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A little spoiler-free scene to give you a taste of one of my favourite villains.

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The first thing Adren noticed upon waking was the chirping of birds and the damp, lumpy ground that he had used for a bed. Trees rose up all around him with green leaves that sighed in the wind. After thirty-six hours in this place, he no longer noticed the cold, clammy feeling of wet clothes.

Adren was lying in the dirt, curled up on his side and using his own forearm as a pillow. How very undignified. He sat up with a groan, scrubbing fingers through his hair and flicking dried leaves away.

Wincing, he shook his head. “Damn it all.” His words were hoarse, his throat dry. “Someone needs to teach that bitch some manners.”

“You know, I’ve often thought the same thing.”

He shivered.

What he felt should have been impossible; his talent was refined enough to warn him if someone got too close — even deep sleep wouldn’t prevent him from sensing the presence of another mind — but there was nothing. No telepathic impression of whoever had just startled him.

Adren moved like a frightened animal, glancing this way and that in search of the speaker. It took him a moment to find her.

She wore earth tones: brown pants and a dark-green sweater that she had unzipped to show just a hint of cleavage. Most striking, however, was the way that she hid her face inside a hood so that only the tip of her chin was visible. “I thought we should talk,” she said. “You know…Before Lenai inevitably finds you, outwits you and throws you into one of those excessively comfortable holding cells.”

“Who are you?” Adren spat.

“No one of consequence.”

Adren scrambled to his feet and then backed up until his butt hit a tree. He doubled over, a ragged breath escaping him. “How did you find me?” This scrap of woodland by a small park was still close enough to civilization to mask his presence in the din of other minds. Finding him should have been impossible.

“Ah,” the woman said, hopping down from her perch on a rock and striding toward him with arms swinging. “So, we have to go through this song and dance, do we? Well, I suppose it was too much to hope that you would take note of my having done something impossible and then defer to my wisdom.”

“Who are you?”

She planted fists on her hips and looked up so that sunlight illuminated her face. A pretty face, but not one Adren recognized. “I serve the Inzari,” she said. “And if you are wise, you will do the same. They find your talents desirable.”

She gestured to the side.

Something rippled in the forest, moving between the trees with a sound that was somehow a moan and a rasping breath at the same time. There was nothing to see: only a strange shimmer that you might miss if you blinked. But he felt it. A powerful mind, one unlike anything he had experienced before.

Adren squeezed his eyes shut, then shook his head forcefully. “What is that thing?” he croaked, pressing his body to the tree trunk. “By the Gods, what kind of monstrosity did you bring into my life.”

The hooded woman replied with a knowing smile. “You would call it an Overseer,” she explained. “This, my friend, is how I found you.”

“What do you want?”

“Why you, of course.”

Adren felt the blood drain out of his face. Despite himself, he couldn’t find the will to look at that thing. Bad enough that he should have to sense it. Thoughts flickered in his mind, most indecipherable to him, but he recognized an image of his world, and one of Leyria as well.

“We have an offer to make,” the woman said.

“Forget it!” Adren growled. “I want nothing to do with you.”

Crossing her arms, the woman stared down her nose at him. “Oh yes,” she said, her eyebrows rising. “Because you’ve done so well on your own. Look at you, cowering in a forest. How many days since your last meal, Adren?”

He flinched at the question. How did she know? Getting food was a simple matter of visiting one of the many dispensers throughout this city, but doing so would certainly mean putting himself in front of security cameras that were programmed to recognize his face. If he tried, the police would be on him in moments.

Adren didn’t fear them.

He did fear that Justice Keeper.

As if sensing his thoughts, the woman showed him a mocking grin. “Come with us, Adren,” she urged. “You can be of use to the Inzari. I guarantee that we will feed you and much, much more.”

“I bow to no one!” he insisted.

The woman gave a start, taken aback by his words. “I wouldn’t dream of it,” she said, stepping forward and offering her hand. “Come on…At least hear what we have to offer.”

****There is an unrelated scene between these two****

“Yes…I will listen,” Adren whispered.

He stared at her with sweat on his pale face, his mouth working soundlessly. “I will listen,” he said again after a moment. “What is it that you…believe that I can do for your masters.”

Isara smiled and laughed. “We have need of people with special talents,” she said. “Telepaths are especially useful. But first, why don’t I tell you what we can do for you?”

Adren pressed his back to the tree trunk, shivering as he gulped air to his lungs. It was a warm, sunny day, but from the way he trembled, you might have thought that he was stuck in the middle of a blizzard. Isara didn’t blame him. Seeing an Inzari for the first time could have that effect. “What can you do for me?” he asked.

“You want recognition.”

“Recognition?”

She sucked on her lip and let her head bob from side to side, wrinkles forming in her brow. “Of your superior talents,” she said. “Be honest. That is why you’ve put on this little display, isn’t it?”

Adren stood before her with his eyes downcast, licking his lips as he tried to work up the courage to answer. Did the man have it within him to be honest with her? “Yes,” he whispered.

“I want them to know.”

“To know what?”

“That I am…”

Isara stepped forward to hold his gaze, then narrowed her eyes. “That you are what, Adren?” she spat. “If you can’t bring yourself to say it, then you shouldn’t even think it.”

“Superior.”

The smile she felt almost made her jaw hurt. Once again, she laughed, reaching out to lay a hand on his cheek. “Ah…There’s a good boy,” Isara cooed. “You are superior, my dear. Because the Inzari made so.”

“But there are other telepaths,” he mumbled. “Why me?”

When she turned, that ripple in the air was still there, but Isara, having been blessed with the Inzari’s favour, could see something of its shape. It looked somewhat like a large praying mantis with bulbous eyes that focused on their would-be recruit.

She strained to focus upon it. The creature fuzzed again despite her best efforts, its form melting into a shimmer that made the trees around it look blurry. Isara could touch it if she had dared; the Inzari was really here, in the flesh. But the body it had chosen was designed to avoid detection by the human eye.

It made a rumbling noise.

Isara knew exactly what it wanted. Not because she had any ability to comprehend its language — she wasn’t even sure that the Inzari had a spoken language — but because it projected its thoughts into her mind.

“First,” Isara said, “answer me this. Why come here? Why torment the denizens of this little town? Your people practically worship telepaths. If you want to be recognized as superior, why not just return home?”

Pressing his body to the tree, Adren turned his head so that she saw his profile. Almost as if he were ashamed to look at her. “Ah…” Isara said. “You can’t go home, can you? Because you’re a criminal.”

He stiffened at that.

“It must have been a severe offense,” Isara went on. “Your people don’t generally punish telepaths. Who did you kill, Adren?”

His lips peeled back, showing gritted teeth, and for a brief second, Isara worried that he might lash out with his talent. “I didn’t kill anyone,” he insisted. And he meant it; that much was obvious.

“I see,” Isara replied. If it wasn’t murder that had driven him to take refuge on the homeworld of his people’s greatest enemy, then there was really only one other option. “Who was she, Adren? One of the maids they assigned to attend to your every need? Or was it a man that you violated?”

“She was mine!” Adren snapped.

With her hand on her belly, Isara threw her head back and roared with laughter. “It’s so simple!” she said. “You stowed away on board a ship and came here. Because Leyria will take in any refugee.”

Grinning maliciously, Isara shook her head as she approached him. “But you were accustomed to a certain level of reverence,” she went on. “There you were: hiding on this benighted little world, concealing your abilities because you knew they would look into your history if they found out.”

She paced a tight circle around Adren and the tree he leaned against, giggling all the while. “Among your own people, you were two steps away from godliness,” she said, coming up behind him. “But here…Here, you’re just an object of pity. You couldn’t stand it anymore; so one day, you snapped and decided to prove that you were…”

Isara leaned in close, brought her lips to his ear and whispered, “Superior.”

Rich Penney is a science-fiction author and futurist. You can check out his books here.

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