An opaline beam of light split the clear Irescan sky. It burned upwards into space and unraveled, vanishing into the starlight. Kestrel’s hands tightened into fists. He was almost certain Shryke had let it come to this point on purpose.
There was movement beneath his feet, under the rough stone roof of the base, the “hive” as the Accileans called it. An accurate name, he had to admit. He’d seen beehives on Earth before. He did not know if bees were as mindless as the drones swarming beneath him, but bees were more placid, for certain.
A calling, a warning bell rang in the back of his mind. He stood automatically and jumped from the ledge. He sensed where the drones were all concentrated, reached out, and caught a ledge above a window. Had he truly been human, it would have been a dangerous maneuver, and there was still pain that jolted through his arm when he came to such a sudden stop. But at the moment they all needed to work on having any advantage they could get.
He dropped inside the window and brushed his thin blue hair out of his eyes. The next chamber, a vast, round, high-ceilinged room, only had a door on either side. He could see the drones’ eyes flickering, twisted lines of violet and gold and red glowing ominously in the dark. There were hundreds above his head. They would drift like fish, making circles in their murky aquarium, until they were energized. As Kestrel crossed into the room, only visible by the light reflected behind him, the drones stopped cold. He would have admired their discipline if he’d known they had a choice. He was a magnet to their lurid eyes. Only those with more than one tail could concentrate their attention on something else.
The drones flowed around him as he walked to the center of the room. He stared up, reaching out with his mind, hooking into them. He chose ten, nine tailless “stubs” and one a bit more advanced, and moved them close, as easily as moving his own arm. His voice rapped the walls. “A new generation of Skaeya have just opened their eyes. You will guard the gatestone, as close as you can get, lure them far enough away to intercept. They must not be allowed to see the Council.” His next order had the more sentient among them exchanging glances. “I want them alive.”
The ten left immediately. He released the remaining drones from his command, though they would not stop watching him until he left the room. “Commanders,” he barked.
Sylph, her curiosity just barely hidden in the sinister glow of her eyes, swam down to him. Several more followed, tails twining. “Human forms,” Kestrel said shortly, then motioned for them to follow to the next room.
Negative light flashed, and the sound of unsteady footsteps filled the air. Kestrel found Shryke in the next room, already in human form, hurriedly stuffing something into his mouth. Kestrel’s temper flared, but he kept his voice cold. “The Skaeya are now aware of their true nature and this is how you spend your time?”
“Hey.” Shryke waved the scrap of sandwich still left in his hand. “A good burger is never a waste of time. You should try one once.”
Lightning flashed. The burger disintegrated into ash. Shryke stared at its remains, then shrugged. “Since I already ate most of that you only owe me two dollars.”
Kestrel rarely asked drones to assume human form as it disoriented them, but the commanders valued a free mind and were often more useful that way. They were dressed in Skaeyan clothing that suited their primary tasks. Merlyn the weaponsmith and Kyte the controller wore military camouflage. Karacara the recruiter had a sharp suit and skirt, and Sylph had her usual tight black catsuit for sneaking around. “Where is Pi?” Kestrel question.
Merlyn crossed his heavy arms and snorted. “Who cares?”
“K, you ask every time, and he’s never here,” Shryke said. “And I don’t think any of us actually want him here.”
The others nodded, and Kestrel had to admit he was not all that displeased himself. “As it is. From this moment forward, we are only to make appearances on Skae in public view. The Caere has been attacking unprovoked.”
The commanders’ responses ranged from mild shock to annoyance. “Why is it attacking now?” Kyte asked.
“That is precisely the question I intend to answer, which is why I am not restricting you from the planet entirely. It is useless for us to hide from the Accileans, including the Caere, because they can sense who we are even in human form. We appear as a distinct aural void to them, according to Shryke’s source.” Kestrel eyed Shryke, who nodded to confirm. “However, because Skae is dormant, they do not wish to be known to the general populace and will not attack in the presence of bystanders. By conducting our investigations in close proximity to dormant people, we may limit the Accileans’ interference.”
He touched the bandaged hilt of one of his swords. “Unfortunately, this will not rule out all confrontation. You risk deconstruction at the hand of the Caere in your true form, and severe injury as a human. In preparation for this, I am to train you to use your abilities in human form. Your extraphysical abilities will be difficult to learn this way, but this knowledge may save your life. It is important to remember that when we are human, we have their weaknesses.”
The commanders looked skeptical. Shryke was starting at a small piece of paper in his hand. Only Sylph seemed truly concerned. Kestrel continued. “Their bodies and souls are damaged merely by our language. You are somewhat protected from your own speech, but –“
He inverted his speech. It was difficult to speak properly, his Accilean body rejected the horrific sounds before he could shape them, and the taste they left in his mouth nauseated him. But the effect was exactly what he had intended. Sylph went rigid, screaming in pain. Shryke swore and clawed at his ears. Even the giant Merlyn was doubled over.
“My apologies,” Kestrel said gravely, looking specifically at Sylph. “I advise against speaking that way at all on Skae — its effects are useless on Skaeya as their Axles protect them from its effects. But if you do, make sure you have no Accilean-form allies nearby.”
He waited for the commanders to regain their composure. Shryke’s eyes were especially venomous, but Kestrel knew he wouldn’t be so foolish to counterattack.
“Can we fly on Skae?” Karacara asked.
“Not in human form,” Shryke answered before Kestrel could. “There’s a seal there that affects us. Thought I’d tell you before K threw you off a building to show you.”
Kestrel suppressed his laughter, though a grin escaped. “Even I don’t know how to break that,” he admitted. “Our elemental control is limited as well, and like our language, it can damage your human form. A Skaeya’s element does not touch them because they can give it very specific instruction through the Accilean language. The Accilean elements resist us, therefore we must assert strict control over them. Until you have mastered that, it is best to choose a point of manifestation that is not touching your body, like a weapon.”
Shryke shrugged. “I dunno, dude. I don’t think most of us have elements that are that useful, at least against the Caere. I mean, what is that thing, anyway? They call it the Blue Star on Earth, but obviously it’s not actually a star or else the forests it lives it would be starting on fire way more often. My shadows can’t do anything against something that’s made of light. Sylph already proved her poison doesn’t work on it.”
“I suspect what is happening on Skae concerns more than the Skaeya and Caere. At the same time, something is different about these particular Skaeya.”
“You mean besides that they’re little kids? They probably don’t know any more than we do.”
Kestrel frowned. “No, they would not. That is not the Accileans’ way. They are very young, though, and they may be influenced towards our cause, which as primarily why I want them captured rather than killed.”
“And who’s going to babysit them? Not me.”
Lightning sparked at Shryke’s feet. He jumped, then hurried away.