Pejan stared at the inside of the prayer house’s front door and read the words emblazoned there in gold with an entirely different meaning from what the bahlan crafters had intended.
The Promise is sure.
Jesra was with him again. It did not make the universe all right, or heal all the wounds inside him, but it was a blessing beyond price. He filled his lungs with breath, let all the air out slowly, and gave thanks. To the Tal, the god of the Bahlan, or whatever might be responsible, if anything.
Teffa, his white-wooled bahlan attendant, approached him carrying his armor and weapons.
“Congratulations, Lord Farseeker. We rejoice that your wife has returned to you.”
“Thank you, Teffa,” Pejan said as he accepted the armor and began strapping the shielded white full-plate armor to his body. “There is still much to do, however, and the Tal makes no guarantees.”
“As you say, Lord Farseeker.”
Pejan smiled at Teffa’s response. Talking to a bahlan about the Tal was a useless proposition at best.
Once his body armor was on and powered he began slipping daggers, metal knuckles, plasma grenades, sonic disruptors, bolt pistols and other necessaries into convenient pouches and holsters attached to the suit while Teffa fitted self-adhering armor strips to his wings and powered up the plasma-deflectors in them. As soon as that was done the bahlan handed him his solid-faced battle helmet, specially designed for nadal and their horns, and Pejan locked himself into several seconds of meditative darkness while the laser-optical system in the helmet loaded.
When the world returned Teffa was standing in front of Pejan holding his kite shield and his kelshar.
“Must you fight, Lord Farseeker?”
Instead of responding immediately Pejan received the question and asked it of himself again. The answer formed once more in the quiet as he assembled all his evidences, arguments and justifications, leading to the same conclusion as before. He could not change course, would not, and his scouts had told him that a small army was already assembled outside waiting for him.
“I do not want to, Teffa, but if I am going to change the Ring, I must.”
“Then fight well.” The bahlan held out the last two pieces of equipment and Pejan took them.
“Don’t worry. Jesra and I only have to reach the square, and then we’ll be safe.”
“I will not worry, Lord Farseeker. I will pray.”
“Thank you, Teffa. I’ll see you on the ship.”
“May you live to see the Fulfillment,” the bahlan said and vanished down another hallway.
Pejan waited until he was out of sight before mounting the shield on his left arm and powering up it and his armor. Thin blue fields formed just above the face of the shield and the largest plates on his body. Extra protection for the fight to come.
The gold words on the door glowed green in the light from the fields and he studied them one last time before turning his attention to the final and most important item.
Pejan settled the dense, foot-long black tube of his kelshar in his right hand, making sure his fingers were firmly seated in the grooves along the grip and his thumb was pressed into the vertical divot two inches below the mouth. He rolled his hand, loosening the wrist and feeling the balance of the kelshar, then switched the weapon to standby with a thought. The only change was a faint hum, really only detectable as a subtle vibration against his palm, as it charged. Thirty seconds later a tingle from the conductive contacts on the grip signaled it was ready.
Pejan opened the door with his shield hand, stepped out into the night behind it’s body-length cover, and let the adrenaline flow.
The world slowed.
As soon as he was over the threshold he reached for the Tal, letting its strength and awareness flow into him, and powered his kelshar.
The alley in front of the prayer house rang with the sliding chords of the Song of Beginnings as the device sang a sliver of solar corona into a blazing white beam as long as his arm, washing out the surrounding street in a flare of actinic light. In that brief flash he studied the ranks of soldiers waiting for him, noting two dakka kelthrin in deflection-plate similar to Jesra’s, ten marn fencers in a lighter form of the same, four dakka assault troops in bulky armored exoskeletons that glowed like his platemail and countless dakka soldiers in basic tactical gear. He mapped two solo routes through them, a third he would need help for, all killing under five soldiers, and chose the second as his starting path.
In less than a heartbeat the Song of Beginnings transitioned to the Song of Readiness and the light dimmed by half as the plasma became stable. At the same moment the two kelthrin powered their own kelshars, tripling the blinding lights in the street, and Pejan sensed an attack through the Tal and stepped to the right.
A green flash split the air where he had been, vaporizing something deep inside the prayer house with a boom.
A vehicle mounted laser cannon.
He switched to the third route as it had more cover from long-range fire and shot forward and to the right with a pulse of repulsion and a single snap of his wings, crossing the wide street before the flash from the kelthrins’ weapons had dimmed.
Blue-white plasma bolts snapped through the air around him as he moved, but none close. The kelthrins dashed toward him but he reached the ranks of soldiers first and dove into them.
Pejan could feel them moving all around him, dakka and marn whirling to face him on their digitigrade legs, struggling to bring their weapons to bear. The urge to cut them all to pieces with his kelshar surged through him, but he resisted.
That was the Vul. Death, destruction, corruption, carnage. Half the training of a kelthrin was how to avoid giving in to it.
Instead he switched his kelshar into the pulsing triples of Song of the Silver Sky, then reached out to the Tal and twisted.
Suddenly the soldiers around him were tripping over their own legs as they tried to get to him and smacking each other in the helmets with the barrels of their guns.
Pejan wove through them in the confusion. Some tried to block him and he knocked them out of the way with his wings and shield. A few of the fencers moved in for strikes with their blades and he parried with his kelshar and tapped them in places their armor didn’t cover.
Electricity arced and thunder cracked with each strike as the kelshar burned through protective clothing and knocked its target down with convulsions.
Pejan knew his goal, a narrow alley between two tall, thick walled buildings, was only ten more steps away, with just three more soldiers and one of the exoskeletons in the way.
But the kelthrins were closing in, one dodging through the soldiers to come in behind and the other running along on the packed shoulders to drop down ahead and cut him off.
He stunned the three soldiers, switched to the high keen of Song of the Shooting Star, and drove his kelshar through the field protecting the exoskeleton, through its slope armored helmet, and through the trooper’s head with a discordant screech.
A surge of the broad tones of Sun’s Heart incinerated the contents.
As the smoking exoskeleton tottered and fell Pejan lunged to the side, avoiding the first thrust of the kelthrin coming up behind him, and spun to face the dakka attacker. Instinctively he brought his kelshar back to the steady tones of Readiness and took a defensive stance behind his shield.
The kelthrin kept his own weapon in Shooting Star, his best chance for piercing the layers of Pejan’s protection.
They sized each other up for a moment, no more than a heartbeat but feeling far longer to Pejan as the world continued to crawl. He knew it would feel the same to the kelthrin, but that didn’t concern him.
He assessed his opponent as extremely skilled and suicidally disposed, willing to take a deathblow if it would mean a killing strike.
Extremely dangerous. He had missed the first strike only because he had committed everything too soon.
Pejan doubted he would make that mistake again.
Also, the kelthrin had supreme confidence in his companion, circling around to the side for a bracketing attack. He was waiting until they could both make their move.
That would be his failing.
Pejan waited until the second kelthrin was directly behind him, then lunged toward the one ahead with all he had, leaving his back open.
The kelthrin ahead fell back as the one behind drove in. Pejan felt him coming, kelshar extended in a two-hand thrust and shrilling to Shooting Star.
Just as the point was about to impact, Jesra fell out of the sky in a thunder of feathers and cut through the kelthrin’s extended arms from the inside of the elbows out with her twin kelshars screaming Song of the Discerning Soul.
He stumbled back in horror and she knocked him into several oncoming soldiers with a blow from one of her wings.
Pejan felt it all happening even as he overtook the retreating kelthrin with a snap of his wings and a sharp gravitic pull, parried his thrust and slammed him to the ground with his shield.
The kelthrin hit the ground, rolled back and to the side, came up…
And Pejan caught him through the throat with a thrust.
Pejan and Jesra fled into the alley together as the rest of the troops closed, Pejan using the Tal to snatch up one of the fallen kelshars as they went. He took the lead as they approached the end, blocking for both of them with his shield and pulling their flight up short of the courtyard.
A ring of kelthrin waited for them, kelshars already ablaze and singing.
“It’s an army. The elders must have known I wouldn’t succeed,” Jesra said.
“More likely they only doubted and made fallback arrangements. They are not stupid. If you had killed me, you might never have seen a single soldier. Kelshar fights are easy to detect through walls.”
After a momentary pause Pejan sensed Jesra’s slight nod of agreement.
“How will we get through?” she asked.
“Come out through smoke…”
“I’m an evil vulthrin, now. I fight dirty. So, smoke, then do a push split to force them to divide, then come around to the fountain. If we make it there at the same moment then neither of us will have to wait for my ship to get us out of there.”
“And how is it going to get us out of there?”
“You’ll see. Just make it to the fountain. My men will be ready.”
“Hmmm. Don’t keep secrets from me, Pejan. I’ve never liked it.”
“This is a surprise, Jes, not a secret, and you’ll like this.”
“And keep low. They probably have anti-air on all the rooftops.”
“Of course, Pej.”
He heard her kelshars switch to Opposing Will, a blocking mode, and did the same with his own. She was right. With escape as close as he had said, getting through unharmed was all that was needed.
Pejan pulled a smoke grenade from one of his pouches and lobbed it out into the courtyard where it immediately burst into a cloud of blackness. It wouldn’t do anything against the kelthrins, but it would stop any soldiers from getting a lock, and it would give good protection from any laser.
On an unspoken signal the two dashed into the courtyard, Pejan still leading the way with his shield out in front. Just before they reached the edge of the smoke Jesra came up next to him.
They pushed off of each other with a double-surge of repulsion and a unified boom of wings, shooting out of the sides of the cloud as the mob of kelthrins ran in.
The kelthrins split seamlessly into two teams, one going after each target. Pejan focused on leaving his team behind as fast as he could and saw two more kelthrins waiting ahead, one of them a lirin like Jesra.
This was a well trained team. They had kept the most mobile members out in the center of the courtyard where they could intercept.
A flash of green split the air with a thundercrack.
Another exploded against Pejan’s shield and he saw the protection indicator go red. It wouldn’t take another hit like that.
He extended his senses through the Tal and found where the shots were coming from, felt the laser turrets tracking his progress and the delicate mirrors inside of them.
He pushed on them. One broke and the other went off alignment.
The two kelthrins ahead of him were almost on him. Pejan felt the push and tug as the one on the left, a marn, tested how skilled Pejan was in the Tal.
He deflected the probe from the marn at the same time that the lirin lunged in with a full thrust, his kelshar screaming Shooting Star.
Pejan parried the stroke with a shrill of discordant notes from the two kelshars, dodged two wing punches and a kick, and slammed the lirin in the back sending him toward the pursuing kelthrins.
He immediately spun to return but Pejan had already engaged the marn and maneuvered him in between. He parried twice, hard, then let the marn land a weak slash on his armor that was absorbed by the fields so he could land a kick to the marn’s gut that launched him back into the lirin.
An intense surge of repulsion sent them both stumbling further back, tangled together, and got Pejan moving full speed toward the fountain again. The lirin tried to respond with a pull but Pejan poured on the power until his body hurt and made it away.
He turned just as he reached the fountain and saw Jesra jab an unlucky dakka in both armpits, her kelshars singing Silver Sky. The dakka convulsed to the resulting thundercracks and fell to his knees.
Jesra sent him sprawling with a wing-punch to the helmet and leaped over him to land in front of Pejan.
Face hidden behind his helmet, he smiled at her and she tilted her head expectantly.
“So where’s this extrac…”
The world around them folded in on itself and then the courtyard was gone.