,” the human-translated Ilythian server announced without emotion.

The scout bucked and shook under the assault. Dalia brought one of the control arms back toward her while pushing forward on the other. The ship jumped and arced upward, rising past columns of black smoke and the passing missiles of a broken planet.

Suddenly, they were in a desperate fight for their very survival as Dalia fought to win the brief clear spaces of the sky. Anders was thrown and shaken in his seat as the Ilythian agent went totally quiet, her hands on the two control-arms moving first one way and then another, making minute movements that the scout eagerly responded to.

“Incoming!” the main server announced, a heartbeat before a gigantic piece of cliff—with scrubby trees still clinging to a ravine in its walls—hurtled toward them.

Dalia let out a garble of clicking syllables that Moriarty couldn’t translate, but Anders presumed it was something very vulgar indeed.

Dalia’s hands moved, and Anders felt the pull of the G-force, even inside the scout despite its internal atmospheres and both the fields of the outer and the inner shields.

All at once, the ship was racing up the side of the tumbling cliff, with a near-constant blue glow all around it as a myriad of rocks were pulverized against its outer shields.

But the flying cliff was starting to roll toward them, over them.

Dalia growled as she pulled back on the holo-controls, and Anders was slammed into the back of his seat, unable to move as the cliff loomed larger and larger ahead of them—

And then they were peeling away, and the cliff fell back as they curved out from under its deadly embrace. The scout pierced the black clouds, and the scanners chattered and bleeped, creating flashing green vector icons of other pieces of terrible, crushing rock that their eyes couldn’t see in the murk.

Dalia swiveled and turned in the blanket of smoke, one flashing green vector growing larger and larger and almost filling one-third of the screen before it too started to fall away beneath them.

And just as suddenly as the scout had entered the burning smokes and ash clouds, they were free, piercing the top and continuing up toward the glaring white of the near-atmosphere.

“Divert available power to field generators!” Dalia shouted as a small, revolving blue holo of their vessel appeared to one side of the cockpit. It was picked out just in a simple technical-line drawing, but it revolved slowly, displaying glowing patches of green where attention was required. Next to it was a small circular chart showing the different levels of energy uses, and, as Anders watched, the colored sections that alluded to life-support or other general systems grew fractionally smaller, and the segment devoted to thruster and field generator engines grew proportionately larger.

A vibration started up through the vessel as the scout fought the forces of Jakka’s gravity. She hadn’t had a proper launch for achieving escape velocity, and now the scout was suffering for it.

But Anders saw the white suddenly flare to green, mauve, and crimson as their ascent set fire to the noble gases they tore through over the Mondrauk home world.

Suddenly, the shuddering stopped, and the flames flickered out, revealing the gleaming ink of space and stars. They had made it. They had escaped Jakka.

But Jakka hadn’t escaped the wrath of the Eternal Empress, Anders saw when he looked at the holo-fields. “Expand view,” he heard Dalia say quietly, and they both looked at what horrors the Golden Throne had become capable of.

The image stretched from the sides of the cockpit in a band that moved across their vision, all the way to the other side. By using her gloved hands, Dalia could scroll up and down through the image, revealing more of the Mondrauk home system that the scanners could see.

There, off to one side, were the two industrialized moons of the Mondrauks. They had appeared to entirely escape the empress’s attention, and Anders spent a moment looking at their geometric snowflake-like designs of glittering factory lights and districts.

Anders wondered how many Mondrauks lived and worked on those two moons. Tens of thousands? Hundreds of thousands? More?

The human hoped that it was enough to repopulate the Mondrauk species, because from the looks of it, their home world wouldn’t be habitable for a long, long time.

The giant orb of Jakka was predominantly a gray, yellow, and bluish planet.

At least, it was, Anders thought. There were large areas of scrub, desert, and hot, arid savannahs on Jakka, and above them, the top of the world appeared to be given over almost exclusively to a mantle of mountains, many thousands of leagues wide, and locked up with snow.

The vital seas of Jakka were small compared to the water-ratio of many other planets, as a lot of the water that the Mondrauks used, at least, appeared to belong to dams and irrigation works from the melt-off of those northern mountains.

Now, however, that entire system had changed.

It looked as though the world of Jakka was sick. A tide of black, ruinous smoke was expanding across its surface, racing across the central savannahs, plains, and scrubland biomes as its top hit the highlands and foothills of those world-crowning mountains, and it suddenly slowed to a near stop.

But what was truly terrible was what lay behind that line of smoke and fire: the blackened and torn regions it had passed over.

“It’s dead. Everything…dead!” Dalia said in a small whisper, with an extra special horror added to her voice from the fact that biological and ecological life was revered to the Ilythian people.

She was right, Anders saw. The fires had left behind acres and kingdoms of black. When Dalia was brave enough to zoom in on this growing region of the dead, a collective moan of nausea passed between the two humans and the Ilythian.

It wasn’t just that what little foliage the planet had was burned. Anders, Dalia, and Patch could see that the land itself was torn and jumbled, and Anders thought about the way that the shockwave had thrown apart the cliffs that edged the Victory Plains.

Where there had been canyons or hills and gullies, there were now freshly broken ravines filled with glowing red lines of magma. In the central places, presumably where the explosion or attack had started, the magma had apparently cooled back to its solid black, and there could be seen drifts of off-colored gray and dirty, bone-cream.

“Ash,” Anders thought with a shudder as the hairs on the back of his neck rose. He had once seen something like that, hadn’t he?

The circle of the explosion continued outward, and the helpless viewers watched as the outer spurs of the northern mountains were shaken, broken, and cast down. Natural fault lines and plate tectonics in the makeup of the world of Jakka were exploited by this terrible, spreading eruption. New volcano-rings were created in minutes, sending tides of boiling magma out ahead of the racing smoke as an even worse emissary of the end times.

Ash, the ex-officer and ex-Marine recalled. A world that was made of ash. Anders remembered a time when he had stood on such a world, or a part of him had, anyway.

It had been a part of his strange cycle of visions or nightmares when he had accidentally received the full transmission of the Archon. Instantly, the psychic waves had washed through him and sent him into a delirium, during which he saw Cassie and Sibbi again, his long-dead wife and daughter. But their shades had been horribly twisted and made cruel by the influence of the Archon, and then he had been transported to a world of ash...

Over which had hung the Black Sun.

The Archon of this galaxy had been moon-sized, a perfect black sphere of interminable origin, and it had radiated nothing but hate.

“I know what did this,” Anders whispered.

“So do I,” another voice agreed. It was Jake, standing at the narrow entrance to their cockpit, leaning against the organic, bone-like doorway and looking pale.

No, he looks haunted, Anders corrected, immediately moving to stand up.

But the gaunt Jake just raised one pale hand to wave him off, although he was still clearly using the other to lean heavily against the doorway.

“That’s the power of the Black Sun. The Archon,” the youth said, his voice high and weak, but no less certain. “The Eternal Empress has found a way to harness its power at last.”

Previously, only Anders and Jake had seen what horror the Archon’s attention would bring to their forgotten part of the galaxy. But now, with almost half of the planet of Jakka a blackened and burnt ruin—and with the destiny of the entire Mondrauk people irrevocably changed—all four mortals in the cockpit knew just what was at stake from now on.

Nothing less than the survival of free, intelligent life.


The Displeasure of a Golden God

Sector 1, Imperial 1

With a flicker of golden sparks—like the unlikely confetti of a wedding thrown by photons and neutrinos—the herald reformed and stepped out of quantum uncertainty into material solidity.

And into displeasure, the herald noted as soon as one lithe, gold-skinned foot inside his gold sandals touched the plates of metal, colored like yellow sandstone.

Everything in the presence of the Eternal Empress stood in shades of yellow, gold, orange, or red. It gave those few mortals lucky and favored enough to visit her the impression of a sun-filled, opulent realm of light and abundance.

For those who had to live here though, it was another matter.

If I have to look at anything gold or gold-colored ever again, I swear I am sticking my head down the next evacuation chute! the herald grumbled to himself. Not that a person even as securely-placed as the herald had much of a say in the matter, of course.

The room that was at the same time the herald’s abode as well as inner sanctum of the entire empire was actually a large space that gave the impression of intimacy by the many nooks, snugs, low-tables, statuary (gold) and assorted plant life (yellow-bloomed) that created small alcoves and corners everywhere.

The herald stepped silently around a copper table and hovered near the gold pedestal upon which sat a crystal sphere of yellow citrine that was actually a scale model of the base in which this room was placed—Imperial 1.

Hopefully, she’s asleep, the herald thought, already half-turning back to the area where the blue floor pads of the field generator sat, through which he had coalesced. Eternal Empress Helena Tri’Vi’Pathian the First spent a lot of her time asleep these decades, the herald thought. It might have been worrying for any other Supreme Ruler-in-Chief, but for a being as powerful as the Eternal Empress, she had ways of not letting unconsciousness slow her down.

“Herald.” Just to prove this very point, the icy voice of humanity’s sole ruler broke into the room, even though the herald couldn’t see her.

Oh, nuts. The herald dared a slight scowl on his permanently youthful face, before plastering a joyous smile over it instead.

“Step forward, Herald, and report. We have been waiting,” the voice of the empress commanded him. It radiated a dispassionate authority that came from centuries of sole rule. The Eternal Empress did not have to worry whether or not she would ever be obeyed. She was the empress, so she was.

“At once, Your Majesty.” The herald bowed as a matter of course before stepping lightly forward around the pedestal, past a small avenue of similarly opulent pillars, to approach the rear of the room, where two drapes of a fine gauzy material afforded her some privacy. These drapes were, of course, made of a glittering cloth of gold.

The herald hesitated for just a moment outside of the holiest of holies, a ripple of something not precisely fear, but certainly a type of trepidation running through the small man. After the hundred or so years he had been alive, he was somehow still unused to such things as emotions.

“Herald.” The voice of the ruler of humanity was more insistent, and this time would not brook hesitation. The herald’s gold-skinned hand pushed aside one of the wall hangings, and he stepped forward—

—to be assaulted by the scene that would have been sickening, were it not for the fact that the Herald was so used to it.

There was a bed, of sorts. Wide and high, with four posts standing high over the prone form of a wizened woman, who had become curiously child-like again in her anciency. More layers of the soft, gauzy material covered the shape of her body, allowing only the suggestion of her shape to remain.

Thankfully, the herald added in his mind.

The herald was always grateful for this covering, because seeing her face and stick-like arms above the coverlet was bad enough. Her arms were unlike her chosen emissary. They were of a normal human color, albeit with all her natural pigment washed out through age and infirmity. The herald could clearly see the sagging skin of her wrinkles pooling underneath the bones and tendons, with just the barest suggestion of any muscle left.

Wires and tubes snaked across the coverlet to plunge into her wrists and between her fingers, and the herald knew that if he stayed here long enough, he would eventually see the tiny movements and pulses as they delivered the nutrient-mix that kept her alive.

But even that macabre sight was nowhere near as bad as the image of the woman’s head and her wiry, lank gray hair that splayed out across the pillow around her. Once, her hair might have been curly and perhaps blonde, but it had gone the way of her skin. Not even the chemicals and Gene Seer proteins and amino mixes that were constantly cycling through the empress could restore her youth.

Her head was really a skull on the clear cords of her neck and sunken gullet. She was dead, any normal person might have assumed, until they saw a flicker in the architecture of her throat with what passed for a breath.

Where her skin everywhere else on her body had become loose, it had gone the other way around her face, growing tighter and tighter until the herald really was looking at a skull, with the thinnest cellophane of bleached skin wrapping. Her lips had cracked and withdrawn to show her receding gums and still perfectly white teeth, slightly parted.

The herald wondered if this body still even had a tongue or whether that too had withered away to nothing.

The Eternal Empress looked mummified, and automated as well. The most distressing sight for any would-be observer was the sight of more of the tubes and wires forming inter-woven cables, which reached across to enter the woman’s shrunken nose, as well as plunge into her eye cavities, completely obscuring whether there were any eyeballs at all.

But the herald’s earlier trepidation was gone, and a being such as he felt no disgust or horror at the sight.

As it was, this grotesque vision of the woman at the heart of the Golden Throne lasted all of a second before a shimmer of blue field light swept over the herald’s eyes, and he was instantly transported to a zone of complete darkness, save for the holo-projection of the empress.

This sudden virtual transportation had been enough in the past to send weaker-willed minds into a state of panic and awe at the empress’s apparent magical abilities. However, the herald half-lived in this digital place all the time and was completely unfazed by it. In reality, the herald knew it was in fact a very simple procedure. All of the empress’s inner sanctum was blanket-covered by field generators, and the building-sized security servers that powered them allowed her to hack and take over any nearby node, therefore generating a comprehensive digital world for her guests.

Inside of which, the herald thought a tad caustically, she chose to do this with herself.

The herald looked exactly the same as he did outside of this black, blank space. However, the Eternal Empress clearly did not.

The monarch’s most trusted messenger was looking at a giantess—a vision of a far younger, far larger empress. Her face alone must have been the size of a small scout vessel, and the rest of her stretched out of sight below the herald’s gaze.

It was like looking at a mountain.

This digital version of the Eternal Empress was fashioned out of living gold and seated on a brass-colored throne, which was the size of a small mountain. Her hair curled in waves around a face that was smooth and perfect, and on her head was a simple coronet, with many small spikes that the herald thought looked like shark’s teeth.

But this woman was no statue, despite her appearances. Her eyes were open, and she leaned forward attentively to loom, god-like, over the tiny form of the herald.

“I’m waiting, Herald. What was it like? Did you see it? Were you there!?” the exact same, furiously cold voice intoned.

“They bleeding well shot me,” the herald muttered under his breath, before performing the low, courtly bow that he always did here. In any other visitor, Helena Tri’Vi’Pathian might have taken the muttering as a mark of disrespect and used the same field technology that created this imaginal space to burn out every synapse and nerve-ending of the offender.

Luckily for the herald, these two had known each other for a long, long time. Such relationships—even servile ones—allowed a small amount of flexibility.

“Occupational hazard,” the empress said a little irritably, and with her irritation came a fizz of electronic pain sweeping through him. He hissed uncomfortably but was suitably chagrined, nonetheless.

“The test. Describe it to me,” the empress pressed.

The herald took a breath, wondering at the strange foibles of the woman who must surely have witnessed the destruction of Jakka from her deep-surveillance satellites.

But she is the Eternal Empress, and I, her humble servant. The herald inwardly grimaced.

“As you ordered, I used the new black-light camouflage technology to deliver the test subjects to the surface of the Mondrauk world, an uninhabited region called Gordakki Heights, I believe—” the herald was saying.

“I don’t care what it was called. It has no name now, or people to speak it, does it!?” the empress berated him, sending another shiver of electric pain sweeping through the herald in her impatience.

“Of course, Your Imperial Majesty. The test subjects were delivered, all seven of the best-performing clones, where they were instructed to start channeling at my arranged order—”

“No, no, no, Herald!” Another wave of punishment. “I know the statistics. I know the field reports. I know precisely the destructive load, the seismic pressures, the reaction times and atmospheric effects. I want to know how it felt!”

“Ah. I see…” The herald was puzzled, if a being like him could be puzzled. “As you know, I, uh—” he said awkwardly. This was a tricky question for him. And the Eternal Empress should know that as well, shouldn’t she?

“Pfft.” Another wave of pain swept through the digital-self that the herald enjoyed. “I had rather hoped that you had achieved self-actualization by now, Herald. What a pity to discover that you have not!”

This time when the pain arrived, it burst over the herald like his own personal lightning-storm.

“Ach!” The small gold-skinned man fell to his hands and knees, every limb shaking and cramping. That appeared to be the result that the Eternal Empress had wanted, as she gave a small purr of pleasure. The pain eased to a residual murmur through the herald’s field-generated self.

“I know what your limitations are, Herald. It appears that I have failed in your programming. You know what has to happen next.”

“No, Empress! Please, wait!” The shaking form of the small golden man even reached out to the giantess before him, begging for his existence.

“Imperial 1 Server?” The empress had no mercy or pity for the being before her. “Back up Herald 32’s database and delete the active application.”

“No, Eternal Empress, I can do better!” the herald wailed, before his voice was instantly cut off as his golden form started to fade and scatter back into confetti, just as surely as it had done when it had arrived.

In the time it took a normal heart to beat just once, the herald application was deleted, and the god-like empress sat in her zone of silence with a small smile playing on her face.

It would be hard for any to judge just what emotions the Eternal Empress had anymore, or what strange new emotions she had after five centuries of existence. But any who could have been watching her would probably have considered her to be pleased.

“Imperial 1 Server? Use the enhanced neural model for Herald 33, apply, and execute,” the empress said. There was a small flicker in the darkness as vast amounts of quantum processing power were activated, and a glowing cloud of golden confetti shapes started to reform before the giantess.

The cloud drew together, creating a shape, and finally the body of a small, gold-skinned man who looked precisely the same as all thirty-two heralds who had existed before him.

“Your Eternal Majesty, a pleasure to serve you,” Herald 33 said, bowing deeply before his old/new master and wondering if he would be the one asked to try to remember emotions that a being such as he had a very hard time modeling.

Luckily for the latest herald however, the need for the Eternal Empress to live the vicissitudes of her actions through another had diminished considerably. Or perhaps this ancient being knew that it would take Herald 33 some time to fully grow into his fuller cognitive abilities.

“Herald 33, as my chosen representative, I have need to send you to Stormholt Forward Base. You will receive full instructions by the time you are needed,” she stated. Of course, the woman had no need to inform this digital servant—made of the latest in field technologies to be able to have physical solidity when needed and maintain an active link to the Imperial 1 servers—but the Eternal Empress was old-fashioned in that regard.

She liked giving orders.

“As you wish, Your Majesty.” Herald 33 bowed once more and was dismissed by the ruler of most of inhabited space. He disappeared like a light turning out, and the empress could see the sudden, reforming gold form of her latest envoy walking delicately away from her sanctum, back to the field generators.

The Eternal Empress turned her attention back to the constant tactical breakdowns and charts that she had been reading. They leapt into existence, hovering in the air where the latest version of the herald had stood.

It was annoying having to remodel the simulated intelligence known as the herald every few decades, a still-human part of Helena recognized. She had been trying for years to create a self-sustaining, self-learning artificial intelligence like the ones she remembered from her youth.

“Hsss!” But now it was the empress’s turn to flinch a little, when she remembered that distant, chaotic time when humanity had faced an automated, cyborg threat ruled by field technology and machine intelligence.

Humanity—before it had even been called the Golden Throne—had been very nearly wiped out. Mars, Proxima, Earth, and many countless other planets had been nuked during that fierce war…

But homo sapiens had won. Biology had won, the Eternal Empress thought. It was a wonder why she even allowed any form of cybernetic, robot, or simulated life to function at all in her galaxy.

Helena Tri’Vi’Pathian—who had once had a very different name, ‘Ochrie’—had seen the devastating power of a cyborg threat. They didn’t stop, they didn’t slow down, they didn’t tire. And the race that had built them were presumably still out there.

So, the woman had secretly started developing her own machine intelligence programs, and the herald application was her crowning achievement.

ALERT! One of the strategy maps before the giantess pinged a dull warning, indicating that another of her forward outposts had been lost. The empress frowned deeper. The map showed the wide avenue of non-aligned space that ran between her Golden Throne and most of the other civilizations. It was a crappy bit of space, filled with chaotic and dangerous nebula—terrible to jump through, but perfect as a barrier.

But now, almost half of her forward scout bases that spied on the non-aligned tract of stars had been destroyed by the Mondrauks. She was blind, and Helena Tri’Vi’Pathian did not like feeling weak.

“Estimated group force at Stormholt,” the empress sighed, and the digital map suddenly swept to the secure Throne Marine world that was the furthest forward of all of her bases, before the surveillance outposts themselves.

“Forward Brigade Groups 2 and 5 present. Marine Divisions Alpha, Delta, and Gamma present. General Service Brigade Groups 7 and 8 in transit. Current estimate: forty-eight thousand, three hundred, and seventy-four Throne Marines already present, and a full-force estimate of fifty-two thousand, eight hundred, and twelve,” the machine-tones of the Imperial 1 server announced.

Fifty-two thousand. The empress frowned. It wouldn’t be enough. Not enough for full-spectrum domination of the Ilythians as well as quelling the Mondrauk survivors and pacifying the Proximus Republics, the Void Worlders, and the race of the crustacean Secari.

But the Eternal Empress did have a vital weapon that no other had. She raised her chin to ask the Imperial 1 Server a final question before she got on with the business of dominating the galaxy.

“The latest PK-clone group? When will they be battle-field ready?” she asked.

“Test Group 4 is ready and waiting, comprised of one hundred PK clones,” the automated voice said unemotionally.

That news, at least, made the tyrant of space smile more broadly this time. With just seven clones, they had channeled the power of the Archon to destroy an entire world. Admittedly, the clones had died in the process, as the terrible forces ripped through their bodies and minds…

But the Eternal Empress had a hundred of them now.


The Cycle of Jurash and the First Winter

The Cycle of Jurash and the First Winter

Sector 5, Non-Aligned Space

“What are the coordinates?” Dalia asked, the first one to speak after the Ilythian scout craft had rippled into existence in the bridge of non-aligned space at the far side of the Mondrauk sector.

The extinct Mondrauk sector, Anders wanted to say, but he stopped himself. No, they aren’t dead, not yet, he told himself. It was a difficult thing for the policeman to consider. He, who had already known so much death in his life already.

He had never stopped to consider whether he had liked the warlike Mondrauks before. Generally, in his old line of work, every time they had appeared, it had been a cause of heightened tensions as he had to organize extra full-tactical MPB crews to follow them everywhere around New Gate City back on Hectamon 7.

I thought of them as trouble, he considered, his emotions taut, and they were. But there was a far larger part of him that felt injustice at what had happened to their home world. It was a policeman’s sense of injustice—of a terrible wrong that he could have prevented somehow, anyhow.

But right now, all that Lieutenant Anders and the others could do was to assess the damage and attempt to recover.

We have to get to this world called The Well. He gritted his teeth in concentration as the blue-green glyphs danced and flickered in the air around them.

“These aren’t coordinates…” Patch said, now ensconced in the engineering chair behind the cockpit.

That should have been my job, Anders berated himself for not checking the packet of information that Jhan Poul—presumably now the dead Jhan Poul—had given him when Dalia had asked.

Anders still felt distracted. Annoyed. Frustrated. But enough of this self-loathing. He shook his head. You do what you can with what is in front of you, he told himself, turning in the chair to face Patch.

“Throw it on the main viewer. What’s wrong with it?” he asked.

“Well… You’ll see…” Patch said, picking up the small holo-icon of a blue folder, squeezing it between thumb and forefinger as he threw it ahead of them. Somewhere behind them lay Jake, Anders spared a look into the main hull. The youth had decided to rest, which Anders thought was an astoundingly good idea, given what he was capable of.

“What!?” he heard Dalia say. Anders turned back to look at what Poul had given them.

It looked like a collection of scriptures on vellum or hide—Anders really didn’t want to know what creature’s skin had been used for it—in spider-like runes and scrapes.

“Moriarty?” Anders whispered.

“Already translating, sir. It’s in the Mondrauk Ur dialect, a very ancient language, notable for its use of Mondrauk phonetics and onomatopoeia instead of a discrete linguistic alphabet—”

“Not interested, Moriarty. Just the translation, please,” Anders sighed. A part of him still wondered if Moriarty’s quantum circuits had been damaged with everything that had been happening.

“As you wish, sir.

“The Cycle of Jurash—Being the Account of the First Winter and the Well of Souls,” Moriarty began, earning an inward groan from Anders.

“Oh, dear stars, do we really need a lesson in Mondrauk history to be able to understand this stuff?” Anders muttered.

“I’ll do my best to summarize and paraphrase for you, sir,” Moriarty said, with a hint of what Anders was sure would be condescension if any human had said the same. And with that, the simulated intelligence began.

“The Cycle of Jurash is just one of a collection of story-cycles that recount the history, legends, and cosmology of the Mondrauk people.

“In this one, Jurash describes one of the fundamental epochs that formulated Mondrauk society and outlook: a time they call the First Winter. From the Throne Galactic Survey Encyclopedia, sir…”

On the screen appeared an article, and the trio quickly read through it.

Imperial GS Encyclopedia,

>>Extra-Solar Civilizations>Mondrauks

>>>Culture and History>First Winter

The First Winter denotes a period estimated between fifteen thousand and twenty-five thousand years ago—in standard Golden Throne Sol units—when the Mondrauks were a tribal people, isolated to Jakka, pre-spaceflight.

A series of meteor impacts upon the planet created vast climatic and geological changes, shrinking the Mondrauk population and endangering the species as a whole.

Many of the tales concerning the First Winter involve themselves with the creation of traditional Mondrauk customs, the first blood-feud ‘ohtmas,’ the principles of tribal structure, etc.

“Moriarty, I can’t see how any of this is going to help us understand where this Well of Souls planet is,” Anders growled. He really was going to have to get Patch to take a look at the simulated intelligence’s programming.

“Please, bear with me, sir,” Moriarty stated smoothly. “There is one very interesting thing about the First Winter—a period of time before the Mondrauks had spaceflight, remember—which would be the Cycle of Jurash, a Mondrauk visionary who claimed to have been taken up into the heavens and shown many strange sights and terrifying visions. One of those visions was of the place they call the Well of Souls,” Moriarty stated.

Anders’s ears pricked up.

“Yeah, but seriously…” Patch coughed from behind them. “Are we really going to believe the crazed words of a mystic? He could have just been out of his mind on some funny mushroom or whatever they had back then—”

“But what if that mystic was like me?” the small, quiet voice of Jake stated. No one had known that he had woken up, or had entered the cockpit behind them, and Anders started in slight surprise.

But the lad is right. Anders knew what Jake was saying. Maybe this Jurash was an early, very powerful PK?

“Continue your analysis, Moriarty, but please, for the sake of the stars, keep it brief!” Anders said, before the cultured tones of the simulated intelligence continued.

“It seems that Jurash experienced three sights of what we might call a giant, flaming, red dragon hanging in the night sky,” Moriarty paraphrased the mystic verse. “And here it states:

“I was taken to the tip of the dragon’s tongue, but, before the beast could breathe its fire upon me, I was taken to the next vision: a precious stone with five golden rings wrapped around it.”

“This is nonsense,” Patch grumbled as Moriarty continued.

“I was made very small, so very small that I could pass between the second and the third of the golden chief-rings around the gemstone, and there I flew toward the dawn, where I came upon a stone land, but with a massive well at its heart.”

Anders struggled to make sense of the strange poetry or vision that this Jurash had recorded. The tale went on to reveal how Jurash had visited this massive pit in the ground he called The Well, and that it had howled with souls, forever being sucked and drawn down into it.

“It appears that Jurash believed this well to be the fate of Mondrauk cowards who had never killed or bested another,” Moriarty said, “and that these souls are sucked down to be lost there forever.”

“What a charming guy,” Patch murmured morosely.

“Barbaric…” Dalia the Ilythian—whose creed, Anders knew, included the celebration of all life—grimaced.

“But, sir, the reason for Jurash’s cosmology, which later influenced much of Mondrauk society, making them the warlike fighters we know today,” Moriarty stated, “was that this Jurash found that the walls of this well were covered with inscriptions, or pictograms at least, and the mystic describes how he saw a sculpted saga of many peoples attempting to fight off a huge, sun-like orb.”

The Archon, Anders thought, raising his eyes to look at Jake, who nodded in turn that he understood and believed.

“These pictograms supposedly described the war between these ancient aliens and the sun-like orb, and that their tale was told forward, starting somewhere below and rising to the edge of The Well, whereby the aliens finally managed to throw off their oppressor and release themselves from fear,” Moriarty ended.

Which was, Anders had to admit, at least a little interesting. “If that is true,” he said thoughtfully, “then the psychic ability of one Mondrauk saw the existential threat of the Black Suns, and these ancient carvings later changed the entire outlook of the Mondrauk race!”

It was a heady thought, Anders realized. It was also deeply tragic that the danger the Mondrauks had first modeled their entire culture against was at least in some way the very same danger that had destroyed their home world.

Maybe this Jurash really was prescient, Anders had to consider.

Patch McGuire, however, a youngish man who believed in mysteries—at least, the solvable ones of physics and space—had a different appraisal of what they had just heard.

“So…all we’ve got to do is find a mythical dragon, hang around its mouth for a bit, then somehow find a magic stone at dawn, and then we’ll have found this Well?” he said.

Ah. Anders winced. Patch had a good point. What did any of these visions and sights mean!? Were they a part of some sort of riddle or code that only a Mondrauk would be able to understand!?

“Ah…” Anders opened his mouth to ask, hopelessly, if any of the others had any clue whatsoever what Jurash could have been going on about.

But that was the moment that the ship’s sensor array burst into warning alarms.

“Multiple jump signatures arriving at our destination!”


Frack Stuff Dead

“Divert power to outer shields! To propulsion! Weapons!” Dalia hissed as the arms of the holo-controls swept into existence under her hands.

“You pretty much mean more power to everything, right?” Patch said.

Yes!” Dalia threw one of the controls down, and the ship turned in a bird-like dart, away from the clearly visible flashes and ripples of blue-white light.

Which were now resolving on the viewscreen, taking on sharper lines and more solidity. Becoming deadly.

“Vessels identified,” the mainframe computer reported. “Throne Marine attack ships. Weapons systems are powering. Weapons lock systems scanning—”

“Frack.” Anders, who had trained as a Throne Marine, knew precisely what they were immediately. “Bulldog-class forward attack vehicles,” he said, before adding with a serious growl. “They’re mean.”

“So are we,” Dalia said in an answering growl.

The Bulldogs were well-named, Anders thought as he was thrown back against his seat by another of Dalia’s fast turns.

Around their ragged flight speared lines of flaming plasma, each one a super-heated ball of meson energy, capable of causing damage to their hull but intended to barrage their shields until the ship was helpless against the heavier missiles and torpedoes.

Just how I would fight, Anders thought, wondering if, in some weird coincidence, he might even know some of the Marines inside each vessel.

Each Bulldog had a heavy, squat-looking forward ‘head,’ which was mega-plated and triple-shielded. This brick of a nose was edged by ponderous weapons modules—large, black, metal tubes whose ports glowed and fired in twin patterns.

Anders knew what this was about. Forward attack vessels—or FAVs, as they would be called—were a key part of the full-spectrum dominance strategy—renamed, amongst the harsh battle-humor of the Marines, as Frack Stuff Dead). Bullish and aggressive, their only purpose was to get in fast and cause as much destruction as possible.

That’s why they have such heavy shielding at their front, Anders thought, as once again he was lifted and slammed back into his chair by another tight turn.

But they did have a weakness, Anders knew.

“They’re crappy fighter-ships!” he said. “Far slower on the turn than this scout!” Anders himself had heard the bugbears of FAV pilots when they had occasionally faced some insanely brave or merely insane pirate captain who knew their business. The smaller, lighter craft could almost fly rings around the Bulldogs…

Not that it ever helped them, the lieutenant thought with a little panic.

“Slow turning. Right.” Dalia hissed. The viewscreen showed now three lines of the meson barrage converging against her position. “Hold on!” she called, her hands already moving.

I thought I was! The thought flashed through Anders’s mind just as the Ilythian ship’s nose lifted, then turned, slicing back down in an arc that became a rippling wave, weaving back and forth, up and down.

Anders was supposed to be manning the weapons systems as co-pilot, but he could barely keep a track of his dinner with all of Dalia’s sharp movements, let alone the dancing orange lock-vectors that his control field was trying to offer to him.

In another flash of movement, the scout had turned back on itself and was screaming back up—toward the outermost Bulldog.

“What are you doing?!” Anders shouted. He saw the receding glow of one set of meson cannons fading as the other set flared bright.

This time, Dalia just kissed the controls with her hands, sending the ship dipping down, out of the way of the sudden barrage of high-energy plasma and underneath the small attack group itself.

In an instant, the scout was shooting from underneath the group of Throne vessels.

They are a long way from their side of non-aligned space! Anders thought for a moment, before he remembered the next piece of important information he really ought to have told Dalia earlier.

“Rear railgun turret!” he shouted, remembering the Bulldog’s one concession to safety—that behind the blocky forward ‘cab’ or head of each FAV, the vessel body stepped down to half the size, and there on its tiny greyhound-like back was a squat tub of metal, stuffed full of the lighter, faster railguns.

The scout vessel suddenly shook.

“Impact warning. Rear outer shields down thirty percent,” the computer announced as the ship shook again.

“Impact warning.

“Rear outer shields critical—

“Hull outer shields down fifty percent—”

Dalia snarled in frustration as the scout was suddenly spinning wildly, out of control, end over end. The vessel was at least being thrown further away from the now-turning Bulldogs, but their turning arcs were wide, forcing them apart.

Dalia swore, her hands moving in a complicated dance with the holo-controls, and occasionally lancing out to strike at other, floating controls that existed on a flat field by her side.

In response, stabilizer scales were deployed, rippling and rising from the sides of the ship and allowing the hidden nub-like rocketries to fire from the inside, allowing the scout to counter the powerful forces that had thrown it off course.

With a final flick of her hands, Dalia righted the scout, and they were racing across space once more—heading deeper into non-aligned space, where pretty much anything could happen.

And with four, completely undamaged, brutally efficient Throne Marine attack vessels chasing them.

“Jump engines!?” Patch was saying, his hands already sliding the glowing orange and green glyphs this way and that as he placed different energy loads on the different systems. Anders could see the impact that the Voider was already having—the ship appeared to be reacting quicker and smoother to Dalia’s commands.

“No way,” Dalia said. “Not without the outer shields first. We use them—” she was saying, but Patch nodded and interrupted.

“You polarize your outer and inner shields to create a safe environment for the quantum fluctuation between them, I get it.”

I don’t, Anders thought, before the choice was taken out of their hands.

“Impact warning. Rear outer shield compromised.” The ship juddered and half-turned as one of the Bulldog’s weapons found them.

“Right field system down. Incapable of jump flight. All energy systems reduced by twenty-eight percent,” the computer announced.

“Ikkit!” Dalia swore.

We can’t jump. We have to face this alone, Anders thought. His holo-handles had weapons release buttons and triggers that, despite being field-generated, felt as solid as any gun or attack vehicle that Anders had piloted back in the corps.

“But there is another way to jump—” Patch was negotiating with Dalia as Anders tracked the orange vectors of the four Bulldogs.

That’s the thing about the FAVs. Takes a hell of lot to turn them…

One of the craft was slightly ahead of the others, and that was the one that Anders decided to target, as his training told him that there was no sense concentrating attacks on the enemy least likely to cause them harm.

Of course, the next problem that Anders had to face was the fact that the Ilythian’s railguns would be about as useful against the forward triple-shielding and mega-hull plating as if he were throwing toothpicks at it.

But Anders fired a burst anyway, and above and beneath him, different pieces of the scout’s scales swung open for collections of long ‘tines’ to erupt outward—which were really the Ilythian organic formulations of meson railguns.

Anders was a good shot, earning direct hit after direct hit, and seeing the blue flash of the outermost shields as the Bulldog took the damage and just kept on coming.

But Anders didn’t stop. “Lock all guns three meters right of center and down point-five of a meter!” he said as each of his railgun vectors suddenly concentrated into a tiny orange star.

“Anders, save my energy! We’ll use it for jump!” Dalia hissed at him, clearly annoyed at her copilot’s belief that he could have any impact at all against the bigger battleships.

“Weapons lock detected!” the mainframe announced as there was a brief flash from the nearest Bulldog.

“Rapid fire!” Anders commanded tersely, squeezing the triggers of his holo-controls. Before Dalia could even shout at him for his insubordination, there was a sudden bright ball of expanding white and green-tinged energy and a faster blur of a shockwave just in front of the Bulldog.

“What!?” Dalia looked confused as the explosion cleared to reveal the catapulting Bulldog, its forward ruined, rent, and twisted into fantastical shapes as it turned end-over-end. Anders knew that such a beast could survive even that, but it would surely slow them up for a good while.

“How did you do that!?” the Ilythian demanded. “And can you do it to the other three?”

“Not likely—” Anders said. He was about to explain that there was another weakness that the Bulldogs had: they were piloted by Throne Marines.

Throne Marines who had all been trained in the art of Frack Stuff Dead, or maximum possible damage dealt in the quickest and most-overwhelming way.

That meant that most Marine pilots inside their Bulldogs wouldn’t bother to synchronize their missile silos and would fire the most effective, most powerful, heaviest payload they had, which had their traditional weapons port placed near the front of the craft, three meters to the right of the middle, and half a meter down.

So, when the largest missile was fired, all Anders had to do was to make sure that he had enough firepower concentrating at that point to overcome the thing’s armor plating—which was far lighter than the triple-plated nose.

“It’d take too long to explain,” Anders settled for, just as the Bulldog at the back suddenly detonated into a gigantic orange-tinged ball of force.

“How did you do that!?” Dalia was saying, her eyebrows rising in surprise.

Anders looked down at the holo-controls and his hands, still hovering over the firing triggers, exactly where they had been a moment ago. “I didn’t— I don’t think—”

But then, with a ripple of fast-evaporating steam, Anders realized that the viewscreen capturing what was happening behind them was also capturing the uncloaking of a much larger vessel.

No, two much larger vessels, Anders thought, before he had to revise that number up to three, four, five

It was a squadron of Mondrauk Hammer vessels, with their two forward ‘arms’ pushing out ahead of them.

The people of Jakka were out for revenge.


Void Engineer

“Full power to rear shields!” Dalia was hissing as their ship wove and spun through the stars.

“I thought you wanted propulsion!?” Patch shouted.


Anders, meanwhile, was doing his best to try and aid the Mondrauks, even with as little as he could do with such a small vessel. Mostly, his efforts were inconsequential, but the salvos of his light meson cannons still managed to shake and shudder the Bulldogs in their flight.

A fight that they are now losing. Anders felt his lips peel back in a savage grin, despite knowing full well that it meant that men and women of his old profession would be dying. Maybe it was the fact that he knew what was at stake now, after seeing Jakka completely burnt to a crisp. Or perhaps it was that he had found comrades here in this alien vessel that he had never had while being shouted at and forced to bend knee to an empress he had never cared for.

Whatever the change in the ex-officer’s heart, he found that it pumped with joy when he saw the Bulldog fire scatter and disperse over the front of the Mondrauk ships, and for the Mondrauks to calmly focus their super-massive ion cannons on two of the remaining three Bulldogs. Twin lines of burning white light lanced out, with the forward ‘arms’ catching the Bulldogs for a second like olives at the ends of sticks—before both broke apart in a series of internal depressurizations and explosions.

Booyah! Anders felt that shiver of joy. Ironically enough, what the policeman didn’t realize was that this very impulse for savage domination was the very one that had been drilled into him by the psycho-biological training the Throne Marines excelled at.

“One left—” Anders was saying—a moment too early, it seemed, as the sensors lit up in warning.

“Multiple jump signatures detected,” the computer stated. “Golden Throne field signatures detected. Force size approximated at—”

“Holy, sweet, loving frack!” Patch groaned. Neither the Void engineer nor the Ilythian pilot nor the former Throne Marine had to wait for the mainframe’s analysis to understand the sheer amount of vessels that were appearing out of the fields of glowing white and purple jump-light.

“Sir?” Moriarty said. “I believe that in Throne Marine parlance that would be called an expeditionary force.”

“No,” Anders breathed, “that would be called a fracking catastrophe!”

Dalia was spitting her rage into the air of the sleek cockpit as she too saw what was coming straight for them. The entire spinward side of their viewscreen—everything in front, above, and below them, in fact—was filled with throne warships.

Anders saw the plasma fires from the dissipating jump energies flaring from the sleek black hulls of the insanely fast, pointed Reaver-class intelligence ships. He saw the flare of weapons port lights on more Bulldogs, and also the slightly smaller, rotund growls of the general-service attack ships known as the Hounds, and the small flocks—always in groups of five—of the Hornets and Eagles, two-person fighter-craft.

But he also saw larger vessels too—the oblong bricks of the logistics and support vessels at the back, who, even with their prodigious size, were dwarfed by the most devastating of the enemy: the Pillar-of-Empire class. Each was an upended tube with disk-shaped battle-platforms interspersed along their length.

Each Pillar was taller than any ship in the Throne Marine arsenal, taller even than most throne space stations. They looked like towers of metal, capable of devastating 180-degree fire arcs as well as up and down cannon batteries.

“One alone could level of a colony…” Anders gasped. No one else had to ask what he was talking about. There were three Pillars in front of them now, and, at last count that Anders had heard, only nine had ever been built.

Moriarty was right that this was an entire expeditionary force of Throne Marines, or what Anders assumed had to be somewhere in the region of forty or fifty thousand Marines from different brigades and regiments coming together to form an obscene amount of firepower.

It’s a vast commitment. Anders shuddered. It was more than the ships that had been used to attack the Ilythian home world, and obviously far more than the eldritch forces used to decimate Jakka. The Eternal Empress was done with isolating and picking off individual belligerents. She had clearly decided to take the non-aligned neutral zone between Throne, Ilythian, and Mondrauk sectors entirely.

Ikkit! Ikkit! Ikkit!” Dalia was swearing in Ilythian as the mainframe lit up with the alerts that enemy weapons systems were powering, a hundred and more targeting scanners were washing over them all, and weapons ports were right now opening—

“Drop the weapons systems!” Patch shouted suddenly.

What!?” both Anders and Dalia screamed. Had the Void engineer gone mad?

“Please, no time! Just trust me!” Patch pleaded.

Anders saw Dalia hesitate. Perhaps it was out of self-preservation, but Anders felt as though he knew a little of the Voider’s capabilities. Anders had seen Patch reprogram the policeman’s node just through code-speak. And it was Patch who had been the first, brilliant—if misguided—mind to create the subspace transmitter capable of reaching across the entire galaxy.

“Please—” Anders repeated Patch’s request.

“Fine. But you’d better know what you are doing, human,” Dalia said, and threw her long-fingered hands through the controls for a scattering of orange warning lights to suddenly appear.

“WARNING! Meson cannons powering down. Railguns powering down. Service lasers powering down.”

“Computer, divert power to the field engines—” Patch was saying, before quickly switching to that strange Voider-speak of clicks, whistles, and chirps that Anders understood was actually speaking in binary and equations and algorithms, using the vastly complex and subtle intonations and emphasis capable in the human voice instead of clunky, awkward zeroes and ones.

“What’s he doing!?” Dalia said as more warnings blared. This time, the green, three-dimensional lines of rune code did not even bother to translate into Throne English but blurred across the cockpit, flickering and winking out of existence with dizzying speed.

“That’s the magnetic hull controllers! The plasma-vent controllers!” Dalia’s quicker Ilythian eyes attempted to keep up with however Patch was reprogramming the vessel.

“He’s doing something amazing,” Anders breathed, knowing that he was right, just unsure how ‘amazing’ and ‘terrifying’ cohabited together wherever the Void engineer was concerned.

“Just need coordinates,” Patch broke from his bird-like twittering to breathe.

“Hubward,” said a new, weak voice from behind them, making Anders and Patch jump. Anders turned to see that it was of course Jake, but his eyes were several shades darker than they had been, and the teeth-grinding waves of the Archon energy was starting to radiate from him.

Jake was understandably terrified, given the fleets arrayed against them and just four Mondrauk ships—one had been destroyed in their own, tiny battle.

And when he’s scared, he loses control… Anders was thinking. “Jake, listen to me. Breathe—” the ex-policeman started to say.

“Hubward, twelve degrees off the galactic plane,” Jake said, absurdly raising one hand to point off to their right and up slightly. Anders suddenly got the impression that the youth was feeling the coordinates with his supernatural powers.

“Got it,” Patch said, and gave a series of clicks and whistles.

“What the—” Dalia was saying as something started to happen around their vessel. The vessel that had been totally incapable of jumping just a few brief seconds before—

First off, it looked as though the screen had caught fire as washes of white and blue plasma flared over their viewscreens, growing brighter and brighter until all sight of the throne force group vanished in the glow. Then, the holographic runes and warnings blinked out, and the cockpit was plunged into darkness.

From the viewpoint of outside, the turquoise of the scout vessel was a pebble against the onrushing tsunami of Golden Throne vessels.

But it was a flaring, glowing vessel, as white plasma light spread out in a halo from one of the rear tentacle-like fins where its lone remaining field generator was.

The white plasma, laced with blue lightning, completely encapsulated the ship from back to front, hugging the invisible line of the still mostly-intact inner shield. Patch had found a way to use the vessel’s own hull magnets to create a low-frequency ‘bubble’ of force and, with his expert knowledge of quantum mechanics, had calibrated the protective shield output and the magnet field to hold an exponential chain-reaction of field energy.

It was the sort of thing that would of course naturally lead to a thermo-nuclear explosion if left unchecked. The forces unleashed would eat every available neutron and participating particle, even the ones that made up the hull and the vessel itself.

But Patch knew what he was doing. Kinda.

At precisely 2.3 micro-seconds before the chain reaction went critical and uncontainable, Patch whistled and sang to the scout’s controls, giving it the coordinates that the psychic Jake had given them.

The vessel jumped as a hundred weapons ports opened, and fresh hell was unleashed on the valiant Mondrauks.


The Ascension Bridge

Sector 1, Imperial 1

Under the ever-bright glare of neon and fluorescent lights, the woman in the long service-cloak—complete with warmth regulator pipes, pouches, and carry-straps—struggled to appear inconsequential.

Luckily for Black Rose, the grand plaza before the official entry port to the lair of the Eternal Empress was busy. It was always busy.

The plaza was on the artificial-world of Welcome, the closest to the gigantic metal globe hanging in the sky that was Imperial 1—the supreme heart of the entire Golden Throne. Three broad avenues of smooth stone joined the plaza at the southern end, before a wide line of steps and articulated drone-lifts rose up to what Black Rose had really come here for.

The Ascension Bridge. A frown marred Black Rose’s disfigured face. It wasn’t really a bridge at all but a wide platform where the constant transporters docked to make the very short hop across to Imperial 1. Only those with special clearance were allowed up to that raised end of the plaza and the docks there, but even so, the platform still brimmed with stationary lines of Throne Marines, hovering security drones, scanner-drones, and presumably many more types of security devices.

Once upon a time, I could have sauntered up those steps, and a simple bio-scan would make the Marines and robots part for me like water, Black Rose remembered.

But that super-black intelligence clearance—just like her belongings and her loyalty to Commander-General Creadwas now long gone.

Hzt!” There was a coughing splutter from near her shoulder, and Black Rose half-turned, pretending to be in line for one of the many booth-restaurants and travel-shops that edged the lower part of the plaza.

Warning!” the robotic words of one of the ever-present security drones burst overhead. The assassin with the scarred, lined face was looking at the large, hunched, and hulking form of one of the Secari—or ‘crab-men.’

“Zht!” The alien sneezed again, its segmented arms waving helplessly as it’s whole body, metal-laced shell and all, convulsed with the action.

“Level-three biohazard alert!” The security drone had darted closer, flicking on a greenish light to illuminate a wide circle with the Secari in its center.

Oh, frack! The assassin had a moment to think just as the edge of the sensor-wave washed over her too.

Rose had never met her Imperial Majesty, the Eternal Empress, but she knew one thing: there were some very strict procedures about contaminants reaching Imperial 1.

Which is ridiculous, Rose had the distracted thought as she tried to pull away from the green light, pushing and barging into the throng of people rapidly scattering from the Secari like a human explosion-wave. Imperial 1 has enough technology to perform complete sterilization of anyone who enters, doesn’t it? Why was the empress so precious about biological health when she had the entire skills of the Gene Seers right there, waiting to recreate and perfect her genetic code at a moment’s notice—

“Warning! Unknown contaminant detected!’ the security drone announced.


This was precisely what Black Rose had been scared would happen, as her form was illuminated by a smaller, narrower beam of the same green light.

You see, the cloned assassin known as the Black Rose had been very careful—very careful indeed—to avoid all security and scanner drones. It was hard in a place like Welcome, the nearest ‘public’ space to the heart of the Golden Throne. The small world was blanketed with buildings—Welcome was an entire business district all by itself, reallyand it was completely carpeted with security scans.

The Eternal Empress was a paranoid person, though perhaps she had a right to be, with killers as good as Black Rose after her.

But she was, after all, trained in such infiltration and extraction missions. She was the best in all the Reach of the Throne, or she should have been, anyway. Rose had spent several days working out the patterns of the scanning sweeps, and she had used haphazard and put-together scanners of her own to detect the subterranean service tunnels and shielded places where she could hide and move towards her target.

It wasn’t that she couldn’t find ways to hide her identity, even her genetic identity, as her manufactured biology meant that she could release certain bio-chemical ‘masks’ with just a few seconds of concentration.

The problem was the black, vein-like threads spreading across her body, courtesy of the now-deceased Envoy Losani.

As Cread had destroyed the garden world of Terevesin with his orbital barrages, the envoy had used their specialized planet-technologies to release a fungus into Black Rose’s blood stream, one that healed her mortal injuries but also changed her.

And Rose knew, from all the training that she had received from the commander-general and the Gene Seers both, that this was something that even she—with all of her prodigious abilities—couldn’t hide.

“Level-two biohazard alert!” the security drone above her was signaling as Black Rose pushed into crowd, the green glow all around her, filling her eyes—

More security drones would be dispatched. Bigger and better drones, ones with field generators that could paralyze or stun her.

And a contingent of Throne Marines too. She knew the procedures intimately.

TZssRK! With a sudden burst of sparks from its bulbous white body however, the single security drone burst from the sky to the feet of the Secari, and the green isolation-light winked out from them them. Black Rose shot a look of wariness at the crab-man, thinking that he must have been the one to fire on the thing with some illegal weapon

“Hzt!” But the crab-man’s eyestalks were waving in incomprehension, just before another sneeze shook his form.

“Get down here!” A strong, powerful gauntlet had seized Black Rose’s wrist and dragged her to a narrow gap between the metal booths, pulling her away from the press of panicked humans.


She was being half-dragged forward by the pounding shape of a large human, and one who wore a lighter, smaller version of the red shoulder-pads, arm greaves, and gauntlets of the Red Judges.

The Red Judges are loyal to the empress! Rose pulled back from the man’s vice-like grip, but his gauntlets and arms were mechanically assisted, and the six-and-a-half foot man easily pulled her behind the line of booths where a narrow alleyway of loading-areas and lifts, supply crates and refuse chutes cluttered. The sound of the plaza was muted behind them, and, for now, they were out of the view of the security drones.

“Fool! If I had wanted to hand you in to the empress, I could have done it a thousand times already!” the Red Judge growled as the man turned, letting go of her wrist, which was smarting with pain, a part of Black Rose’s mind told her. She instinctively shut down her pain receptors to that area.

“What do you want!?” Rose snapped at her savior. He was a man characteristic of his kind—tall and stocky, barely fitting into the small access-way that serviced the restaurants and gear shops of the plaza. His red armor was scaled as was the fashion for the heavy-set humans, and on his face, he sported a thick, curling black beard. A little disconcertingly, one of his eyes had been replaced with a metal orb that swiveled and auto-focused on her.

The Red Judges were one of the many factions of humanity spread across the Reach of the Throne, specializing in hard and rocky worlds with slightly higher gravity, where they mined and trained. It was this tolerance for higher gravity that made them as large and as strong as they were, Black Rose knew.

The man barked a savage sort of laugh. “I should ask you the same thing, don’t you think? But I’m guessing that I already know, don’t I?” The metal orb of his eye swiveled and refocused on her, fixing her with its inhuman glare of white, pinprick-light. “You’re the Black Rose. And you’re here to kill the empress, ain’t ya?” he said in a voice as uncompromising as the iron ore that his people dragged out of the earth.


Dragon-Head, Gold-Ring

Sector 9, Uncharted Space

“WARNING! Field generator malfunction!”

The green and orange holo-glyphs of the Ilythian vessel flared into existence around Anders, Dalia, Patch and Jake—and with them came the translated voice of the computer mainframe, promising disaster.

“She can’t understand what’s happening,” Dalia hissed, her pale skin lit by the few holo-lights that flickered and flared. “What did you do to my ship!?” she asked with a deeply annoyed frown. Anders thought that the sight of an annoyed Ilythian was truly something terrifying, mostly because of its cold promise of anger that Dalia was holding in check.

“I kept her from being blown into a million electrons and carbon molecules!” Patch said, a little high-pitched, and when Anders looked at him, the police officer could see the sheen of excitable sweat that covered the young man’s features every time he was allowed to do what he did best—breaking and remaking technology, that was.

And stopping us from being torn apart by an entire throne force group! Anders recognized.

“Hm.” Dalia shrugged in the eldritch green-tinged light. The Ilythian had accepted the explanation, but Anders was sure that didn’t mean she appreciated her ship acting erratically with barely enough power to turn on the cockpit lights.

However, everyone in that cabin was feeling that familiar wrench of their insides, coupled with the hazy nausea that accompanied jump travel as their minds and body tried to catch up with the reality-bending physics that Patch had concocted, at the last minute and with no notice whatsoever.

The ship had arrived…but where?

“Navigation array scanning…” the mainframe was saying.

“Sir, I cannot see where we are,” Moriarty said smoothly and calmly, which was somehow even more nerve-wracking to Anders’s ears.

At least the viewscreens were working, but when Anders and the others looked forward, all they could see was the blanket of stars, ranging from bright globes to hazes and swirls of glittering gray.

And absolutely nothing that I recognize, Anders thought dismally.

“There are no throne deep satellites in range, sir,” Moriarty said. “And therefore, no entries in the Throne Encyclopedia.”

We’re flying blind, Anders thought. It was a strange thing to realize, as just in that moment, he saw how his entire life, even his recent trips to Ilythia and Jakka, had been recorded in the net of digital information that the galactic empire of the Golden Throne had gathered.

Even out on the edge of the Void. Anders remembered his disastrous venture to the place Patch’s people called home.

Even out there, the throne had been able to utilize the Void engineers’ star maps.

But the scout vessel was far, far away from that now, wasn’t it? About as far as was possible to be. “We must have crossed the outer sectors,” Anders murmured, thinking about the Perseus and Cygnus arms of the Milky Way—as the humans of the Golden Throne referred to them, anyway—and hurtled towards the galactic hub itself. Which would explain why the stars were so bright, the ex-officer thought.

Anders was no Void engineer, no astro-scientist, but he knew that there were more stars and nebulas the closer you got to the super massive, burning black hole at the heart of the galaxy. Every star, planetoid, lump of rock or drift of volatile gas was being swirled round the heart of the galaxy in a deadly whirlwind that would take trillions of years to play out. The far ‘edge’ of any galaxy—such as the Void worldswere struggling, cosmically, to hold onto the gravity of the galactic spin, while everything nearer to the center was being drawn inward.

“Uh…” Patch’s voice sounded bewildered. “Did you say that we were looking for a dragon, boss?”

Anders looked up. In his spooky appreciation of the vast distances that their small craft had covered—perhaps farther out than any breathing human being had ever been before—he half-expected there to be a living, fire-breathing monster swooping out there in space…

Patch had swiveled his high engineering chair and was pointing to where the rear viewing fields had finally started working. These holo-fields were perfect in their detail, capturing the scanner views of the outside and allowing the crew inside to appreciate a three-hundred-and-sixty-degree field of view all around them, which Dalia was right now gesturing to slide the rear screens to the front.

And there, sitting right behind them and as big as half the entire field of view, was the gigantic shape of a dragon, awash in its own red, purple, and green flames.

Secrets of Ilythia Boxed Set

“It’s a nebula,” Anders saw, blinking several times.

What he and the others were looking at was, in fact, a formation of cosmic gases, whose fires and internal infernos were the nursery realms of embryonic starlets.

But, dear heavens! It does look like a dragon! Anders had to chuckle. He could see the long, swelling curve of a neck, pebbled with red and purple patches, just as he could see the prodigious bulk of the ‘tower’ of plasma gases behind it. It looked as though the dragon was sitting up, about to take a bite out of the universe.

At the end of the neck was a wedge-shaped head, with one of the brightest of the barely-born stars sitting perfectly under what would be the dragon’s brow. A shining eye, glittering fiercely at them.

And there, the wedge of its gaseous maw was open, with a long flick of a tentacle of burning gas like a plume—the tongue.

“He was right. That old Mondrauk was right,” Patch was saying to himself. Being raised in one of the most technically minded of all of the various forms of humanity—if also the most eccentric, Anders had to admit, he had been skeptical of the idea that the Cycle of Jurash was actually based in reality, despite its perfect descriptions of the Black Sun.

“He was PK,” Jake intoned from where he clutched at the oval doorframe behind them.

Jake! Anders remembered. The youth had appeared to be about to give up to the power of the Black Sun just before their jump.

That was how he had managed to divine the exact coordinates, wasn’t it? Anders realized.

But now, Jake appeared exhausted, frazzled, and shaky.

“Sit.” Anders got up immediately, helping Jake to his copilot chair. I’d rather Jake was calm than channeling a millennia-old demon-god, he thought as Jake collapsed with a groan and rubbed his temples.

“I— I’m fine, just…” Jake made a weak gesture.

“You can control it?” Dalia asked the youth.

“Control?” The teenager laughed weakly. “I don’t think anything could control something like the Archon,” he mumbled. “It’s like I’m a thief, sneaking into this giant palace, stealing a little piece of power and getting out before the palace wakes up and crushes me.”

Wonderful, Anders thought grimly. Jake’s words didn’t exactly fill him with confidence.

“Just—” Anders was about to try to say something encouraging and soothing, before he realized that there was next to nothing comforting about their situation. They were far into unknown space, and they had needed Jake’s powers to be able to get there.

It was Dalia who gave the youth the best piece of advice that any could offer.

“Just don’t get caught,” she said heavily before turning to look at the others. “The Cycle of Jurash said that he was flown through the tip of the tongue of the dragon, so I am guessing that is what we must do.” She nodded to Patch. “Ilythia preserve me, but I guess I am going to have to ask you to do whatever you do to my ship again.”

“Aye-aye.” Patch started his strange clicking and sing-song tones once again as the holo-glyphs and controls started to flicker and react to the alien programming.

“But how far? How much power into the jump?” Anders asked. Jake took a deep, shuddering breath, and the wash of unease filled Anders’s mind as the youth activated his psychic powers.

“That way.” Jake nodded to the very tip of the dragon’s tongue. “Stop the chain-reaction at…” Anders saw the youth’s eyes close, and his brow deeply furrowed as he tried to glean information and translate it from whatever arcane understanding the Black Sun had.

“Three-point-six-eight seconds,” Jake said, and Patch gave the final click and whistle of command. Jump-fire consumed the vessel once again, and they were flung like a flaring comet straight toward the dragon’s mouth.

Secrets of Ilythia Boxed Set

The Ilythian craft slammed into conventional space with a flare of purple plasma-fire and a ripple of starlight.

Anders gritted his teeth as the uptight, electric feeling of jump travel shook through his bones, just as it always did. He found himself amazed that humanity had ever managed to make it to the stars at all, given the strange brain-ache it caused.

“Anders, look!” It was Dalia, waking Anders from his post-jump stupor, to point ahead.

Their forward viewscreen held a fat band of white across their vision, running bottom right to top left.

“The ship turned off the plane of the galaxy—” Patch murmured, and Anders knew what the Void engineer meant. They were looking toward the nearest of the spiral arms and turning to one side of it.

“It’s so bright!”

Agreeing murmurs sounded from Patch and the others. The adjacent spiral arm must have been one of the inner ones—one of the very inner ones—because it was so jam-packed with stars and stellar objects, each of which must be aggregating toward the dangerous heart of the galaxy, faster and faster.

“Sir? I am still completely unable to ascertain our current stellar coordinates—” Moriarty began.

“Tell me something new, Moriarty, please!” Anders groaned. What if we had got it wrong? A deep, cosmic panic clutched at Anders’s heart. What if one extra or less micro-second means that we are now off-course?

And, even more terrifyingly, would they be able to find their way back?

“Actually, I do have some new information, sir…” Moriarty said. “Please enhance overlay-grid F4 on the viewscreen.”

“Grid F4?” Anders grumbled and moaned, searching the wide field of stars and the faint, octagonal neon lines that the ship used to segment the space in front of them.

There. It was a grid halfway along the bottom right, and, when Dalia reached up to tap on it, it swelled in their view.

Everyone could see that there, bold in the middle of F4, was a turquoise drop of a planet, with five scintillating, gold-flecked rings swirling around it in exact lines.

“The precious stone and the chief-rings.” Anders remembered how the Cycle of Jurash had described.

“Unclassified planet,” Moriarty announced. “Deep-range sensors indicate it is an ice planet and has an atmospheric composition of hydrogen, helium, and methane, becoming solid ice towards a nickel core.”

“That’s what must make it blue,” Patch commented. “The hydrogen and methane must be at just the right spot to absorb the red-light from the surrounding stars—only reflecting the blue.”

“Is there nothing you don’t know?” Anders blinked at the young man’s database-like knowledge.

“Well, I’m okay at astrophysics…” Patch said. Anders thought this was either a monumental moment of modesty or that astrophysics must really be far more complicated than he had understood it to be. And he already didn’t understand that much of it.

“And the planet’s rings are indeed made of gold particulates,” Moriarty informed them.

“That’s impossible,” the Void engineer contradicted the simulated intelligence. “At those concentrations, it would be far too heavy to be suspended in the planet’s gravity-well.” Patch burst into another set of clicking, whistling noises of code-speak, and suddenly the image of the precious-gem world with its five gold rings was superimposed with bands of red and orange color.

“Voider! What are you doing to my ship now?” Dalia groaned.

“Just reprogramming the sensors,” Patch was saying, getting excited. “That’s a magnoscope view, coupled with gravitational-wave analysis, and—” The Voider paused and coughed in surprise. “Those aren’t natural shapes, look, the red and orange ripples are graviton waves holding the heavier gold in balance.”

Anders thought he saw what Patch might mean. There were waves of red and orange between the rings, like the rebounding ripples in a paddling pool.

“It would take a vast amount of energy to do that. Titanic amounts,” Patch informed them.

“What’s that?” Anders spotted something—a curiously black patch between the third and the fourth rings. Like a tear.

“That’s…” Patch’s voice sounded like he was frowning. “That’s a negative graviton-space. A bend in space-time.”

Anders coughed. This was getting far too technical for a practical man like him. “And I take it that Jurash said he went through the third and the fourth ring, right? Slap-bang into that?”

“Yes,” Dalia said, already turning the scout toward the new destination. “What’s the course, Jake?” she asked of their psychic navigator.

“No need for one,” the youth was saying in a strange, sing-song voice. Anders turned in his seat to look at him to see that his eyes had gone far away and sweat was glistening on his forehead. “That tear will take us there. It’s been programmed to take us there.”

What!? Anders shook his head. “Programmed? What do you mean, programmed?”

The young psychic turned to look at Anders, and his eyes were solid black. When the youth spoke, his voice sounded far away and strange.

“The beings who made it don’t make machines like we do, Anders,” Jake said strangely. “I can see celestial engines like stars—things that are built from the quantum-level up and able to remake the stuff of the universe itself.”

Gods. Anders shuddered as he remembered what the old Mondrauk mystic, Woak Edja, had said to him. These Black Suns are like the gods of our galaxy.

And he had to find a way to kill one.

So, with no other course to take and a war raging behind them, Dalia had no choice but to say the words:

“Initiate field generators. Jump!”


Welcome Service Tunnels

Sector 1, Imperial 1

“How can I trust you?” Black Rose muttered as her thin but perfectly weather-tight boots—molded to the exact shape and size of her feet and designed to absorb shock and noise to make sneaking up and killing people that much easier—splashed in the dank, oily waters of the service tunnel.

These tunnels crisscrossed and threaded through the entire planetoid of Welcome, carrying the heavy pipes from one part of the staging-post worldlet to another. Welcome wasn’t actually very big—barely bigger than a small asteroid, in fact.

“Hm. How can anyone trust anyone?” the Red Judge grumbled from ahead of her as his heavy boots clumped and slammed into the ground.

The Red Judge had led the assassin into the heart of Welcome, first down the nearest lift to the ‘public’ service areas before taking her on a complicated route of metal stairs, more cage-lifts, and ladders, before finally entering these drone-only service areas by way of an access panel that he had clearly used before, given the panel was already half-dismantled.

At least he’s speaking sense, Rose thought. Not that it meant she could trust him.

“This way.” The dim light of the man’s shoulder and collar armor lit up the ancient ceramics and metals of the pipes down here, revealing where the tunnels branched off into a crossroads, and he chose the one leading right and descending sharply.

Black Rose tried another tactic. “How do you know who I am?”

A heavy snort of derision. “You think the judges haven’t heard of the Black Rose? The most efficient killer in all of throne space? The one woman, almost a ghost, who is said to have cleared a Mondrauk warband out on her own? To have taken down the pirate, Captain Havalard? Do you think we don’t dream of seeing how quick you really are in battle?” he said, pausing to cast a mocking eye at her.

Oh, you want to fight me? The assassin stiffened and halted, earning another laugh from the man.

“It’s good to see the best that the Eternal Empress has to offer can feel fear, at least!” he said sarcastically.

Not fear, Rose shot the thought back at the man, who was clearly having fun at her expense. I’m judging where would be the best place on your body to slide a stiletto—

But before she could really make her choice, the Red Judge continued talking.

“There are people who have heard about you, assassin.” He turned back to start tramping down the tunnel. “And there are people who have heard what happened to you on Terevesin.”

Rose remained where she was. How? Her mind turned. Her work had always been super-black, which meant that it was also deeply classified. Not even Commander-General Cread knew that she was alive…did he?

“Oh, for star’s sake!” The Red Judge tramped to a halt, leaning against the wall and not even bothering to turn around to look at her, but his ears or personal sensors must have registered that his charge wasn’t following. “There are people under the Reach of the Throne who have been thinking differently for a long time,” he said gruffly, as if he didn’t want to give up the information easily. “People like the garden worlders. Like the Proximians.”

The Proximus Republic. Rose finally saw where the Red Judge was going. They were a breakaway republic of humanity, still technically a protectorate of the throne, but it existed thanks to fraught and hazy diplomatic stand-offs between the two great nations of humanity. The Eternal Empress could have crushed them and burned their few colony worlds at any time she wanted over the last few hundred years, but they were allowed to exist.

Because then the empress can have an enemy to look to. Given her previous experience, Black Rose knew how this game was played. Every dissident or radical from Golden Throne space sought to flee to a Proximus colony world, which was actually very handy for the empress.

And of course, the Proximus Republic have been secretly funding the New Dawn resistance army for a generation, Rose also knew from personal experience. She had, after all, interrogated enough of them in her service to the throne. And killed enough of them.

“You’re New Dawn?” Black Rose asked. It was hard to keep the ice from her voice, as old hatreds and bigotries had been conditioned into her through biological as well as psychological programming.

“New Dawn!? That bunch of chancers?” His shoulders heaved with apparent mirth. “Nah. But we work with them. We’re a coalition. A network of all sorts of people from all sorts of worlds and stations under the Reach of the Throne, who think that something has to change.”

That, at least, is something that I can believe in. Rose nodded as the Red Judge finally turned to regard her.

“So are you coming along or—” the large man was saying as he turned, before his eyes suddenly widened as he looked straight past her shoulder.


Secrets of Ilythia Boxed Set

In one smooth movement, the Red Judge spun a small, concealed blaster from a module on his utility belt and pointed it straight at Rose’s head.

She leapt to one side—which wasn’t very far in this tight space—turning as she thumped her back against the side of the tunnel.

The Red Judge’s blaster fire shot in front of Rose’s face to blossom against the metal creature that had been creeping up behind them.

“Warden bot!” Rose hissed, recognizing the bipedal forms that were released to wander through the service and industrial ways of any Golden Throne world or ship. She had never had to fight one, but she had heard that their capabilities were dangerous.

Crimson blaster-fire burst over the long snout of the bot’s tubular head, knocking it backward the way it had come and making it stumble, but not deactivating it.

Warden bots were bipedal, hunched things with thin limbs and thin bodies, everything moving on smooth, mechanical gears and cogs. Their heads were just forward-facing tubes, stuffed full of sensor arrays, and their arms were long, three-part pincers that could grapple and crush and twist sheet metal with ease.

Rose knew that the warden bots were functional and simple, able to exert vast amounts of pressure and strength, and that was all that they did, really.

But that only made them deadlier, she thought as she narrowly avoided one pincered hand that lanced out to crash with sparks against the metal where her head had recently been.

Warden bots were designed to be able to fix the heavier sort of repairs that any station or ship might need during its life, without the dispatch of a special engineering or fabrication team. They were also released to deal with infestations that were an occupational hazard of space-living. Giant spores, space-slugs or sludges, and most homeless vagrants could all easily be dealt by the throne in the same cold, cruel manner.

The only benefit is that these things don’t have an auto-upload to the mainframe! Rose remembered as she ducked another sweep of a pincer and the Red Judge fired again. The warden bots were meant to roam ceaselessly and kill indiscriminately, which was what they did.

FZZT! This time, the crimson flare of the blaster hit the bot in the shoulder joint, causing a sudden hiss of steam and accompanying sparks.

And turning it half away from Black Rose.

“Hyugh!” With a grunt, Rose pushed herself off from the wall toward the bot, keeping herself low under the arc of its powerful arms. With a sharp flash of her crystal-edged blade, she had slashed at what would be the small of its back if the thing had been human, and she was rewarded with a flare of sparks and the sudden hiss of steam, condensing into a foul, oily-smelling lubricant in an instant.

The assassin hit the far side of the wall, spinning as fast as she could.

But not fast enough, clearly, as pincers snatched onto her waist, just below her ribs, and started to squeeze with mechanical certainty.

Rargh!” There was a roar as suddenly, the shape of the Red Judge bodily hit the warden bot bodily, making it swerve and, thanks to the seizing of joints and limbs caused by Rose’s attack, topple to the floor with a heavy smash. It took Rose with it, scraping the assassin down the wall as the pincers tried to squeeze her in two.

But they weren’t working, not well. The bot had already lost far too much pressurized oils from its pipework, and the pincers could only move sporadically, a few millimeters at a time.

Rose screamed, despite her training. It still hurt like hell to be crushed slowly rather than quickly.

“Hold on!” the Red Judge was saying, kicking the warden bot in the head with his heavy boots before jumping across its body to her.

What does he think I’m doing!? came Black Rose’s very uncharacteristically emotional thought. But the Red Judge was now seizing one of the large metal pincers that pressed at Rose’s thin flesh, and, with his own mechanically-assisted gauntlets, started to pull.

The judge’s heavy gauntlets were designed for battle, and running from their digits and knuckles to the collar of their wrist were fine, tensile metal-cabling, gathering and holding the added force of the circular winch in the gauntlet’s wrist-collar, and then to the thicker rods and gears below that at elbow, and then at the shoulder.

This system of stored and potential torque was repeated all across the armor of the Red Judge, stretching into lock-cogs in enclosed cylinders on either side of his spine before being counter-levered and weighted at the man’s utility belt. It meant that any Red Judge wearing one of these suits could allow the human inside to exert many hundreds of kilograms more pressure than their physical capabilities alone.

On top of that was the fact that the judges had denser bones and muscle mass, thanks to their heavy-gravity worlds. And there was always the possibility that any individual Red Judge might have gone to their local church of the Gene Seers for more personalized strength enhancements.

Whatever of these factors it was that Black Rose had to thank, she was deeply grateful when she heard the Red Judge grunting with exertion, and for the pincer to halt its slow crush.

“Rargh!” With a final roar, the whole segmented claw of the warden bot was wrenched free from its seat of gears and pipes, spraying both the clone-woman and mechanically-enhanced man with more sparks and the precious oil that was the bot’s blood.

Tzzz-tzz-tzz… Black Rose was staggering away and gasping for air as she clutched at her pained sides, while the joints and limbs of the bot beneath them whined and screeched in protest. The bot had completely seized up, and, although it was still technically active, it wasn’t going anywhere anytime soon.

Now do you trust me?” The Red Judge was also panting as he stepped away from their shared kill.

Black Rose regarded the big, strong man fiercely as she shut down the pain receptors to her ribs. “A little.” She nodded.

“Good.” He extended one huge, gauntleted hand. “I am Captain Ugarin, once a member of the Red Judge Throne Marine Corps, now a traitor to the empire,” the hulking man said formally. “Welcome to the resistance, Black Rose. Together, we’re going to find a way to kill the Eternal Empress.”

The clone assassin, with her body riddled with Terevesin plant-microbes, looked at Captain Ugarin’s proffered hand for a second, then allowed herself to nod. “Rose. Call me Rose,” she said, accepting his hand with even the tiniest of smiles.


Evacuation Procedures

Sector 9, Uncharted Space

This jump is different. Anders didn’t even have to turn to look at Patch or Dalia to know, it was obvious.

It was the light, for one thing. The Ilythian ship barely had time to power toward the strange patch of null space between the third and fourth of the golden rings before the viewscreens started flaring with eldritch blue flames.

And it was the strange acceleration, too. Anders had a moment to see the stars on the edge of the view field—the ones around the planet of the five ringsstart to blur and stretch just as they normally would when a jump field was generated.

But the planet itself remained perfectly in focus, and perfectly static.

What is happening? Anders was sure that he had spoken the words out loud, and yet he couldn’t hear them in his ears.

Suddenly, they were thrown forward, flashing through the gold rings on either side before the view field showed a tunnel, made out of bands and shafts of white and light.

Anders had never seen a jump like this before. He didn’t think that he had ever even heard of something described like this before. And just when he was about to turn to ask the others just what was going on, it was all over with a sudden lurch.

Urk!” This time when the ex-officer spoke, he could finally hear himself again. He was standing right where he had been before as if nothing at all had happened, but his body felt sick as if he had just been dropped through freefall and come to a complete standstill.

And the cockpit was alive with warning alarms and sparking wall panels.

“Warning! System overload!” the Ilythian mainframe shouted in a glitched, scratchy haze of static.

“Ikkit!” Dalia swore, flinching as one of the nearby wall panels ruptured and burst, spilling wires like fine, translucent cables from their nest, as well as plumes of sparks.

“Dalia!” Anders shouted, looking at one particular rising line of glyphs, ranging from a deep, comforting green at the bottom and fast turning orange, then a critical red as they rose in the air.

“Please tell me that doesn’t mean what I think it means!” Anders panicked.

“It does. She’s going to go critical unless we get her to land—” the Ilythian said through tight jaws. The scout was veering first to one side and then to another. It was impossible to see where they were going or what even was outside, since the viewing fields and the navigation arrays were dead.

FZZZRK! Another explosion of sparks from the ceiling, as another of the access panels burst open.

Patch, in his engineering chair, was moving his hands in a blur through what few glyph-controls remained, and cursing—half in his normal human tongue and half in that twittering, clicking, and whistling code-speech of the Voiders. Anders wasn’t sure he was having any effect at all, until suddenly one half of the viewing field in front of them flickered, hazily, into existence. Then faded out. And then thankfully came back, even if it was only a ghostly shell of its former self.

And there, dead ahead and large in their view, was the glitching shape of a gray and ochre planet.

“The Well of Souls,” the eerie, nasal tones of Jake announced, and Anders’s jaws clenched once more with the electric tension of PK energies.

“It won’t help if we crash into it!” Dalia burst out, wrenching at the holo-control levers by her seat, only for one of them to flicker off and on and her hand to fall through it suddenly and the planet to swing away from them as the scout careened to one side.

We’re going to crash. The thought hit Anders like a slap. The line of warning glyphs had now ascended all the way to a bright red. The ex-officer might not know much about Ilythian vessels, but he knew when a ship was lost. Too many critical malfunctions, no time to salvage!

“Life rafts!?” he shouted, already turning to pull himself through the rocking craft to the central hold. Ilythians must have emergency procedures for such a thing, don’t they?

“A scout doesn’t have any!” Dalia’s shout mixed with warning screeches and fizzing electronics.

Frack! Anders growled, looking around him. There were equipment booths, complete with the hanging Ilythian blasters, utility belts, and suits. Each suit was made of the same, blue-form material that looked like rubberized plates, complete with an oval helmet that looked textured like some form of seashell.

“These suits, can they take vacuum!?” Anders had already seized one from its hook and was dragging it from the wall. They were nothing like the old Throne Marine suits that he had once used. He couldn’t see any modular field generators, capable of propulsion even in the vastness of space.

“Of course! Who do you think we are? Complete idiots!?” Dalia shouted back.

No, but why don’t you have even an escape pod!? Anders would have called, but he was too busy hauling three more, and running, slipping, stumbling, and sliding back to the cockpit. He chucked the first one at Jake in the copilot chair.

“Get it on!” he commanded just before the ceiling erupted, and Anders was thrown to one side as the ship lurched.

Patch had given up on using the glyph controls and was doing his best to stabilize their ship with whistled code-speech alone. As the scout righted, the planet of the Well of Souls swam back into their mid-field once again, now much closer. Anders had already dragged the lower part of the suit over his legs and threw one to Patch.

“We might be able to survive outside, but we won’t if we crash or the reactor goes critical!” he shouted.

“Wait a minute!” Patch swore, continuing to whistle and click his strange tongue as he seized the suit to drag it on as Anders had.

Which just left Dalia, still attempting to pilot the ship with the barely-there holo-stick in hand. “If I can get the ship to plane the planet—” she was saying, and Anders understood. Dalia wanted to skip the scout over the planet’s gravity well, but would it work?

“Will she stay stable until—” Anders was in the middle of saying, just as there was a screech of glitchy static.

‘Warning! Reactor overload imminent! Begin immediate evacuation procedure!’ the mainframe, translated through Moriarty, predicted the worst.

“No time!” Anders seized Dalia from the chair, dragging her back from the flight chair.

FZZT! More flares of static and explosions of sparks, and the cockpit was filling with white steam from burst internal pipes and wires. That strange quantum tunnel they had passed through to get here had clearly been too much for the already-damaged Ilythian vessel.

“Urk!” Dalia coughed as the noxious fumes surrounded them, as did Anders and Patch. Jake, however, already had the shell-like covering of the Ilythian helmet in place and was merely rising like a shadow through the white.

“Anders. The main hold.” The youth’s voice drifted eerily calmly as Anders, Dalia, and Patch scrambled and fell through the archway. The industrial smoke was following them, but, as Patch was the last to collapse behind Anders and Dalia and Jake calmly stepped down, the youth hit the smooth nodule on the wall to allow the door to close.

“F-fuh-filters!” Dalia coughed and gasped from the floor. Despite the rest of the ship apparently shaking itself apart, there was a subdued hum and the air of the main hold started to clear. It took a few moments, but as it did, Anders saw a small green Ilythian glyph superimposed over the see-through section of his helmet pulse quicker before turning into a solid, leaf-like shape. He presumed that meant that the air was now clear, but he didn’t dare take his helmet off.

The ship’s reactor is going to go critical. We’re going to self-detonate…

Anders, Dalia, and Patch were all scrabbling on the floor of the hold as it swung and rocked, in keeping with the rest of the ship’s haphazard freefall, but Jake appeared perfectly still by the closed cockpit door. The policeman found that he wasn’t surprised at all when he saw that the PK was floating once again, just as he had on the dying planet of Jakka.

The youth floated before them, calm radiating out of his form as he slowly raised a hand toward the doors. “It’s all going to be alright now,” he said in that surreal, faraway voice once again. “It’s all going to be alright, because our friends have arrived.”

And the main hold doors opened to spill a brilliant, blinding light over them all.



What? “Who are they!?” Anders gasped as the door to the main hold opened…and they weren’t sucked out into the vacuum of space.

Instead, a series of lights were entering the now-stilled hold, floating through the air in complete silence, for the scout’s petal-doors to close behind them.

They’re drones… Anders frowned. As the lights turned, he saw that they were sleek, perfect white orbs, with one small glimmer of a crystal on one side of the sphere from which the brilliant light appeared.

But the policeman didn’t recognize them as throne technology, and the Golden Throne led the way in drone development. These orbs were simple, elegant, and apparently seamless. No insignia of gold-colored swords or crowns or thrones. No nodules of discrete weapons or scanning systems. Their simplicity intimated sophistication, but Anders had never heard of any civilization, human or not, so far out here…

“They’re using field technology,” Patch murmured amidst a small twitter of code-speech. “I’ve calibrated the Ilythian suits. Wait a minute while I send you the data.”

The crystal faceplate of Anders’s suit was currently displaying small, gently glowing Ilythian glyphs in a short line at the bottom right. But, with Patch’s whistling code, the entire surface of the faceplate washed with white, and then his normal view returned but this overlaid with washes of blue waves—each one emanating from the orbs.

“They must be throne tech, surely…” Anders whispered as the lights moved around the large oval of the cabin, as if inspecting. He saw one of them turn to hover near the still-floating Jake, descending to the youth’s head height and slowly moving around him.

“Jake, you said these drones are friends?” Anders asked.

“They’re enemies of the Black Sun,” Jake said in his strange, singsong, not-really-here voice. Anders couldn’t see the youth’s eyes under the reflection of his Ilythian shell-helmet, but the man was sure that his eyes would be a solid black if he could.

“How do you know?” Anders whispered. He had to admit to himself that he was starting to get a little scared of the boy’s abilities.

“Because the Black Sun hates them,” Jake said with a tiny wobble to his voice. Is he connected to the Archon all the time!? Anders thought. This could be bad news. If there was a part of the boy’s mind that was always with the Archon, didn’t that mean that, when the ancient god-thing found the small human mind in its own, that it could reach through to where they were, at any time?

And then, as if the drone orbs had found what they had come for, all three suddenly clustered around Jake and started to spin faster and faster around the youth’s body.

“Jake! What’s happening!?” Anders yelled, pushing himself up from the floor and already reaching for one of the light blasters on the equipment hook. Patch was still whistling and twittering his code-speech, clearly trying to analyze and understand what these things were, but Dalia was right there beside Anders, one hand already bearing the thin blade of the suit’s service-weapon, which apparently every suit had strapped to the thigh.

FZT! Just as Anders’s hand touched the handle of the blaster, a thin beam of blue light shot out from one of the fast-moving orbs, perfectly hitting Anders’s hand away with a painful pound of pressure.

Ach!” Anders hissed.

>>Suit Impact. No Damage.

Anders’s suit flashed the warning across the bottom of his faceplate, automatically translated by Moriarty’s connection. His hand smarted as if someone had stomped on it, but he knew instinctively that his flesh wasn’t damaged.

Dalia was already surging past his shoulder, striking out with the blade at the approaching arc of one of the orbs.

FZT! “Agh!”

Before her blade could meet the metal or polymer or whatever it was that these devices were made of, there was another flash of blue light, and the dagger was spinning through the air, striking the far side of the wall as the Ilythian woman was thrown after it.

“Dalia! Jake!” Anders rushed to her side.

“Scanning, sir,” Moriarty said through the suit’s internal speakers, and another wash of translated glyphs appeared at the bottom of Anders’s vision.

>>Ilythian Female. Stable Condition. Light Concussive Impact.

Good, Anders thought, seizing Dalia by the arm and shoulder, pulling her into an upright position. “She’s alright. It’s almost like the things don’t want to kill us,” he shouted to Patch.

“But, boss, look at what they are doing!” the Void engineer’s voice was oddly amplified by suit, and the note of alarm caused Anders to turn rapidly—just in time to see that the strange orbs had now become a blur of bright white light around Jake, completely obscuring any sight of the youth.

“Let him go!” Anders grunted in frustration, balling his fists and letting go of Dalia as he prepared to leap at them. A small, Throne Marine part of him had already figured that there was nothing that he would be able to do against the strange machines, but the larger part of him, the MPB policeman who had dedicated decades to helping people on the streets still forced him to act.

But, as Anders leapt towards the column of burning white, with nothing but his bunched fists and snarling face against them, the glare of white suddenly pulsed, and a wave of force hit Anders like a Mondrauk Hammer.


>>Suit Impact. All Areas.

Anders was slammed into the rear of the main hold, his vision blinded and then going black as his head rebounded, inside the helmet, against the wall. For a nanosecond, Anders’s mind hung in the deep black of unconsciousness before sound and vision and pain returned to him.


“Sir, you have a mild concussion and general impact abrasions across your shoulders, wrists, and back,” Moriarty informed him immediately.

But what about the others? Anders pushed himself from the corner of where the wall met the floor and saw the groaning, struggling press of bodies around him as Patch and Dalia too had clearly been hit by the same force-wave.

“Oh, no,” Anders gasped, looking for where their enemies had been. And where Jake had been a second ago.

But Anders, Dalia, and Patch were now alone in the main hold of the Ilythian vessel, with no bright glow of the strange alien orbs…and no Jake.

Secrets of Ilythia Boxed Set

The three sat in stunned silence for a long moment, unable to process what had just happened.

“That was a micro-jump!” Patch was saying with obvious astonishment, breaking the silence. All three were still in the hold of the traumatized Ilythian craft, and Anders’s mind was racing trying to understand what had happened to his charge.

“The Morathian put that boy in my care!” Anders hissed, moving toward the area where Jake had so recently been, remembering the kindly human monk who had been Jake’s companion and had kept the boy alive, until the empress had the man killed.

“There are no scorch marks on the floor…” he muttered. Therefore, no sign—he dreaded to think it—of high-temperature burning. His suit filters weren’t picking up any smell of carbon or soot.

“No, there wouldn’t be,” Patch was saying in exasperation. “Look.” Another twitter of the Voider’s code-speech, and Anders’s faceplate was once again awash with the slowly collapsing waves of blue field energy as Patch transmitted his own hacked suit sensors to Anders’s.

“It was a quantum leap, boss!” Patch was saying. “The same kind of technology at the ring world. It’s only ever been speculated scientifically, at the sub-quanta level, never applied!”

Anders growled in frustration as he saw the final ripples of the fading blue light grow smaller and smaller in front of him, collapsing to the faintest of fey light, right in the center of space that Jake had so recently occupied.

“Never applied by Ilythians or humans, you mean,” Dalia said in a suspicious growl as she stepped up beside Anders. Patch had clearly sent the same field energy overlay to her suit, as Anders saw her hesitantly extend her gloved hand to the fading blue light. In response, Anders saw the field globule around the tips of her fingers as if drawn to her flesh, or the suit.

“Magnetic resonance?” Anders wondered.

“I don’t think so,” Dalia said warily, pulling her hand back, for the blue light to follow a little through the air before peeling back and once again collapsing. “I can almost sense something like PK energy…”

“It’s the resonance of Jake!” Patch said in excited realization. “You see, that’s what field energy is. It’s the sub-quanta energy underneath normal-state energetics. Some Voiders say that it is the memory field of the universe itself, that everything leaves an impression, everything that has ever existed or ever will, and that the foundational quantum-fields themselves still vibrate with it!”

“You’re beginning to sound like an Ilythian, human,” Dalia said, but Anders could only grunt in agitation.

“All very well and good, but what does it mean for Jake? Where has he gone!?”

“Boss…” Patch said after a pause, and the echo of his voice through the suit’s speakers sounded uneasy. “It means that Jake could be anywhere,” the young engineer stated. “Human and Ilythian and the rest of us need coordinates to jump. We create small bubbles of field energy and bend the space in front of it with graviton waves to enable us to jump forward. We skip along the surface of our normal, physical reality…” Patch took a breath.

“But what those orbs have just managed to do—and what happened to this ship at the ring world—was a direct quantum tunneling that isn’t supposed to happen at macro levels. That tunnel could go anywhere, any when…”

“Are you telling me that those tiny little drone things could have kidnapped our friend and transported him anywhere across all of time and space!?” Anders could barely control his frustration. This was too much. He was suddenly aware of how small and outmatched he was in the face of such marvels.

Patch started to speak, but his voice was drowned out by a sudden glitching squeal from the ship’s mainframe—amazingly still operational—and a voice inside each of their suits at the same time.

“Destination reached. External atmospheric pressures bio-secure. Opening main hold doors.”

“What destination?! I didn’t program any destination!” Dalia spun around to face the main hold doors just as there was a gentle thud from their feet.

“We’ve landed,” Anders breathed. He suddenly realized that, ever since the alien orbs had entered the hold, somewhere as the ship had been in freefall around the planet, all the alarms, alerts, and shaking had stopped. The ship’s reactors hadn’t exploded. It hadn’t destabilized and broken apart.

Somehow, the alien orbs had not only kidnapped Jake, they had also securely landed the ship on the nearest planet—

The Well of Souls.


The Graveyard

The main hold doors opened to reveal a ruined, devastated land.

A junkyard, Anders corrected as he gasped.

“Sir? I can confirm that we are indeed on the surface of the same planet as recorded in the ships scans,” Moriarty confirmed after a moment. “This is the planet we believe to be the Well of Souls.”

The sky was bright, with a very faint touch of gray to it. Anders could see the most-hesitant drifts of pink and bluish clouds up there, scattering and fraying under high winds.

But it was what was directly in front of them that made Anders really see how alien this planet was.

Starting just twenty or so meters out from where they had landed was what appeared to be a wall of ruined metals. “Ships,” Anders breathed, thinking that he could recognize the sorts of components common to any space-faring vessel—propulsion tubes, glass domes or windows of cockpits or flight modules

“Holy frack!” Patch whispered in awe, already striding ahead of the others to be the first to hit the bare, sandy dirt between them and the wreckage. “These… These are…incredible!” he breathed as his head whipped back and forth, taking in the strange sights all around them.

Well, incredible is not quite the word that I would be using for a pile of junk, Anders thought, grabbing the remaining Ilythian blasters from where they hung and passing one to Dalia before carrying the next to Patch.

But it was hard—even for the practically-minded policeman—to not feel some of the same awe that Patch must be feeling as Anders’s eyes scanned the debris. There were things here that were obviously ships—or had once obviously been ships, at least—but there were also many, many other things that didn’t look like any sort of vessel Anders could name.

He saw things that appeared to be aerodynamic wedges and hulled-shapes cast out of the blue-grays of familiar metals—

“There are only so many metallic compounds in the material!” Patch was murmuring to himself over their suit-to-suit communicators. “You see, every civilization will have some form of copper, bronze, steel—”

But even Patch’s common sense was tested to the limit, because Anders could see hulls that appeared entirely made of gold or glittering black crystal—and even one giant organic cream-white scoop like a whale bone.

Anders saw oval and rectangular, diamond and rounded shapes of what he guessed were portholes, most of them broken open and looking into the dark recesses of whatever strange interiors were inside these vessels. However, a few still had their ‘windows’ intact, and only a fraction of them were translucent crystal.

“The species who operated those ones must have had eyes like ours…” Patch indicated, and then—

“No way! Is that a Heisenberg engine?!” The Void engineer suddenly jogged past one ship that seemingly erupted into white spikes like a downed, gigantic spider. Patch had stopped at a series of three thin, catamaran-like hulls encased in a wide, circular ring, half-buried in the dirt.

“A what engine? It sounds very human to me,” Anders said skeptically.

“Oh, I’m sure they call it something else, but the principle’s the same,” the Voider replied excitedly, explaining how Heisenberg engines were the old human variant of jump engines before the Golden Throne had fully developed field generators and node technology. They were mechanically started, strangely, meaning that the entire wheel around the three catamaran hulls would start to spin, turning faster and faster to generate some sort of charge that would then encourage a chain reaction.

“Remarkable ideas but quite lethal too,” Patch finished as Anders’s boot crunched something underfoot. He stopped to look down to see that there was something sticking out of the dirt.

It was a bone.

“Huh.” Anders’s police training kicked in. He knew that he shouldn’t be overly surprised for there to be biological remains in what was clearly a vast crash site, but the confirmation that yes, there had once been living things here only made him shudder.

I wonder what it was like for them. Anders crouched to tease the bone out of the soil. He imagined other ships from other, strange civilizations being drawn or tricked or falling through that ‘quantum tunnel’ at the ring world to crash here. Maybe some of their crews had managed to survive the crash, or use whatever versions of lifeboats or survival pods they specialized in.

And then what? They starved? He wondered if those other species had been explorers from the other side of the galaxy. An entire half of the Milky Way was still uncharted by the Golden Throne because of the sheer billions of lightyears it contained, and even under jump conditions and with the very latest of Gene Seer antigenic treatments, it would be a one-way trip.

Or maybe these aliens had come from his side of the Milky Way, Anders considered the possibility. There were still many pockets of unknown and difficult space back there, and there was every chance that these spacefarers had been members of civilizations that had flourished and died millennia before homo sapiens had ever climbed out of the trees.

But why here? Anders had pulled the branched, three-part bone from the soil, studying the way that the thin ribs of calcium twisted and twirled around each other, forming an almost helix-like structure that he guessed would have been capable of absorbing much more pressure than a biological human bone would.

Anders looked up, back to where Dalia was staying close to the ship, and saw how the ship had landed on the tiniest bare landing pad with just twenty meters around it in an odd circle.

It was placed, Anders corrected himself. Those alien orbs had perfectly placed their ship here… What if every one of these ships here had been brought? Or trapped? Anders blinked at the possibility. What if every one of these hundreds or thousands of alien vessels had come here to try and find a way to stop the Archon?

And, from the look of the bone in Anders’s hand, they had all failed…

FZZZT! Anders was thinking this dismal thought just as there was a purple flash of plasma fire at the edge of his vision, and Dalia spun on her heel, slamming into the dirt by the scout’s hull, as someone—or something—shot her.


Ancient Enemies


Anders heard the scream of plasma fire behind him as he moved, hitting the dirt and sending a spray of grit over his back. He dove between the legs of the strange spider-craft, his Marine instincts kicking in to make him roll deeper under the craft’s segmented belly.

Just don’t fracking well collapse on me! he thought at the ship above him. No more shots sought him out as he turned around.

“Moriarty? Report!” Anders said, bringing the Ilythian blaster to bear.

>>Calibrating Auto-detect. Blaster Primed.

His screen washed with a faint rose color before concentrating on just one area—the far side of the Ilythian scout he had just come from.

“Dammit!” Anders guessed immediately what the problem was. Either the targeting sensors inside the blaster only had a short range, or for some reason, it was only picking up Dalia’s bio-readings, and Anders was not going to fire on his friend.

“Re-scan!” he insisted, hoping that the suit and alien weapon would obey his commands. It did, but only to find Dalia once again.

“Sir, I’m using my own sensors in cooperation with the suit. I am picking up movement on your two o’clock but no bio-readings,” Moriarty reported.

“Drones?” Anders thought of the treacherous little orbs. Was this their plan all along? Kidnap Jake for some reason, then kill the rest?

“Impossible to tell, sir. Converting to heat signatures,” Moriarty said, and Anders’s rose-tinted screen washed once again, this time replaced with the faintest orange and yellows of residual heat from the ground, the cooler blues of inert metal, and two hazes of red. The strongest was dead ahead, just shy of Anders’s twelve o’clock, while the other was just a faint ruddy glow off to his right.

“Dalia’s heat signature in front,” Anders noted out of habit to report everything out loud in a muttered whisper—a habit that had been forced into him in Throne Marine training. At least that means she’s still alive…

The other heat signature of the non-biological thing was moving steadily around Anders’s position. Trying to out-flank me.

“Range,” Anders whispered, searching the lines and gaps of ruined hulls and wreckage for sign of his foe. He was expecting one of the floating orbs, which meant that he would have to be a good shot indeed.

“Fourteen-point-two-eight meters, sir,” Moriarty said. The two acted in perfect tandem. Despite the recent chaos that was their life, the man and his simulated intelligence had been doing this for a long time.

“Gotcha.” Anders picked out what he thought would be a good target: a burst-apart module of some alien vessel, striated with lines like the stripes of some animal, but it was being held in place by a tangle of metal spars.

“Give me the maximum detonation on this thing.” Anders sighted at the spars, picking the group he thought had to be the most load-bearing…

>>Tool / Ilythian Light Blaster (Jeera-Class) / Changing Power Relays…

“Done, sir. Maximum power store and transfer to the meson couplings, equivalent of eighty-seven-point-zero-three pounds of human TNT,” Moriarty said with a computer’s precision.

“Let’s hope that’s enough.” Anders breathed in and fired.

“Oof!” The Jeera-class light blaster kicked backward into Anders’s shoulder with a painful thump, but spat out a growing indigo-purple ball of burning light, straight across the land and angled upward.

The plasma was in a controlled chain reaction, growing larger and flaring gobbets of incandescent light as it reached critical—just at the same time as it slammed into tangle of silver metal, just under where they were wedged into the base of the striped module.

Anders’s visor flared with the bright explosion of super-heated white sparks, and the sound glitched from a deafening roar before his suit’s automatic filters stopped the human from losing any hearing. This was quickly followed by a booming crash as the bars were sheared from their derelict duty, burning and twisting and falling—taking the overhead striped module with them.

It fell straight onto the spot where the enemy heat signature should have been. “Is it dead!?” Anders was hissing, already combat-crawling forward on elbows and knees until he had reached the edge of the spider-craft’s legs, rolling and leaping to his feet to run across the short distance toward their craft and the wounded Dalia.

“The blaster’s plasma is overloading my heat scanners, sir. It’s impossible to tell whether the enemy remains active,” Moriarty announced as Anders skidded around the side of the scout and saw Dalia’s huddled form on the near side.

“But we dropped a few tons of melting metal on it!” Anders gasped as he slid to his knees before his friend, the alien. However powerful those strange orbs might be, he was sure that it wouldn’t be shooting his friends any time soon.

His friend who was huddling over her side, with one leg awkwardly stretched out in front of her. Anders could see where there was a blackened scorch mark just under the Ilythian’s right hip, turning into a mess of flesh.

Frack! Anders reached for the medical kit at his utility belt—before cursing when he remembered he was wearing an Ilythian suit, so he had no idea what medical facilities it had.

“I’m fine…” Dalia hissed up at him. Anders could see the gleam of pain-sweat on her forehead through the translucent crystal of her faceplate. “It’s only a glancing shot.”

“You’re lucky it didn’t blow your leg off!” Anders berated her, mostly because he felt useless to help his friend.

“Ilythian suits are strong,” Dalia said proudly, attempting to push herself up before hissing in pain and thumping back down against the hull.

“Sir, your suit has Ilythian micro-healing ampules,” Moriarty informed him. “Not as efficient as Gene Seer cellular recreation treatments, but—”

“Where!?” Anders broke in.

“Lower left calf. Just place your hand on the side, sir,” Moriarty said, and when Anders did so, a sheath of the seemingly rubberized suit peeled back to reveal a tight compartment that Anders hadn’t even known was there. Inside were two of the tiny bone-like vials that Anders had seen Dalia use before, once on him.

“You should save them for yourself!” Dalia was saying. “I thought you were a soldier!”

“I was a Marine. Never leave a brother or sister behind,” Anders said without pause, selecting one ampule and passing it to Dalia. She looked annoyed at this gift but still pressed it into the edge of the wound with another snarl of pain. One of the tiny crystal chips on the end flared, blinked, and then went dark, and Dalia sighed in gratitude before throwing the used ampule away.

“Another?” Anders was already reaching for the other.

“Save it. I’ll be able to walk now,” Dalia said determinedly, and Anders saw how the burn was starting to change even before his eyes, her alien skin twitching as it knitted and reformed itself together. It was clear to Anders that this wasn’t as good as the Gene Seer technology, which would recreate the perfect genetic structures at a wound site, leaving just unblemished, healthy skin as before.

Instead, when the healing was done, Anders was looking at an obvious waxy-looking scar of tender pink skin. He wondered if that meant that Dalia would still be in pain as well, but the Ilythian had already pulled a different small tube from the rounded nodules of her belt, depressing the end to spray more of the suit’s intelligent rubber-system over the wound entirely, creating a mottled seal to her suit that set in seconds.

Dalia winced in discomfort as she stretched to seize her blaster and haul herself to her feet. “What was it that attacked us? More of the orb things?” She peered around the edge of the ship.

“I think so—” Anders was saying, just as there was a screeching noise from over to their left, in the same direction that Anders had flung several tons of brute metal.

“Oh, what the frack!?” Anders murmured in horror as he saw the half-scorched and slagged piece of striped metal hull—about half the size of the entire Ilythian scout ship they were crouching against—suddenly flip into the air, spinning as it was flung to one side.

“It’s strong, whatever it is…” Dalia was already priming and raising her own Jeera-class blaster to the avenue that led toward them from the flung metal.

“It should be destroyed, that’s what!” Anders snapped, raising his own blaster as the sound of screeching and protesting metal continued…

Something was clambering its way out of the wreckage that Anders had dropped on top of it. And then, even when the non-living enemy lurched into view, it was still making a sound like steel claws scratching metal plate.

“By the stars!?” Anders whispered, seeing the shape of the thing that had shot Dalia and almost shot him.

It was bipedal but only just, because one of its legs was horribly twisted and mangled, dragging along the floor behind it. Every two lurches or so, the thing slammed one iron-looking arm into the ground to stop itself from falling over.

It’s a man, Anders’s brain tried to tell him. A human. But no, it isn’t at all, is it? The thing was made of metal parts like a robot, but it had the unmistakable ring-collar around its neck that should have once held a helmet. Instead of a head or a face, however, the thing had a small stick of blackened metal, encrusted with wires and spurting pipes.

And one bright, shining, red glowing light, like a baleful eye.

“Frack!” Partly out of disgust or fear or shock, Anders and Dalia both fired their blasters and pelted the struggling robot-thing with meson fire.

Anders’s weapon was still set to the maximum output it could possibly have and so took a fraction longer to power and fire than Dalia’s quick-fire gobbets of indigo-purple. The creature or robot or machine was spun around and flung backward under Dalia’s barrage when Anders’s expanding ball of plasma hit it.

PHA-BOOOM! The explosion this time was brighter and larger than even the one that had taken out the metal struts had been, and Anders felt the shockwave buffet his body as flames licked the nearby wreckage around them.

The creature was flung backwards and torn apart in the process, spilling molten metal and shards of its interior before it was scattered into the wreckage.

When the destruction was done, both Anders and Dalia were panting with the surprise of the thing that could apparently withstand so much direct fire.

“What was that thing?” Dalia hissed angrily at the scorched crater.

“Whatever it is, it had fracking well better be dead by now!” Anders growled before powering down his blaster. “Come on,” he said to the Ilythian beside him. “Let’s find Patch, then find Jake, and then get the hell off this insane planet!”


The Well of Souls

“Patch McGuire’s bio-signs detected, sir,” Moriarty informed him as Anders and Dalia ran down the complicated and tight avenues, passageways and tunnels made by the bodies of the decaying spacecraft.

Anders was about to ask if the Voider’s bio-signs read okay—until he skidded around the corner of a strange blue and orange fin to see that he could find out for himself.

The Voider was leaning against the side of fluted wall of metal, panting, and with blood dried in a sheet down one side of his face.

“Patch! Are you okay? What happened?” Anders ran to his side, pausing only to reach down to take the last of the suit’s ampules of Ilythian medicine.

“I’m not that good at the fighting stuff…” Patch said in a weak, slurring voice before leaning with a thump against Anders as the policeman inspected him for damage.

“Concussion, perhaps a hairline fracture to the upper right jaw, sir,” Moriarty was saying as Ander gingerly pressed the ampule in place.

“The robots?” Anders asked, looking at the Voider carefully until he saw the pain fade from his eyes and his brow-lines ease a little as whatever strange chemicals or compounds or enzymes that the Ilythians used did their work. “Did you get attacked by one of the robots?” Anders repeated, for the Voider to nod and point above them in the walls of cerulean metals, fluted like the strange formations of subterranean caves.

Anders followed his gaze, before he saw that there was a diamond of crystal-glass up there, and behind it moved a shape—

Thunk! Thump! Dull sounds of something trying to get out came from the other side.

“I had to hide, so I scrambled inside that craft,” Patch explained. “Luckily, I could figure out enough to get the ship to open and close its portholes. When the robot-man followed me in, I trapped it inside.”

Anders grinned with pride at the quick-thinking Voider before his face fell when he remembered how the previous mostly-mangled thing had thrown a piece of metal several times larger and heavier than itself to get at them.

“Let’s not be around when it finds a way out all the same.” Anders said, already urging Patch toward the nearest avenue of dirt and rocks between the space hulks…

“Anders? Patch!?” Dalia had already chosen to go that way and was several meters ahead of them, standing stock still in front of something.

“What is it?” Anders asked as he and the engineer jogged up to her.

There, they suddenly saw the largest hole in the ground that any of them had ever seen before. It’s not a hole, Anders thought. It’s a canyon. A pit. A tunnel that shot down into utter darkness.

It had to be the Well of Souls itself.

The Well had to be close to a thousand meters across. It looked like what Anders would have thought to be some ancient sinkhole, given the way that it shot down and that the edges and walls appeared naturally formed—decorated with humps and outcrops of rocky layers, rather than the smooth sheen of surfaces cut by laser.

But there was something manmade about it, wasn’t there? Anders saw a cleft not so far away where a ramp had been cut into the rock, slowly spiraling down around the inside of the Well in great, sweeping curves.

Well, not made by human hands, perhaps, Anders thought as he stepped forward, ahead of Dalia and Patch, with his Ilythian blaster raised in front of him warily.

“Whatever those robot things were, keep an eye!” he said tersely as Dalia nodded to smoothly join at the back, looking behind them as they kept the younger engineer between them.

“We’re looking for something that will kill the Black Sun,” Anders forced himself to say through gritted teeth, although his heart was shouting Jake! Where is Jake! “Moriarty?” he sighed a little hopelessly as he took the first step into the Well. “Any chance you can find Jake’s bio-signal?”

“Sir, I have been anticipating that request and kept a constant scan running through your suit. Unfortunately, there has been nothing to report so far, but I could try to link up to the scout ship’s sensors. If we can get them to work, they will easily increase my range a hundred time.”

“Get it done,” Anders said, his heart feeling as black as the thing that he was trying to kill. “Coordinate with Patch, see if the Voider can weave some more of his magic.”

Anders stepped forward, and over the internal suit-to-system, he heard the muted twittering and whistling of Patch’s code-speech as he tried to remotely reprogram their downed craft.

The ramp of uneven stone was wide, Anders saw, and stretched down into darkness. The inset lights of his helmet glowed from where they sat on Anders’s jaw and temples, coming on automatically to reveal—

People. Anders blinked. There were people on the sides of the walls, roughly cut into the rock—again, not the work of laser-precision tools.

It was a tall relief that accompanied the ramp, but carved moving forward, up toward the light behind. Anders saw rough, weather-smoothed bipedal and trihedral forms—some with two limbs, others with four—all apparently running forward in joy…

Or panic, Anders thought.

“Anders?” It was Dalia’s voice at the back of the line. “Are you seeing this?”

“Couldn’t miss it,” he said, quickening his steps to take in more of the story as they continued.

“Jurash was brought here in a vision,” Dalia said. “This is where he got the information about the Black Sun.”

As if summoned by the Ilythian’s words, Anders suddenly saw it—their nemesis carved onto the wall, and somehow fashioned out of a much darker formation of the rock, but it had been carved to seem fractured, with different sharpened segments and triangular shapes in the process of flying away from it.

Wait a minute… But there, in the center of the breaking-apart Archon, the carver had left a small circle, either daubed with paint or somehow much lighter than the rest.

“Is that the Archon’s what? Heart?” Anders shivered as he remembered his own momentary connection with the ancient being. It had been a vast black sphere with an onyx skin, the size of a large moon perhaps, and somehow radiating malefic hatred of everything that had ever existed in this galaxy…

It was hard for Anders to imagine how such a thing could even really be called ‘alive’ in any way. Did it have internal organs like any other creature? Could it have a heart?

But then the reliefs started to change again, depicting the darker rondel of the Black Sun radiating jagged lines—actual cracks and rifts through the rock—that ended with the scattering, half-body shapes of the assembled, multi-limbed people.

“Retaliation, revenge…” Anders noted, treading a little faster. By this point, the radiance of the alien daylight was becoming dimmer as the explorers gave themselves into the dark. Each of their suit lights were bright stars in the black. We must have circled the Well two or three times by now, Anders thought, counting the terraced layers of the ramps above them.

But then, when the human looked over the edge, he could see that the Well kept shooting down into pitch-black. It was impossible to ascertain how deep it was, and a superstitious part of Anders wondered if old Jurash and the Mondrauks had been right in some strangely cosmic way.

His suit’s sensors picked up the keens and whistles of the subterranean winds, rising from below. It would be easy to think of them as escaping souls, wouldn’t it? He blinked.

The reliefs next to their marching forms showed grand vistas of battles, and they weren’t only the dismemberment of peoples under the rays of the Black Sun. Anders and Dalia noted the appearance of darting wedges and winged things.

“Aircraft?” Anders asked.

“Spacecraft.” Dalia nodded to where the rock walls had been accentuated to include many small dots and raised bumps. Suddenly, Anders saw it for what it was: a star field, where many, many clouds of crafts were seeking to attack something.

The Archon.

No, wait. Anders saw that there were more of the dark, circular forms behind it.

There were more of the Black Suns. Perhaps five or six suggested, fading into the distance behind it.

“This was a galactic war,” Anders murmured, and he felt even smaller than he had just a moment before. They were just dealing with the effects of one Black Sun, and they were just facing the transmitted power of it, not a whole number in their full glory.

“What if there are more of them out there?” Anders murmured. “What if we’re picking a fight with an entire race of beings that destroy planets on a whim?”

“But what other choice do we have?” Dalia asked tersely, just as two things happened.

Patch gave an exultant cry, and Moriarty’s voice broke over their suit-to-suit channels. “Sir, we have managed to modify the suit-to-ship sensors and have found J-14,” the simulated intelligence said.

Jake, Anders internally corrected, right as the very next thing happened.

FZZZT! A bolt of purple plasma fire seared down from one of the ramps on the opposite side of them, slamming into the wall just inches from Anders’s face and flinging him to one side—straight toward the edge of the Well itself.

The robot-creatures had found them, and Anders was rolling and sliding, throwing out his gauntleted hands to try and seize onto the ramp.

The incline was too steep, and with barely a surprised grunt, the ex-officer was sliding over the edge and into the dark.


The Ru’at

“Anders!” Dalia cried, throwing herself forward to slide down after him, but the human was already gone, already falling over the edge and into the abyss…

FZZT! FZZZT! More of the bolts rained down around them as Patch yelped, stumbling into a rolling, sliding crouch. They were out in the open, and there was nowhere to go.

Dalia grabbed onto the ledge and looked, briefly, but Anders was gone. His disappearance was as sudden as Jake’s had been and apparently just as silent. The man hadn’t even screamed as he was swallowed by the Well.

But the Ilythian agent was well-trained. She shut the door on the hot knot of feelings that rose with that realization, instead rolling along the lip of the ramp, bouncing to her feet, and charging to grab Patch by the shoulder and shove him forcefully in front of her.

“But! The lieutenant!” Patch gasped.

“Gone. We have to get to the other side of the Well now!” Dalia said as the rock carvings behind exploded and cracked under the robot’s meson fire.

But the robots are on a higher, opposing ledge, Dalia thought as her long limbs ate up the meters, and she was only hampered by pushing and cajoling the Voider in front of her.

They don’t appear able to move fast.

Which meant that she should be able to get them to the ramp underneath where the robots where, just so long as they kept pace.

FZZT! Another purple line of fire struck the ramp floor just ahead of her, and Dalia had to leap as an expanding wave of burning light rolled upward.

“Urk!” She landed on the far side of the explosion, one Ilythian boot slipping as she struggled to hold onto her balance, before catching herself on the wall with the cat-like agility of her kind.

And she was still running, still pushing Patch ahead of her as the meson fire hit the echoes of their steps, further and further behind.

We’re doing it! Dalia was pleased, a little, with the way that her plan was working out. The strange robots were two corkscrew terraces above them and couldn’t get a solid line of fire on their position.

But robots don’t stop, do they? The dark thought welled up in the Ilythian’s mind. And now it was just her and Patch, down here in the dark, without Jake or Anders, and with no way back to the surface or to their ship unless it was through a gaggle of the tireless, nigh-unstoppable robot-things…

Secrets of Ilythia Boxed Set




The lieutenant gasped awake, certain that he was listening to the voice of his dead wife Cassie, always impatient when he had become lost in some daydream or hobby, like teaching their late daughter Sibbi something.

“I’m right here,” Anders coughed, opening his eyes to a glare of brilliant white light and realizing that he didn’t even know where here was.

“Anders,” the voice said again, and, although it was high in tone, it certainly wasn’t his dead wife or daughter.

It was Jake, but a Jake transformed.

Anders blinked to see that he was lying on his back on a cool, white surface, as hard as polymer plastic or composite metal. The room he was lying in wasn’t large, a circle with a curving roof. Everything was made of the same white panels.

And there, standing a little way away from him, was Jake—but he was now dressed in simple cream cloth, a service suit of some kind, but without any ornamentation or apparent utility belts and pouches.

Like a hospital gown, Anders’s frazzled mind thought a little eerily.

Waves of PK force radiated from the youth, powerful enough to make the hairs on Anders’s arms stand up on end but without the accompanying teeth-grinding nausea.

And he has implants. Anders frowned, seeing the connected line of silver and white dots that stretched from the youth’s hairline over one ear toward the nearest eyebrow. On the other side, there was just one larger silver implant in the temple behind his left eye.

“Jake? What have they done to you?” Anders breathed, pushing himself up from the floor to feel pain suddenly wake up across his back, shoulders, and legs.

“I did what I could to catch you,” the singsong voice of the augmented Jake informed him with a twinge of remorse. “But I may have been too eager with my new reach.” Jake held one of his hands out in front of him and made a grabbing motion as if he had caught the policeman out of the air itself.

Maybe he did, Anders wondered in awe. When the youth’s hands closed, he could see cords of what appeared to be silver or steel flowing in his veins from the wrist to the knuckle.

“What did they do?” Anders repeated, ignoring the pain to get slowly to his feet and cross the small space between them.

“Best not.” Jake held up one of his silver-laced hands, and Anders rebounded back as if he had walked into a stiff wall of rubber.


“I am still learning, Anders.” The youth gave an almost apologetic half-smile. “The Ru’at tell me that it will take time to remember the difference between my own body and what my mind is capable of.”

“The Ru’at?” Anders frowned deeply. He felt like he had heard that name before, but where?

“Sir?” It was Moriarty, still thankfully in place in Anders’s node and still functional. “Sir, you need to hear this.” Moriarty’s tone glitched, to be replaced with the more emotionless, automated tones of the Throne Galactic Survey:

Section: Xenobiology / Other / Errata…


Ru’at: A cyborg race, defeated by the ERROR! DATABASE NOT CONFIRMED!

“Why are you showing me broken links, Moriarty?” Anders murmured as he looked cautiously at Jake. Cyborg race, his policeman’s mind was thinking. Like the robots that we were fighting?

That Dalia and Patch were still fighting… Anders gritted his teeth in frustration.

“I’m sorry, sir. You don’t understand. Every time I run that search, and I have executed it some two thousand times already in the last eight seconds, it comes up the same. That is not a server-connection error, sir. That data has been scrubbed from the Throne Encyclopedia itself.”

“Okay…” Anders narrowed his eyes. He was used to the Golden Throne having its secrets. There were always classifieds, redactions, and rewrites from the powers-that-be. His time as a policeman had made that painfully obvious.

“They are one of the species that fought the Archons before, Anders,” Jake said, raising one hand as two small wall panels opened, smoothly and silently, to release three of the same white orbs that had entered their vessel just a little while ago.

“They won, but only after half the galaxy was lost,” Jake said. “And only because some of the other Archons weren’t interested in joining the war alongside one of their own.”

“Don’t tell me…” Anders glowered at the hovering Ru’at orbs. “Is it the same Black Sun that we’re fighting now?”

“No. That one was destroyed, of course,” Jake said, as if the information was obvious. “But there were others of its creed that stayed when the other Archons left this galaxy.”

“Left?” Anders was confused. “Where is there to go? Another galaxy?”

In response, Jake merely looked at the ceiling, sighing with a beatific smile on his face. “The Archons are not as you think, Anders. They are a highly-evolved race. Almost at the next stage of non-corporeal existence. Higher-matter beings. Almost trans-dimensional.”

“I don’t care what they are, just so long as they leave my bit of the galaxy alone!” Anders grunted.

Jake ignored him. “These Ru’at tell me that every galactic formation has its version of the Archons, and that most of them evolve to the next phase of existence, but those that seek to remain have a very particular philosophy. That each galaxy is a testing ground, through which rise those worthy to ascend…” Jake’s voice filled with infinite sadness. “The Archon of this galaxy we call home is one such fallen being. It believes that it will only ascend once it has dominated every creature, every form of life.”

“And the empress is helping it?” Anders asked. That sounded like her, to be honest.

“The Ru’at believe that the empress shares that philosophy. To dominate every other form of life until only she is the champion,” Jake said. “She will take its place when it leaves, and she will become this galaxy’s new Archon. Its new god.”

This entire galaxy ruled by the Eternal Empress? Anders shivered. It was too much to bear thinking about.

“But the Ru’at, given their history is almost as old as the Archons themselves, have been trying to stop the fallen being,” Jake explained. His voice sounded removed and distant, as if the cares of this galaxy were just a minor thing to someone with his increased powers. “When they detected that the empress was trying to create a psychic capable of connecting with the distant Archon—”

By stealing Patch’s transmitter, Anders remembered. Patch McGuire had been trying to create a super-deep quantum transmitter, but the throne had stolen it and used it to make contact with the Archon, hadn’t they?

And, Anders realized, Jake himself is here because he was a product of the empress’s PK programs, isn’t he? Jake’s DNA had been used to help create the psychic clone army that the empress used as battlefield transmitters of the Archon’s energy. That allowed her to destroy Jakka with just a handful of clones…

“The Ru’at, a cyborg race, hacked the empress’s mainframe. They infected the key test psychic, once a human girl—” Jake explained.

That voice! Anders gasped. He had forgotten all about the strange, PK-laden voice that had burst out of deep-space transmitters, freeing him from the Throne Marine boot camp on Barakar and guiding him to Jake, and eventually to the Void worlds themselves.

Anders had thought the voice to be some kind of Golden Throne whistle-blower, trying to stop the Throne-Ilythia war that had started all of this. He realized that he was kind of right, but if the Ru’at were telling the truth, this girl had been trying to warn them of a much greater danger than that, hadn’t she?

“—and allowed her to think freely. The Ru’at believe that she, combined with my powers, might be strong enough to destroy the Archon of this age,” Jake said, with just the slightest quiver of unease in his voice that reminded Anders that at least there was still some humanity left inside there.

“Where do we find her?” Anders said. “And how do we get you to her?”

Jake blinked slowly, his open gaze returning to the lieutenant in front of him. Anders once again got the strange sensation that he didn’t see him at all.

“The girl is held in one of the most secretive places in all of the Golden Throne,” Jake relayed the Ru’at’s knowledge. “Earth.”

Earth!? Anders felt his body shiver where he stood. Impossible. “But… But Earth is lost. Earth was destroyed more than five hundred years ago,” Anders repeated the mantra that every throne citizen had been taught since they were old enough to learn and obey.

Humanity fled their home world of Earth to the stars after Earth was ravaged by thermonuclear devices in an interstellar, alien war, Anders told himself. Humanity’s home system of Sol was abandoned, and the fledgling human race had a hundred years of darkness and scrabbling for survival against Mondrauks and Secari and inhospitable alien worlds.

All records of their home had been lost or scrubbed, a genetic burden of shame and guilt that the Eternal Empress had transformed into one of noble, almost spiritual purpose. Helena Tri’Vi’Pathian the First, the Eternal Empress, kept alive through Gene Seer technology, had given humanity back its hope, and she had demanded that they look outward and forward, not back. Under her iron fist, humanity had claimed its place in the galaxy, and the Reach of the Golden Throne—now the largest and most powerful civilization in known space—had begun.

“Earth was never lost, Anders,” Jake informed the older man. “The Eternal Empress lied to us all. She kept Earth for herself.”

“Where is it?” Anders growled. It was hard for him to describe what feelings were coursing through him. First hearing that the Archon was indeed more dangerous and powerful than he had ever dreamed, and now that Earth wasn’t a lost dream but a place that they could get to. And the Ru’at know where it is!

“The Ru’at can help guide us back to Earth, uh…” Jake winced as if at a painful memory. “They told me that, many centuries ago, it was the Ru’at themselves who attacked Earth. They were attempting to incorporate humanity into their cyborg republic, but they failed. The Ru’at believed that they were creating an alliance against a possible return of the Archons, but humanity, at the time, proved unassimilable…”

Which led to humans abandoning Sol, and then the creation of the Golden Throne itself… Anders growled in frustration. Is that what’s really going on with these floating orb things? Are they feeling guilty for setting all this in motion?

Jake continued, “The Ru’at numbers are now just these three, and their robotic machines, as you can see, have malfunctioned and grown wild,” Jake said, raising a hand for one of the floating Ru’at orbs to flash its blue light, and for a view field to spring into the air in front of them.

It showed the sprinting forms of Dalia and Patch moving down the rampway of the Well of Souls, and of a lurching, stumbling, and marching line of the bipedal robot-things two terraces above them, already spreading out around the corkscrew shape of the ramp and firing at Anders’s friends whenever they got the chance.

Secrets of Ilythia Boxed Set

“Against the wall!” Dalia shouted, encouraging the slightly slower Patch with a rough shove. Some of the robots had been faster than she had anticipated, and a beam of plasma light shot down to the ramp ledge just a foot away, causing the Ilythian to jump back.

They have a machine’s precision, she growled, angling her body to shoot a barrage of three short blasts to where the nearest robot was emerging.

Unlike any living creature, the robots had the advantage of not knowing any fear. The robot in view was one of the more complete ones, probably the reason why it could have crossed so quickly to the opposite terrace-ramp in view. It was bipedal, made of a composite of metal plates and armors. It had huge shoulder pads, a bulbous breastplate, and the columnar stalk of a head that made it look like its actual head had long since fallen away, leaving just the mechanical brainstem.

Dalia’s bolts scattered around its feet and hit one shoulder. It was violently half-turned, but in the same motion, it raised one over-large arm.

The thing had no hand on this forearm, just a round cylinder whose end flared with purple meson light and shot a coruscating ball of energy directly at its biological enemies.

Secrets of Ilythia Boxed Set

Dalia!” Anders shouted as the cyborg-thing fired. From his safe imprisonment, the policeman saw the ball of energy slam into the wall above Dalia and Patch’s heads.

It missed, was Anders’s first, gracious thought.

But then, he realized that it hadn’t at all…

The creature’s plasma bolt exploded against the carved relief of the Well of Souls, blinding whatever scanner or viewer that these Ru’at were using. There was the sound of a deep, bass rumble as the flaring light faded.

It revealed that the ramp above Anders’s friends had collapsed and spilled its rubble and gravel and plates of rock all over the ramp below.

“No!” Anders rushed toward the screen, but he only succeeded in stepping through it, causing it to vanish in a heartbeat. “Stop it! Save them! You must save them!”

Jake turned his head to one side as one of the Ru’at orbs bobbed a little closer. If the two conversed, Anders couldn’t hear it at all.

“Anders,” Jake spoke once again in that strange, singsong voice. “You must think beyond individuals. This threat is one facing all of us. All of humanity. All of the other races, even those that humanity has yet to encounter.”

“No,” Anders said, feeling his panic and frustration suddenly part and clear from his heart, like water evaporating from a gleaming hot coal. This wasn’t the Jake that he remembered. And this wasn’t the man that Anders himself had wanted to be.

“I can’t believe that you are saying this…” Anders hissed, his mind filling with the image of the collapsed wall of rock, the terrace that was now a landslide.

“Lieutenant—” Jake began, still in that strange, surreal tone.

Anders knew precisely what Jake was saying, and he was having none of it. He knew that Jake had changed—that the Ru’at had done something to him. Perhaps there was a part of the youth who had spent most of his natural life held in an unnatural sleep, growing in one of the empress’s bio-containment tubes, that wanted to give up his humanity. To return to being a tool, to being something like J-14 once again…

But I am not going to let him do that… the policeman, and the father, inside Anders knew.

“Jake, listen to me. Individuals are all that we have,” Anders began, and he felt the rightness of his words. It was a rightness born of his many hours and his long years spent on the streets of Hectamon 7. He might have been fighting crime or chasing down smugglers, or thieves, or killers… He might even have been mandated to uphold the laws of the Eternal Empress herself…

But every one of those jobs was about people. About actual, living, feeling people. Anders wanted to scream and shake Jake in order to help the boy see the truth that was so evident to him.

Of course it matters that the Archon and the Eternal Empress are intent on tearing up the galaxy and burning their way through every planet they can in their path, Anders thought.

But the policeman in him—and the father who had lost a wife and a daughter to a killer’s rampage—knew that what made the Archon and the empress’s desires so very terrible wasn’t the galactic horror they contained.

It’s the fact that they are doing it to people. To alien people. To individuals with families and kin and blood-ties.

“I don’t care what the Ru’at have told you or encouraged you to believe, Jake,” Anders said, purposefully using the boy’s gifted name again. “But I know this: if you lose sight of the people you are saving, of your friends, then everything is lost.”

That’s what separated the cyborg Ru’at from the rest of us, Anders knew. They felt totally at peace with kidnapping Jake and augmenting him until he barely remembered being a human anymore. But such a thing wasn’t going to work on Anders.

“Lieutenant, your friends are probably already dead. What use would it be to return there?” Jake said.

“Because I want to, dammit!” Anders shouted, this time marching forward until he was only a meter away from the youth. The three Ru’at orbs flashed their light and swept in front of their new super-weapon protectively, and Anders could feel the waves of PK power flowing from Jake like heat from a propulsion engine.

“And my name is Anders, not Lieutenant!” the man said, glaring not at Jake but at the three orbs instead. “And Dalia and Patch up there are our friends, not just mine! Just like the Morathian was your friend, too!” Anders shot the last remark at Jake himself, earning a sudden flinch from the boy.

“I… Uh…” Jake gasped a little, his serene brow suddenly furrowing as he remembered the monk who had guided and protected him when the voice—the psychic girl on Earth—had found a way to release Jake from his containment.

“Take us back to the Well of Souls. If there is nothing that we can do there, then I’ll be yours to travel to Earth somehow,” Anders bargained, “but I am not going anywhere until I see our friends!” Even if they are dead.

In front of Anders, the boy’s mouth was opening and closing as he looked confused, still caught in the rising waves of emotion that the Ru’at must have been trying to program out of him. The three orbs bobbed in place, turning their lights at each other for a second before suddenly whizzing back to the opening portholes in the wall and disappearing as the panels slid shut behind them with a smooth schnick!

“Uh…” Anders blinked. He wondered if the strange Ru’at had given up on these difficult, fleshy, emotional humans.

Anders?” Jake’s voice returned, and although it was tired and weak, it was once again his own, normal, young voice. It wasn’t the voice of the cyborg-psychic. The youth looked like some constraints had been lifted from him.

“It’s okay, Jake. We’re going to get out of here.” And somehow save the galaxy, Anders thought—just as the entire room started to judder.

“What’s happening?” Jake steadied himself against Anders’s arm as the floor shook.

“I have no idea…” Anders reached for his utility belt, but of course the blaster was gone. He had no weapons. He wondered if the Ru’at had even heeded his words at all but were instead now going to send him and Jake all the way, alone, to Earth.

“Sir?” It was Moriarty. “My scanners are detecting navigation systems and propulsion systems. The Ru’at data-shielding on this place has been dropped.”

“Report! What is happening? Where are we going?” Anders asked, and in response, the simulated intelligence accessed the Ru’at viewscreen to reveal an image of what must be outside of their containment room.

It was the walls of the Well of Souls, brightly illuminated by glaring white lights. They had to be in some kind of craft, which had been stationed at the bottom of the Well itself. Anders wondered how long those three Ru’at had kept their long vigil down there in the dark of the alien world, conducting their long-distance hacks and plans, quietly causing many different potential heroes to come here to them.

The walls outside were blurring at the speed of their ascent, and soon, their light was dimming as they approached the more natural light falling from above.

And the cyborgs.

BWARR! The white room suddenly blared with an internal klaxon, and Anders saw purple meson-flames flare over their scanner screen. Between the blasts, he could see the small shapes of the feral cyborg warriors—the foot soldiers of these very Ru’at themselves—firing on their own mothership.

And the collapsed terrace, where Patch and Dalia had been fighting from…

“Moriarty? What sort of weapons does this thing have!?” Anders shouted, for there to be a dull chime as a panel opened in the ceiling and a control chair quickly and smoothly lowered itself to the ground. It had clear arm-controls on either side of it, each with handles with obvious nodules and buttons and triggers.

Anders didn’t need to be invited twice. He leapt into place, feeling the firm material of the seat change and support as it molded to his back. The policeman seized the handles, and a digital green overlay washed over the viewscreen hanging in the air. It highlighted the moving, firing forms of the feral cyborgs in a warning orange.

“Slow this ship down!” Anders growled, turning the handles toward the nearest of the attackers.

“Initiating propulsion command, sir,” Moriarty answered as Anders fired.

The policeman didn’t know what sort of weapons this Ru’at craft had, but he saw how two thin needles of white-hot light speared from either side of the viewing field and slammed into a cyborg body.

The laser shot lifted the cyborg off its feet, throwing it against the wall to explode in its own ball of light, sparks, and scattering mechanical body parts.

“Boo-yah!” Anders couldn’t help growling as he pulled the firing handles apart, hoping they could do individual fire as well.

They could. He fired each of the two lasers at different cyborg targets. Each shot was a direct hit, aided by whatever internal tracking systems that the Ru’at weapon systems had. And they were ship weapons, clearly designed for attacking much larger things than humanoid robots.

Two more cyborgs were cleaved in half, and Anders swiveled in his seat to fire rapid volleys at the rest. “Moriarty, Jake! The others!” he hissed, and it was Jake who answered him first.

“I can sense them, Anders. They’re still alive!” Jake said, turning on his heel toward the spot where the viewscreen showed the collapsed terrace of rock.

As Anders fired on the last of the cyborgs with the ship’s weapons, he felt a wave of PK force flood over him like vertigo or nausea. In response, the rocks of the rockfall started flying into the air, some dislodging and falling away from the ledge to reveal a place where two plates had formed a natural sort of cubbyhole from the worst of the onslaught.

Jake was manipulating the rocks from afar, using nothing but his mind. Anders was in awe of the boy’s accelerated abilities—especially when he saw Jake flick one hand for a boulder that had to be twice the size of one of the cyborgs to be flung from the ledge, through the empty air of the Well, and into another of the feral cyborg warriors.

And then Jake was cupping his hands and drawing them toward himself, extracting the prone forms of Dalia and Patch. Anders could see them floating in the air over the Well, their limbs hanging around them.

“They’re still alive, sir, but they’re injured. They almost suffocated in there,” Moriarty informed him as their two friends drew closer to the Ru’at ship.

“Bring them home,” Anders said grimly as Moriarty activated whatever portholes or medical bays this strange craft held. The police lieutenant squeezed the firing triggers to eradicate the last of the feral robots before collapsing back into the flight chair.

They had done it. They had gotten to the Well of Souls, and they had found a way to destroy the Archon of their galaxy.

Now, all they had to do was to find Earth.

Secrets of Ilythia Boxed Set


Thank you so much for reading the Secrets of Ilythia Boxed Set, which includes the fourth, fifth, and sixth stories in the Memories of Earth series. It looks like this struggle has been going on a lot longer than anyone realized. So, what are they going to do about it now?

Find out in the next story. It is called The Secari Connection and it’s available on Amazon now.

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