Thursday, June 17, 2010

The Pilgrim's Journey: An Unbeliever's Tale

Along the Path of Kai-Rang, An Unbeliever's Tale of Pilgrimage

Part I: Here be Dragons
On the Path of the sixteen Matriarchs of Kai-Rang

I have traveled from one side of the verse to other hunting critters. Although I am not a big game hunter, I regularly stalk the fauna of the verse as a matter of course, for the ribbons of honor and experience they bring. I am not a killing machine by any means. I experience joy in the chase, and respect a creature that can put up a serious fight. But I never had more than a little regard for the spirits of the beasts I was dispatching, seeing them as mere targets.

Finding myself in the UKC yesterday, I set myself with a task; a mission so to speak. I would clean out all three dragon dens in just one day. Taking down the dens in PU-07 and Dainfa went relatively easy. Although I lost shields and most of my armor, my hull remained untouched. But then something unexpected happened to me in Ethedex. I cleared the entire den of dragon brood, but could not find the Queen. Dejected and running low on fuel, I turned for the safety of the starbase outside the nook to await her return.

Out of nowhere the Matriarch struck. Rir wrapped her sinuous red energy around my ship. Her claws tore through my tiny shield and what remained of my armor, leaving me with just a few scraps of hull. I fired into her belly several times, causing severe damage to her and bringing her to the brink of death. Since I have never had a difficulty killing dragons in the past, I reveled in the fight she was giving. Expecting to die, I fired what I thought would be my last shot into the Matriarch just as she consumed my ship with the fire of her body and breath.

I lost consciousness, falling into a hazy darkness that encased my mind and slowed my breathing. Languishing in the black nothing of oblivion, I heard a low rumbling growl at the edge of consciousness. The snarl grew louder and louder in pitch, going from a vague whisper to a booming ground shaking roar that vibrated my physical surroundings, filling my head with pain and ecstasy.

As the waves of noise race over my body and across my mind, I became aware of traces of words in the roar. I concentrated upon them, realizing at once that the Matriarch was speaking to me. She told me that she had been drawn to me. My experiences from the last war had consumed my soul with anger and spite, becoming a burning intense hatred that had been distracting me from my destiny. With war once again coming to the verse, the spirit of Unquenchable Anger, the Matriarch of Wrath, Koo-Rir commanded me to take up the robes of a pilgrim on the path of Kai-Rang to quench embers of wrath consuming me.

I awoke alone in the den. Leaving Ethedex, I traveled to the temple of Kai-Rang and knelt before Codex Delphi, the leader of the Theocracy of Kai-Rang, the true keepers of the faith. I received his blessings, donned the pilgrim robes and now seek the way of the Kai-Rang.

I seek the way as a test of not only my combat ability, but of my diplomacy, endurance, and patience, while honoring the Matriarchs.

Part II: Into the Dragon’s Lair

After taking up the robes, I returned to Ethedex to commune with Rir once again. My anticipation was great. Rir had nearly defeated me when she spoke to me, and I had no doubt she may not have returned to the den. Rather than destroy her brood, as the hunter in me so desired, I chose to follow the way of the pilgrimage and seek Rir out first. To my surprise, Rir was awaiting me. Unlike our first meeting, she made no attempt to attack me and quickly fell to my weapons. I said a prayer of thanks to her for putting me on the path, dispatched her brood and returned to the starbase Desert Jewel on the edge of the den.

After repairing my ship, I headed to Dainfa sector and quickly moved toward the mouth of the Matriarch’s den. Passing by the starbase Revolutions, I headed up into the neck of the lair. Just as my scanners began to fail, Koo-Kaj revealed her fires to me. Alone just inside her lair, Kaj must have heard me coming and chose to meet me away from her children, giving herself to me so I would not dispatch her brood as well. I honored her sacrifice, choosing to leave her children alone.

Thus begins my first steps along the way of Kai-Rang. The ease of my journey affirms to me that Kai-Rang and the matriarchs have set a plan to restore me to my destiny. I shall pray for a glimpse at their wisdom, then I shall rest for the night to restore my strength.

Part III: Communing with Koo-Sahas
From Dainfa, I left the UKC and headed toward Pass Union -07 to commune with Koo Sahas, the Matriarch of Courage.

Stopping briefly at the Evergreen Oasis, I bought a clod as a donation for the Union defense fund for the Pass. Although I am not a member of any faction, preferring the freedom that comes with neutrality rather than being drawn into the intrigue and pandemonium that seems to constantly swirl between the factions, I believe travelers should contribute to the local support systems. Defensive walls may be annoying barriers when one is stuck on the wrong side of a Military Outpost, but it is difficult to reject the peace and tranquility they provide to the inhabitants therein. As beautiful as the neutral zone can be, with its freedom of passage and wide open space lanes, it is also a dangerous and uncertain local in comparison to faction space.

I surveyed the mouth of the Matriarch’s den. Unlike the others I had visited so far, the entrance has a wide almost inviting quality. I poke into the interior, and quickly came in contact with Sahas brood. Before I knew what was occurring, twelve young dragons swirled around my ship. Again and again, they through themselves against my hull. I felled them all without much effort, but the courage and audacity of their attack impressed me. As I pushed deeper into the den, I began to encounter elder dragons with increasing frequency. They too, seemed to through themselves at me, pushing me first in one direction and then another.

Before I knew what had happened, I realized they had led me in circles, reducing my fuel and weakening my hull. All the while, the Sahas’ brood drove me deeper and deeper into the Matriarch’s lair. Hitting the furthest reaches of the den, I began to despair that I would not find Sahas and commune with her, destroying her brood for no true purpose. Such a thought was alien to one such as I, who had hunted hundreds of dragons and other beasts without little regard for their destruction. But the thought of eradicating an entire den of dragons without the prospect of finishing in the embrace of the Matriarch saddened me greatly. I have only just begun my pilgrimage, and yet have already begun to change it seems.

Uncertain where to go next, and unwilling to wait indefinitely in the den as some pilots are want to do, I turned back to the mouth of the den and the ship docks of the Evergreen Oasis. Travelling several hundred meters, a faint red glow just on the outskirts of my field of vision caught my attention. Was that the visage of Sahas?

I looked at my scanners, but there was so much interference that they did not register any contact. I wanted to believe that Sahas was there, just outside my line of sight, and that my scanners had failed. But I could not be certain what my eyes perceived. I began to second guess myself, and just before I decided to ignore the sight I began to sense a presence in the direction of the glow my eyes beheld. Tingling with emotion, I was unwilling to ignore the possibility of contact any further, and I turned my ship.

Within moments Sahas form became clear to me. She was a massive glowing mountain of red energy, swirling one direction and then another. In order to honor her with my own courage, I moved close, letting her take the first strike. It was powerful blow, tearing my shields to bits and ripping into my armor, but Sahas blow failed to destroy me and open her to my own attack. Rather than pull away and pound her from afar, I threw my throttle to full and raced in for a close kill. Although it opened me to my own destruction, the nearness allowed my strikes to cause maximum damage and precluded any possibility of an errant shot. The great Matriarch Sahas fell with thirteen quick and successive hits, killing her before she could cause me further damage.

I left the den without incident, repaired my ship at the Evergreen and headed toward the next den. I have neither the energy nor the strength to make it today, but that is okay. I believe that time alone in my ship will give me a chance to think about what transgressed in PU-07. Already something unexpected has begun to happen inside me. Something I am not sure I am a prepared to fully understand. Perhaps, I shall pray to the Matriarchs for their guidance.

Part IV: The Dragon with Two Names
Leaving union space through Koo Sahas’ pass, I entered into Lane. Nothing beats the neutral zone. The moment you enter it, you immediately see everything differently. Only a fool doesn’t question passage through every choke or look at buildings as the perfect hiding point for an uncloaked ambush. Every movement has a tension about it. No matter what happens, the NZ will always have a feel of lawless uncertainty for me, and I absolutely love it.

That being said, Lane is relatively civilized. I have never been attacked there, nor run into too many bounty hunting barricades. Nothing beats Lane for critters to hunt and increase skills on. Lots of safe docking areas. The inhabitants are usually friendly, and even helpful. If you have the credits, Solaqu offers the best and safest hunting grounds. But for those of us without money to burn, it is relatively safe to go about the place killing x-squads, battlecruisers, ebees, sparklers and zs of nearly every incarnation. Some may protest the wanton destruction, and a pilot or two may get a pod ride for surfing the shields too long, but mostly life in Lane is not much different that faction space; at least, in my experience.

What this basically means is that I had an uneventful trip from Ioquex to Aandti. Things got a little pucker tight in the choke from Aandti to Vecelia, but not because I even came across an ambush. It is just the perfect place to attack, and no hunter, soldier, or even a civilian can deny it. There is but one way in and out. If a spot like that does not cause you a little puckering in the rectal area when you have to pass through it, then you might as well retire, because you’re dead.

GAP is quite different. Don’t get me wrong, there are still lots of critters to kill and some good people remain there. But occupation is sparse, and goods are less likely to be found. Most of GAP is a wilderness, rather than a civilized area or even a frontier. You never know what you will find, or even where that life saving stash of bots or drugs might be located.

The situation in GAP is completely and entirely dependent upon the actions of one group: the Famous Pirates (FP). A more lawless, drunkin, good for nothing, no good collection of misfit troublemakers has probably not existed. Earlier this year they put their rum bottles down just long enough to institute Firedesire's "CRAP the Gap!" campaign and destroy much of what had been built in GAP for no particular reason other than they wanted it to return to the pristine wildlife preserve it once had been. Now, before you start thinking FP is a bunch of tree hugging hippy environmentalists, it turns out their real purpose was to extort as much as they could squeeze out of those strong or foolish enough to remain in the GAP once their destructive sweeps were finished. Somehow, FP convinced a pilot to give up his star base, which was promptly renamed PROGRES Taxation Office by its new owner Claude Duval, then destroyed by the heroes of Three Colours and their assorted allies (a tale that must wait for another day). But they got another base, which remains, albeit it small and sorta sad. The FP themselves have dwindled in number; even resorting to sending out recruiters to replenish their ranks I hear tell. Basically, they have become a mere shadow of their former grandeur.

Once in GAP, I discovered that a new economy and way of life has developed out of the ashes of FP destruction. From Vecelia to Propus, little besides critters exist outside of the protection of MO guarded nooks until one gets to Propus. Buildings are meager, and no true economy exists. Pilots build structures to cater to visitors or to a Sb or planet, but it is all very uncertain and constantly changing daily. What is quite astonishing is how quickly, in the vacuum caused by a lack of habitation by the four races, the flora and fauna of the verse are flourishing. The sheer number and variety of creatures to be encountered in GAP is mindboggling for someone who has just spent several days in faction space and even in Lane.

I say this mainly to offset how jarring it was to enter the dragon den of Propus, the sacred home of Koo-Its, and find nearly every section of open space occupied by what can only be described as urban sprawl. Farms, recyclotrons, energy wells, and even a starbase. There were signs detailing possible sighting points for the Matriarch. They have a board of fame for pilots capable enough to kill her, and a wall of shame for those who could not. For a moment, I thought I was in Waolex. The locals even gave Koo-Its a new name: Queen Aaliyah, The Monarch of Propus.

An entire economy now exists to serve the Matriarch and her pilgrims. It is both grand an audacious, at times respectful, but mostly kitschy, gaudy, grotesque, but also beautiful. Sadly, it is entirely fitting for a pilgrimage. Let us face reality, the very act of communing with the spirit of a beast by killing it is in itself a monstrosity. The glory of the Matriarchs comes from their very existence, in its own perfection of creation, does it not, rather than in their destruction? Perhaps, this is a good moment to remind you that I am not an initiate. I am an unbeliever. I can go through the prayers, I can partake of every service, I can be moved by the spirit of the experience, but in the end I am not a member of the Theocracy of Kai-Rang.

Before anyone gets the wrong idea, I am not condemning the local inhabitants of Propus. Lady Stardust, the owner of the starbase, and her alliance the United Traders Corporation, do their best to make pilgrims feel comfortable and provide them with all the needs they can imagine. They have made the travails of the pilgrimage an absolute ease, and completely eliminated the uncertainty of the experience. I am not absolutely positive, but I am sorta sure that it is entirely possible to even buy the assistance of a professional hunter to weaken the matriarch for a weak hunter to make the kill. Perhaps in a few years, they will bind her in a pen and let children throw rocks at her. Praise, be to the Matriarchs.

I killed Koo-Its’ brood with little difficulty. Despite the urban sprawl inside her den, I could sense their presence and wasted little energy tracking them down. Although she did not reveal herself to me immediately, Koo-Its appeared to me just below the SB and I had no difficulty killing her when she revealed herself to me shortly after I arrived. In a way, I felt as if I did her a service, returning her to an existence as a cloud of energy, indiscernible from that around her.

I left Propus shortly after I dispatched Koo-Its and her brood. I am not sure why, but the area left me with a hollow feeling. And yet, until I exited the den, my ship felt too small and confining. In the darkness of space, I wonder aloud if the Famous Pirates might have had a more noble reason for their wanton destruction, before it turned to petty crime of course. I no longer am certain what I am doing on this pilgrimage. What could I expect to gain as an unbeliever? Did I fail before I even began? And yet, I have had new experiences each day and grow in the wisdom I am so lacking.

I shall have to pray long and hard to the matriarchs this evening…

Part V: Embracing Vengeance
I left Propus and my commune with Koo-Its with a heavy heart. As an unbeliever, I have been secretly questioning whether Koo-Rir really spoke to me or not. It seems so completely unlikely that a beast made of energy could project itself into my mind or communicate.

Yet I cannot help but be drawn into the experiences I am having as a pilgrim. I have had contacts with the Matriarchs that cannot be explained nor dismissed. I have begun to sense the dragons long before I see them. The sensations pull me to them, whether they are visible or not. I have begun to sympathize with them. To mourn their destruction and the harm being brought to their habitat.

From Propus I travelled to Xeho. There was very little habitation along the route. Even the lowliest farm is locked behind massive defenses or nooked behind military outposts. With the threat of pirates always prevalent, it isn’t safe to spend too much time engaging with creatures or haggling with merchants while in port or even to sit on a worm hole waiting for the energy to make a jump. Bounty hunters stalk the cluster, which adds another level of insecurity to travel plans.

With an eye always focused on safety, I tried to seek out a safe docking location before entering Xeho sector. I sent several comms to Federation Lt. Commander Cltohvfe, owner of the starbase located in the sector, but received no response. I was uncertain whether to commune with Koo- Adauichi without protection. Although there are risks inherently involved with the Pilgrimage, I did not want to be an open target for a pirate and it wasn’t safe to sit on the worm hole with a cargo hold full of bots.

After waiting nearly a day for a response from Cltohvfe, I prayed to the Matriarchs for strength and decided to make a run by the mouth of the den to see if a meeting would be possible. Unlike other Matriarchs, Koo-Audauichi prefers open space. A pilot does not enter her domain so much as you just find yourself there unexpectedly. Pushing into the area where she has been known to appear, I found myself confronted with a wall of blue crystals. I am not sure what connection they had with the Matriarch. Blue crystals are not known for their aggression nor have I heard reports of them living near dragons. These four would not allow me to get near Koo-Audauichi, blocking my path at every attempt I made to get into the lair. Confused and uncertain what to do next, I started to abandon my explorations.

As I turned to leave, one of the crystals lashed out at me. I fired at it, and quickly found myself engaged with all four. I killed them, losing my shields and reducing my armor. Once past the blue crystals, I could see the Matriarch. She positioned herself behind several rows of her brood. Immediately I was set upon by three elder dragons. I dispatched them, but found myself reduced to just a small amount of armor. I moved closer to the Queen, only to be set upon by another row of her brood: two elders and three young space dragons. While I was engaged with her children, Koo- Adauichi moved into position to strike. She hit me just as I killed the last of her brood, ripping through the last of my armor and reducing me to just seventy hull. Her vengeance was strong, and I was certain she would destroy me for attacking her children.

For nearly twenty minutes, we battled back and forth, neither of us able to land a final killing blow. Almost delirious with tiredness, I tried to pull away from her, hoping to escape so that I could return another day; repaired and fresh once again for battle. Koo- Adauichi saw my weakness, pursuing me as I fled. Her speed and strength was too great. Realizing I would not make it out of her lair, I turned once last time to face her. As she reared up for the final attack, I fired into the belly of the Matriarch, finally striking her after a nearly endless number of misses. With a great roar, Koo- Adauichi took my full shot and dissipated.

Barely alive, I limp away to Miayda, passing no where near the star base I had hoped unsuccessfully to use as a safe haven. I believe the Matriarchs must have smiled upon me that day. Certainly they must have intercepted my comms to Cltohvfe. For while I was engaged with Koo- Adauichi, the famous pirate known as Firedesire was attacking buildings and harassing pilots around the starbase. Cltohvfe sent distress calls across the comm. channels, but I am unsure whether anyone heard him. Undoubtedly, I would have been easy prey for such a ruffian. Rather than getting a pod ride, found myself safely returned to the port, where I repaired and rented quarters for the night. Although Firedesire continued to stalk the cluster, I never encountered him.

With Firedesire and other members of the Famous Pirates stalking GAP, it makes since to me now why an alliance like Lady Stardust’s alliance, the United Traders Corporation, have built hidden their buildings in the Matriarchs Lair. Although it felt like an abomination to me then, now I see its logic. The queens and their brood may viciously gnash their teeth at intruders, but they never extort, pillage or kill without cause. In due time, respectable sorts wall return to GAP and drive the ruffians back into the gutters where they belong. It may not happen soon, especially with so much talk of war in the vacuum of space, but it will happen.

And when it does, I believe I shall come and help out. GAP is a beautiful cluster, full of many wonders. Those who have chosen to live there, despite the arrival of lawlessness, deserve much better. Vengeance shall come to those who prey upon the few, the weak, and the disorganized.

Part VI: On to Essaa
After getting repaired in Miayda sector, I flew toward the Federal Rashkir Core. As I moved through Bewaack to JO 4-132, I began to see something I had not experience so far on my Pilgrimage. Signs of war were everywhere in a visible tension amongst the residents. It wasn’t just that there was an increased military presence, or new walls of military outposts blocking travel in the sector, or physical blockades of military vessels (both visible and cloaked) checking every ship that came within scanning distance. The residents stared hard at every ship that entered port, and remained skeptically distant from anyone who was not a local.

There had been some talk recently of war, growing over the past few weeks. But nothing definitive had been announced yet, at least not that I was aware of. Even so, as a neutral, I am usually several weeks behind on what is common knowledge in the factions.

Feeling unwelcome, and decidedly so if war was indeed near, I returned to Beewack to dock until I could secure safe passage through Pass Federation-13. I knew that there had to be at least one military blockade inside the Pass that would be turning back all travelers except those belonging to the Federation, and there probably were more invisible ambushing blockades as well since there are several chokes that can’t be avoided.

Surprisingly, it took some time to locate the authorities in charge of the region. Usually it is pretty simple to track down local authorities in Federation space. Large sections of the Federation sectors are so overpopulated with buildings on every available spot, that it is sometimes difficult not to encounter the local powers that be.

But such is not the case for the frontier regions between GAP and the FRC. I am not sure why this might be true, possibly due to the Famous Pirates. Resultantly, I wasted nearly a day of leg work searching for someone in charge; going planet side at Beewack, visiting several SBs in neighboring sectors, and inspecting economic structures in the area for ownership. In the end, I discovered that the main government entity in the region appeared to be the Rashkan Homeworld Alliance. I had not encountered them before, which could be either good or bad.

I contacted their leaders for access by the normal communication channels. Unfortunately, they either did not get or did not bother to respond. Since backwater regions and those who occupy them rarely have the technical amenities of the cores, there is no way to tell. After wasting nearly a day doing nothing, I decided to check out the Pass and see how far I could get. As a neutral, I expected to be stopped at some point, but there was no legitimate reason to block me. Not that any faction alliance needed a legitimate reason to do anything in times of war.

I encountered several blockades getting into PF-13 as expected, but was not turned back due to my status as a pilgrim. Taking my ability to gain access past the military forces as a sign that the Matriarchs were smiling upon me journey, I decided to test the MO wall. Strangely, most of the MOs had neutrals foed, forcing me to carefully thread my way through the greatly expanded MO wall defensive system. I am still not sure if I gained passage by right or by luck.

Either way, I slipped into the FRC and began to make my way toward Essaa and Koo-Paibisundarat, the Matriarch of Beauty. As much as I have travelled in the verse, I have never been in this section of the FRC. My experience in Federation space previous to this was mixed. Most of Federation space suffered from severe over population problems, and there were a lot of mid-career pilots who preyed upon strangers and those new to the piloting profession.

Yet, I found nothing like that in GV 4-652, Sohoa, the western portion of Betelgeuse, Tiacan, or Essaa. In fact, some of those areas almost had a feeling of abandonment. It was not the normal departure of civilian refugees either. The area just was not populated in the same fashion of other sections of the Federation.

Concerns over war reared their ugly head again once I reached Essaa. Since a member of the Rashkan Homeworld Alliance owns of the local SB, The Dragons Inn, I assumed I would not receive any response to my communiqu├ęs. I was proved wrong almost immediately. Raging Storm quickly return a terse reply to my request for docking privileges:

Short answer is not at this time,
we are at war.

I conferred with Raging Storm long enough to confirm that I was safe to be in Essaa, but he could not grant me access to his base because of safety concerns. I was left with a difficult decision. I never like to commune with the matriarchs unless I have a safe docking repair station, but there was no telling how long the war would last, which means I might have to postpone my pilgrimage indefinitely if I wanted to wait for a repair facility.

I decided to risk the dragon’s den, but I would acquire supplies on the SB first. Since I could not dock, I had been cloaking outside the mouth of the den in a row of energy fields. Landing on the base, I was amazed to see the ship of Moka Akashiya in port. How strange a universe we inhabit? To think that a pilot who is hated by so many for her engagement in confidence scams and spying is allowed to dock at an SB due to faction affiliation while a peaceful pilgrim like me has to hide like a common ruffian. C'est la vie! The humans would say.

Although disgusted by this turn of events, I filled my cargo space with repair robots, and pressed a cheap map of the dragon’s den into an empty space next to my seat. Lifting off from port, I headed for the lair of Paibisundarat. The den is shaped like an upended spacers boot, with The Dragons Inn sitting just outside the mouth. My scanner began to dull as I neared the mouth of the den, reducing my visibility. As I entered, I was struck by two elders. Their attacks were quick, but also rushed. Damaging only my shields, I dispatched them and started to search for the queen. Immediately I found a clutch of young dragons. As I finished with the last one, three more elders came into view, then quickly retreated from me as I fired upon them.

Excited by the frenzy of battle, I became so engrossed in the ordeal that I lost sight of my surroundings. While I began to chase after the three elders and busied myself in their execution, I failed to notice that they had I drawn me into the back of the den where I was quickly being surrounded by nearly a dozen young dragons, seven elders, and the massive form of the matriarch.

Recognition of my plight struck my consciousness at the same time as the first dragon’s breath hit my shields. Line after line of the great beasts seemed to smack at me from all directions. Just as I finished killing one of my tormentors, a new quarry rose to fill the hole in their ranks. Flaring breath and lashing claws struck my ship again and again, destroying the last of my shields and tearing huge rents into my armor.

I fired in every direction, turning this way and that, not so much as a direct defense but following whatever direction their repeated strikes moved my ship. I had no real purpose to my defense. I was just desperate to survive.

In time and rather surpsisingly, their numbers began to dwindle, but so too went my ability to defend myself. I was beginning to think I should flee the den and return once I had a full shield and some repairs. But I realized I had no idea what my location was or even a certainty of my surroundings. Looking about me, I could not decide which way presented freedom or death. Paibisundarat decided for me. In my hesitation, she drew herself up before my ship and prepared to destroy me with one massive blow of her deadly breath. I fired into her again and again, losing count of how many rounds I put into her massive shifting form.

Somehow, I destroyed her. The last of her brood pulled away from me then. Taking advantage of the break in their assault, I released several repair robots to restore the integrity of my hull. Hoping to establish my present location, I rebootd my scanner and quickly glanced at the Blue Sun sector map. Despite my best efforts, I just could not verify where I was in the den. I could only see a few hundred meters away from the ship through the cockpit windows, and the scanner displayed only a small distance further. With no way of finding an identifying landmark, I could not find my location on the map.

Guessing at what I hoped was the entrance; I flew for what seemed like hours. I could easily have been flying in circles, but I eventually found the entrance. Fortuitously, I never saw another dragon. There were several times when I thought one lurked just outside my visibility, but none came close enough to attack or be attacked.

I landed once again at the Dragon’s Inn, and I decided that I needed more than just a restless night’s sleep in my cockpit. I purchased several tons of building materials, left Essaa and located a nice quiet but sparsely populated sector. There, I directed my ship’s computer to build a fake structure to hide my ship with an attached habitation section so I could rest. It was an old smuggler’s trick, which had served me well on several occasions. When the structure was complete, I set the ship’s computer to conduct a complete overhaul and I retired to the habitation section of the structure. Once there, I prayed to the Matriarchs before falling into a deep sleep, forgetting to replenish myself with either food or sustenance.

Part VII: On to Waayan
Creating a hide for protection offered a needed respite. I do not think I realized how difficult my trip had been so far. I traversed across Union space, GAP and then braved the military barriers of the PF-13 to enter the FRC. It wasn’t just distance or the continued stress of communing with the matriarchs which had begun to wear me down, but the constant threat of wolves lurking in every corner of the verse waiting for a chance to pounce on an unsuspecting traveler, without regard for my pilgrimage. As a result, I took more than a day to relax and prepare myself for the remainder of my journey.

When I finally broke out from my cardboard sanctuary, I moved across the FRC towards HC 4-962, the gateway into the Waayan dragon’s den. Before touching off, I sent several messages to various members of the Waayan Trade Exchange, the alliance that controls entrance into Koo-Hon’s lair.

I did not hear back from anyone for several days. To be fair, I did find out while listening to local communication channels on my scanner that it was the human holiday Christmas. I was rather shocked that I forgot about what time of year it was, although spending most of my time in space or in strange ports across the verse does remove one from the seasonal schedule of Sol. You see, I grew up among humans, having been adopted by a human family as a young clutch-ling.

I loved the holiday time as my human family had practiced it. Decorating the house with lights and stockings; going to the tree yard to kill a beautiful pine so it could be brought back home and festooned with colorful ornaments; flinging tensile and fake snow about the house; getting drunk on wassail and eggnog; giving and receiving gifts; the list is endless. Human holidays are truly amazing and family centric in a way few other races of the verse understand. They may be smelly and xenophobic, but humans do embrace their families. It is something I have always respected about them. Of course, I must also admit one baffling thing about the human holidays, I never understood the connection between that little fat fella dressed in red and the worshiping of their gods. It seems like such a contradiction. But they are humans, so there is no understanding them.

I pulled into HC with quite a bit of energy left in my tank and rejuvenated from by brief relaxation, so I decided to scout the Waayan Den. It is not like any other I have encountered so far, taking up nearly half of a sector. There are no buildings to speak of, which allows the dragons to truly inhibit the den as they would in a wild state. I tangled with a handful of the younglings and elders, pushing a short distance into the lair in the hopes of detecting the Matriarch. It didn’t work, so I left the den and headed to the star base located a short distance from the worm hole.

I quickly pulled into the repair dock at the WTX Gate-No Dragon’s Allowed, really just hoping no one would notice me and dreaming that I was cleared for full docking procedures. Sadly, I was not cleared to dock permanently, but I could get equipment repairs and began to do so. While waiting for on my repairs, I sent a quick message to a pilot named Fast Ferret, the SB owner. I immediately identified myself as a pilgrim and asked for docking privileges. Fast Ferret replied was somewhat confusing: Sorry, no. I can appreciate the difficulty that your path must offer. I have a great personal affection for challenges. But, at this time I must decline your request. Exigencies of the times and all that. . . If you were a member of a disclosed Fed alliance, then perhaps. . . . But, even then I would require known references.

What was not confusing was his actions. He foed me while I was reading his message. I know it happened that quickly because armed guards stopped me part way through the message, directing me to closed up my ship and depart or face immediate destruction. Not only did they not complete my repairs, but I was banned from coming anywhere near the SB. I could not trade for robots or fuel, I could not repair. I was an albatross, cut off at sea without a spot to rest. Foolishly, I sent another message asking Fast Ferret why he would foe me when I was asking for docking clearance. His reply was swift and irrevocable: You silly git. Bother someone else, please?

I would expect this treatment as a neutral in faction space on the eve of war, but was I not a pilgrim? Should a pilgrim not be afforded some courtesy and protection? Obviously, such was not case in this part of the FRC cluster. Pilgrims can seek their absolution, but the factionites have their wars and while in them they do no wrongs. Let the neutrals beware!

With no safe harbor and an uncertainty whether the foeing would lead to a witch hunt, I decided to put my fate into the hands of the Matriarchs. I immediately re-enter the dragon’s den to commune with Koo-Hon. The lair in Waayan has a huge opening, larger than any other den. The expanse of the entryway made me feel small; just a tiny ship in the vastness of space. I pressed my throttle to full and hurled myself into danger. Hurling into the den, I did not recognize the walls constricting around me until the fatal moment when my scanners failed and I was engulfed with the familiar darkness common to every dragon’s den. I pulled back on my throttle, slowing to a safer pace and searching the edge of visibility for any sign of dragon kind.

I sensed them even before I saw them. Just inside the darkened zone, seven younglings and four elders pulsed around me. I fired at each one, chasing them this way and that until they were no more. Alone once again, I turned to progress deeper into the den. After a short distance, I came upon another clutch of dragons, smaller than the first. Again I chased them down, four younglings and three elders—dispatching them mechanically.

As I finished off the last of the second barrier of dragons, I heard a mighty roar from the back of the den. Certainly, the matriarch understood what I had done to her children and was calling to them in anguish. Voraciously, I dived in the direction of the Queen, striking down two younglings and three elders before I encountered her.

Behind the mighty line of defenders, Koo-Hon offered a glorious visage. I flew around her, taking in her beauty while seeking out an advantage. When I located an opening, I fell upon her, striking her flank again and again with my guns. Round after round impacted upon her, tearing into her flesh and weakening her for my final blow. I leveled it upon her swiftly, as the hand of fate. Koo-Hon was no more.

My ship was hardly damaged. I was no longer fazed by the loss of my scanners, or mesmerized by the magnificence of the matriarchs. I could sense their presence, was drawn to them. Although I am sure they will once again surprise me, I no longer fear them as I once did. Instead, I embrace their strength, their honor, their beauty, and their splendor.

I feel again as a hunter, but not as before. I now understand what the dragon’s see when I come crashing into their realm. The interloper, rockets flaring, rounds crashing forth. Death, destruction, pain, and suffering. We are all evil in our own way, and we bring that evil unto those around us whether we want to or not.

Part VIII: Olcanze and Koo Pakanga
Departing from the FRC put me back in the neutral zone, the North Pardus Rim to be exact. There is a star base known as The Mote in Gods Eye part way into the dragon’s Den. I tried to make arrangements for docking, but with the War I knew it would be difficult. In this case, I never even received a response from the owner, Calin of the Grand Unifying Alliance.

I decided the best option was to dock at Phiagre, where I could repair, head down to the worm hole and jump to Olcanze. There I would seek out the Matriarch first, then engage her brood. Although it sounded like a good plan, it took four excursions into the lair to find Koo-Pakanga. Well, I should not say found, since she her minions attacked me before I even knew she was about. The dragon’s den at Olcanze is long and winding. On my fourth excursion into the hole, I dodged younglings and elders here and there. None seemed much interested in me, having grown accustomed to me coming and going so many times.

The difference between this excursion and the previous ones was that at the very bottom I found Koo-Pakanga, although she was not alone. Surrounding her was a wall of defenders two ranks deep of the biggest younglings and elders I have ever seen. Rather than engagement immediately, I flew just outside their range looking for an easy route to the Matriarch, but none presented itself. As I was about to take the plunge and attack them directly in the middle, an Energy sparkler materialized right next to my ship and began lashing against me with its positronic energy. My shields were gone in minutes, and sections of my armor quickly followed. The sparkler put up a good fight, making me wonder if I should try to engage Pakanga and her brood of defenders now or return another time.

I sent out several robots to repair my armor, and then decided to make a pass at the defenders to test their willingness to fight. I attacked two elders at the same time, striking both with killing blows. The remaining defenders closed ranks, ignoring how quickly I was killing their brethren. I fired into them several more times, drastically thinning their ranks. With access now open to the Matriarch, I decided to rush in and test my luck. I got off several solid hits and took a few myself, but I could not get a killing blow. I sent what seemed like hundreds of rounds into her, but nothing caused serious damage.

I moved in closer to her, trying to use my nearer proximity to force a kill. It was exactly what she had been waiting for. As I came within her nexus, Koo-Pakanga sprang on me with all her might, wrapping herself around my ship. I fired into her at point blank range, striking several killing blows but nothing seemed to break her grasp. The remaining defenders set upon us both then, tearing into her as much as they ripped into my ship. Each blow brought me closer and closer to death, so I began to shoot in every direction. Sometimes I struck the matriarch, sometimes her brood, and sometimes nothing at all. It was a wild frenzied free for all, an all out war. In the end, I was the last one standing.

From the back of the den, I weaved my way through the energy fields to the mouth. The remaining brood attacked me from every direction, but none presented much of a problem. As I came forth from the fog of energy, my scanners once again engaged and began to register the surroundings of the sector.

I returned to Phiagre without incident, docked my ship in the repair bays and tracked down a quiet spot in port to get food, drink, and a soft bed. That night I prayed for the spirit of Koo-Pakanga and contemplated the glorious end of such a dignified warrior, openly facing her foe upon the battlefield. Unlike my fellow pilgrims, I could not take this from her and claim it as a religious experience, but I would appreciate it for what it was: a life and death struggle for existence.

Part VIII: Intermission: War comes to the Pilgrimage
After several good filling meals and a night of strong drink, I climbed back into my ship, The Whydah, and left port. I had a lot of travelling ahead of me, needing to cross half of the North Pardus Rim get to the Nex-002, then jump to Split. It would be a long and arduous journey under the best of situations, but it was made worse by the declaration of War between the Empire and the Federation.

Rather than getting better during the human holidays of peace, the relationship between the two factions had been souring very quickly. As I asked for departure clearance, the crew of the flight tower notified me of the situation. Although they had not heard of any hostilities in the cluster yet, it was only a matter of time.

I proceeded from Phiagre slowly, carefully threading my way across each sector. I avoided obvious choke points, energy fields and the edges of nebula clouds, and that one section of open space in the middle of energy or other obstructions. Things progressed well, with little trouble whatsoever. Then just as I was about to reach the wormhole in Daaya, Killer attacked me without provocation.

As I took the slow and aggravating pod ride back to my home world, I sent Killer a quick query to find out why he attacked me. As a true neutral, without a bounty or much in the way of foes, I was being careful but really did not expect to be attacked. I was a member of a small alliance, The Irredeemables, but they were located far away in the East Pardus Rim and rarely angered anyone. I knew the reason before killer even responded: War!

HH: What’s the problem, mate?
Killer: We have a fairly aggressive QL for the war, to catch ambush scouts. I suggest you stay away from the fed cores, as well as the NPR, to avoid future pod rides.

Not a sorry, or oops, or even an ah shucks! Just stay away or face another attack; got to love intergalactic wars. For some reason unknown to me, war between factions seems to come every two to three months. It wouldn’t be a problem, except the wars themselves are mostly fought in the neutral zones between the factions rather than on faction territory. War also gives the weakest members of the factions the courage to wantonly attack neutrals, much like petty thugs and pirates, but under the claim of warfare. They will claim the pilot was a scout, or doing something suspicious, or whatever, but really they are just out for a kill and do not care who it is. For an experienced pilot like me, individual attacks aren’t too much of a problem, but they rarely attack individually. Seeking instead to ambush in packs, tearing down their victims as a group.

War, huh, yeah
What is it good for
Absolutely nothing
War, huh, yeah
What is it good for
Absolutely nothing
Say it again, y'all

War, huh, good God
What is it good for
Absolutely nothing
Listen to me

Ohhh, war, I despise
Because it means destruction
Of innocent lives

War means tears
To thousands of mothers eyes
When their sons go to fight
And lose their lives

I said, war, huh
Good God, y'all
What is it good for
Absolutely nothing
(EDWIN STARR lyrics – War)

Part IX: Recovery in Ceanze with Koo Houra
When my pod ride was complete, I picked up my replacement ship, got it repaired up to spacing standards, bought a new E-Pod (clearly, you don’t want to leave home without one), and headed for Split. I hit the nex hole, and began a slow traipsing route toward Federation space. Normally, I would take a direct route dropping in to see friends at Andosled, Liaackti, Stein and Buerso. But war made a direct route impossible.

Instead, I threaded my way across the sector. I avoided chokes, built up areas, and easy ambush sites. More importantly, I did not stop in to visit friends. Since most were members of one faction or another, it just wasn’t safe to travel to their star bases at this time.

The only spot where one cannot avoid a choke is at passes. There is only one way in or out of these sectors, and it is the most likely spot to get ambushed. I scouted the Buersa choke for activity, got an uncomfortable feeling about it and headed to Daaze instead. I passed several military blockades, but I recognized one of the Federals on duty and he moved me through. Once in Pass Fed-12, I docked at Psyco Killer’s star base Naoh's Arc. It is a quaint SB, with all of the amenities a pilot needs and a friendly bunch of residents. They are quick to repair damaged ships or more than willing to work out a deal if you have something useful to trade. After traveling through Split, which had become a major war zone, being at Noah’s Arc was a peaceful respite.

I left Pass Fed-12 after a quick rest, and headed toward the dragon den at Ceanze. I met no opposition or saw any military groups in the area. Most of the fighting happens in the neutral zone during most wars, so that wasn’t unusual. I hit Soolti and realized I had no idea which entrance into Ceanze would prove the best. The maps show the dragons residing in the top part of the sector, but I would have to fight through several dragons just to reach the worm hole and there was no telling what was on the other side. If I took the southern route, I would avoid jumping into a cluster of dragons but it was some distance from the dragons den. In the end, I decided on the top route.

Ceanze is not so much a dragon’s den as it is a nest. There is no end where the matriarch resides. Instead, a small choke gives access to a small area in Soolti where the worm hole sits. Once in Ceanze, the nest coils up and down like a snake until it ends at to two large mouth like openings.

I entered the small choke in Soolti, and immediately hit three younglings and two elders there, before making the jump. On the other side of the worm whole, I found myself surrounded by a small cadre of dragons, three younglings and three elders. I dispatched most, but two of the elders fled into the winding coil of the den. I pursued without considering that dragons rarely flee so much as they draw their prey into an ambush. They hit me around the second bend. The two elders stopped dead, turning to face me while three more elders and the matriarch Koo-Houra slid up beside them.

I had a clear choice. I could turn back the way I came, and return from one of the two main Ceanze entrances or I could attack. I chose to attack, striking the matriarch with everything my guns could muster. Seeing my rounds tear into her flesh, several of her brood moved between us. I round tore into their scaly hides, dispatching one then another. The Matriarch pulled away from me then, pulling away around the bend and leaving me to her brood. I quickly killed them, and followed her.

As I chased her towards the dual entrance, I encountered more of her children; three younglings and two elders. At the edge of the two entrances, Koo-Houra made her stand. I chose to kill her children first, hoping it would force her to stand and fight. It worked. She screamed at me, throwing her vicious breath each time I killed one of her brood. When they were all destroyed, she lunged at me and I confidently but swiftly killed her.

As Koo-Houra fell before me, our eyes met and I found myself enraptured by her great golden globes. I pulled away from the den and cloaked in the energy nearby. No matter how hard I prayed, I could not clear her visage from my memory. For one brief moment, we stared into each others souls. Sadly, I am not sure either of us like what we saw.

Part X: Veedfa and the Song of the Siren
After meditating on my experience with Koo Houra in Ceanze, I headed back toward Pass Federation 12 and Split. I passed the usual Federation military outposts and blockades without any difficulties. Split was different. The military forces I saw, from a distance of course, were on edge and jittery. Mercenaries and bounty hunters stalked every worm hole. I flew as aggressive as I could to avoid ambush sites, which either worked since I made it to Veedfa without incident or they just weren’t there.

Veedfa is a great sector. Kalysto’s star base is well placed, and always has all the amenities a pilot needs. I landed at the SB, got repairs, and took the afternoon off for a relaxing message and trip to the sauna. Later that night, I could not sleep and decided to check the den for the Matriarch. Since Veedfa is such a heavily trafficked sector, there is no telling whether the matriarch will be present or not.

As I suspected, Koo-Kangenraga was not present. I engaged with several of her brood, now abandoned, but neither their hearts nor mine was interested in fighting. I returned to the SB and meditated on my experiences to date, eventually falling into a deep sleep in the early morning. At some point in the late morning, I am not sure if I was still asleep or I was awake. But I could hear music as a low soft humming. I tossed and turned for several minutes, but I could not sleep with the sound resonating through my mind.

I got out of the rack, showered, and had some coffee. I tried to ignore that vibrating harmony, yet no matter how hard I tried to ignore it or distract myself from it, the sound was faint, but still there.

I asked several people on the station, as innocently as I could, if they too could hear it, but each looked as if I was crazy. I decided to get some flight time. Jumping into the Whydah, I headed into the dragon’s den. I immediately encountered two younglings. They posed no real threat to me, and I hardly noticed them because . . . the . . . sound . . . was . . . getting . . . louder.

It was no longer a faint hum. More like a melody drifting through my mind. It drew me deeper into the dragon’s den; everything else was just a distraction from it. I have never heard anything like it before or since. It is the most beautiful music I have ever beheld, the most perfect and delightful rapture possible. I came to a bend in the den, blocked by two ranks of dragons. In the first wall, there were three younglings and two elders. I destroyed them before I even consciously recognized their existence, so strong was the hold of that music upon me.

The second wall was a perfect union of two elders and younglings. They too could hear the music, and seemed to move to it. Pulsing and striking with every rhythm. We, all five of us, danced to this most amazing sound. It was as if Keldon and energy beast were acting as one creature. The music itself had grown beyond a mere sound or even melody, it felt as if it was the very essence of life, pulsating across my skin, through my veins, and through my very soul.

As our metrical movements came to a climax, the dragons fell to my guns. The music pulsed and throbbed in my body, I no longer had control of myself or my ship. Both followed the sound, and would do so to ends of the verse.

Another wall of dragons appeared. Three more younglings and two elders; all fell before me. Nothing could stop me from finding the source of the siren’s harmony. I pushed further and deeper into the den, but my body could no longer fully comprehend what was happening. I felt myself sinking into a dull almost breathless trance. The ship and my guns shifted this way and that, eliminating everything that stood before me. I think I took out three more younglings, but I really do not know for sure. All that mattered was the song.

What is certain now is that the boundaries between me and the matriarch had fallen away. I could see her: grand, beautiful, and majestic. She rose before my ship like a massive mountain, a vast cloud of red energy, a burning hulk. Her siren’s song pierced my very being, coursing through me in wave after wave of energy. It gave me breath; it kept my heart pumping; and, it strengthened my will to live. As she drew me nearer with her siren song, Kangenraga dropped her defenses, certain that she had me under her control.

But I am an unbeliever, and no matter how powerful her music, how beautiful her song, or how strong her control over me, I am in the end the director of mine own destiny. I choose right or wrong; I decided when and where I will die.

Struck with a brief moment of clarity, I opened fire on Kangenraga point blank; unleashing all of the destruction my ship was capable of delivering. She fell before me, dissipating into red mist.

Strangely, her song remains with me: buried in my heart, my soul, my very existence. I carry it with me wherever I go. I hear it in my sleep, when I close my eyes, but also when I am awake. She is a part of me. She is me.

Matriarchs, what have you done.

In the land across the sea
They speak about a sailor
In the days of mystery
When earth was a different place
And you still will hear the tale
They tell of his wisdom
In his hour of destiny
He followed the song of his heart.

Beware the siren song
A song of delirious beauty
Though you want to sing along
A song full of promised delight
Lash yourself onto the mast
A song that will lead you to madness
Till the siren song has passed
A song that ends only in pain

Through the wind and through the rain
Through the long night of tempting
Of torment and of doubt
He cried out in his pain
But this captain stayed the course
Guiding the ship through danger
Past the siren's melody
On to the promise of home.

Beware the siren song
Try not to listen
Make sure the ropes are strong
Focus your vision
Beware the siren song
A song of beauty
Guide your ship on the right course.

And the ocean is so deep
Blackening water is raging
As the ship is tossed about
A speck in the infinite void
And the map is old and worn
Stained with the tears of captains
Who have sailed this way before
To follow the song of the heart.
(Siren’s Song—Brave Combo)

Part XI: Love’s Unrequited Siren’s Song
The path of the pilgrim has wound in so many directions, and taken me so much further than I ever really imagined. I am so uncertain of everything, and everyone. It has been several hours since I quieted Kangenraga, yet I still hear her song as if she was right beside me. I have been in a trance, without true control over myself or my ship.

I left Veedfa immediately after silencing Kangenrag’s siren call. Choosing not to dock or rest, I headed straight for the next matriarch within Split cluster—Chahana, matriarch of Love. I feel like I am no longer in control of what I am doing, just lost in a trance. The matriarchs call to me, draw me, embrace me, strengthen me, and lead me wherever they will. I have so fallen under their spell that I don’t eat or drink except when the ship’s computer tells me to do so. They are all I think about. I see them everywhere I look; even when I close my eyes. They have put a spell on me. There is no escaping them now. I just can not explain why.

Am I now powerless without the matriarchs? It must be so, as I fell nothing but their love. I rush to Edqueth to offer myself up to Chahana. I cannot bear to be away from her, so I must prostrate myself before her greatness, to grovel and beg her to take me as her own; making me her servant or slave, I would do anything to remain in her presence; to be bound to her for all eternity.

I entered Edqueth and was ruthlessly drawn out of my trance by the open signs of warfare. Federation fighters and traders were heading this way and that. Squads of fighters and bombers were everywhere, all pointing towards Ceina and Pass EMP-10. Debris from recent fighting between the Federation and the Empire for control of the sector star base floated in every direction. It was a disaster zone.

Normally, I would have visited the SB, repaired, rested. But such a course did not seem safe. I did not want to be shot at by some trigger happy conqueror. Since no one seemed to notice my arrival, I slipped over to the mouth of the dragon’s den. The lair of Chahana had a wide gash of a mouth, with the main cavern of the structure curving upwards. I brushed aside several walls of dragon brood, probably eight younglings and nine elders in total. My strength as a fighter has grown to such an extent that neither causes me much damage, or uses too many shots.

But it is the matriarchs I seek, and they still offer some danger. I found Chahana at the very back of her lair. Unlike most of the other matriarchs I have encountered, she was entirely alone. From the first moment I saw her, I felt myself overwhelmed by her strength and beauty. Never have I seen something so grandiose and yet imposing. She had her back to me, as if she was sleeping or ignoring me. I moved my ship into an attack position.

Just as I was about to fire upon her, stealing the element of surprise for myself. Koo-Chahana turned to face me with a jump, as if startled into recognition of my presence. The speed of the movement froze my hand for just a second, long enough for our eyes to lock. I looked into those great magnificent eyes and was instantly beguiled. I could not move or think or even consider the precariousness of my position, I could only bask in her glory, dreamily wishing she would take me and make me her own. Without controlling them myself, I could heard words being uttered by my mouth:

You are my sun in the sky.
You are my moonlight at night.
You are all the good in the world.
You are all that is right.

You are my world.
You are my life.
You are my everything.
You are my dreams come true.
You are my shelter, my cover.

You are all that I see.
You are all that I feel.
You are all that I need.
You are all that is real.

Embrace me.

As I spoke, caught up in allure and power, intoxicated by her beauty, Koo-Chahana shifted towards me, enclosing my ship with her massive red energy coils. First burning through my shields, then my armor and into my hull. The air inside my cabin grew stifling, a mix of heat and the smell of things burning, I could hardly breath, pained and sickened by each inhale. I was caught in the ecstasy of her proximity, the strength of her hold upon me. I could not move, consciousness slipping.

I do not in fact know what happened. I awoke several hours after my encounter with Koo-Chahana. My mind was foggy and ached, my mouth as dry as cotton. My vision was blurry, uncertain and unreliable. My ship was only partially functional, the life support systems were fried, and the engines sputtered with only a small amount of their normal power. Koo-Chahana was no where to be seen, nor were any of her brood about. My computer logs registered a kill, but I know not how.

I flew my ship from the den, slipped past the Federals a engrossed in their war with the Empire, and headed for Laeden. Docking planet side, I put my ship into the repair bays and stumbled off to find a place to lay my head. To sleep, to eat, to meditate—these are the things that will pull me through these dark moments.

Part XI: Intermedio: Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?
War returns to the Pilgrim in Split.

I left Edqueth and Chahana in a daze. Kangenrag siren call still haunted me; I knew not what I was doing. I needed to dock, repair and rest, but I just did not want to be near anyone other than the dragons.

Rather than go to Laeden, as I should, I decided to push on to the next dragon’s den. I needed to get inside Empire space, to commune with Koo-Vayu or Koo-Waimiz or Koo-Chippujana. The first two were closets to my current location, but I could never expect to get into the EWS with the Federation attacking PE-10. I decided to go through PE-07. I had access through the Military Outposts there, or at least I did before the war, and I could dock at several star bases in the cluster.

The only problem with the plan was that I had to go through the Ladaen choke, which effectively split the sector in half. Caution told me not to do it, as it was always ambushed in times of war. But if I went around, it would waste precious time. Moments I wanted with the matriarchs. If I had been of clear mind, I never would have taken the risk, but I was under their control now—Chahana and Kangenrag—my choices were no longer my own.

I made the run, and I sprung an ambush. I am not sure how many pilots were there, as the attack destroyed my ship before I even realized it was there. Sidsnake, a member of the Scorpion Guard, my much hated nemesis, caught me using the SG ambush quick list rather than one prepared for war. My interaction with that alliance has been so poor that I can not say I am surprised. Their pilots always seem to be there to catch me when I am careless, but I was genuinely surprised to find them in Spilt. They normally did not operate outside of the West Pardus Rim.

As I cleared my head on the pod ride to my home world, I sent Sidsnake a personal message. It was not congratulatory.

HH: what the hell is the problem?
SS: It seems someone in SG has a problem with you. I'm only using a QL that is provided
to me.
HH: Why are you using an SG QL for war combat? Better yet, what the hell is SG doing in
SS: Does it matter?

Arrogant, self serving, self-absorbed. Damn, I hate those guys. Need I say more?

Since the head of SG, Bladerunner, made some bizarre statement of quasi-neutrality concerning SG property, while saying his faction pilots had every right to attack whatever the hell they wanted in the war without impunity, I notified the various combatants interested that SG neutrality meant their pilots would be engaging in the various festivities, which meant, in my book at least, they were not neutral nor free from attack by factionites seeking war metals. Sadly, I knew the factionites were not brave enough to do anything about SG. It is the biggest reason why they wander about the WPR with such tremendous chips on their shoulders. But what can I do? Get the word out, and hope someone in one of the factions will grow a pair. SG is not without its weaknesses, as Gorath and Abe proved once long ago. Hey Walkingrazor, remember Gorath?

I also knew actions would attract the attention of the communication trolls. Sadly, there is a group of pilots who seem to have nothing better to do than to than complain, gripe, and grouse on others. But so be it. I have as little respect for the trolls as I do SG or any other alliances who claim neutrality while their members actively engage in war. Honestly, screw ‘em all.

Part XII: A Slow Train to Lahola
I jumped into the South Pardus Rim by way of Nex-003. With the war still going on, I flew evasive maneuvers across five sectors to the dragon’s den at Lahola. Although it is always annoying, I had been podded twice due to the war between the Federation and the Empire. There was no need to make it three.

I docked for a day at Lahola I, meditating over my commune with the matriarch, loading energy into my ship, and waiting on the ship mechanics to finish maintenance repairs. With everything that had transpired during my past interactions with the matriarchs, I was hesitant to commune with Koo-Katinga. The siren’s song of Kangenraga was still so fresh my ear and pervasive in my heart. I know that it had opened me to the influence of the matriarchs, weakening my ability to resist their calls. It nearly killed me in Edqueth, so I intended to be cautious.

When my ship was finally repaired, I headed into the dragon’s den. The intense meditation had done its work. I flew into the energy blurred black of the matriarch’s den, felling energy dragons, whether younglings or elders, with little difficulty. As I hit the back of the den, the matriarch came into view.

Koo-Katinga was a massive haze of shifting red energy. With her visage before me, my control began to falter. A low humming song flowed over me and through my soul, calling me to my death. I shook it off, then focused once again as I moved to attack. Katinga’s movements were so quick that I could barely make out her form. We spared back and forth, each landing seriously blows but neither scoring the kill.

With my shields and armor completely torn away, I was beginning to think I should pull back for repairs and return in a few hours. I started to move to a position where I could pull away, experiencing a brief moment of peace where neither the matriarch nor I was tactfully engaging the other, a realization dawned on me. If I returned to Lahola I for repairs and it took as long as my recent maintenance work, the matriarch would be gone. It could be several days before she returned, so I pressed on.

I fired again and again into her flank, weakening her with every strike. Like all the matriarchs, the closer she got to death the more Katinga’s attack grew frenzied. Although I tried to keep her at a distance, she moved closer and closer until she finally got her spiky claws into my hull. Katinga raked and ripped into my ship. Fearing a breach in my hull, I threw my engines into full to pull away from her grasp while simultaneously firing a missile. It struck Katinga and dissipated her with a colossal flash. I have never used a missile on a critter before, not even a preywinder, but it is better to fly away in one’s own ship than a escape pod.

My battle with Koo-Katinga lasted so long that many of her brood had re-spawned. In my weakened state, I was less than interested to engage more dragons. They clearly wanted vengeance, throwing themselves against my ship. I escaped from the den, with several elders trailing behind me. In all, I killed seventeen younglings, ten elders, and the queen. It wasn’t the largest number of dragons I had fought, but it was certainly the largest concentration of the beasts in one place.

I left the den, flew past Lahola and headed to the worm hole. I didn’t want to linger in the sector, hoping to cross the cluster before settling down for a rest and repairs. It is dangerous to fly with a weakened ship, but I didn’t want to chance Lahola’s shipyard.

Part XIII: Calling to the Matriarch Koo-Chippujana in Wolf Sector
Leaving Lahola behind, I raced across the South Pardus Rim. The footprint of civilization was not nearly as oppressive as can be found in some sectors. With fewer buildings, the only real problem presenting itself for ambush avoidance was energy fields around the worm holes. I took precautions, and did not encounter any trouble.

The remainder of the matriarchs were in Imperial space except for Keid, so I needed to find an access point into the Empire. Normally, I would have gone through PE-10 or PE-01, but both those passes were warzones at the moment. I decided to enter by way of the Empire Keldon Core. Although I am a Keldon, I had never gone into the EKC and had no contacts for entrance.

The closest entrance was Pass Empire 04. The worm hole dumps into a bowl surrounded by military outposts. Although I assumed the defenders of the sector would have high levels of security in place, I was surprised to find no defenders in ambush or even a military blockade. Even stranger, the first MO I tested allowed me to pass. Is there a war going on?

As a trader of exotic goods and materials, experience has proven to me that it is unusual to access faction space without difficulties. Even when you know the gatekeepers, there is usually some kind of obstruction slowing entrance during the best of time, but war makes entrance nearly impossible. My entrance was just too easy, and it put me on edge. There had to be defenders somewhere, I just hoped they didn’t notice me.

My path across the EKC was uneventful. I rarely encountered other pilots, and saw no military forces. It is so much different in this section of Empire space than others I have traveled in: particularly, I encountered no walls of military outposts that block travel in the two Skaari clusters. Don’t get me wrong, there are MO walls, but they were either unstocked or set to allow passage. I have never traveled so unopposed in Empire territory. It was a bit eerie, and put me on edge.

Things changed when I got near Wolf sector. When I got to Besoex I hit an MO wall that blocked. I messaged the owner of the entrance, cloaked nearby and watched life pass by in the sector. Nearly a day passed, but I got no response. Boredom set in, so I decided to do something useful. For nearly eight hours I had been watching a trader travelling slowly across the sector, systematically passing over every spot of open space. No one engaged in legitimate activities would act in such a fashion, so I decided to investigate. Just as I expected, every section of space the trader passed over was stripped of fuel. Clearly, the pilot in the trader was strip-mining. It is a nasty tactic of war, so I chased him out of the sector, firing several salvos into his shields and hull.

Unwilling to go back to patiently waiting after my encounter, I decided to look for another entrance to Wolf. I went through Pollux to KU to Laanex, but again hit an MO wall. I sent a quick message to the owner of the MO entrance, and then moved on. I crossed into Tiande, Fomalhaut, Ackandso and finally to Exackcan where I again encountered a defensive wall. Unlike the first two MO walls, Exackcan was open. Unsure whether it was a glitch in the system or a supply failure, I raced past the MOs to the worm hole to Vewaa, jumping to the sector as soon as my computer had the coordinates. Vewaa is a heavily populated sector, which makes it easy to hide. Instead, I raced through the sector to the next wormhole with the intention of communing with Chippujana and passing back through the MO wall before it closed.

From the moment I jumped into Wolfe my sensors started going haywire. The WH borders on a massive field of nebula gas. I entered the field and headed in the direction of the matriarch’s lair. Before I could escape the gas, a Gorefang ambushed me. I killed it relatively quickly, but the fangs tore huge rents in my armor and hull.

I bypassed Wolf Station, heading for the mouth of the dragon’s den. Although in a weakened state, my desire to escape the MO blockade drove me onward. Younglings and elders spawned before me, but fell just as quickly as they appeared. I search every inch of the den, but could not find Koo-Chippujana. Running low on energy, I decided to leave the den. Since my ship was damaged, I build a small structure to give myself a safe location for repairs.

The repairs were finished quickly, leaving me with a lot of free time to wait and think about my experiences on the pilgrimage. Repeatedly I have been contacted by the matriarchs, and at times I have found myself under their influence. While this was a scary and uncomfortable experience, I wondered to myself if it was possible for me to contact a matriarch in the same manner as they seemed to me. On a whim, I began to meditate on Koo- Chippujana, calling to her over and over and I put myself into a state of trance. Very quickly, I found my mind drifting into a dark and smoky realm as I spoke the matriarchs name as my mantra. Calling to the matriarch repetitively, I concentrated on her and nothing else.

The intensity of my focus grew absolute. I could see her in my mind. The perfection of her form awed me, with red energy lashing about her great body. Immediately, I knew that Koo-Chippujana was present in the den. Still in contact with her, I undocked from my structure and headed in to meet her. As I passed into the den, my sensors went dead, limiting my visibility to just what stretch before my view screen. Several times I glimpsed dragon brood on the edge of my visibility, but my link to the Matriarch must have confused them.

On my second trip into the den, none of the dragons attacked me or even came close to my ship. Before I knew it, I was in the presence of Chippujana. As we came close enough to engage in violence with each other, I broadcast to her a brief prayer for the dying. We ripped into each other, slashing great fissures in our defenses. Although she fought to the last with courage and ferocity, Chippujana could not withstand the power and accuracy of my guns. I fired my final blast into her, whispering a prayer of thanks for her sacrifice.

I returned to my structure, repaired, and departed for the next sector on the pilgrimage. Although I struggled to enter Wolf, leaving brought no difficulties whatsoever.

Part XIV: Odium of the Matriarch
I left Wolf in a hurry, racing across the EKC as fast as The Whydah’s hull could stand. With the war going full force, I assumed the Empire would be at high alert with trigger happy PASCs ambushing every choke. Having been wrongfully podded by the Federation twice so far, I didn’t want another mishap. I followed the standard evasive maneuver protocols all the way to Pass EMP-03 before it dawned on me that I hadn’t encountered a single fighter nor been chased or harassed in anyway.

What I saw then was normality. Traders went about their business running local economies, rankers went from one port to the next following the peculiarities of the bulletin boards, and skillers hunted critters. Unlike the Federation, the Empire just did not appear concerned about the war, which seemed strange to me since they were losing at that particular moment. But considering how the war has progressed, perhaps what I saw was confidence and certainty. The Empire had just successfully defeated the Union, and probably just didn’t think the Federation was going to be too tough.

Feeling confident in my evasive abilities, and calmed by the recognition that my experience inside Empire space would be different than what I encountered within the Federation, I flew the rest of the way to Zeolen without incident, still being cautious but entirely unhurried or even concerned about my path. Having been in the region several times in the past, I had docking rights at The Shadow Tower, an Empire starbase in Zeolen owned by Baivesan of The Shadow Order. The base is just inside the mouth of a sector wide dragon’s den.

I landed in the repair bay and headed for the tavern as soon as the repair crews started their work. I knew I had a few hours to kill, so I hoped to find a pilot who had knew the layout the den so I could get a sense of it before heading inside. The tavern was packed, but it was mostly traders. When I asked the bartender where all the fighter pilots were at, he informed me that the Federation busted several MOs at the nearby Empire Pass, so everyone in a fighter was trying to keep them at bay. Although I may have been misreading the situation, I thought my question perturb the Ska'ari because his crabby antennae bristled at me while I consumed my drink.

Frankly, I could easily have been overreacting, since I can never tell what Ska'ari are up to. Nevertheless, the news made me downright uncomfortable. It is never a good idea to be a stranger in a sector close to the war zone, particularly when you arrive just before a major assault. Even under the best of circumstances pilots are always suspicious of each other, but war made them crazy. I didn’t want to find myself on the wrong side of a coincidence. Although I had had a good relationship in the past with Baivesan and the rest of the Shadow Order, I decided to head to my ship and make preparations to commune with the Matriarch. Let’s face it, there was no point pushing my luck.

I lifted from the base and headed deeper into the dragon’s lair. I had been in Zeolen before, so I knew that the dragon’s lair was composed of three chambers connected by short tight corridors. Since the base was partly inside the den, I cleared out the various brood nearby. I killed eight younglings and four elders in quick order. Unlike my previous experiences, I could not sense the beasts as I had begun to do in the other dens. For some reason they were closed to me, as was the Matriarch herself. I called to her repeatedly, but got no response.

With the brood no longer occupying the outer portion of the den, I headed to the mouth of the second chamber. To my surprise, access was blocked by a massive elder and an energy sparkler. I aimed my guns at the elder, firing several salvos. But the maneuver brought me close to the sparkler, and it lashed out with its positron energizers. Although they struck their mark, I refused to be distracted from my prey. Once I dispatched the elder, I circled around to engage the sparkler in single combat. I fired into its pulsating energy fields repeatedly while doing my best to avoid its energizers.

When the sparkler finally dematerialized, I began my advanced into the den’s second chamber. With the path no longer blocked, I could hear a low murmuring in the back of my mind. Recognizing that the sound was the voice of a Matriarch I called out to Koo-Waimiz and bid her to speak to me. The murmurs grew in strength as I progressed down the tunnel, drawing me to them as they came to occupy my mind. The second chamber was smaller than the first, and contained only a few of her brood. They fell without much effort, or perhaps I just didn’t notice as my mind locked on the voice of the Queen.

As soon as the path to the final chamber was open I headed to embrace her. The voice encompassed my mind entirely as I drew near, focusing my vision on her hazy visage at the back of the lair. Everything fell away from my mind as I hurled myself at the spot I thought she occupied, but just as I was upon her she disappeared from my view and my ship was struck on all sides by the energy breath of her brood. There were so many different dragons attacking me at once that it was impossible to discern their strength; the colors merging together in a dark fire.

The combined assault upon my ship caused the last remnants of my shields to burn away, and ripped large sections of my armor plating free. I turned my ship and fired at everything that moved, but there were so many dragons moving around me that it was difficult to focus on one. My mind was filled with a cacophony of angry screeches that shook my concentration, and froze my body.

The dragons lashed me with their claws and poured an endless flow of breath upon my ship, buffeting me first in one direction and then in another. I continued firing, and then sent off two missiles without even aiming them. The missiles hit their mark, destroying two of my attackers and clearing a hole for me to escape. I pushed through the space opened by my weapons, racing past my torturers. Once free, I turned immediately upon them once again, firing salvo after salvo into their flanks and backs.

Several more of them fell, leaving just the Matriarch and myself. The intensity of her hatred flowed through our mental connection, locking up my mind, turning my stomach, and filling me with anxiety so intense that I found it hard to move. Never in all of my years have I encountered such utter contempt. It wasn’t just that I had dispatched her brood so easily or broken free from her trap. She absolutely hated and loathed me for my ability to connect to her spirit while not being moved to worship like the followers of Kai-Rang. To the Matriarch, I was an abomination, a pariah, a repugnant outsider interloping where I had no place or right to be. As I struggled to free my mind of her fuming grasp, she scratched and slashed at my ship in a vain attempt to destroy her sanguinary audient.

The anger of Koo-Waimiz got the best of her. She wanted to destroy me so much that she left her flanks open as she lashed my ship with everything she could. It was all the opening I needed to send several well placed salvos into her. Weakened, her attack slackened enough that I could send out the final blow, reducing her to a ball of unformed red energy.

With nothing obstructing my departure, I turned once again for the safety and repair technicians of The Shadow Tower. I murmured a silent prayer for Koo-Waimiz before departing the lair. Her fury still raged in my mind, engulfing my soul with warmth. I shall carry it with me into the future, knowing that today I encountered an odium that swelled brighter and stronger than anything I will ever stumble upon again.

Part XV: The Breath of the Matriarchs
I left Zeolen shortly after communing with Koo- Waimiz. The hatred and disgust I felt from her drove me from the cluster. I continued to follow standard evasive protocols, but my mind was so pre-occupied that I hardly noticed.

What did catch my attention was that I was loosing docking privileges all over the verse as the war progressed. It did not really surprise me that combatants, especially members of the Federation, were removing me from their friend lists, but it was shocking when it started happening for Starbases in Split, a cluster I had called home for several months and for which I had shed blood. But what can be expected, there had already been several turncoats who abused their docking privileges in the name of the Federation’s war aims, so SB owners have to protect themselves. The real surprise was that I still had docking rights at The Shadow Tower, and several other Empire starbases. Yet again, the Empire at war proved very different from their enemies. I have never been overly impressed by the Empire or its pilots, but that first impression has been changed by this war.

I crossed into the EWS without difficulty and made my way to YS 3-386. I had GNN on my communicator as I traveled, which keyed me to a full out assault on several military outposts owned by the Empire in Edqueth. Before I reached my destination, the Federation forces had destroyed the MOs and were attacking the Starbase. If they could take the base or destroy it, they would probably invade Pass Emp 10, which was close to my position. I needed to commune with Koo-Vayu and get cleared of the cluster as quickly as possible.

I jumped into the sector and headed for the dragon’s den as soon as my navigation computer came back online. The sector is divided in into two sections (top and bottom) at its middle, with habitations and a Starbase in the top portion and the den to the south. I called out to the matriarch as soon as I passed through the worm hole, and much to my surprise she answered. It was a confident call, lacking the anger and hatred of Koo-Waimiz.

I entered the den, passing a shield recharging station, and immediately encountered several younglings. I turned west from the entrance and headed north then west, before turning once again to the south. I was attacked by several elders and younglings along the way, then took the second energy tunnel to the west. It took me into another chamber, the third I had encountered so far, where I engaged several more elders and younglings before continuing west along still another tunnel on the same course as the one I entered the chamber from.

This brought me to the fourth and final chamber, where I was confronted by several younglings and elders who formed a wall between my ship and the matriarch. I opened fire upon the brood, directing most of my shots at the elders. One fell, which caused the others to break ranks and rush at me. I took out two more elders, and three younglings. The barrage left just one youngling remaining, as well as the matriarch. The youngling lost courage and tried to flee, but I killed it before it made it to the safety of the tunnel. Free of defensive barriers, I returned my attention to the Matriarch.

Too my surprise, I found her in the exact position as when I entered the lair. Thinking it another trap, I sent a P80 sidewinder missile at her. As the missile was racing at her, I reached out with my mind to try to use my sense to confirm her location. My mind locked onto her, and I watched through her eyes as the missile came toward her. She followed its trajectory and barely moved when it struck her side. It startled me to watch it happen. She knew from our mental link what it was that raced toward her, and yet she did not move. Although the missile was relatively weak, I could feel the pain it caused her, and just could not understand her action, or lack thereof.

I moved toward her cautiously. I locked on her with my targeting computers as I drew near, but still she did not move. I knew from our connection that her mind was filled with tranquility. She felt neither malice nor anger at the destruction of her brood, only acceptance. I felt all this and could not pull the trigger, ignoring the blaring of the targeting computer as it locked on target. Confused I tried to discern her intentions, certain it was a trap. But she offered my probing mind nothing but content, and even prompted me to finish the job and bring my pilgrimage one final step closer to its completion.

It struck me then what she intended. Our link had told her everything there was to know about me as well as my journey. She embraced my mind and found my reason for interrupting her cycle of life acceptable, and offered herself as sacrifice to the completion of my pilgrim’s journey. Although I was but an unbeliever, Koo-Vayu blessed me and embraced me as one of the followers of Kai-Rang, whether I wanted to recognize it for myself or not.

This recognition snapped my mind back to my cockpit, and we began the dance of death. The removal of my presence from her mind sent her to action as her massive body became a blur of motion. It would be impossible to say what exactly happened next. Koo-Vayu was but a fast moving shadow once she came alive, I shot where I thought she was or might next be. Sometimes I hit her, often I did not. I had to roll, twist and turn this way and that, which made it just as difficult for her to strike me. Time was on my side though. My weapons were stronger, my aim proved true, and my defenses held. Koo-Vayu fell, still emanating an unsettling tranquility across my mind, thanking me for the chance to commune with her simultaneously as she offered me blessings for the final completion of my path.

I left the den of Koo-Vayu feeling a deep sense of peace, but also unsettled. I could not understand why the matriarch had waited until I already weakened her to strike at me. In the end, she really did become a sacrifice to my journey, since the first strike had mortally weakened her. The remainder of her fight was more to honor me and my journey than an actual attempt to destroy me, like a mother giving her dying breath to a new born child. I shall never forget the suffering she endured in my honor, and find once again that I have been changed by my pilgrimage in ways I never expected.

Part XVI: Koo-Kengen: The Test of the Twins
I left YS 3-386 and headed back across the EWS to PE-03. The Federation attack on PE-10 was in full force, so there was no use trying to exit the Empire there. I made it to the ESC without altercation and contacted my friends in the Shadow Order about passage through PE-01. Unfortunately, it was experiencing frequent probes from the Federation as well, so I decided to cross over to the EKC in order to exit by PE-04.

The trip across the Empire was so quiet and uneventful that I stopped hardcore evasive maneuvers and just avoided chokes as much as possible. Even when I had to pass through a choke, I wasn’t worried about being podded whatsoever. Empire space was safe, even with the war raging on its borders.

Entering PE-04, I increased my evasive maneuvers. I didn’t have a contact in the area, so I had no ideas if there were combatants in the vicinity. I made it just outside the wormhole to jump to AN 2-956, but then had to take a chance with an unavoidable choke. It was a choice between three really, since the wormhole is surrounded on all sides. I chose the western choke, even though it was blocked by MOs, and passed through without a problem. I had a taut moment as my ship passed through the tightest section of the choke before entering into the chamber holding the jump to the South Pardus Rim.

Although I felt comfortable in Empire space, it was nice to be back in the neutral zone; one of the few places I always feel at home. I slipped back into my natural evasiveness and headed through sectors before jumping into the East Pardus Rim. Although there were several fighters skilling and ranking here and there along the way, the trip was uneventful. I stopped in Seginus for a short period to relax and refit my ship, before jumping to Nusaken and heading into the Union Keldon Core. I wouldn’t have docking rights in any of those areas, which meant I would have to maintain a heightened state of security. I wasn’t a nervous sort, but keeping vigilant for extended periods of time drains the spirit and the nerves, so I didn’t want to head any further until I was good and rested.

Seginus is a class M planet, with a relatively large but always fluctuating population size. This meant it had all the amenities a pilot could ask for and was big enough that a stranger did not draw undue attention. Class Ms are the best places for extended R & R in my book; lots of rich forests, high mountains, and big oceans to play in, nestled in temperate climate. I decided to use my time wisely, working my body as hard as possible to defray weeks of being trapped in my cockpit communing with the Matriarchs. With that in mind, I hooked up with a local travel agency that specializes in adventure travel, and secured a three day trip of hiking, mountain climbing, and speeder racing. I had never driven a speeder, but the agency’s video made it look fast and fun.

My stay on Seginus was fulfilling, but like all vacations it was not nearly long enough. It had to be short though, for the path of the pilgrim called to me. I lifted off, passed through the sector into Nusakan to Pass Union 05 and on to Keid.

The entirety of Keid sector is one giant dragon den. I had docking privileges at the local starbase, so I decided to explore the den to see if I could locate the Matriarch. I reached out with my mind as I entered the sector, but I could not understand what I was hearing. In the past, the voice of the Matriarchs was a low sound that grew louder as I got closer to her. But the voice of the matriarch of Keid was confusing. It almost sounded like there was more than one voice, all speaking simultaneously. Making the matter worse, the voice seemed to grow louder without regard to the direction I travelled.

There were two main pathways leading away from the worm hole. One going southwest toward the starbase, and another going north. After checking both directions, I decided to head north. I killed several dragons before running into an energy sparkler. I had encountered sparklers before, and knew they could do severe damage. I tried to disengage, but it wouldn’t let me. Rather than take damage trying to escape, I attacked; finally killing it after nearly a dozen salvos and taking heavy damage to my shields and armor.

Several dragons were attracted by the fight with the sparkler, so I turned my attention to them. I dispatched four younglings and three elders in short order, and then chased after a fourth elder who I could see just at the edge of my vision. I pursued it for several hectares, but then lost it in a haze of energy. Expecting to find the elder a little farther along, I pushed on but it didn’t appear. My mind was getting more and more distracted by the matriarch’s sounds. It was so loud and oppressive that I could hardly concentrate, let alone function. It felt like my brain was rattling about in my skull. I looked in vain for Koo-Kengen, but I just couldn’t get a sense of her position. I decided to circled away from my current position in a standard search pattern hoping to come across something to kill. I did.

In the northern most corner of the sector I found Koo-Kengen surrounded by five elders and four younglings. Although my ship had already taken severe damage, I moved toward them to gauge their aggressiveness. The brood attacked as one group, surrounding my ship and pummeling it from all sides. Their assault ripped through the last of my shields and several layers of my armor, but it didn’t shake my resolve for their destruction. The younglings fell quickly, and then the elders were gone, leaving me alone with Koo-Kengen.

As we drew near to each other and locked in mortal combat, she let forth a mind shattering scream that mottled my brain and shook my concentration. I tried to keep outside the reach of her deadly breath and claws, firing salvos into her only when I could do it from safety. Minutes passed, with both of us maneuvering and striking, sometimes landing deadly blows but mostly missing. As the minutes added up our movements against each other began to take on the rhythmic orchestrations of a dance, a tango of death from which one of us would not survive. I struggled to keep focused on the matriarch throughout the ordeal, but the strength and volume of her roar made it more and more difficult with each passing moment.

With the fighting between us dragging on, the combat was beginning to take its toll. Although physically strong, the matriarch could never outlast the defenses of my ship. Even glancing rounds from my guns wore down her strength and sapped her of ability to keep fighting. Time was on my side, and eventually she was at the last shred of her power. Sensing the end was near, Koo Kengen hurled herself into my ship, lashing my armor with her mighty energy talons. It was a mighty attack, which caught me completely by surprise, but it was too little and too late. The great matriarch fell before my guns, dissipating into swirling clouds of red energy.

To my surprise the destruction of the Matriarch did not end the noise clashing about in my skull. In fact, it actually got louder and more difficult to endure as I moved south toward the sector starbase. It baffled me that I could still hear the matriarch’s voice, but it also disoriented me greatly. I had endured such a tremendous assault upon my psyche while engaged with Koo-Kengen that I was in a fragile state. I felt on the verge of collapse, but no respite was available. The voice of the matriarch verged on the edge of being overwhelming, so I programmed my navigation computer to take me to the SB while I struggled to regain my senses through meditation.

I repeated the mantras of prayer over and over, loosing myself in their comforting and peace inducing rhythms. I knew from the small amount of time that had passed and the original location of my ship that I was only a few hundred hectares away from the SB to the west. If I could only hold out for a few more minutes, I would be docked and could seek the blurry tranquility of drugs and alcohol to quiet the roar in my head.

But at the very moment that I was considering the possibility of refuge, an intense feeling struck me. It was a tingling in my spine and the unsettling feeling that something bad was about to happen. I opened my eyes just as the second matriarch and her brood of seven elders sprung upon my ship. The anger and intensity of the dragons was more than anything I have ever encountered. Their oozed a pure unadulterated hatred for me and all other interlopers who entered into their realm. Their very existence at that moment was intent on my destruction. They lashed and tore, gnashed and breathed obliteration upon my ship.

Although I could not understand how Koo-Kengen could rematerialize so quickly, I understood that I had been so badly damaged in my first encounter with her that I had to work quickly to kill them or flee. My mind was reeling, so I tried to flee. The dragons pursued me all the way to the SB. They harried my ship to such an extent that I could not dock, leaving me with no other option than to turn and fight them.

Focusing my will on the objective, understanding that death was a distinct possibility, I understood for the first time in my pilgrimage that the path I had embarked upon was more than a test of strength or mental toughness or diplomacy, it was an assessment of the pilgrim’s very right to exist in the verse. Failure meant more than just a pod ride. If you could not persevere against the matriarchs, then I had no business in space. The carnal desire to survive and the recognition that my survival was less than certain pulled my mind out of its bruised and agitated state. I knew that I had to destroy the matriarch as quickly as possible in the hope that her death would dishearten the elders enough for me to escape or kill them. I reached out to her mind, and began hurled taunts upon her; reminding her that I had killed more than a score of her kind and hundreds of their brood. I even dared to ridicule her about how easily I had killed her, though she had the upper hand and should have been the victor.

My goading worked better than I ever imagined. The last bit about killing her so easily before which broke her final straw of control. My arrogance eroded away her last shred of caution, sparking a fury so intense that she hurled herself at me without regard for her own safety, screaming an ear shattering mantra over and over “My sister! My sister! You murdered my twin!” Her massive body smashed against my ship repeatedly, causing massive damage and nearly disengaging my drive. I fired upon her as quickly as my glove hands could manage, but I had little expectation of survival. She was just too strong and powerful; filled with rage over the loss of her mirror image, her identical sibling.

Recognizing that I had finally tempted fate once too often, I staid myself for utter oblivion. In that final moment of understanding I realized that Koo-Kengen was actually two matriarchs, twins, and I had separated them by death and caused them more pain than any creature should be forced to endure. I hated myself for what I had done, and decided that I would not eject in my escape pod, but accept my fate. I closed my eyes and hoped the end would not be too painful, fully expecting to next wake in the cloning vats. But something had unraveled in the matriarch beyond what I understood. She had become so consumed by fury that it crossed over to not just me but her brood as well, driving them to madness. Following her rage they pounced upon us both, lashing and breathing their fatal breath indiscriminatingly as much upon Koo-Kengen as they did upon my ship.

Between the frenzied indiscriminate attacks of her brood and my salvos, Koo-Kengen finally dissipated into a red oblivion. I fought myself free of what remained of her brood with much difficulty. One of the elders pursued me, but the others fell upon each other as we departed. Once a safe distance from the broiling mass of dragon destruction, I turned upon my pursuer and killed her in short order. I considered going back and killing the remaining elders, but my mind, body and ship were too weak and too battered to be certain I would survive. I turned instead to the starbase, re-engaging the computer’s automatic navigation system just before I lost consciousness.

I awoke several days later in the starbase medical facilities. My pilgrimage complete, I felt oddly hollow inside. Although an unbeliever, I will forever long for the feelings that come with being a pilgrim. Thankfully, the Matriarchs still speak to me, as I can hear the twins at the back of my mind even now.

The Path of Kai Rang

The matriarchs have smiled upon this poor wretched unbelieving pilgrim, my communion is complete.

Order of Pilgrimage
1. Ethedex Rir Wrath
2. Dainfa Kaj Fire
3. Uni-07 Sahas Courage
4. Propus Its Peace
5. Edqueth Adauichi Vengeance
6. Essa Paibisundarat Beauty
7.Waayan Hon Fate
8. Olcanze Pakanga War
9. Ceanze Houra Gold
10. Veedfa Kangenraga Music
11. Edqueth Chahana Love
12. Lahola Kotinga Harvest
13. Wolf Chippujana Earth
14. Zeolen Waimiz Water
15.Ys 3-386 Vayu Air
16. Keid Kengen Power

Began: 12.19.2009
Finished: 1.5.2010

Along the Pilgrims Path

"Every day is a journey, and the journey itself is home."
Matsuo Basho (1644-1694)

Although I completed my pilgrimage, I am not a follower of Kai-Rang. I remain an unbeliever; a Keldon warrior with no belief in anything beyond the power of my own abilities, and my own strength of character. But I would be lying if I did not acknowledge that my experiences on the pilgrimage did not change me. My whole perspective on the verse has shifted since taking the path of the pilgrim, and my understanding of my place in the verse becomes clearer every time I let my mind escape its chains into meditative peace. The Matriarchs live inside me; have become a part of me. It has been several weeks since I completed my pilgrimage, yet the matriarchs call to me every time I enter a sector housing one of their dens.

There are many paths to follow in this verse, many worlds, sectors, and starbases to visit. Having experienced the pilgrimage, I can never become one of the sedentary pilots who do not leave their chosen cluster. I have come to embrace the journey itself, to abhor the inactivity that comes with settling down. While I will always call certain clusters home, I am destined to wander the verse like a nomadic drifter, a roving scholar explorer, a pilgrim.

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