As a void caster one of the first spells I’d ever learned was the ability to hide myself. I could escape from everyone in the world and be safe from all sorts of dangers.
So, naturally, instead of that, I wasn’t walking to my doom, I was running to it. That still wasn’t quite enough though. To hell with the element of surprise, I thought, I was ready to shoot off fireworks and commission a band to trumpet my arrival. I didn’t want Vunthor to merely notice that I was coming from him. I wanted his full and undivided attention.
Since I didn’t have a brass band or fireworks on hand, I did the next best thing. He was searching for me with passive scrying spells. To help him with that I drew all my Void anima into the frozen center of my body (my danger sense was screaming all sorts of warning that I had to ignore) and let Physical anima surge through me.
A good caster can use their anima with incredible precision and efficiency. I’ve seen Master Hanq amplify his strength to the point where he can shred steel with his bare hands while not letting even a single spark of anima flare outside of his body.
I’m a mediocre caster at best still and I struggle to even approach that sort of efficiency. Or more precisely I struggle for that in most situations. Racing towards Vunthor I didn’t bother with any effort to keep my anima inside myself.
Sparks and flames crackled around me as I ran, illuminating the dark tunnels I passed down. There was a labyrinth inside the mountain, each passage doubled back and over and under itself, but I could see the strands that Vunthor left to detect my arrival and all I had to do was follow them back to him.
I ran far below the mountain and followed the path back up almost to the summit before I found him in a large, natural cavern.
I skidded to a halt as I arrived, trailing thunder and lightning in my wake. I guess I was quite the sight. Power crackled over my skin, illuminating my veins in colorful light and wreathing me in an aura of chaotic energy. My radiance was washed out though by the brilliant white light that shone from the bands of power that orbited Vunthor like planetary rings.
He stood in the center of the cavern, his right fist covered by his left hand and his eyes closed in meditation. Behind him knelt dozens of his soldiers. Their eyes were closed as well and most of their heads were bowed forward as though they were worshipping at Vunthor’s feet,
Among their numbers, at the front of the legions, I saw Illya. She had her eyes closed like the others but her face was turned towards Vunthor directly with an expression that held as much emotion as a stone.
I didn’t need to switch to Void sight to see the anima that was pouring out of the soldiers to supercharge Vunthor. It coalesced into motes and even streams of light that shimmered together to give him the appearance of wearing a vast, glowing cape.
I took the scene in, evaluated it and calculated exactly how dead I was.
The good news was that Vunthor hadn’t figured out what the Life Crystals were. The bad news was that he had better control over draining energy from people than I did. If I tried to pull power from people like he was doing, I’d wind up stealing it all from them at once. Vunthor had a more sustainable method of doing the same thing and would be able to draw more power over a longer time period than I could.
That complicated things a lot.
I hadn’t expected to be able to beat Vunthor when I raced away from Darius and Fari. He had too many resources for that to be a practical plan. With the gathering of our forces though, I didn’t need to beat him, I just needed to survive him for long enough for Master Hanq, Black Team and a hundred thousand Garjarack to join the party.
The weapons the colony ships carried were boltless anima blasters. That’s what Vunthor had stolen and, while they had the tremendous advantage of not requiring ammunition, they weren’t exactly the best weapon to use against someone who can absorb and grow more powerful from attacks that were made only of anima.
That, coupled with the fact that one of my best magical skills is casting anima shields, gave me reason to hope that I could hold out against for long enough to buy the others times to arrive.
The plan was a wonderful one until the power balance between us became too great. My anima shields are tougher than steel. With fifty people amping up his strength though, I was pretty sure Vunthor was going to tear through them like tissue paper. That left me with only one plan that felt like it had any chance of succeeding.
“How very convenient,” I said. “All of the people I’ve been looking for in one place.”
Vunthor opened his eyes and drew in the power that was orbiting around him.
I took the opportunity to do the same and focused every erg of Physical anima I could scrounge up, keying it to one specific spell.
“I’m Guardian Watersward and in case you’re wondering, you’re all under arrest.” I said. “I’d suggest that you come along quietly, but I think we all know that’s not going to happen, so please, at least put up a good fight will you?”
I cracked my knuckles and rolled my shoulders while Vunthor eyed me carefully.
“Guardian Watersward,” Vunthor said and I heard a second voice overlapping his own. Higgs had bonded with his new host more tightly than I’d expected. So they were better at Void anima combat than I was too.
That was wonderful to think about.
“You have brought us a great gift Guardian. The transwarp creatures will serve as a far more powerful army than any other we could have raised here,” Vunthor-Higgs said. “But we can’t let you live. Not after you allied yourself with the slurps.”
It took me a second to place “slurps” as one of the older epithets for the Garjarack. I noticed there was a slip in Vunthor’s voice as he said it. For just a moment it was Higgs alone speaking there, the one word carrying a century of hate passed down from generation to generation.
“I’m allied with the people of Hellsreach,” I said. “All of them.”
“Slurps ain’t people, you dumb slit!” Vunthor-Higgs said.
I had an even harder time placing “slit” as an insult. It was a reference, it turned out, both to my off-worlder status and to being a “slurp sympathizer”, but even though the specific meaning wasn’t clear, I got the gist of what he was saying well enough.
“Maybe after I take you apart we can find whatever piece is defective in you, you backstabbing, whiny, little coward!” I said.
Sometimes the sharpest knife you can stab someone with is the truth. Vunthor had survived a lot of battles and he’d lead a lot of them from the front. He was widely decorated for his bravery, but his transcripts painted a different story if you looked at them with the eyes of Void caster.
The casualties for Vunthor’s troops were routinely higher than for any of the other forces that were deployed. His commanders balanced that against the fact the he tended to succeed in his missions and continued using him in more and more dangerous operations which skewed the numbers even higher.
The soldiers who served under him and survived were reported as being extremely loyal, but many of the new recruit who were added to his troop roster claimed he was abusive and uncaring about their welfare. Unsurprisingly these were also the troops who had the worst odds of surviving his missions.
Again his superiors had a built-in excuse. Green troops exposed to highly perilous missions didn’t tend to survive long under anyone’s command. Normally they also failed the missions. In Vunthor’s case though, the missions would succeed despite costing half his soldiers or more.
It’s hard to succeed against odds that start off tough after you lose dozens of troops. Unless of course you can retain the strength of those troops and focus them all into one person. There hadn’t been any autopsies in the chaos of war, but the reports of “withered corpses” was all too familiar to leave me wondering what really happened to those troops. You could survive a lot of battles as a Void caster if you were packing a few dozen extra lives worth of anima in yourself.
After the peace declaration, Vunthor hadn’t even hesitated when it came to sacrificing his own people to further his adgenda. Why would he? That was how he’d worked for years. Other people took the risks, other people paid the price, so long as he got to kill Garjarack it was all worth it to him.
I met his eyes and let him feel the certainty that was behind my words. I knew what he was, and I knew I could prove it. He’d absorbed enough Mental anima from his followers that he could sense that.
The truth hurts and when something hurts us, humans tend to try to hurt it back.
Within the space of a millisecond, Vunthor blasted across the distance between us and swung a fist at me that had enough force behind it to shatter ten yards of granite to dust. It was a strong enough blow that my anima shield would have collapsed, followed immediately by the front of my skull and then the back.
Vunthor wasn’t playing around.
He also wasn’t playing with a full deck anymore, and he wasn’t playing on his home turf.
As a career soldier, Vunthor had been in a lot of battles. What he hadn’t been in was many fights. It’s a very different sort of struggle to attack someone directly in hand-to-hand than it is to engage an enemy troop at range with lethal hardware on both sides.
Vunthor’s technique wasn’t bad and his speed and power were completely ridiculous. What saved me was that he was so very predictable.
No one ever does a raging hyper-attack and targets your knees. With his massive strength and speed Vunthor didn’t try to crush me with a grappling maneuver. He went with the most mindless and direct attack he could and poured as much power into it as he had.
The spell I’d been holding had one effect. The moment he moved, even before I could perceive it, all of my energy went to moving a single step to the side and redirecting the force of his blow which I knew was going to be aimed at my head.
I was much slower than he was, but I had far less distance to cover. I was far weaker than he was but I didn’t have to overcome him strength, just redirect it. He slammed a fist into the wall behind me and for a second the explosion of dust made it impossible to see what had happened.
That was the second I broke his leg.
I’d stepped one pace to the right. It took no thought and almost no time to lash out with a kick that caught the top of his kneecap and shattered the bones and tendons from the side of his leg down to his ankle.
I spun to do the same thing to his throat, but discovered how fast he was and that my window of opportunity wasn’t long enough.
His attack wasn’t the strongest I’d ever felt. It didn’t reduce me to a squishy pulp like the giga-beast attack had for example. Still hurt like hell though. And it knocked me halfway across the room.
I landed on my left arm and skidded to a halt before rolling to my feet. I could barely breath and I was seeing stars, but I was alive so from my point of view I was definitely winning.
I watched, unsurprised as Vunthor splinted his shattered leg with anima. He was swimming in so much magical power that no injury I inflicted on him short of outright disintegration was likely to stop him.
Slowing him down was another matter though. Even with magical pain suppression and bone reinforcement, it’s not pleasant to walk on a leg that’s as badly destroyed as what I’d done to Vunthor. He was still absurdly superhuman but some dark corner of his mind knew that wasn’t going last and that he was going to have to pay for any further abuse he subjected his body too.
So he went back to talking.
“You Imperials disgust me,” Vunthor-Higgs said. “You come in here and think you know everything. Think everyone here are good guys who just need a big Imperial hug to get along. You know nothing of how we’ve suffered. You know nothing about the kind of monsters the slurps are.”
I cast a glance over at Vunthor’s troops. The anima stream coming off them had wavered after his big burst of power. They were paying the price for his capabilities and it didn’t look like they all had enough anima left to do it easily.
“I know the kind of monster you are,” I said. “A small minded, revenge obsessed psycho, who’ll use anyone and anything to keep fighting a war that should have ended decades ago.”
“There’s nothing psycho about fighting the slurps,” he said. “If you studied our history, you’d see that. They’re subhuman, a bunch of pack animals that need to be put down before their violent tendencies kill every one of us.”
“The only one I see here with violent tendencies is you,” I said as I started to move back towards cavern wall. “The rest of the colonists were ready for peace.”
“The slurps don’t understand peace!” Vunthor screamed. “You think they’re people but they’re not. They’re subhumans. They’re animals and we’re not going to let even one of them foul this world with their filth.”
“You would do anything to make that true wouldn’t you?” I asked.
“Yes!” he shouted and started to stalk towards me.
“You’d murder hundreds of thousands of Garjarack?” I asked, turning to face Vunthor’s troops. I saw some of them were swaying. Ilya was one of the few that wasn’t moving at all, but her face was crunched up tight in a rictus of inner pain.
“Yes!” he said. “I’d exterminate millions of them!
“You’d take any risk, pay any cost, just to put them in the ground?” I asked.
“Yes!” he said. “We owe that to all the people who fell fighting them!”
“Any cost? Anything at all?”
“Yes! Anything to be rid of those damn slurps!”
I let those words linger for a second. They were spoken in a voice somewhere between Vunthor’s natural one and Higg’s inhuman screeches. There was no chance the soldier’s who’d followed the Major and pledged their loyalty could miss the fact that the man who was draining their life force away had become something other than the person they thought they were following to the far end of space.
He hit me again.
I didn’t see the attack coming, or have time to react to it. The good news is that his injury slowed him enough that, instead of splattering me into a fine mist, the force of the blow only left me as a bloody mess sitting weakly against edge of the cavern.
I swallowed and fought back the pain that was threatening to pull me into unconsciousness. However messed up my body was, it didn’t hurt half as bad as knowing that I’d failed.
I thought I could predict Vunthor well enough to know when he would attack. I thought I could press his buttons in just the right pattern to keep him dancing until help showed up. That looked like it was going to be the last mistake I would ever make.
In one hit he’d done enough damage to ensure that I couldn’t avoid the rest of his attacks. From here he’d be able to ease off on draining his soldiers. He wouldn’t need so much of their strength to beat me until I was just a smear on the rocks and the dirt.
“Is that why you sacrificed the people at Salmon Falls?” I asked. “Is that why you eat the lives of the men and women put under your command?”
He paused and I forced myself to stand, splinting my broken bones with anima, just like he’d done with his leg.
I had one spell left and one real hope.
I looked at Ilya. Her eyes were open at last and tears were streaming down her face.
“You never cared about any humans except the family that you lost,” I said in a low voice. “All that’s ever mattered to you is revenge, you lying, hypocritical, murderer.”
I flinched against the blow that I knew was coming. I hadn’t stopped Vunthor but I’d driven a wedge into the group psyche of the people who supported him. It wasn’t a win but it might be enough to set up a win for one of my friends.
When the blow landed it was loud. Ridiculously, incredibly loud, and it didn’t hurt.
Because it hadn’t hit me.
Between Vunthor and I, a wall of golden light flickered, the remnant of a shattered and crumbling shield.
It took me a second to work out why I wasn’t dead and then I saw Illya, struggling to stand.
She’d saved me.
“You killed them,” she said, “To keep us fighting, you killed them.”
It was a question and a plea for a denial that crumbled like her shield spell into the acceptance of a betrayal so profound Illya didn’t sound like she would survive it.
I saw the look in Vunthor’s as he turned to face her.
She hadn’t betrayed him. She’d tried to give him a chance to answer my charges. To convince her and the rest that he wasn’t the monster I made him out to be.
The truth though was that he was even worse than she imagined.
He reached out with his Void anima to tear the life from her completely and I released my spell.
Like before, everything I had went into pure speed. This time instead of avoiding him I reached out and focused only on making contact with him.
My fingers grasped his wrist as he released his Void anima at Illya. I pulled the attack so that it went wide and twisted his arm to throw him off balance so that he lost all his leverage.
Then I punched him as hard as I possibly could right in the face.
I felt his nose shatter under my fist and his skull fracture behind it.
I won’t lie, it felt glorious! If I was going to die, I’d do so with a nice big smile on my face after that.
The chance I was going to die was a pretty large one too sadly. One punch wasn’t going to take Vunthor and Higgs out, no matter how much damage it did.
To really stop them, I had only one tool left.
Summoning all of my anima I dragged both of us down into the Void.
Vunthor and Higgs were both more experienced with Void casting than I was, but sometimes it’s not a matter of technique. Sometimes it’s just a matter of how far you’re willing to go win.