QSFer Elle E. Ire has a new FF sci fi book out: “Vicious Circle.”
Assassin meets innocent.
Kicked out of the Assassins Guild for breach of contract, hunted by its members for killing the Guild Leader, and half hooked on illegal narcotics, Cor Sandros could use a break. Down to her last few credits, Cor is offered a freelance job to eliminate a perverse political powerhouse. Always a sucker for helping the helpless, she accepts.
The plan doesn’t include Cor falling in love with her employer, sweet and attractive Kila, but as the pair struggles to reach the target’s home world, pursued by assassins from the Guild, Cor finds the inexplicable attraction growing stronger. There’s a job to do, and intimate involvement is an unwelcome distraction. Then again, so is sexual frustration.
I SHOULD have been dead by now.
A wall of stone blocked the tunnel entrance. Instead of colliding with rock, I walked through the illusion, leaving the dark cold Sardonen desert behind. My arrival activated the string of flickering lights overhead.
I had to be crazy to come back.
Thin, brittle bones protruded from the hard-packed earth. They lined the walls from the dirt floor up to the tunnel’s ceiling. Skeletal fingers reached for me, clawing their way free from their rocky prison with each tremor and landslide that had plagued this world for hundreds of years. They caught on sleeves and pant legs wherever the passage narrowed, drawing the living to the deceased one thread at a time.
It was a barbaric way to dispose of our dead. In an age of disintegrators and molecular recyclers, the masters of the Assassins’ Guild held steadfast to their traditions; tradition taught lessons to those who came after.
Like me. I’d learned this lesson: Assassins who erred died young.
I swear, under penalty of death, to uphold the rules of the Guild, to protect its secrets, to defend the defenseless, to take a life only when deemed necessary by the Guild Leader, or in self-defense, or in defense of the Guild, to fulfill the contracts I accept…. Until now. The oath echoed in my head, pounding against my brain in painful pulses. Guilt and fear vied with rage, tearing at my intestines.
No, I could do this. I could state my case, defend it, work something out. They wouldn’t hold me to the death penalty. They couldn’t. My breath came in heavy puffs. I sealed my black flight jacket with one quick jerk of the zipper and plowed onward. Anger and determination carried me. I needed to ride that wave before it crested and evaporated.
Ahead, the light grew brighter. I slowed, then stopped at the entrance to a wide man-made chamber. I snapped the leather strap closed over the grip of the laser pistol at my side and tucked the hilt of my knife farther into my right boot. Reaching behind my head, I unfastened a matte black clasp and tucked it into my jacket pocket, letting my hair fall in a flow of inky darkness. It settled on my shoulders, heavy, thick, and straight.
Someone like me couldn’t present a less threatening appearance, short of wearing a dress. I hadn’t willingly worn a dress in all my twenty-nine years.
Absently, I rubbed at the cuff over my left wrist. The Guild tattoo itched incessantly, no matter how often the others told me it was all in my head. I stepped into the light.
The greeting chamber extended before me. If I squinted, I could make out the domed ceiling above, higher than a two-story building and shrouded by shadow. An irregular opening in the center let in minimal starlight and allowed smoke from the fire to escape. Ornate columns carved from local stone prevented the roof from caving in despite regular seismic tremors. The circular space could hold the entire Guild, all ninety-nine of us, ten times over. Low temporary dividers separated it into work, eating, and rest areas.
This had all been above ground before quakes decimated a rocky desert outcropping and buried the structure. Evidence of windows and blocked doorways remained in the fractured walls. No one knew its former purpose, but a cracked marble altar stood at one end, suggesting possible religious significance.
Ironic—a place of worship had become a training ground for murderers.
I bit my lower lip hard enough to taste blood—anything to prevent the shedding of tears. The term “murderers” never would have occurred to me before five days ago.
The flames thrived and danced in the central firepit, fed by a team of apprentices morning, midday, and night since the origination of the Guild. The oldest records and journal entries described the smoke as a constant annoyance. Later generations installed the metal ventilation shaft above the pit, drawing the smoke to the ceiling aperture, where it would release into the desert. Hundreds of steam geysers dotted the sandy surface—one of the many sources of seismic instability. Despite a slight variance in color, the assassins’ smoke went unnoticed. Assassins needed to have a camouflaged safe haven, and its isolation added to its invisibility.
Micah waited by the altar, his stance deceptively casual. The loose black training tunic hung over brown trousers to his upper thighs and covered muscles I’d once traced with my fingertips. Bright blue eyes under thick dark hair bore into my soul, seeing everything: my failures, weaknesses, and needs. “Come in, Corianne.” His use of my birth name tightened the muscles around my mouth. Nothing so melodious should apply to a master assassin. Everyone called me Cor. Micah’s voice was little more than a whisper, but those who stood behind the altar could be heard in every part of the open area—even speaking at low volume. Such were the acoustics of this room. Useful for training purposes.
While he crossed to the fire and stood beside it, I scanned the other sections of the only home I could remember. At least a dozen of the masters inhabited the Guild at any given time, and twice as many apprentices. The sleeping area should have been dotted with rolled-out smart mattresses that conformed to and cushioned tired bodies. Murmured conversation should have drifted from lowered heads around the docken-wood dining tables while masters consumed bowls of vegetable stew and mugs of ale.
Micah and I were alone. That realization raised the hairs at the nape of my neck. My hand dropped to rest on the grip of my holstered pistol. His eyes followed the motion, as I knew they would. The folds of his tunic hid his hands from my view.
A grinding noise jerked my attention to the entrance, where a steel door slid into place. I’d known of its existence. I’d seen it used before, but I’d clung to foolish hope Micah’s affections would prevent its use on me.
“You have a purpose. State it.” The commanding tone carried his words in echoes that bounced off the chamber walls. If I reached out far enough, I could touch his anger. It filled the room and threatened to suffocate me.
My jaw muscles clenched so tightly, I could barely force the words from my lips, but I spat them like tossed coins at a beggar’s feet. “I renounce my master’s status. I resign from the Guild.” There. Done. The speech sealed my fate. Whatever the next few minutes brought, there was no going back. It hurt more than I imagined.
Even from this distance, I saw his shoulders slump. He’d wished for a different outcome, maybe hoped I’d agree to go back and finish what I’d started. Not going to happen. Nice to know our relationship counted for something, though. Maybe I could use that.
My musing almost cost me my life as he drew a tiny pistol from a hidden wrist holster. He fired once, the beam of energy slashing the air between us. I lunged to the right and felt the tingling in my skin that always followed near-death. The burst struck the wall with a flash that threw sparks from the stone.
I’d gotten lucky. Micah rarely missed.
A dive to the left carried me over the closest divider and into the sleeping area. Several mattresses softened my landing, and I rolled to crawl back and peer over the partition. Micah had gone the opposite direction, into the dining section. He ducked under a table, then flipped it on its side as a barrier. Docken wood was partially petrified, prized for its hardness. I snapped the strap off my much larger, more powerful laser and drew it into the palm of my hand, fingers wrapping around the custom grip.
A standoff meant my eventual defeat. The other Guild members wouldn’t stay away forever. If I pursued Micah, he would shoot me. Instead I fired two shots, one at the ventilation shaft, knocking it askew, and another into the fire itself. It surged and roared, scattering embers and bits of wood in every direction. Billows of smoke poured from the enraged flames, carrying into other sections and obscuring vision. Stifling a cough with my free hand, I plunged into the ashy cloud cover and lost myself.
My eyes burned and teared as I circled the pit, hoping to approach Micah from behind. Pockets of drifting smoke floated like lost spirits—the ghosts of my victims, rising to seek their revenge.
A blur of motion launched from the smoke, tackled me to the ground, and slammed my gun hand against the polished marble floor. My bruised fingers released, and the weapon skittered across the smooth surface, disappearing into the shadows.
That’s it. I was dead. No real disgrace. He was Guild Leader for a reason. So why hadn’t he shot me already?
Elle E. Ire resides in Celebration, Florida, where she writes science fiction and urban fantasy novels featuring kickass women who fall in love with each other. She has won many local and national writing competitions, including the Royal Palm Literary Award, the Pyr and Dragons essay contest judged by the editors at Pyr Publishing, the Do It Write competition judged by a senior editor at Tor publishing, and she is a winner of the Backspace scholarship awarded by multiple literary agents. She and her spouse run several writing groups and attend and present at many local, state, and national writing conferences.
When she isn’t teaching writing to middle school students, Elle enjoys getting into her characters’ minds by taking shooting lessons, participating in interactive theatrical experiences, paying to be kidnapped “just for the fun and feel of it,” and attempting numerous escape rooms.
To learn what her tagline “Deadly Women, Dangerous Romance” is really all about, visit her website: www.elleire.com. She can also be found on Twitter at @ElleEIre and Facebook at www.facebook.com/ElleE.IreAuthor.
Elle is represented by Naomi Davis at BookEnds Literary Agency.