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Mercy

Copyright © Joel Lovell 2002

Edited by Suzanne Campbell for The Guild Companion

Winters Dawn, On Ni, Seventh World of the Mras System, Backwater of the Galaxy...

The air was cold with the musky scent of wetlands carried by an evening breeze. Loud chirping, buzzing and croaking nearly assaulted the ear with an eerie cacophony of sound. To those who lived and traveled routinely into the wetland, it was just a symphony of the cycle of life in the cold, misty marshes; a comforting sound that inspired fear only when it all became silent.

A star dominated the sky, its lurid glowing disc a dark red muted by the brilliant light of a smaller white star. The smaller star, which provided the light and heat of the long summer for the world of Ni was already partially eclipsed by its larger companion. The dim red giant and the light of moons and stars would provide light but little warmth for the inhabitants of this world. As night fell with both stars appearing to sink below the horizon, a countless scattering of lights would share the night sky with six small moons. When the total eclipse of the brighter star occurred, a mercifully short season of freezing cold would begin.

A small three-horned animal with dark purple scales and powerful hind legs grazed on succulent marsh grasses. It paused from moment to moment to scent the air and peer over its shoulder. It lifted one small, clawed limb up to pull down a tree branch with sawblade leaves and gingerly chewed them off. The breeze shifted, revealing the presence of a threat, and it leapt instantly two full meters into the air to escape. The creature's leap was intercepted by an arrow that sank deeply into its body, just behind its shoulder. The animal landed heavily, splashing into the water a short distance from where it had stood.

A long moment later, after the ripples of water had stilled and the chorus of life resumed in the area, a man appeared wearing a mottled, hooded cloak the color of shadows and leaves. The cloaked man silently waded through ankle deep, purple-black water. He was carrying a bow, arrow knocked, and as he moved past round knobby roots protruding from the water, his steps created murky blurs of lighter pinkish sediment from the muddy bottom. He was tall and broad shouldered, and moved with obvious agility, every step silent. He pulled his hood back and stopped to listen, his dark eyebrows furrowed in concentration. His face was tanned dark by a life spent out of doors. His brown eyes looked out confidently from beneath a shock of dark hair that was swept to one side and short on the sides. A day's growth of beard shadowed his jaw.

He stopped beside his prey, which lay in a pool of spreading blackness. He quickly and efficiently cleaned and dressed the meat from the creature, called an Amphilope, then wrapped it in its own hide. The rest of the carcass he left for the scavengers and predators that were already sensing a fresh kill and moving closer.

As he cooked and then prepared his meal he watched the face of the giant red star in the sky as it slowly fell behind the horizon, its smaller, brighter companion star sitting like a jewel on its ear. He ate, and reflected on the circumstances that had led him deep into this vast salt marsh. A flying craft had landed at Trebadd, his hometown, and unloaded a squad of Confederation Soldiers. He had never seen any before. His father had told him that the Confederation had hunted and hounded him and other Psions across the galaxy. Ren recalled his father saying with deep sadness that nearly all of the Psions had been slain, or turned to the dark side, or had vanished. Everyone in Trebadd had known his father was a Psion, before he had died. Ren wasn't going to take any chances and left immediately for the surrounding woods, especially since there were certain individuals in town who would be quick to point out that a man with a energy blade was living in the area. He had found a safe place to observe the town, using a pair of battered macrobinoculars to observe the Soldiers as they had rounded up the townspeople. They had herded them into the local militia's parade drill field - with the assistance of the local militia, and then one by one released after they had been questioned. There had been one fellow in particular that made him feel uneasy. The man had been very pale, with black hair, dressed in a black Confederation officer uniform. He had adjusted the image magnification to its maximum setting. The internal image stabilization had long ago stopped working so he had held his breath to keep the image from jumping around. He had then seen that the man wore no rank insignia. At the man's side had been a black metal cylinder on a weapon belt - an energy blade. He was also then able to see that the man's eyes were solid black, with no whites or pupils, and appeared to be looking directly at him.

He had smiled, and as was his habit muttered to himself out loud, "Ren, I do believe this fellow sees you." The man he was observing had then smiled back, a most unpleasant, cruel smile with teeth that reminded Ren of a saw blade. He had put the macrobinoculars away and headed for the salt marshes, disturbed by the fellow in a way he didn't understand at first, then it dawned upon him that he had been sensing some disturbing manifestation of psionic power within the stranger. Ren wasn't afraid of anything or anyone. This courage wasn't a handicap, it was tempered by common sense. He was taught by his father to tread carefully when dealing with other Psions.

Ren stopped dwelling on the events of the earlier part of the day and meditated, listening to his surroundings, blanking his mind and concealing his own presence as a defense against the alien seeking him with mental powers. The salt air breeze came in stronger as night fell. It did little to mute the many noises of the marsh. Hundreds of small amphibians croaked in noisy symphony. An occasional tree limb would crack and splash into the water in the distance or the wind would cause rustling sounds in marsh reeds.

The Salt Marsh was a vast flooded wetland where a massive river delta emptied into the nearby sea. He knew he faced a journey that would take nearly a month on foot, to reach the largest city on the planet. There the population was large enough that he felt could lay low until the Confederations lost interest and left the planet. If not, then perhaps he could find a way off planet since Lake Horn was also a starport.

For the next ten nights, he moved upriver, sleeping in the trees at night where he knew he would be safe from most of the ground roving predators. Confederation shuttles equipped with life form sensors would be hard pressed to detect him among the abundant life that thrived in the marshes. The trees uppermost limbs could be bent and twisted together with a quick lashing to make a safe and comfortable resting-place. Gentle breezes would rock the trees in a lulling, restful motion. These nights had passed with little event. He continued to live off of the land after using up the dried venison he had made ten nights earlier. No disease carrying insects troubled him, for he applied salves made from Vral berries that were abundant in the marshes.

He reached the river at the end of the next day. The river was so vast that its far bank was not visible, appearing to be the shore of some vast lake or sea. The current moved the brownish red water sluggishly, stronger currents seen as small whirlpools and ripples where sandbanks and other irregularities of the shallower sides disturbed the flow of the water.

After traveling three more days upriver along the natural levies and embankments that barely separated the river from the marshes, he was pleasantly surprised when he found a small two-man boat lying upside down in a tangle of branches of a tree that had fallen into the river. It was lightweight V bottomed hull of obvious off-world construction. Impractical in the shallow marshes, it would work perfectly for a river crossing. If anyone was searching for him on the West side of the river, they might not expect him to be on the far side, for the river was dangerous for even larger ships and barges. Ren set aside his pack, quiver, and bow. He also removed his cloak. He was curious to see whether the boat was still seaworthy or not. He reached out with his mind to sense any life, not wanting to step on any of the dozens of large meat eating carnivores that lurked in these waters. He walked out on the tree, balancing on top of the trunk. The trunk, thick enough to walk on, curved upwards then downward back into the water. It reminded Ren of a giant serpentine form rising out of and back into the water. He held his breath when, while balancing on the arc of the trunk, the entire tree rotated down into the water under his weight. He stood motionless for a moment, in murky cold water up to his ankles, to see if the tree was going to roll any further. When it did not he leaned over to grasp the side of the boat. He tried to pull it toward him to flip it upright into the water, but some of the branches of the tree were holding it down.

He reached down to his waist with one hand and brought up his energy blade, a black and chrome cylinder that looked battered and worn. He flicked its switch and a rock-solid brilliant blade of blue light hummed into existence. His father, Denton Cane, had been most impressed with its construction, especially since it was Ren's first, for it was unusually quiet, yet fully as powerful as any energy blade he'd ever run across.

Ren swept the blue beam of light before him, cleanly severing the limbs entangling the boat, which made popping noises as sap and moisture in the wood instantly turned to vapor at the touch of the energy blade. The boat was heavier than it appeared and when it was freed crashed against Ren, and knocked him into the water. He came up sputtering from beneath the small boat, now floating upright, and was shocked at the freezing cold temperature of the water. The water under the tree was deeper than he had expected and this with the cold made him instinctively grab the side of the now floating craft with one hand as he clipped his energy blade onto his belt. His weight nearly pulled the boat over and to his amazement a figure lunged out of the boat on top of him. For years he had depended upon psionic ability to detect the mental energies of creatures and seldom was caught by surprise. He drew upon these powers now in defense...raising his hand before him...time stood still and the soaking wet human was sent flying as he telekinetically shoved the person back several meters onto the bank.

Ren stared a moment, one hand on the gunwale of the boat, the other on his energy blade and he frowned. He hadn't been attacked at all; a dead body had just fallen against him, launched out of the boat by his weight on the side of it. He kicked against the water until he could feel ground beneath him, towing the boat with one hand. He dragged it ashore and stepped over to the body and arched an eyebrow, for he recognized the man.

"Poor Roosso, you must have really misread the weighing scales for this to happen... " He shook his head as he stared down at the dead man.

The man had been about fifty years of age and had also been the Patriarch of the Riptide clan, one of the more prosperous river trade guilds in the area. The trade clans knew the river's hazards intimately, and could be relied upon to safely move cargo from the capital city to the coastal towns. They also were paid as guides. He tipped the man over and noticed that a blaster shot in the back had killed him. Searching the body, he found a leather pouch, and inside were several gold colored metallic rectangles...Confederation Credits - a few thousand. He kept this, and found nothing else of interest. He frowned at the dead man, feeling a sense of foreboding, and wondered again what he had been paid to do and why he been killed. As a guide perhaps, he had been hired by the Confederations. Why? To find Ren? That made little sense to Ren, since the man's expertise was the far side of the river and the coastal wilderness there, not the marsh side of the river. He surmised that the man had been hired by the Confederations for some other reason, if they had needed an expert for that side of the river.

Ren put his questions on hold and began to prepare for the river crossing. He fashioned a long double-ended paddle by taking a long green limb and trimming the ends so that they could be bent back double into a crude loop. To these he bound the skin of the three horn he had killed two weeks before, tying it as tight as a drum with strips of cordage made from the dead man's clothing. He also cut a few long poles for pushing along sandbanks and off of other obstacles in the water.

He started poling against the river bottom close to the densely growing trees along the shore and traveled upriver. The vast river was many miles across, here near its mouth, and narrowed to just a few miles further upriver. The water was gentler near the shore, and poling against the slight current he was able to cover several miles during the day. He poled upriver two more days until the water became too deep to reach the bottom. He knew there was no way he could paddle up river, which was even now beginning to narrow and be more forceful. Ren thought carefully about how far he had traveled, estimating the distance back downriver he would lose in the time it would take to cross. Towards the center of the miles-wide river, the current became strong and would carry him back to the Trebadd or worse, out to sea, unless he kept up a furious pace across the entire width of the river.

The river was extremely deep in the center and home to huge sea monsters that periodically came to the surface and fed on marsh dragons, small ships and their crews or would even attempt to pull larger trade galleys under with giant tentacles. Traders and merchants never traveled in the deep parts of the river and followed the bank that was on the same side of the river as the port city, and thus needed guides to avoid sand bars, underwater obstructions, and other hazards. That was the side he wanted to get to. He lay the pole he was using into the boat, picked up his makeshift paddle and set his back into a steady rhythm of paddling, spreading his awareness out, extending his senses to pick up all signs of life around the area. The lightweight craft fairly skated across the water with each stroke.

When he was halfway across, he felt an enormous presence pass under him in the depths of the river and he paused in his paddling to see what it would do. Whatever it was took a full hundred counts of his heartbeat to pass.

"I would've given you indigestion...." he said with cheerful certainty to whatever it was.

The river, so like a large lake, was calm for such an open area of water, though on occasion there were gentle swells that lifted the small boat high enough to give Ren tantalizing glimpses of the distant shore. The rivers current was moving him rapidly south, causing him to lose all the distance he had gained over days, in hours. He could see the dark green of forests and the rolling Ferron Hills, a low mountain range that used to hold mining cities that were now overtaken by savage wilderness.

He reached the other side of the river that evening, exhausted and hungry, and later than he would have liked As he began to step out of the boat he sensed a presence moving toward him, rapidly, from the deepest parts of the river towards the shore. The water surged in a wave, and then a massive spiny hump broke the surface, leaving a foamy wake as the beast rushed toward the boat. Ren leapt for the shore just as dark red tentacles whipped out of the water and yanked the boat under with a grinding shriek of metal and snapped wooden poles. The boat and the creature were gone in less than a second. Ren sensed the creature move away to the deep parts of the river, presumably to investigate the nutritional merits of the meal it had found. Jogging a respectful distance from the bank he sat and ate the last of his food while he looked at his new surroundings. The last of the light of day was fading; he would have to wait until morning to trek his way northward. He found a particularly tall Tanda tree where the tree line began and climbed to its uppermost, pale barked limbs. There were limbs on one side of the trunk that fanned outward, then upward in the shape of a loosely closed hand. Exhausted, he lay down and fell asleep.

Ren fought sleep, awakened and sat up to see that it was morning. He felt groggy, recognizing that he literally felt drugged. His clothes and hands were stained dark purple. In the darkness he had missed the subtle differences between patches of lichen he had slept on that would have tipped him off to the fact that unlike other harmless varieties of dark lichens, this one was a fairly rare variety called Hoch. Hoch lichen was a coma inducing plant used by healers. Sleeping on it exposed him to enough of the drug in the plant to put him into a deep sleep. Perched twenty meters off the ground in a savage wilderness, he realized that could have been fatal in a number of different ways. Ren tried to use a self-healing psionic power to clear the toxins from his system. Nothing happened, it was if his ability were not there at all. He sat in shocked silence for a while, then tried meditating, deep breathing, even basic mental exercises. Nothing worked. The drugged sluggishness would not subside. He saw the stains on his hand, and reasoned that the drug was even now affecting him, and he'd have to clean himself up for the drug to wear off.

He climbed down carefully and wiped his hands in the damp grass, which had been dusted with a light snow. Adjusting his equipment after eating what little food he had remaining, he continued his trek north. During his walk, he eventually shook off the fog and was able to ignore the remaining pain in his head as he foraged for edible plants and hunted for small game. He tracked and then killed a large scaly rodent before it even knew it was in danger. After he cleaned the meat and ate it raw he rested for a long while before moving on until nightfall. His head was still pounding, and his mental powers were something elusive to try and grasp. At least he could sense it now, for tantalizing moments.

Just as he was about to camp for the night, he found signs of an old road. Curious, he decided to follow the road for a short ways. As he walked, he wondered if it led to one of the many long forgotten ruined cities this world held hidden away in its forests and mountains. Even though tree roots lifted portions of stone in some places, the old road remained remarkably clear of anything besides lichens or fungi. The path was easy to travel, and he covered many miles by twilight.

When he decided to stop for the night, his search for a safe tree to camp in was interrupted when he heard something large thrashing in the thickets beside the road. Then the clouds parted, revealing a silvery-coated Telacine standing on the ancient road before him. Ren had heard many tales from his father about these creatures, and though he had never seen such an extremely rare beast, he recognized it instantly, for it was as beautiful as it was unique. A silvery furred Telacine. It was the length of a landspeeder and had four long canine-like limbs and paws. Its paws, tail and neck were maned with black hair. The head, also resembling a canine, had an overly long set of jaws, which when open, revealed an even set of very sharp teeth. Its pale gray eyes with feline pupils struck Ren as most compelling, for they imparted an unmistakable intelligence and cunning. Ren's father had told him that the creatures were psionic themselves, and were possibly sentient. Sentient or not, servants of the Confederation or trained beasts, they were used to hunt down and kill those with psionic powers, tracking them relentlessly and with such power and speed that very few could hope to defend themselves against one.

The clouds once more hid the moon and the area where the beast stood was plunged into darkness. Ren knew the animal would not likewise be deprived of sight, and was probably at that moment leaping onto him. He snapped up his energy blade while leaping to the side of the nearest trunk, the blue beam of energy humming into crackling existence as he kept it between him and where the beast had been. Nothing. The energy blade felt awkward without his psionic enhancements. Not clumsy, just no longer a part of himself. He wondered for a long moment why the creature had not attacked. The rapidly moving clouds would break for brief moments, leaving Ren with maddening glimpses of the area in the moonlights. He peered around the tree, glanced over his shoulder. He calculated his chances without being able to use the telekinesis to defend himself and for once in his life failed to come up with a plan of action. The light from his blade cast a blue glow onto the beast as it appeared finally, before him. It snarled and leapt, nearly hitting the trunk of the tree he ducked behind before stopping short of it abruptly. A long limb reached out, claws gleaming, moving so quickly that Ren could barely see more than a blur. The tree shook from the impact of that one powerful limb.

He was surprised when the large creature turned back a few steps then lay down and just looked at him. He noted that even lying down the creature's head was even with his chest. It was almost as if it realized he was out of reach and it was not going to waste any more effort in going after him. Looking at the animal he saw that it was wearing a collar and tether, one end of which was caught in the crook of a forked trunk. That is what stopped the creature in its tracks when it leapt for Ren.

He decided he could leave the animal for some large predator to finish it off, or destroy it so that it could not be used to hunt down innocent people again. It might very well be sentient, or it might not. In either case, he could not simply leave it this way, or kill it without a more immediate reason, even knowing that it had probably been used for much evil. If he could project into its mind what he intended, he might be able to determine whether he would be sliced to ribbons if he stepped too close. Ren shook his head in frustration, reaching out mind to mind simply wasn't working for him. The fuzziness in his head wouldn't go away, he would just have to do this the hard way.

Ren extended his other hand towards the forked trunk. "Easy there...I'll cut you loose if you're nice..."

The Telacine watched him and pulled back its lips in a near silent snarl. Ren stopped, then thought about this a moment. Whoever controlled this thing probably did so with the tether, which appeared to be more than just a sturdy leash, but appeared to have dials and controls. He powered off the energy blade and clipped it onto his belt. After a moment, the clouds cleared long enough for him to make out the beast yawning. Its cavernous maw revealed rows of very sharp looking teeth that gleamed in the moonlight. The creature watched Ren's hands with keen interest. Ren raised a palm and in a moment was beside the great creature. It made no move. He placed one hand against the collar and could see how it clipped together. He could not resist placing his other hand along the creature's shoulder to stroke its soft fur, which did little to soften the powerful musculature of the beast. The Telacine made a rumble, which Ren took to be either a growl or a purr. He twisted the latch mechanism and pulled against it. The collar sprung open. The Telacine moved so fast that Ren literally couldn't blink before he was knocked into the dirt as it passed over him to disappear into the wilderness without a sound.

Ren stood up, coughed, and dusted himself off and growled in his low voice, "You're welcome."

He decided that at least for now he was going to live. He climbed into his tree and settled in for the night and was soon asleep. That night, he awakened, unable to sleep. His usual pragmatism failed him and he began to dwell on things he knew very well were out of his control. The wind rustled in the treetops and he stood a moment on his limb, feeling the ice-cold gusts cut through the openings of his cloak. He reached out with his psionic senses to feel the life teaming around the area but his efforts were wasted, leaving him with a pounding headache and no sense of the power within his grasp. For the first time, he began to worry about the permanence of his loss. He also began to wonder about the disturbing alien Psion, and the Telacine. He momentarily dismissed his worries when he looked across the gap in the trees before him and saw the top portion of a wall of dark stone. It was illuminated by a ray of moonlight through an opening in the tree canopy. Crumbling in places, the wall stretched in both directions until trees and growth hid it from sight.

Ren climbed down to investigate and saw that the wall was so covered with creepers and vines it was nearly invisible at ground level. He believed he had found one of the old lost cities he had heard in many a tavern tale from old trappers and hunters. Tales of one of the original mining settlements within the Ferron Hills area stood out in his mind. The city's population was said to have gone insane and that they abandoned the city centuries ago. The stories also said they left behind vast wealth mined from the world, stockpiled to await the return of the distant mineral trading vessels who only arrived once every ten years due to the remoteness, during that era of the Mras system. Many expeditions had gone searching for it. Few returned, and those had found nothing but a harsh, savage wilderness. Not even off-worlder expeditions were successful; since the cities had been carved from the stone of the hills, ship sensors picked up nothing to distinguish it from the hills.

The crumbling stone was not much of an obstacle for Ren as he went inside the wall. He was tired but was determined to have a quick look around before he found a place to sleep. The winter's chill winds were more noticeable that night, and the idea of four walls and a roof sounded very practical. Weeds, vines, and even trees grew in and around the buildings, hiding it in the dark shadows. Large, crumbling statues of humanoid individuals leaned against walls or stood on pedestals looking over central avenues and street corners. Everything, from the huge stone structures, temples, homes, bridges and low-roofed buildings were all covered with a thick growth of vines. Some of the stonework was glossy black obsidian, and other structures were of lichen-covered white granite. A few multi-leveled structures of cracked basaltic stone towered above the low-roofed buildings crowding the cold, lifeless city, the taller ones casting black shadows across the torn brick paths and smaller buildings.

The light of the moons turned the white stone into cast silver and deepened shadows in alleys and doorways. Large clouds raced over the city cutting off even this illumination every few moments. In the brief moments of darkness, Ren felt the hair on his neck stirring. Each time the clouds darkened the sky it was as if something had crept behind him. But when the moonlight came through nothing was there. He was annoyed that he was feeling this way but was sure he was just perhaps feeling something tickling his psionic nature. Then again, the city was silent, aside from the rushing of the wind and rustle of dead leaves. He found a small stone structure more intact than the others and after waiting for a moment of moonlight, looked inside to insure it was not an inhabited den of a dangerous animal and entered. He saw an opening in the ceiling and after climbing rocks and vine, managed to work his way into the upper chamber. It too was empty and had narrow slots for windows. It was remarkably clean, blanketed by dead leaves blown in from nearby trees, with enough white stone showing through green patches of moss to reflect some of the moon's light coming through the slotted windows.

Ren had slept with less, in worse places. He lay down in one corner, wrapped in his cloak. The lack of normal night sounds was disturbing, and it was a long while before he was able to Psion himself to sleep.

In the early hours before dawn, he awakened to feel the grip of cold metal squeezing his throat. Ren felt his awareness of his psionic powers back in full strength, and he could sense he was being assaulted by a telekinetic grip around his windpipe. The shadowy darkness lifted him choking from the floor to dangle in the air. His struggles became weaker. The darkness of the small room became blacker and Ren knew that he would soon fall unconscious. A presence whispered foul promises, and he could hear its laughter ringing in his ears. He began to feel fear for the first time in his life, and the recognition of such an alien emotion, and the realization that its source was not within his own mind, made him choke out a laugh. The presence hesitated at the amusement and that hesitation was all Ren needed. Because he could now 'sense' the psionic assault he knew that his own psionic powers were back. At that instant, he reached for this power and with a violent and powerful wrenching of his mind was able to defend himself. The attacker was repulsed violently, the tendrils of energy forced back. Ren could now sense malevolence, a well of fear and anger and hatred that filled this entire city. The place was strong with an evil presence and he had been blind enough to sleep in the middle of it.

Ren dropped down the opening in the floor and staggered out of the building, gulping in air. Several moments later, while Ren regained his breath and his wits he observed that the clouds had gone, leaving the sky clear and cold. The moons were high in the sky, so bright that he could have read by their light. He heard a wail not far off and then saw a flash of movement as something ran between two buildings. The animal revealed itself further down the street when it left the deep shadows of a wall and stood watching him a moment. It was a quadrupedal creature with dark skin and powerful limbs. Its head was broad with eyes that flashed orange in the moonlight. Its tail was tucked between its legs and it wailed piteously to the night sky. Ren could sense its instinctive wariness and suspected that it had wandered away from its pack and into the city. Ren gave it a telekinetic swat on the rump to get it out of the city. It yelped and bolted but had only had traveled a few meters when the shadows came alive and struck the creature. That same evil presence flooded the area suddenly and powerfully, causing Ren to reel backwards. The creature skidded to a stop, and then stood still in complete silence. It arched its back and stretched its legs, appearing as if something was trying to pull it up by its middle.

Ren took a few tentative steps forward, energy blade in hand and snapping on, its blue humming blade lighting the scene before him, wary, not sure what was happening.

Still it stood silent, holding its strange position. Its head cocked to one side and then it whipped to one side, watching Ren with eyes that began to glow a murky green. He could sense that the beast had somehow become very powerful mentally....

The creature let out a moaning wail, which deepened into a howl that echoed off the buildings, walls and into the surrounding hills for miles around. The sound stirred the hairs on the back of Ren's neck.

The creature then looked at him and opened its mouth, revealing a lot of sharp teeth in what Ren could swear was a grin. It then charged him, snarling, with froth coming from its mouth as it leapt high into the air. Ren ducked, energy blade sweeping across the beast in a deadly arc, killing it instantly, but not before the powerful presence vanished from the creature.

The presence seemed like the ripples created by a stone dropped onto a glass-smooth surface of water. Now the area was resonating so powerfully that it seemed to Ren more as if someone had dropped a boulder onto that smooth surface. His father used to say that discretion was the better part of valor, so he ran. As he headed for the opening in the wall he heard a wail in the distance, which was answered again and again by other eerie cries and soon there was a whole chorus of wailing creatures from all directions, especially towards the opening in the direction he was headed. He was uncertain as to how close they were, and knew he had little time to get to the trees outside the city. He did not want to get caught out in the open where packs of these creatures could tear him to pieces. That wail and that wave of terrifying mental energy had summoned the animals. The being that had taken over the creature to work this dark purpose did not seem to want to confront him directly. He ran instead down the street, startled to see that already moving shapes in the shadows paced him in pairs or alone along the side streets on either side. Across the empty city square was thirty feet of wall between him and safety. He knew that if he could get to any of the tree limbs overhanging the top of the wall he could escape the creatures.

Dark skinned, hairless beasts were coming for him from all directions. He used a psionically enhanced leap to travel up to the rooftops, sprinted over ancient stonework and collapsed walls. He fairly flew over openings between buildings that surrounded the wide-open square as he worked his way around it to the wall. In some places, the shadows were so dark he could not tell if he was jumping over real spaces between buildings or not, but trusted yet another psionic talent to guide his steps. The beasts still flanked him on the ground, their only sound the rapid clicks of claws against stone, moving with a speed that was almost greater than what he was able to do with his powers aiding him. He came to end of the last roof and leapt out into the darkness, landed with catlike grace on the flat ground, turning his roll into a sprint.

There was a hundred-meter stretch to the nearest structure that was tall enough to reach the upper canopy of the trees that leaned over the walls. He would have to get to the top of the steep marble structure, which was topped with a circle of broken pillars barely supporting a cracked and broken dome. The top could be reached by climbing hundreds of steps. He sprinted across and then up the stairs. From the top he made vertical leap, greater than any he had ever attempted before, to reach the lowest limb of the massive tree that overlooked the thirty-meter wall.

Two of the beasts, out of countless dozens, were nearly up the steps behind him when he grabbed the limb and pulled himself up, laughing.

The entire horde started howling and wailing in eerie symphony, a sound Ren had never imagined hearing from so many frenzied throats. Ren stood up on the limb and paused to muster enough energy to flee into the trees. He clipped his energy blade to his belt. Using his mental powers as much as he had was draining, and he had little left in him.

Two large stones flew from the darkness at him. He ducked and one missed, but the other veered at the last moment and clipped him on the shoulder hard enough to knock him off of his perch. Distracted by pain it was all he could do to land feet first on the ruined gazebo's roof. He hit with enough force that he crumpled, splitting his lip open as his face connected with his knee. He fell backwards, stunned, flat onto his back onto the two dark skinned beasts that had already reached the ledge of the building's rooftop. The impact knocked the wind out of him and sent one of the two creatures sailing off the top with a yelp. Ren pulled his legs up when the other animal twisted around and lunged at him with a snarl. He was close to the edge and when the animal hit his feet as he kicked out, he was sent over backwards while the beast was sent flying over the opposite corner of the rooftop. Ren grabbed at the roof's edge and barely caught it with his fingertips, body slamming against the side of the stonework. He dangled, gulping in air until he could breath again. He looked over his shoulder and could see the horde of black shapes running in the moonlight across the plaza and the dozen or so almost up to the top of the steps. He pulled himself over the edge and scrambled to his feet. He looked our over the open area and saw the man with black eyes that he had seen with the storm troopers. The Psion was smiling confidently. Ren snapped his energy blade on as he gave the man a hard look. He dispatched the first beast to reach him without even looking, holding the energy blade so that the blade was pointing straight behind him and catching a black skinned snarling creature in mid-lunge with the blue beam of light. The animal's snarl was cut off instantly as it died on the energy blade. He spun, taking another creature out, rolled, causing another creature to leap past him and thus off of the roof, and yet faced four more. He abruptly ducked, and swept the energy blade into a wide arc into the path of the creatures. One had leapt, sailed over him and off, and the other three died from the sizzling hot blade.

The horde of the beasts were so driven to get to Ren that they were knocking each other off the narrow steps to their deaths, for they could only climb up two or three alongside each other. Like a dancer in some macabre waltz, Ren spun, twisted and shoved at the creatures as each took their turn to get at him, sometimes two or three at a time. The huge, heavy animals were slamming into him as they attacked, snapping, snarling, wailing, and howling, and then they died as he impaled them or slashed them with the energy blade or shoved them off of the rooftop. Even dead, the force of the attack of some of the beasts still managed to knock him back into the stone pillars of the gazebo behind him.

Occasionally, claws or a snarling jaw managed to leave a bloody wound on the exposed parts of his body. The animal carcasses were piling two and three deep at the base of the building and around him on the roof. His attunement to nearby mental energies allowed him to sense his foe's moves and to time his own, efficiently expending his energies to do so. Even so, he could not sustain such a relentless brutal onslaught for long. The tide of beasts, each tainted and driven by the mental urgings of the Psion, attacked in a suicidal frenzy. They came and they died, and died, and still more died.

The Psion walked up the stairs while Ren fought. The creatures avoided him, as he walked up with almost casual indifference, pausing once or twice to regard something of interest carved in the wall of the structure. As he reached the top, he lifted his hand and the creatures stopped attacking and fell silent, except for frantic panting and breathing. Dozens of eyes flashed red in the light of the moons as they waited. Ren staggered, shaking his head to get the sweat out of his eyes and bringing one arm up to wipe his brow. The Psion clenched his fist and then threw his hand over his shoulder as if tossing something away. Yelping and wailing, the horde of beasts began running back down the steps and off into the shadows. In a few short moments, they were all gone, except the countless numbers lying dead along the base of the building and at the top. The man held a dark sphere in his other hand. He paused as the beasts departed, watching Ren with his unblinking black eyes. He crossed his arms and leaned back casually against a pillar of stone and continued to regard the man without saying a word. Ren stood unsteadily before him, chest heaving, and bleeding in numerous places.

"Who are you?" Ren asked, his voice even more hoarse and gravelly than usual from thirst and exhaustion. His tone even so was as pragmatic as usual. He might have been asking about the weather. The brilliant blue beam of energy that his energy blade projected was held in an en garde position before him.

"Your new master." The man answered, his tone flat and dry and just as matter of fact.

Rocks flew from all directions, pummeling Ren. His energy blade knocked aside stones as he drew upon the last reserves of his body to deflect others but still he was battered back, and then back again until he went over the edge. As he fell he still managed to catch the edge once again, using sheer determination to catch the roof edge with his fingertips. He felt bitter disappointment as he heard his energy blade clattering, probably smashed to pieces, on the pavement below.

"Why?" Ren asked from where he dangled far above the ground. He struggled to pull himself up and could not muster the strength. He was spent, unable to lift a pebble with his telekinesis, much less himself.

"My goal isn't to kill you, just weaken you. And of course, to find this little wonder lost here in this city long, long ago..." He gestured with the black sphere. "This will, among other things, allow me to turn you into my servant. I tried earlier, but you managed to resist. Now..." He paused to smile. "I sense that you have nothing left to resist with."

Ren smiled back. "You think?"

The Psion cocked a head and waited to see what Ren had in mind.

Ren let go of the stone, falling backwards toward the hard pavement below, satisfied that he had thwarted his foe.

"I know." The Psion called out, holding the black sphere outstretched in one hand.

Ren's plummet slowed and then stopped in mid-air, and then greenish lightning coruscated over his body. He screamed in agony, his hoarse cries echoing throughout the city. For the first time in his life he realized he was beaten, and for the first time he felt afraid, not of defeat, but what he would become if this alien succeeded.

After a long, long while the screaming stopped. Ren was released from the grip of the energies of the orb and dropped unceremoniously a short distance from the ground. He landed face down on top of the dead creatures, and was just one more still figure among many. Wisps of smoke drifted from his clothing as he groaned and managed to roll onto his back, too weak to sit up, or even hold his head up.

After what seemed an eternity, Ren saw the dark eyed man standing over him, holding the obsidian orb in one hand, the other casually hooked into the uniforms belt loop. The Psion smiled for a moment, as if saying, "See?" He raised the orb and a black tendril of energy crept free, groping the air before it as if sniffing out Ren. Ren's hackles raised as he realized that this was it...

An explosive grunt of air was forced from the alien Psion as a silvery blur struck him with brutal, bone crunching force, ripping him out of Ren's line of sight like so much black cloth caught up by a hurricane wind. The black orb arced into the air and then crashed to the stone pavement, shattered into thousands of shards.

In the span of a heartbeat, the vast pool that was the Psion's presence went from a dark tidal wave to a still, clear, smooth as glass pond.

Ren turned his head but the piled black bodies of the dead predator creatures blocked his vision. He heard the snapping of bone and the tearing of cloth and what sounded like flesh. He struggled to get on his knees and then collapsed over the bodies of the dead creatures just in time to see the Telacine finish ripping the alien apart, its mane whipping about as its massive jaws savaged what was left.

The Telacine turned its long head back over its shoulder, the toothy muzzle darkened and dripping. Its eyes flashed in the moonlight as it regarded him a long moment. Then it simply dashed off into the shadows without a sound, not even a click of claw on stone.

Ren was too exhausted to say or do anything so he rolled back onto his back and closed his eyes His psionic senses told him that birds and other creatures were already moving towards the abandoned city. It wouldn't take long for the forest to claim it as its own. He managed a smile and decided to just sleep. Any further thought or plans would have to wait till he awoke; for now it was enough to sleep with the sure knowledge that he had gained a reprieve from the relentless pursuit of the Confederation.

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