I should have been dead. That was the first and only thought that rang through my head as I picked myself up off the floor of the clinic’s treatment room.
I hadn’t made it to the shelter. I hadn’t been protected by anything more than the clinic’s walls and windows. There was no chance they’d held off the deadly magics that had rained down over the city.
But I was alive and I was having a hard time understanding why.
I glanced around. We were both alive. Taisen was still with me, just watching quietly and holding very still. In the distance I heard more explosions and I felt something coiling within me.
I wasn’t sure how I’d wound up on the ground. I couldn’t remember falling. All I could recall was the sense of knowing that I was in danger a moment before the the blast.
“You can let that go.” Taisen said. He was holding himself still but I was able to follow his gaze to the circle that had manifested on the floor around us. Wisps of oily, dark smoke chased each other around us in a ring as thick as the width of my hand.
“What is it?” I asked, my voice strangled with nerves. Whatever it was felt alien and cold.
“Your hand.” Taisen said, not answering me and still not moving.
My left hand was shrouded in the same dark smoke that was racing around us. Seeing it, I started to shiver and almost fell backwards. Taisen reached out to stop me but jerked his hand away before he grabbed my arm. I stumbled but stopped myself before I crossed the ring of smoke.
“What is this!” I asked again.
“Void anima. Please, let it go.” he said with quiet insistence.
I uncoiled my hand from the fist I’d clenched it into and the smoke swirling around us dissipated .
“Thank you.” he said, breathing deeply and relaxing at last.
“What happened just now?”
“I think you just saved us both, but in a very dangerous way.”
“Void anima consumes other magics. Any other magics. That boom we heard? That was a spell bomb detonating. Somehow they found a way to get one through the defense grid. You reacted to the transmutation wave the bomb spread by creating a shield for us.” Taisen explained.
“This doesn’t make sense. Why would this all be happening now?” I demanded. Too much had changed too quickly and I felt like I was coming apart at the seams.
“I don’t know. I’m not a senior agent. I just know that I have to report this. All of this. You most especially.” Taisen said.
“Me? Why? Because I have some weird anima condition? Why not the city? Why not get the Crystal Empress to come here and stop whoever’s bombing us.”
“We’re outside her dominion. By the time a ship gets here, this will all be over.”
“Then what does it matter! We’ll all be dead!” I yelled at him. I wasn’t giving him a fair break, but, if I knew one thing, it was that life wasn’t fair.
“No. My shelter is well hidden. We can stay in there and be safe. The bombs they’re using? Those have to be life extinguishers. There was no damage done to the clinic, just the people. They’re not going to be looking for survivors. We can wait for them to go. Once they leave, we can be picked up by the Empress’ forces.” Taisen offered.
It wasn’t even vaguely tempting.
“The people? They’re the only thing I care about here! If I can defend myself then I’m not staying. I’ve got to see if anyone I know survived!” I told him. I felt anger seething within me at the thought of what had happened. Taisen’s eyes went wide at my words but he was focused on my hands, not my lips. From my left hand, dark smoke was steaming forth.
“I’m leaving. Make your calls and hide in your shelter. Someone should survive today.” I told him. “And tell your Empress, if you see her, to murder the hell out of whoever was responsible this.”
Without waiting for him to reply, I spun and ran out of the door of the treatment room. I barely slowed in the reception area when I saw it covered in a grey film. Just like it had been in my vision.
The streets outside were grey as well.
I ran faster and aside from my own breathing and the slap of my shoes on the pavement, the city was silent. No hover car horns blaring. No crowds bustling. No birds screeching. Not even the wind. Just emptiness and grey everywhere.
I crossed street after street, directionless, just running, as the enormity of what had happened sank into me.
I was alone. Maybe in the whole city. Maybe in the whole world. Except for Taisen. I slowed to a walk and let myself catch my breath. I felt tremendously cold, but my body wasn’t shivering. I couldn’t feel my body much in fact. I felt disconnected from it. Disconnected from my whole life. In the grey, empty city, I might as well have been the one who was a ghost.
I’d felt like this before. I didn’t know when, but I knew the sensation of being utterly alone was one I’d experienced at some point. The end of the world was a place I was familiar with. I coughed out a short, barking laugh. Maybe it was my real home? Maybe it had come to take me back?
I could have gone crazy, but that would have been too easy. The cold that brought me back. It reminded me that I was alive. However screwed up things were, I was still breathing and I had to deal with that.
I moved forward. The city was huge. I’d run for minutes but that didn’t cover even a small fraction of it. There was more to see. Other places that might not have been affected by the spell bombs.
I’d recovered most of my breath during my little meltdown, so I started jogging again. The holo taxi had dropped me off miles away from anywhere that I knew but I was familiar with the major landmarks of the city. Since the bombs had left structures intact that meant I was able to navigate without much trouble.
I considered taking one of the holocars that were in the streets. Some had plowed into buildings or each other but with the general gridlock of the evacuation none were very damaged. Unfortunately they were all spell locked to their owners. If I was a career criminal and could cast spells worth a damn I might have picked up how to break a spell lock or, even better, reset one to accept me as a legitimate user. Since neither of those were true, I had to make due with jogging past the hundreds of perfectly serviceable vehicles lining the roads.
The jogging wasn’t bad though. Moving my legs and feeling the breath in my lungs helped. I knew Belstarius wasn’t the first world to have suffered an orbital attack like this. Other cities had been destroyed and there were almost always survivors. I wasn’t the first girl in history to be in this sort of situation and I was better off than a lot of others would have been. I hadn’t been injured in the attack and I was still benefiting from the mending spell that Taisen had cast, feeling stronger all the time.
Then there was the issue of the Void anima.
Assuming Taisen wasn’t insane or lying, I had some kind of protection and maybe a weapon that I could draw on. Without any training in Void magic, I knew it wasn’t something I could depend on though, but it helped me hold back the terror of thinking about another bomb dropping.
Instead, I thought about Taisen as I ran. He didn’t seem like a nutcase, but the whole “I’m an agent of the Crystal Empress” thing had been kind of crazy. Belstarius was an unaligned border world. We weren’t on the wild frontier but we also weren’t particularly noteworthy either. Far from anywhere important, no special resources, no special history. No reason for the Crystal Empress to have any interest in us.
Even presuming she (or her underlings) did station agents on planets like Belstarius, I couldn’t imagine how tiny the chances were that I’d run into one of them right before the city came under attack for the first time in ever.
The safest assumption was that Taisen was delusional, but that didn’t feel right. He’d seemed sincere. Thinking about that, I felt a pang of guilt at leaving him behind. The guy was probably trying to help me, but sitting locked away in vault would have driven me completely insane. I couldn’t hide from what had happened. I had to know.
My resolve on that was tested a couple of minutes later when I noticed the signs for one of the city’s shelters. I slowed and then stopped, uncertain of whether I had what it would take to handle the things I might find inside.
“I’ve got to know.” I whispered thinking more about myself than the unknowns who would have been in the shelter when the bombs hit.
I felt magic as I walked forward. I wasn’t adept at sensing anima, I was just guessing, but the strange, buzzing hum of power that sang along my skin as I drew close to the shelter couldn’t have been anything else. I knew I was approaching something dangerous, but I wasn’t afraid. Whatever was waiting in there didn’t have any claim on me. I felt untouchable as I pressed forward through the curling, invisible wisps of power that were leaking from the shelter.
That didn’t seem like a safe mindset to have, so I forced myself to stop and take stock of the area. The shelter was below ground with the entrance sloping down about twenty feet from street level to the main gate. Slate grey, ensorcelled bricks lined the walls and road leading to the shelter. If it had been in active lockdown, they would have burned with a brilliant red light. The runes were dark though indicating that the defenses weren’t fully active and it was safe to approach the shelter. Even the iron gate, wrought with hexagrams and protective circles, was inviting since it was swung completely open.
Just like it would have been if people were still streaming into it.
Beyond the gate, the lights were on in the shelter but there was no movement. Knowing I wouldn’t find anything more inside the shelter than I had on the streets I walked forward. All I had to do was look inside to be sure, but I was fighting myself. Not for any special mystical or deep reason. I was just scared as hell.
I wasn’t wrong to be either.
Looking in to the shelter I saw that it was as empty and grey as I’d expected it to be. That gave me the courage to step over the threshold. The one that still had an active anima field going.
The moment I breeched the shelter’s constraining field, I felt a blast of pure force hit me and a thousand screaming voices echo in my ears. The blow felt like it should have knocked me across the street and through a few buildings but instead I felt it drain through me, like I was a conduit to the earth beneath my feet.
The voices remained longer though. So many, screaming so loudly, but I was apart from them. Their pain didn’t reach me any more than the physical blow had.
“It’s ok.” I said aloud, speaking to the ghosts that were only in my mind from everything I could see. The screams grew softer and some of the voices grew quiet.
“It’ll be ok.” I repeated, believing it for no good reason whatsoever.
“I wasn’t done yet.”
“I never got to tell him.”
“How could this happen.”
“We did what we were supposed to.”
The cacophony of screams turned to pleading and requests, bargaining and denials. That made it so much worse. They wanted answers and I had none.
I stumbled away from the shelter but the voices didn’t grow any more distant.
I ran again for a while, hearing the echoes of people, young and old. I wasn’t running to anywhere consciously and I wasn’t running to get away from them. I just couldn’t stand still, couldn’t do nothing, while their voices rang through me. I didn’t want to find the ghosts of the people I knew. I didn’t want to hear their voices added to the chorus in my mind but that’s where some part of me was pointing my feet.
Home was too far away though and the voices too disorienting. I collapsed on the way there and lay on the ground, listening as the voices poured out their fading memories.
“What do you want?” I asked in a whisper.
The voices went silent for a long moment.
“Restore us.” a man said. He had been in his prime with a family and everything to live for.
“I can’t. I don’t have that kind of magic.” I said.
“Avenge us.” a woman said. She had been one of the city guards, a protector who hadn’t been able to defend those put in her charge.
“I don’t know who did this, and I’m just one girl. I can’t fight a battleship.” I said.
“Remember us.” a child said.
And then they were gone.