The Drath: Wolf-like alien rulers of the galaxy. Unknowable, all-powerful, predatory.
Melin: Desert world settled thousands of years ago by a human generation ship.
Nthanda Ceelen: Ruler of the Ceelen, space-faring clan of warriors, traders and explorers who exploit the Wave Drive gifted to humanity by the Drath.
Ru Shashi couldn't care less about any of it. Survival demanded all his attention as a Runner in Hexal City's Undercity caverns. Until the day that Nthanda Ceelen and the fate of the human species landed in his lap.
This collects the first three books of the Drath series: Clash of Lines, Joining of Lines and Consort of the Crystal Palace.
1. Chance Encounter
Ru dove into the alley, slid behind the huge black slime-covered vent stack and froze, face tucked as close to the slime as he dared. His rucksack of belongings, too small and light but it was all he had, pressed against the base of his spine. The hiding spot was the best he could do, the darkest spot available at the moment. Better now than before he made his delivery. Hiding with that big box would have been impossible.
If he was very, very lucky this spot would be enough. And if it wasn't enough then he'd be dead and that would be that. But he wanted to live.
The alley stank of rotting garbage and piss, no surprise in this part of Hexal City. No sane garbage bot would come down here. They'd end up jacked and resold, half their parts missing and most of their gears replaced with crumbling ones. Their parts would be worth more than they were intact. Besides, garbage rotted and went away. Drained down the sewers by the endless rain that came from the upper levels.
He shivered when voices came closer, shouting, angry, but didn't move. This wasn't Ru's problem. It never had been. The only reason the Bangers were looking for Ru was that he'd managed to walk by one of their fights just as it ended. Ru hadn't even seen who was down when the shouts went out of 'witness!' and 'get him!'
So he'd run and now he'd hide and hopefully they'd miss him and it would be all right. They hadn't had any closer a look at his face than he'd had at theirs. Face rec notwithstanding, Ru was pretty sure they didn't really know who he was. Skinny kid in worn leathers with his hood up, hair hidden and eyes behind glasses? There were a million of those out there in Hexal. More like fifteen million, really, and Ru was just one of many.
If he could get away from the search.
That was the important part, the part that had him standing still despite the water dripping around and over him, despite the stink of black slime in his nose and the rumble of hunger in his belly. Two days since his last real meal. Food tablets didn't count even if they did keep you from starving and passing out. The bread had been old and dry, the soup thin and watery with just beans and random shreds of algae in it, but it was real food so he'd savored it while 'listening' to the preachers selling their tales of heaven and hell.
Stupid to believe them. They didn't live here. Hexal's under city was hell already. He was supposed to think that there was something worse than what he saw around him day in and out? Get on with that. There wasn't anything worse that the things he saw every day.
"That way!" a Banger shouted as he ran through the puddles at the end of the alley. "Saw a hood! He's that way!"
The pack of Bangers howled and ran past the alley, shivs out and claws splayed. Ru glimpsed fangs and slitted eyes, pumping arms and legs open to the rain that were covered with tattoos and gene-spliced stripes of fur, then they were gone. Their howls, mostly awkward and weak compared to the howls of true Engineered, drifted through the street, up the little alley and to Ru's ears. Only once they'd been gone for a full five minutes did Ru carefully untuck himself from his hiding spot.
He peeked into the street and sighed with relief that no one was there. Then he ran the opposite direction, heading towards the lifts. One advantage of being a delivery boy was that he knew the entire Undercity like the back of his hand. Right now the lifts were his best bet of getting to safety. Not what he'd wanted to do, spend money on a trip upwards, but if the Bangers were prowling then he couldn't get home on this level of the city. And to get to a level where he'd be safe he had to go higher than his legs could carry him.
Ru made a point of letting one of the cleaner downspouts of water from Above wash over him before he got a ride on a lift. Sure, he dripped in his corner of the lift but he wasn't covered in slime or dirt and the other people on the lift, other than one tall, muscular man who really, really, really didn't belong down here, were equally wet so they'd done the same.
And that man was wet, too, just the sort of wet that said he'd gotten rained on, not the wet of 'gotta wash off the worst of it before I try to be respectable'. Gorgeous. Skin dark as deep shadow, hair trimmed so short it was a bare fuzz on his scalp, the man stood like a one-man army even though Ru couldn't see a single weapon on him.
Didn't mean a thing, not when the man was obviously from the Surface. Maybe from Beyond, outside of Hexal City entirely. Not too many people here had skin that dark. It spoke of deep space and exposure to the raw radiation out there. The poise said off world, too. He stood so tall, so straight, that he seemed to suck the air out of the lift compared to everyone else who carefully slouched so that they wouldn't brush up against anyone else.
As the lift reached the next stop, Ru's stop, the man's eyes swept around the lift. They lit on Ru, caught him staring fair and clear, which made Ru blush and flinch. The man's eyes, ice blue and shocking against that dark, dark skin, suddenly twinkled with amusement. Ru nodded to him, got a raised eyebrow and nod back.
Then the lift open and Ru slipped out. With the man on his heels.
Ru let out a breath and set off across the plaza. Nice plaza, only a little dampness from the rain above, some scrubby bushes in big concrete pots five times as heavy as Ru was. People were nicer dressed, not rich but nice enough, with boots that had no holes and hoods that'd actually keep the rain off their hair. Most of the stores in the plaza were shut up, blinds sealed and steel shutters down, but there was enough traffic that Ru didn't stick out too badly. Give it another hour and he'd be arrested for loitering just because he was there.
Up here you had to be different. Stand straighter, walk confident but not swagger. Putting on a swagger would get you arrested up here, just on suspicion. Wasn't like the High City where Ru would be arrested for not having proper ID chips but you couldn't be cocky here. So he worked on lowering his shoulders and using the walk his Ma had called 'places to go and things to do' when she'd taught it to him when he was tiny.
Worked, mostly. Ru got some looks but every time he got one he'd look at the signs pointing towards the next lift station, count on his fingers, nod and then stride onwards. Places to go and things to do, that was Ru, just making his way to the right lift station so he could go do his things. Which was get home, back to his squat, eat some food tablets and then curl up to sleep for a few hours before his next shift. All things to do, important things, yes sir, very important things.
He was just about far enough that he could get back down to the right levels when the man from the lift grabbed Ru's shoulder and hauled him backwards.
"Don't," the man hissed at Ru.
"What?" Ru hissed right back only to backpedal right into the man's chest as he saw the Guard coming straight at him. "What'd I do? I didn't do nothing!"
"They're not after you," the man murmured. "They're after me."
Ru stared at him and then cursed under his breath as the Guard spotted the two of them and shouted. First Bangers and now the Guard, just what this day needed. He jerked free of the man's grip, spun and ran at right angles to the Guard. Not away. That's an easy shot and Ru wasn't about to be an easy shot. Right angles took him through six big concrete pots who's bushes had gotten big. Another turn, right this time, and the Guard shouted.
He didn't look. Didn't dare. The man's footsteps were right behind Ru and that was all he needed to know. One man army like that could protect himself. All Ru needed to do was get away so that's what he'd do.
"Down," Ru gasped as he turned left into a broad street full of people hurrying home that his heels skidded on the wet pavement.
"Up!" the man countered. "I have allies. They will help."
"They're not here," Ru snapped at him as he wove between bodies, people, shouts piling up behind him that turned into screams as the Guard turned the corner too. "Down means Bangers. They're hunting tonight."
There was enough approval in that one word that Ru looked and yes, there was admiration in the man's eyes. He nodded, scruffed Ru so that he didn't smash into another concrete pot, and then they were off running towards stairs that led down one level. They needed ten levels to get to the bangers but there was no lift close enough, safe enough, for them to use.
"Hold on!" the man shouted as he picked Ru up and slung one arm around Ru's waist.
Ru screamed 'what?' as the man jumped straight down the center of the stairwell, not down to the next level like a smart if reckless man but the center, the pace where there were no stairs at all. He managed not to scream for more than a few seconds but damn, he wanted to as they fell. Just as Ru was convinced that he was going to die the man hugged him close and then grabbed a railing, swinging them like they were on a cable onto the stairs.
"Oh fuck," Ru gasped. "How many levels?"
"How many levels did we fall?" Ru asked, looking up where the Guard were cursing and firing randomly down the stairs as they ran after them. "We need ten levels."
The man looked, still as stone for a second, and then nodded. "One more level down."
"Stairs," Ru said as sternly as he could only to get a blindingly bright grin out of the man.
They ran. Down the stairs and out onto the slimy street where the howls of the Bangers were far too close for Ru's comfort. The man stiffened at hearing it, lip curling up on one side. But he nodded and then gestured for Ru to lead. Ru shook his head, waited twitching until he heard the Guard's voices clearly, most of them cursing and swearing to beat and rape their dead bodies.
"You owe me food," Ru said to the man, wagging a finger at him.
"I shall be glad to provide," the man replied with that brilliant grin.
His teeth were so white, white and perfect and even. Ru shuddered, bit his lip, and then nodded before taking off straight towards the howls of the Bangers. He was going to regret this. He just knew it. But the man was gorgeous and Ru still wasn't home yet. If he had to be trapped between Bangers and the Guard, well, there were uglier people to be trapped with.
And if he was right that the man was off world then he might have some very good surprises for both the Guard and the Bangers. All Ru had to do was keep his head, run and then stay alive when the fighting started.
He could do that. He would do that. It was something that Ru'd gotten very good at since Ma died four years ago. And if there was potential for a meal in there, well, Ru would take that up, too.
"Keep close," Ru panted as the Guard shouted and fired towards their backs. Missed for some damn reason which probably had more to do with running out of breath after the chase than anything else but hey, Ru would take his luck where he got it. "The Bangers are nasty, not the worst but they'll still stab you if you give them a chance. Or claws. Or bite. Or beat you. They don't care."
"Do they in fact hate the Guard worse than either of us?" the man asked. He didn't sound winded at all. Lucky or very healthy, Ru didn't know.
Ru barked a laugh. "Man, there's no one the Bangers hate worse than the Guard. We just gotta set them on each other and then run like hell."
The man hummed, smiled a wicked wild smile that might have made even the craziest of Bangers step back and away. "Good. I can use that. I will get you to safety, I swear it. You will not be harmed."
It was a promise so formal that Ru nearly stopped to stare at the man. Stupid promise to make right now when there was a pitched battle about to happen but hey, maybe that was how off worlders rolled. Ru didn't know. Didn't care.
"There!" Ru gasped. "That's them!"
He didn't point, didn't dare throw off his stride. Instead Ru ran straight for the pack of Bangers howling and shouting as they beat someone to death. If he was very, very lucky he might save whoever it was and his life, too.
Ru ran, focus narrowing. Time to fight.