The vast federation of outworld states that formed the Terran Empire smarted under the unjust, evil influence of the Emperor Jrun. Daily, his tax-gatherers swooped down on the member planets, wringing the people dry of money and goods. But away from the decadent shell that Jrun had built up, out among the lonely suns of the Edge, a new power was growing. It had fallen on Kelda, the young star-king of Zandyr to form the union known as the Cosmic Echelon. A fleet of ships that dared to match the armed might of Imperial Terra. The ultimate weapon belonged to Jrun, a battleship which no power could withstand, and a force that could shatter the bodies of men. Here, you can follow Kelda and his warrior princess, Irrena, through the star-strewn wastes of Space; across the Dark Gap in which the empty wrecks of once proud vessels floated forever, manned by crews long-dead. And realise as Jrun did, that there are two kinds of laws. Those made by Man himself, which can be broken - and the laws of the Universe, which are inviolate.
Release date: December 17, 2015
Print pages: 95
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Within the band of darkness that stretched like a black cloak around the rim of that vast, vaulted chamber, Kelda, the star-king of Zandyr, scowled angrily. It was too much to bear. To stand and watch his life-long companions, the warlords of the Rim, bow the knee to the Emperor Jrun. Black thoughts stirred like a raging tide inside the star-king. His hand closed tightly over the jewel-crusted hilt of his massive sword, the knuckles showing white.
Swiftly, his dark eyes flicked over the bent heads and on along the mirrored length of the Hall. To the shrunken figure seated on the raised dais, the sable cloak of the Imperium wrapped loosely around his thin body.
Kelda’s thin lips curled cynically. This was no man fit to rule the warrior peoples of the border worlds. This smooth-faced, shifty-eyed lackey!
He gritted his teeth derisively. The ghosts of the mighty warrior Emperors who had borne that title through a thousand glorious fighting years must have been sickened by the sight of this gem-bedecked figure. This was the Zandyr’s first glimpse of the man who ruled the Empire. It was one he would sooner forget!
It was not wise, even for a star-king, to show disrespect for the Great Throne. But restraint had never been one of Kelda’s strong points.
With a muttered oath, he turned away and glared darkly at the man by his side. He, too, was dressed in the simple battle harness of Zandyr, and the broad sword that hung heavy at his side sent shards of light dancing off into the darkness. Like his sovereign, he had rashly refused the order to kneel.
“By the Gods, Gira! How much longer are we going to allow this puppet to make fools of us? This time it’s gone too far!”
The old warrior gave a short grunt, and turned an anxious eye along the pillared passage, his keen gaze watching the tall swordsmen of the Palace Guard for any sign of trouble.
“Quiet Kelda! Guard your tongue! This is no place for rash words. There are too many of Jrun’s men about for my liking.” He spoke urgently and with a tone of alarm in his voice.
“Aye. Perhaps you’re right. But this thing is no meeting of fighting men. It stinks to me of defeat! In the old days, no one, not even the Emperor himself, would have dared to treat the warlords of the Rim like this.”
Gira smiled grimly. His thin lips made a dark line across his grizzled face. “That’s true. But the old Emperors knew the quality and loyalty of their fighting men. We counted for something then. It was we who brought the Empire into being—and others like us. And where are we now?”
As if in answer, he pointed a hand towards the assembled warriors in the Hall.
Kelda nodded dully. It grieved him deeply to see these men, many of whom were his personal friends, acknowledging the sovereigncy of Jrun. For a moment, he regretted having obeyed the summons to attend this impressive gathering.
But this thought was unimportant; was quickly thrust into the background of his mind. There remained the nagging question—of what was to be done. Things could not be allowed to continue as they were. Already his people were coming to the end of their patience. No longer could he stand idly by and see his warrior men and women suffer and starve to raise the taxes imposed on them by Jrun.
In the past, it had been sufficient merely to provide the fighting men to carry the blazing banner of Imperial Terra across the star-lit wastes of the galaxy. Now that was not enough. Jrun cared little for the warriors of the Empire, and even less about the advice of his star-kings.
Daily, his tax-gatherers swept down on the outworld planets, demanding more wealth for the brimming coffers of Earth. And now there was little money left on Zandyr.
His dark anger growing within him like a flame, Kelda searched among the rows of kneeling men for familiar faces. There were many.
Andra of Mira, his flaming red hair glinting dully in the liquid torchlight. Querri and Essa from the awful wilderness between the Magellanic clouds. Over at the far side, half-hidden by the carved column of a stone pillar, was old Fiera of Cuun, a majestic star-king from the great white sun that flared beyond the Square of Pegasus. And there were dozens of others.
The Zandyr cursed roundly beneath his breath. “Come Gira!” he muttered sharply. “This is no place for us. Let’s get out of this den of craven cowards!” He spun angrily on his heel. Gira followed him wordlessly down the great length of the mirrored hall. The tower guards glanced insolently at them as they passed. Kelda glared back. His eyes narrowed as he caught a brief glimpse of the heavy blasters slung from their belts. They looked ominous, deadly.
He sucked in his breath, hard. Then strode through the open door, his features taut and set. His mind spun with a seething mass of half-formed ideas. There was an odd tightening of his stomach muscles.
The warriors of Earth were preparing. The blasters were an indication of this. Instinctively, he forced himself to think clearly. He had seen many Terran fighting men during the past years, had made friends with more than a few of them. But this was different. The appearance of these weapons could mean one of two things.
Either Jrun was making ready to extend his sphere of conquest—or he knew of the force that was gathering among the towering rocks of Quuldan.
Gira, too, had noticed the squat, ugly shapes of the blasters. His knuckles gleamed white as he grasped the ornate hilt of his heavy sword.
“I don’t like it,” he said in a low whisper. “There’s an air of black mystery here that bodes evil for our plans. These men are waiting for something, Kelda. Think you, that Jrun knows of our meeting place?”
The star-king of Zandyr half-turned in his rapid stride. He smiled grimly and his dark eyes smouldered beneath his black brows. “Who knows, Gira? Perhaps they only suspect. The Black Planet of Quuldan is well hidden.”
Gira growled angrily, deep in his throat. “Aye. But there may be traitors to the cause. Jrun would pay well to know of our little plan. Our warriors should be warned.”
Kelda nodded. “We’ll blast off tonight. See to it that everything is in readiness, and one other thing. Draw as little attention as possible to your movements. If Jrun suspects that we’re heading off-world he may try to prevent us.”
“Or follow us,” interrupted the other.
“Aye. Whatever happens, there may be trouble. It would be far better to avoid bloodshed at this time. I don’t want to force Jrun’s hand until everything is prepared. But quiet, here comes Jrun himself.” He hissed the low warning so softly that only Gira heard it. He raised his voice as he added, “You can go now, Gira. Report any further developments to me, personally.”
The warrior saluted and turned to go. His grizzled features were devoid of any emotion, but he flashed an angry glance at the Emperor as he left the chamber.
If Jrun noticed it, he gave no outward sign. Kelda studied him closely as he approached. Tall, was Jrun, and thin. His sallow features were twisted in a sardonic grin that revealed his white teeth. Only his eyes were unsmiling. There was an odd glitter in them that sent tiny chills crawling along the Zandyr’s spine.
“Well, Zandyr,” he began. “I see you found our meeting far from entertaining.” He allowed the words to drip smoothly off his tongue as though relishing the sound of each individual syllable. “What a pity. It makes things far more difficult than they need be.”
He paused as though expecting the star-king to speak. Kelda said nothing, but his face flushed under the sting of the hidden threat.
Jrun eyed him curiously for a few moments, then continued. “I trust this outworld behaviour of yours doesn’t mean that you intend to set yourself against your Emperor. I hear that the people of Zandyr are refusing to pay their taxes. Perhaps——”
“Perhaps they’ve had enough!” snapped Kelda, his anger blazing out of his eyes. “You hold all the forces here on Earth, but watch your step, Jrun. Warn your money-grabbers to take care when they land on Zandyr. My people are at the end of their patience!”
The Emperor’s eyes assumed a feral glitter, dark and venomous. He held his anger in check only by a supreme effort, then forced himself to smile. But his long, thin fingers tightened convulsively on the edge of his purple robe.
“You’re very unwise, Kelda of Zandyr.” His voice was smooth, but Kelda detected a note of hidden menace.
“We have a way of dealing with men who speak threats against their Emperor. I advise you to remember that!”
His lips snapped shut. Then he whirled and stamped out of the chamber, his booted heels making sharp tapping noises on the smooth, stone floor.
Kelda waited impatiently until the sound died away into the distance. Then with a single, sharp movement, he tightened his sword belt and left through the doorway the Emperor had taken.
Beyond the curving arch, the room opened out into a wide, torch-lit corridor. Grotesque, dancing shadows spun and whirled along the tapestry-hung walls. But Kelda had no eyes for the scenes of ancient glory that had been woven into the heavy cloth by hands long dead. His thoughts were fixed on other things. They were black thoughts.
A stab of suspicion went through him. How much did Jrun know? Was it possible that his spies had penetrated the Dark Nebula in Orion and discovered the mighty space fleet that was being assembled on Quuldan? Or had Gira been nearer the truth, and a loyal warrior had turned traitor? He tried to thrust the alarming thoughts from his mind, but they kept coming back, unbidden and terrifying.
Looking up, he found himself at the end of the long corridor. In front of him stretched the Imperial Chamber. A vast, dimly-lit room whose walls climbed upwards until lost in the smoky haze from the wall torches. At the far side was the open gates of the Palace, great, steel-barred monstrosities that opened out onto the courtyard.
But already, the gates were swinging shut. Kelda paused in mid-stride. There was something deadly about the unhurried calm of the guards. The floor beneath his feet shuddered slightly as the gates crashed together. He looked swiftly around. A faint movement caught his battle-trained eye. Someone moved in the dark shadow of a carved column. Kelda’s hand swooped downwards for his sword. The beam from a hand blaster stabbed the air close to his head as he dived into the s. . .
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