Far in the future, human beings have seeded themselves amongst the stars. Since decoding the language of the universe 8,000 years ago, they have reached the very edges of their known galaxy and built a near-utopia across thousands of worlds, united and ruled by a powerful organization known as the Ascendance. The peaceful stability of their society relies solely on their use of this Deep Language of the cosmos.
But this knowledge is a valuable secret, and a holy order of monastics known as the First House are tasked with monitoring its use and “correcting” humanity’s further development. Elyth is one such mendicant, trained as a planetary assassin, capable of infiltrating and ultimately destroying worlds that have been corrupted, using nothing more than her words.
To this end, Elyth is sent to the world Qel in response to the appearance of a forbidden strain of the Deep Language that was supposed to have died out with its founder over seven hundred years prior. What she finds on the backwater planetoid will put her abilities to the test and challenge what she knows of the Deep Language, the First House, and the very nature of the universe.
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Chapter One ONE
Elyth knew this world, as sure as she knew her own name.
She held the earth loosely clasped in her left hand, felt its damp weight, its sponged texture cold with the night. She knew this soil, knew the life it gave, the story it told, and the doom it now bore. She had come to know it well over weeks of reconnaissance, sweat-grimed days and nights spent on the trail of her deadly mark, learning its ways and its weaknesses.
But the time for stalking her prey was finished. Elyth had all she needed to complete the kill.
When her work was done, the planet Revik would lie dying at her feet. And none would be the wiser that an assassin of worlds had been visited upon them.
She raised her monocular to her eye, swept the view smoothly from left to right and back again. Through its lens the numerous guards shone like tongues of pale fire flickering along the walls and interior of the palace, some five hundred yards distant. Crouched at her hidden vantage point, Elyth noted the passing of a pair of watchmen by the main gate at the target site below. It was her third night of observation; she had the rhythm of the place now, its breath and its heartbeat.
A quick glance at the sky. Two moons highlighted the seams between the densely packed clouds drifting like ice floes in a lazy current overhead; the third moon was too weak and distant to make itself known. And though she couldn’t see it, Elyth knew between the moons and the clouds lay an armada. Five thousand Ascendance ships, oblivious to her presence on Revik and yet each utterly dependent on her success.
She returned her monocular to its housing at her belt, then removed a small pouch from an inner pocket in her vest. Into it, she let fall the handful of soil she’d gathered. A keepsake; a reminder of what once had been, before her coming to this world.
Time to work.
Elyth sealed the pouch of soil and replaced it inside her vest, then wiped her palms on her pants and stood from her crouch. Roughly three hundred yards of untamed land separated her from the border of the cultivated palace grounds, followed by two hundred yards of open space to her target. She drew on her gloves and slipped her mask over her face, concealing the last bits of exposed skin and cloaking herself fully in the smoked gray-blue of her infiltration attire. So clad, she slipped from her elevated position and began her approach.
Locals called the mountain Heifeld, but its true name was much longer and harder to pronounce, and carried within it all the weight and force of the truly ancient. Elyth had discerned that name in her careful interrogation of the land; the twin-peaked, green-gray mountain had become her ally and also her point of attack. A shallow saddle separated her from the lower but larger, flatter peak, where her target sat: the regional governor’s multitiered, multiwalled summer palace.
As impressive as the structure was, though, Elyth’s actual mark was what lay beneath; one of Revik’s most potent threadlines. A planetary nerve cluster near the surface with deep-run roots, concentrated into a focal point less than a hundred yards in diameter. Humans seemed intuitively drawn to such places of power, even when oblivious to their ecological significance.
Many worlds had died by Elyth’s hand, almost all their deaths wrought in the midst of some thriving city, or imposing government complex, or protected sacred ground.
She made her way down the mountainside and across the saddle, ever watchful. The saddle was peppered with spearlike pines and Revik’s peculiar wispy red-hued firs, and carried a dense, earthy scent; she had to mind her footing as she picked her way across the needle-blanketed terrain, dotted with its little fractal forests of moss.
As she approached the edge of the forest, she paused within its dark borders to take final stock of her target. The palace was mostly unlit, save for the pools of orange from security lights at regular intervals along the walls. There were six of these, each roughly twelve feet high, separating the center-most residential building from the outer grounds. Based on her estimate of the threadline’s size, she judged that she’d have to get beyond at least the fifth wall to carry out her strike. That was a lot of walls to put between her and her escape.
One thing at a time. She’d get within the minimal kill zone and evaluate from there.
She emerged from the tree line and crept shadowed across the open ground toward the eastern side of the palace, pausing whenever guards patrolled into view. Once she reached the outermost wall, she crouched at its base. Its stacked stones were irregular and rounded in the traditional fashion of the region, leaving enough useful gaps for Elyth’s skilled hands and feet. She spidered to the top, laid flat on the wide surface for two breaths to ensure no personnel were immediately below, then slipped over and down the opposite side.
The grounds within the walls had the marks of having been well manicured. Curving paths of hand-laid stone flowed over lush, pale yellow grass, like wide rivers amid prairie; pocket gardens dotted the landscape. But to Elyth’s careful eye, signs showed of disorder seeping in at all the edges. The height of the grass was uneven, overdue for cutting, and the once sharp borders of path and garden had grown fuzzy and indistinct. Elyth navigated from shadow to shade; the second and third walls were as easily overcome as the first.
Reaching the fourth took more care. The previous grounds had been decorative but largely transitional spaces, but here between the third and fourth walls they opened up in a meandering way, punctuated with small structures. From Elyth’s previous observation, she’d gathered these were workshops and general quarters for palace staff. There was little activity but the broken sight lines and patchwork shadows slowed her progress. Patrols moved over the grounds, emerging from blind corners or materializing piecemeal out of the scattered cover of sculpted trees and hedges.
Elyth’s previous patient reconnaissance repaid her; instinct cautioned her to pause, or spurred her to move before she had fully scanned for trouble. Some part of her subconscious fed her patterns of movement that she could not have described, and led her safely undetected to the farther wall.
It was between the fourth and fifth walls that her danger heightened. Sentries patrolled in greater numbers, and in crisscrossing patterns. The increased activity spoke of increased importance; indeed, the various buildings she could see were larger, more ornate.
She navigated her way through the patrols, but as she approached the fifth wall she was forced to stop. Eight pairs of sentries were stationed in a shallow zigzag pattern, each within constant sight of at least two others. Elyth studied them for a time, watching to see which pairs were silent and which were prone to conversation, where focus was strong and where it was weak. As was human tendency, they’d positioned themselves close to or under lights; the gaps between left narrow channels of darkness with little room for error.
She identified her best point of access between two of the chattiest sets of guards. It would be close and nothing was ever certain, but if she stayed low enough, Elyth felt she could slip through unnoticed. She went down on her belly, pressed into the soft grass, and began a slow crawl along a seam of darkness. Her path took her closer to the forward-most pair of sentries; as she neared, she picked up a portion of their conversation.
“—besides, blockades already failed at three other worlds,” one sentry, a woman, was saying. “We got another two weeks at most.”
They spoke casually, in the informal Low Language.
“Two weeks is pretty optimistic. I say another month,” the other sentry, a man, replied. “But you’re right, they can’t sustain the blockade. The Ascendance has no power left. Its doctrine is poison.”
“Its structure corrupt,” the first sentry replied.
“Its truth has failed. It falls, as it must,” the man answered. “And when it is gone, our righteousness will prevail.”
The last part of the exchange sounded rehearsed, robotic in its delivery. A liturgical call-and-response, thoughtlessly practiced and repeated. To untrained ears, the peculiar quality of their speech would have gone unnoticed; but to Elyth, whose life had been devoted to art and skill in the Language, their words dripped and seethed, acidic at the edges, caustic to the mind. Though she could understand every word they spoke, she heard how distorted the intent behind them had become. What the man had called righteousness was nothing more than his personal thirst for vengeance, with himself envisioned as holy judge. Their poisoned delusion angered Elyth.
Here, between these two guards, the danger that Revik posed was laid bare. It was not the speaking out against the Ascendance that had led to Elyth’s deployment; she herself had mixed feelings about the Grand Council and its leadership. But here, on Revik, the Language had been intentionally corrupted, purposefully shaped toward destructive ends.
Left unchecked, that corruption could and would spread to neighboring worlds. Tragic though it was, Revik’s demise would ensure the safety of thousands of planets, and many billions of human lives.
It was the Language that united them. It was the Language that had lifted the human race from the dust and granted them the stars as inheritance. There was power within its words. Every citizen of the Ascendance was meant to guard it. Instead, these remaining citizens of Revik had twisted it, distorted it to portray themselves enslaved; in truth, they were a free people grasping for nothing more than the freedom to destroy themselves.
She continued past and behind them, escaping their notice. Another fifty feet and she would be at the base of the wall. But as she was crossing that final stretch, fortune turned against her.
Without warning, one of the guards broke from his place and began crossing the grounds toward another pair, with Elyth caught between. He’d been standing in one pool of light and was heading toward another, so she knew his unadjusted vision would grant her some extra concealment. But he was going to pass within just a few feet of her, and she couldn’t leave the matter to chance.
Her hand found its way to the collapsed baton on her belt. A single strike could fell him easily enough. But the aftermath might be unmanageable.
As he closed within twenty feet of her, many possibilities were contained within those next few seconds. Elyth needed one specific possibility to manifest.
She would call it forth.
The technique was approved by the policy of her House, though only in limited circumstances and under strictest control. One could not twist the fabric of reality far before its warped threads would draw others best left undisturbed. But human perception was the easiest of all domains to influence and manipulate. She paused a moment to clear her mind, to fashion the words first within before she breathed them into existence. Then, with all focus and attention bent on that single sentry, she spoke.
But her words were not of the common dialect. Now, she employed the secret tongue that undergirded it all, the foundation upon which the Language and indeed the cosmos itself had been constructed. She spoke a sealing phrase to draw upon the hidden Deep Language.
“A shadow upon emptiness; the many darknesses are one,” she said, her words a barely voiced whisper. And then to the man, “Though you see me, you do not perceive.”
The guard reacted at the sound; his head pitched up as he brought his gaze from the ground in front of him to the place where Elyth lay. His features were too cloaked in darkness for her to see clearly, but she could feel his eyes upon her.
And the next moment, she felt his gaze slide over and past her. He continued his path in front of her, oblivious, close enough that she could have stretched out and snatched his ankle had she desired. When he was three paces past, she drew up into a low crouch and made her way as quickly as she dared to the wall, cycling her attention between her destination, the sentry she had dodged, and the other guards still standing at their posts. She paused at the base of the wall, pressed her shoulder to it while she surveyed the grounds. The wandering sentry reached his companions, and the three of them engaged in some quiet huddle of conversation. Everything else continued as it had before, with no sign that her passage had disturbed any of the sentries’ natural rhythm.
Assured that her crossing had gone unmarked, Elyth quickly cleared the fifth wall and lowered herself into the inner court, the central hub of the summer palace. There remained ahead of her only one final wall cordoning off the governor’s personal residence from the rest of the grounds. Whether by design or intuition, the extravagant home was very nearly centered above Elyth’s target threadline. She was tempted to breach that area, to infiltrate the place the governor considered most secure, only to prove to herself that she could.
But the threadline was wide enough that she could do her work here without any loss in efficacy, and there was no need to put yet another wall between herself and her escape. With mild reluctance, she set to scouting the various outbuildings between the walls.
There were a number of these, many of which after investigation she determined had been converted to temporary quarters for what she assumed were the governor’s most loyal supporters. Elyth circled the innermost wall, looking for a location that would provide her sufficient security for this most delicate part of her operation. Once she began the process, she couldn’t afford to be interrupted.
On the side of the palace opposite her initial approach, she found a tall single-story building, a wide and long rectangle, like a warehouse. She crept across an open stretch of ground to it and knelt down by its outer wall, on the darkest end. A high slat window or vent sat above her, roughly ten feet above the ground and set back slightly in the wall. Elyth stepped away, then made a quick dash forward and leapt up, boosting herself with a light step off the building exterior. She caught the narrow lip of the window’s housing with her fingertips and drew herself up enough to peek inside. The darkness within was nearly complete, save for a weak glow from somewhere near the main entrances and a pair of squared patches in the roof where the gloom clung less thickly to the ceiling. Skylights, maybe. She lowered herself back to the full extent of her arms, and then dropped softly to the ground.
She looked up, evaluated the roofline. It arced gracefully over the width of the building, coming no lower than perhaps fifteen feet from the ground at either end. The exterior walls were smooth, with no obvious protrusions. Climbing wasn’t an option, at least on this end. She peeked around the corner and spotted two large double-door entrances, each stretching nearly to the roofline in height and twice as wide. A third door of normal size sat under a light between the two bays. Between her and the first bay door, however, sat several crates haphazardly stacked near the storehouse, backlit by a light source farther beyond.
Though the central door promised the easiest access, Elyth hadn’t seen enough of the interior to feel secure entering that way.
She picked her way to the crates.
There were five of them, metal cubes about four feet to a side, and arranged as though they’d been hastily dumped. Elyth glanced up, judged the distance between the top crate and the edge of the roof. Significant for a standing jump, but not impossible. She scrambled on top of the crate and wasted no time.
Elyth leapt, stretched out, and caught the rounded edge of the roof; she pendulumed toward the building then out again, and used the momentum to accelerate her pull up and over the edge. Once on the roof, she padded in a low crouch to the nearest skylight opening. There she drew out her monocular and switched it to light amplification, no magnification.
It was a warehouse indeed. Like the surrounding grounds, it too showed signs of creeping disarray. From what she could see, the outer aisles were in good order. But closer to the loading bay doors the lines became less regular, until there, closest to the front of the building, it appeared as though large loads had been shoved into careless piles. Whatever the case, she saw no sign of personnel inside. Still, from her vantage she couldn’t see the source of the interior light and that made her wary of trying the front door.
The skylight wasn’t sealed; scratches at the rear corner showed wear from moving on hinges. After a few moments Elyth located a mechanism that raised and lowered the large pane, enabling it to double as a vent; another half minute of work, and she’d bypassed the circuitry and then manually lifted the pane wide enough to gain entry.
High rafters ran along either side of the skylight, but the gap was too great to manage safely. From a pouch strapped to her leg, Elyth removed a small black cylinder about the size of her fist. With the press of a button the top unfurled into a many-fingered hand, each digit willowy and delicate by look. She tugged the upper section free and ran it to the edge of the skylight; a spider-threaded line spooled out behind. When the fronds of the device met the lip of her entry point, she squeezed the handle, and those willowy fingers folded in, grasping the edge from many angles with all the strength of the roots of an ancient oak. The cylinder she hooked onto a small loop on the front of her belt; together the system acted as line and harness.
Secured, Elyth lowered herself through the skylight, feeding out enough line to swing over to the rafter. Crouched there, she unhooked the device from her belt and deactivated the grasping mechanism; it fell free from the skylight and zipped quietly home, its blossom folding neatly closed once back in place. She held position there, perched above the warehouse floor, scanning. And finally, she could see where the sole light was coming from. A guard was posted in a small alcove to one side of the main entrance. But she was committed now; she’d have to see it through.
Elyth navigated her way along and down the support structure to the floor below. For a few minutes, she crept along the long aisles and the incongruous combination of neat stacks and careless piles, evaluating it all for a secure strike point. The single guard didn’t appear to have any intention of leaving his station, but she couldn’t leave it to chance. She would need every ounce of focus for the task at hand.
On the end of the warehouse opposite from the guard, Elyth discovered a door, sealed by a simple passcode lock. Neither light nor sound came from behind, and she guessed it was some sort of storage closet. She scanned the lock with a device from her vest, which after a moment fed her the proper sequence. Elyth punched in the code and eased the door open.
The room was completely dark; she drew out her monocular and scanned the interior. It was roughly six feet wide and perhaps ten feet deep, filled with racks of various cleaning supplies and other goods without clear markings. Elyth slipped inside and closed the door quietly behind her. Judging from the amount of dust gathered on all but the shelves closest to the door, it appeared it’d been some time since the room had seen any regular use.
With the door shut, she decided it was safe to risk a little light of her own, and put her monocular away. She switched on the personal light mounted on her vest and its red-filtered beam cast a wide pool of ember-glow light; in the back corner of the room, she carefully cleared some space for herself to work. She didn’t need much.
Once that was done, she switched off her light, settled herself with a deep breath and exhale and, there, finally, delivered her message. The technique was called Revealing the Silent Gate. It began with ahn, the first letter of the Language, and its hand sign.
“From the void, all come,” Elyth said, uttering the sealing phrase in the Deep Language, “to the void, all return.”
And then wielding the true speech of the universe, known only to and guarded by the select few of her House, she spoke death.
She spoke to the planet directly, intimately, to the complex network of shifting energies and ecosystems that some might call its spirit. It had taken her weeks of careful communion with the world to learn its innermost workings. Now, she spoke of its mountains, and its rivers, and its moss-wrapped forests. She spoke of its ice-white skies, its sun-forsaken deep. And in the Deep Language of the cosmos, she described its collapse.
Revik had fire in its heart, rivers of magma in its veins that had long stayed their course far beneath the surface. Too long. They were the planet’s great vulnerability, and these Elyth called by name and stirred to action. She pictured them in her mind, held the whole world in her mind’s eye, a spectral globe hovering before her. Within it, she saw the fractures form that would over time grow to great rifts; and these images she described in the Deep Language. It was the end of the world as it would be, one that existed within the planet’s natural processes, given enough time. But Elyth was drawing it out from the distant future, into the now. There, in a storage closet in a warehouse, the infinite stretched down to kiss the finite, and she was its bridge. Her body trembled from the focus and exertion it took to keep herself anchored.
Using the hand signs associated with each letter, Elyth ran through the full protocol, speaking to each basic element of Revik’s composition, each portion of its ecosystem and the part it would play in relation to the other. There was no power in the gestures; the signs were merely a physical mnemonic, a checklist embodied. It was the universe alone that carried the power of her craft, and the Deep Language was its access.
Around her, the familiar feeling embraced her; a crackling, an ocean foam of possibilities as light and space and time bent around her, warping, roiling. Even in the darkness, she could see multicolored glints and black sparks darker than even the absence of light that surrounded her. Galaxies and black holes; the material of the cosmos, manifest in microscale. Or perhaps her being had expanded to something the mere universe could no longer contain.
Her body vibrated with a manic energy, a buildup of static charge before the lightning strike. Exhilarating. Terrifying.
In the final sequence, Elyth held her hands one above the other, palms facing but separated, as though holding the globe of the world between. The air between them felt dense, heavy. And then she raised her hand above her head, and repeated the sealing phrase.
“From the void, all come; to the void, all return.”
As the last words left her mouth, she dropped to a knee and brought her hand down, striking the floor with a heavy palm. The power flowed from the infinite beyond, through her, into the planet; the work of a thousand millennia compressed into a single moment, focused through a point the span of her palm. And that power raced along the threadline, a nerve carrying its pain to the planet’s roots where it would radiate out again through every facet of the world.
There was no outward sign, no quaking of the earth, no thunderous blast, no smoke-billowing mountain; but Elyth knew the change as surely as she could know the soul-broken eyes of a mother bereaved. This was a hearty world. On a human scale, its death would be gradual. Perhaps as much as a standard Ascendant year before its surface became toxic to human life. But on a cosmic time frame, its end would be as swift and sudden as an instant.
From that moment on, Revik sped toward death.
She remained there on her knee for several minutes, too disciplined to let herself sink to the floor, but not yet capable of standing. The discharge of power combined with the exertion of the process left Elyth drained and hollow. Reaching out to seize the raw material of the cosmos, to serve as a conduit through which it could flow, exposed her to the mind-breaking gulf separating her tiny existence from that limitless, formless potential. To touch the infinite was to come fully awake to one’s own utter limitation. It was no small thing to bear. No matter how many times she’d gone through the process, she’d not yet been able to overcome the fear that one day she might not make it back from that place.
Without conscious thought, Elyth’s body carried out its routine for recovery; a set of breathing cycles designed to draw her awareness back to the reality of her physical form, of the concrete nature of her surroundings, and of each individual moment of the present. Gradually the procedure recentered and anchored her sense of being, just as it had been created to do.
But too, as the cosmic horizon receded, the personal, emotional weight of the act bore down upon her. She knew the justness of the sentence she had carried out. The loss of Revik was a surgeon’s cut, the death of one cell sacrificed to protect all those around it. But to call forth such precise, intimate destruction, Elyth had to know the planet, and in knowing the planet, she had come to love it. She recognized what made Revik unique, and though she saw how it had been irrevocably corrupted by its inhabitants, she knew too what a precious treasure it had once been. Most if not all of the humans could be saved; the planet would bear the cost. And there was no way to harden oneself against killing a thing beloved.
Elyth would grieve, and deeply. But not right now.
She eased herself up to standing, tested her balance for a moment. The trembling had ceased. She clenched her hands to fists and then opened them again. There was strength in them still, though she felt empty in her core. Strength enough to make it back to her ship, off world, and back into the embrace of the Ascendance, and of her Order. All that stood between her and a much-needed and much-deserved recovery was a series of walls and a few dozen sentries.
Elyth slipped out into the warehouse, made her way past the lone, dozing guard, and exited through its ground-level entryway. She followed roughly the same track as she’d taken on her way in, modifying it as the movement of patrols dictated. It all seemed easy enough, until her ascent up the first of the five walls. Even with the relatively easy climb, she felt the weakening in her grip. The hit was taking its toll and Elyth knew from much experience that her scant remaining stamina would fade ever more rapidly.
At the top of the wall, she decided to conserve what energy she could. Instead of climbing down the opposite side, she made use once more of her support line, affixing its plant-like grasp to the rounded edge of the wall and allowing its line to lower her to the ground below.
The sky was beginning to gray into its first signs of dawn, granting a bare, soft edge of light to the compound. Above her, the clouds had begun to spread and separate subtly but consistently across the expanse. The gradual increase in visibility was both a blessing and a curse; easier to spot potential danger, but that ran true in both directions.
Thankfully, navigating the line of guards that had been her great challenge during infiltration proved less difficult a task on the way out; the line had deteriorated, the sentries forming small clusters of idle chatter. A sure sign that the night’s shift was drawing to a close. With careful steps and watchful eyes, she slipped from wall to wall, a moon shadow brushing lightly over the earth.
At each wall, Elyth repeated the process of scaling up and then using her line to descend the opposite side. And though each climb took more effort than the one previous, by the time she’d reached the outermost wall, she’d gotten the rhythm of the sequence so well that she barely had to pause at the top before she could roll over the edge and enjoy a precious few moments of rest as the device lowered her gently to the ground.
It was the mastery of that routine that caused her the trouble.
Her feet had just touched down outside the complex when, as her focus was on her climbing aid to retract its line, a motion in her peripheral vision drew her attention. She snapped her head in its direction then froze. Three sentries were standing no more than twenty feet away. Their line ran diagonally away from her, a few feet between each man and the farthest perhaps thirty feet distant. Fortunately none were looking her direction, but from their stances it was obvious that she couldn’t expect them to remain that way for long.
How foolish. She’d climbed over the wall in the exact same location that she’d initially infiltrated; all her previous observation had shown it to be consistently clear of patrols. She had acted on what she’d expected, rather than on what was actually there. It would have cost her a few seconds only. Now, the cost would be somewhat higher.
The motion she had seen had been the nearest guard turning his head, undoubtedly in reaction to the sound of her quiet descent, though it hadn’t yet occurred to him that any danger could possibly be coming from behind. And though the security she’d so expertly evaded thus far had seemed inattentive, she saw now in this man’s taut posture how quick the response to a threat could be. She knew without a doubt that a single warning raised would activate the entire compound, swarming the grounds and surrounding lands with searchers, both man and machine.
The sun would be cresting the horizon soon enough, and Elyth still had need of what little remained of the night’s veil; too much hostile ground lay between her and her escape to wait. There wouldn’t be time to hide the bodies.
Without further thought, she launched from her crouch by the wall. The first man she took with a swift blow to the base of the skull. As he pitched forward, Elyth grabbed the back of his collar with one hand and his belt with the other, controlling his fall to limit the sound. The second man was just turning when Elyth reached him, close enough to see his eyes narrowed in confusion. Before they could widen, Elyth’s baton found its mark just below his left ear, near the jawline. There was no time to catch him as he fell.
The third guard was a man of powerful stature; already he was turned toward her, rapidly processing the scene as his second companion hit the ground. Elyth knew she couldn’t close the distance in time. His mouth was opening, his hands streaking toward the weapon on his belt.
But Elyth was faster.
In her mind’s eye, she saw the baton leave her hand and strike its target; in the next instant, it was so. The baton impacted the guard’s solar plexus, momentarily stealing his breath and stumbling him a step. Whatever weapon he’d been trying to draw fumbled to the ground. Elyth was on him three steps later, swatting away his attempt at a defense. She darted the edge of her hand into his Adam’s apple, stunning the vocal cords, and with a twisting step flowed around and behind him. In the next moment, she snaked her arm around his neck and dropped backward to the ground, dragging him down with her. As she locked her legs around his waist, the man writhed, attempted to pry her arm away from his trachea, and his great strength made itself known.
Elyth clung close and tight in the chaos, reflexively reacting to every shift in the man’s weight and power. And in that violent embrace, the heat of his body, the scent of his sweat-sheened skin, the pulsing blood flow within the vise of her arm, all spoke of the terror of death upon him, and his life’s thrashing struggle against it.
But neither his strength nor his will were sufficient to overcome her skill and technique.
It took only a few seconds before the man’s flailing weakened, and fewer after until it ceased completely. Elyth counted to five before she dared release the hold and then slumped him to one side. He would wake again in ten or twenty seconds, sluggish and confused. It would give her a head start, but not enough to cover the distance to the tree line. If they gave chase, she’d never make it off the planet. She glanced down at the man next to her. A killing blow would be nothing now; as simple as crushing a bug.
But as she looked at the fallen sentry, other faces flashed in her mind. In her youth, she had taken lives rashly, painful mistakes of judgment. Elyth knew nothing of the man; why he had chosen to side with the governor’s doomed bid for power, or how deep his indoctrination ran. Maybe he was a true believer. Or maybe he was an innocent man, just trying to survive. None of her Order would fault her for his death. But here, now, with the man helpless, at her utter mercy, the fact that no authority would hold her accountable seemed insignificant.
And during those seconds of consideration, she came to recognize the opportunity he presented. A minor risk, but worth it. If it worked.
She recovered her baton and located the guard’s weapon. It was a small kinetic gun. She threw the weapon far away, then moved quickly back to the wall and scaled it as fast as her wearied fingers would allow.
At the top, she paused, dropped onto her belly, and dangled her legs over the interior side, watched the third sentry intently in the ever-growing light of approaching dawn. Any moment.
And there. He stirred briefly, then lay still again. A few moments later, he began to recover himself in earnest, and pushed up unsteadily, glancing about as though he’d expected to find himself home in bed.
And then the realization fell upon him with all its weight, and his searching became sharp, just shy of frantic. Elyth waited until the moment the guard’s eyes found her, and then swiftly lowered herself over the edge of the wall back into the interior of the complex. She didn’t drop all the way to the ground, though. Instead, she hung there by the edge, gritting her teeth against the weakness in her grip, listening to the activity on the other side. The man tried to cry out, but the damage she’d inflicted on his vocal cords rendered the call hoarse and ineffective. An instant later, the man’s heavy footsteps signaled his rush to the nearest help.
When her path was clear, Elyth stared through a fog of exhaustion for just a moment, willing herself to move before she found strength enough to drag herself back over. She didn’t even bother to try descending the opposite side with any grace or control, only lowering herself far enough to minimize the chance of breaking an ankle before dropping to the ground. She rolled with the impact and came up running, passing the two guards who still lay unconscious.
She had crossed just over half the distance to the tree line when she heard the alarm go up behind her. If her ruse had worked, however, she knew the immediate focus would be on securing the palace grounds themselves. Hopefully the distraction would give her the time she needed to recover her ship and escape the planet.
Elyth reached the tree line and pushed on as fast as the difficult terrain and her heavy legs would allow. Five miles separated her from the craggy and barren hollow where her small vessel lay concealed. By the time she reached it, she barely had strength left to climb into the cockpit.
It wasn’t until she was airborne and climbing steadily out of the atmosphere that Elyth allowed herself to believe she had truly escaped. She let out a deep exhale then and gave herself permission to feel the full weight of the weeks she had endured on Revik, the part she had played in its inevitable and coming demise, and the exhaustion that laid heavy upon her.
And it was in that moment of mingled relief and utter depletion that she realized a priority transmission had come through while she’d been away from the ship; its header markings and encryption protocols declared its origins to be directly from the Order of the Mind, the highest order of Elyth’s House.
She flicked the message open, skimmed it with anxious eyes. It was terse, but the brevity did not rob it of its weight.
Immediate recall. Revik operation to be passed over.
Return to the Vaunt by fastest possible method.
Passed over. The phrase whipped her with an ice-wind dread. At best, it meant another of her Order was being deployed to complete the mission in her place, due to some unknown failing on her part.
At worst, it might mean she had just killed a planet that should have been spared.
Nausea seized her at the thought, swirled her emotions. If the beauty of Revik could have been preserved after all... but she closed her eyes and steadied herself.
Elyth had completed the task as it had been placed before her. There was no way to discern the intent behind this new directive, nor to determine why it had arrived so late. Allowing her imagination to fill in gaps was neither wise nor beneficial. Any answers she might receive would come no sooner than her return. She was already doing all she could.
She marked the message received and closed it, sealing it to oblivion; once read, such transmissions from the Advocates of the Mind dissolved to leave no trace.
If only the same could have been said for the impact of the message.
As the sky darkened around her beyond the cockpit, so too did Elyth’s thoughts. Despite her attempts to settle herself, the communication had robbed her of any sense of accomplishment. Instead of a work completed, Revik was now a question posed. And while her ship carried her back into the safety of the Ascendance armada, her mind grappled with the unforeseeable new trial that awaited her return to the grand vaulted city of her Order.