Following Nophek Gloss comes Azura Ghost – the second book in this highly imaginative new space opera trilogy by debut author Essa Hansen.
No weapons, no masks— those were the rules of seedy places like this. Caiden tilted his hooded face down as he leaned his elbows on the bar. He scratched impatiently at his morphcoat sleeve, watching the material transform from thermal fur to leather and back again.
His bounty was plastered in every venue across the multiverse except here in Unity, the central universe. That was a trap—and so far, no more creative than the traps he’d evaded before.
The crowded bar was not a room but an open platform with seats, surrounded by darkness. Creeper boughs laced overhead through trellises, cascading lambent lichen and fungus, bright as lanterns. Up past them, on the trunk of one of the forest’s massive trees—kilometers tall and so dense they created constant night below—there bobbed the rare, absurdly expensive flowers he’d traveled all this risky way for.
Not traveled. Driven. Caiden grimaced and sipped the purple fire of his drink. It tasted like fuel and anxiety, stinging across his tongue, vapor heavy in the lungs.
Across a series of ambushes, Casthen hunters had been targeting the chemical packs on C’s collar, spilling enough to deplete Caiden’s supply of the rare elements that kept the nophek alive. The sayro flower Caiden needed in order to synthesize more life- sustaining chems grew nowhere but this planet, only during the glessing season, when leaves filled the canopy and blotted light below so bizarre things could grow. The plant’s short shelf life excluded it from distribution. So—Caiden was driven into the trap of Unity.
At least the lack of walls here would make it easier to flee. Darkness meant easier to hide. He gazed unfocused into his glass, peripheral vision broadening, brain parsing species-specific body vocabulary. Arguments and gossip fizzed. In ten years on the run, he hadn’t once stayed in a populated venue for this long.
It took, on average, twelve arcminutes before someone recognized him.
He’d already wasted three.
If the scholar isn’t here to translate in five . . .
Caiden side-eyed the security clustered on another platform past a bridge. They stood so dense together he couldn’t see the sacred sayro keeper—“merchant” for the right price—behind them. Not the first disreputable purchase he’d made alone. Unarmed. Languageless.
Ephemeris time weighed heavier with meaning in Unity. The multiverse’s time measurements, as he understood them, were based off arc degrees correlated with atomic frequencies, using the frame of reference of the center of the whole multiverse, which was Unity’s central planet Solthar. An antiquated, sentimental Dynast system. A way to remember that the multiverse, pre- cataclysm, used to be just one world, one Unity of consistent physics.
Scents of ozone, mushroom, and resin permeated the air. Water drops pattered and far-off boughs moaned. Roosting birds crooned atop percussion insects, music enough for the Andalvian who danced hypnotically onstage. Beautiful chromatophoric patterns flowed across their skin. As Caiden had hoped, the patrons were engrossed, and even the bounty hunters lurking in the mix seemed distracted. Just two to worry about: the tall saisn, his eyes shut, tuned in to broad sensory landscapes. And a hunter in a split surcoat in Dynast colors. Her eyes glinted amber under the glow.
Caiden tucked a snarl of ashy hair behind his ear. Ten years had distanced him from the bounty photo: he wasn’t that crisp, twenty-year-old thing. A bit of scruff on his cheeks and jaw helped hide his freckles. Bruises, scrapes, cuts—all over—scars. A lot.
No more associating with fellow passagers in sparkling white Cartographer settings. He was endlessly on the run from Threi Cetre, the Casthen Prime, who was imprisoned in a universe with an impassable rind. Caiden had stranded him in there by using the universe generated by his starship, the Azura, as a bridge inside. That miraculous technology remained the only key to get the man out.
Caiden ran with the key. He skimmed seamy systems and dark markets, evading notice and procuring what he needed to keep the ship and himself moving. Befriending no one, revisiting nowhere twice. He hadn’t seen his family in ten years, not since he’d been ambushed on the planet that was supposed to have been his haven for a while. He couldn’t risk them being made targets too.
If they still watched him from afar, they’d know the truth behind rumor and moniker.
The glass Graven star.
The Ghost of Azura.
The Butcher of Prixia.
I can’t run forever.
The lonely thought rattled in a well-worn groove.
The Casthen had made a hollow in Caiden, and the years since had carved it deeper. Monstrous things burrowed inside. Violence. Deceit.
Five arcminutes—enough. Nerves danced under Caiden’s skin. He woulddo this the harder way, then run again. He took a final drag of liquor, tucked his head down, and swiveled from his seat.
A woman stood in his way. “Can I ’ave yer drink, if you’re leavin’?”
She fit the scholar archive photo. Human, twice his age. Her smile tried to pull up the wrinkles of a well-carved scowl. Her thick hair was as white as the lichen and lit into a halo that contrasted with her cool-toned black skin.
“Scholar Faramei?” Caiden asked.
She tried to squint her large eyes at him, but it didn’t quite work with the delicate tech impeding on the sockets. White eyelashes quivered instead. “You’re Anixellan, then. Obviously, if ya have to ask who I am. All these slods know me.”
Anixellan, worldwender. The moniker he’d provided her. Was a name still considered fake if someone gave it to you once? They called him worldwender on the outer fringes of the multiverse, as far from here as you could get.
Caiden fidgeted at the attention. Most eyes still fixated on the dancer, but it was halfway to twelve arcminutes now. “You’ve already been paid, but you can have my drink too. Afterward. One sayro.”
“Patience’d be good for ya, young thing.”
He snorted a laugh. If ten years wasn’t patient, maybe he misunderstood the word.
The laugh withered.
It wasn’t patience if you weren’t waiting for anything. He was just a man on the run.
The scholar rolled her eyes, but Caiden wasn’t sure if it was reaction or activation: light swelled into her dilated pupils and shimmered over a morphing corneal membrane.
She snatched his drink and chugged the remainder, then strode through the bar, across a bridge, to the platform of market stalls.
Caiden followed only to the bridge, pretending to observe the forest while he sensed the rhythm of the air, the shape of the dark. His body tingled with anxious instinct, never relaxed long enough to enjoy the scenery of his travels.
This planet’s soil was completely transparent. Vast root networks knotted below. Underground river systems roared, bright with schools of fish. Overhead, swarms of lightflies and bioluminescent rays cruised the dark.
Faramei made it through the security phalanx to a counter with the gelese merchant, a photosensitive species native to the planet. They had ropy bodies with long limbs, their dark skin clustered with candescent pink blisters that matched their huge glowing eyes. Faramei’s tech let her perceive their language and replicate the mechanics of it: an optical luminescence filtered by multi- membrane blink combinations, invisible to unaugmented human eyes like Caiden’s. But clearly, the deal wasn’t going well.
Sayro wasn’t advertised for sale. To gelese who weren’t shady merchants, it was sacred. This gelese seemed less shady than Caiden had been informed. The crowd cheered as the Andalvian finished their dance. The spectators unknit, attention roving.
“Out of time,” Caiden muttered. Should have done this the usual way. Blood and fangs and speed.
Faramei spread her arms to calm the bristling security, but more than one fidgeted their hands around hidden glaves.
The darkness pitched inward to this one point in time. Caiden strode for the merchant just as the ten security officers folded in. Their paralytic glaves rose to the scholar’s throat. Caiden yanked her back while still striding forward, taking her place in the ring of weapons. Fingers half-squeezed triggers. Glave muzzles shoveled into Caiden’s neck.
“Leave, Faramei,” he said. “You were never here.”
He threw off his hood. Lifted his chin. Pinched his shoulders back and crammed a regal bearing into his frame. Soreness striped his muscles from other fights, his stitches and bandages twinged, and his bloodstream pulsed around the hollow in him.
And a burst of rancid shame, but there wasn’t any choice. This was a last resort.
The security hesitated at the sight of his face.
Caiden gathered up and sharpened his Graven will, hot as a blade. Reality, soft as tallow. He cleared his mind of anything other than his desire and met each of their gazes, pouring his energy into their obedience, fostering whatever cursed resonance it was that bent their emotions, that ripened curiosity into awe and festered awe into love.
Caiden said gently, to the group, “No fighting, I’m here for the sayro, that’s all. Just one. You can stand down for me.”
Squared shoulders rounded. The glaves eased off his neck. Eyes stared, fawning.
The gelese’s tight posture sagged and their pupils brightened, reverent.
Caiden swiped at the holosplay on the desk, inputting fund-transfer details while a sourness seeped across his tongue. He pointed up to where the sayro blossoms bobbed and held out his palm, hoping his Graven intention communicated something too.
The gelese scurried off their stool and climbed the trunk behind them. Their weedy fingers, tipped in bulbous pads and claws, easily scaled the bark.
One of the security cocked their head and glanced at the others, perplexed. A species less harmonized by Caiden’s Graven hormones or bioresonance or whatever it was. Usually the most affected in a group influenced their peers while confusion filled the gaps.
Caiden swallowed the sour taste and stared into the guard’s eyes. Years of evasion had forced him to learn that his Graven effect, paltry as it was, grew stronger with focus, like a muscle flexed. Or a monster fed.
He still wasn’t sure what he was made of that constituted the Graven part of his space-garbage genetics, except that it felt foreign and wrong, infesting him with a power he didn’t want but was too often forced to unleash. As if he’d struck a bargain with the Graven in him.
The truth about his hybrid genes lay kilometers deep in the Casthen Harvest and a classified organic matter or set of data called only “the Dominant.” The project’s scientists were dead and the subject itself lay locked behind impassable biosecurity.
The Harvest was the last place Caiden would ever go. Threi was imprisoned there, and the whole point of Caiden keeping on the move was to keep the Azura away. To hobble the Casthen’s exploitation of the multiverse and limit the reach of a Graven man who innately wielded too much power.
The gelese plucked a sayro and whisked back down the tree.
The flower head was a ruffled cone with gossamer filaments weeping off. The chemical it had concentrated from the tree fungus gave it a cyan luminescence. Now plucked, the filaments began drying up from the bottom like fuses. Five arcminutes or so and it would be worthless.
The gelese sealed the sayro in a padded bag before lowering it into Caiden’s hand.
“On with your business.” Caiden forced the words.
The security bowed to him.
The acid in Caiden’s stomach curdled into an ache. He pulled his hood up and strode back to the bridge. As proximity widened, the sight, sound, and scent of him gone, the Graven effect faded and the merchant’s group began to mutter. Ahead, the bar crowd of several hundred buzzed with inebriated energy. The bounty hunters were lost in the mass.
Faramei had fled—good. He didn’t need liabilities.
Caiden nestled the sayro in his coat, then looked up and halted. The amber-eyed hunter stood at the other end of the bridge.
She stared, unnaturally still. Uncertainty frowned over the bridge of her nose.
Caiden froze, too, puzzled by unrecognizable machine components and biology. She wasn’t a xenid, but clearly only an approximation of humanoid. Heavily augmented? Lustrous metal, obsidian, ashen hair, patchwork face.
“Butcher!” screamed one of the gelese’s security, pointing at Caiden.
The crowd swiveled, hushed. Insects hummed in the gap of sound. Amber Eyes took a step forward and the whole place erupted in action. The crowd became chaos. Bodies clotted the bar’s fenced exits. Bewildered drunks brawled with anyone nearby, and drinks became weapons, flying across the space, liquor igniting.
“Crimes,” Caiden swore as he darted into the fray.
A shadow poured after him—fast. Her forearm snapped around his neck from behind and his momentum yanked. He rammed an elbow into his attacker’s belly with all the strength in his augmented left arm. Amber Eyes doubled over. He twirled her hold down to lock her arm in front of him, then snapped it at the elbow. The juicy crack suggested organic bone.
She didn’t blink or make a sound as she grappled for a hold with her good hand. Zero pain recognition—a massive problem—plus her flat stare wasn’t a Graven-loyal look.
He flipped his position and kicked her knee hard enough to break it.
A glass drink shattered against the side of Caiden’s head. He swore and dodged the bodies flooding off the bar platform. His morphcoat puffed and hardened into armor.
Fully equipped security forces streamed in on illuminated walkways. The saisn hunter finally spotted Caiden, nicked a glave off the security, and fired first. A scarlet blast roared through the night. The darkness hissed in revolt. The energy bolt skimmed the edge of Caiden’s hip as he rolled aside and floundered to his feet, biting back a cry. Heat keeled into a sudden chill.
Caiden smashed a quick-heal pack onto his hip and dodged behind a tree trunk. The fall had angered an old fractured rib.
The saisn hunter’s aim targeted everyone’s attention on Caiden. But chaos was familiar to him. All his tension snapped into action. Reflexes glittered with the deadly precision and speed that had built his reputation. He was the Ghost of Azura. Charging through the fray, he snapped limbs, cracked skulls, snatched drunks to shield himself from glave fire, pinched pressure points, made weapons of glass and stones, matched violence with bloodshed while an involuntary mirth bubbled up in his chest, forming a grin on his face—and the volume rose on that empty voice that said Caiden was better this way.
Uncompromised. Alone. Blood and violence and a hot blade through tallow.
He plowed through the confused riot and sprinted into the lightless forest. His hip burned with pain, ribs sparked.
Behind him, Amber Eyes tore out of the brawl, stopped hard, and leaned into the air, crookedly—tracking him? Her arm was fixed, somehow, the knee still bowed but bearing her weight.
Caiden weaved around massive tree trunks, dodging clouds of lightflies that might betray his position in the dark. He slowed to desperately fumble the sayro from his pocket. It was squished and the filaments three-quarters charred. He unbuckled a chemical canister of fluid off his belt, flicked the lid open, and shoved the sayro inside. The flower melted and a reaction fizzed up. Caiden snapped the lid closed as the liquid boiled bright. He sighed in relief: this part wasn’t a waste, at least. He could make the medicaments he needed.
The Azura was docked on a landing platform a quarter kilometer away in a giant clearing. He aimed for the unnatural gridded plantings of fungus that illuminated a flight path into the canopy. Behind him echoed the rasping sound of Amber Eyes dragging her leg as she tried to follow him at speed.
But no one knew running like Caiden.
At fourteen years old, he’d run for his life. Then he ran from the memory of the slaughter. Ran from nightmares on repeat. Now he ran from Threi Cetre’s bounty hunters, and there was nothing more to life than feet pounding, wings sailing, heart beating.
He leaped from root to root, avoiding the transparent soil because what was solid or gel or liquid all looked the same. Bioluminescent fish coursed deep below and hinted at the planet’s freshwater veins. It meant absolute drowning if he lost his step.
The sounds of fight and pursuit faded off into a mush of echoes.
The ship dock was a series of platforms. Caiden stumbled with relief when he spotted the Azura’s disguised backside among the vessels. Paces from his ship, the neural connection congealed. Serenity glowed into his mind, wrapping his muscles around the vanes and thrusters of the Azura, sparking his mirror neurons with the components of her engine.
Bay doors—all it took was the thought command. The alterskin disguising the ship tore and flickered as the back iris folded open. Caiden dashed inside. He was greeted by monstrous darkness. A huge body rushed at him, maw gaping, paws slamming the ship as lethal muscle rippled.
“Stay!” Caiden yelled at C.
The nophek whined. Rough skin roared across metal as he whipped his tail back and forth in frantic greeting.
Caiden barreled for the storage wall, yanked a drawer out, and dumped the contents of his chemical canister into a waiting tub of culture. The sayro light purled through inky tissue inside. Caiden gushed another sigh of relief and refocused, popping the engines online with a mental command. Then the bay door—
C roared, earsplitting. Caiden swiveled around to see him leap at Amber Eyes as she dashed inside. The ship shook when he landed, and Caiden pitched to the floor. The nophek took up a sixth of the whole ship’s bay, and he bore that weight on the bounty hunter to pin her down. Her hands flew up, stopping his sharp- toothed mouth inches from her windpipe. This time, she screamed.
Caiden scrambled upright, swearing. Out the back of the bay, between the trees, small security vessels jetted toward the dock like a school of fish, glinting as they veered in the dark.
He signaled the iris door shut and limped to the cockpit, shouting, “C! Keep!”
The nophek’s giant paw pinned the hunter’s chest to the floor. He snarled in her face, and she winced and twitched more than she’d done when Caiden broke her limbs.
He plunged one hand into the cockpit’s misty glow. Particulate light gathered up into bright nerves, threading his fingers and forearm, whispering under his skin. Thrusters fired and the Azura detangled from the berthing. The other half of Caiden’s control was mental, the ship linked to him as if he were armored in it, its muscles cladding his, engine thrumming with his pulse. He had little attention to spare for the ruckus in the bay.
The ship’s alterskin disengaged—no point in it now. The Azura’s liquid-glass shell showed some of the forest surrounding them, distorted past the transparent contours of the Glasliq material. The security ships spiraled in their wake.
Amber Eyes twisted to elbow C’s nose and wriggle free. She launched at Caiden, and he could only catch her in his augmented left arm. His machine muscles plumped and the shock system wheezed as he crushed her in a one-armed choke hold. “C!”
The nophek whimpered, sliding to one side as the ship veered. Light-studded tree trunks slithered past. Caiden clawed his right hand in the drive guides. The ship crashed upward like a water drop through a lattice. Its glass wings splashed into liquid around three-meter-thick tree limbs, re‑forming on the other side, speed dropping. Flocks of luminous creatures swerved from their path.
The nophek fought for purchase to get near. Amber Eyes struggled. Small muscle groups dissolved, joints dislocated, and she melted out of Caiden’s hold. He flipped her to the floor while his other arm was still raised and shaking, orchestrating the Azura’s flight out of the forest.
He tipped the Azura vertical and kicked the bounty hunter toward the nophek, who crushed her under a paw. C’s other limbs braced, claws crunching into gaps in the wall plating as the ship yawed sideways.
Caiden vaulted into the pilot seat and pulled both arms through the light guides, heaving the ship around tangled boughs and slapping leaves. The Azura’s Glasliq wings splashed. Her inner scaffold skeleton tightened, ribs folding together to forge a sleek glass blade cutting the forest open.
Blips in the cockpit holosplays marked the security flock, which scattered and were quickly lost in the canopy.
The hunter was jellying again, joints rotating, more flexible than any augmentation Caiden knew. She broke half her body to squirm free from C’s claws. The nophek snarled and bit her ankle, but the slim running blade of her foot hissed through his teeth. She kicked off C’s skull to propel herself at Caiden again.
The whole ship jarred as she crashed into his side. Resonance armor screeched and dragged bumps across Caiden’s skin as the neural link mirrored the Azura’s impacts against the canopy. He clawed his hands into fists to power upward.
Rain clouds, sunlight, water drops. The ship jetted through lightning and out of the atmosphere, streaking into empty space.
Unity’s rind filled the cockpit view. A glossy, vaporous membrane, the vast surface formed the border between Unity and smaller outer bubble universes with micro-differences of physics.
Velocity peeled the hunter off his side. She clung to the seat and wrapped him in a choke hold much more effective than his had been: whatever she was didn’t feel pain, could go without breathing, and regenerated rapidly.
Five seconds before he lost consciousness.
“Listen,” the hunter said through gritted teeth.
Choking, Caiden corkscrewed his fingers in the guides, boosting the Azura’s speed.
Unity’s rind bowled over the ship’s nose, an iridescent storm licking the windows, colors birthing and dying through the pane, suffusing the cockpit. The bounty hunter seized up and emitted a hacking sound. Her arm slackened. Caiden turned to see her eyeballs glazing turquoise like oxidized copper.
As the Azura cruised out the other side of the rind, the hunter crumpled to the floor. Swirled patterns started splitting open in her skin, bleeding fluids as inner tendons melted. Strips of her skin foamed and sloughed off.
The Azura sailed on smoothly while Caiden looked over the hunter’s twitching biomechanical body.
Tightness whittled his voice to a whisper: “Too close of a call this time.”
Multiple factions chased him now, a new type of hunter, a trap he couldn’t avoid. His previous wounds were barely healed before each next encounter.
He couldn’t keep this up. It was changing him. Turning him toward a fondness for brutality and a reliance on his Graven will.
Caiden crept close to kick the bounty hunter in her hip. No response.
C stalked over and sniffed her disheveled white hair as the ends crispedblack. More than half her parts didn’t seem built to exist in the physics outside of Unity.
“Watch her, in case she’s still alive.” Adrenaline fizzled into clammy pains. Massaging his throat, Caiden turned back to the cockpit. Then froze, cursing, “Nine crimes.”
Just across the rind, a Casthen armada of hundreds waited for him, netted out across space.