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Star Wars: Treasures of the Force – Ch 33

The stop over in Velkos Eridini was supposed to have been a quiet chance for the Goldrunner’s crew to catch their breath. Velkos Eridini was also supposed to be abandoned.

“Unidentified freighter please transmit your transponder codes now and maintain your current orbital distance. Failure to comply with either of these directives will be place you in violation of the terms of the Covenant of Landfall,” the prim voice of a young human male said.

“What’s the Covenant of Landfall?” Sali asked.

“Ugh,” Ayli groaned. “Not them.”

“Can’t really be anyone else,” Zindiana said. “Not out here.”

“Who’s them?” Nix asked, not sensing anything amiss from the voice on the comms, but well aware that ‘not dangerous in the Force’s estimation’ and ‘not a problem’ were vastly different things.

“The Preservation League,” Ayli said. “They work out here on the rim mostly, but they’ve claimed a few worlds in towards to the core too.”

“They lay legal claim to abandoned or ruined worlds,” Zindiana said. “On the surface it’s for a noble cause, they’re focus is on restoring the worlds to a habitable state through slow natural processes.”

“And those natural processes involve fertilizing the ground with the blood of countless enemies?” Sali asked.

“No. Worse,” Ayli said.

“The restoration of the planets is above board – sort of,” Zindiana said. “Their techniques are simple, involving mostly manual labor by sapients and the long time spans needed for ecosystems to achieve the equilibrium the Preservation League desires. The problem lies in how they arrange for the manual labor to be performed.”

“Slaves?” Nix guessed, though that didn’t seem quite right. 

“Criminals,” Ayli said. “They buy criminals and make them work off their sentences.”

“That sounds disturbingly above board,” Sali said. “What’s the problem?”

“The problem comes from the fact that they don’t trust their workforce out of the range of a stun stick,” Zindiana said. “They put everyone in thermo-collars, have one security droid for every ‘worker’, and a rulebook so long that even the droids can’t remember it.”

“And whenever you do anything with them, you have to do it exactly how their rulebook says.”

“Or what?” Sali asked.

“Or the thermo-collars blow up,” Zindiana said, miming an explosion at neck level.

“How is that allowed?” Nix asked, knowing she shouldn’t be surprised given the galaxy she lived in, but still disturbed by how open and accepted the arrangement seemed to be.

“Not a lot of laws out here on the Rim,” Zindiana said.

“And even in the core, criminals convicted of galactic crimes lose a lot of their rights,” Ayli said. “Also, the ‘workers’ technically volunteer for that treatment.”

“Oh sure, because people facing time in a galactic prison aren’t under any coercion there at all,” Sali said.

“Unidentified freighter, this is your second warning,” the man said. “The third warning will come in the form of disabling your ship and selling it for parts to pay for your trial and incarceration. Should you wish to join the Preservation League, I am required to instruct you that a criminal conviction is not required and that applicants with a clean history in both local and New Republic jurisdictions are eligible for special signing bonuses which are forfeit should hostile actions be taken against Preservation League holdings.”

There was a trace of forced cheer in the man’s voice but Nix thought she heard a trace of genuine amusement there as well.

“You people are the worst,” Ayli said after hitting the transmit button, “Transponder codes sent and orbit locked in.”

“I could blow them up,” Goldie said, after, Nix noticed, the transmit light switched off.

“Tempting,” Ayli said.

“But probably not a good idea,” Zindiana said.

“They’ve only got the one ship up here with us,” Goldie said. “I’m pretty sure I can hole their jump drive from here and even if we miss, we’d be able to jump before they got in range to do any real damage.”

“Do you really want to kill everyone on board that ship?” Nix asked without admonishment.

“That depends on whether they plan to stick thermo-collars on your necks or not,” Goldie said.

“That’s fair,” Sali said.

And it wasn’t at all worrisome that the fledgling machine intelligence was calibrating its moral compass to be in line with a pirate queen.

“They won’t be putting collars on us,” Zindiana said. “They’d have to purchase us first.”

“Aren’t you technically an escaped fugitive?” Sali asked.

“Technically we all are,” Zindiana said. “In practice though, the Preservationists only deal with criminals convicted in galactic courts. Local laws are too varied to be sure the convictions will be honored in other jurisdictions.”

“We’ll need somewhere we can set down to make repairs,” Nix said. “Are they going to let us land?”

“Depends what state the planet is in,” Zindiana said.

“And how much we’re willing to pay,” Ayli said.

“I don’t recall any of us being terrible flush with funds at the moment,” Nix said.

“Speak for yourself,” Sali said. “I’ve got a nice little hoard back on Calerpris.”

“Do you?” Ayli asked, as though Sali was forgetting a small but vital factoid.

“Okay, I had a nice little hoard,” Sali said. “Now a whole bunch of other people have my hoard. Doesn’t change that it’s still my hoard.”

“That hoard sucked and you know it,” Nix said. “Each coin you had was costing you two coins worth of sanity and three coins worth of sleep.”

“I have no idea what you mean,” Sali said, turning away to stare at a random point on the readout that was showing the ships current waste reclamation levels.

“It doesn’t matter,” Ayli said. “We’re not paying them. Not even if a room full of credits plopped into our hold from out of nowhere.”

“Paying them wouldn’t make things easier?” Nix asked, imagining some of the loan sharks former captains had been in debt too. Payments were always demanded and never enough.

“It’s never a direct payment with them,” Zindiana said. “It’s always a donation.”

“And then you’re on their donor rolls. For life,” Ayli said. “Which they advertise to everyone.”

“They have a lot of other methods of profiting off an ‘official business relationship’ as well. Including things like selling your current location, no matter where that is,” Zindiana said.

“And framing you for crimes so they can seize your assets and buy you into their workforce,” Ayli said.

“They sound just lovely,” Nix said.

“I’ve got the shot now,” Goldie said. “I can put a meter wide hole through their jump drive and their ion drive. They won’t be able to do anything.”

“They’re not the ones we need to worry about,” Zindiana said. “Ping out a scan for ion trails around the moons.”

A moment later the long distance scanners flashed with over a dozen new “potential” contacts.

“They don’t operate alone, but they do lay traps for raiders,” Zindiana said.

“That’s a lot of ships,” Sali said. “Oh is that a Providence-class Destroyer?”

“Refurbished most likely,” Zindiana said. “They made out well in the bidding on the Trade Federation’s assets after the Galactic Civil War ended.”

The inter-ships comms crackled to life again before Nix could ask how a group like the Preservationists had been tolerated by both the Empire and the New Republic.

“Welcome to the Velkos Eiridini system Goldrunner. My name is Thirty-Two XJ7. What reason would you like recorded for your visit to this controlled territory?”

“Refuge,” Zindiana said before anyone else could speak up.

“No!” Ayli groaned after muting the comms. “Now they’re going to want a full witness statement.”

“Oh, refuge? Today might be interesting after all,” Thirty-two said. “Would you like to fill out the short form for temporary lodging or the long form for a permanent residence?”

“Neither,” Ayli said. “We’re just passing through.”

“That’s wonderful. Travel through controlled space requires a visa and identity registration from one of the participating planetary governments. If you have those items duly notarized, you can, of course, transmit them now and I would be happy to forward them on to our customs review board. If not, we can start with the Declaration of Identity forms for all sapients on board or who have traveled in your company in the last seven standard rotations.”

Nix could sense that Thirty-two was enjoying this. Not because he enjoyed paperwork, or held any love for the system he worked under. That sort of joy would have held a different weight to it. No, from what Nix could tell, Thirty-two was simply delighted that someone else was going to have to experience the bureaucratic misery which composed the majority of his life.

“Transmitting Visas and Identity registrations now,” Goldie said on the inter-ship comms. “We have them in Seventh Core format, with the latest security patches as of the scheduled update cycle for this annum. If you require a newer security level, please advise.”

Ayli muted the comms again. “What did you just send him?”

“The new Republic has specs on the credentials he asked for. So I generated some for you. Well, not your real identities, but unless they ansible back to Coruscant for confirmation, the signatures I used should stand up,” Goldie said.

“And if they do check with the central banks you impersonated?” Zindiana asked.

“Oh, then the game is definitely up,” Goldie said. “We can claim corruption in the transmission except that there’s no chance a corrupt security seal would have the right self-verification information.”

“You had Visa’s ready for this system?” Thirty-two asked. “And you’re seeking refuge here?”

It wasn’t that he’d found fault in the documents. Not yet at least. He wasn’t even unhappy that they had the documents on hand. Quite the contrary. He sounded oddly pleased instead.

“Yes,” Ayli said, and left it at that.

“And you are confident these will pass our Customs Review Board?” Thirty-two asked.

“They’re legit, so unless your Customs board is a glitched out astromech droid or something, this is just wasting our time,” Ayli said, annoyance drowning the lie. 

The Force wrapped itself around her words, amplifying the certainty she put into them so that they sounded convincing even to Nix, who knew for a fact where the lie was.

“Oh,” Thirty-two said as though noticing Force embellishment the words carried. “Well in that case you should be able to leave orbit in six standard hours, once the Review Board has validated the files.”

“Six standard hours is enough time to contact Coruscant isn’t it?” Sali asked off-mic.

“It is. And they will,” Zindiana said. “It’s their best bet for making a profit. And for taking us on as ‘untrusted contractors’ since falsifying galactic identity information is a galactic crime.”

“I don’t think Thirty-two is interested in a profit,” Nix said. “He’s looking for something else.”

“He probably wants help escaping,” Zindiana said. “What he wants is sadly irrelevant though since it’s the Preservationist rulebook, and the security droids who are enforcing it, that are calling the shots.”

“Well, we’ve got six hours to figure out how to fix that then,” Goldie said. “Or we can fight.”

“You have a crazy ship here if it wants to fight a Providence-class Destoyer,” Sali said.

“Oh that one, I’m planning to run away from,” Goldie said. “Mom did not give me shield sufficient to repel that kind of firepower.”

“Ah, someone who acknowledges their own limitations,” Zindiana said. “That’s a breath of fresh air.”

“Maybe she’s right,” Nix said, the beginning of a plan starting to form as a collection of disconnected pieces in her mind.

“You think we should fight too?” Ayli asked. “No, wait, you’ve got something else in mind. Something sneaky.”

“How can you tell?” Nix asked, wondering if Ayli was growing more sensitive in understanding the Force.

“You’ve got a gleam in your eye that’s just like when we blasted off from Calerpris,” Ayli said.

“I hate this plan already,” Sali said.

“You hate it now,” Nix said. “If it works out though, I think you’re absolutely going to love it, Admiral.”

Star Wars: Treasures of the Force – Ch 26

Darsus did not trust them. He was an fool but not quite that big of a fool it seemed.

Which was perfect.

If he’d been more reasonable then he wouldn’t have walked into Nix’s trap.

Whatever that was.

Ayli was going almost entirely on faith that there was a plan, a trap, or some scheme in Nix’s mind to deal with the problem Darsus, or more precisely Darsus’s six armed retainers, posed. They hadn’t had time to work out any contingencies for a situation like this, in part because it was such a perfectly stupid situation that only Darsus could have been responsible for it.

Kicking herself for not thinking of that wasn’t going to help Ayli at all though, especially not when she had Ravas ghosting around ready to snipe at whatever real or imagined failings she could find. 

Oddly however, Ravas was being quiet. 

Ayli cast a quick glance over at the ghost and found her watching Nix in turn.

Nix was humming a jaunty little tune as she tinkered with a small rod with a trio of glowing lights on its end.

It wasn’t a blaster. Ayli was familiar with a lot of different kit-bashed blaster designs and Nix’s little device was lacking a bunch of key elements – like a focusing muzzle to start with.

“What in the hells is that?” Darsus asked, shoving past one of his bodyguards and into near perfect range for a lightsaber swipe to the throat.

Or she could just shoot him. For as flashy as the red lightsaber was there was still a lot to recommend a good old blaster.

Either option would get her or Nix shot full of blaster bolts from the bodyguards of course. Unless Ayli was fast enough. Which she suspected she might be. 

Or she could let Ravas ‘help’ her. She’d kept the ghost out so far, but she could sense beyond the boundary of that choice the power that waited for her if she was able to draw on Ravas’ training and Ravas could work with a real living being’s connection to the Force.

Ayli wasn’t that desperate yet though. 

She would never be that desperate. She swore that to herself. Or was it a promise? A hope? It didn’t matter. She wasn’t going to give herself over to some millenia old witch. She’d fought too hard for the life she had to lose it to anyone or anything at this point.

Which was not a good sign for Darsus or his goons.

And Nix would know that. So what did she have in mind?

“As you can see, the path forward has a pretty simply impediment,” Nix said as they all gathered in the small entryway.

In front of them the atmo-barrier flickered and popped, holding the tide of beyond-freezing coolant at bay like an aquarium’s viewing window. Bubbles and contaminants fizzed in the flood, rendering it effectively opaque, but Ayli had seen how long the corridor was so had a sense of  the sheer volume of coolant they were looking at.

“So find a different door to go in,” Darsus said.

“There isn’t one,” Nix said. “I checked the schematics on the terminal over there,” she gestured to a small pad beside the door. “This place is built with one opening in or out. I guess they wanted to be able to defend it easily, and, you know, kill people who were too weak to pass the test.”

“What test?” Darsus demanded, shaking his blaster, though not yet at Nix.

Lucky for him that meant he got to keep his hand attached to his wrist.

“This is the site of the Second Trial, right?” Nix said. “Well, here it is. The test is ‘get past enough liquid nitrogen to freeze a herd of banthas.”

“That’s impossible,” Darsus said.

“Not if you take your time,” Ayli said. “When it warms up it evaporates.”

“How long does that take?” Darsus asked.

“Could vary a lot,” Nix said. “I think this one would take at least a week, and that’s with the trap being designed to be cleared out. I guess there might be an option to clear it in a day or maybe even an hour, but the controls for that are definitely on the other end of the corridor.”

“We’re not waiting a week,” Darsus said.

“I agree. We’ve got a better option after all.” She brandished the device she’d been working on. “Unlike the people they brought here when the Cult was a public thing, we don’t have to care about passing their tests how they intended us to. All we need to do is get through using whatever tools we can.”

“That thing?” Darsus asked, pointing towards Nix’s device with his blaster. That was almost close enough to justify separating his arm from his  hand but Ayli held her ground. 

Nix was working, interrupting would be rude. 

And probably fatal.

“The actual applicants wouldn’t have had personal forcefield generators. All we need to do is push the liquid nitrogen away as we walk though and we’ll be fine.”

“Wait, that’s a forcefield generator?” Darsus asked, looking to his goons for confirmation.

“Well, not a full one,” Nix said. “The power drain for a real forcefield generator would mean something this size could only put one up for about a tenth of a second. I don’t need to screen high intensity things like blaster fire though. Just the liquid gas. Which is much easier.”

“Why did you have something like that on you?” Darsus asked, eyes narrowed in suspicion. 

“I didn’t. I built it,” Nix said. “Well, cobbled it together. I had the parts in my toolkit but it took a little work to make it so they would work how I want. Should work. I haven’t tested it yet. Might need a few tweaks.”

“Should work?” Darsus asked.

“Will work,” Nix said. “This will definitely work. A few tweaks and it will be safe as anything. We should all be able to fit inside the bubble it makes with no problem. We’ll want to be careful about touching the walls of course, those will be super cold, and disrupting them could pop the bubble, but that’s simple avoid, so we will definitely be safe.”

“What happens if the power on that thing dies,” Darsus asked.

“It’s not going to lose power. I build good stuff,” Nix said.

“But what if it does?”

“Well, that’ll be fine too. We won’t feel a thing. We’ll freeze and probably crumble to ice cubes faster than our nerves can process the signal.” Nix didn’t look concerned about that. In fact it sounded like that would be an excellent result in her book.

“We’re staying here,” Darsus said. 

“You don’t have to,” Nix said. “There’ll be a lot more of the complex to explore once we pass the Trial.”

“Only one entrance and exit though right?” Darsus said.

“Yeah. They were pretty paranoid I guess. I mean we could try to blast a new entrance in but until we know where the coordinates for the Third Trial are kept, there’s a decent chance we’d be erasing them and making the real treasure impossible to find.”

“We’re staying here,” Darsus said. “If you’re not back in an hour, we blast the place to rubble and let the bots work out how to put it back together.”

“They don’t work like…you know what, never mind,” Ayli said, forcing down her irritation before it could ruin the scheme Nix so clearly had in mind.

“Can we have two hours?” Nix asked. “There might be a lot to explore in there. And I might have to build a different gadget for the next trap.”

“One hour. That’s it,” Darsus said.

“We’ll just have to work quick then, I guess,” Nix said. “Suppose we better get to it. Sixty minutes. Sheesh. I better make sure this thing doesn’t overheat.”

With that she stepped forward and raised the device she was carrying to be level with her eye line. Beyond the atmo-barrier, a dimple formed in the coolant.

“Let’s get going,” Nix said, holding her free hand out for Ayli to take.”

“No,” Darsus said. “She stays here.”

“I need someone to come with me,” Nix said. “They’ll need to hold this device while I work on the control mechanism at the other end of the hall. It’s simple work, so maybe you want to do it instead?”

“I wouldn’t mind staying here where it’s nice and warm,” Ayli said.

She watched the conflicting emotions war in Darsus before he finally came to a decision.

“Fine. You go. But you’ve got an hour. And the clock is already counting down.”

Ayli took Nix’s hand and let herself be pulled into the bubble that formed in the coolant.

They’d taken no more than two steps into the flood before Nix stopped.

“Do me a favor,” she said. “Stab the atmo-barrier’s projectors here and here.” She gestured to two spots on opposite sides of the corridor at about head height.

Ayli flicked the red blade to life with glee in her heart and struck exactly where Nix had indicated.

The sound from beyond the barrier was delightful.

It didn’t fail all at once. Instead it began to flicker and spring leaks. One after the other. Each jetting out a stream of super-cooled liquid. Darsus got clipped by one in some unfortunately non-fatal part of the anatomy and began swearing and calling for his goons to open fire.

Which they did.

The blaster bolts were not especially effective against the meter or so of coolant shielding Nix and Ayli, but they were quite excellent at accelerating the damage to the atmo-barrier.

“Think they’ll run in time?” Nix asked. “I was figuring they would but now I’m not so sure.”

Darsus’s scream of panic rose over the sound of blasterfire and began rapidly retreating.

“Yeah, they’ll be fine,” Ayli said. “How long will your gadget really hold out though?”

“Oh? This?” Nix said and stuffed the device back into her waistbelt. “This is a loop verifier with a grade B cycle adjuster. Looks pretty though right?”

“Wait. What’s making this bubble then?” Ayli asked.

“I am,” Nix said. “And we should get going because I’d really like to be gone by the time they come back here to see what happened to us.”

“How are you…?” Nix started to ask.

“She’s trained with someone,” Ravas said.

“Yeah. You two,” Nix said.

“That’s not possible,” Ravas said. “You have skills it would take a Jedi a lifetime to master.”

“Maybe they were really lazy?” Nix said. “Or there were other things they had to work on? I’ve been moving stuff like engine components around for a long time though. This isn’t all that different. Except for the part where I don’t have to touch the things I’m moving.”

“No. The Force…you can’t be that strong in the Force. You don’t have any anger to drive your power.”

If Ayli didn’t know better, she would have sworn that Ravas was having a crisis of faith right in front of her.

But shouldn’t ghosts be beyond that sort of thing?

“I don’t need anger. I’m not making this happen,” Nix said. “The Force wants this as much as I do. I’m just…I don’t know, here to help it focus in this moment? Wait, do you have to demand that it do things for you?”

“That’s what focus is!” Ravas said. “Honing your mind to project your will into the world. Making the Force obey your desires. Having the strength to claim the power to make things as you wish them to be.”

“Take my hand,” Nix said, offering her other hand to the ghost. “Feel what I feel. It’s not like that at all. It doesn’t have to be. It’s not a battle. It’s a partnership. We’re together. Ayli and me. And the Force too. Even you. All of us.”

Ravas looked at Nix’s hand like it was the most venomous of serpents, the stark terror of recognition repelling her with the force of a gale wind. 

“You’ve spoken to her,” Ravas said, fear drenching every word, and vanished completely.

Star Wars: Treasures of the Force – Ch 10

It was possible to track people through hyperspace. Possible however was not the same as probable, or likely, or even necessarily something any old security force could do. The law enforcement corporation which serviced the Librarium Nocti for example lacked the capacity to track anything beyond the boundaries of the local star system, and it’s ability to monitor things outside a fairly narrow margin of the Library’s orbital path was limited at best. Despite knowing all that Ayli wasn’t quite able to relax until a few minutes after they jumped to lightspeed and the comforting blue swirl of hyperspace buffered them from pursuit with more distance than a sublight engine could cover in its operating lifetime.

“How’s our new guest doing?” she asked over the ship’s comm as she relaxed back into the pilot’s seat.

“According to my scans, she’s fine. Nix and Captain Saliandris are still working on the hatch to her pod though,” Goldie said in her accented voice.

“Need me to come down there and blast it open?” Ayli asked, relishing the idea of solving a problem which was stumping both an expert at infiltration and a master engineer in such a simple manner.

“Do you think I couldn’t have done that already?” Sali called back.

“You don’t have a blaster,” Ayli said and immediately began questioning that statement.

“Keep on thinking that,” Sali said. “I’m sure it will help you sleep at night. With my ex-girlfriend.”

Ayli flushed at that last bit. She thought she and Nix had been careful not to expose their relationship, whatever it was, to Sali out of concern over how she might take it.

The idea that Sali almost certainly had one or more blasters on her person and hadn’t yet shot either of them suggested she was taking the news of Nix’s new status as ‘unavailable’ on the better end of the spectrum. 

Antagonizing her still seemed like a bad idea though.

“We’re trying to keep the hatch intact she we can use the pod later if we need,” Nix said, grunting as she fiddled with some part of the mechanism Ayli guessed.

“No need to rush. I’ve been in here for days now, a bit longer won’t kill me,” Sister Zindiana said. “If you happen to have any real food though, I wouldn’t say no. The breadstuff they give prisoners gets bland quick even if it’s ‘good’ for us in theory.”

“No worries, I got ya covered there,” Goldie said.

“Wait, you do? Since when can you make food?” Ayli asked her ship.

“Nix added a few extra data stores to my memory banks,” Goldie said.

“Okay, so you know some recipes. How do you actually make them?” Ayli asked.

“I have the waldos do it,” Goldie said.

“The what?”

“These guys,” Goldie said as a small box with four limbs dropped down into the console in front of Ayli.

To her credit, Ayli felt, she did not shoot the thing on sight. In part that was because someone (Ayli had a wife with either an excellent or terrible sense of humor) had placed tiny video displays on them which were showing the most adorably silly pair of eyes they could manage.

“We have small droids on the ship now too?” Ayli asked.

“Not droids, just waldos,” Nix said, still grunting against the hatch’s mechanism.

“Where did you get…” Sali started to ask before cutting herself off. “Did you steal my micro-repair droids?”

“No! Of course not,” Nix said, pausing in her labor. “Goldie didn’t need droids. She just needed bot bodies she could operate remotely.”

“So you lobotomized my micro-repair droids?” Sali asked. “No, wait, you wouldn’t that.”

“Of course not,” Nix said. “I had the repair droids fashion back up bodies for themselves and left out the central processing units. The waldos don’t have any sentience of their own. They’re just remote controlled bots that Goldie can use to do simple tasks.”

“Goldie is an advanced droid?” Zindiana asked.

“I’m the ship,” Goldie said. “Nice to meet you Sister.”

“I don’t think I’ve ever met a ship with this level of interactivity?” Zindiana said.

“Yeah, I’m built different,” Goldie said.

“You never planned to let me have this ship, did you?” Sali asked.

“She’s not someone anyone can really have,” Nix said. “She’s her own person now.”

“That you made,” Sali said.

“I provided the parts, or, well, you provided the parts, most of them. I just connected them all together. Goldie pretty much built herself from there.”

“Given yourself more credit than that Mom,” Goldie said. “You gave me all the learning packs I needed to build my core from, and you kept me from tipping over into catastrophic self-reference loops more than once.”

“Yeah, but that’s easy stuff,” Nix said. “You did all the hard work.”

“You know, I’m not the engineer you are, but I’ve worked with droid makers. Raising a new droid brain, or whatever they call it, that’s not something many people can do. Usually they just copy them from one of the standard templates,” Sali said. “Of course then you get idiots like my body guards. Always loyal, and never thinking for themselves.”

“A lot of people prefer the loyal bit, but it puts some hard limits on what the droids can do,” Nix said.

“Doesn’t that mean that Goldie could simply open all the hatches and let us choke on vacuum if we do something she doesn’t like?” Zindiana asked.

“Yep,” Nix said. “Ayli could do the same thing from the pilot’s cabin. And I could too, if you let me near engineering. Just because we can be a danger to each other doesn’t mean fear needs to guide our actions. If Goldie’s upset with something we ask her to do, she can always just talk to us about it. You know, like people do.”

“In my experience, people are more likely to space you than talk to you if they’re upset about something, but I’ll concede that I may not have associated with the best people out there,” Sali said.

“You and me both,” Zindiana agreed.

Ayli could almost hear the stupid grin that broke out over Sali’s face even though they were at opposite ends of the ship and Sali didn’t say a word.

“Good news then, so far I like the people I’ve been associating with. Nix gave me all kinds of toys and Other Mom’s a better pilot than I am, so I’d like to keep her too,” Goldie said.

“Other Mom?” Ayli asked.

“Would you prefer Second Mom? I thought that sounded a little too much like Second Best Mom, which, I don’t want to choose sides there,” Goldie said.

Ayli shook her head.

She could not possibly have foreseen where the decision to go to Canto Blight to blow off some steam would have led to and, for the life of her, she couldn’t imagine where it was going to lead.

‘Aren’t I too young to be a Mom?’ she wondered. Technically the answer was no, she’d been an adult Twi’lek for more than a decade, but kids hadn’t ever been part of her plans. Or long term relationships for that matter.

So why wasn’t she hating this one?

“We got it!” Nix announced with glee, derailing Ayli’s thoughts.

“So it’s safe to come out now?” Zindiana asked.

“Well, there are kidnappers, and pirates, and thieves out here,” Sali said, with what was technically complete honesty.

“Excellent, those are my kind of people,” Zindiana said.

“Don’t forget historians,” Ayli said. “There was a method behind this madness.”

“Ah yes, the Children of the Storm and the Temple of Eternal Self Delusion,” Zindiana said.

“The place really is bogus then I take it?” Sali asked.

“The cult was real. Their hidden temple was probably real too. The offer of Eternal Life, or Eternal Youth, or Eternal Anything though? Let’s just say it’s real easy to sell people on things that they’re willing to wait till the end of their life to see come true.” Zindiana said.

“Hah! I knew this was one of Wensha’s usual bad deals,” Sali said.

“Ask her about the Phrik before you start gloating too much you pirate,” Ayli said.

“There is that,” Zindiana said. “The Temple of Eternal Disappointment was probably a scam but scams can still make a lot of money. In this case they were pulling in so many donations they could afford to mint their own coins out of Phrik, and statues, and other nicely portable objects of high value.”

“Why would they do that?” Nix asked. “I mean apart from being able to load up a bunch of money and blast out of there once people starting asking too many questions?”

“Would you need another reason?” Sali asked. “Wait, I suppose you would. Normal criminals though would be fine with that.”

“They would but the Children weren’t normal criminals,” Zindiana said. “They had Grand Plans, and Grand Plans require buying off the sort of people for whom simple credit transfers are a bit too gauche.”

“People like who?” Sali asked.

“Planetary governors. Fleet Admirals. The Galactic Senate. They had the whole ‘Rule the Galaxy’ thing going on that a lot of these cults buy into,” Zindiana said.

“That takes more than a few coins and some art,” Sali said, speaking with the voice of experience.

“Hence why they had a hidden temple to stockpile it all,” Zindiana said. “Or at least that’s one theory. The problem is no one’s ever found it, and there’ve been plenty of people who’ve looked for it.”

“Yeah, but none of them were looking in the right place,” Ayli said, stepping into the cargo hold.

“And you are?” Sali asked.

“Not yet. Not until the good Sister and I compare notes.”

“I’m not sure I’ll be much help there. You asked where the Children’s artifacts I know of come from, and I can point you to about a dozen sites in the Kalmorvis system, with one or two more in the Glaxus and Fardray systems that are nearby to it, but those systems have been scanned down to the micrometer looking for any traces of the Temple with no luck to be had.”

“Yeah, because the Temple’s definitely not in those systems,” Ayli said. “Give me about an hour with the star charts and I’ll be able to tell you exactly where it is though, or at least what system it’s in.”

“How?” Sali asked.

“Triangulation!” Nix said.

“I don’t follow either,” Zindiana said.

“Picture you’re a paranoid cult leader whose fleecing the masses and you’ve got a giant horde of money in various forms to safeguard,” Ayli said.

“I’m liking this picture so far,” Sali said, for which Nix bapped her in the arm.

“Do you, a.) do business out of the world your hidden store of wealth is secured on, or b.) do business out of a fake front, or c.) do business out of several fake fronts?”

“I’m liking option C,” Zindiana said. “Especially because it make it almost impossible to tell where my actual storehouse is kept.”

“Yep, but someone might still work it out. Stumble on your system and then what?” Ayli asked.

“Then you kill them and dump the body into the nearest star,” Sali said.

“And if they have more ships than you?” Ayli asked.

“Then they kill you and dump you into the nearest star,” Sali said, apparently long resigned to such a fate.

“Which is an outcome even paranoid cult leaders would prefer to avoid,” Ayli said. “So you make sure no one can find you.”

“By never leaving the star system?” Sali asked.

“Nope, by making the star system not exist,” Ayli said.

“That’s a tall order even for a really rich cult,” Zindiana said.

“Is it? If you’ve got ‘bribe senators’ level of wealth, how pricey do you think a low level tech tending the Galactic Survey Registry would be to buy out?” Ayli asked.

“Oh!” Nix said, catching on to what Ayli was saying as the missing piece of the puzzle.

“The Galactic Survey can’t be hacked though. People have tried it,” Sali said.

“And lots of them have succeeded,” Ayli said. “The Survey goes to a lot of trouble to keep that secret, and to be fair, they do catch most of the mistake, eventually. The problem is that sometimes hyperspace routes do change, and some of the old survey results were corrupted when they were taken, so there are legitimate problems that have to be addressed, stars that aren’t really there and need to be deleted for example.”

“How does this help us then?” Zindiana asked.

“Like I said, give me about an hour and I’ll have the system we need. It’ll be one with route to the systems where we know artifacts were found, but which was deleted sometime around when the Children needed to setup the treasure hoard. They tried to hide it, but nothing stays hidden forever.”

That was a sentiment she would regret being right about.

Star Wars: Treasures of the Force – Ch 9

Getting into solitary confinement was remarkable easy from Nix’s point of view. She’d always pictured jails as being warrens of impenetrable security with the prisoners desperate to escape. On Librarium Nocti though, the orbital prison cells were clean, well lit, and relatively spacious (at least compared to some of the engine compartments Nix had called ‘home’).

As for prisoner’s being desperate to escape, there was the slight matter that each of the orbital cells was an isolated container with nothing but cold, hard vacuum outside which did a good job of dissuading the inmates from trying to burst free of their confines.

“Why is she in solitary?” Ayli asked the jailer who was ferrying them over to the cell from the prisons main facility.

“She got creative with the head of the Underwile Group,” the jailer said. “Sounds like he’ll be spending a few months in a bacta tank before they have all of his bits regrown and reattached.”

“A violent nun? We didn’t use to get those around here,” Ayli said.

“Why did she attack him?” Nix asked, guessing that there was more to story than a random encounter.

“Said he’d taken something that didn’t belong to him,” the jailer said.

“Seems like if her problem was with the Underwile’s head honcho, she wouldn’t be enough of a general menace to warrant solitary. What else did she do?” Ayli asked.

“You didn’t see the mess,” the jailer said. “That’s not why she’s in solitary though. We’re not protecting the inmates from her, we’re protecting her from the Underwile Group’s retaliation.”

“Why would they…” Nix started to asked before the answer leapt out at her. Companies didn’t tend to invest in revenge. It wasn’t profitable. What was extremely profitable though was silencing people who knew their secrets, and whether or not Sister Zindiana knew any further secrets was irrelevant. She’d known one, so she might know more, and there was only one method guaranteed to prevent those theoretical secrets from being revealed.

“Yeah. That,” Ayli said, guessing where Nix’s thoughts had gone.

“You know we won’t be able to provide any protection for you two,” the jailer said. “Are you sure you still want to talk with her?

Nix glanced over to Ayli. They needed this lead, but they also needed to avoid being murdered by paranoid research labs. Ayli shrugged acknowledging both the opportunity they couldn’t pass up and the danger which was tagging alone in its wake.

“We’ll be fine,” Nix said. They wouldn’t be, not perfectly so, but she was pretty sure they were where they needed to be.

Her answer came at a good time as the prison shuttle clanged against the orbital cell a moment later.

“Once more to make sure you’ve got it, here’s the drill. You’re going to get into the airlock. You will seal the door to this craft and the outer hatch to the airlock. You will then, and only then, unseal the door to the cell. Unsealing the cell door will unlatch this craft. If you reverse the order, you will be sucked into the void and I have no external controls or tractor beams with which to retrieve you. If you are capable of surviving in hard vacuum you will…”

“We’re not,” Ayli interrupted him. “And we won’t get the order wrong.”

“You’d be surprised how many people do,” the jailer said and waved them to move out of the shuttle.

Nix checked the hatch readings first. That hadn’t been one of the instructions, but Nix knew better than to rely on standard instructions instead of long learned lessons in how equipment failed.

In this case, as in most others, the equipment was fine. The hatch connection was solid, air pressure was appropriately low but present, and the latch on the cell’s door was properly fastened.

With a flick of the required buttons, she opened the hatch door and stepped in, waiting until Ayli had joined her before shutting and sealing the shuttle’s inner door and the airlock’s outer hatch before releasing the cell’s latch.

“Huh, guess they couldn’t scare you away,” the nun on the other side of the hatch said without turning away from the small counter where she was heating up her latest meal.

“Should we be scared?” Ayli asked, seemingly as unconcerned as it was possible for a mortal woman to be.

“I don’t know,” Sister Zindiana said turning to face them with a loaf of fresh breadstuff in her hands. “They seem to think that I should be. You’re not assassin’s are you?”

“Not according to the weapon scanners they made us walk through,” Ayli said.

“Though those aren’t particularly hard to fool,” Nix said. She wasn’t compulsively honest. Far from it. She did like to talk about tech more than was probably good though.

“That wasn’t a threat,” Ayli said. “That’s just Nix being helpful.”

“Oh that was helpful,” Zindiana said. “It tells me I need to get out of here sooner rather than later.”

“Before you do that, would you be able to answer a few questions for us?” Nix asked.

“I’m not required to incriminate myself,” Zindiana said. “My counselor made sure I knew that.”

“We’re not here to ask about what you did,” Ayli said. “We just need some information on Phrik artifacts.”

“Well, I should warn you, that is what got the other guy stabbed,” Zindiana said.

“But you don’t have any knives here.” Nix looked around to be sure of that claim as she made it.

“Yes, that is what the weapon scanners say.” Zindiana’s smirk was more playful than threatening but she was also standing in the relaxed posture of someone who did not feel at all disarmed.

“Maybe I can buy an answer then,” Ayli said. “Recognize this?” She tossed one of the Phrik coins she had to Zindiana.

“The Children of the Storm? I didn’t know there was any one else looking into them. Did you come to the Library for my talk?”

“Sadly we were busy being held captive ourselves then,” Ayli said. “Also, I didn’t see any event announcement for it.”

“My chapter house doesn’t have enough money for Holonet ads,” Zindiana said. “Which is why I came here. Thought it would be easy to attract a decent audience from just the local networks.”

“And instead you found someone who needed to be stabbed?” Nix asked.

“Technically I didn’t stab him,” Zindiana said. “And that was a surprise to me too. It’s not often you find the perpetrator of a cultural genocide sitting in the front row for one of your lectures. Still can’t believe he offered to show me his collection just like that. Not an ounce of shame or humanity in that one.”

“What was it that he stole?” Nix asked, knowing that it was the kind of question Zindiana would have every right to refuse to answer, but curious nonetheless.

“A statue called the Hope of Dawn, as well as the lives of the entire village that was tasked with protecting it,” Zindiana said. “I can’t do anything to bring those back, but the statue needs to go back to the other people on Consordia. It’s a centerpoint of two of their biggest festivals and has been a part of the shared cultures for a millenia.”

“Why not just take it and go then?” Ayli asked.

“That was the plan. Then I got trapped in his house and he thought he was going to have some fun. Did you know some people have health monitors that will automatically call the authorities to their home if their vital signs show a sufficient level of distress for a sufficient period of time? I didn’t and neither did he it turned out!”

“We could get the statue and bring it back to the Consordians,” Nix said, sharing a gaze with Ayli to make sure the offer was okay.

It was questionable at best. Apart from politely requesting the artifact be handed over, there weren’t any legal methods of returning it to its home, and several of the illegal ones were liable to get them both killed.

“Oh, I didn’t leave it with him,” Zindiana said.

“I thought he trapped you in his house?” Ayli said.

“There’s trapped and then there’s trapped,” Zindiana said. “But that’s not what you came here to ask me about, is it? You want to know where the Temple of Eternal Life and/or Youth is right?”

“You’re familiar with it too?” Ayli asked, failing to appear innocent in any manner whatsoever.

Zindiana sighed and rolled her eyes.

“Treasure hunters. You always think your so clever.”

“She’s a historian,” Nix said, it being important to defend one’s spouse when the opportunity arose.

“Published any research on the Children of the Storm?” Zindiana asked.

“I need to do the research before I can publish,” Ayli said. “Or does your order do things in reverse?”

“Cute,” Zindiana said in an only mildly annoyed tone before turning to Nix. “You should keep her. She’s quick this one.”

“”I plan to,” Nix said.

“We’re not asking about the Temple of Youthful Life or whatever it is,” Ayli said. “If you knew where that was, you wouldn’t be giving talks on it. We’re just looking for other locations where the Children’s Phrik artifacts have been found.”

“That’s easy. I know plenty of sites where their stuff has turned up,” Zindiana said.

“And those would be?” Ayli asked.

“Something I will share with you as soon as you get me out of here,” Zindiana said. “I believe I did mention that I’d like to leave sooner rather than later?”


Planning a prison break had not been on Nix’s agenda for the day, nor was it something her skillset was particularly suited for. 

But she knew someone whose skills were more or less perfect for the job.

“Sali!” she called out as the stepped back into the Goldrunner. “We’ve got a job for you Sali!”

When there was no response, Nix headed to Sali’s cabin with Ayli in tow.

“I thought I was on vacation?” Sali said. Sitting in bed. With a datapad. And sulking.

“This isn’t that kind of job. This is a Job,” Nix said walking over to plug a datachip into the monitor on wall of Sali’s room. “We’re breaking someone out of prison!”

Sali spent a long moment looking from Nix to Ayli and back to Nix.

“You’re serious?” Sali said and Nix answered with a nod. “Not just no but hell no then. I had my own criminal kingdom to run thank you very much. I’m not helping you set one up for yourself.”

Nix noticed the “had my own” phrasing rather than “have my own” and smiled. It was a good sign that, for all her sulking, Sali was acclimating to the idea of leaving Calerpris behind and moving on to a life that suited her better.

“She’s a pretty nun,” Nix said, countering Sali’s argument with that and a picture of Sister Zindiana displayed on the wall monitor. It was Zindiana’s arrest photo, but it was the look in her eyes that was truly the arresting part of it.

Sali managed to stay silent for another moment before a deep frown broke across her face.

“Damn you, Lamplighter.”


For as open and relatively pleasant as the the Librarium Nocti penitentiary system seemed from a short visit, it was still a heavily guarded and carefully controlled warren of security systems, traps, and fully staffed defenses.

Ayli had suggested, jokingly, that they simply charge in, blasters blazing and rescue the fair maiden with brute force and no plan at all. Nix had objected that Sister Zindiana’s skin was darker than her own and that they had no reason to assume she was a maiden. Sali had objected that Ayli’s plan would get them killed in short order and proceeded to break down, in detail, the thirty seven failure points ‘just run in and shoot anyone who tries to stop us’  would have (once she was able to do some research, Sali amended that number to 84 failure points).

Ayli’s response was to challenge Sali to do better.

So Sali did.

And that was how they came to be flying out of the system with not just Sister Zindiana but her entire orbital prison cell in the Gold Runner’s cargo hold.

Clockwork Souls – Chapter 100

“You can spend a whole life searching for something you already have.”

– Kati Riverbond, the Last Empress of the Empire of the Three Peaks

They found me at home.

I mean, where else was I going to run to? The top of the tallest peak in the world had seemed tempting until I remembered that those mountains had been forged by other gods and magics that were foreign even to the Transcendent Realms of the Empire. I could try to hide there but the Stoneling peoples would probably take offense at that, and the last thing I needed was more enemies.

Well, no, the ‘Last Thing’ I needed was an Imperial Crown on my head. I’d broken the Empire. Putting me in charge of it was literally the worst possible idea in the world since I was beyond certain that I would break it again. 

Mysella, the former and somewhat less than Eternal Empress, had every right to refuse to take up her role as the Empire’s guiding light. She’d spent a dozen or so generations longer than anyone had any right to expect shouldering a load that even a Transcendent being like the Clockwork Cosmos couldn’t manage on their own. The truth was though that she was the only one even vaguely qualified for the job.

Three hundred years of experience, even if she wasn’t directly ruling during that time was far more than the paltry decade of sheltered life lessons that had available to draw on. That’s not me being humble either. I lie to myself a lot but for something like this, cold and brutal honesty was the only chance I had to save myself.

Save myself from what?

Mysella had frozen herself into eternal, unchanging ice, and that had been her best solution for the problems the Empire threw at her. I’d seen the afterlife and from what I could gather, it was stranger and father beyond mortal understanding than words could convey. If there was a Hell though, it would have to involve being trapped in the life Mysella had been subjected to.

So I’d run.

What other choice did I have?

“There were less dramatic ways to say ‘no’ you know,” Grammy said.

Of course she was the one who found me. It was her home too after all.

I wondered how she’d gotten back so quickly. We didn’t live anywhere near Middlerun where the Academy was and I hadn’t been flying slowly while I was dragon-shaped.

“Are any of us allowed to complain about someone else’s theatrics?” Doxle asked.

They were both outside my room, and from the scent which were leaking in, so were the rest of my housemates. Doxle’s proper husband (I guessed?) was with them, as was Enika, oddly enough. Mysella, however, was absent.

I couldn’t tell if that was a good sign or a disastrous one.

“I’m not going back,” I said without opening the door.

“It is the Empress’s prerogative where she rules over her Empire from,” Doxle said. “A bedroom isn’t even the oddest choice that’s been made.”

“I am NOT the Empress!” I probably shouldn’t have screamed. I mean, we’d won, and I had the people outside my room to thank for that.

And screaming seemed just so childish, which I hated being in front of Idrina.

Oddly, I heard an answering scream. It was short, and more a matter of surprise and protest but it still made me smile.

Someone had stabbed Doxle.


It had to be her. 

Since no one else was complaining, and Doxle seemed to accept that as his just deserts, it had to be someone he’d accepted the he had it coming from.

“Yes, well, there is the point you are in fact correct,” Doxle said. “You are no longer the Empress. Chief Advisor Mysella formally accepted your abdication a moment before the new Council arrived.”

“New Council?” I asked, opening the door to find the assembled hoard I’d expected waiting for me.

Doxle had teleported them. It took me a second but it wasn’t that hard to figure out when I noticed the scent of his magic on each of them.

“Ula and Xandir gathered them together,” Ilyan said. “They’re the leaders of the different groups they were working with.”

“The ones were armed with the new Clockwork gear,” Yarrin said.

“I thought there was something like two hundred groups we were working with?” I asked, unclear on how anyone had managed to herd two hundred Imperial Citizens anywhere without putting a sword to the back of each and every one of their throats.

“Two hundred and three,” Mellina said. “Thirty seven chose to form their own Council.”

“Yeah, because someone asked them to,” Narla said, her gaze affixing the blame or credit for that squarely onto Mellina.

“They represent what is a mostly autonomous region already,” Mellina said. “Mysella agreed that things will be much smoother if they’re given self-governance at the outset. We’ll probably wind up with four or five other breakaways, which should pare things down to a manageable amount of complexity for the ones that remain. We will need to wrest control of the fortress on Flame Sanctuary Island from the current governor though. He’s a despot of the first order, which will definitely lead us to war if he has time to assemble his own standing army.”

I blinked.

“You saw all this coming,” I said.

“Of course not,” Mellina said. “You know precognition doesn’t work like that. What I saw was the possibility of this. All the rest was the result of some very hard work, the hardest bits of which, admittedly, you performed, but this present was never a future which was bound to come to pass.”

“She’s saying we earned this,” Narla said, translating for Ilyan’s sake I guessed?

“This and more,” Doxle said.

“But they will be able to decide what that means for them,” Enika said.

“Just as we get to decide what it means for us,” Naht, Doxle’s long lost beloved, said.

“What I decide is that this house isn’t enough to entertain this many guests,” Grammy said. “There’s a nice Inne in town. Go there, freshen up, and contact anyone you need to. My granddaughter and I will be along for the feast before they bring the first course out.”

“Feast?” I asked.

“You gave everyone new magic,” Grammy said. “They’re all drunk on wonder and hope for the future so what did you think they would do but throw a party?”


“Because you gave them a whole new world to make for themselves,” Idrina said.


At Grammy’s “suggestion”, folks exited our house and made for the Inne where a feast was apparently already being setup (yet another thing we Mellina to thank for), leaving two of us alone.

“Where’s everyone else?” I asked, noting the complete absence of the household staff.

“At the feast,” Grammy said. “And all looking forward to seeing you again. I thought we’d need to wait to Winterfest at the earliest.”

“Do they know?” I asked.

“That you’re back?”

“That I’m not who they thought I was.”

“And who might that be?” Grammy asked, looking faintly amused.

“I don’t know,” I said. Even with the reassurances she’d already given me, I still felt like any moment the rug was going to be ripped out from under me.

“Do you want to be my granddaughter?” Grammy asked, like it was just that simple.

“Yes! Of course!” I said, terrified at the notion that any other answer would lose me the one bit of identity I’d clung to years.

“Then you are. Anyone who says otherwise is gonna get the back of my hand and if I’m in a good mood it won’t have a blade in it.”

How do you answer that?

I usually default to silence, but in this case I was locked into wordlessness rather than choosing it. 

And Grammy was okay with that.

She sat with me for what felt like an hour but was probably closer to a minute and a half while I pulled myself together. 

“How long did you know?” I asked, wondering if I’d ever had her fooled.

“A few years now,” she said. “I didn’t see it at first. You’re very good and I was very willing to not see what I didn’t want to.”

“I didn’t want you to have to know she was gone,” I said. In hindsight it seemed like such a clumsy, ill-thought out reason, but it was all I had.

“That helped,” Grammy said. “It kind of crept up on me gradually, and by the time I had to admit it to myself, it felt like something I’d known for a long time.”

“Were you mad at me?” I asked, sounding like the tiny child I’d been all those years ago.

“I was afraid you’d leave if I knew,” she said. “I thought this was just a kindness you were gracing me with and that if I admitted anything you’d vanish like the morning dew.”

“I wouldn’t, I couldn’t!” I said, horrified at the notion. I’d read of children who longed to run away from home, often for what seemed like very good reasons, but I’d never felt like that. Home was always with Grammy. It was always where I ran to when the world was too overwhelming.

“I know,” Grammy said. “It took me a long time to figure that out, and, well, by the time I did, it was…what we had was comfortable.”

“Could we have that again?” I asked.

“Why would we want it?” Grammy asked. “Things change. I think we need to as well. For the better. You’re my granddaughter. That will stay true for the rest of our lives, but what that means? It can grow. I don’t need to pretend your Trina. I don’t want to. I want to know you for who you are, and maybe together we can remember Trina for who she was.”


The feast turned out to not be limited to our little town. With new magics coursing through the Empire, teleportation magics became vastly more common, literally overnight, so while we started our tiny nearby Inne by the next morning we’d wandered through a few dozens different cities turning the entire rest of the celebration into something of a mad blur.

Doxle, Naht, and Enika were the first group I stumbled on. They were, predictably, discussion marriage.

“I never actually signed those annulment papers you know,” Doxle said. “So technically, all you need to do to annul the annulment is burn yours up.”

“And why would I do that now that the love of your life is back?” Enika asked.

“Naht always wanted a big family,” Doxle said. “Why do you think I’ve been collecting spouses for the last three hundred years?”

That Doxle was going to wind up getting stabbed again seemed to be a certainty, but I suspected it wouldn’t bother him. He was shining with delight and for the first time, I knew I could smell his real emotions radiating off him, because there was nothing but joy there.


I remember speaking with Narla, Yarrin, and Ilyan for a while after that, mostly because they dragged me into the group hug which seemed to have become their natural and permanent state.

“The Great Houses are gone,” I said. “We actually did it!”

“They’re not in charge anymore – or at least they won’t be once the new Council gets things sorted out, but I don’t think they’re going to just vanish,” Ilyan said.

“The Empress, sorry, the Empress before you,” Narla said. “Transferred their Imperial Accounts to a Common Holding, so all the treasure they’ve amassed belongs to the Empire as a whole now. The Houses may not vanish but they’re not going to have much of a powerbase. They’ve got nothing to hold over people’s head anymore.”

It was not going to be that simple. Power comes in many more forms than wealth and military might. That said, wealth and military might are fairly persuasive tools when the negotiations over what the Empire’s future would look like.

Not that the worst of the Great Houses were likely to be a part of those negotiations. For a variety of reasons. Some of which weren’t even lethal.

“I know one House that won’t vanish,” Yarrin said. “Assuming you’ll still have us.”

“I…I wasn’t sure you’d want to be tied down to something like a House,” I said. “Not after all you’ve been through.”

“It’s not being tied down, it’s been tied to,” Narla said. 

“We can do great things together. We proved that,” Ilyan said. 

“So, yes, we want to stay with you, and House Riverbond,” Yarrin said. “If you’ll have have us?”

“All of us,” Narla said. “We’ve decided that we come as a package.”

I managed to extricate myself from their embrace before they got any mushier, but I was happy for them. They’d found something I’d never thought I would.

Though maybe I had more to hope for myself there too?


Before I could investigate that however, I ran across Mellina.

She was embroiled in the sort of discussion Heads of State had and her audience was, indeed, the other new Heads of State who’d been selected by their various groups and concerns to represent them on the Imperial stage.

I tried to avoid disturbing her, but the moment she caught sight of me, she excused herself and dragged me to a back corner.

“Did you get to talk with your Grandmother?” she asked me, right away, without preamble.

“I did, but is that important?” I was comparing it to the sweeping changes which were washing over everyone’s lives.

“Of course it is!” she said. “I want my friend to be happy.”

“Oh! I thought it might be some ‘destiny’ kind of thing.”

“Your destiny is, and always has been, your own. I…you’re just important to me. I don’t have a lot of friends, and you’ve been a really good one.”

“You’ve been a better one than I have,” I said. “I almost destroyed the world with you on it.”

“I don’t think so,” Mellina said. “I don’t think you could have done any of what you did if you didn’t love this world with all that you are. I’m just happy I’m a part of that.”

“You are, and you always will be.”

“Good. Now go have the other conversation you need to have tonight.”


I knew exactly who Mellina was referring to, but I had the hardest time finding Idrina during the celebration. 

I didn’t think she was hiding from me.

Not at first anyways.

After a few hours though, I began to wonder.

By the time the sun sank below the horizon, I’d started asking everyone I could find if they’d seen her as the idea that she’d been some figment of my imagination chilled my heart despite how utterly irrational it was.

In the end, I did find her and it was of course in the last place I expected her to be.

My bedroom.

“I’d like to talk with you if that’s okay?” she said, standing up from the desk she’d been reading at as I opened the door.

“I..yeah..I was hoping we could,” I said, looking for where we could sit down together that was somewhere other than the bed. “I didn’t know you’d come back here. I…” I didn’t want to explain what I’d been through, or the worry that had gripped me for no good reason. What I wanted was to listen to her.

“I’m sorry,”  she said. “I don’t do well with crowds. And I didn’t want to try talking to you with the others around.”

“Oh,” I said, renewed and still irrational terror squeezing the air out of my lungs.

“I’m sorry,” Idrina said.

“For?” I asked. We were talking but we weren’t communicating. I drew in the scent of Idrina and the fear drained away. She was here, she was real, and we had a chance to be…well, whatever she wanted us to be.

“For kissing you without asking,” she said. “I…we haven’t talked much yet about, anything. I…losing you, it wasn’t something I wanted to do. I still don’t. But I’m not good at this. Still, I shouldn’t have done that. It sent a message that I don’t know you wanted to send.”

“You saved the world with that kiss,” I told her. “I’m not kidding. After I, uh, exploded, what was left of me spoke with the Transcendent Realms. I did okay with the two I knew but the only reason I was able to survive when a third one showed up was because I held onto that kiss long enough for help to arrive. We came within about five seconds of all the Realms crashing down and obliterating everything.”

“Oh,” she said.

“For the record, the message you sent there was one I’ve been wanting to shout from the rooftops from the first time we kissed.”

“Me too,” she said. “But I don’t understand any of this. I’m not…”

She struggled to find the right words and I let her search for them for a few moments before stepping in close enough to take her hands in my own.

“I’m not a lot of things,” I said. “What I do know though is what I am, and that is in love with you. If you’re not, or not yet, that’s okay. I…”

She kissed me again.

She kissed me and I kissed her and the world melted around us into a haze of warmth and comfort.

“I am,” she said when we finally pulled apart. “I’m in love with you too. I didn’t think I could. I didn’t think anyone could love me. I didn’t think I was good enough yet.”

I kissed her again.

“Take me for who I am and you always will be more than good enough for me,” I said.

And then we did the most intimate thing two people can do; we sat together for the rest of the night and talked about who we were, and who wanted to be. We talked about the things that hurt us the worst, and the things we were most proud of. We talked about silly, stupid, little things, and the deep hungry passions that drove us. We gave as much of ourselves to each other than we could, and built enough of our future together that we could share even more the next day and more the day after and so on and so on, through all of our days to come.


Posting Delay

Apologies for the last minute notice but there’ll be a short delay on new chapters – none today but hopefully one on Sunday due to a messing up my back enough that sitting and typing is a bit hard at the moment.

Clockwork Souls – Chapter 38

“The friendships we form illuminate not only the paths we walk in life but the hidden corners of our hearts. The strengths we call upon to defend them, the weaknesses they shield us from? Those and so many other qualities that we would never find on our own are but one of the many joys of finding those with whom we can share the deepest bonds.

How terribly unfortunate it is for you therefor that you chose the friends you did.”

– Xindir Harshek Doxle of the First Flame, holding the tip of a blade against the neck of a prone Grayfall sergeant in a room of corpses.

I left. 

Between one breath and the other, I was up and out of the chair. With the next breath I was halfway down the hall, Trina’s scent clear and filling my senses so strongly I could almost see it.

Mellina caught up to me as I got to the door. I was only dimly aware of that because she’d grabbed hold of my arm.

“What happened?”

It wasn’t a good move on her part. 

I was in the sort of mood where reflexively taking someone’s arm off at the elbow seemed perfectly reasonable. Fortunately for Mellina I was also so distracted that I wasn’t fully aware she was even in my general vicinity, much less trying to restrain me.

“Kati! What Happened!”

She failed in her attempt to get me to stop largely because I was strong enough to carry her with me as I stalked through the door, scenting the wind to find out where Trina was.

When the darkness covered me though? That got my attention.

“Sorry,” Mellina said, releasing her magic almost as quickly as she’d called it up. “You looked like you were possessed there.”

“Might be,” I said, sparring as little brain power for answers as I could.

I hadn’t lost Trina’s scent. All was, provisionally, right with the world.

Mellina could have demanded a better answer than that. It would have been perfectly reasonable. Instead I gained a shadow of a different sort. Much like she’d entered the room I first met her in sheltered behind Holman, she found a similar position behind me, out of eyesight and out of whichever path I chose to follow.

Ilyan, Narla, and Yarrin followed us as well, arriving in that order, but none of them disturbed me. Maybe because Mellina was warning them off? 

It wasn’t important.

The worries about being ambushed by the Imperial Cadet’s friends were still there, despite being diluted by the bath I’d taken.

They weren’t important either though.

Trina’s scent was growing more faint.

That was important.

I launched myself up a trellis and shouldered through a shuttered window into one of the other dorms. 

The three cadets, all male, who were in the room made some kind of noise. Appreciation? Shock? Anger? One of those probably.

The scent trail led across the hall, through another occupied room and another closed shutter.

With pieces of shutter falling with me, I dropped the three stories to the ground below and shifted to my favorite quadrupedal form for the extra speed and the enhanced olfactory capabilities.

That wasn’t a terribly bright idea. People react poorly to seeing a dire wolf hunting through the campus. A few cadets made the poor choice of trying to stop me. I wasn’t so far gone that I couldn’t chose kindness though. I didn’t leave any of them dead or even dying. For my trouble I was ‘gifted’ with a sufficient quantity of blood splattered on my fur that it threatened to drown out Trina’s scent.

Fortunately there was a fountain.

The fountain was cold.The fountain was very cold.

It did get the blood off me before I lost the scent though which made the bone deep chill worth it. In hindsight that was also a sign that I’d messed up my fur transformation, which had probably left me looking just a bit more terrifying than I’d intended to be, but at the time I neither knew nor cared about details like that.

“Any guess where she’s going?” Ilyan asked the others from about thirty feet behind me. 

How they’d managed to keep up with me was a mystery but a pang of fondness ran through me that they’d made the effort.

“There’s magic running in the direction she’s going,” Yarrin said.

Except I wasn’t following magic. I was following Trina and the magic which bound me to her had nothing to do with other planes or the mystical energies they held.

The scent led out of the Cadet’s quarters and into an area on the Imperial grounds I’d never been to.

So I changed that.

There was a thirty foot tall wall dividing the two areas. If they’d intended that to be a deterrent though, they should have made it out of something that dire wolf claws couldn’t gauge a purchase into.

They also should have put more guards on it.

Which isn’t to say that the wall was unguarded.

It was simply unguarded after I crossed to the other side.

Loping deeper into what turned out to the Academy’s research quarter, I switched back to my human form. The white bathrobe wasn’t great for stealth though, so I ditched that and went even smaller, dropping to the size of a cat and the appearance a miniaturized dire wolf pup.

“I’ll get that for you,” Mellina said, picking up the discarded bathrobe, an act I would be grateful for later.

That she’d followed me into a highly forbidden area of the Imperial grounds was something I should have been grateful for too but even in hindsight it worried me. Just because I was setting a bad example didn’t mean other people needed to lose all common sense and pitch themselves into danger too.

Those thoughts were for later thinking though. 

Trina’s scent was diminishing.

Not fading or dispersing or being covered by a stronger one like a real scent could have been. What was happening with her scent wasn’t like anything I’d experienced before. It was like she was being erased, a thought which left me full of growls and undirected rage, neither of which I could give into. Not while even a whiff of her scent remained.

On bounding feet, I dashed from shadow to shadow, passing by tall and heavily secured buildings of stone and iron. Magical barriers surrounded at least half of them and the rest had either armed guards posted in front of them or were derelict and had stood for years.

The farther I went the more the buildings began to connect with one another, from simple walkways, to enclosed tubes, and finally strange bits of machinery with thousands of gears and sliding panels and vents of steams and other gasses. When the architecture started to bend into shapes no other building in the Empire shared, and the air became heavy enough to weigh down the fluffy fur I’d grown, I started to question whether I’d followed Trina’s scent to a different world. 

The guards who walked by while I clung to a shadowed ledge added to the otherworldly sense of the place too. Armor bits attached to an underlayer of cloth or chainmail wasn’t an uncommon look for the Empire’s warriors, but these guards had nothing underneath the armor they were borrowing. Or at least nothing of flesh and blood.

Knowing the Empire, I was pretty certain they would also be lacking in mercy, compassion, and hesitation, but I’d come much too far to be put off by that.

A fifth floor window led me into a laboratory with a dead body on a table.

It wasn’t Trina’s, which was neither a surprise nor a relief.

Not when her scent led deeper into the lab.

On silent feet I scurried down a series of overhead pipes which led to another lab and another dead body.

Also not Trina’s. Also not comforting.

The third lab held the distinction of containing a body I recognized. The Cadet who Narla punched off the battle arena lay there with tracings of iron, silver, and platinum stitched into his skin. The platinum ones were glowing with a light I would have mistaken as coming from a healing spell, but he was well beyond the reach of any magic like that.

The last room held an open window which looked out over a circular courtyard. Along the walls into the courtyard thick black cabling was strewn like untended vines. All of them led to a giant orrery which was set off on the far side of the courtyard, just outside a series of concentric circles which were adorned with something which I absolutely could not look at.

I wasn’t feeling squeamish, I wasn’t afraid, I simply could not force my eyes to process or even look at whatever lay in the center of the circles.

So I jumped from the window.

If I couldn’t look at it, I could at least touch it, or taste it.

By the time I landed though, Trina’s scent was gone.

And there wasn’t anything in the courtyard besides the unmoving orrery and the limp cables which ran to it.

Nothing in the circles I couldn’t see.

Nothing to the circles themselves. 

I started clawing at the ground.

It was something to do. Trina had gotten away, and clawing into the underworld made as much sense as anything else.

Except that my claws couldn’t scratch whatever the research area’s floor was made out of.

I got bigger, but that didn’t help.

I flooded magic into my claws.

Which also didn’t help.

The floor of the courtyard was an off-gold color and made of something sturdier than I could damage. 

I raged against it and drew in great gulps of air desperate to find more of Trina’s scent, until, after much too long, I had to admit that my lead on Trina’s whereabouts was gone again.


Not again.

This place was different.

The scent hadn’t lead onwards from here.

This spot was special.

And empty.

The guards I’d seen should have been able to track me down once I started ripping away at the ground. They should have surrounded me once I finally collapsed and shrank down in on myself. I should be in tears and a cage, instead of just tears.

“We need to get back to the dorm,” an empty spot of air beside me said.

With a nod of my puppy head, I jumped into Mellina’s arms and let her carry me back. Losing Trina again was the last straw for the day. The bath had rejuvenated me somewhat and talking with my housemates had helped center me too and all of that had been blown aside like tower of dust by failing at the one thing I endured everything I had so far for.

I was done. 

It was time to give up and sleep and maybe wake in a century or more once the world had a chance to figure itself out and start making sense again.

That entirely reasonable plan lasted just long enough for Mellina to get us out of the highly restricted Research quarter and into the shadows behind one of the abandoned Cadet dorms.

Which was where the older Cadets found us.

Just not the older Cadets I was expecting.

“Okay, that was crazy,” a girl who could have been sculpted from white granite said. “Don’t worry though. I’m not here to turn you in. I just want to talk.”

“You’re not alone,” Mellina said and I could both hear and feel the tension in her voice.

If giant perfect statue girl was setting us up I was going to react poorly, but I didn’t smell any fear from Mellina and I was too exhausted to change away from puppy form.

“And you’re very perceptive,” Perfect Statue Girl said. “But really, we don’t mean you any harm.”

“That’s good,” Yarrin said. “Because she’s not the only one who’s perceptive here.”

Narla and Ilyan stood behind him providing the credible threat his words needed.

“Big breaths everyone,” a slim boy about my age said as he stepped out of the shadows and was joined by three other Cadets. “Let’s just breath out that tension, and start this all over again.”

“What do you want?” Mellina asked, letting down precisely none of her guard.

“To help you clean up your trail,” Perfect Statue Girl said. “That was some excellent spellwork you did cloaking your entrance into the Horror Labs, but it won’t matter if they can track you back here from what you left behind in there.”

“We didn’t leave anything behind,” Mellina said.

“You? Probably not,” slim boy said. “Her though?” He pointed to me and I gave him a puppy scowl.

“Who are you?” Yarrin asked.

“Us? Oh we’re the Empresses Last Guard!”

Happy Anniversary!

Story Treader is now 10 years old!

The time has flown by but looking back at all the stories on the site it gets easier to believe.

As of this writing Story Treader has:

30 completed novel length stories available (+ the currently ongoing “Clockwork Souls” and “Two Hearts One Beat“, neither of which are close to ending),

16 completed novella length stories (stories under 50k words),

and 6 completed short stories!

Thank you to everyone who’s read a part or all of those. With ten years behind us, I’m looking forward to the next ten years to come!

Clockwork Souls – Chapter 21

“Am I a monster? Do I seem harmless to you? Am I a pillar of compassion and kindness? Do you think I am burdened by ethical or moral limits of any sort? More importantly though, do you believe I should be?”

– Xindir Harshek Doxel of the First Flame

I didn’t get to see what was summoned for the first few rounds of the second trial, but I heard what transpired all too clearly.

The first round had seen several teams knocked out of contention but relatively few deaths. The second round started off significantly bloodier.  Of the first five teams that were “invited” to enter the smoke shrouded arena, all were composed of commoners and only one emerged on their own. For the others, the proctors were required to go into the smoke and activate the banishment spells. Then the medics were required to go in and bring out what was left of the applicants.

“How are so many of them doing so poorly?” Kelthas asked, shocked at the state of the seventh and eighth bodies that the medics hauled out.

“Bad luck on what’s coming through the rifts,” Mellina said without conviction. 

If there were casters capable of opening rifts like a Reaving Storm could, it didn’t seem far fetched that they could also choose where those rifts went too, selecting worse monsters to fight the applicants they wanted to be sure washed out and easier ones for the select few who’d already purchased their passing grades. That we were likely to be on the worse end of that spectrum was something that probably wasn’t worth reminding Kelthas of.

“They’re moving the positioning on the banishment spells between each group,” Yarrin said. “The last pair that got out was lucky. They ran up one of the trees and stumbled on the spell when they were trying to get away from the monster.”

“You could see that?” I asked.

He nodded with his jaw shut tight and his eyes fixed on the arena.

Being able to magically collect information wasn’t always a fantastic ability to possess, even if it was likely to be critical in keeping you alive.

“Have they reused any of the hiding spots for the banishment spells?” I asked.

“Not yet. They keep placing the key triggers in different spots.”

“Can you describe where they are?” Mellina said. “I want to know where not to bother with if we don’t get paired up.”

Purely verbal descriptions of an area that we couldn’t directly observe weren’t necessarily helpful but it was better than nothing.

Right up until the moment when the twentieth team was called and Kelthas and Yarrin were named as its members.

“Good luck,” I said when they rose and started heading down to the arena.

“They won’t need luck. They’ve got Yarrin,” Mellina said before they were out of earshot, a sentiment which seemed to warm Yarrin a bit.

Once they had departed, I turned to her and threw a questioning look in her direction.

“They should do fine. They’re a near optimal setup for this trial,” she said.

I shook my head.

“How are you at finding hidden things?” I asked.

“I’m better at hiding, than finding,” she said. “That said, I’m better at finding than fighting Reaving Beasts.”

“Can you hide from them?”

“Yes.” No uncertainty. No hesitation. And so I believed her.

Rift beasts could possess all manner of senses, but Mellina knew that and knew her own powers. 

“We have our roles then,” I said.

“Do we? Can you handle the monsters in there on your own?”

“It’ll be easier if I can think of myself as being solo,” I said. Because then I wouldn’t need to hide so much of what I could do and what I was.

“From what Yarrin described, searching shouldn’t take long, so you shouldn’t have to hold out forever.”

“If they switch back to using one of the places he described though, I expect it’ll take a while longer.”

“I’ll call out if that’s the case,” Mellina said.

“Don’t. You’ll find it when you find it. Until then it doesn’t matter how long its taken or is going to take,” I said. “We’re going to live or die based on your success. Calling any attention to yourself is going to swing that towards dying.”

“For me. For you it might improve things.”

“It won’t.” I didn’t owe Mellina anything. We’d known each other for only a few hours. We were associates of convenience more than friends.

And yet I still wasn’t going to let anything happen to her.

It was possible I’d wired my brain up incorrectly, but I suspected my problems went deeper than that.

From the arena, massive booms shook the ground and rattled my seat.  That was worrisome.

I heard Kelthas’ yell and the sound of metal on metal. That was disturbing. Rift beasts could be anything but clad in metal armor was unusual and the sign of something outsized for the sort of foe we were capable of handling. 

Just as soon as the battle had begun it was over though.

I waited to see if the proctor’s would head in to manually trigger the banishment spells, but before they could, Kelthas and Yarrin came marching out of the smoke and were escorted to the winners area.

That was reassuring but I didn’t have long to ponder their win before Mellina and I were called as the next team.

“Just find the banishment spell,” I said as a last minute instruction to a teammate who might be forming her own plans. “I’ll keep you safe from the beasts.”

Mellina met my gaze and nodded in response.

The proctors pushed us into the smoke and I was alone.

Which meant I was free.

Except, Yarrin was able to see through the smoke.

And the proctors could see where the banishment spell triggers were hidden.

And the medics knew where the bodies were laying.

All of which meant that if I cut loose I’d be giving myself away just as Doxle had predicted I would.

So I held back.

Another touch to my nose lengthened it just enough to scale my sense of smell up to where I could make out everything in the arena. A little work on my fingers recast them as talons. I shifted a few joints for greater flexibility and strength but I knew that wasn’t likely to make much of a difference.

And I was right.

The beast that emerged from the smoke out massed me by a factor of ten and and was easily as fast as I was.

But it was a beast.


And unlike a certain disturbingly impressive daughter of the Ironbriars, not capable to casting spells to catch me by surprise with. 

Most of what occurred next happened faster than I was consciously aware of. I didn’t understand what I was doing, or why, in the moment, I just followed my instincts since that was all I had to keep myself alive with. Thinking back though, I believe things played out something like this.

The Reaving Beast they’d summoned to kill Mellina and I was the size of a rather large carriage. It was quadrupedal, with a head that looked a bit like the pictures I’d seen of male lions from Yentarum, except instead of cat’s ears it had giant sized human ones. 

It’s maw was anything but human though, with nine or ten rows of teeth, each coming to a sharp point and shining with a glass-like sheen.

I’d given myself talons, but it’s toes ended in claws that put mine to shame. 

I got to see those up close as it leapt and made a swipe intended to take off the front of my face. I responded to that, I think, by diving forward and rolling under the beast. 

It cut its leap short, but not before I grabbed onto its left rear leg and swung myself around and up onto its back.

It wasn’t a great place to be.

Before I could let go of my grip, the beast tossed itself backwards, intending to slam me onto the ground and crush me with its sheer weight.

Since I was a fan of my ribcage and the organs within it, I opted to pass on being squish and kicked off, slamming into the ground without a giant beast crushing me.

Of the two of us, I was the faster getting back to my feet, but it didn’t present any solutions to my problems.

I could run, but there was no chance I was faster than the Reaving Beast.

I could start slashing away, but it was going to take me a lot more cuts to disable the beast than the beast would require to disable me.

My only real choice was to play for time, but even that didn’t present great odds.

The Reaving Beast had none of those concerns. The moment it was back on its feet it howled in rage and hunger.

And kept howling.

I snapped back into conscious thought processing there.

It wasn’t speaking a language I knew.

But I could smell pain and panic spilling from it in broken, stuttering waves.

I listened to its howl.

I watched how it coiled up and readied itself for another attack.

It wasn’t enraged.

I let my fight or flight response go.

This wasn’t a fight. It wasn’t a battle to death, or a terrible monster being fed a pair of innocent victims.

The creature I was looking at was the victim and it was terrified.

I shifted. I didn’t care who saw me. This was more important than keeping some vague secrets.

I didn’t spend a lot of time on my new form. Just enough to have the right external body shape and movement patterns.

Then I bowed to the Reaving Beast.

Or rather to the Felnarellian. In mirroring the beast I learned quite a bit about it, including how to communicate with it.

I’m sorry. You’ve been stolen away from your home. You and I are not enemies, and I will not hurt you. I said with the swishing of my tail, the lowering of my head and the extension of my forward paws. 

This hurts. It is death to be here. I want to leave. I want to go home. Cathoas, the Felnarellian, said, speaking with the set of his muscles and the low rumble in his chest.

Yes. I will help, I said. Can you smell home still?

No! It didn’t come as a sound but it was a wail of despair nonetheless.

May I scent you? I asked.

He shied back at that, but bowed to me in agreement after a moment of consideration.

I approached him slowly, sniffing the air as I went, searching for the aromas that were his native ones and not the twisting foulness the rift had left on him.

We were nose to nose by the time I finally caught hold of the scents I was looking for and he was taut with apprehension.

I nodded to him, the Felnarellion equivalent of a smile and stood to sniff the air around us.

“Over here,” I said and turned my back on him.

He didn’t jump on me and kill me.

Which was nice. That let us get back to the rift he’d been pulled through with a minimal amount of fuss.

This is the path back home, I said.

I can’t smell…oh there is it, Carthoas said. But it will hurt. The edges tore at me before.

He wasn’t wrong. The rift was not a smooth tunnel. It was a crawlspace through razor blades.

It will again, I said. 

I couldn’t fix that for him.

But I could make it better.

Knowing that it was going to be a miserable experience didn’t lessen the fact that when I grabbed onto the edge of the rift and began tearing it further open I felt like I’d dunked my hands in lava. The pain was bad enough that I had to give up before I got it as wide as I wanted it to be, but it was at least a space Carthoas could walk down rather than crawl through.

Thank you, he said at the edge of the rift, before turning and daring the path back home.

He didn’t need to thank me. I knew exactly what he was feeling and I remember wanting more than anything for someone to save me from it.

I’d been lucky enough to find that someone and I owed it to her memory to do the same.