Elyth felt the warning, a sudden sharpening of her senses, before its cause formed in her conscious mind. A few moments later, out of the corner of her eye, she caught the man glancing her way for two seconds too long and her heart sank. It wasn’t the first time they’d tracked her down. But there’d been no sign of them for so long, she’d almost begun to believe she’d escaped at last. With that man’s glance, all such hope vanished. The consequences would be violent.
She took a sip of her strongly spiced and mildly alcoholic tea, placed the cup back on the small table in front of her smoothly, casually. No need to alert the man that she’d marked him. Not until she’d identified his friends. And she knew he would have friends. At first, Elyth kept her eyes slightly lowered, centered on the steam swirling and tumbling up from her drink while she allowed her vision to expand out, to take in the wide energy of the common room. Then, she let her attention drift, and made note of where instinct drew it.
The place was a two-story affair, half bar, half restaurant, with the upper section open and overlooking the main floor below, where she now sat. It was about three-quarters full. Patrons stood in clumps near the bar, or sat in close groups around other tables. Elyth sat back in her chair and swept her gaze in a lazy arc around the restaurant and then back again, careful not to let her eyes rest even for a moment on anyone in particular. But now that she’d spotted one of her hunters, the others gradually became apparent. A man and a woman feigning intimate conversation at a corner table by the entrance. A lone woman, lingering over a tall mug of a once-hot beverage that no longer steamed. Above, in the upper section, a pair of men arguing animatedly in friendly debate.
Hezra agents, all.
It’d been over three years since her self-inflicted exile from the First House of the Ascendance, since the protection of that great House had been withdrawn. The Hezra had been after her from the first day. And though Elyth knew they would never truly abandon their search, she’d been on-world almost long enough to begin to hope that maybe she’d at last found a place far enough out of the way where she could live the quiet life she’d envisioned for herself. But the Hezra’s reach was as long as the galaxy itself, and now she was a hair’s breadth from their grasp.
Worse still, Elyth knew what the appearance of these agents portended. This was no brief moment of crisis. It was only the opening salvo in what would be weeks, if not months, of relentless pursuit. Once more she would be forced to burn her world to the ground in yet another attempt to disappear and reemerge on some other planet, with another name and another life. Her coat hung on the back of her chair. At her feet sat the small pack she kept with her at all times, containing the few personal belongings she’d taken when she’d left the House; most important among them, her journal of the work she’d performed in its service, and the vials of earth she’d saved from each world she’d killed. And now, the only possessions that would leave the planet with her.
It had become a cycle, birthed on the planet Qel, now destined, it seemed, to echo through the cosmos. Since then, all she’d wanted was time and space to reconcile what she had been raised to believe with what she had witnessed, and indeed participated in, on that world, by the side of the man she’d called Grief. Sacrificing her status in the House, giving up all she’d been and ever could be in that seat of power, should have been penance enough. But it seemed that the Ascendance authorities would never forget nor forgive her for Qel.
They’d stationed six inside; two at the front entrance, one each near the side and rear exits, two on overwatch from above. If they’d risked putting that many of their own in such close proximity to her, it was a sign that they weren’t likely to try to kill her outright. They could have done that from a much safer distance. Another capture attempt, then. Small comfort.
Elyth carefully replayed what she’d observed of the agents since her arrival nearly an hour before; the relentless training of her former life had made the practice of tracking the people around her automatic. Five of them she could recall seeing enter. But the sixth, the woman by the side entrance, had already been at the table when Elyth first came in. They’d gotten here ahead of her. Either they were getting better, or she’d allowed herself to become predictable.
Undoubtedly the rest of the team was already positioned outside, waiting for their moment. But what moment?
Elyth glanced around again. There were maybe sixty or so others in the establishment. Too many witnesses, too much potential for collateral damage. The settlement was large enough to hide in, but still small enough for news to travel fast. If they didn’t want too many questions being asked, it was a safe bet they wouldn’t make their move until she was outside.
Unless she forced their hand.
Elyth took a long drink of her tea, while she surveyed her mental map of the surrounding area, the buildings, the avenues, the alleys. Any escape route she identified, she had to assume they had as well. Though the agents were uncomfortably close, it was their containment strategy that posed the biggest threat. Beyond those in the restaurant, she had to anticipate a tight perimeter around the establishment, and a second, looser cordon beyond that. Would they have a third? Undoubtedly. The rings they’d formed around her might extend all the way to orbit.
Twice before she had narrowly escaped their capture. The cost of doing so again seemed almost more than she could bear. For a moment, her last sight of eth ammuin flashed in her memory. His gentle acceptance of the rough hands that had seized him, the quick grin he’d given her as they dragged him away, as though it was all the consequence of some small mischief, or perhaps just the beginning of a prank he’d planned all along. He’d allowed himself to be taken. Elyth hadn’t been able to fathom why. Until now. He must have known the toll it took to live hunted. Maybe his had been the wiser choice.
Even if immediate escape was possible, this latest attempt all but proved Elyth would never experience the true freedom she’d thought she’d purchased with her exile. Unless she could persuade the Hezra to give up their obsession with her. Her hope of such was slight beyond measure; the outcome of any attempt to negotiate seemed all but inevitable. But eth ammuin had taught her the value of being open to the great impact often hidden in small probabilities. Unfortunately, she had no means to communicate directly with the Hezra.
Except, perhaps, the agents in the room.
To escape, she first needed to disrupt them, paralyze them just long enough to seize the initiative. To send a message, she needed them to be willing to suspend action long enough to hear what she had to say.
Maybe there was a way to do both at the same time.
Elyth stood, gathered her things, picked up her tea, and carried them all with her toward the lone woman watching the side entrance. As she approached, the woman kept her eyes studiously on the round table in front of her, seemingly lost in thought.
“Excuse me,” Elyth said, stopping at the table. The woman glanced up, her expression placid, tinged with the suspicion one might expect from someone approached by a stranger. The signs of surprise and anxiety were apparent to Elyth’s acute eye, but well controlled. The woman was truly a skilled professional.
“I’m sorry to bother you,” Elyth continued. “Would you mind if I sat with you for a few minutes?”
“Not really looking for company,” the woman replied.
“Me neither,” Elyth said. “And a guy over there’s been giving me weird looks all night.”
“Yeah? Which guy?”
“Back over there,” Elyth said, bobbing her head discreetly toward the first Hezra agent she’d spotted. “Dark hair, beard, brown coat.”
The woman flicked her eyes toward the man. Her partner. A critical moment. She would suspect she’d been made, but would she let the situation play out to see where it led? Elyth readied, in case the woman made a move.
“Oh yeah, him,” the woman said. “Why do you think I’m sitting all the way over here?”
She pushed the chair opposite her out with her foot. Elyth nodded, gave a quick bow, and touched her heart in casual greeting.
“I’m Evani,” Elyth said.
“Evani,” the woman repeated. “Beril.” She dipped her head and tapped her heart in the bare minimum of greeting that could pass for manners.
Elyth pulled the chair around to the side of the table, closer to Beril and angled so she could keep an eye on the common room and the exit. She sat down and, just like that, removed one link in their chain of communication and took a casual hostage. In doing so, she knew she was pushing the Hezra team into high alert. The woman Beril might not be able to report directly on Elyth’s movement, but undoubtedly her channel was open to the other Hezra operatives. Elyth had been under their observation before; now she knew every eye and ear was intensely focused on her every motion and word.
The trick would be to stretch the uncertainty of the moment out, to keep them off balance as long as possible, without tipping them into action.
“Thank you, Beril,” she said.
She sat calmly, her expression pleasantly neutral. At first, she didn’t initiate conversation, just watched Beril with an expectant openness. The posture put the other woman in an awkward gap of silence, where Elyth could observe how quickly she could process the situation and respond. After a few moments, Elyth gestured to a nearby attendant, and then to Beril’s mug, now only a third full and probably room temperature. Beril shook her head, but the attendant had already disappeared.
“Least I can do to show my gratitude,” Elyth said.
“It’s really not necessary,” Beril answered. “I’ve never minded helping a sister in a time of need.”
“Courtesy deserves to be repaid,” Elyth said, “and I carry no debts.”
Beril twitched a smirk.
“None at all?”
“I’m all paid up.”
“Must be nice.”
The two women sat in quiet showdown for a moment, Elyth watching as Beril scrambled to find her footing in the face-off. The contrast between Beril’s calm expression and the tension pouring from her impressed Elyth.
The attendant briefly broke the silent standoff as he returned with a fresh mug, this one steaming, and placed it in front of Beril with a quick bow. After he departed, Beril lifted the mug to Elyth, dipped her head in thanks, and took a sip of her drink. Elyth noted the way she held the mug, grasping the narrow handle with two fingers rather than hooking it with her thumb, the way the locals did.
“New to town?” Elyth asked.
Beril’s eyebrow raised involuntarily, though whether her surprise was due to the fact that Elyth had noticed or had dared to ask wasn’t clear. She hesitated a moment, trying to decide whether to stick with her cover story or admit the truth.
“That obvious, huh?” she said, after the hitch.
“Local attire,” Elyth said, with a quick smile, “but not custom. It’s always the little details that take the longest.”
Beril flashed a thin smile of her own. Elyth read in her expression the working of her mind, as she tried to discern Elyth’s intent.
“Recent arrival, actually,” Beril said. “About three standard weeks, I think. Seems like longer. But I hate to look like a tourist.”
“You do better than most.”
“This your home world then?” Beril asked, gently testing the situation.
“No, I’ve only been here a few months,” Elyth said. “But I’d like to stay. The people are good. Cordial, not overly interested in your business.”
Beril’s eyes narrowed slightly, sensing how Elyth was steering the conversation.
“Spoken like someone with a past,” she replied.
“Everyone’s got a past.”
“Some more than others.”
“I’ve just been looking for a place to settle down,” Elyth said. “Somewhere I could keep to myself, be left alone. I’m doing everything I can to lead a quiet life.”
The last traces of doubt melted from Beril’s demeanor. She understood the game now, understood that Elyth was negotiating with her, and with the Hezra at large.
“Consequence is hard to outrun,” Beril said.
“Not when it’s already run its course. And when no one’s seeking to drive it beyond its natural limits.”
“Well, that is the trouble, isn’t it? Those who cause harm usually want to forget, while those who suffer it tend to remember.”
“Revenge rarely works out.”
“Justice usually does,” Beril answered. “Eventually.”
“It’s important to know for certain which one you’re looking for.”
“You might believe your debts are paid. But some of us answer to a higher authority.”
“We all do, whether we care to acknowledge it or not,” Elyth said. “But authority and wisdom are two different things.”
“It would be wise to submit to both.”
Elyth bowed her head. Beside her, Beril tensed further, undoubtedly well briefed on Elyth’s physical prowess, and fearful of what she could do with her voice. Elyth was almost out of time.
“I’m no threat to either. I’m a woman of peace, content in obscurity,” she said quietly, and then looked back to Beril. “And I don’t want to hurt anyone.”
“Then maybe you should go out the side door, instead of the front.”
Elyth knew that exit led to a narrow alley that filtered into a small courtyard between several of the buildings. Isolated from the main traffic of locals.
The two women stared into each other’s eyes for a hard moment, and Elyth saw the granite resolve that the Hezra had forged within Beril. They would never let her go, even if the pursuit destroyed them.
Elyth’s hope for a different outcome had been vanishingly small to begin with, but at least she’d honored the chance. She spread her hands open before her, where Beril could see them, and slowly rose from her chair.
“Well, Beril,” she said, as she put on her coat. “Thank you for the company. Good luck.”
“With whatever happens when I walk out this door.”
Beril smirked. “If it’s any consolation, if it were up to me, you’d already be dead.”
Elyth picked up her small pack and slung it over her shoulder. As she turned to go, Beril raised her mug and dipped her head in salute.
“See you soon, Elyth.”
Elyth looked Beril in the eye.
She crossed the few steps to the side door with even stride, not knowing how many agents would be waiting for her when she opened it. Ten or a thousand. It would make no real difference. The outcome would be the same.
In the three years since her exile from the First House of the Ascendance, Elyth had carefully investigated new avenues of the Deep Language and its power to influence time and space. Though eth ammuin had opened her eyes to a multitude of possibilities, her long years of training had seared within her the inherent risks of tampering with the fabric of the cosmos. Still, she had found techniques hidden within techniques, secrets masked or perhaps forgotten, connections implied by the gaps between House teachings. Three years of exile had only grown her understanding.
And her willingness to act.
She drew in her breath, long, steady, and cleared her mind of all but one image. And in her exhale, she formed quiet words in the Deep Language.
“Lightning seeks its course.”
Elyth paired the words with a hand gesture of her own devising, amplifying the fullness of the words. As she reached out and opened the door, the power of the Deep Language took effect, multiplying the breadth, depth, and quickness of her perception. It wasn’t that time slowed for her, exactly. Rather her senses opened and unified with new dimensions of clarity; sight, sound, touch all joining together in a single experience that could be processed faster and more completely. From an outside perspective, her ability to see the Hezra’s plans unfold and react accordingly would give her finely tuned reflexes the unnerving appearance of supernatural foresight.
The narrow alley beyond the door was empty. Elyth stepped out and glanced left, toward the main street. A light rain had begun to fall. In her altered state, she could perceive the individual drops, and the space between them. Heavy foot traffic passed by the mouth of the alleyway, citizens going about their evening routine, oblivious to the coming clash. But she saw no sign of any Hezra agents or troopers.
She turned right, followed the side street to the courtyard, the nexus behind several buildings. There, she found them waiting. Twelve heavy troopers standing in a shallow arc, armed and armored.
But in the center of the courtyard, about twenty feet ahead of the others, stood a woman fully suited in some type of light powered armor that Elyth had never seen before.
The suit bore Hezra markings, done in their traditional crimson and black, and though it showed no signs of damage, it nevertheless looked well-used. In stark contrast with the taut knot of her companions hunched over their weapons, she stood upright, unmoved by the circumstance, almost casual. A veteran of the most dangerous missions.
The opaque faceplate was a matte crimson; featureless, implacable.
“Exile,” the suit said. The mask gave her voice a synthetic, graveled edge. “You are summoned.”
A strange greeting, coming from the captain of a Hezra grab team. Elyth could feel the tension streaming from the others, the fear of what might come next, and of what failure might mean. Or success, for that matter.
“You brought an awful lot of friends just to make an invitation,” she said.
The suit made no reply.
“And if I decline?” Elyth asked.
The answer came so quickly, so surely, Elyth knew it was no bluff. They meant to take her if they could, and kill her if they couldn’t. She wondered how they would know when to pull the trigger.
“For us both,” the suit added.
The claim caught Elyth off guard. The Hezra didn’t punish its own troops for failure. And the weapons carried by the troopers around them didn’t seem capable of penetrating the woman’s armor. That thought sparked another in her mind, of the lengths they’d been willing to go to before, back on Qel. The Contingency. Were they so desperate to stop her now that they would destroy an entire planet rather than see her escape again?
In that one moment of thought, the woman crossed the gap with impossible speed, a strike leveled at Elyth’s throat. It would have ended any other conflict. But to Elyth’s enhanced mind, the intent of motion signaled its inevitable outcome; she easily parried and sidestepped.
But the suit seemed to anticipate the movement, and pivoted into a follow-up strike. Elyth deflected the attack, reflexively reached to catch the arm. But the armored limb wrenched from her grasp, the motion flowing directly into an elbow strike that narrowly caught Elyth on the cheekbone. The power of even that glancing blow tipped Elyth’s balance to her left. Instinctively, she tucked her arms in to protect her head and body, and not a moment too soon. Another attack impacted her forearm, as the suit relentlessly followed through. Elyth slipped under another strike, checked the assault with an open palm to the faceplate, and took two quick steps back to create distance.
Her heightened awareness enabled her to see the strikes as they developed; yet the woman’s attacks seemed almost equally able to predict her own counters. A skilled combatant, far beyond the usual Hezra trooper.
And there was nothing Elyth could do with her bare hands to damage the woman through that armor. But she wouldn’t need to. Already she’d formed her plan of escape through the line.
For a few seconds, Elyth allowed the woman to press the attack. As long as it appeared that their champion was winning, the others seemed content to hold their fire. Elyth dodged and redirected her foe, feigning a scrambling retreat while carefully guiding the fight toward the arc of troopers around them, near the center of their line. Once they were close enough, Elyth would launch the armored woman into the nearest shooters, fold the arc in on itself, and escape in the momentary confusion. She guessed she would have three, maybe four seconds, before the troopers would gain a clear shot. Even as the fight continued, she planned her route through the center alleyway, predicting when and where she would face her next encounter.
But only a few steps away from where she had expected to spring her ambush, Elyth found the exchanges increasingly easier to anticipate. As the fight extended, the woman’s combat style became more apparent. And it wasn’t typical of a Hezra trooper. It was smoother, more fluid, loops and arcs rather than the lines and angles of standard Hezra technique. And though the intensity was severe, the energy driving the combat fell into a rhythm that felt strangely familiar.
Acutely familiar. Elyth suddenly felt she’d fought this opponent before, hundreds of times, over many years. Impossible. But even as her mind tried to reject the concept, her body moved to test the theory.
When an opening appeared, she feinted a high-line attack toward her foe’s face that she’d used too often against her longtime sparring partner. And the reflexive counter she expected began to unfold, as she knew in her heart it would. As it did, she slipped low, sweeping a leg behind her opponent and unleashing all her might in a powerful open palm strike to the woman’s solar plexus.
The suit absorbed the impact easily, but it could do nothing against gravity.
The woman tumbled backward with a startled cry made unearthly through the mask, scattered the two closest shooters, and impacted heavily on her back.
Elyth’s scant window presented itself, her half moment to escape, if she seized it.
Instead, she stood paralyzed.
“Nyeda?” she said.
The woman in the suit sat up quickly, but did not regain her feet. And though the faceplate had not changed, Elyth knew the expression behind it just as surely as she knew her own reflection.
Her training partner. Her sister-in-arms. And now, apparently, traitor to the House.
The shock coursed through Elyth but before it could fully manifest, a hard blow struck her from behind and plunged her into emptiness.