The wrong thing to do after sucker punching someone is to stand over them gawking at what might be their corpse. There was so much that didn’t compute about the soldier lying at my feet though that I couldn’t manage much of anything else for a few heartbeats after I put him there.
Fear once again came to the rescue. I knew with bone deep certainty that if I hung around I was going to be found and then killed in short order. That got me in motion, at least mentally. A quick scan of the alley showed that I was still alone. The access cover to the sewers was where I expected it to be and in just as bad shape as I recalled. Getting in wasn’t going to be a problem.
I looked at the guy who’d tried to kill me next. I could take his bolt caster but, from what I knew of them, military bolt casters placed a heavier demand on their user’s physical anima in exchange for their increased stopping power. The chance I’d be able to use one seemed dismal at best. Worse, there could be anti-theft enchantments on it. Even a simple locator spell could lead to tragic consequences if it let the invaders follow me to any survivors of the bombings.
I considered trying to hide the soldier’s body, but the best I could come up with was to put him inside the shop I’d been in. It wasn’t much but if it delayed pursuit for a minute that might be all I needed. I grabbed soldier to try dragging him into the shop. I’d thought he’d be pretty brutal to lug around, especially with all his gear, but it turned out he was surprisingly light. That said “alien” to me, none of the species who’d set up camp on Belstarius were hollow boned the way the soldier seemed to be.
My focus on escape kept me from thinking too deeply on any of that however. Or on the fact that I’d probably just killed someone. There was a little conclave in the back of my mind debating on whether to feel righteously gleeful, terrified, ashamed, dirty or stoic about that issue but the overwhelming need to be somewhere else, or anywhere else as long as it was safe, kept that debate out of my conscious awareness.
Not that the sewers were that much more pleasant to contemplate.
There’d always been legends about the sewer tunnels, but most of them were just things the kids at the Sister’s orphanage made up to scare each other. I was too old to believe most of them, but I couldn’t deny that the sewers were a dangerous place.
They’d been laid down by hand, rather than direct spell working. Spell constructed buildings and utilities are generally of high quality, but also extremely expensive. Belstarius didn’t have that kind of money when it was being founded so the original settlers cut corners and used manual labor and machinery to put in a sewer system designed to service the grand capital that they imagined would someday grow up. That had worked out fairly well for them, or at least those of them who didn’t die during the construction.
That led to the most common myth the kids would tell; that the sewers were haunted by the dead workers who’d perished building each tunnel and cistern. Then there were the tales of the monsters who’d been bred for the sewers. Refuse eaters who weren’t so picky about whether the garbage they were ingested was still moving or not. Of the two, I knew the refuse eaters to be true though less sensational than stories made them out. The normal variety grew to the size of my arm and were shy creatures. They weren’t any threat or problem. The problem was the creatures that preyed on them.
In theory the predators were shy too. In practice that depended on how many people were in your group. Small teams who ventured into the sewers rarely found them. People who went searching for them solo on the other hand didn’t always come back.
“They’ll have to catch me first.” I whispered to myself.
The light from the shield I was holding on my right hand was enough to navigate the otherwise pitch black of the tunnels. It was also enough light to attract anything that was feeling hungry to me. Or the soldiers, if any of them thought to look below the streets they were searching. With my only other option being to run around bashing into walls blindly though I opted to take the risk and rely on speed to see me through. Predictably, I wasn’t that lucky.
I’d counted on being able to find my way to the street near the orphanage because the sewers were laid out in a simple grid pattern. That was true, but I hadn’t accounted for the presence of the “nests” that the predators had setup. I stumbled through one as I whipped around a corner and, as I was tripping over it, discovered that I’d come face to face with a sewer cat.
My momentum pitched me forward and I rolled up into a crouch about three arm lengths away from it. The creature was bigger than me, probably twice my weight and half again my height. It had the kind of speed that a human like me would need to burn a lot of physical anima to match. Lots of training could also get you there but, despite the years of martial instruction I’d scrounged out of my teacher, I wasn’t eager to put those skills to the test against a beast like the one in front of me. For one thing, it was packing the equivalent of four deadly daggers in each hand, plus a mouthful of razors. If it hit me, I’d be ripped to shreds. I felt a cold chill run through me at that thought.
Seeing the look in the sewer cat’s eyes, I knew I wasn’t going to have much of a vote in the question of whether we were going to fight. I’d kicked it in the head in the course of stumbling past it. It was more than a little annoyed.
And yet it didn’t attack me.
In fact it didn’t look at me, or even seem to register that I was there.
I tried moving my right hand. It didn’t flinch. I did though.
My hand wasn’t glowing anymore.
But I could still see ok.
Something was very wrong.
Looking at my hands, I saw that both of them were covered with wisps of black smoke. The smoke ran up my arms and played across my chest. I reached up to my cheek and brushed a wisp of smoke away from my face. My skin was cold to the touch.
A mewling grumble caught my attention and I saw an adorable little sewer cat kitten stick its head up out of the nest. The big cat, apparently the mother, was looking around too warily to pay attention to her offspring though. That shocked me even more. A mother defending her young should have ripped me to pieces already.
Not wanting to tempt fate any further I got to my feet and tip toed backwards away from the nest. The mother cat glanced at where I was a few times but her gaze didn’t linger on me any longer than it did anywhere else.
Once I got far enough away, I broke into another run, trusting whatever weird sight I’d acquired to not cut out and leave me in the dark. As I ran, it occurred to me that the sewer cats were a good sign. The shelters had been underground and were better defended than the sewers. If the sewer cats had survived that had to mean that the area I was traveling under hadn’t been hit by a bomb. The elation at that thought was short lived though. Less than a minute later I ran into an empty nest. I might have tried to make myself believe that it was just abandoned but the material of the nest was the same uniform grey as the dead areas I’d run through.
I exited the sewers a few minutes later, to find the city around me grey and lifeless as well. Overhead, another of the invaders’ transport ships streaked across the sky.
“I can at least get my stuff.” I told myself, trying again to push away the vision of what the orphanage would look like. I wasn’t successful at that, but I couldn’t survive on what I was carrying with me, so I was able to push myself towards home despite the mounting emotional pressure that wanted to keep me away.
When I arrived at the orphanage I saw both my worst fear and my best hope mixed together. Half of the dormitory was grey, but the other half was still the melange of cheap paints that it had always been. It took me a second to figure out what had happened.
“The bombs. They were right on the edge of the one of the bombs!” My breath was coming fast and irregular and I could feel my hands shaking. “Someone’s alive. Someone had to have survived.”
We didn’t have a nearby municipal shelter, so the dormitories were set up with sub-basements that served as our “shelters”. They didn’t have the spell wards to keep anyone out. In fact they barely had any supplies of food or water. That wasn’t enough to weather a long term siege but it meant that anyone who’d taken refuge in the sub-basements would still be there.
I broke from the cover of the building that I’d been peeking around just in time for one of the invaders’ ships to come screaming down into the empty lot besides the dormitories. I couldn’t tell if they’d seen me but I dashed back behind the nearest corner for cover anyways.
Cursing every grace the Sisters had ever tried to teach me about, I glanced back around the corner to watch what was happening. The good news was that it wasn’t one of the big troop transports that had landed. The bad news was that it looked like a personal ship instead, though it bore some of the same insignia as the soldiers I’d encountered had.
Taisen had said he’d checked me for curses and hadn’t found any. I was finding that increasingly unlikely. However good his mending spell was, I was inclined to believe he absolutely sucked at noticing curses. There was no other reason I could conceive of that I would run into someone important enough to have their own ship when I was a stone’s throw from home.
The exit ramp from the small flyer descended and a squad of a half dozen soldiers in combat armor exited. Behind them came a human boy. He was in his late teens and was wearing a long red robe with a grey mantle that hung down to his mid chest. His hair was dark and pulled back in a braided ponytail.
“Damn, one landed too close.” the boy said, looking at the dividing line of grey and color on the dormitories.
“Search the buildings.” he directed the troops. “Assemble any survivors here.”
“Orders if we encounter resistance sir?” the squad leader asked.
“They need to be alive. I don’t care what shape they’re in beyond that, just make it quick.” the boy said. He made a gesture with his hand that cut off any further discussion and the soldiers hurried into the nearest dormitory in an attack formation.
The order to keep their soon-to-be captives alive gave me some hope, but it was tainted by knowing the kinds of things that could be done to live prisoners. The invaders hadn’t hesitated in killing millions in the capital city. There was no reason to think they’d be any more merciful to the people who’d happened to survive.
It also wasn’t comforting to hear that a bomb had landed “too close” to the dormitories. That meant they’d known of its existence and that it had factored into their plans. Given what had been happening with me, I had to believe that some part of their plans had centered around me.
That left me with the question of what I was going to do about it. Unfortunately the only answer I could come up with was “not much”. The boy was on his own and only wearing robes rather than combat armor. A much dumber girl than I might have assumed that he was therefore an easy target. I knew better. In addition to my physical training, my martial teacher had taught me about evaluating people who were picking a fight with you, or who you wanted to pick a fight with.
The robes the boy wore weren’t a sign that he was vulnerable. They were a sign that he didn’t need combat armor because his shields were just that good. He was around my age and if he was naturally gifted and had been trained extensively since he was young it was likely that he was more dangerous than the entire squad of soldiers that he commanded combined.
A part of me wanted to try taking him on anyways. Between the training I had and the new things I seemed to be able to do, I had wonder if I could put up a good fight. Since the price of failure was either death or a fate worse than death, I was able to keep that particular impulse under control.
At least until they started bringing the kids out.
The soldiers hadn’t wasted time in finding them. They had them marching out the door less than ten minutes after they landed. The biggest ones went first, followed by the smaller ones, all lined up just like the Sister’s had us stand when we were going somewhere as a group. At the end of the line walked four of the Sisters. The four who looked after the younger classes. The classes that were on the living side of the dormitories.
I bit back a cry of rage and more tears. There weren’t many kids my age in the dormitories, most had moved out or moved on. There were some girls I hated who were a year younger, a few boys who I mostly ignored because they were both ugly and idiots and a small group of boys and girls who I got along well enough with that we could say hi without it being a challenge of some kind. It was the ones a couple years or more younger than I was that I liked the most. They were a good group of kids.
Or they had been.
And the Sisters who’d looked after us. Who would have been taking care of getting their charges into the proper rooms. I’d hated them, but I’d loved them too. They were harsh and unforgiving. We were as much a burden on them as anything else, but in their own way they’d cared about us. In all the universe, they were the only ones who cared about us really.
That was over though. They were gone. The kids near my age. The Sisters who looked over us. All of them. Erased.
I thought of walking into the grey dormitory and meeting their ghosts and I started shaking uncontrollably. I watched as the soldiers had the kids and the Sisters kneel down for their leader to review. The prisoners had all been bound in restraints, so their arms were behind their backs. The boy in the robes walked up to each of them, cupped their chins in his hand and looked them in the eye for a moment.
“Not here. That’s not possible.” he said when he reached the end of the line. “Was this everyone?”
“Yes sir.” the squad leader answered.
“No.” the boy said and returned to the Sister at the end of the line. He grabbed her face again, harder than before. “Is this everyone? Or did one of them hide somewhere?”
She didn’t answer him. She didn’t have to. Even from several dozen feet away I could see the look of utter contempt on her face.
“You won’t talk. You think you’ve got nothing left to lose perhaps? Kill one of them.” the boy said. The order was casual but the effect was immediate. The squad leader charged his weapon and strode over to the nearest child.
Laz. The young boy I’d saved. His face was stained with tears but he looked up at his killer and he wasn’t crying anymore. He wasn’t pleading, or afraid, or angry. There was a look of quiet defiance in his eyes as the squad leader stepped towards him and brought his bolt caster up.
I started to move forward, knowing I was far too late to do any good. Knowing I was just going to die too. A squad plus someone with full wizard training was a death sentence to oppose unless you were a wizard yourself.
The children and the Sisters knew that too. If the wizard boy wanted their dignity though he was going to have to work a lot harder than just killing them to get it.
The cold rage I’d been holding in swept over me at the thought that this was how things were going to end and I promised myself that I would take at least one of them with me. For Laz if nothing else.
The squad leader never got to aim his caster at Laz though. A crack like thunder split the air as he was transfixed by a bolt of blue light. The charge that he had prepared in his bolt caster fired wildly into the sky as the soldier dropped lifeless to the ground.
“You don’t want to do that.” a deep, booming, wonderful voice called out from the top of the dormitory. Looking up I saw a man standing there. He was too far away and at the wrong angle for me see the lazy, confident grin on his face that I knew would be there. All I could make out were the orbs of blue fire that played around each of his massive outstretched arms.
I barely caught myself from cheering out loud. My teacher had shown up!