Circle’s End Excerpt by on


“In the dawn of our people,” began J’korrash, “there was a time that stood out in our turbulent history for its peace and prosperity. Trade agreements were sealed, and marriages arranged. The lands of the Queen knew only plenty and prosperity, as did their neighbors. Down the river, trade boats sailed, bringing ambassadors with spices and exotic foods from afar, each wanting to be part of the new age of peace. The Queen’s name was Ishardia, and her husband, for she broke with tradition and not only made him King to rule with her, but listened to his counsel, was Zsadhi. But the seeds of trouble were sprouting in her own garden. Her sister, Tashraka, was jealous of her standing among the tribes, and her sister’s husband. She had no patience for this time of peace, believing they were stronger than the other tribes and should take what they wanted.”

“Was this story set where the capital is now?” asked Kaid.

“Indeed it was. Their lands contained the Holy Pool from which all life started, and because of that, they were considered First among the tribes. Tashraka approached Zsadhi, offering him not only herself, but goods and possessions no male had ever owned if only he would help her overthrow her sister. Zsadhi made the mistake of laughing at her before refusing her offer because of his love for Ishardia. Mortally offended, Tashraka vowed vengeance on him and her sister. When told, Ishardia refused to take her sister’s threat seriously, making excuses for her behavior, unable to believe her beloved sister could wish them ill.” She sipped at her bowl of water.

“Tashraka took Nezaabe ,the head of the Queen’s guards as her lover, and together they plotted. He knew of a powerful sorceress in the town that would help them—for a terrible price. Together, one night, they stole through the silent streets to the hovel where the sorceress lived. In return for their newly born egg, Tashraka obtained a spell that changed her into the likeness of her sister, and the guard Nezaabe into the likeness of Zsadhi. Wrapped in cloaks to conceal their new shapes, they returned to the palace. There they revealed themselves to the guards, claiming that they were the real Ishardia and Zsadhi, and that her sister Tashraka, and the chief guard, had trafficked with a sorceress for shape-changing spells and were even now impersonating them.”

“Magic?” murmured Banner skeptically.

J’korrash glanced at him. “Who knows? The guards burst in on the royal couple in their bedchamber and dragged them out into the throne room where the false Tashraka and her lover sat on the thrones. They were sentenced to death, Ishardia to be burned at the stake, and Zsadhi, who was only a male after all, was to be taken deep into the desert and left there without food or water, after he had witnessed his wife’s execution.”

“Some sister,” muttered T’Chebbi.

“Almost destroyed by grief, Zsadhi was dragged to the desert and left, and for ten years, nothing was heard of him. It was assumed he’d perished. For ten years, the country groaned under the cruel hand of Tashraka, still in the shape of Ishardia. An army she’d raised, sending it out to kill all the females and children in the neighboring tribes. The males became her slaves, toiling for her, or tortured for her amusement, so that none dared stand against her. Meanwhile, she studied magic with the sorceress, who demanded a place at her Court.” She stopped to look round her circle of listeners, smiling slightly at the looks of rapt attention on their faces.

“Then the rumors started. At first it was whispers of a desert holy person, a follower of the Goddess La’shol, who preached against Queen Ishardia, calling her a false Queen, one who trafficked with a sorceress of evil. Tashraka ignored them as beneath her notice. But one by one, as her best female Officers were picked off in their villas, the whispers of this desert prophet became louder until the wailing of the males and children left bereft could be heard outside her palace.” She stopped, raising her cup to her lips. Over the rim, she regarded them, her eyes flicking round the circle of her listeners.

“It was said the avenger was a giant of a male,” she continued, lowering her cup to the ground again. “His skin burned almost black from the heat of the desert, dressed in only a loin cloth and weapon belt, he carried a great sword of precious steel that cleaved through the guilty as if cutting a water-rich melon. On his chest was blazoned the sword of the Goddess, with two edges, one to destroy, the other to heal. The innocent and worthy had nothing to fear from him, it was only those who cleaved to the false Queen who need fear his and La’shol’s wrath.”

Kusac shifted uneasily until Carrie took hold of his hand and squeezed it comfortingly.

“La’shol is like our Ghyakulla, isn’t she? A nature entity, not like our L’Shoh who’s the entity of the underworld.”

“Judger of souls,” said Kusac quietly, leaning against his Human mate.

“Yes,” nodded J’korrash. “She’s our nature Goddess. Tashraka was no coward. She dressed in full regal attire, wearing the headdress of the Queen, and stood, surrounded by her guards, on the palace steps. ‘Let this desert lunatic come before me with his claims that I am a false Queen,’ she said to her people. ‘I will prove that he is false by challenging him in mortal combat! The Goddess knows I am the true Queen!”

Stopping briefly for effect, she waited a moment or two before continuing.

“As she spoke, one of the moons began to slide across the face of the sun, blotting out its light. When its disc reached the center, fire blazed forth across the sky, turning everything as red as fresh spilled blood. The wailing crowds parted in terror to let a lone male walk through them to stand in front of the false Queen. All who looked on his face saw that of the chief guard who had disappeared when Ishardia and Zsadhi had been executed.

‘I, the true Zsadhi, challenge you, in the name of the Goddess,’ he said, drawing his sword and holding it aloft. As he did, the moon passed away from the face of the sun, and the fire in the sky shot like a lightning bolt to his raised sword, bathing him in flames. When they died, light returned to the land and Zsadhi had resumed his true form, and the people saw that there were two of him.”

“So the Entities took a hand,” murmured Kusac. “Just as they do on Shola.”

“Maybe they are the same, just in different forms,” said Carrie.

“Maybe they are,” agreed the Prime female. “Tashraka cast off her crown and her robes. Beneath them she wore armor made of glittering links of bronze that glowed like a banked fire. Drawing her own sword, she stepped forth to meet Zsadhi in combat,” said J’korrash. “The fight was terrible, for Tashraka was no mean warrior. Anger and fear fueled her, for she knew the Goddess had kept her sister’s husband alive, and hidden his true form in that of her lover. She flung her evil magics at him, but each time, Zsadhi countered it with one of his own, one learned from the Goddess. Till dusk they fought, each taking grievous wounds, until at last, Zsadhi’s sword pierced Tashraka’s evil heart, killing her. As she died, her own shape returned and all could see she was indeed Tashraka and not Ishardia. At the same moment, her lover once more became the guard Nezaabe, and with a cry of rage, he flung himself at Zsadhi. Before he had taken three steps, the royal guards turned on him and cut him down.”

“What of Zsadhi?” asked Kaid.

“Zsadhi was wounded to death,” J’korrash said. “He fell to his knees, his crimson blood spilling over the sand, but before he could die, the Goddess herself appeared, a bowl of water in her hands. She bade him drink, and miraculously he was healed. She told the people that he was their King, and he would rule over them justly until the time there was one worthy to take his place. For the first time ever, a male ruled alone in our land. His first acts were to condemn the Sorceress to death by fire, and expose all of Tashraka’s supporters and give them to the people to toil on their behalf in improving the lives they had ruined. He ruled for many years, fathering daughters to succeed him, though never marrying again. It was said he could see into the hearts and minds of people just by looking at them, but he was a good and just ruler. The tomb he built to honor his murdered Queen stands to this day by the Summer Palace. On it is inscribed this story.”


M’zull, Zhal-Zhalwae 9th 1553 (month of the sun – May)

The continuous pounding on the door had Shazzuk leaping from his bed, barely awake, reaching for the ancient shotgun he kept propped by the night table. His first thought was that Nayash’s soldiers were finally attacking the village.

“It’s Rhassa, from the chapel,” his wife said calmly, not even bothering to sit up. “Go open the door before she wakes the children.”

Muttering under his breath, the Valtegan slipped an outer robe over his night clothes and clutching his shotgun, hurried out of their bedroom into the large family room beyond as the banging on the door increased in volume. He heard the first sleepy call of distress from the other bedroom and began to swear anew.

Fumbling with the latch, he hauled the simple door open, hissing in anger at the small group that had gathered on his doorstep.

“What do you want?” he demanded. “Burn it, it’s the middle of the night! What could be so damned important that it couldn’t wait till morning?” He glared at the priestess and the two main night guards.

“The Zsadhi’s sword has gone from the chapel,” said Rhassa, torchlight glowing on her hairless green face and head.

Shazzuk took a step backwards in surprise. “What?”

“The sword . . .”

“. . . has gone from the chapel,” finished Roymar, head of the night watch, waving a fist.

“The Zsadhi’s returned and taken it, as was foretold,” said Rhassa.

“Don’t talk rubbish,” Shazzuk said automatically. “That’s only a legend. Someone in the village has obviously moved it.”

“It’s gone,” said Maalash, nodding his head energetically. “I looked.”

“Then someone took it home to clean it,” he said lamely.

“Which of us would do that?” snorted Rhassa derisively. “Besides, it was fused to the wall after being sat in that niche for so long.”

“But the Zsadhi didn’t even live here!” he protested. “He lived on K’oish’ik, not M’zull!”

“He did,” agreed the elderly priestess, pulling her woolen outer robe closer round her against the cold night air. “But you know we were taught that the sword was here, during the Fall, on display in the Governor’s Palace. Your ancestor.”

“That sword’s still there, though it’s in the Emperor’s Palace now,” he retorted. “Besides, it’s all of it only a legend.”

“You know as well as me that the Governor, your ancestor, had the sword copied during the Fall of the old Empire, and secretly hidden here, in this village,” Rhassa snapped. “That sword in the Palace is a fake! The real one was here – till tonight!”

“It’s only a legend,” repeated Shazzuk, but even he could hear the doubt creeping into his voice. “What if it is the Zsadhi’s real sword? Why would anyone here steal it?”

“They didn’t,” said Rhassa, folding her arms across her chest, her mouth widening in a satisfied smile. “Legend tells that when He returns, the Zsadhi will reclaim His sword.”

“What are you saying, Rhassa?” Shazzuk said, using anger to hide his unease.

“I’m saying the Zsadhi’s returned.”

“Don’t be ridiculous!”

“Now would be a good time for Him to return,” said Roymar, “before this new Emperor destroys us all with his ambition to reform the old Empire.”

“Be realistic, all of you,” said Shazzuk, trying to keep his tone reasonable. “If any strangers had been in the village, we’d all have seen them. How could the Zsadhi have taken the sword? It’s the work of the youngsters, playing a trick on us.”

“Have you ever tried to take hold of the sword, Shazzuk? Tried to lift it from its place, hidden in plain sight on the wall of the chapel?” demanded Rhassa.

“No, but . . .”

“Because you can’t! It’s as if it was welded into the wall!”

“She’s right,” said Maalash, the other guard, giving the priestess a sideways glance. “I tried to pull it out when I was a lot younger, and it wouldn’t even move.”

“I’m going to look for myself,” he said, stepping over the doorsill and pulling the door shut behind him before pushing his way past the old priestess.

The chapel was an ancient building at the rear of the village, set into the face of the mountain itself. Two life-sized statues of the long dead Emperor Q’emgoh flanked the doorway from which a pool of golden light spilled onto the dirt roadway.

Shazzuk strode inside and instantly the four acolytes searching under seats and behind the altar froze and looked guiltily at each other.

“We’ve looked everywhere, Leader!” said one, standing up. “It’s just vanished. It has to be the Zsadhi.”

Hissing his anger, he threaded his way between the semi-circle of seats to the altar to check the bas-relief carving of the Zsadhi for himself. The space where the sword had been was indeed empty. Disbelievingly, he reached out to touch the imprint of where the weapon should have been. What was it his father had said about it? Suddenly he wished he?d paid more attention to the oldster and his tales of heroes, divine trust, and being descended from the last Planetary Governor of M’zull. Now it was too late to ask him: he?d died three winters ago, taking with him his bitter anger that the rulers of M’zull had supplanted his family, and leaving behind a son utterly disinterested in the faded glories of the past.

His fingers traced the clean edges of the space where the sword had been. It hadn’t been forced loose, it had been lifted cleanly from its bed of cement and painted plaster, displacing not one piece of the surrounding wall. Suddenly he felt the weight of his inheritance fall on his shoulders. Superstitiously he looked along the carved panel to the figures of Queen Ishardia and her sister, the evil Princess Tashraka. He felt a rush of relief: both their carvings were unaltered.

“The Zsadhi has returned,” said Rhassa, her voice echoing in the small chapel. “This Emperor has gone too far, murdering his own brother so he could take the false throne!”

“Be silent!” Shazzuk said, turning round abruptly. “You will never say that again, Rhassa, unless you want to condemn us all to death for treason! Maalash, have the blacksmith make a sword to fill the gap. Wake him now and swear him to silence. The chapel will remain closed until the sword has been replaced. Word of this must not go beyond us, do you all hear me?” he demanded, looking at each of them in turn. “Do you hear me?” he demanded again, louder.

“Yes, Leader!” chorused the guards and acolytes.

“He’ll come here, Shazzuk,” Rhassa said, lowering herself onto one of the benches. “And He’ll call on us to help Him when he does.”

“Enough, Priestess!” he snarled, making his way back through the seats to the entrance. “You’ll say nothing of this to anyone! If the Emperor gets wind of this, it could see the end of all of us. The last thing we need is him sending his soldiers here. Get to your beds,” he ordered the acolytes. “You have your orders, Rhassa. Roymar, get back to your guard post, you too Maalash once you’ve spoken to the blacksmith! I’m going back to bed for what’s left of the night!”


Zhal-Zhalwae, 16th 1553 (May)

With a confidence he wished he felt, Kusac, still in the green skinned reptilian body shape of the young M’zullian Lord Nayash, strode toward the barracks HQ, flanked by the Prime world Valtegans, Cheelar and M’yikku. Rezac, also in the shape of a M’zullian officer, brought up the rear.

Kusac stopped by the door, waiting for Cheelar to open it then entered.

The male on duty at the desk jumped to his feet, chair crashing to the floor behind him.

“Lord Nayash! We weren’t expecting you, sir!” he stammered, trying to salute and pick up the fallen chair.

“Obviously,” said Kusac, with what he hoped was the right amount of disdain. “Have them assembled on the parade ground. I wish to address them.”

“Yessir! Your office is ready for you, as always.”

Kusac raised his eye ridge. “Hardly. My father’s only been dead two days.”

“Yessir! I mean, no sir.”

The scent of the youth’s fear was noticeable and Kusac finally took pity on him.

“Just go and summon my troops,” he said sharply. “I’ll be in my late father’s office.”

“Yes, my Lord,” said the youngster, edging out from behind his desk and bolting out of the door.

Rezac gave a low laugh. “Adolescents in the military, they’re the same everywhere, and in every time.”

Cheelar signaled to M’yikku to go scout out the rooms behind the desk.

“Apparently,” said Kusac, unconsciously tapping the baton of office he carried against his free hand. “The M’zullians can’t tell the difference between us and them, can they?” he asked Cheelar.

“No Captain, we all look like M’zullians,” the youth reassured him.

Kusac nodded and forced himself to relax.

M’yikku returned. “It’s safe,” he said. “There’s a meeting room beyond here, and off to one side is the private office, with a small bedroom with washroom for times when the old Lord stayed the night. There’s even a tiny kitchen.”

“Then let’s examine it,” said Kusac, making his way past the desk and into the meeting room.

Technically it wasn’t on a par with what they had on Shola, or even on the Prime world, but the long table did have built-in comp pads and keyboards, and one side of the wall was lined with screens.

Passing on through it, Kusac came to ‘his’ office. The dry, musty scent, overlaid with the equally pungent smell of liniments made him recoil.

“I’ll open the windows, my Lord,” said M’yikku, heading over to them. “Seems that the old Lord was something of an invalid, preferred to stay here, with his young wife.”

Hand across his nose and mouth, Kusac ventured into the room, looking around at the ancient but obviously comfortable furniture. From there he passed into the bedroom. That was a shock of another kind. Everywhere was the obvious influence of a female, from the pastel shades on the windows, to the carpet, and even the wall hangings and bedding.

“Poor old bugger,” said Rezac quietly. “He obviously doted on his wife to let her have such freedom here, on the base, only to end up murdered because K’hedduk wanted her.”

“Probably why they stayed here often,” said Cheelar. “He knew they were safer here than anywhere else.”

“I want the private rooms gutted right now,” said Kusac. “Get more appropriate furnishings brought in today. I want nothing left to remind me of my late father and his widow.”

“A wise move, Lord Nayash,” said a voice from the doorway of the conference room. “Start fresh, make it to your own.”

Kusac ignored both the newcomer, and his own escort drawing their weapons. “Cheelar, see to it immediately. Call a reputable designer to come out immediately with leaflets and samples. I will make my selections today and they can have it installed by tonight.” He dismissed Cheelar with a wave of his hand before turning to look past his guards at the interloper.

“And who might you be?” he asked the older male while sending a blistering mental complaint to Rezac.

“A distant neighbor. Telmaar’s the name. Had a feeling you might be here today, so I thought it a good opportunity for us to meet. No need for the weapons, I’m relatively friendly,” he added, gesturing to the firearms pointing towards him.

A gesture from Kusac and his guard reholstered their guns. “I’m afraid now is not convenient, Telmaar,” he said. “I’ve a lot I need to see to today.”

“Surely this can all wait a few hours, Nayash? We Officers of the Fleet need to stick together. You’re new to the Court, there’s a lot of factions and undercurrents you should be aware of,” he said, sitting on the end of the table.

The young Corporal chose that moment to return at a run. “Lord Nayash, sir, the troops are deployed on the parade ground for you.”

Kusac acknowledged him with a nod. “Prior commitments, you know how it goes,” he said, apologetically to Telmaar. “Perhaps later in the week, when I’ve settled in.”

Telmaar sighed and got to his feet. “As you wish, but some things won’t wait. Don’t be surprised if you’re summoned to Court within the next forty-eight hours. Our new Emperor is more hands-on than his predecessor was.”

“I appreciate the warning,” Kusac said.

“I’ll give you another. Contact the Palace about your quarters there, today, and go to Court tomorrow, don’t wait to be summoned.” He hesitated briefly. “Have to say, you’re not what I expected.”

“Time to face my responsibilities,” he said briefly. “I’ll keep your advice in mind, Telmaar. At our next meeting, I won’t be so short on hospitality, but right now, as you heard, my people are waiting for me. M’yikku, escort Lord Telmaar to his vehicle.”

With a wave of this hand, their visitor followed the young Prime out.

We have to be more alert to everyone around us! Kusac sent to Rezac as soon as they left. That could’ve been a fatal mistake for us all!

Sorry, Kusac, replied Rezac in a subdued tone. I was focusing on what we were talking about. I should have noticed him.

So was I. We’re equally to blame. We just can’t let our guard down for a moment, replied Kusac.

Going to be a hell of a mission.

We knew that, but it doesn’t hit home until something like this happens. Thank the Gods we were at least talking in character!

“Lead the way, Corporal,” Kusac said aloud. “After inspecting my troops, I’ll want to see their quarters.”

“Yes, Lord Nayash, sir!”

“At least he looked after his people,” said Rezac as they drove back to the estate a few hours later. “But the barrack’s nursery!” He shook his head. “So devoid of anything that would make the young one’s lives normal.”

“They’ve been over two thousand years without female influences in their everyday lives,” said Kusac.

“Aye, but you’d think the drones would be more caring!”

“They can’t afford to be,” said Cheelar. “They’re raising either officers or warriors, and there’s no place in their lives for softness. Any hint of that, and the other males in their caste would destroy them.”

Kusac looked up sharply him. “Was that the kind of upbringing you had?”

“No. We were adults when we were released from the accelerated growth tanks, and we always had the company of our sisters. We weren’t segregated. Our father, General Kezule, let us live more like Primes, though he trained us hard — a mixture of what you did with the Valtegans visiting your world, and his way.”

“The youngsters here are not being brought up unkindly,” said M’yikku, “but they are being raised to be warriors, and strong in mind and body.”

You can’t change how they’re being brought up now, sent Kaid from their mountain base. When our mission is over, everything will change anyway. A few more months is all it will take.

You’re right, Kusac replied. We can’t risk changing anything. Bad enough that I can’t sink to the depths that Nayash did, I’ll just have to hope those who know him accept that his new responsibilities have changed him for the better.

That and the whole burning coffin event at his father’s funeral, sent Carrie from the estate house.

That, too, sent Kusac. Is everything quiet back there? We may have to return you to the base, it’s just too dangerous here. That visit from the Head Inquisitor on our first night really got me rattled.

Not surprised it did, she agreed. I’m still worried about it. Yes, Jo and I are fine. I’d follow Telmaar’s advice, by the way. Get your steward to call the Palace about your rooms there.

Will do. Got to go, almost home now, he said as their vehicle pulled into the estate driveway.

“When do you plan to do our first mission?” Rezac asked.

“Tonight, unless anything comes up to stop us. When we’ve time, I want you to visit the mountain plantation, find out if the gossip we heard at the market village is true and they do live normal lives with their females free. It wouldn’t hurt to have some allies. Talking of which, I want all you can find out about Lord Telmaar, Cheelar. I want to know why he came to meet me today, what he’s hoping to gain by befriending me.”

“I’ll get on that as soon as we get back,” said Cheelar. “Don’t forget that the ordinary troops aren’t bred to be the officer and ruling classes, they’re just the foot soldiers. If they’re as isolated as we hope up in the mountains, we may find they’re a genetic mix that includes both the military and workers.”

When they reached the house, Kusac called Laazif to his office to ask about his quarters at the Palace.

“They’re underground, my Lord,” the steward said. “Unlike his late brother, Emperor K’hedduk, may He live forever, is asking all the nobility and courtiers to base themselves for most of the week at their quarters in the Palace.” He hesitated briefly, and literally taking a step back from him, ventured, “If I may make a suggestion, my Lord?”

Kusac rapidly searched the memories he’d taken from the late Lord Nayash before killing him and taking his place. Nayash had been well known for his volatile and excessive nature, deriving pleasure from bullying and tormenting his late father’s staff, to say nothing of those not considered his personal clique. Well, time to begin as he meant to go on.

“Please do, Laazif,” he said. “I didn’t expect to inherit my father’s title so soon, so any advice you have would be welcome.”

Laazif visibly relaxed. “Then, my lord, I suggest that I send a group of servants and drones to the Palace to open up your apartments. They haven’t been used in over fifteen years. Your late father had no love for Court life, as you know, so there will be a lot to be done to make them habitable.”

“See to it, then. I’ll be taking my staff with me, you included, of course.”

“Yes, Lord Nayash. Shall I call the Palace Chamberlain to inform him of this, and arrange for an appointment to be made with the Emperor? He will want you to swear the Oath of Fealty to him now that you’re the new Lord.”

“Yes, see to it, please. We’ll leave for the Palace tomorrow morning.”

“Very good, my Lord,” said Laazif, bowing to him before departing.
“So K’hedduk’s keeping all his nobles where he can see them,” said Rezac, as soon as they were alone.

“Apparently so,” said Kusac, sitting down at the desk. “If they’re under his nose, he assumes they can’t be plotting against him.”

“Reasonable, given each of the nobles breeds the soldiers and spacers needed not only for the royal troops, but for their own ships in the fleet.”

“Not to mention runs a major commercial enterprise,” said Kusac, turning on the comm and data terminal on his desk. “Mine is three munitions factories. They make the weapons and ammo for the equivalent of their commandos.”

“You do? Hmm, that could be of use to us.”

“Perhaps. Meanwhile, let’s check out maps of the surrounding area. As well as making sure that there’s nothing to stop tonight’s mission, I want to find out exactly where Telmaar’s estate is.”

“Be amazing if it’s his we’re planning to hit,” said M’yikku with a grin.

“Debatable,” said Kusac, pulling up an online map of the area. “However, it looks like it’s not his estate.” A sudden thought hit him and he stopped searching. “Could private terminals like this be monitored from the Palace?”

“Unlikely,” said the young Prime from where he was pouring cups of cold maush for them all. “It would take an enormous amount of people and resources to track every terminal in the city, never mind outlying areas like here. What’s more likely is that certain words and phrases are flagged to trip an alarm, and that will draw the attention of an actual person. Even then, they may not get around to checking each incident out for several hours. I can draw you up a list of the most likely topics to set off such an alarm, if you wish.”

“I’ve been checking for troop movements, and road works. Anything like that likely to set off an alarm?”

“Should be fine,” Cheelar said reassuringly, coming over with wide-mouthed cups for Kusac and Rezac. “If you’d been checking the known routes that the Emperor was taking tomorrow on his way to, say, a specific chapel, then yes, that would set off alarms.”

“Looks like we’ll need to use public terminals in future, to be safe,” said Rezac. “We had to do that back in my time, during the Valtegan occupation of Shola.”

“Make a list of those things we should avoid doing, Rezac,” said Kusac, shutting down the terminal.

“Stop calling each other by our real names, for starters,” said Rezac with a grimace. “I’m as guilty of that as you.”

Lord Rashal’s estate, later the same night

The glow from the nearby capital painted the sky a dull, angry orange, blotting out what little natural light there was from the stars and the thin sliver of the large moon. Ahead, the chapel on Lord Rashal’s estate was a dark shape, the last of the lights having gone out an hour before.

Kusac mentally checked the minds of the half a dozen priests within: all were asleep.

“Move out,” he subvocalized into his throat mic as he slowly rose to his feet.

In a rolling advance, his fire team of three Primes and Rezac, still like himself in Valtegan M’zullian form, rather than their natural feline shape, moved toward the building, making use of the straggling bushes and trees as cover.

Rezac joined him at the front door as the others ranged themselves against the walls on either side.

Quickly pulling this lock pick tools from a side pocket, Rezac bent to the task of opening the ancient door. Moments later, a click that sounded loud in the silence, signaled his success.

Kusac, meanwhile, was checking the hinges for rust. They looked clean, but just to be sure, he drizzled a little oil over them, waiting a minute or two for it to work. At his signal, Rezac lifted the iron ring-shaped door handle and began to turn it, slowly pulling the heavy door soundlessly open.

Like shadows, the five of them slipped into the building, drawing the door closed behind them. The single main room wasn’t completely dark. At the far end, on the altar, twin candles flickered, casting deep shadows on the black carved stone statue of the Emperor behind them.

Between the wooden pews they slipped, keeping to the rear of the chapel where the ordinary estate workers would sit. Leaflets, the exact size of the prayer books lying on the pews, were slipped between random pages and the missals replaced.

While the others were busy doing this, Kusac headed for the front of the chapel, where a diorite statue of the Emperor stood. The head had obviously been recently replaced with a likeness of K’hedduk, as he could see a fine line between the two layers of dark stone, where the neck joined the shoulders.

The body, clad in what he assumed was traditional ancient armor, was more muscular than he remembered K’hedduk’s to be. Reaching out, he ran his hand across the cold polished diorite, picking up the residual worshipful thoughts of generations of priests who had tended it. Definitely not new, then. Reaching higher, he ran his fingertips, not as sensitive in this body as his natural Sholan form, along the slightly rough join. A rushed job, like those on the Prime world. He let his hand slide down to rest on the outstretched arm.

Anger surged through him as he stared at the only too familiar features of the person who had imprisoned him and his family on the Kz’adul, ruthlessly stripped him of his psychic abilities, tortured him, and played god with their genetic material, creating hybrid Sholan/Human cubs to use as weapons against them.

He felt the anger flow from him into the statue, watching as if from a distance as the stone began to grow warm.

Focus! said a voice in his mind as he felt a Sholan hand close on his shoulder. Images of himself and the building bursting into flames filled his mind until the heat beneath his hand became painful.

How? he responded without thinking.

Through the statue, into the ground. The unseen hand tightened, claws extending just enough to prick through his clothing.

L’Shoh! He hissed in pain as the heat beneath his hand intensified.

A mind, immeasurably older than his, grasped his will, gently shifting its focus until suddenly he understood the nature of the diorite and was able to channel the heat he was creating into the harder crystalline structure within it.

The pain in his hand vanished as he watched the stone begin to change texture, become lumpy, and finally start to glow a faint cherry red. As the surface became plastic, the arm began to slump downwards. The hand was the first to go, the fingers becoming molten globules of rock that dripped down onto the stone flagged floor.

Fascinated, Kusac watched the features on the face melt and flow into each other like a wax image. With a hiss, and a blast of heat and light that even he felt, the metal breastplate disintegrated.

“Kusac, stop,” said Rezac from beside him. “Anymore and you’ll be surrounded by molten rock. I think they’ll get the message.”

With a shuddering breath, Kusac pulled his hand off the statue’s arm, leaving behind a perfectly formed handprint in the swiftly cooling stone.

“Hmm, hope they can’t get a palm ID for that,” muttered Rezac. “Still, I think your message is loud and clear. They’ll assume only their Zsadhi could do that.”

A faint chuckle escaped Kusac. “Yeah, I suppose it is,” he said, moving away from the statue.

There’s a carved stone basin over there, Rezac sent, lapsing back into mental speech. Over by the right at the entrance.

Open water is considered holy, Kusac replied.

Think you could carve a sword and the word Zsadhi into it? It would really drive the message home!

He hesitated.

It’s just putting your signature to it, sent Rezac, his mental tone persuasive.

“You worshipers!” The unfamiliar voice was loud in the silence. “What are you doing here at this time of night?”

They all froze briefly, then Rezac swung round, raising his pistol. As he let off a shot, Kusac reached for the mind of the priest. Both were too late, the alarm had been given.

Out, now! sent Kusac, forcing his mental contact on the three Primes.

No time for stealth, just the need to run and escape detection. The Primes reached the door first and had it open as the chapel bell began to peel out.

Get to the car! sent Rezac as he and Kusac reached the font by the doorway.

Kusac found he was holding onto it and surprised, looked down into the stone basin of water — it was diorite like the statue.

A thought in the right direction, now you know the nature of the stone, and it is done, L’Shoh’s voice whispered at his ear. Like this.

A wave of dizziness passed through him, and he felt the intent for the Zsadhi sword to form in the pool, and the name Zsadhi to be written around it. As he watched, it happened.

“Stop using me like this,” Kusac hissed, pushing away from the font and letting Rezac pull him outside.

“You did it!” said Rezac. “Now let’s get the hell out of here before the soldiers arrive!”

They made it as far as the end of the road before they saw and heard a unit of soldiers heading for the chapel at a brisk trot. Diving into the ditch, they lay silently as the grumbling troops passed them.

Heart pounding, Kusac lay beside Rezac, trying to catch their words as they went past.

“Second alarm this month!” said one.

“Probably another novice with nightmares, or a bellyache, like the last time.”

Then they were gone.

Slowly, keeping as low to the ground as they could, they edged towards the main road. Once across it, they made better time to their vehicle, parked half a mile down the road, hidden in a small copse.

M’zullian Palace, small hours the same night

K’hedduk had sent his bodyguards away when Zerdish arrived, wanting time to speak privately to him. More advisor than chief of his personal security, K’hedduk trusted him alone among the current members of his court. It was a slow process replacing his late brother’s people with his own, and he’d been away for several years. Loyalties could drift during times like those.

“Zhiosh is more than a thorn in my side,” he hissed angrily, leaning back in his desk chair. “He blocks me at every move I try to make. It’s intolerable! He has as much of a sense of his own importance as my brother did, and with less reason!”

“May I speak frankly, Majesty?” asked Zerdish, settling himself in the chair to the left of his Emperor’s large wooden desk.

“That’s why I asked you here at this hour,” said K’hedduk testily.

“Head Inquisitor Zhiosh was the power behind your brother, Majesty. Unlike you, he left much of the business of ruling to him.”

“And he wants it to continue, that much is obvious. I need to draw his teeth, Zerdish, but how do I do that when he controls the Court?”

“Slowly, Majesty, one tooth at a time.” Zerdish smiled, showing his own many sharp, pointed teeth in a predatory grin. “In fact, I might have just the incident to start dismantling his supporters.”

K’hedduk raised an eye ridge. “Oh?”

“Apparently there was an attack on the chapel on Lord Rashal’s estate last night. A priest trying to give the alarm was killed, and the chapel was . . . desecrated with symbols of some ancient hero called the Zsadhi. Your statue was melted.”


Zerdish inclined his head in assent. “The stone, a particularly hard one, was melted as if it had been made of wax.”

“How is this possible?” demanded K’hedduk, leaning forward onto the desk. “Once we had such technology, but not now. And who would do it? It has to be members of the Court, or the Officer cadre. The genetic programming of the lower ranks prevents just this kind of behavior.” He paused a moment. “Coupled with the fire effects at Lord Nayash’s funeral, we could have a rebellion brewing.”

“Perhaps. I certainly doubt it is this Zsadhi that’s responsible,” said Zerdish. “However, since it is of a religious nature, you can lay the discovery of the culprits at the feet of the Head Inquisitor.”

“Indeed,” said K’hedduk, a feral grin on his face. “It involves the priesthood and the state religion, and it reeks of sedition against me. Clearly he should be tasked with the investigation. At the least it will keep him out from under my feet for a while, and at the worst, if he finds nothing, it proves his incompetence. Meanwhile, I expect you to do your utmost to uncover the perpetrators, and prevent Zhiosh from making any significant headway. I want those responsible caught and subjected to the most extreme punishment possible as a warning to the rest of the Court! And I want whatever they used to melt that stone!”

“Of course, Majesty.”

K’hedduk reached for the drinking vessel on his desk and took a sip. “Talking of the Nayash family, I’m informed that the new Lord has asked to present himself to me today. I need to bind him to my cause as soon as possible. Thanks to your report, I know he was visited secretly by Zhiosh the night he arrived. He’s not married, and as the new Lord, it’s time he was. I’m sure we can find someone suitable for him.”

“I hear his interests lie elsewhere — apart from the young female his late father married, who now graces your harem as Empress,” said Zerdish, his tone carefully neutral.

“Irrelevant,” said K’hedduk with a wave of his hand, leaning back in his chair again. “He must do his duty to his family, and ties of obligation to me suit my purposes. Do you know of any suitable females? I cannot use one from my currently small harem as he’d likely interpret it as an insult.”

“Actually, yes,” said Zerdish, his attention focusing back on the Emperor. “My guards brought in a female from the mountain tribes last night. She was travelling in the company of a small band of vagrants we were tracking – runaways from estates trying to live out in the mountains, you know the type. They all died in the encounter, but we did capture the female. We haven’t yet ascertained if she was companion or captive, though. Feisty, like I hear he likes them. We haven’t started questioning her yet.”

K’hedduk frowned. “Either my brother, or Zhiosh, was growing very lax to allow such escapees to get as far as the mountains. What do you usually do with them?”

“They’re punished, then we split them up and send them to various Royal Barracks for training. But these died fighting my guards rather than surrendering. The female is not one you’d like, Majesty. Too feisty by half. The patrol brought her in relatively unharmed, beyond the fight. They know what would happen to them if they damaged her.”

“Send her to Keshti, have him prettify her up. She sounds ideal. I’m meeting with Nayash after the Dawn Rites the day after tomorrow, have her ready by then.”

A scratching drew their attention to the door. Before Zerdish had risen from his chair, it banged open to admit the High Inquisitor. Crimson robes swirling around his ankles, he strode purposefully into the room.

“I must speak to you urgently on a matter of great importance,” he said, stopping in front of the desk. “Privately,” he added, turning a scowl on Zerdish as the other continued to rise from his chair.

“I think we’ve covered everything, Zerdish,” said K’hedduk smoothly as his chief bodyguard bowed low to him. “We’ll talk more on the last issue after lunch.”

“Majesty,” said Zerdish, saluting crisply before turning on his heel and marching out.

“I was about to send for you, Zhiosh. We need to replace the ships we lost at the Prime world, K’oish’ik as a matter of urgency,” K’hedduk said without preamble as he gestured the Head Inquisitor to the chair just vacated.

Almost unnoticed, two of his black clad personal bodyguard entered, taking up their accustomed places to either side of his desk by the bookcases.

“They need to be replaced, certainly, your Majesty, but there is no immediate urgency.”

“I told you I plan to launch a larger force against the Primes, while they’re still smarting from the last attack.”

“I should have thought it was obvious to all, Majesty, that it is us who are smarting, not them. What was it we lost again? Some twenty ships and crew, including one of your Generals? But it wasn’t of that . . .”

“We couldn’t have anticipated them getting help from three different species,” hissed K’hedduk angrily, sitting bolt upright.

“That’s why my people gather intelligence before acting. The results tend to be . . . ” he hesitated for effect, “predictable, and in our favor.”

K’hedduk bit back the angry retort on his lips. For now, Zhiosh held the purse strings, but by all that was holy, that would soon change! Forcing himself to appear to relax, he leaned back again. “And how do you plan to gather Intel on the Primes, or their allies?”

Zhiosh’s smile didn’t reach his eyes. “We all have our trade secrets, Majesty. We do have footage of the different space vehicles in the battle, which will enable us to identify them.”

Thinking furiously, K’hedduk stared at him. Who could move among the other species without attracting attention? Certainly not their people. Then it struck him. “You’re using the Delmoi and Vieshen as spies, encouraging them to raid shipping lines to gain information.”

Zhiosh’s brow creased in momentary annoyance. “There’s more than one way to skin your enemy.”

“I expect a detailed report from you on your dealings with both those species in two days, Zhiosh,” said K’hedduk, his voice as cold as ice. “I cannot plan campaigns when I am missing vital data concerning my resources.”

“Gathering information is the purview of my department,” began Zhiosh, his tone only slightly conciliatory.

“In two days, Zhiosh,” repeated K’hedduk. “You may have manipulated my late brother, but I am no one’s puppet, as you’ll discover to your cost if you continue to cross me like this. Now to another matter that might have slipped your attention – the attack on the chapel at Rashal’s estate.”

“It was of that matter I came to talk to you, Majesty,” said Zhiosh.

“How could you allow this to happen? You are supposed to root out heresy, prevent such acts as this one of rebellion from ever happening, yet what do I hear? That my statue has been melted—melted!—a priest killed, and symbols of some obscure folk hero belonging to the Prime world, not even ours, have been cut into the chapel walls and a font!”

K’hedduk’s anger as he rose to his feet, punctuating the air in front of the hapless Inquisitor with his finger, was far from feigned. It was Zhiosh’s job to find out about such undercurrents of rebellion and destroy them before they ever crystallized into actions.

“You have failed miserably in this instance, Zhiosh. Where was your vaunted Intelligence? Asleep in the temple cloisters after too good a meal? I swear you and your minions live high on the land yet seem to contribute very little to its protection, or mine, as far as I can see!”

Unseen, the hand resting on the edge of the desk pressed the button summoning Zerdish back into his presence.

“I want this matter solved within the week, Zhiosh. Within the week. Zerdish, escort the Inquisitor out. He’s leaving.”

K’hedduk was pacing in front of his desk when Zerdish returned. “How did my brother allow that . . . parasite Zhiosh to take so much power from him?” he demanded.

“I don’t know, Majesty. I remained on your personal estate, as ordered, until your message reached me a few weeks ago.”

“The question was rhetorical,” snapped K’hedduk, coming to a halt behind his desk. “I know how it happened. He was lazy, let himself be organized rather than make the effort to exert his own control over his courtiers. Well, Zhiosh can abuse himself of the assumption he’ll rule through me as he did with my brother! I’ll strip him of his power, piece by piece, until it’s all mine again, starting with the treasury.”

He sat down in his chair, thoughts tumbling through his mind eighteen to the dozen. “The next council meeting is in two days. I want you and ten of your best inside the council room on guard duty.”

“Majesty, there’s no guard normally in there. Outside, yes, but . . .?

“There will be that day. I’m going to demand he hands over the treasury seal to me, and if he doesn’t, you can take it from him by force.”

“But he’s the Head Inquisitor, sworn to protect your Majesty’s self. It would be treason against you! I can’t do that!” A look of worry crossed the other’s face.

“You can when I order you to do so. He can’t refuse me in public, it would be treasonable. He’d be guilty of the crime he’s sworn to protect me against, unless he has at his fingertips some proof of incompetence on my part,” K’hedduk said confidently. “He won’t find it as easy to argue his way out of that with me as he would with my brother!”

“Doing that so publically will start a war between you, Majesty, one you might not win. All he needs to do is accuse those closest to you of heresy and you will be isolated and in his power.”

K’hedduk stared at Zerdish for a long moment, then sighed. “Thank you for reminding me of that,” he said quietly. “I’ll have to plan this more carefully, protect those loyal to me before I can strike out at Zhiosh.”

“If I may suggest, Majesty, list exactly what his current duties are, and look at how you can reduce them by giving some of his many acquired functions back to those loyal to you. You can do this all in the name of giving Zhiosh the time to spend on those tasks he is obligated to perform. That would be a good place to start,” said Zerdish carefully.

“Indeed it would. There should be a protocol list somewhere, of the court functionaries in my father’s time. I can see from that just where and how he’s built up his power base. Do you know of anyone to whom we could entrust this task? Someone who wouldn’t arouse suspicion? I’ve been gone too long from the Court to have gotten a proper feel for all the undercurrents yet.”

“I know just the person. One of the scribes. Loyal to you, but ambitious. I’ve had a few dealings with him in the past.”

“Very well. Tell him to research the various roles of Court officials in the last hundred years He’s doing this so I can put together a commemorative book I plan to write about my father.”

“I’m sure no one could find fault with that, Majesty.”

“Tell Garrik. I want to be sure the apartments of Lord Nayash are as welcoming as possible. I want him to know from the start that I value his presence at Court.”

“He’s young, would make a good ally. He’s not the sort to hold a grudge at losing his young step-mother to you, Majesty.”

“My thoughts exactly,” said K’hedduk with a smile. “Let’s hope the gift of a sentient wife will sweeten his mood.”

“My guards tell me she’s also pretty,” said Zerdish. “I called them while you were with the Inquisitor. She is on her way up to the harem now.”

“Keshti’s a drone, isn’t he? Can such a sexless person as a drone really prepare a female to be an obedient and pliant wife?”

“I believe so, Majesty,” said Zerdish. “When your brother held his open days and the Court females were all allowed to gather in his harem, Keshti was much in demand by the Lords to add to their training.”

“Good! Good! I will go speak to Keshti now, be there when this female arrives to see her for myself.”

Ghioass, Kuvaa’s home, same day.

Annuur the Cabbaran moved restlessly on his large floor cushion, pounding the stuffing briefly with his hoofed forelimbs. “Lassimiss been on M’zull long time, that not in dispute,” he almost snarled, wrinkling his long snout. “What to do with him now is question!”

“Replace him is obvious,” said Azwokkus, TeLaxaudin leader of the Reformist party. “How is what we discuss!”

“Too much discussing,” said Kuvaa, reaching for one of the vegetarian tidbits on the low table with her tripartite hoof. “Just take him, put someone reliable in place. Sand-dwellers won’t notice.” She looked across at the spindly limbed insectoid beings.

“Is Isolationists we worry about, not sand-dwellers,” Aizshuss, the other male TeLaxaudin present said gently.

“Ha! Make him squeal like he is killed for Isolationists to hear, no problem then!” said Annuur. “In fact, no bad points to that idea! Him I would like to pound to dust for the damage he has done to us all with his interference!”

“There will be no pounding, no matter how tempting,” said Elder Khassis, the only female TeLaxaudin present, firmly. “His questioning will be enough to strike fear and dread into him.”

“Kuvaa’s point valid,” said Shvosi thoughtfully, sipping her fruit juice through a long straw. “If he is just taken and instantly replaced by one of us, and death cries transmitted to Isolationists, no one the wiser he not killed by sand-dweller.”

Unity will know,” said Azwokkus. “How we hide this from the AI? That is the bigger question.”

“I heading up a unit of Security for Unity now,” said Kuvaa. “Told you I would make this my work.” Her lips quirked in what was a smile for Cabbarans. “Unity itself is a good teacher. Our long passed Elders programmed it well.”

‘Tell me you found how Isolationists hide from us,” demanded Annuur.

“I have not found that yet,” she said regretfully. “But with help of Hunter Kusac, I can record “death” of Lassimiss.”

Aizshuss drew his bronze spindly form upright on his cushion. “You can? How?” he demanded.

She wrinkled her long, mobile snout. “Complicated to explain, but we need Hunter to take memories of time with M’zullians from Lassimiss and give to replacement. This we cannot do, as you know. Also, with him in sand-dweller form, if he “kills” Lassimiss, Unity will record it.”

“Hmm, danger is Hunter really kills him!” said Shvosi, the other Cabarran present.

“He will,” assured Kuvaa, “but briefly. Resuscitate him here we will.”

“And how we hide all this from Unity?” Khassis asked skeptically.

“We don’t, until we return here,” Kuvaa told her confidently. “We teleport to our isolated safe zone and hold him there. Isolationists use another method to hide their doings, but we have cooperation of Unity, as you know.”

“It could work,” said Aizshuss thoughtfully.

“Only plan we have after days of thought and hours deliberating today,” said Khassis dryly. “Act as soon as possible, we must.”

“Can do it now,” said Kuvaa. “Drug I have, and Unity had teleporter pad installed here when I became a Senior member of Camarilla. Importantly, is night now on M’zull world and Hunter sleeps. Tomorrow he will move to underground sand-dweller palace. Easier to take him from above ground.”

“Do we know Lassimiss’ current location?” asked Aizshuss. “You become a dangerous person since your elevation, young Kuvaa.”

“In his quarters at the palace, alone, Unity tells me,” said Kuvaa after a moment.

“Dangerous as befits a Security head for Unity,” Annuur responded quickly. “Training her I have been, but now you need more security yourself, Kuvaa. I lend you my family – Tirak and Mrowbay, security experts. They ensure you safe.”

“Not necessary . . .”

“Take them,” ordered Khassis. “Essential to all we do are you. Your loss a blow we cannot afford.”

“That means opening up secrets to them,” objected Aizshuss.

“If we cannot trust my Family, who can we trust?” asked Annuur sharply, raising himself up onto all fours. “Then let us do this deed now, stop the rot on M’zull from going further.”

“A moment,” said Kuvaa, getting up too. “Decide who replaces Lassimiss you must as I get drug and dispenser.”

As she trotted off into her work area, the other four looked from one to the other.

“One of impeccable trust must it be,” began Shvosi.

“Who knows what they take on,” agreed Khassis.

Azwokkus’ pale gray draperies stirred around him. “I will go,” he sighed.

Annuur’s head swiveled round to look at the TeLaxaudin. “You? But you dislike conflict!”

“In my younger days, that was not always so. As Khassis will agree, my personal arsenal is formidable. Equipped I am with knowledge and experience to handle this.”

Khassis ducked her head in agreement. “Is true, wild he was in his youth.” A buzzing laugh accompanied her words. “Better this kept among us.”

“I see sense in this but Kuvaa will not like exposing her mentor and friend to this risk,” Shvosi warned.

“Who better to keep me safe?” said Azwokkus, bringing his small hands up to his face in an expansive gesture.

“I fetch my Family first,” said Annuur, heading for the transporter plate in Kuvaa’s atrium.

“Kathan help you if you’re hiding anything else from us, you dirt-grubbing rodent, Annuur!” Tirak was swearing as he materialized in the indoor woodland of Kuvaa’s home.

What else he had to say was cut short as he took in his surroundings, ears laid back in disbelief. At his side, Manesh, hand on his newly returned pistol, was silent, as was Mrowbay.

“Come,” said Annuur as he led the three U’Churians at a trot into the living area. “Polite you be, these are old friends and colleagues.”

At around six feet tall, the feline U’Churians were used to dwarfing many of the Alliance races, except the Sholans whom they resembled, but neither of them were used to the TeLaxaudin. Small, with spindly stick-thin bronze colored limbs and huge eyes, they were indeed one of the more exotic known species. Rarely seen off the Prime world, Tirak was surprised to say the least to suddenly be face to face with three of them.

Khassis began humming in a high pitched tone, then her translator cut in. “Captain Tirak, a pleasure to finally meet with you. Much have we heard of you in Agent Annuur’s reports.”

“Khassis this is, Elder female of TeLaxaudin,” said Annuur, sitting back on his haunches. “Aizshuss and Azwokkus these are. My people are Shvosi, and this,” he pointed to Kuvaa as she, hearing the strange voices, scampered back hurriedly, her small hooves beating a tattoo on the wooden portions of her floors. “This is our hostess, Kuvaa, and the one you will protect like Family.”

“U’Churian warriors,” whispered Kuvaa in awe as she skidded to a halt. “You honor me, Annuur.”

“Kathan’s Blessings to you,” said Tirak, saluting reflexively. “Merchants, actually.”

Annuur snorted. “Who believes that?” he asked of no one in particular.

How much do they know, Annuur? sent Khassis over their private mental link through Unity.

Enough, he replied briefly. “Kuvaa works as Security head on our advanced AI here. Have reason to believe faction antagonistic to us will attempt to harm her. This must not happen.”

“How do we know you have the right of this matter?” Mrowbay, Medic on Tirak’s ship crew asked. “Perhaps you are the ones we should guard ourselves against.”

“Do you trust me?” asked Annuur, looking up at the two black furred males.

“We did,” said Manesh. “But now we find out you have more secrets than a smuggler!”

“A whole world we knew nothing about, where our people live with you and the TeLaxaudin,” said Tirak. “Alliances with other aliens we didn’t know existed, and technology we could only dream of, and you ask if we can trust you?”

Voices rose around them as Khassis, Shvosi and Aizshuss began to talk all at once. Only Aizshuss and Kuvaa remained silent.

Rising to her haunches, Kuvaa said quietly, “Do you trust the Sholan Hunter, Kusac? Do you wish to protect his mate and their children, like Shaidan? We do. The Hunter is on M’zull with his warriors, trying to bring down the Emperor K’hedduk.”

The others fell silent, letting her continue.

“He will need help, and to give him it, we need me to work with Unity, the AI here. Others work against him, and to stop us, would do us all harm. We risk as much as them to stop the darkness of the sand-dwellers spreading over our galaxy. Will you help us?”

“A pretty speech,” said Manesh, “but can you prove it?”

“I’ll believe it from Kusac himself,” said Tirak after a small hesitation. “You can contact him, I take it?”

“You hurt my sensibilities,” said Annuur soulfully, gesturing to nearby vacant cushions. “Did we not help him retake the Prime world? Were you not there target-marking for the fighters of the Touibans?”

“Take him with us to deal with Lassimiss,” said Azwokkus. “Simpler.”

“Us?” echoed Kuvaa, rounding on her friend, head crest dipping toward him and mobile snout wrinkling in distress. “You are going? Tell me you not replacing Lassimiss? The danger!”

The TeLaxaudin patted her arm with his small hand. “Peace, youngster. We need me to go. I have knowledge and protections to accomplish this task. I be safe. Instantly I can transport home if trouble emerges. If not ourselves we risk for what we believe, then who?”

“But you not field agent!” she wailed, butting her head up against him.

“In his day, he was,” said Shvosi, nodding her head. “He can do this.”

“Sit,” Khassis’ translator said to the two U’Churians in a tone that brooked no refusal. She pointed to a jug and two clean drinking bowls. “Your caution is good, but for now, drink, take snacks. You, Tirak, will accompany Annuur to visit the Hunter shortly. You can speak to him yourself.”

M’zull, that night.

A damp nose snuffling in his left ear woke Kusac. With a stifled cry, he leaped out of the other side of the bed, pistol already in hand.

“Is only me, Kusac,” said Annuur’s quiet voice from the darkness. Don’t call others, the Cabbaran warned mentally.

“What the hell do you want now?” demanded Kusac, lowering his gun, tail lashing from side to side. “You’re lucky I didn’t shoot you, I’m in Sholan form right now. You even aware of the concept of privacy?”

“Important this is,” said Annuur as he turned on a dim bedside lamp. “Tirak needs to talk to you.”

“Tirak? He’s on . . .” He ground to a halt as Tirak, ears laid back and blinking in confusion, suddenly appeared beside the Cabbaran.

“No time for that. Mission we have. Must do this tonight,” said Annuur.

“”I’m doing nothing more for you,” snarled Kusac, leaning forward to take a swipe at the Cabbaran, surprised when it actually contacted flesh and fur. “What the hell? You’re really here this time!”

“Owww! Abuse me if it pleases you,” snuffled Annuur, sitting up and rubbing the side of his head. “But work we need to do now!”

“I didn’t believe you could do this,” said Tirak, glancing round the room. “Is this M’zull? Are we really here?”

“Yes. I don’t know how you got here, but you’re jeopardizing my mission by your presence! What the hell do you want?”

“Has Annuur been helping you?” Tirak demanded. “We’ve learned a lot that’s unbelievable in the last few hours. I need to know which side he’s on.”

“His own, like the rest of you. Where it coincides with ours, he has helped, though,” Kusac admitted grudgingly.

“See?” said Annuur, looking at Tirak. “What I tell you? Now to business.” He looked back at Kusac. “We need to remove TeLaxaudin helping K’hedduk and replace with one of us. Tonight, before more damage he does.”

Kusac rubbed a hand over his sleep-heavy eyes. “Hold on a minute. Where did this TeLaxaudin come from, and why is he helping K’hedduk?”

“And how long has he been helping him?” demanded Tirak.

“That we will find out,” said Annuur grimly. “He is member of Isolationist faction among our peoples, us and the TeLaxaudin. They wish us to isolate ourselves from you younger races. We, as Reformists, wish to help you all, as this danger to you is also danger to us.”

Kusac digested this for a moment. The door behind his visitors opened quietly and Rezac, in Valtegan form, slid into the room.

“What the hell?” he hissed.

“Rezac, greetings,” said Annuur, glancing over his shoulder briefly, putting a restraining hoof on Tirak’s hand as the other reached for his side arm. “On mission we are, to replace traitor TeLaxaudin aiding K’hedduk. Kusac’s help we need.”

“Playing both sides against the middle, were you?” asked Rezac, coming further into the room. He nodded at the U’Churian in passing. “Tirak. No surprise to see you here.”

“I only just found out about all this,” muttered Tirak. “Don’t include me in this conspiracy!”

“We have good person to put in place of Lassimiss,” said Annuur. “He will frustrate K’hedduk while aiding you. Even you must see need to remove him at least.”

Again Kusac hesitated. Granted the Cabbaran had been of some help in the past, and removing anyone helping K’hedduk with access to the tech both those races possessed was a big plus in his book, but he still had his doubts.

“You’ll have to earn my trust, Annuur,” he said, coming out from behind the bed. “I’ll help remove this Lassimiss. Who are you replacing him with?”

“Admirable friend called Azwokkus,” said Annuur. “Of use to you can he be when you in Palace. Plus you and he can communicate when wished. Can make yourself a niche with sand-dweller Emperor by handling this awkward alien for him,” he said with a chuckle.

“Dangerous to do that if he’s feeding false info to K’hedduk,” warned Rezac.

“Indeed,” agreed Kusac, sitting on the edge of his bed. “So what does this mission entail? And where is Azwokkus?”

“You need to be Valtegan,” said Annuur. “I transport you to Lassimiss’ rooms and there you overpower him using drug I give you so his arsenal he cannot activate against you. This slows him. Then you kill him using another drug injected into him. When clinically dead, we appear, take him and revive back on our world, and Azwokkus takes his place. Valtegans cannot tell difference.”

“Sounds simple enough. Where’s the catch?” asked Rezac, staying between them and the door.

“Catch?” asked Annuur, turning his head to look at him, crest tipping momentarily back. “No catch, except . . .”

“Ah, now we have it,” said Rezac.

“They’re all linked into an AI called Unity,” said Tirak. “It needs to see a Valtegan kill Lassimiss for the Isolationists to believe he’s dead, and not in Reformist custody.”

Kusac stared at Annuur as pieces of the mystery of the voices in his mind on K’ijik, and the Prime world, suddenly began to fall into place.

“This AI,” he said slowly. “Can it act independently, or only through one of your two races using it?”

Annuur’s small ears tilted forward in concern. “Why you ask?” he demanded.

“Because something has been trying, and in part succeeding, to influence me for some time. I sensed a network on K’ijik, and on the Prime world.” Realization hit him. “And even on your ship, the Merchanter’s Gamble, Tirak! Dammit, Annuur, is there nowhere your hoofs don’t get involved? You tried to make me let King Zsurtul die!”

“Not us,” assured Annuur. “Nor Unity. The rot has gone further than we knew. Aware that Isolationists been interfering with you, and they are trying to trace where we are right now.”

“It’s linked into lighting,” said Rezac. “The lights would flare, on the Kz’adul, then we’d lose time and things were changed, people went missing . . .”

“The same on K’ijik, and in the Prime Palace,” added Kusac, anger growing inside him at how he’d been manipulated all along by Annuur’s people.

Annuur stamped a hoof on the floor. “Not us!” he said firmly.

“Yes, you! Especially that mystic of yours, Naacha,” snarled Kusac.

“You too powerful after mental operation,” sighed Annuur, waving a forelimb expressively. “Had to restrict your new powers, let you grow into them, train you. Unavoidable this was, for your safety, and your Family’s.”

“You had no right to mess with my mind!”

“Have you powers to deal better with this enemy now?” demanded Annuur, as Kusac took a step angrily towards him. The small Cabbaran pushed the tall U’Churian aside when Tirak would have stepped between them. “Should we have left you crippled as K’hedduk left you, with no purpose, no hope? Tell me we did wrong!”

“You should have asked me!” he snarled, fighting to keep his voice down and his vision from narrowing into hunter-mode.

“Must focus on battle we fight now,” said Annuur. “Later we discuss this. More important stopping K’hedduk is now. Time for the rest later.”

“And how in all the hells do I do that with your people — sorry, your enemies —mentally manipulating me?” he demanded.

“Working on that now are we,” assured Annuur. “Tirak and Mrowbay to be guarding our investigator. Ask them if this not true!”

Tirak nodded as Kusac looked to him. “Yes, we’ve just been detailed to guard a Cabarran female called Kuvaa. I insisted on talking to you first to know if their claims of helping you were true.”

“He’s right, we need to focus on the enemy we can see and know is a present threat,” said Rezac. “Then we deal with them.”

Kusac took a deep breath, forcing himself to relax, and nodded slowly. “There will be a reckoning,” he said. “For now, we’ll help. Prove yourselves worthy of trust in the meantime, Annuur.”

“Oh, there will indeed be a reckoning,” said Annuur, his tone also grim. “Meanwhile, inform me if you hear voices seeking to influence you. Give what details you can and we will investigate. This interference is not sanctioned, or tolerated by us!”

“Just who the hell is this us, and what gives you the right to interfere at all?” demanded Rezac.

“Not now,” said Annuur dismissively. “Change to Valtegan form you must now, Kusac, so we can begin this mission. All is ready. I have drugs you need, everything, and Azwokkus stands waiting.”

M’zullian Palace, Lassimiss’ rooms

His senses strained to their limits, as he materialized in the darkened room, Kusac dove across the carpeted floor for the cover of the nearest piece of large furniture. He heard an indistinct crackling sound, then a thin shaft of energy hit the space he’d just vacated. Faint sparks glowed briefly in the dark as the stench of burning carpet filled the room.

“Dammit, Lassimiss! Stop shooting, it’s me!” So much for him not attacking me! Kusac mentally snarled to Rezac.

“Who is me?” demanded the TeLaxaudin from the darkness.

“How many other people visit you with translocators?” he demanded, inwardly cursing his inability in Valtegan form to read the air currents in the room, tell if the alien was standing still or moving closer to him. “It’s Nayash!”

“How you sneak in using that?” Lassimiss retaliated. “I not give you coordinates! Who did? What you want?”

“I worked it out for myself,” he said, carefully edging round the side of the chair, attempting to keep its bulk between them. “Put the damned light on! We need some of that aid you promised us.”

Silence, followed by a series of sharp clicks and humming that the translator failed to render into speech, then gradually the main light came on.

“Show yourself, Hunter,” Lassimiss said. “Then tell me what you need.”

Cautiously Kusac peered round the edge of the chair. “Give me your word you’ll not shoot at me again.”

More untranslatable humming and clicking. “Do not provoke me, then. Show yourself!”

Slowly, Kusac rose to his feet, never taking his eyes off the small alien peering out at him from behind a sofa.

“We need papers printing,” he said. “Leaflets.” He waved the piece of paper clutched in his left hand. “We cannot print more of them and we’ve used what we had.”

“Give to me. Will see what can be done,” said Lassimiss, large eyes swirling, holding out a small and imperious hand.

“Come and get it,” said Kusac. “I’m not stepping into the open until you do.”

“Then no help!”

“Meet me halfway,” said Kusac, gesturing to the low table that stood between them. “You shot at me, after all. I have reason to be cautious.”

“Then leave. No help for you. It matters not to me.”

“I’m not leaving,” said Kusac. “I’ll remain here until I get what I need. Pity if Emperor K’hedduk sends someone to fetch you.”

Staccato clicks greeted this as Lassimiss’ mandibles clashed, but cautiously he edged out from behind the sofa.

Kusac also moved into the open. As they slowly advanced toward the table, Kusac saw Annuur suddenly appear behind Lassimiss, weapon ready.

Kusac reached for his gun. A short phut of air, and the TeLaxaudin collapsed like a bundle of twigs as the anesthetic dart hit him. Remembering his instructions, Kusac cautiously approached the supine TeLaxaudin. The moment coalesced into one of trust for Kusac – did he trust Annuur to be telling him the truth or not? He locked eyes with the other, then, with the briefest of nods, pulled the trigger again, shooting Lassimiss in the neck, then handed the gun back to Annuur.

The air shimmered and another TeLaxaudin, dressed in shades of soft gray appeared. Instantly, both Annuur and the stranger were all over the fallen one, pulling the off-white draperies aside and stripping off what looked like jewelry — rings, bracelets, and searching in almost invisible belt pouches, as well as Annuur tapping its limbs in various places with a small, faintly glowing rod.

“We disable him, make him unable to fight back when we resuscitate him,” said Annuur looking up briefly.

Kusac straightened out of the defensive crouch he’d been in and joined them, looking down at the untidily sprawled alien and the large pile of devices beside him.

“Did not know he had this,” said the strange TeLaxaudin, sitting back on its haunches examining an elaborately jeweled bracelet.

“He was wearing all that?” asked Kusac, pointing at the growing pile. “I didn’t see any of that on him.”

“Not jewelry, his arsenal,” said the newcomer tersely. “Annuur, see what he carries! Contraband weapons—neural disruptor, nanites even! This is very bad.”

“Poisoned flechettes too. You lucky he only shoot at you with energy weapon, Kusac,” said Annuur, carefully lifting the items one at a time and putting them into a soft cloth bag he took from a pouch at his waist belt.

“He wasn’t supposed to shoot me,” said Kusac.

“Hoped he would not, but you accomplished mission. Allowed us to intervene.” The newcomer folded himself back on his spindly haunches and looked up at Kusac, his large eyes swirling as the lenses adjusted to near vision. He extended a dainty hand towards him. “Azwokkus I am. A pleasure to meet you . . . Kusac.” There was the faintest of hesitations before he said his name.

Slowly Kusac crouched down to the other’s level, reaching out to him until their fingers touched. His hand was grasped firmly, far more firmly than he had expected. Azwokkus’ hand felt cool and dry to his touch – and he could feel each of the fragile bones beneath the surface. Then the hand withdrew, leaving him with the knowledge that he had been honored with a great measure of trust by this physical contact between them.

“I am replacing Lassimiss. No longer will any aid be given to the sand-dwellers. He must be removed, then we talk,” he said, gesturing to the still form.

Azwokkus stood up, draperies moving gently around him.

Annuur looked over at Kusac. “Be quicker if you helped,” he said pointedly.

“Um, sure,” said Kusac, reaching out from his squatting position to pick up the nearest piece of jewelry. It resembles a jointed finger, complete with a thin nail at the end.

“How is this a weapon?” he asked, turning it over in his hands.

“Careful!” said Annuur sharply. “Worn on finger, it bends and he sends mental command for thin metal shards, like needles, to fire from the tip. Put in bag! Must hurry!”

Kusac placed it carefully in the drawstring bag Annuur held open for him, then reached out to pick up a couple of conventional looking rings. “What will you do with him?”

“He will tell us everything,” said Azwokkus, unclipping something from his belt and attaching it round Lassimiss’ arm. “We then collect more evidence to indict his faction, prove they acted against council wishes, aided enemy to us all. Threat posed by sand-dwellers must be negated once and for all.”

“We need you to read his mind,” said Annuur. “Give Azwokkus knowledge transfer of Lassimiss’ dealings with K’hedduk he needs.”

“You aren’t serious, are you?” Kusac asked

“Very,” replied Annuur. “You do with M’zullians and Primes, what problem doing with TeLaxaudin?”

“I’ve spent nearly two years living with Kezule and his people, I know them well, know how they think. The TeLaxaudin are an unknown species to me. I don’t know how their minds work. Besides, he’s dead according to you.”

“Have you tried?” demanded Annuur.

“I tried with Kizzysus and got nowhere,” he admitted.

“Then on my own wits I will have to depend,” said Azwokkus. “A little forgetful I may seem to be, but not to be helped.”

“How are you going to resuscitate him?” demanded Kusac.

“His heart stopped long enough for Unity to decide he is dead, but not long enough to really kill him. No tissue damage will the poison cause. Once back on our world we can revive him.”

“I go now,” said Annuur as the last item was placed in the bag and he pulled the draw strings tight. “Tell Azwokkus what you need, we help where we can.”

“How?” asked Kusac.

“Translocator also communicator,” said Azwokkus. “I show you.”

“Be safe, Azwokkus,” said Annuur, pulling his own translocator free of his belt. “You, too, Kusac!”

“Wait!” said Kusac, reaching out for the Cabbaran, but he and his prisoner had already blinked out of existence.

“It can wait,” Azwokkus hummed gently. “Focus on main task for now we must. I am here to aid you, despite what the sand-dwellers think. They will not notice it is me, not Lassimiss. What is needed by your team?”

“Don’t you know that already? You’ve been spying on us for Vartra knows how long!” Kusac said, getting to his feet as his anger finally beginning to surface.

Azwokkus’ eyes swirled rapidly as he gazed up at Kusac. “I have little time now. Must familiarize myself with this room, become Lassimiss to them. Waste that time, will you?”

Automatically Kusac raised his hand to his brow to run it through his hair, only to realize at the last minute he wasn’t his Sholan self.

“Dammit,” he muttered, pulling his scattered thoughts together. “Maps. We need maps. They’re difficult to get without drawing attention to ourselves. And a way to hide our searches of the data bases here. We’re vulnerable, unable to safely hack into their very old fashioned systems.”

“Maps I can get. Holoprojector of place I can also get. Will send you a device to use for your data searches, a safe one, untraceable.”

“That would be very useful. What else can you give us?”

“No weapons, but supplies for you and those in the mountains can we deliver. Food, consumables. Printed leaflets too.”

Kusac nodded. “Those we can use. How much notice do you need? And show me how this translocator works so I can also communicate with you.”

“Please,” said Azwokkus, moving closer to him and holding out his open hand.

Kusac dug the device out of his pocket and passed it over to the TeLaxaudin.

“Dials you set like this,” he said, showing him as Kusac leaned closer.

A faint leathery smell exuded from the small alien, one he’d not noticed till now.

“Do you have an arsenal like Lassimiss?” he demanded abruptly.

The insectoid face tipped up toward him again, the small frontal mandibles on either side of the mouth clicking as the eyes above them whirled briefly with rainbow colors before stilling.

“I have one, yes. We are fragile people, not suited to personal conflict. Among us, weapons are rarely used. Presence of them is enough of a deterrent.”

His head dipped down again to the translocator. “This setting,” a long thin finger pointed to it, “will let you leave messages. Light blinking here means safe for you to translocate to me. This light means message for you.”

Kusac nodded and accepted the device back. “What about using this to travel to other places? Places I choose?”

“No. Cannot do,” said Azwokkus with finality. “Much power it uses, too noticeable here on M’zull. Use restricted. Return to your residence now. Work must I do, settle in and become Lassimiss. Your help tonight appreciated.”

The TeLaxaudin touched his belt and Kusac felt the room begin to fade as darkness snatched him. Then just as suddenly, he was back in his room at the villa where Rezac was waiting anxiously for him.