Chapter 8

The great devils, the Ekhat, had tracked the Lleix down. They were no longer safe in this out-of-the-way pocket of the galaxy where they had long ago gone to ground like terrified prey and where their ancestral guiding spirits, the Boh, could no longer look upon them.

That dire truth beat through the sprawling Lleix colony at the foot of the Valeron mountains as though all who had been conducting their safe respectable lives there now could think but a single thought between them. After more than a thousand local years secreted on this world, they had been discovered by their age-old enemies and no longer possessed sufficient flight-worthy ships to transport the bulk of their population elsewhere.

Young Jihan of the Starsifters elian watched as her mentor, Sayr, made his slow and careful way along the crushed stone path leading up the side of the mountain. Though tall with age, his pewter-skinned form was now bent, his dark aureole drooping around his seamed face like the dying petals of a flower. He was the wisest elder she knew, yet distress fluttered in her breast.

After much deliberation by her elian, he was going to present what she believed to be, at least partially, an erroneous conclusion. The readings the Starsifters had examined from the battle, the debris they had analyzed, had whispered far different findings to her than it had to the rest of the analytical society.

All agreed that it was the Ekhat who had penetrated the nebula and then fought the Lleix. Alerted by satellites put in orbit long ago, her people had launched their ancient ships, held together with little more than wire and red string for luck, fueled by prayer. There had been two intruding Ekhat ships. One, the Lleix had destroyed themselves, but the survivor fled and then inexplicably fought yet two other much smaller ships which had blessedly destroyed it. One of the newly arrived ships had exploded, but the second, badly damaged, fled the system without making further contact.

So — something else, actually someone else, had also been present out there in the swirling nebula which confused long-range instrument readings and reflected back scans. Something alien and cunning. The Starsifters had recovered genetic material from both the Ekhat and the Anj, a slave species sometimes employed on the great devils’ ships as they carried out their wanton mission of destruction. A tiny amount of the trace organic material recovered after the battle, though, had not matched either and indeed did not indicate any of the usual enslaved client species used by Ekhat.

In the Starsifters’ Duty Chamber, she had studied the records, analyzing and reading, researching for days on end until she’d found a passing reference to a great evil from long ago which seemed to match what they had in hand. She believed the physical evidence traced back to a species that had actually fought for the Ekhat in ships of their own, rather than just crewing their masters’ vessels. Despite the conclusions of her elders, she was certain it had not only been the Ekhat in that savage battle. Their wily handservants, the Jao, had been there too.

Her mentors, led by Sayr, disagreed gently, pointing out that the trace evidence was indeed only that — a trace, a single sample. There was only a forty percent match with the record, hardly conclusive, and besides the Jao had not been seen for over a thousand years. No doubt the Ekhat had grown weary of them, as they did all sapient species, and put them down. The devils they knew were bad enough. Jihan should not invoke ancient fears just to make herself important. The situation was dire at any rate.

Added to that, they said, was simple logic: The strangers had dispatched the second Ekhat ship. The enslaved Jao would never have done that. No doubt it was another faction of the Ekhat, who were notorious for refusing to tolerate even their own kind. Most likely, the Melody had fired upon the Interdict, or the Harmony upon the Melody. That, the elders could believe.

The Starsifters were an esoteric elian, highly specialized, attracting few of the youth emerging each year from the Children’s Court, then accepting almost none of those. She herself was the youngest full member by over ten years and little regarded, for all that she studied hard. Many of the elders had never seen an Ekhat ship outside of recordings until the recent battle.

The last recorded incursion had taken place before she was born, over thirty years ago, and had come to nothing with the bizarrely articulated Ekhat ship sweeping through the nebula without hesitation, evidently on its way to visit destruction upon some other unfortunate world. She had viewed the terrifying records repeatedly.

Before that, their last encounter with the Ekhat had been almost four hundred years earlier, battling in another star system where the Lleix had also maintained a refugee colony, now destroyed. The survivors had fled here, joining the settlement already in place, poor though it was, and now, as far as anyone on Valeron knew, the Lleix survived nowhere else.

The wind gusted and she drew the folds of her brocaded robe more closely around her body. The cold bit bone-deep and her breath plumed in a white cloud. Ahead of her, Sayr ascended the path to the waiting wheeled transport which would take him up to the towering hall with its exposed beams, carved Boh faces, and sacred pennants, situated halfway up the mountain.

Although no Ekhat ships remained in the area, at some point they would seek their missing fellows. And when they did, they would find the Lleix here, hiding. They had always known the Ekhat would discover them at some point. It had been bred into each generation, that knowledge, the understanding that at any moment, they might have to fight, or flee, or perhaps even surrender to extinction, as had so many other species under the maniac ministrations of the Ekhat.

Only now they could not flee. They had lost two ships fighting off the Ekhat, two they could not spare. Their numbers had grown since retreating to this hidden world, while the refuge where they’d gone to ground was resource-poor. There were too few ships and no way to replace them.

The Shipbuilders’ elian was defunct. They had not been able to recruit new members when there was no material for construction and its last elders had died a number of generations before she was born. The Shipservicers did better at replenishing their ranks, but even they could not craft the replacement parts needed when the necessary metals did not occur on this world.

Jihan paced back and forth, her short legs eating up the distance with swinging strides. Sayr was wrong. They were all wrong. It was not just the Ekhat, it was the Jao too, no doubt as bad in their own way as the great devils they served. Though it was forbidden, though she would break sensho by appearing without permission, she had to present the truth to the Han.

She set off up the winding path, determined to catch up to Sayr. She would make the elders understand before it was too late.