Kessa woke up on hard, cracked grey dirt. Her head ached viciously, everything was bruised. She couldn’t remember getting there, she couldn’t remember anything, save a mission to get to a meeting. They were in a spaceship. She was. And now she was here.
She drew the black cloak around her against the cold wind on the grey, cracked planet’s surface. Heat radiated up from the ground as the magma under the thin crust whipped into a lavastorm that the planet could’ve been famous for, and cold pressured down on her from above. The dying planet left little air to breath, and she was short of breath.
Her long, dark hair drifted in the wind, the thin chains wound into it cold against the back of her neck. The dead planet hadn’t felt a breath of wind for centuries. Now it blew her hair around her face in a freak storm. Kessa tried to force the panic from her voice. Calm like stone, she thought. Calm as sacred waters. Deep breaths in the short air tried to fill her lungs as she choked and coughed.
She screamed a name into the darkness, but no one screamed back.
Kessa stared around her, terrified, alone.
That wasn’t right. She was never alone. As one of the People, she was never alone. Alone, never alone, was what the masters said. They worked alone, they were never alone. The chains linked them, they would always link them. There was nothing more important than that!
As Kessa screamed into the night, she panicked. There was no one there. No one. No one. She was alone, without even memories to tell her where she was, or how she got there. Her hands weak, she let the black cloak fly around her in a storm of fabric.
The Trucker Bar where they stopped to refuel was loud, smelly and disgusting, the kind of place Ren hated with a passion. All kinds of species mixed, and more often than not, they were the worst of every single one. Lowlifes from the Yis system, smugglers and pirates and all sorts from anywhere else in the galaxy. A loud band who played soulful, screeching flutes took up residence in one corner, two sticky paws held out for credits and kroners, four sticky paws on their instruments. The bartender watched his guests, keeping an eye on every single one of them, and he had plenty of eyes to spare after that, and the bar was far from empty. The bartenders were a mercenaries best friend; Ren had learned that quickly. They had their own code of honor, and they would pass messages from person to person faster than any courier in the galaxy, if those people passed through the bars. If those people had enough credits. Ren didn’t trust them.
She nursed her drink in the corner.
She might hate the places, but she knew that for every hundred smugglers, pirates and lowlifes, there was one more important person. One informant, spy, warlord, who had something worth doing.
Ren might hate the bars and the asteroid bases, but she knew the crew thrived on them. Keren and Baz liked them fine, but Karn loved them, and it was easy to see.
For a moment, Ren let herself be distracted, watching the pilot smirk, booted feet on a skiz table, flipping tokens into the air with her tail and catching them in her hand. Ren counted slowly to twenty.
As she hit eighteen, a shout erupted from Karn as someone, undoubtedly, tried to cheat her. Ren turned away as she heard smashing glass and flying fists as the first mate’s temper made itself apparent.
Zane had once admitted that he hated the places, too.
“I can’t say I like them.” He’d told her. “No, scratch that. I can say it. They’re disgusting. But for mercenaries like us, they’re our bread and butter. Our coûp de maïevu.” Ren hadn’t asked what he meant, she’d heard Zane speak too many languages to count.
Ren searched for Zane in the crowd of people. He stood with his back to the bar, elbows propped up on the grimy surface. His long brown coat masked his narrow, leaning frame, as well as the assortment of weapons and armor he wore underneath it. A mercenary to the bone.
Beside him Ren saw a small, curious man, one she recognized as a messenger, talking quickly. As she watched, he backed away, leaving Zane with a different man Ren didn’t recognize.
They talked quietly, and she couldn’t hear them over the obnoxious band in the corner, one of their members belting out a bawdy ballad.
Zane leaned forwards warily.
“What are you saying? Are you sure?” He asked the stranger in a low voice. The man wore a hood with a deep black cowl. Deep inside, he thought he saw a glint of silver. His eyes?
“You are Zarius of Rickaw?”
“Sometimes. When it suits me.” Zane said nonchalantly, fiddling with the silver chain around his throat. “When I feel like it.” He didn’t let on that he hadn’t heard that particular translation of his name for fifty years.
“I am speaking seriously.” His voice hissed on the S’s in his words, drawing them out and setting his teeth on edge. “Are you, are you not?”
Zane met the man’s eyes under his hood. “I am.”
“Prove it.” A pause. Zane rolled the chain back and forth between his fingers. The man’s silver eyes were drawn to it. Then “Clever.”
“If you have something to say to me...” Zane warned.
“I think, brother, you will find what I have to say very worthwhile.” His face moved out of the shadow of his hood, just a bit, just enough for Zane to see half of his face.
Zane dropped his chain.
“They are rising again. They are Gathering.”
Zane’s breath dried in his throat. “A Gathering? You must be joking.”
“I do not joke about such matters, thief.”
Zane’s eyes blazed. “I am no thief!” He hissed.
The man’s mouth smirked under his hood. The thick beard hanging from the darkness of his hood was dyed black and quivered as his mouth moved. “As you say. Even so, consider this a warning. If this is indeed happening, if they are Gathering. If the People are rising...”
Zane nodded. He knew what the hooded man would say. Grab your bounty and get out of the galaxy.
He was no longer leaning against the counter. Instead, he stood ramrod straight, hands clenched into fists at his sides.
“Ren, where are you?” The voice crackled through the Government helmet that she’d helped to hack.
“Two meters from the back door.” She hissed into the mike inside the helmet. “Are you here yet?”
“Do I look like I’m there?” Keren’s voice crackled back. Ren stared straight ahead, at the white wall tinted red by the helmet’s visor. The guard to her left- there were two of them on the locked door, was still standing iron-spined, even though she knew he must’ve been standing there for the better part of four hours.
Heavy footsteps clomped around the corner, and another soldier came into view. Ren stiffened and saluted, almost in time with her loyal counterpart.
The Trooper saluted back stiffly. He marched into place.
“You are relieved, sir.” A sharp, masculine voice emerged, crackled over by the helmet’s ever-present radio fuzz.
“Guard well, sir.” The guard told him, and marched down the hallway. Ren stared straight ahead. Keren did the same.
In their closed-off com. link, she asked “No trouble?”
She could hear the smirk in his voice. “Knocked him over like a perfect ninepin.”
“What in all galaxies is a ninepin?”
The silence lapsed for a minute, until Keren spoke again. “Do you know why we’re here? Did Zane tell you anything?”
Ren’s response was bitter. She was used to knowing everything about what she was doing, because Zane always told her. “No.”
Supposedly, it was a supply run. Simple enough, they’d done hundreds of them. Slip in, knock the orderlies senseless, grab the goods and run.
But ‘goods’ were never kept in high security.
Footsteps sounded over their heads, and the metal grate slammed off of the ceiling. Ren jumped, and Keren laughed.
Zane swung down from the ceiling, landing like a cat. He grinned.
“Nicely done, you two.”
Then he flashed his stolen card in front of the scanner and slipped inside.
The Gathering of the People was silent. They had become quiet, never making sound unless necessary. Not even their footsteps whispered on the flagstone floor, deep under the surface of their broken home planet.
Laressa stood just barely behind the circle. She felt out of place.
These people were anonymous, but it didn’t mean that she didn’t know who was who. Their voices whispered in her mind, closer than any voices had been since the fall. These people were powerful, they were politicians and warriors, commanders and leaders. She didn’t belong here.
I brought you for a reason, Laressa. The voice she knew hummed in her thoughts. It was more powerful than she’d ever heard, and she had her suspicions about who it belonged to. It had been a long, hard road here, across the star systems. She’d hid for most of the fifty years since the fall, alone. This was the farthest thing from along, and the last thing she thought she’d be doing today. Who was she? Not a leader, not a warrior. That had been her love, but he was gone. So many of the People were gone.
There were twelve of them in hooded black robes, fine silver chains draped over their shoulders, around their necks and twisted around their arms. Under their hoods, it was braided into their long hair. Black ink twined up and down their arms in elegant patterns, covering even parts of their faces.
“The Gathering has come.” One man whispered. Tiny candles flickered to life on the floor, and as one, the twelve participants sat cross-legged on the stone.
“I said, fifty years ago when our cities were burning, that I would call a meet again only at a time I believed us ready.” He continued. His voice was eerie in the echoing room.
“And I believe now that it is.” He said. The room around them was dark, but massive. There was room for dozens more people there.
“Of the hundreds of thousands there were of our people” He said. “There are now less than a thousand, scattered among the stars. The Chain has been broken.”
For the first time, murmers broke among the circle. Thousands of years, they had been a great and powerful people. They had ruled.
“But what is metal” He asked “If it cannot be reforged? What are we if we are not the blacksmiths of the ancient ways of Chain and Mark, Silver and Shadow?”
“We will rise again.” Their leader whispered. “But just as blacksmiths use a hammer and anvil, we need tools.”
“The Swords of Elisi, which were stolen. They will defend us. The Thief, who broke our laws and took our own. He will be our revenge. For as the ancient teachings state, revenge only is fuel on the smallest scale.
“And the four Lords of the People.” He finished, looking up. His eyes glinted violet under his hood.
“I take it that you have reason to believe that any of our Lords survived the Government?” A slim figure stepped forwards, arms crossed and chin up. Proud. Defiant. Defying herself any kind of hope, but defiant all the same.
At this, the man smiled. “Laressa, It saddens me, what happened to your love. He is missed, but he wasn’t the only one of us capable of putting up a fight.”
And although it was near-sacriledge to do so, the man flipped his hood down in the Cave.
He had a once-handsome face, with a strong jaw and vibrant blue eyes. Thick black marks covered his bare skull like a bartenders tattoos.
As one, the People bowed, awestruck.
The Provost, the great Lord of the Tathu. Laressa had known it was him in her head. Only he could reach from such an incredible distance to draw her here.
There had been four of the Lords, once upon a time. They headed up the Senate, they upheld the laws of the Tathu across the galaxy. The Provost had been the least seen but the most legendary of all of them. Most of them had never seen him.
And he was more than that.The last great mage. The People had once had magicians among their ranks, those who could manipulate the world on a massive scale, with the strength of their own mind, will and connection to the world.
They were almost extinct.
A flush rose through Laressa’s cheeks. She’d lost enough in her life, and she was more than ready to win it back. If there was one man that they needed to win back their world, it was him.
The way the warship supplies were guarded, Ren thought that the Government almost wanted their stuff stolen.
But, she figured, they hadn’t accounted for a rebel ship, with two excellent hackers and a Captain with ridiculously bad ideas.
Ren loaded the last crate into the invisible Decadia. Did she mention an amazing mechanic? Because they had one too.
It was too quiet. Ren glanced around, and braced herself. Nothing stayed quiet for long.
Bang! Ren ducked instinctively. Blaster fire richocetted off of Decadia’s ramp, flashing and sparking. Ren scuttled back, eyes wide.
“Karn!” She shouted. “Troopers are here!”
Karn, in the cockpit, nodded absently. She flicked two switches, and the engine bumped into action. The invisibility flickered once, then held. Ren swore.
With the ship unseen, they couldn’t put up shields.
“Karn! Up shields!”
“Shut up, kid. I know what I’m doing!” She growled.
Keren appeared quietly beside her, and Baz beside him. “Where’s Zane?” He growled. Ren gritted her teeth.
“I don’t know.” She said. Ren had figured he’d beaten them back to the ship after breaking into the vault, with whatever it was he’d wanted to get. “Karn!” She called. “Where’s Zane?”
“Search me!” She shouted back. “I thought he was with you!”
Ren headed to the door and peered out the window. The port of Yis 1 was massive, with at least a hundred docking stations all told. More blaster fire crackled off the ship’s shield. Zane was nowhere to be found. What would happen if the troopers found him? He couldn’t be that big a deal. One lonely smuggler captain. It couldn’t be that important, not for them to care too much. Could it?
“We have to take off, Ren! We can come back for him!”
Ren searched frantically out the window. Where was he?
“Ren!” Karn shouted. “Get your stupid ass back! I need you in here!” She needed the copilot systems operating. The ship wouldn’t fly without two people on board. Pesky, Ren thought. I should fix that. With one last glance out the window, Ren turned to race to the cockpit.
She had just dropped into the seat and scanned into the controls when she stared out the massive, thick plexiglass window and saw a black shape running full-tilt towards the Decadia, long form stretched out to cover as much ground as possible.
“There he is!” But the engines had already ground into gear, the ship was hissing and throwing a right fit as it lifted off the ground. The blasters concentrated on the hovering ship, sending shot after shot riccoceying off the hull.
“Too late!” Karn shouted. “We can’t put down now! We’d never get off the ground!”
Baz and Keren stared over their shoulders. Baz growled, his hand on the haft of his massive gun.
“No!” Ren and Karn shouted at the same time. She knew it wouldn’t do any good. They couldn’t get him. Zane was gone.
She shoved out of the copilot seat and crouched against the glass floor, hands pressed to the cold surface. She could just see Zane down there. He was surrounded, backing up with a blaster in each hand. He was going to die down there.
Ren blinked, and Zane was gone. When she opened her eyes and searched for him, she couldn’t see him. It was only a second between that and-
Whump. A shudder sounded through the ship, and it canted awkwardly to one side. Then steadied, then lurched again. Were they hit? Did one of the blasts get through the shield? No- Ren thought. The warning would’ve gone off.
The Troopers on the ground stared around, confused. Then they looked up.
“Karn!” A familiar, muffled voice sounded through the metal. “Get this stars-cursed door open!”
Ren gasped, a hand slipping over her mouth. Karn grinned a pointed-tooth grin, flicked her tail once and hit the button that opened the ramp-door onto the Decadia.
Ren glanced over her shoulder just in time to watch Zane swing into the hold like a monkey on Yis 4’s jungle. He brushed his palms on his slender brown pants and grinned. Ren could slap him. From the grin Karn was wearing, she hadn’t expected anything less. Ren could probably slap her too.
“You scared me!” She shouted. “Both of you!” She flew at Zane like she was about to hit him, then decided against it and crushed him in a hug. Caught off guard, he stumbled backwards, then hugged her back.
When she let go, they were both smiling.
“Hey, kid.” He said gently. “All in a days work, huh?” Zane left her to sit by Karn in the cockpit, leaving her more confused than ever. ‘All in a day’s work?’ What exactly did they accomplish today that made Zane so confident?