Tele pulled her knees close, enveloping herself in a cocoon of remorse. She tried to hold back the tears, but they cut through the thin layer of sand that caked her face. She’d done the right thing. Father had told her that much: She had no other choice. She had to kill him.
Nevertheless, she couldn’t help but feel that she deceived herself. Killing was wrong; hurting others was wrong. She hadn’t wanted to hurt the man. She’d told him to stop. She told her father she’d told him. But he just kept menacing, hunting, stalking her.
Squinting over her shoulder, she’d fallen — well short of safety — face-first into a golden sand dune. This fall didn’t hurt as much as the others, but the sudden shock and inability to breathe against a mouthful of sand set fire to her fear.
Rubbing her eyes and sputtering dust, she pushed herself up and over to face her pursuer. The Thief-Taker towered over her, his shadow lending unwelcome shade from the unrelenting desert sun. The shadow merged seamlessly with his black clothing, broken only by a single, red band hugging his right bicep and piercing, brown eyes exposed under his headdress. Sweat beaded his brow and dripped from skin to fabric. His curved blade, pale silver and starved of blood, spun above his head before he cast it downwards with frightening fury to quench its bloodlust.
Tele flinched in her bedroll as a scarpe slowly ticked around the edge of the tent. The arachnid’s stinger balanced on a curved tail. Large eyes peeked out from its dark, hairy body. It slipped and hobbled over unfamiliar terrain, searching for an exit.
Tele calmed. Scarpes weren’t aggressive, and their poison wasn’t lethal in most cases. Deserans even referred to them as the black deliverer ― follow one long enough, and it would lead you to water. And Tele could certainly use deliverance right now.
She heard footsteps. They were soft, even, and graceful. Her mother.
Tele tried to let her mother’s presence comfort her, but she couldn’t rid herself of the tingle of dread. She couldn’t shake off the vertigo of standing at the edge of life and death. Every sound, every unexpected glimmer of light or shift of shadow, turned her stomach. Her heart raced as it had before. She squeezed her eyes shut, blocking out the scarpe, and prayed for rebalance.
Tele rolled out of the way as fast as she could. The assassin’s blade cut through dry air and struck where she’d landed. Twisting to her feet, she pulled her knife. The Thief-Taker spared her no time before following up on his attack. He sliced with speed and precision, missing his mark only by Tele’s dodging.
Time seemed to slow while moving too fast at the same time: a flickering that warped her temporal reality. Still a novice in practiced combat, evasion was her strongest ally. She had little time to think of retaliation, but when those moments of distorted deceleration occurred, she could think of only one thing: her family.
Her father needed her. Though he knew his work well, he would need to pass the Covenant down to Tele and her brothers. Despite seeing only fourteen years, Tele had already proven the most capable of learning her father’s piece of the protected knowledge. He relied on her to keep his own aspirations alive. Through her, as he had said many times before, there was hope for a new age.
The Thief-Taker struck with astonishing speed before resetting and striking again. Each attempt edged her closer to her grave. She struggled to find her footing, losing sight of her forms in exchange for panicked retreat.
Her mother needed her. Tele hadn’t learned much of her mother’s work. While her father studied life forms, her mother studied their preservation ― a different but just as important part of the Covenant. Her father’s work formed a substantial portion of the Covenant, but Tele knew she could learn her mother’s as well. She just needed time. She couldn’t allow that time to run short.
“Sitter!” the Thief-Taker belted, enraged as a missed attack brought him to a bended knee.
Tele didn’t know what a “sitter” was, but his tone had told her enough. Graced a precious few moments, she distanced herself from his attack. He recovered in short order and charged her.
Her brothers needed her. Gib found solace in their frequent conversations. He seemed to smile only when Tele made light of situations marred with despondency. Simon always found purpose in protecting her, even when he found their true purpose — unflinching devotion to the preservation of a dying alliance between the Covenant and the true Wizard — to be bleak in the best of times and madness in any other.
The distance she’d gained meant nothing when, once again, she stumbled. Twisting, she fell on her back. The Thief-Taker continued his charge. With practiced form, he lunged, pulling the blade into a downward arc. Behind him, the clear blue canvas for all that she’d ever known watched silently as the rise and fall of men throughout the ages painted it with the blood of the voiceless. It watched silently even now as her own, small existence lay at Desolate’s door.
The scarpe slipped, unsteadied by the multitude of fur-lined folds in the tent’s bottom. A sliver of sunlight leaked in from the outside, skimming over the floor and dodging shadows. With persistent effort, the scarpe scurried for the light.
“Tele?” her mother whispered.
Tele didn’t answer. Instead, she continued to watch the scarpe struggle. The bedroll dipped as her mother sat beside her.
“Tele,” she repeated, placing a comforting hand on Tele’s shoulder. “The things we do…. The lives we take to protect the Covenant’s knowledge are –”
“I don’t want to talk about it,” Tele said, cutting her off.
She didn’t push Tele, but her hand remained on her daughter’s arm as if to give comfort — the blood-crusted arm that had eviscerated a being. A living, breathing, irreplaceable being.
She hoped that her death would be painless, sweet. She hoped that beyond Desolate was life again — maybe the same life with another chance. Even as the blade descended, snatching away an unfulfilled potential, she steeled herself with these final, desperate dreams.
She saw it then. A crystal clear awakening between thoughts, it hung before her: the opening for which she had been searching. His mistake was simple, really — a powerful and quick attack that left his centerline temporarily exposed. In lessons past, Tele had made that very mistake time and again during Gib’s tireless instruction. She recalled his words….
“The only thing between life and death is often an opening found or overlooked.”
Gib’s staff hovered just below her chin, pinning her to the hot ground. Once again, he’d defeated her in mock battle. She looked up from the point of the staff and into his eyes.
“No one is perfect,” he said. “In a moment of fear or fury, loss of stamina or distraction, doubt or over-confidence, your moment presents itself.”
He tapped her flesh with the blunted practice staff. “Don’t let that moment pass you by. If you do, it will be your end.”
Knife firmly gripped, she lurched forward, charging the Thief-Taker's middle, blade first. His advance was stunted, but his inertia left him atop her. Tele’s dagger dug deeper under his weight. She twisted and pulled in every direction. Her movements were muffled under his body — her screams of panic muffled under his shrieks of pain.
Another twist cut even his voice from him. Blood poured from his open mouth and through her hair. His breaths became labored, inhaled and exhaled at irregular intervals until they drew to an end. He stilled, his flaccid, limp weight settling atop her.
Tele turned her head to let go of her stomach. She coughed and gagged at the smell of her fear. She was alive. She’d saved herself, but she’d slain another. She’d saved herself, but what had she lost?
Her father spoke this time. She felt him sit beside her but didn’t answer his call. A silent moment passed before Tele stole a peek out from under her brooding. He sat with calm, looking out into Desolate. His hands were folded over crossed legs and stained with the blood of her kill ― the kill that he, Gib, and Simon had disposed of after the trouble.
“I’m very proud of you, Tele,” he began, still looking outward. “It takes great strength to kill your enemy, great courage to protect your own, and great vigilance to seek out his weakness.
“Even more, Tele,” he said, “great love to mourn his passing. First blood is an end. Hardly a perfect end, but an end all the same. Your respect for life, all life — even the life that seeks to destroy yours — will keep first blood from destroying you inside.”
Tele found his gaze and nodded, if only to show him that she understood. She couldn’t take back what she’d done, but she could fight to ensure what she’d done had purpose. Still, she’d made herself accountable for an unpayable debt, and nothing could make that right again.
Tele turned away to watch the scarpe slip into the light.