Here we go: part two of the Hades chronicles. If you haven't read the first one (Hades) I do recommend you do so – very little here will make sense without it.
Oh, by the way: if some of the Pred characters' names don't ring true, I've been changing them to fit in with traditional Pred lore (or possibly just the way that Veriea Fornnan does it, which is a good system anyway)
The universe is filled with darkness.
Throughout it, there are trillions of little specks of light, each one thousands of kilometres across, yet they are little more than sparks in the grand scheme of things.
In most of the universe, you can see those little specks of light in the night sky.
But not here.
Shadow sighed. The great Kavash Nebula blocked out everything but its ethereal beauty, great swathes of colour created by the dispersed light from other stars within its expanse.
>Do you remember the night sky? Back on Earth?>
Spiketail turned to look at him in amusement. >You're having one of your 'human' moments again, aren't you. What do the stars matter to us? All that matters is the Hive, and the prey.>
The bushes rustled, and they both tensed, before relaxing upon seeing a Snatcher, a small feline creature with extendable jaws, move onto the plain that made up the resting place of the Asphodel.
>Ironic. Before we came here, nothing would have caused us to tense. Now we do it at every sound. So much for the ultimate life-form,> commented Shadow.
Abruptly they felt a mental tugging, and swore quietly.
>Spineback,> hissed Spiketail.
They moved to the small, black dome-structure that was the new home of the Hive, a few hundred metres from the Asphodel. At the entrance, a pair of drones stood guard, and as they arrived, all four moved into the inner sanctum.
Spineback stood in the centre, the traditional place for a Queen. It was a blatant declaration of her authority, as she was still a Praetorian. None were questioning the position, though. The Hive had been without a Queen for two weeks. Too long, as Spineback herself had put it, under the command of a couple of half-breed drones.
¬I see that you've arrived,¬ snarled the Praetorian. ¬So glad you could come. You're just in time to see my ascendance. The Hive has decided that someone must Transform, and I have been chosen.¬
>Don't you mean that you chose, Praetorian?> responded Spiketail. >The Queen entrusted the Hive to our care. I would think that that gives us some authority over who replaces her.>
¬Silly little drone. Do you really think that the Hive would accept any other? I am first among the Guard. We need strength here! We lose some every day to the accursed local creatures, and we merely feed off the bodies of those we overpower. A strong Queen is needed to create strong offspring, in order for the Hive to survive! Do you deny my strength?¬
Spiketail hissed threateningly at the larger Alien, but said nothing. The rest of the Hive had no objections to Spineback's Transformation. Two drones could not go against the entire Hive.
¬Good.¬ Spineback turned away from Spiketail, and began to curl into a long spiral. Soft, fleshy skin generated itself from the Praetorian, forming a cocoon until there was nothing but a tall spherical column in the centre of the room.
Shadow and Spiketail left without a word. The moment they were away from the rest of the drones, Spiketail let out a screech of fury.
>We agreed! That bitch must never Transform, we said! Now… now we're all at risk! We'll probably get cast out for not fitting in with the Hive, and the Charon and Asphodel will get turned into a convenient food source! >
>Give them some credit, Spike. Humans aren't exactly defenceless. If we warn them to be on their guard, that might do some good. >
>I should have challenged her! Claimed the Transformation for myself! I had the right, the Queen gave me that right! >
>She would have ripped you apart. Praetorians aren't just big for show. All you'd have had would have been speed, and you can't take a Royal Guard down with quick slash attacks. This way, we're both alive, and can do some good to cope with Spineback's attitude. >
"It's hard to tell an Alien's expression, but I'm guessing you two are a bit glum at the moment." They looked up to see Holly Chance sitting on a fallen tree-trunk just ahead.
>I'm glum, she's furious,> explained Shadow.
"Nice to meet you, glum," said Holly dryly. "I'm guessing it's something to do with the Hive. You've been edgy about it ever since the old Queen died."
>We've got a new one. A… problematic one.>
"Let me guess… this new Queen doesn't like associating with humans?"
>Spineback hasn't said so in so many words, but she does go on a bit when it comes to power and strength. If it's any consolation, you'll probably just get eaten. Not strong enough to provide good offspring.>
"I feel so much happier now. Come on, let's see what Vathris has to say about this."
Shadow hesitated. >I don't like Vathris. There's something wrong about him. There's something wrong with all of the Asphodel, come to think of it. It's too pristine.>
"I'm not complaining. I know what you mean – we haven't been attacked by any big bad beasties since we arrived. Considering the rate we got them at back at the Charon, it is weird." Holly got up and stretched. Somewhere in the forest, a roar indicated that a levascara was on the prowl.
Holly turned to walk back towards the ship, but Shadow stopped. There was another sound, too soft for the human ear to catch.
A scream. A human scream. From the forest.
The levascara roared again with the vicious joy of a predator that knows that its prey cannot escape. Just ahead, only escaping the fleet-footed monster due to the closeness of the trees, were its prey: two adolescent humans, a boy and a girl.
The creature paused and sprayed a jet of paralysing venom from the nozzle on its head, but the toxins missed. It leapt back into the pursuit.
"Run! Don't look back!" yelled the boy.
"You… sure that… this is the way back to Asphodel?" panted the girl.
"If not, we're dead!"
They veered into a ravine, hoping that the levascara would be stopped by the narrow gully, but it wasn't even slowed.
And then they ran into the dead-end. The ravine ended with a sheer, solid rock wall.
The creature came round the corner, hissed in triumph, and sprayed them again. The boy took the jet straight to the head and gave a groan before collapsing as the toxins did their work. The other dodged the jet.
She gave one final scream, and then a black missile slammed into the predator.
The levascara screeched in pain and surprise, and recovered its balance. Shadow clung onto the thing's back, and with a ripping motion, punctured the creature's toxin nozzle. As it reared, he reached down and tore its throat open.
The girl slowly got to her feet and looked at her saviour. "That was… pretty good," she said, shakily.
>I've had a lot of practice,> Shadow commented dryly. >You're from the Asphodel?>
"Yes," she said. "You must be one of those bugs that came with all those people from the Charon."
>Charming description, but yes,> he replied. >You almost made it back to the ship. Follow me; I'll carry the other one. What's your name?>
"Elysa Varbolt. That's my brother, Tyrion."
>Call me Shadow.>
>Quite the hero, aren't we?> commented Spiketail, as she dropped from the trees next to them. >Though I must say that you took down that croc-thing quickly.>
>Like I said, I've had practice. This is Spiketail. She's proven to be psychotic, but is all right if you don't mind the sadistic attitude.>
Elysa grinned, not sure whether or not to take him seriously.
"How many times, Othar'a cha? Blocking like that may be effective against another Yautja with a ki its-pa, but will spell doom against something with more than one weapon! Against a kainde amedha, you would already be dead. Understood?"
Othar'a sighed in irritation, but bowed her head. The Elder was correct, but it still stung considering that she regularly floored her Yautja with that move.
The Elder sighed also. She was easily the best of the youngbloods under his guard, but she was headstrong and arrogant. Not good qualities on this planet. She would become a Warrior, no doubt about it – the restrictions of the Clan were not for her.
She needed to be taken down a peg or two.
"I can see your thoughts, youngblood. You can always win in the kehrite – you have come close to defeating me there on occasion. But you need to learn the ways of the Hunt. I'm giving you the challenge of zazin tjau'ke chiva."
It was like a physical blow to her. Zazin tjau'ke chiva was a practice unique to the Thwei Tjau'ke Clan, who guided all the Hunts and training on this world. Not many survived it – the Yautja taking part had to go into the wilds, alone and without help, for three rotations armed with only a ki its-pa (or combistick, as it was known to oomans) and ki'cti-pa (wristblades) When it took place on this world, they were allowed awu'asa (armour) and the shiftsuits.
This would not normally be a problem for a Yautja – except on this world. She had seen enough of the inhabitants to know that the Elder was not happy with her.
"Elder…" She stopped, unsure how to continue.
"Viewing your inexperience, your brother Kal'Arak'e cha will accompany you. He also needs to learn the ways of the Hunt."
Kal'Arak'e froze, but said nothing.
The two Predators stood, gathered their equipment, and left.
The ship faded into nothingness behind them as the doors closed and the cloak reactivated.
The moment it was gone, Othar'a exploded. "How dare he! Zazin tjau'ke chiva is taken by full Blooded, not by youngbloods only just leaving the kainde amedha chiva! And it is taken by choice, not forced! He is not even of our Clan!"
"Remember why we came here, sister," said Kal'Arak'e soothingly. "The Thwei Tjau'ke own the most dangerous hunting grounds in known space; coming here to train with them ensures that we have learned our skills well. If the Elder believes that we must face zazin tjau'ke chiva, then surely he thinks that we can survive it. His Clan would not be portrayed in a good light if we were to die taking a test that even few Elders have taken! Imagine the honour when we emerge from the trial alive."
"Truth," she grunted.
Something crashed up ahead, and both froze. "Shiftsuits," she said tersely, and both vanished from sight.
The cause of the crash was soon revealed. Two kainde amedha stood over a young ooman, one of the drones them carrying another.
Othar'a hissed in fury. "To take a defenceless child like that… come on, let's destroy the s'yuit-de."
The ooman gabbled something, and reached out a hand. To the watcher's amazement, instead of attacking, one of the drones took the hand and pulled the ooman upright again from where it had fallen.
"This seems familiar. Look at the size of the drones. We must have come across that mysterious combination of pyode and kainde amedha again."
They followed the four in silence, eventually coming to a clearing.
In the centre lay a huge ooman spacecraft, damaged but in fairly good condition.
They stared in recognition. "What are they doing here? The Elder was firm that we should be avoid contact with anything that makes its home on that ship!" said Kal'Arak'e in puzzlement.
"Something to do with the l'ulij-bpe paya, he said," agreed Othar'a. "This should be very interesting to investigate…"
Shadow hissed in relief as Tyrion stirred. Obviously the croc's venom was fairly short-lasting.
Something caught the edge of his vision in an oddly reminiscent way.
That was it. Just before they had ventured away from the Charon for the first time.
Now he was convinced. Something was watching.
>Spiketail will take you back to the Asphodel,> he said. >I have something to do, and I doubt that anything lethal enough to take on all three of you will turn up between here and the ship.>
Elysa nodded. "Thanks again for saving us."
>So what's this thing you have to do?> asked Spiketail. >I don't remember anything. I take it you said that for their benefit. >
>Yes. I'm sure that we're being followed by something. I'm going to try to catch them at it. >
>Good luck. If it turns out to be something you can kill, let me know. >
Shadow chuckled mentally, and then leapt into the trees.
The Predators watched as he vanished from their sight, but didn't bother to check where he went. Invisibility can become a habit.
"Do we go onto the plain?" asked Kal'Arak'e.
"No. Too dangerous. We'll stay around here, though – far fewer predatory species around then in most of the other areas we've been to."
A small light inside their helmets switched on, alerting to low power due to the extended shiftsuit use.
"Is there anything around to see us?" asked Othar'a.
"No. We should switch them off and start building a camp to work from."
Shadow would have blinked in surprise if he had had eyelids. The two little disturbances in his vision that he had isolated resolved themselves into tall bipedal creatures in heavy armour.
They moved around, gathering wood and creating a makeshift, but well hidden shelter.
Spiketail appeared at his side. >What do we have here, then? These your two trackers? >
Spiketail made ready to pounce, but Shadow stopped her. >We should watch them first. See what they do. For all we know, they could be helpful… >
First chapter of Asphodel complete, then. Hopefully all of my new Pred vocabulary wasn't too confusing. If it is, I'll put up an index in the next chapter. I also slipped in a clue about the true nature of Hades… see if you can work it out. You'll have to wait until quite late in Asphodel (or maybe even part three) to find out for sure, though…
Until next time…