Royal Guard Sampson Golding flit through the cramped caverns beneath Zenith Palace.
His palset gun was holstered at his side. With a sleek silver and black body and a glowing green chamber lodged in the base, it left trails of light through the pitch-black room.
His fingers hovered over it, ready to draw it at any second.
The strident, heavy pound of his footfall rang out, his armored boots slamming against the ancient carved stone beneath him.
It was matched by the much softer patter of the dream shaman’s footsteps. Sampson might have hulking great, half-inch thick smart armor to protect his feet from the roughly hewn stone; Clarice had nothing.
When he’d taken her from her room in the uppermost tower, she hadn’t had the time to find shoes.
Now she ran, the base of her heels bleeding, leaving tracks of blue-red luminescent blood marking the dust-covered ground.
It would be evidence she had fled, but by the time the other Royal Guards found it, it would be too late. Sampson would have bundled her onto a waiting transport and jumped out of this sector.
Clarice never fell behind, despite the fact she had no armor to aid her movements. Her breath was shallow but controlled. She’d trained for this. For two years, she’d prepared every night for the possibility Sampson would knock and mutter that he’d finally secured a transport off-world.
Sampson shifted in close, using the heat-detectors of his visor to monitor Clarice. Her muscles vibrated with heat as she pushed herself to the point of exhaustion. Her ceremonial purple and gold robes were covered with sweat. The only thing that was cold was the necklace that swayed around her throat with every frantic step.
The necklace was an orb made of xanta ore – the rarest substance in the known universe. It could only be controlled by dream shamans. In Clarice’s hands, and hers only, she could open the orb.
What was inside was a secret he wasn’t important enough to know.
The ore itself was a means of detecting those who could walk the land of dreams. A hundred years ago, all young women throughout the Milky Way had been tested for their ability to interact with xanta. That time was no longer. For now, the Zenith Royal family controlled all dream shamans; they were bred, not found.
The Zeniths hadn’t lost a Shaman for a century.
Clarice didn’t stop moving, even when her foot snagged a rough section of rock, the stone slicing through her heel.
She gasped as blood splattered everywhere.
Sampson ducked in fast, wrapped a hand around her elbow, and held her steady. He tilted his head down, using the sensors of his visor to detect her face, even in the darkness.
Her features were contorted with pain as sweat dribbled down her temples.
She brought up a hand and clutched her xanta pendant, her knuckles as white as snow.
He opened his mouth to beg her to hold on.
Beyond, somewhere deep in the tunnels of this twisting stone maze, he heard footfall.
Dread spilled through his chest, as cold as the depths of the ice moon that circled Zenith Prime.
His grip tightened around her arm as his free hand darted toward his gun.
Clarice wore lenses over her eyes to accommodate the dark. Her gaze flashed toward him as he pounced on his gun.
“What—” she began.
Sampson jerked his head once, begging her to stay silent without muttering a word.
He pulled out his gun, the sensors of his armor picking up the sound of more hurried footfall coming their way.
This was it. The other Royal Guards had obviously caught up with them.
Somewhere in the pit of Sampson’s stomach, dread coiled. It told him one thing. He would not survive this.
A memory of his family flashed before his eyes – his wife with her shining smile, his son with that streak of determination that told anyone he would take on the universe.
Sampson let those memories warm him as he backed into Clarice. “Run,” he said through a deep, reverberating breath.
“What? I won’t leave you,” she began.
“You have no choice. Run. I have loaded the details of the transport into your personal computational device. Survive so that one day you can bring back the means to destroy the Royal family,” he said, his voice as strong as his tightening grip around his gun.
There had once been a time when Sampson had lived to protect the Zenith family. He came from a long line of Royal Guards, and from the day he’d been born, he’d been brought up with the knowledge that he existed to serve.
But slowly he had come to understand. The Zenith family were not worthy of protection. They had the Milky Way in a stranglehold, and they would never let go. Unless they were forced.
Sampson brought his gun up higher, tracking the sound of footfall as it sprinted toward them. It sounded like the relentless beat of some great creature’s heart, as if the very stone tunnels around him had come to life.
Clarice tried to push a hand forward and wrap it around his armored elbow – but he shrugged out of her grip. He jerked his head over his shoulder. “Run, dream shaman, and when you come back, destroy their stranglehold on the Kings forever.”
A tear welled in her eye, trailed down her cheek, and splashed onto her elegant neck. She nodded once. Then the dream shaman turned on her bare, bloodied feet and ran into the dark.
Sampson brought his gun up, closed his eyes, thought of his family, and started firing.
20 years later…
Sierra stared down at her sand-covered boots, grumbling as she reached the top flight of stairs. Clarice hated it when she tracked sand into the house. Which was pretty hard not to do considering where they lived.
Turning over her shoulder, Sierra glanced back down the long winding path she had to take every day from the city to her home out in the cave-lands.
If she tilted her head at just the right angle, pushed up onto her tiptoes, and held her breath, she could see a single spire of Cluster City a hundred kilometers away.
She had to take a hoverbike whenever she wanted to head to the city, and it was parked at the base of this long, winding set of roughly carved stairs that led up to the house.
Sierra lived alone with her adoptive mother and teacher, Clarice. Clarice, with her stunning eyes, her long, elegant features, her graceful hands, and her unique wisdom. There was never anything that seemed to faze her. Heck, last year when a massive Royal cruiser had crashed in the desert and the merchants and scavengers of Cluster City had gone wild picking apart its remains, Clarice had remained cool and calm. Rather than heading out to the broken vessel to sift through the smoldering ruins in the hope she could find some unique and useful technology to sell, she’d closed the doors and locked them.
Sierra hadn’t been allowed out for two whole weeks until, predictably, a contingent of Royal cruisers had swept onto this barren world, plucked up the remains of the ship, and prosecuted anyone who’d been illegally scavenging from it.
Sierra might not know much about the ways of this galaxy, but she could appreciate that of all the vying powers, the Zenith Royal Family were the greatest. They kept a stranglehold on their unique technology, their ships, even their people. And if one went down, they’d tear through the galaxy to find them.
Sierra ran her hand over the front of her boots, trying to dislodge the sand.
“Just take them off,” she muttered to herself as she pulled the two release-flaps at the front of the boots. They were meant to seal the shoes from sand and debris, not that they ever worked properly. Creep around too many caves and stagger down too many sand dunes out in the vast deserts, and they’d soon fill up with toe-grating grit.
As she tugged firmly on the release-tabs, the seals disengaged, two little puffs of air escaping up her ankles. She shook her feet as she lithely pulled them out of her boots, not bothering to get down to her knee to steady her balance. She brushed her hand over her heel with two swift pats, then ran her fingers between her toes.
Once it was done, Sierra smiled.
She reached forward, settled a hand on the biometric panel next to the door, and waited for it to open.
… When, a full 10 seconds later, there was no beep, she frowned.
“Is this thing malfunctioning again?” she muttered to herself as she reached up to the panel, jimmied open the metal casing, and started messing around with the crystal filament-like wires within. In 30 seconds, she forced the manual release, and the door opened.
She walked in, a grin spreading across her face.
There’d been a time, not so long ago, when Sierra hadn’t had a thing to smile about.
She’d never known her family. If she’d ever had one, they would have died in the crash that had marooned her on this planet. She’d been plucked from the smoldering remains of a vessel that had crashed into the mouth of one of the gaping caves that dotted this area. If it hadn’t been for a particularly kind-hearted scavenger, she would have been left to rot. Instead, she’d been taken to Cluster City. There, she’d been fortunate enough to be handed to an orphanage. But the orphanage had been raided a few short years later by mercs and berserker scavengers.
At the age of seven, she’d been thrust out into the streets, deserts, and caves to survive.
For a few years, she’d run errands for the merchants in town, tracking illegal goods from one side of the city to the next, using her much smaller form to run through the sand-ducts that ran like intersecting veins through the built-up city to miss any patrols.
When she’d grown too large to cram her lithe body into those drains, she’d moved on to scavenging. With her savings, she’d managed to afford a hoverbike, and from there, she’d scouted out the eastern continent of this drab, never-ending desert world of Laroka Two.
Only a few short thousand kilometers away from a major jump gate, this planet was in a Prime Crash Landing Zone. In the first few hundred years of gate technology, captains had often miscalculated their jumps, heading too fast into the huge gates dotted across key transport routes. The gates were the primary means of interstellar travel throughout the galaxy – left over from the ancient Time of Kings. Come in too hard to one of those gates, fail to accurately calculate your trajectory and program your navigational computer to stay exactly en route, and you will careen out of it like a rock slung from a sling. Your nav systems will burn up and your thrusters will become unresponsive. If you are lucky, you will just be jettisoned through space until you stop or your hull burns up like hair singeing in a fire.
If you aren’t lucky and there’s a large world near a gate mouth – just like Laroka Two – you will slam into it with shield-shattering speed.
There were an estimated 10,000 ships that had crashed on Laroka over the years, and just like that Royal cruiser from a year ago, though nav technology had improved since the bad old days of space travel, plenty of captains still made mistakes.
None of that was the point. The point was that those years of scavenging the mindnumbing, endless deserts and caves of Laroka had seen Sierra through.
Everything had changed when she turned 16. When she’d turned 16, she’d met Clarice.
Clarice had recognized something in Sierra, and from there, had never left her side.
So that’s why Sierra grinned as the door opened, atmosphere escaping around her in brilliant white clouds as the airlock disengaged.
“I’m home. I managed to scavenge some generation 52 artillery communication modules from a ship that crashed 2000 kilometers west. I sold them—” she began.
The house wasn’t large. It didn’t need to be large. It needed two things – structural integrity to withstand the sudden and violent sandstorms that ripped through this region, and the bare minimum tech required to live.
Most of the furniture had been scrounged, like everything else in Sierra’s life.
From the flight seat she’d managed to grab from a luxury cruiser that was the pride of her collection, to gel mattresses, tables, and repurposed consoles that could play old footage from the various ship computers she’d found over the years.
“What’s going on?” Sierra spluttered as she thrust forward, her bare feet crunching over the loose scraps of metal scattered over the floor.
The console on the far side of the room had blast holes in it. It was smoldering softly, smoke curling up and filling the room with a toxic, acrid scent.
Sierra didn’t bother to bring up a hand and cram her sleeve over her mouth as she pushed forward. The jagged, heated chunks of metal littering the floor cut the soles of her feet, slicing through the flesh as easily as a laser through a cooked egg. “Clarice? Clarice?” Sierra bellowed. “Was there an accident? Did the console malfunction? Where are you?”
She thrust into the kitchen, latching a hand around the metal doorway and pivoting in. Her bare feet scattered broken smart glass, a few crackles of electricity discharging and sinking over her skin, biting into her ankles and knees.
Her eyes widened as she saw the kitchen.
It looked as if it had been hit with a grenade.
The window that once looked out above the main preparation unit onto the caves behind their house had been shattered inward.
Just like the console in the lounge room, it was smoldering softly, the edges so superheated, they were still red.
In Sierra’s head, the console in the lounge could have been an accident. Maybe some neural wires had been crossed – or maybe there’d been an old booby-trap that hadn’t been triggered until now.
She thought she saw something through the gaping hole in the wall, out toward the enormous darkened cave that sat in the massive cliff face the house was built into.
She shifted forward, white-knuckled hands gripping the edge of the bench as she pushed onto her cut toes, craning her neck—
“Leave,” she heard a raspy voice splutter from down the corridor.
Sierra pushed toward it, moving so quickly, she almost fell over. She skidded, turned, and accidentally shoved her foot down onto a chunk of glass.
It slashed her heel, scattering blood everywhere.
She clenched her teeth together and hissed through a wheeze but didn’t pause to mop up the blood or spare her injury.
She thrust forward into the winding corridor that led to the bedrooms and storerooms of the house.
There was blood – all the way through the corridor, up the walls, even on the ceiling. It covered the small computerized panels that sat alongside each door.
Sierra had seen blood before. Of course she had. She’d grown up on a desert world where people scrounged and fought to live another day.
She’d even killed before. Not because she’d wanted to – because she’d had to. Out in some of the richer finds dotted around the main caves, people fought to pick-over ships. There were gangs – groups who scoured the deserts, claiming finds and aggressively defending them or just killing other scavengers and taking their goods.
So Sierra was no stranger to combat.
Yet the sight of that blood splattered up the walls with its unique red-blue shimmer made her stomach twist and her heart fall through the floor.
She knew that blood.
It belonged to Clarice.
Sierra had never known what race Clarice came from. She knew precious little about the woman’s past.
The day they’d met, Sierra had rescued Clarice from two particularly disreputable mercenaries in town. She’d tended to Clarice’s injuries before that strange pendant around Clarice’s neck had reacted to Sierra.
… The rest was a blur.
The blood covering the floor in front of Sierra was not.
Smoking chunks had been gouged out of the ceiling above her, and as she tilted her head up, she realized it was the handiwork of pulse gunfire.
Sierra knew her way around guns just as well as she did around the desert.
She opened her lips to scream Clarice’s name again. She stopped. She cast her gaze to the side, looking for a weapon.
With her heart hammering in her chest, she ducked into an open room, found a length of metal, and clutched it in her sweaty grip. She inched forward.
She could hear breathing; it was desperate and ragged. She could hear the gurgling sound of somebody trying to scream through a constricted, crushed throat.
With every step, all Sierra wanted to do was rush to that sound, but something told her to stop. It was the same instinct that had been keeping her alive until today.
Ever since the day she’d crash landed on this planet, she’d had… this presence in her mind. It came to her in moments of peril, saving her whenever she couldn’t save herself.
That same instinct now pounded in her head, concentrating at the top of her spine and sending tingling sparks of painful fear rushing through her body.
Just above the sound of ragged breathing was the creak of metallic joints.
Sierra’s mind started to race.
She tried to calculate what kind of force she could be up against.
Pulse guns were rare. Only the most sophisticated scavenger groups in town had them. Though a lot of scavengers were single-entity outfits – as the only person you could be sure would never stab you in the back was yourself – certain groups still managed to technically work together.
Through their combined efforts, they could find better weapons, tech, and armor.
Sierra considered the metal pole she had in her hands. Her grip around it might’ve been as tight as a vice, but it would be nothing compared to a man in full armor.
She needed to upgrade it, now.
Just as she shifted a single step closer toward that sound, she saw the console sparking to her side. It was the weather input control panel for the house. It was always stuffing up, and if it weren’t for Sierra’s years of engineering practice, they would’ve had to replace it with a far more expensive unit years ago.
Now Sierra thanked her lucky stars that she’d been too cheap to buy another one.
Obviously the input panel had taken a glancing blow from a blast. Said blast had lodged into the wall several centimeters to its side, buckling the metal, sending fracture lines through the composite mercari steel.
Not the point. The point was it had gouged a hole out of the side of the console, and inside, it had ruptured one of the power buffers.
She paused. She pressed all of her attention into her hearing, quieting her breath, controlling the movements of her muscles so she didn’t make a sound.
Keeping half of her attention for the panel and half for that rasping breath she heard further into the house, she leaned forward, grabbed the opposite side of the panel, and wrenched it off. Despite the fact it was a good 20 centimeters away from that blast hole in the wall, the metal was still blisteringly hot. She felt the tips of her fingers singeing as she clutched the metal. Gritting her teeth against the pain, she didn’t let the panel fall to the ground and clang. She placed it down carefully, despite the fact she blistered the skin down her fingers and across her thumb.
She returned her attention to the console. It was sparking, little crackles of electricity dancing down the wall and grounding into the floor.
Sierra took risks – you had to on a world like this.
But what she wanted to do next was suicide. Did she have another option, though?
Never relaxing her grip on that pole, with her other hand, she bent her fingers down, grasped her long sleeve, and hooked it over her fingers. It had some insulating properties, and as she pulled it over her thumb, she finally shoved her hand into the panel.
She grabbed the broken circuit buffer.
It sparked everywhere, a few crackles catching along her skin and instantly burning it.
She turned the buffer unit around, and she could have groaned in relief when she confirmed that the mag lock at the bottom was still operational.
She locked the breaker onto the pole. And then Sierra finally had a weapon.
It wasn’t a gun. It would only work at close range. But at least it was something.
She heard another strangled breath emanating from one of the back rooms. There was another gurgle, too, and though she could only pick up a few syllables, it was clear someone was telling her to run.
A tear trailed down Sierra’s cheek as she realized it had to be Clarice. It was that same graceful voice, albeit choked and strangled.
The past few years might’ve been a blur of happiness, despite the fact Sierra had still worked as a scavenger, but they’d done the one thing she’d told herself would never happen. They’d dulled her senses, fooling her into thinking the galaxy could be a nicer place.
There would’ve been a time when Sierra wouldn’t have gone anywhere without a gun at her hip. From today, she would return to that time.
She took another achingly slow step forward, controlling every movement as she placed her barefoot down in a puddle of blood.
Instantly her stomach twisted, bile rising through her throat. She had to control the urge to throw up.
There was another splutter as someone took a strangled breath.
She finally reached the door.
She swallowed. She pivoted to the side, slammed her back against the wall so she wasn’t in line-of-sight of the door, and took a hard breath. She brought up the knuckle of her free hand. She ground it into the open button.
The door beside her swept open.
She heard the unmistakable creak of joints as somebody no doubt brought a gun up. She swore she heard the sound of a finger tightening over a trigger.
“Run,” Clarice managed once more, her voice tortured. It sounded as if she pushed the word out of a completely constricted throat.
A shiver of total fear rushed down Sierra’s back, plunging into her stomach.
It was like an ignition spark. Her legs wanted to jerk away, to follow through with Clarice’s command. Instead, her mind and conscience one out, and she tightened her hands around the pole.
Just to Sierra’s side was the airlock door that led out of the back of the house. It opened onto a winding path that took one into the caves of the canyon beyond.
Sierra had spent many a day touring those caves.
They’d been picked dry by scavengers long ago. They were still fascinating, though, and whenever Sierra needed to think, she headed to them to let the magnificent beauty of those huge underground caverns still her mind. There was something about them….
Something about them that had always felt familiar, she forced herself to finish off that thought.
Sierra often got impressions – completely indescribable flashes or senses that came upon her all at once.
They all had this unquestionable sense of déjà vu.
But here’s the thing. The caves behind the house couldn’t remind her of anything else, as Sierra had never been off-world except for as an infant. So why did she feel as if she’d seen caves like them before? Smaller, more compact and mazelike, but just as quiet and serene?
Now was not the time to allow her mind to be taken by such thoughts. Still locking her attention on the airlock, she came up with a split-second plan.
From the constant creak of metal within the room, she could bet that whoever was holding Clarice hostage was getting fed up waiting for Sierra to appear.
Slicing her gaze down to the control pad just beside the airlock door, Sierra came up with a plan.
“Run, please, run,” she heard the strangled, quiet tones of Clarice. They were so weak. It sounded as if they would be her last words.
Sierra finally moved toward the airlock. Of all of the house’s systems she had to repair, she paid most attention to this door. You needed to control who could enter your house – especially on a planet as dangerous as this. Unwanted visitors aside, it was the unstable weather patterns in this particular section of the canyon that ensured one needed an interplanetary-grade airlock to prevent air loss as the wind howled past.
Sometimes it was hot – blisteringly hot as it brought the near 60-degree heat of the central desert pushing through the valley. Other times it was cold, and it would rake the heat from your skin just as effectively as trailing ice down your back.
It wasn’t the weather outside that she was pinning her hopes on. If she ran out of the airlock and used her electrified rod to ignite the gases that would be released once the door opened, she could have a chance.
Her life didn’t flash before her eyes. There wasn’t the time.
Sierra had been in too many hair-raising, life-threatening situations for anything to change. Or maybe something had changed. Maybe somewhere in the back of her head, something withered, reminding her that the years of peace she’d had at Clarice’s side had been nothing more than an interlude in an otherwise screwed up life.
As the sound of Sierra’s bare feet slapping against the rubble-covered floor rang out, she finally felt vibrations shifting through it, indicating Clarice’s assailant was on the move.
Sierra reached the door, leaping up and jamming her knee into the input panel so she didn’t lose her grip on her weapon. She landed, twisted, and pitched through the door. Rolling down the incline outside, she turned and threw the electrified rod, her aim perfect as it sailed just into the gap in the wall where the seal was formed between the airlock and the door.
It was just in time.
She saw a completely black armor-covered form blasting toward her.
She caught just a snippet of the man’s unusual, sophisticated helmet and the equally unusual gun in his hand before the gas exploded and he was swallowed up by the flames.
She didn’t wait around. She wasn’t foolish enough to catch a face-full of fire as she stared at her attacker. She rolled to the side, out of the path of the explosion, allowing her body to fall several meters down the incline.
By the time the ground stopped shaking and metal stopped spewing out everywhere, her face was buried in the dust, her hands clasped over the back of her skull, her hair knotting around her milk-white fingertips.
Several seconds later, she pushed up, every muscle shaking, sweat glistening on her brow. Her simple grey sand tunic flared around her legs, exposing her reinforced leggings.
A few sparks had caught her pants, and they were smoldering softly, the skin beneath blistering. She grabbed up a handful of dust and threw it over the fabric rather than further burning her hands.
Sierra walked up the incline, twisting her head to both sides, her senses scanning for any further signs of enemy activity.
It was eerily silent. She could feel the yawning maw of the massive cave behind the house. She could smell the musty air, but that was it. There was the constant howl of wind, but carried on it, she couldn’t discern enemy fire or footfall.
She brought up the base of her shaking hand, trying to wipe the sweat from her mouth. But all she did was transfer the dust and dirt over her lips.
Letting the hand drop, she reached the rise and stared in dumbfounded shock.
Though that explosion had been intense, it hadn’t been anywhere near powerful enough to completely obliterate the man’s armor. It’d taken a chunk out of the side of his chest plate, delivering a critical blow to his heart. But the rest was intact. So she had no problem discerning what caliber of armor he wore.
“A Royal Guard?” The words spluttered from her lips in a flutter of dread. Bringing a hand up once more, she collapsed it against her lips, not caring as the skin turned cold and white.
Though she was overcome by the sight of the Royal Guard on her doorstep, she hadn’t forgotten the most important fact – Clarice was still inside. Getting through the smoldering, superheated doorway was another matter, though.
Realizing she couldn’t afford to waste any more time, her mind reeling at the fact this was no simple scavenger attack, Sierra cast around for another weapon. This time she wasn’t lucky enough to manufacture an electro rod out of steel and a stuffed power buffer. She had to settle for a stone instead. She locked it in her sweaty grip, the grit irritating her webbing as she finally tore her gaze off the Royal Guard. She shifted around the side of the house, heading for the broken window in the kitchen. As she reached it, she ran her fingers over the metal ledge. “I’ve never seen a blast like this,” she whispered harshly, instantly comparing the damage to the window against the predicted damage of other weapons she’d seen on Laroka.
Her stomach didn’t feel like it was inside her anymore. It felt as if someone had unwrapped her intestines and tried to choke her with them.
Her breath rasping, she climbed through the window.
There was still some residual heat in the metal, though thankfully most of it had been robbed by the marching wind that kept careening down the side of the building. It caught Sierra’s shoulder length hair, sending it scattering around her face and whipping over her cheeks and neck.
With a grunt, she scrunched up her small but lithe and strong form, vaulting over the crumpled windowpane and landing on the bench. From there, she tucked her knees in, jumped onto the floor, and pushed off at a run.
Something inside her told her to hurry. It wasn’t just at the possibility of what she’d find when she finally got to Clarice. She swore she could hear the sound of a ship overhead, coming in fast.
By the time she reached the door where she’d heard Clarice’s choked voice emanating from, her heart was beating so hard, a cold, fearful sensation began to spread through the top of her chest. It felt like someone had stabbed her in both lungs.
She crammed the base of her palm into the open button on the panel by the door and watched in frantic terror as the metal disappeared into the recess in the wall.
There in front of her was Clarice, her mentor, her only friend, her surrogate mother.
She was in a pile in front of a storage box, her long hair a mass of clotted blood over her bruised and broken face.
Just before Sierra could conclude that while Clarice’s injuries were devastating, they weren’t life-threatening, she picked up the unmistakable scent of singed flesh. Her gaze darted down, and in a moment of terror that would stay with her for the rest of her life, it locked on the chunk missing from Clarice’s side. It was easily 10 centimeters by 10 centimeters.
Sierra sucked in a choked, rattling gasp that felt like it would be the last she would ever breathe. She skidded down to her knees, sliding in and wrapping a hand around Clarice’s shoulder.
Clarice’s face was angled toward the floor, her pale white cheeks almost perfectly matching the white composite metal floor plating. As soon as she felt Sierra’s sudden touch, the woman shivered, her fingers showing strength they shouldn’t have as her body shut down. She shoved a hand under her bleeding form.
“Clarice?” Sierra managed.
It was just in time before Clarice could pull out a strange gun from underneath her and fire right through Sierra’s heart.
Sierra shifted back, keeping a hand clamped on Clarice’s shoulder, even though all her fear-filled mind wanted to do was duck away.
Clarice blearily opened her eyes, and as soon as they locked on Sierra, tears brimmed them, flooding along her eyelashes, trailing down her cold face, and mixing with the blood caking her messy hair. “Sierra,” she said with a vocal tremble that was the equivalent of somebody having a fit. “He didn’t catch you. Thank God. Where is he?”
“If you’re talking about the Royal Guard,” Sierra’s voice shook on the term Royal Guard, another blast of recognition telling her how impossible this situation was, “he’s dead. I managed to kill him in the doorway.” She didn’t bother to go into the details. They weren’t important right now. The color rapidly leaving Clarice’s cheeks was.
Though there was some limited medical technology in this house, short of a sophisticated stasis pod, there was nothing that would save Clarice.
Clarice obviously understood this. Letting the gun clatter onto the ground, she reached forward with her other hand, grasping Sierra’s fingers as they rested on her shoulder.
Clarice used what little strength she still had to clutch Sierra’s hand firmly as the last few traces of her heat transferred into Sierra’s skin.
Sierra shuddered through a breath, more tears spilling out of her eyes, washing down her cheeks, collecting over her chin, and soaking the collar of her sand tunic. “What happened? Who was that man? Are they doing some kind of patrol? Do they think I was involved in the scavenging of the Royal cruiser last year?”
Clarice didn’t say a word. She just looked at Sierra with… dead eyes. It wasn’t that she finally took her last breath – it was that the gaze suggested Clarice was staring into some soulless future. And if her own was about to end, that could only mean that somber gaze was meant for Sierra.
Sierra twitched forward again, bringing her other hand up, resting it under Clarice’s fragile head, and drawing her close as she choked through tears. The fabric of her sand tunic dragged through Sierra’s blood. “What’s going on?”
“They were after me.”
“And I foolishly led them to you.”
“What are you talking about?”
“There’s so much I should’ve told you, from my past to the reason I brought you here when I recognized you in the markets.”
Sierra could barely speak, let alone breathe. Every inhalation was so drowned by emotion, it felt like she was being pushed into some gaping abyss.
Her heart trembled with such fragility, if she had to endure another moment of Clarice’s protracted death, it would just about kill her.
She crouched forward again, pressing her head against Clarice’s. “I’ll try to save you–”
“I’m dying, Sierra. I saw it in your eyes. There’s no time to waste on me. You have to get out of here – run.” Somehow, Clarice’s rapidly dimming eyes blasted with force on the word run. The skin around her eyelids tightened, her cheeks drawing thin like metal sheets.
That word was enough to get Sierra to jerk back. She almost dropped Clarice’s head. “What have you done? Why are they after us? What do you mean there’s so much you should’ve told me?”
“I was once a dream shaman for the Zenith Royal family.”
“What the hell is that?”
“There’s… no time. Just run. But know this – the Royal family now know who you are, and they’ll stop at nothing to get you.”
With every new revelation, it felt like someone was taking an ax to Sierra’s legs and chopping them higher and higher until she was left with nothing more than immovable stumps. “What do you mean the Royal family are after me?”
Clarice clutched her hand tighter. “You’re a dream shaman just like me. You can control Xanta ore,” she said. Somehow, though it looked as if she’d lost so much blood she was nothing more than skin and bones, she managed to bring up her other hand. She fished it down the front of her torn, bloodstained collar, pulling out the intriguing necklace she always wore.
From the first moment Sierra had clapped eyes on it, she’d loved it. Something in it had… called to her
“You need to take this. It’s yours now. But you can’t show anyone.” Clarice coughed, blood splattering out of her lips and splashing over Sierra’s chin.
She didn’t recoil. She wouldn’t allow herself to. She just shifted closer as more tears spilled continuously down her cheeks. “I don’t understand any of this,” she cried.
Clarice managed to lock a shaking hand on Sierra’s face.
Sierra leaned into it.
“Find out about the dream shamans. Secretly. Never let the Royal family know who you are. And never,” she managed to bring up her other hand, pressing the pendant into Sierra’s, “ever show people you can interact with xanta ore.”
Sierra was now sobbing so hard, she couldn’t push her words out. She’d seen so much death, and yet she’d never had someone this close to her die. “What is that pendant?”
“Your redemption and your damnation. Never admit to anyone that you have it. Never reveal it, but keep it close.”
“Run. Royal Guards never work alone. Flee through the caves. From there, head across to Bentai City.”
“What about Cluster? It’s closer.”
“Because the guards will be looking for you there.”
Fear now slackened Sierra’s cheeks, drawing down her face, making it feel as if gravity had taken hold and would never let go again. She took a shaking breath. She opened her mouth.
Clarice smiled. There was something final about it, something truly weak about the way her lips twitched.
Sierra doubled forward, gasping through a breath that shook her chest. “Please don’t leave me. Please—”
“Promise me one thing – if you start to remember your king, tell no one.”
With that cryptic message, Clarice died. Right there in Sierra’s arms.
For several moments, Sierra did nothing. Her mind detached from the situation, fleetingly thinking of her plans for tomorrow. Then, like a knife carving through her heart, she felt pain stabbing into her chest.
She bent forward, hugging Clarice’s limp form.
Though the rest of her senses became numb with grief, her hearing still worked, and she swore she heard the uneven rumble of a vessel coming in low above.
It forced her to jerk up, her sense of self-preservation kicking in. She brought up her hand, pressed it against her lips to muffle the sound of her panting breath, and paused.
She caught that sound again.
Sure enough, it was louder, closer.
Though it was the hardest thing she’d ever done in her life, she pushed up, every single muscle shaking.
A part of her just wanted to collapse forward and hug Clarice until the guards caught up with her. The rest of her – that deep intuition that had warned her something was wrong earlier – forced her forward.
She began to stagger away, but then she stopped, that pendant falling out of Clarice’s grasp and clanging onto the floor.
It grabbed her attention.
She hesitated, her fingers pulsing in and out before she swept forward and picked it up.
Instantly the orb reacted to her. It was this tiny circular, perfectly rounded pendant, and just as had happened all those years ago when she’d chanced upon Clarice in the markets, the metal moved as she touched it. It began to spin. Rather than let it distract her, she looped it around her neck, pulling her sweaty hair out of the chain. She pressed it against her chest, letting her hand push hard against it for several seconds before she forced her fingers to fall.
She spun toward the door. Before she could leave, she saw Clarice’s gun. She hesitated and picked it up. In an instant, she realized her first impression was correct. Though Sierra had seen many guns in her life, she didn’t recognize this strange design. It was too sleek, the barrel at the back letting out a continuous but faint green glow. It was one that left light trailing in the air curiously as she grasped it close, her eyes wide.
With the gun in hand, she turned from Clarice, closed her eyes as the grief got to her once more, then pushed out the door.
By the time she reached the blasted-apart remains of the airlock door, the metal had already cooled.
She could now definitely discern the sounds of a ship coming in overhead.
She remained there, frozen in wide-eyed fright, her hearing working as hard as it could as she attempted to discern where the ship would land. Just before she could twitch back and take her chances through the house and out the front door, she convinced herself the ship had landed along the flat path that led up the winding steps to the front door. Hell, she thought she could hear the sound of a massive, shielded vessel crushing her sandhopper.
That made her mind up for her. She barreled out of the door, the wind combining with the downward draft of the vessel overhead and flattening her hair over her shoulders. It whipped around her neck, smarting the skin but doing no more damage than her tortured body had already endured.
She pushed forward, staying close to the side of the house and the sheer rockface it was built into.
Every few seconds, she would pause, angling her head over her shoulder, waiting to hear if anyone was following her.
She reached an exposed section that led after approximately 200 meters to the mouth of the cave. She pressed a breath into her teeth, closed her eyes, and waited. She pushed off when she sensed an opportunity, but something snagged her gut and stopped her. It was the strangest sensation she’d ever experienced. It didn’t come from her body – she swore it didn’t come from her body. It came from… her shoulder? Could she feel a hand – a disembodied grip weighing down on her shoulder, begging her not to move? Or did it come from her stomach? Could she sense arms wrapping around her middle, holding her in place? Could she even hear whispered words by her face – a gentle but quickly mouthed, “No, not yet.”
Her body froze in utter fear at the otherworldly sensation. Then it broke. Where something had held her back seconds before, now it pushed her, its grip firm and final.
She rocketed forward, taking her chance just as she swore she heard the door to the front of the house being blasted in by pulse fire.
As her gaze narrowed in on the protected mouth of the cave, her life flashed faster and faster in front of her eyes until finally, finally she reached it.
She slid down to her knees, rolling past a large boulder that protected the mouth of the cave. Fortunately her pants were sturdy enough that they protected her knees and legs from the brunt of the move. Her adrenaline and fear did the rest. She rocketed up, pushing further into the cave just as she swore she picked up the sound of shouts from her house.
Now she was in the cave, she was hardly safe, and it wouldn’t take those Royal Guards long to figure out where she’d gone, but at least she had the advantage. She’d grown up with these caves. She knew every twist and turn. If you didn’t, you could easily find yourself stepping on an unsteady section of stone and tumbling into the pitiless ravines below.
Sierra ran. And now she’d started, she would never stop. In a few short minutes, her life had broken. It would take the rest of her life to fix it.
The rest of A Time of Kings Episode One is currently available from most ebook retailers.