This is the eighth in a series of stories written by Arinn Dembo describing various bits of backstory in the SotS universe. It takes place after the events detailed in the first seven stories Incident at Ko'Grappa, Incident at Avalon, Escape From Avalon--Part One, Escape From Avalon--Part Two, Rendezvous at Ke'Vanthu, The Council of Chozanti and The Battle of the Jade Mirror--Part One. The original post and discussion can be found on the Kerberos Forum.

These chapters and more are contained within a novel released as part of the Collectors Edition.

“Sweet Bleeding Gods of the Abyss.” The Amtara shook his head. “I do believe that is the ugliest damned thing I’ve ever seen.”

She tapped her wrist–guard, zooming the camera view in tighter on the alien cruiser. “If there are gods in the abyss,” she agreed dryly, “That ship was built in their harbor.”

As they watched, a pair of heavy hooks deployed from the belly of the strange patchwork vessel to grapple the Hiver freighter. The ship was held in a parasitic grip and reeled closer to the enemy’s ventral hull; Sara winced as glowing plasma torches emerged on mechanical arms and began to slice, cutting cleanly through the bulkhead fore of the engine like a surgeon’s scalpel.

In the forward sections of the Jade Mirror, the lights went dead – she could almost hear the life support systems grind to a halt. Take a deep breath, Caido, she thought. And pray that all of Ishii’s tricks will work.

“They are good at what they do. And whatever they are – they are growing bolder.” He turned slightly in his chair. “That is no raider. It is a ship of the line. If they are building vessels of such a size, they mean to use them soon. In the open.”

“I believe you are right.” The Iron Lotus stood on the command deck of the Tarkasian crusier Habas’ku, her hand placed in the ceremonial position upon the back of the Amtara’s chair. She favored the old man with a pupil–smile, never taking her eyes from the viewscreen before them. Only her tail betrayed any agitation…rolling in a slow, lazy circle upon the bulkhead. It could lash out in a strike or draw the blade sheathed at her calf in a split–second.

“And these are the things that attacked the House of Grappa.” He flexed his fist and turned back to the screen, crest bristling with menace. “Say the word, my Lady. We are ready to send them back to hell.”

“Ne.” She spoke quietly. “Patience, Amtarado. Stay hidden. Let them take our bait. Then we will move in – to cripple, not to kill.” She bared her teeth. “We will take them as they have taken us. Alive.”

He growled in the back of his throat, a low deep rumble of impending aggression that thrummed through her fingertips and into the room like a crack of thunder. Every woman on the bridge could feel it – that surging thrill of masculine power. A moment later the navigator threw a quick, appraising glance over one shoulder, her pupils rounded with desire.

Sara’s tongue flickered. Seeing her force commander’s silent laughter, the pilot turned abruptly back to her console and became urgently interested in scanning the debris field. “Holding position, Amtara.” She spoke crisply, and pointedly addressed her immediate superior. “They have not detected our presence.”

Sara answered almost musingly. “They cannot penetrate the cloak. This we learned at Avalon.” She watched with fascination as the strange alien ship extended a boarding chute toward the freighter, now helpless in its grip. Her tail resumed its restless coiling dance. “We should be safe for now. Maintain radio silence.”

“’Safe’? We are more than ‘safe’, surely.” The Amtara swept out a hand to indicate the full complement of ships under his command. “I do not understand why we wait, my Lady. We outnumber them four to one.” There was a hint of petulance in his tone. “And yet we cower and skulk among the corpses?”

“We do as we agreed,” she said sharply. “We have allies aboard that ship, Amtara. Oath–brothers who risk their lives in an act of subterfuge. They depend upon our ability to carry out this plan.” Her voice was laden with a deadly chill. “If you are incapable of subtlety, say the word. I am sure I can find someone to command this fane with more finesse.”

The old man stiffened. “You will find me quite capable of anything you require, Lac Tara. If the details of your plan had been shared with me…”

She resisted the urge to cut him off impatiently, letting his words trail off into silence without reply. Rather than speak, she watched the Ripper ship nose through the debris field aimlessly, dragging the smaller Hiver vessel along in its arms like a jin–fly winging aloft with its prey. He was watching her from the corner of his eye; she permitted herself a womanly shiver.

After a brief, awkward pause, he spoke again. “I apologize. Your sibling is a brave lad.”

She let her eyelids close briefly in agreement. Too brave, she thought. Too brave, too young, too willing. I should never have permitted this. I should have used someone else’s brother.

She could still see the way he had caressed the mound of eggs with his slender hand, the way his fingertips trembled – wanting, but afraid to take. “But shouldn’t I earn these, Saradora?” His expression had been painfully open. He had never so much as entwined a woman before, much less tasted her favor. A boy’s longing to be a man now warred with his sense of rightness, and everything hung upon his heart–breaking faith that Big Sister would know what was best.

Big Sister would never lead him astray.

“You will, Landomo. Believe me, you will.” She caressed his crest lovingly, and drew him close. “You are a clever boy, my brother.” She embraced him, letting him feel the steady beat of her heart against his chest. “And someday, you will be a brilliant man. But for now, Ishii says that you must be something in between. You must meet this enemy neither before nor after the Change…but during.”

She released him and reached to the bowl, heaped with the pearlescent treasure. It had taken less than a day to gather this prize; she had only to send the message to her list of contacts. Upon receiving those three words — “I need a favor” — her friends and allies had sent enough of these to Change a dozen men.

Carefully she selected the one she had marked with a drop of blood.

“This one is mine.” She offered it to him, holding the creamy golden oval in her palm. “I ask you to take it, my brother. It is the greatest honor I have to bestow. It will hurl you into the teeth of my enemies. It will bring you pain, and madness, and an early death. If there was any other I could trust—“

“I am honored.” He cut her off, his young voice surprisingly firm. Without hesitation, he took the egg and placed it between his incisors. Her heart clenched with fierce love as he tilted his head back and split the egg between his teeth. A true Konai, he savored every drop of the rich yolk, letting it bleed over his tongue and down his throat slowly. Then he crushed the shell and swallowed it, eyes lidded with sensual pleasure.

When he lowered his head and looked at her again, his pupils blazed red – but his dreamy smile was still a boy’s. “Wonderful. Are they all so sweet—?”

She shook her head. “I have been told that every woman is different.” She reached to the bowl again, playfully. “Perhaps you should try another?”

He hesitated. “How many should I have? Do I need to eat them all?” He took the egg gingerly, a small round favor with a brilliant emerald hue. “I have never read the Books of Change. I thought it would be years before I needed them...”

And again she felt that pang of shame and regret. It should have been. Poor, poor Landomo. My sweet little kinsman. It should have been years.

Her heart went out to him, alone now in the dark bowels of the Hiver ship. It must be cold, waiting in the silence of his armor for the enemy to find him. He would have dragged as many of the sleeping Hivers as possible into position, placing the majority of bodies on the bridge and in the engine room. Command staff and and engineers would not be killed immediately when the Rippers boarded – this much they knew.

Her reverie was interrupted by the voice of the navigator. “A second ship, Amtara.” Her voice was tense. “Coming from the void.”

Sara’s eyes flew open just in time to see the grim silhouette sliding from its unholy tear in the universe. As before, the arrival of a Ripper ship reminded her uncomfortably of the way a blade punched through an enemy’s back might look as it emerged from her chest.

This one was even uglier than its sister, a hammer–headed monstrosity bristling with guns. Even on its midsection it carried more heavy turrets than two comparable Tarkasian cruisers combined.

Bitterly she turned to the commander. “Well, Amtara? What do you think? Does this even up the odds to your satisfaction?”

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