Black Star Renegades
Warm blood poured out of his nose and over lips, but he was too distracted to smear it away. He was running as fast as his legs would take him while his brother urged him to “keep going, keep going,” even though, soon, there’d be nowhere left to go. Tristan was older, bigger, and stronger; he could have outpaced Cade and their pursuers with ease, but he stayed by his brother’s side, pushing him ahead. Cade sucked in shallow gasps of air as he heard his own racing pulse pounding in his ears. Exhaustion nearly claimed Cade, twice, but Tristan wrapped his fist around the back of his brother’s shirt, keeping him close, keeping him upright. He wouldn’t let them quit, not with the Zeros on their heels. They’d left their best friend, Mig, behind, having been knocked unconscious by one of the Zero thugs. Cade knew he’d be fine, though. The Zeros weren’t after Mig.
They were after Cade and Tristan.
The brothers followed the narrow, winding path that cut through the back alleys of the Kyysring outdoor bazaar. Tristan knocked over harvesting bulbs, crates of dried botho meat, and anything else that might slow down the maniacs chasing them. Cade cursed their decision to sneak out of the shelter, even though it was his idea. Mig was aching to get parts for the dasher bike he was trying to repair, and Cade was itching to break the claustrophobic fever brought on by the shelter’s confinement. Still, it was Tristan’s job to talk Cade out of his dumb ideas, and if he didn’t think strolling through a crowded bazaar at midday was the dumbest of ideas, he might have been experiencing really, really early senility. Cade and Tristan both had targets on their backs, and until they could jack a starship that would shoot them to the other side of the galaxy, the shelter was the only place they were safe.
Cade tumbled around a corner, a half step behind Tristan’s lead, even though they both knew what they’d find: a dead end. In the halcyon days before a ruthless gunrunning gang wanted them dead, all of Kyysring was their playground. They grew up on this planet and knew every inch of its market, inside and out. And that’s why Cade knew being pegged by the Zeros in the bazaar was the worst thing that could happen. There’d be no escape this time. They’d been able to outrun the Zeros in the past, outmaneuver them, even outthink them. But the rabble pursuing them was eight strong, and all they had to do was shed some of their numbers to block off the few points of egress, and Cade and Tristan would be bottled in. That’s exactly what they did.
“All right, all right,” Tristan said as he hunched over and cupped his hands together. “If you jump right when I boost you up, you should be able to reach the top of the wall and climb over.”
Cade shoved his brother upright. “Don’t be an idiot,” he said, winded. “I’m not leaving you.”
“You’ll do what I tell you to do,” Tristan snapped, taking a parental tone. “I’m your—”
“You’re my what? Not my dad, Tristan. You’re my brother, and we stick togeth—”
“Oy!” a voice called from behind. Cade and Tristan turned to see four Zeros, led by a scrawny leader carrying a pair of shock batons, coming their way. “It’s charming, you brothers having a spat over who is more eager to die. That decision is in the hands of The Zero, not either one of you punks.”
Cade could almost smell the leader—Qwayg was his name— as he stalked toward them. He wore a loose-fitting tank top covered by a fur-lined jacket, and he had a tattoo of an elongated star sloppily applied over his right eye. Everything about him was coated in sickly grime.
“Leave my brother,” Tristan said, stepping in front of Cade. “If The Zero wants to make an example, he can do so with just the one of us. He doesn’t need both.”
Qwayg scoffed. “This isn’t a negotiation, kiddo. You’re worth more to The Zero alive, but he’ll take you dead all the same. Your parents cost him a lot of money by attracting Praxis to our planet. And because of that, we have to show what happens when someone interferes with Zero business.”
“Our parents didn’t bring Praxis here,” Cade spat. “They weren’t helping the Kaldorian uprising—they were aid workers, not freedom fighters. Everyone knows that.”
“Too bad they aren’t around to say so themselves,” Qwayg shrugged. “Or pay the price themselves. Now—”
The other three Zeros raised their weapons at Qwayg’s signal—another was equipped with a shock baton while the other two were armed with snub-nosed outpost pistols.
“How’s this going to go?” Qwayg smugly asked.
Cade, though, was focused less on the threat of four lethal weapons bearing down on him and more on the strange man who’d entered the alleyway. He was standing a couple paces behind the Zeros, a three-foot wooden bo staff gripped in his right hand.
“Let them go,” the man said, evenly. “Let them go and walk away from here while you still can.”
Cade watched Qwayg turn around, slowly, the satisfied grin already disappearing from his face. “And who’s this? Granpappy?”
The strange man took two steps forward, and Cade studied him in more detail. He was older than any of the other Zeroes and wore a tight-fitting tunic the color of sand. His tidy appearance and measured demeanor were, to say the least, oddities on Kyysring. Same for the weapon. Cade noticed that three immaculate blades studded the top of his staff, but it was still just a wooden stick with some sharp edges. While it was nice for this crazy person to intervene on his and Tristan’s behalf, what Cade really hoped was that he could last long enough in a fight against the Zeros to provide a window for them to escape.
“Those young men belong to me now, so I’ll say this one more time,” the man explained, “leave them be and get out of here while I’m still willing to let you do so.”
“Do you have any idea who we are?” Qwayg yelled. “We’re emissaries of The Zero! We’re—”
“Poor choice,” the man said, and in that same instant, he twisted the center of his staff and it crackled to life. Cycling sparks of raw energy, dark blue and orange, crowned the top of the staff, contained by the protruding blades.
Capitalizing on the distraction his fiery staff provided, the man jumped on the offensive. He swung his weapon around, using the blunt end to knock the outpost pistol out of the hand of the nearest Zero. He then jabbed the same end of his staff into the Zero’s torso, doubling her over. Cade was about to yell out a warning as the other pistol-armed Zero trained it on the man, but before a syllable could slip through Cade’s lips, the man grabbed the doubled-over Zero and used her as a shield against the incoming fire. He then charged forward, still using the woman for protection, and when he neared the Zero who was shooting at him, he plunged his staff forward—close enough so the energy could jump from the weapon onto the man, sending him into a fit of electrified convulsions. Unconscious, he fell to the ground, and Cade could see the smoke wafting off his body.
The man dropped the woman and pointed his weapon ahead, waiting for the two remaining Zeros to make their move.
“This guy is awesome,” Cade whispered to his brother. Tristan wasn’t listening, though; he was staring at the scene in front of them in wonderment.
Qwayg tried pushing his last remaining ally forward, toward the man, but he wouldn’t budge. “You know what?” he said as he dropped his baton. “This isn’t even worth it. I’m out.” He kept his arms raised in surrender as he crept by the strange man, who let the Zero pass.
“You’ll have no such luck with me, granpappy,” Qwayg snarled as he held his batons forward, their ends pulsing with dull purple energy—nothing compared to his opponent’s crackling weapon. “I’ve been trained by the very best in close quarters combat.”
“That’s very nice,” the man said and launched into his attack. He held his staff in a centermost position, using both the charged and blunt ends to fight off Qwayg’s baton strikes. Qwayg came at the man with fast and varied strikes, but the man, as far as Cade could tell, defended himself with ease. And the more attacks he defended, the more ferocious, and frustrated, Qwayg became; he started to grunt with each swing of his baton while the man remained silent, his face a mask of impassivity.
Having tired of toying with Qwayg, the next time he came to attack, the man caught his batons between his staff; he spun his staff around, disarming Qwayg and then, in a swift, fluid movement, he swept out Qwayg’s legs and knocked him on his back, hard. Before Qwayg could so much as groan, the man had the charged end of his weapon pointed just above his face, daring him to move.
“Those boys are coming with me,” the man said. “Do we have an understanding?”
“The Zeros don’t surrender,” Qwayg grunted. “We are the ruling pow—”
The man inched his weapon down the slightest bit, and the cycling energy leapt onto Qwayg’s face, frying what few brain cells he actually possessed. By the time the man pulled his staff back, Qwayg was out cold.
The man then turned his attention to Cade and Tristan, neither of whom had moved while the Zeros were being dispatched. Tristan was was still dumbstruck while Cade was torn between satisfying his curiosity of finding out who this guy was and wanting to run while he and Tristan maybe had a chance.
“Don’t be afraid,” the man said. “I’m not here to hurt you, either of you.”
“What…who are you?” Tristan muttered.
The man twisted his staff once more, and the energy that’d been pulsing at its head subsided. He walked closer to Cade and Tristan as he slung his weapon over his back.
“My name is Jorken, Ser Jorken. I am a Master Rai of the Well. Have you heard of the Well?”
“Nope,” Cade sharply replied even though he’d of course heard of the Well. Who hadn’t? Defenders of galactic peace, spiritual warriors, all that stuff. But, Cade wasn’t sold on this Ser Jorken, and he wasn’t going to give him what he wanted so easily. Especially when it seemed that the thing he wanted was him and Tristan, which was more than a little strange.
“You’re a Master Rai. From the Well,” Tristan said, still spellbound. “And that,” he continued, craning his neck to espy the weapon strapped to Jorken’s back, “is your shido.”
“Excellent, you already know much,” Jorken said. “That will serve you well.”
“Serve us well for what?” Tristan asked.
Jorken smiled and leaned down so he could directly address both brothers. “For your training, Tristan Sura. And for your training, Cade Sura. You are to become Rai, like me, if you choose.”
Cade and Tristan shared a glance; Tristan was still agape while Cade shrugged at Jorken’s offer. Unlike his brother, tragic events had aged Cade into skeptical pragmatism. Still, if real, Cade knew abandoning Kyysring for the Well would be a considerable upgrade. If nothing else, it would be nice to live in a place where he wasn’t chased around by people trying to kill him.
“Does this mean we’ll get to knock the snot out of some Praxis a-holes?” Cade asked.
“You live up to your reputation for possessing a unique fire,” Jorken said with a laugh. “But that’s not quite how we operate. You’ll help people, you’ll provide security, relief, whatever’s needed to keep peace and justice alive throughout the galaxy. Much like your parents, in a way.”
Tristan looked once more at Cade, and he already knew what his brother was going to say. “We go together, that’s the only way,” Tristan said. “If Cade isn’t up for it, then the discussion ends here.”
All eyes trained on Cade, who wasted no time getting to the inevitable. “Anywhere beats this place,” he said. “Let’s go.”
“I had a feeling this would work out just fine,” Jorken said, and he led them through the alleyway, circumventing the downed Zero thugs as they passed.
They were passing through the artery leading them to the bazaar, teeming with people, when Cade broke the silence and their progress.
“Wait, I want to know something before we get too far,” he said.
“Anything,” Jorken replied.
“Why us? I mean, of all the people, why did we get chosen for this?”
“It’s simple,” Jorken said, as he backed into the heart of the marketplace, leading the brothers to follow him. “I believe one of you may be destined to save the galaxy.”