FLIGHT OF THE HUNTRESS

An Excalibur Knights short by Luke Mitchell


With one last rattle and clank, the Kalnythian Wilds completed its docking seal and began testing the atmos of the derelict mining station on the other side.

“Scans show seven troglodans aboard, Huntress,” came Soladi’s attentive voice from the forward deck.

Ser Iveera Katanaga absentmindedly dismissed her seat restraints—serpentine jin rising from her head to flick the command gesture almost of their own accord—and stood, peering out the viewport, wondering one last time what crucial piece of this puzzle she might have missed.

There was nothing.

Nothing but the obvious part, at least.

This was a foolish idea.

The troglodans were barbarians, in many ways no more advanced than the inhabitants of the forgotten backwater planet whose very fate they were meeting to discuss. Moreover, Ser Groshna, the so-called Dread Knight she was going to meet, was probably the worst of them.

Of course, there were those among the Alliance who would’ve said much the same about Iveera’s own people, the gorgons, and their reticence to let go of their ancestors’ tribal roots and obsessive bond with all things green and wild.

Personally, Iveera had spent too much time abroad as an Excalibur Knight to truly maintain that aspect of her heritage. Allowing her crew to keep the ship lush with tansin vines and Kalnythian florals was one thing. The deep sense of oneness her younger crew harbored for those plants, though, and indeed for all of nature… Such mentality was not commonplace among the many species of the Galactic Alliance.

For a time, Iveera had resented the galaxy’s ignorance, and their willingness to dismiss her people as savages even as they fondled their own obsessions with technology and power, and their never-ending schemes of using one to procure more of the other. For a time after that, she’d found herself slowly coming to understand that cancerous point of view, and the Alliance’s dismissive derision for her people.

The years had stretched on. She returned to her homeworld just often enough to witness two more generations of her tribe grow old and wither in time-lapsed flashes while her Excalibur, Calitha, kept her alive and well. At some point, she’d begun to find herself longing for something she hadn’t had words to describe. Something she’d lost along the way. That sacred connection to something larger than herself. Larger than the Alliance. Something truly universal.

Something other than the long-since faded promises of a long-since missing Merlin.

It had been different when the ancient wizard had first recruited her. Her purpose had been clear, her role in the coming war understood. But generations had passed, and war had not come. The Merlin had disappeared to Lady only knew where. The Excalibur Knights, once regarded with nothing but the utmost respect and gravitas, had somehow become little more than glorified errand runners for their respective species, quelling uprisings here and settling petty border disputes there, always with an eye on the distant horizon. Always wondering when the darkness would rear its fated head and come for them in the War to End All Wars—the very reason for their existence.

Not yet, she lamented, staring out at the derelict Golnak mining station C-73. Because here she was, meeting with a Knight she did not respect to discuss a treaty she did not agree with.

What was she doing here? Never mind that her people should have known better than to trust the troglodans with anything other than mindless killing. Never mind that the Alliance itself had signed off on this course of action, and that there would’ve been nine hells of political ramifications to pay had she refused to pander to the outraged Atlanteans, the smugly dismissive eldari, and everyone else who’d stepped up to have a squawk.

The simple fact was that a Beacon awakening was no business at all of the gorgons, or the Alliance, or even the Council, in their infinite wisdom. An awakened Beacon was the jurisdiction of the Excalibur Knights, and no one else.

That, and that alone, was the reason Iveera had agreed to play along with this farce and confer with Groshna when every instinct told her she should’ve taken her crew and left for the Beacon the moment she’d felt its subtle call spark into existence. She needed to know what the Dread Knight was going to do. She needed to be ready for anything.

“Huntress?” came Namini’s soft voice, tinged with a gentle undertone of concern.

With an equally gentle thought, Iveera released the tension that had agitated her jin to a light flutter, and turned to her waiting second-in-command. “Continue monitoring the system for unannounced guests, and keep the ship ready for anything.”

Even without looking at their jin, Iveera knew her crew well enough to see the muted flicker of unease that passed through the bridge at her words. A slight wrinkle in Soladi’s perfect brow. The parting of Korda’s lovely lips, and the straightening of Inomi’s slender spine and elegant neck. All of them on edge at the thought of their beloved Huntress walking in to meet the monstrous troglodan Knight alone.

“As you will it, Huntress,” Namini said, knowing better than to argue the point.

Iveera stroked Namini’s soft green cheek, sending a current of warm reassurance trickling into her beautiful subordinate. “Do not fear for me,” she said, looking around the bridge, holding each of their eyes for a moment.

“They are brutes, my Huntress,” Soladi said.

“That they are,” Iveera agreed, allowing herself a small smile more for her crew’s benefit than anything else, “and also far too hopelessly slow to catch me by surprise in there.”

That, at least, eased a fraction of the tension on the bridge. They all knew how fast she was. Their ease only grew as the familiar glint of copper shimmered into existence across Iveera’s chest and began unfurling from the spot, twisting and flowing from e-dim until she was covered from neck to toe in Calitha’s time-tested battle armor.

“Keep the ship warm,” she said, ready to be done and over with this entire affair. “And have the q-drive routes plotted and ready. Crusher drive courses too. Just in case.”

Her crew’s respective jin all snapped to attention so sharply that she could actually hear it as she turned and stalked out of the bridge.

In truth, there was really no need for them to do anything at all. In essence, the Kalnythian Wilds was merely an extension of Iveera’s Excalibur, Calitha. Which was to say it was designed, and rather intended, to be operated by a lone Excalibur Knight. Technically, the ship’s limited synthience construct, Kaldo, responded to Iveera’s will, and to hers alone. He was perfectly capable of remotely handling whatever ship-related functions Iveera required—in many ways more capable than her own crew. Especially when it came to interfacing and communicating with Calitha. But there were more than a few reasons to keep some loyal eyes and sentient minds watching her back.

Namini and the others helped keep the ship in order. When circumstances permitted, they even fought by Iveera’s side. The most important function of the crew, though—the one they never really spoke of but all clearly understood—was that they kept Iveera sane. They were her family away from home. Her only family, truth be told. Just as the last crew had been. And the others, before that. The closest thing to a tribe Iveera had left, save for the eternal company of Calitha and their ship.

I want you both monitoring the Golnak Beacon for any erratic activity, she thought to her constant companions. Most likely they’d already glimpsed as much from her mind, but it rarely hurt to be certain.

YES, HUNTRESS, came Kaldo’s mechanical reply, his excitement to serve tangible as always.

Of course, added Calitha in her far more dignified and lifelike tone.

Iveera strode into the loading bay of the Kalnythian Wilds and approached the sealed boarding hatch, expecting the worst, but hardly afraid of it. Perhaps the awakening of this new Beacon was different. Perhaps it marked the beginning of the end—the coming of the galaxy’s long foretold descent into darkness.

Perhaps Iveera would have been wise to feel at least a pinch of fear at that thought. Or at the depths of whatever violent depravity Ser Groshna might currently be harboring in that gargantuan head of his. But she could not stir herself to fear over any of it. Could only seem to arrive with solemn, dutiful peace at the final thought that followed.

Perhaps this fated war would finally rear its head and take her.

Not without me, Huntress.

She nixed her indulgent flirtation with self-pity and reached for the manual hatch controls, glad as ever for Calitha’s presence. Nor would I dare dream it, old friend.

Comfortable in the embrace of that old friend’s armor, and confident in the Excalibur’s waiting power, Ser Iveera Katanaga pulled the hatch seal open and boarded the derelict mining station, ready for anything.

***

To call Golnak mining installation C-73 a derelict was an exercise in specificity—true enough of the small station’s innards, yet lacking in accuracy when one considered the lone treasure within, and the unprecedented influx of life, tech, and industry its discovery had whisked into a system that had previously been unheard of, save to a few backwater miners seeking the mineral riches of its asteroid belts.

Lady only knew whether it had been their drills or just happenstance timing. All Iveera knew, all the histories recalled, was that some four-thousand years ago, svartalf miners had cracked open a benign-looking asteroid only to find the illustrious glow of an awakening Beacon within. Almost before they could even begin dreaming of the potential riches their unexpected and thoroughly misunderstood discovery would bring, the squabbling factions descended—gorgons and troglodans first by merit of their relative proximity, and the indignant svartalf nation close behind, crying afoul of theft and tyranny before they’d even made it through the hatch with both feet.

So had begun the so-called Golnak War—the first of its kind (interstellar; interspecies) for each of their three proud peoples. Three bloody years of struggle later, a strange wizard called the Merlin had arrived with one impossibly powerful Knight to explain that their grand war was merely a blip in the background of a much larger one, and that, unless they wished to see their three great nations devoured like so much space dust, they’d do well to come to a truce and lend him all possible aid before the darkness known as the Synth could come to claim the Beacon for itself.

So allies their three peoples had become, if never again friends. The colossal Golnak relay had been built, harnessing the power of the Beacon to open the gates to the Merlin’s so-called Galactic Alliance, and a thousand years later, it was all naught but a historical footnote. Gorgons, troglodans, and svartalfs alike had joined the Alliance, and gone straight back to their petty squabbles the moment the Great War was won. All of it millennia before Iveera’s time.

In the centuries since she’d been knighted, Iveera would’ve liked to think she’d helped with some measure of the peacekeeping, but she had no delusions. If a time had ever truly existed when the authority of the Excalibur Knights held any real weight, that time had surely passed long before she’d taken up Calitha. Now, the only respect anyone seemed to harbor was for the power of the Alliance fleet, as evidenced by the several capital ships stationed around the Golnak system, guarding the relay with enough firepower to level an entire planet a hundred times over.

As if that would be enough to stop the Synth.

Many, though, would have scoffed even at that sentiment, either out of some borderline religious belief in the might of the Alliance, or due to the newer and seemingly spreading belief that the Synth would simply never return—that perhaps the threat had been badly skewed by the lens of time, warped into something that was much more fiction than fact by the accounts of those who’d naturally been wont to embellish their struggles so as to make a satisfying impression on history.

Of course, that hadn’t stopped anyone from keeping all those destroyers and their cruisers nearby, patrolling the dark spaces between the semi-permanent troglodan and gorgon outposts and the unassuming little mining station that lay at the center of the only practical gateway to the rest of Alliance civilization.

Hardly derelict, in other words. Except for where the station’s interior was concerned.

Inside, where only Excalibur Knights and sufficiently weighty Alliance officials were permitted to enter, the mining station looked exactly like what it truly was: the place where the once humble dreams of some backwater svartalf miners had caught an updraft of boundless ambition, caught fire, and ultimately died a painful death, inciting the most bloody war their people had ever known.

Perhaps that was why the eerie miasma of their embittered spirits still seemed to permeate the rusted wall panels and poorly recycled air here. The place would have felt positively haunted, if not for the soft call of the nearby Beacon—the subtle and steady trickle of Lady’s Light that bathed the entire Golnak system in its quiet, loving embrace. Beacon song never failed to set her jin pleasantly abuzz, calling to mind ancient memories of her broodmothers crooning soft lullabies.

Pity there were only eight of the beautiful artifacts in existence.

Pity the eighth had had to awaken into a galaxy where its fate was to be immediately and aggressively bickered upon by politicians and so-called leaders while it rose from its slumber out in the backwater reaches of the Orion Spur, calling to its siblings from somewhere suspiciously near the old relic of a planet the humans called Earth.

Calling into the darkness.

All that remained was who else had heard it, and what they were going to do about it.

Judging by the aggressive arrogance in Ser Groshna’s stance below, as Iveera stepped onto the catwalk overlooking the expansive cargo bay, she was guessing the troglodan’s answer to the latter was not going to involve sitting around and waiting for approval—hers, the Council’s, or anyone else’s—like a good bull.

Even by troglodan standards, Ser Groshna was a massive beast to behold. He stood near the Beacon, thick arms akimbo, enormous fists planted proudly on his hips, battered crimson Excalibur armor in full display. The scuffs and scars on Groshna’s armor said as much about the troglodan as did his territorial stance and ever-present leer. With little more than a word or a thought, he could’ve had his Excalibur restore the damaged sections back to perfect shape, yet the marks of battle remained—a small promise to any who laid eyes upon the Dread Knight as to what would befall them should they incur his dread wrath.

Much as she detested the troglodan, Iveera couldn’t say she particularly blamed him for the sentiment, or even for his evident desire to move on the newly awakened Beacon, toddling Alliance Council be damned. What she couldn’t suffer were the rumors she’d heard whispered both behind closed doors and across the relay nets. Rumors of significant fleet movements deep within troglodan space. Whispers of quiet discontent, and of rogue armadas eyeing planets they had no business eyeing—a position she especially did not envy as she stepped to the railing, and Groshna fixed that beady-eyed, ever-present leer on her.

For a stretch, no one spoke. The Beacon’s insistent call tingled in her head, the artifact itself suspended on its own power in the center of the bay, not far from where Groshna stood, casting a nebulous swirl of azure light and less tangible energies from its ever-shifting metallic surface. Iveera was acutely aware of each and every one of Groshna’s smaller—though still quite gargantuan—underlings creeping their dark-armored bulks into position around the bay, all the better to catch her in a cross fire should it come to that. It scarcely worried her at all compared to what the Dread Knight might do.

“No pretty little flowers with you?” Groshna finally called in his low, booming voice. “Pity. I told my bulls they would be getting a good look at the finest your kind has to offer.”

He spat on the rust-tinged deck then, just in case the derision in his rumbling tone had somehow been mistaken for any kind of genuine admiration.

It hadn’t. At least not by Iveera.

Groshna’s brutes, on the other hand, were all craning their shoulders and torsos—they didn’t really have necks to speak of—trying not to drool, she could only imagine, as they strained to catch sight of the pretty little gorgon lasses who would not be joining them for exactly this reason. Iveera would’ve sooner taken Groshna’s super-heated battle axe to the chest than expose her crew to the troglodan’s depraved cross-hairs. She’d heard the stories.

“Let us have done with this business, Ser Groshna,” she called, vaulting the railing and easing on her gravitonics to soften her landing on the deck twenty meters below. “I tire of dancing about petty arguments and troubling whispers. Do you conspire at invasion, or not?”

“Conspire…” Groshna echoed, sampling the word carefully as his beady eyes roamed her approaching figure. He bared his dirty yellow teeth to show her what he thought of both. “Your words do not flatter, Ser Katanaga.”

“Nor do your teeth, Groshna Bloodborn,” she said, deliberately using his birth clan name in place of his current and infinitely egotistical clan title—Groshna, Clan Groshna—or his preferred Dread honorifics. Rankled hides were more prone to careless tongues, after all.

Plus, she somewhat enjoyed it.

“The question remains,” she pressed on, drawing to a halt a conservative twenty meters short of the behemoth. “Where does your armada sail if not to war for the Beacon?”

Groshna took his time answering, stomping a few lumbering steps closer in an obvious bid to emphasize their size discrepancy, all the better for him to look down at her from his big dumb mountain of muscle and armor. “Who said my people were sailing at all?”

Iveera searched the troglodan’s sneering face. She hadn’t truly hope to catch him accidentally revealing vital information, but she also didn’t cherish the reminder that Groshna wasn’t nearly as stupid as he looked.

There is something wrong with his Excalibur, Huntress, came Calitha’s voice in her head, slightly peaked from its customary calm. Groshna was watching her expectantly, no more than a sharp ten meter lunge away. Excalibur Knights were never really out of attack range.

“I did not come here to bend words and gossip,” she said, mindful to keep her swirling jin from betraying the ripple of surprise and suspicion Calitha’s warning had churned up.

Wrong how? she added silently to Calitha before continuing on out loud.

“I came here to have the facts. If your free armadas truly remain in troglodan space, and intend to continue doing so, then all that is left is for us to discuss how we might best collaborate in the recovering of this Beacon, as per the Council’s requests.”

I am still trying to discern how, Huntress. This phenomenon is unprecedented in my records. His Excalibur appears to be… corrupted in some way.

Corrupted? Corrupted by what?

In all her long years, she had never heard of such a thing. And for good reason, too, if even Calitha didn’t know about it.

“Yes,” Groshna was saying, leaning in just a bit closer, as if he intended to spring forward and snatch her in his thick arms. “I do have a few ideas about how the two of us might… collaborate.”

She was too busy glancing at the Beacon for some explanation to pay much attention to the barbaric implication in the troglodan’s tone. Even so, part of her—and not a small part—found itself longing to smite his over-sized carcass through the cargo bay doors and out into the black embrace of space.

Not that the cold emptiness of space posed much threat to a Knight. Her peers were not so easily defeated. Not even close. Which was why the sensible part of her insisted she either keep him talking and learn more, or get back to the Kalnythian Wilds before he could spring any corrupted surprises on her.

“And what of the others?” she asked, not yet ready to give up. “When did you last speak with the Merlin?”

That, at least, caused a real reaction. Groshna bared his teeth in an aggressive sneer, huffing out a guttural noise that no species could’ve mistaken for complimentary. “The Merlin,” he all but spat. “Your Merlin abandoned us long ago, gorgon. You are the only Knight among our seven who still fails to grasp the obvious.”

For the first time, the troglodan’s words actually succeeded at sparking a note of dread in her chest.

The only Knight? Was this corruption not an isolated event, then? Had something happened to her Excalibur brethren?

No, it wasn’t possible. She would have been aware that something was awry before now. Wouldn’t she? She’d seen Viktos only a few span ago on a routine border dispute. Calitha, at least, would have detected any such anomaly. She felt her Excalibur stirring to confirm as much when Groshna spoke again.

“I have a new friend, Iveera. One I think you will be very interested in meeting.”

Huntress, I recommend we return to the ship until we ascertain what has happened to him.

Iveera wasn’t going to argue. Calitha did not call for retreat lightly. Or at all, as far as fair fights were concerned. Something was wrong here. Something—

She’d barely begun to think about taking her first step back when the Beacon flared bright at the center of the bay, and something struck her chest like a rush of combat stims and the first breath of air after drowning. The air thrummed with quiet power. She forced the breath, reaching deliberately for her battlefield composure, dimly noting that Groshna appeared to be doing a much poorer job at the same task.

He’d felt it too, then. Of course he had. But he was also surprised. That was probably good, she decided as her senses equilibrated and she caught the ethereal hint of a familiar presence.

“My Lady?” she whispered, so quietly she barely heard it herself.

Could it be?

The air by the Beacon shimmered so subtly she wasn’t sure at first whether it had happened at all. But there, somewhere between Iveera’s physical senses and the very reaches of her spirit… The glint of those godly beautiful eyes. The fluttering of that pure starlight dress. And there was something else there, too. An ambiguous flash in her mind’s eye of dark hair and lanky limbs.

Human? Maybe.

It vanished as quickly as it came, right along with all traces of her beloved Lady.

Iveera stared at the once-again docile Beacon, trying to process what she’d just seen.

“It has already happened,” Groshna murmured to himself.

“What has happened?” she asked, though she was pretty sure she already knew the answer.

What she truly wanted to know was why Groshna, the second most junior and easily the most irreverent of their order, spoke as if he’d already known not only that a new Excalibur Knight would be chosen despite the Merlin’s absence, but that, as far as Iveera could tell in that place between the edges of sense and instinct, their missing Eighth Excalibur had just surfaced on the same backwater planet where the Beacon had awoken.

Because that was what she’d just felt, wasn’t it?

She didn’t know. All she was sure of, as Groshna turned back to face her across the rusty deck, was that the Dread Knight knew entirely more than he should have, and that, in that moment, for reasons she did not yet understand, he was no longer her ally in this fight. The troglodan, seeing that the deception was past, leveled his thick right arm at her, his fist disappearing, engulfed as the armor shifted to form a wide-barreled cannon, already charging to life with an ominous blue glow.

“Power down and come with me.”

If her head was spinning, it was not with fear, but with questions. Questions about what was happening on the planet they called Earth. Questions about what had become of the Merlin and what, or whom, had befallen Groshna and his Excalibur. She had to get out of here. Back to the ship. She had to find answers.

“This is your only chance, Iveera.”

She looked calmly from the glowing cannon barrel to his beady little eyes. “I would sooner eat slag.”

A fierce grin split his wide troglodan face.

“I was sort of hoping you’d say that,” he rumbled.

Then he opened fire.

***

Even with such savage beasts as Groshna and Dalnak among their ranks, Iveera had never truly expected to fight a fellow Excalibur Knight in earnest. Excalibur Knights didn’t fight one another—had been explicitly forbidden to do so, in fact, ever since Dalnak had lost his temper with Viktos on a mining rights dispute call a few centuries ago, and ended up turning an entire moon into a shiny new asteroid field over the affair.

Excalibur Knights didn’t fight.

It was simply too dangerous.

Somehow, though, she doubted there was a single data-pushing bureaucrat in all the many Alliance nations who would’ve pointed that little fact out to the Dread Knight right just then.

Iveera didn’t think about moving. Didn’t have time. She just moved, hard-wired reflexes calling her long gaija staff to her right hand from e-dim even as she amped the gravitonics through her raised left, skewing Groshna’s roaring blue cannon blast wide. She didn’t have to turn to know the blast had torn clean through the bay wall behind her. The explosive sounds of sheering metal and wind-whipping decompression made it clear enough.

Iveera’s helmet snapped to existence around her head, cradling her in breathable air as she darted forward, gaija held ready to thrust through Groshna’s oversized heart and at least slow him down for a moment. But Groshna was already moving too—far more quickly than any beast of his size had any business doing. So it went with Knights.

Iveera was still faster.

Groshna barely twisted clear of her blade’s thrust, his eyes betraying his surprise in the moment before his crimson helmet clanked to life around his big head. From there, he regained his confidence, swinging his hefty cannon arm at her with a mighty roar, and following with a devastating overhand swing of the ridiculously large battle axe he conjured from thin air. Iveera stepped clear of the axe swing just as deftly as she’d ducked the cannon bludgeoning, tightening the crackling line of her gaija, which Groshna either hadn’t noticed her breaking apart, or simply hadn’t cared about. Iveera didn’t particularly care either.

She blurred past the troglodan as his axe punched another hole in the bay deck, and heaved with all her considerable strength.

Weighing the discrepancy in their natural sizes against those in their skill and their time spent with Excaliburs, Iveera honestly wasn’t sure whether she could have hoped to outmatch Groshna for raw physical strength. As it was, the combination of leverage, speed, and surprise did the job well enough.

The glowing blue gaija lines she’d speedily looped around Groshna’s swinging arms and sweeping tree trunk leg all caught, straining with Lady only knew how many tons of tensile force. Groshna went flying across the cargo bay like a mountainous discus, roaring all the way.

One second had elapsed since Groshna had fired, give or take.

Which was why it was only then that the rest of the troglodans managed to catch up, adjust their aims, and open fire. Iveera darted clear of the kill zone, broke her gaija in two, and dropped two shooters with a pair of tandem blaster bolts. A third, she clubbed hard enough that she felt his thick skull shatter even through his dark plate armor. She leapt for the nearest balcony, using gravitonics to fight the screaming gale of the station’s outpouring air, and focused on Groshna as the Dread Knight crashed through multiple layers of scaffolding and ended his flight by cratering the bay doors fifty meters ahead.

Huntress, Calitha said in her warning tone, if I might recommend against charging the savage giant with the corrupted Excalibur…

It was only the last part that gave Iveera pause. She wasn’t afraid of the giant. Far from it. But if something had affected his Excalibur… something that might ostensibly be capable of doing the same to Calitha…

She couldn’t risk it.

“Namini,” she said, trusting Calitha to make the necessary comms connections. “Undock and meet me”—she dropped the nav point with a careful thought, distantly aware that Groshna’s underlings were drawing into position to regain their lines of fire—“here.”

“Yes, Huntress,” came the reply, tense with concern, but understanding from experience that now was probably not the time for questions.

Iveera shot a look back at Groshna, pulling himself out of the wreckage, then the first few heavy troglodan slugs pelted into her kinetic barriers, reminding her that now was not the time for indecision, either. With a hard thrust on her gravitonics and a modest blast from the tip of her gaija, Iveera blew through the cargo bay ceiling and into the corridor above. She gunned her gravitonics and took off down the dim, rusted hallway, aiming her gaija at the far wall.

A burst of speed and another gaija blast later, she emerged into open space, propelled both by gravitonics and by the venting of what little atmos remained in the open areas of the station.

There would be nine hells to pay for this once all was said and done. So much so that Iveera barely even paused to question the next part. The damage was already done, save for the additional wrinkle that the troglodan empire might well decide to take what she was about to do as an act of open war. Lady knew the barbarians would be looking for an excuse.

Whether it was intelligent to leave the troglodan Knight here with a Beacon, or even to leave him alive at all, Iveera honestly didn’t know. All she knew was that she needed to find the Merlin and get to the bottom of this mess. And the longer she could keep Groshna out of the picture, the better. So she sped around the mining station on her gravitonics, and set her sights on Groshna’s docked ship, the Crimson Tide, reminding herself that the damage was already done—the first strikes already delivered.

Then the ship opened fire, and whatever hesitation she’d been harboring bled away as the first of the twin lances of plasma splashed across her shoulder, overloading her shields and burning through the armor. Calitha was on top of the damage almost instantly.

Deploying defensive—

“No,” Iveera hissed through the pain, weaving clear of the next several shots as her armor sealed itself. “Lance. Full power.”

Calitha didn’t argue or try to resist, just helped Iveera funnel all their considerable power into the coming attack. Either Groshna had radioed ahead to his ship, or the Dread Knight had come into this meeting fully expecting a fight. Either way, Iveera was done holding back.

She thrust her gaija forward and gunned her gravitonics for all they were worth. The vacuum of space shimmered around her with the growing nimbus of her power, forming like a missile on the tip of her raised spear. Faster, and faster. Plasma bolts streaking past, tempting her to think about the searing pain across her chest and shoulder.

She flew faster, concentrating her energy, aiming for the thinnest point of the troglodan ship’s midsection.

Faster.

Then impact.

Jarring, sheering impact. One blinding, nearly overwhelming moment of it, ripping through the core of her in a storm of screeching metal and rushing air. Then there was nothing. Nothing but that searing pain, and the starry expanse of dark space all around her. Iveera rolled around to inspect her work and was met with the sight of Groshna’s well-endowed ship venting atmos and spews of debris, flickering with more than a few flames as it broke neatly in two, drifting apart in the dead silence of space.

That would certainly slow the troglodan down.

For a moment, Iveera almost felt a small measure of satisfaction at the rather impressive feat of having cleaved a Knight ship in two. Then Calitha buzzed a wordless warning, and Iveera caught sight of the Dread Knight himself rocketing toward her, a crimson mountain of rage, with his glowing battle axe held ready to strike.

Iveera forced a breath and unfurled her gravitonic whip from e-dim, preparing to fight on. Groshna didn’t bother changing course or even trying to dodge it as she lashed out with her whip and caught him around his enormous midsection. She deflected his hasty barrage of cannon fire with a gravitonic shield on her left forearm, preparing to thrust over his incoming axe sweep and catch him in an underjaw choke hold with her gaija line.

Only he didn’t swing the axe.

At the last instant, he dropped the massive weapon, his arm cannon folding back as he reached for her in a brutish two-handed grab. On a surface level, it actually came as a surprise to see the hulking troglodan going for anything other than the obvious attack. On a much more deeply ingrained level, though, it hardly mattered what Groshna did, or what Iveera thought about it. Her body simply reacted to the new development, triggering her gravitonics and twisting easily clear of the oddly clumsy grab. Or starting to, at least, before the brush of his armored fingers sent an unexpected spasm racing through her body.

Huntress!

It was the tone of Calitha’s voice that startled Iveera more than the odd sensation. It sounded off. Afraid. And as soon as Iveera registered that, she realized it wasn’t her body that was seizing, but her armor. Groshna was doing something to her Excalibur, and it only seemed to worsen as the Dread Knight pivoted around and caught hold of her wrist.

With a razor sharp force of will, Iveera broke free from the lock, flipped around, and drove her armored boots into Groshna’s chest. Hard.

They sailed apart, buying her precious moments to think. At least until Groshna caught onto the trailing line of her grav whip and yanked her to a halt some sixty meters out.

“Not so fast, gorgon,” his deep voice rumbled in her helmet. “I told you I have someone I want you to meet.”

She was about to trigger the gravitonics on her whip and send him to go meet the stars instead when a strange rush of light and power surged from the mining installation, snapping her attention back to the gaping exit hole Groshna had torn through the bay doors, her optics zooming across the distance to the Beacon inside, and to the towering dark figure who’d just appeared beside it.

The warrior was big enough to pass for a troglodan in his fearsome black armor, but something about his build, his stance, and the wicked greatsword strapped across his back all struck her as distinctly human. If she hadn’t known better, she might’ve even thought he looked something like a Knight. But that was impossible. The human Knight, the one they’d called Arthur, had been dead for over a thousand years, his Excalibur held safe with the Merlin.

A sharp yank on the grav whip in her hands shook all thoughts of the Merlin and the Black Knight from her mind. Groshna had tugged her line, and she had a fraction of a second before she’d be back in range of his corruptive touch.

She gunned her gravitonics hard, then used her gaija to cut the line on her whip when Groshna fought back. He lashed out with his own crackling net. Iveera blasted it away with a grav pulse and spun clear of the charging troglodan behind it. Groshna pivoted on his own gravitonics, bellowing a roar that Calitha mercifully killed the comms on. He charged again. Iveera held her ground, preparing to take her chances and deal him a blow he wouldn’t simply shake off.

Then the searing orange trail of a tracer slug streaked by, taking Groshna along with it in a hail of heavy gunfire.

The Kalnythian Wilds had arrived. And it wasn’t the only one.

Alliance fighters were pouring in from all directions now, their dreadnought motherships not far behind them. Iveera glanced from Groshna’s sailing crimson form back to the wrecked heap of the mining installation, her mind racing to determine whether now was the time to flee, or the time to press her advantage, beat Groshna into submission, and call the reinforcements in on their mysterious new arrival. Her mind went blank before she could decide.

Back in the bay, the Black Knight was reaching for the Beacon. Reaching casually, like he wasn’t the least bit afraid of its bottomless power. Reaching like he intended to simply take it.

She didn’t see how that was possible for a non-Knight, nor did she understand where the blackened fiend had even come from in the first place. She just gunned her gravitonics, desperate to stop him, numbly awed—maybe even horrified—by the audacity of this dark stranger as he reached closer, the Beacon pulsing brighter in response, reaching right back with swirling tendrils of light. It wasn’t possible.

Then, with a thrumming rush of azure light and power, the Black Knight was gone, and the Beacon remained, humming happily on as if nothing had happened.

Shock ripped through her like an electric wave, leaving her blank mind ringing. It didn’t make any sense. No one, not even the Merlin, as far as she knew, could just…

On her left flank, she was dimly aware of Groshna recovering from his ride on the river of gunfire, shielding himself and preparing to attack her ship just as she’d done to his. Too late, she aimed her gaija to stop him, and watched in helpless horror as the crimson-armored behemoth unleashed a blinding lance of cannon fire that washed the Kalnythian Wilds clean from sight. When the firestorm receded, the ship was glowing red hot where the blast had overloaded the shields and punched neatly through its breast.

Only then did the searing rage rise above the shock. Rage that Groshna could turn against his own order. Rage that he would dare to harm her crew. Rage that hit him with a blast of its own, as her numb hands obediently pointed the gaija staff.

The shot sent Groshna careening toward the oncoming fleet rapidly enough that he probably pinged on their low velocity ballistic scanners. Iveera turned and hit her gravitonics hard, mildly hoping countermeasures would be deployed, then pushing it out of mind completely as she thrust for the loading bay of her ship, demanding status updates from Calitha and Kaldo.

No casualties, they reported, as she soared into the loading bay of the Kalnythian Wilds almost too fast. She gathered herself, firmly stomping out the squirming nest of creeping apprehensions seeking to escape and run wild.

No casualties, and thank the Lady and all her stars for that. Critical damage to nav and q-drive systems. Life support and maintenance systems fully operational. Sublight and crusher drive systems more or less intact. It was enough for now.

They needed to get out of here.

She ordered Kaldo to withdraw the Wilds to the edge of the system, certain of nothing in that moment, but trusting the deep pang of instinct and intuition.

Eventually, after Lady only knew how many spans of Alliance questioning and threats, she imagined she might be able to explain what had happened here well enough to escape any lasting charges of treason or the like. But the sacred Beacon installation was in tatters, and matters of fair self-defense aside, she’d broken at least half a dozen Alliance regs and slagged a fellow Knight’s ship. And Groshna and that Black Knight…

Something was happening here. She was certain of it. Something sinister, and tremendously dangerous if what she’d just witnessed had been anything more than an immaculately well-manufactured illusion. And Council’s righteous wrath be damned, she couldn’t just sit around waiting to be tied up here for who knew how many span by the bureaucratic madness that was about to descend on this place.

She needed to find the Merlin. She needed to do it now.

And she was pretty sure she knew where to start.

***

“Please, Huntress,” Namini said for what must’ve been the fifth time, making yet another attempt for Iveera’s chest with the med-mister she’d pointedly loaded with a burn solution the moment she’d gotten a good look at Iveera’s wounds.

Iveera looked down at her own bare breasts and decided she might have underestimated Groshna after all. Once a smooth, floral green, the skin across her left breast and shoulder was now blackened and charred, and oozing unpleasant fluids in places. But the damage wouldn’t last. And as for the pain…

“I’ll be fine,” she said, taking Namini’s hand in both of her own, and giving it a light squeeze. “You know you needn’t worry about such things.”

Gently, she guided Namini’s hand to her left breast, where the blackened skin was already beginning to mend itself under Calitha’s influence.

“I worry for more than mere flesh, Huntress,” Namini said, more harshly than she’d intended, if the subsequent flattening of her jin was any indication. She traced her delicate fingers lightly over Iveera’s breast before folding her hands back in her lap. “I was frightened for you, Iveera,” she whispered, glancing toward the bridge to hide her face. “We all were.”

Iveera followed her second-in-command’s gaze toward the bridge, less than eager to admit that she, too, had been afraid for a moment there. Still was, maybe, though disquieted was probably a better way of putting it.

They were still adrift at the edge of the Golnak system, cloaked and watching from afar as Alliance, troglodan, and gorgon ships alike all converged on the not-so-derelict mining station, preparing to demand answers from Groshna and his beaten crew.

Lady only knew what an enjoyable exercise that would prove for everyone involved, but at least the fact that the troglodan hadn’t opened fire on the converging forces seemed to indicate that he wasn’t yet ready to do anything drastic and take his treachery public.

Now that she’d had a few minutes to think about her next steps, Iveera couldn’t help but worry that she should go back and make sure the assembled forces heard the correct version of events, and that Groshna wouldn’t be allowed to twist the facts to serve his purposes. Even as she thought it, though, she knew she couldn’t go back.

Whatever was happening, and whatever manner of blackened demon Groshna had allied himself with in there, her only advantage right now was that she had a mostly-intact ship and a head start.

She looked to Namini and took some small courage from the certainty that her second-in-command and the rest of their crew would follow her to the ends of the galaxy, no matter what she decided.

Of course, that didn’t mean she couldn’t accidentally lead them all over a sharp cliff to certain death… But she was the Excalibur Knight. It was her decision. And there was only one clear choice right then.

She didn’t have to ask Namini or anyone else if the q-drive was still down. She needed only listen a moment to feel Kaldo’s pain nearly as clearly as her own, and to know that it was going to be some time in repairs. That left them with only crusher drives, as far as intersystem travel was concerned. Painfully slow by comparison, but it would have to do.

“Tell the others to prepare for a crusher jump, Namini. We are leaving.”

“But Huntress, the elders will—”

“The time for politics has passed,” Iveera said, stroking Namini’s lovely green cheek one last time before she stood to get dressed. “Calitha will send you the relevant logs of what just happened here. See to it yourself that they are relayed to Elder Teedath, and tell Soladi to double check Kaldo’s coursework.”

“Yes, Huntress,” Namini said with a slight bow of her head, her jin aflutter with racing thoughts. “Huntress?” she added, jin pausing mid-swirl. “Which coursework should Soladi check?”

Iveera summoned a fresh tunic from e-dim, cognizant of the burning pain the settling fabric woke in her chest and shoulder, far more aware of how deeply tired she suddenly felt. Tired to the bones.

“Tell Soladi to set course for the Sol system,” she said, standing and straightening the tunic with only a minor grimace. “We fly for Earth.”


THE JOURNEY WILL CONTINUE

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