Lights in the Dark

They were persistent, Pandora was willing to give them that.

She ran through the shadowy forest with a silence that belied the speed at which she was moving. She shifted her weight just as Jacob had taught her all those years ago, taking care to avoid any stray twigs or leaves whose crackle would betray her position. It took practice to run through a gauntlet of potential alarms without making a sound, but no one was better at that than Pandora.

Her pursuers were not so stealthy, but they doggedly held her trail just the same. She could hear them every time they made a mistake, and could tell that they were growing closer by the minute. She’d hoped that making a detour into the dark forest would deter them — legends held that the place was crawling with strange creatures and restless spirits, and most people gave it a wide berth. They’d remained steadfast, however, and had followed her in after only a moment’s hesitation. In a different situation, Pandora would be flattered by their attention and impressed by their devotion to duty, but the fact that they aimed to kill her put a damper on any admiration she might have felt.

There were certainly no more than eight, she decided. Any more than that and they’d be making even more of a ruckus than they currently were. And there were probably no fewer than six, because the noises were too far apart for there to be any less. Say seven, then… eight as a worst-case scenario. That was doable. She could handle eight… as long as she had the element of surprise.

She paused in the center of a clearing, both to catch her breath and to think. She spotted a crumbling ruin a few yards away and considered hiding there, but a soft pink glow visible through one of the shattered windows caused her to reconsider. No, that would definitely not be a safe hiding spot.

At a loss for options, she shrugged, then leaped in the direction of a solid-looking tree. The height of her jump would have impressed an observer, had one been there, who would have sworn that no human could make such a leap. She caught a branch and swung herself onto it with easy grace, leaning against the trunk. While she waited for her pursuers to catch up, she loosed her newest weapons and checked them, more for her own state of mind than anything else. She wouldn’t have  known what to do if they had been damaged in the pursuit, but if they were going to break, now would be the worst possible time for it.

It didn’t take long. First one dark-robed figure, then another, arrived at the clearing and began looking about, confused. Trackers. Sloppy, too, Pandora thought critically — they’re not even trying to conceal themselves. Even so, she had to strain her eyes to see them in the darkness, their deep green clothing causing them to fade into the background, just as it was designed to do. Peasants told stories about shadows dressed in deepest black, doing the dirty business of church and state by night… but dark greens, blues, and grays were more common in the field.

The rest of the stories were perfectly accurate, of course.

Pandora herself was dressed in slate gray, but her mission tonight had been in a building — a castle, in fact. The mission she’d abandoned. The mission her fellow shadows were trying to kill her for failing to complete. She hadn’t had time to change before having to run for her life, which meant she was at a disadvantage in these natural environments. It wasn’t a severe disadvantage — especially considering the other advantages she possessed, which more than made up for it, but only a fool fails to consider every potential pitfall.

Her pursuers were acting considerably more foolish than she’d expected. The two shadows in the clearing were joined by a third — the commander, probably — and then by several more. Five, six… One more, Pandora thought. She needed them all to be there before she could attack.

She’d have to kill them all in one fell swoop. Her new weapons were frightfully powerful, but using them would light up the night sky like a beacon. This group was the only one that had her trail, but there were others out there as well, and they’d be drawn to the site of the fight once it began. She needed to kill these and escape before any others caught up, or the whole exercise would have been pointless.

They were talking, loud enough for her to hear. Stupid, stupid, Pandora thought. Stealth probably wasn’t necessary here, but that’s no excuse for recklessness. Jacob always used to say that recklessness was habit-forming. For a shadow, there was only one way to break bad habits, and it involved mourners and a hole in the ground.

“What’s the delay?” demanded the one Pandora had pegged as the likely commander, a tall man with a resonant voice. This man should be on stage, not in the shadows.

“We’ve lost the trail,” answered one of the trackers. Pandora couldn’t see his face, but judging by the tone of his voice he was probably looking fairly shameful. Trackers weren’t supposed to lose their quarry.

“What do you mean, you lost it? The target’s on the run. She doesn’t have time to clear the traces of her passing.”

The tracker spread his arms helplessly. “The trail arrives here, but then it just vanishes. I don’t know what to tell you. If you’re so sure the trail is still here, then you find it.”

An argument. Insubordination, even. This would be even easier than she thought. A man focused on rhetoric doesn’t have time to notice what might be sneaking up behind him.

The commander grunted sourly. “She can’t have gone far. We were hot on her trail until just a few minutes ago, and her file doesn’t say anything about warping magic. Fan out and find her — and remember that we need her alive.”

Pandora frowned. Alive? Traitors and deserters were put to death, universally. The ultimate crimes merited the ultimate punishment. What was so important about her that they needed her alive?

As she pondered it, a seventh shadow appeared out of the trees. The rear guard, almost certainly. Well, that was probably all of them. Now or never. She gripped her weapon that much more tightly and took careful aim.

She hadn’t even been sure that it was a weapon at first. It looked more like a book — a small white rectangle. At one end, a space had been removed, creating a handle that seemed to fit her hand perfectly, and at the other, a small piece of metal, shaped like a cork, was fasted to the end. Near the handle was another piece of metal that retracted, and when you squeezed it…

Streams of light screamed out of the metal cork, spiraling and swirling. One sought out the scout’s heart with the unerring precision of a living being, moving in unnatural patterns. It burned him like flame, and he screamed and collapsed.

Their attention was on her now, but she was already firing again. Their night vision was ruined now by the sudden flashes of bright light, and she needed to end this before they got their bearings again. Two more shadows fell before they could even reach for their weapons, their lives ended by the eldritch light. Pandora could tell that the weapons were man-made — or at least, made — the first time she’d fired them, just based on the colors. She’d never seen these bright glowing pinks and magentas in nature.

The easy part was behind her now. The others had their weapons, and she was still outnumbered. Four throwing stars lanced her way almost in unison, but she dropped off the branch to avoid them, landing hard but on her feet and keeping her balance. She fired off another shot, but slid behind the tree to dodge the inevitable second wave of attacks before even seeing if it hit. A moment later, the sound of a scream — a shockingly high-pitched, female scream — confirmed that it had.

The commander was on her, then. He was more than a head taller than her and much stronger, and obviously intended to press his advantage. He might have been a rubbish commander, but he knew the right moves in a fight. Pandora knew a few of her own, though, and slipped out of what would have been a crushing grip. She crawled between his legs as quickly as she could and was on her feet again before he could turn around. She flicked a switch on her weapon and fired again — this time the beam of light, rather than being a bright pink arc that slowly snaked its way towards its target, glowed blue and shot forward rapidly, burning away not just the commander’s torso but also part of the trunk of the tree. This time Pandora was close enough to take in the sickening smell of burnt flesh as the commander collapsed.

The tree was teetering, but Pandora thought she might take that to her advantage. With the speed of a squirrel, she quickly climbed the teetering tree and leaned forward. From the surprised curse she heard as the tree fell she surmised that one of the remaining shadows had been unexpectedly trapped beneath it, which was fine by her. One left.

That one was almost too easy. He was staring at her, gaping, and put up no resistance whatsoever as she fired off one final shot.

She exhaled, exhausted, and relaxed momentarily. This proved to be a mistake, as something immediately grasped her hair from behind and shoved a knife against her throat. There must have been eight after all.

“Very impressive, traitor,” said the owner of the knife. Pandora had trouble pinning down the nature of the voice — it could have been a deep-voiced woman or an androgynous man. She resisted the urge to try and turn and look, an action that she knew would not be kindly received. If you’re in someone else’s power, don’t provoke that person.

Instead, she began calmly scanning the scene, looking for a way out, trying not to linger on the charred bodies she’d created. Instead she found herself drawn again to the ruin, where the pink glow moved more rapidly and agitatedly than before. She suppressed a smile.

“Now,” said the voice, “you are going to drop that… thing, as well as any other weapons you might be carrying. Then you are going to face justice. I was told to bring you in alive, but that was before you killed my squad, and accidents have a way of happening if you don’t… what the!?”

She was startled by the appearance of the lost spirits, stirred by the carnage, erupting from the ruin like a volcano. They looked vaguely like human faced wreathed in pink light, their expressions one of indescribable horror and pain. They began swarming towards the clearing, moaning mindlessly.

The voice’s grip loosened and her attention wavered, and Pandora didn’t miss her chance. She drove an elbow into her captor’s stomach as hard as she could and began running again, stealth forgotten, simply looking to escape from the ghouls’ grisly feast. Any further pursuit drawn to that spot would have more pressing things to worry about than which direction she’d gone in. She’d escaped, for now.

Now all she had to do was figure out what she was going to do with her freedom.

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