Beyond a certain level, pain isn’t something you can fight. The body just shuts down. That’s what I expected to feel as I fell away from the soldier’s bloody knife. The pain didn’t come though. The weakness didn’t either. There wasn’t even fear. All I felt was emptiness. I was so removed from what had happened that it felt like I was standing outside my own body.
I watched like an external observer as “Mel’s body” stumbled away from the soldier. The soldier leapt back to gauge the result of his attacks, but it was clear that they’d done their job.
“Mel” wasn’t breathing. “Her” limbs weren’t working. I’m not sure her heart was beating.
I wasn’t afraid though. I couldn’t process what was happening well enough to be afraid.
I pulled my hands away from my chest and again it was like watching someone else. Some part of me expected them to look normal. That part needed to see the blood to believe it was real. The rest of me wanted to look away though. That side of me, that could feel the pain, that wasn’t crushed under denial and shock, knew all too well what the soldier’s anima blade had done. Neither side of me was ready for what I actually saw though.
There was no mistaking that there was blood on my hands.
But it wasn’t red.
What my hands came away drenched in was something inhuman. It was alive on its own. It flowed down my arms, crawling over me and unevenly covering my forearms. My vision blurred as though I was crying, and then darkened like night had fallen.
There was something wrong with me. I felt a wave of revulsion and panic sweep over me as my emotions caught up to what was happening. Then I watch as my blood covered hands curled into claws.
I didn’t want to die.
I knew that more than I knew anything else in the world. It was the only thing that I knew in that moment. As the world grew dark and dim and faded away from me, I knew that I didn’t want to leave it. No matter what I wanted to live.
“Mel’s body” rose to her feet. That was terrifying. I hadn’t tried to get up. In fact, I wasn’t in control at all. Whatever was moving the arms and legs that had been mine, it wasn’t me. I tried to fight it, to make my body run, but instead I moved forward.
In the darkness that had fallen over the world, I made out a brilliant light nearby. It was warm and red and vital. I watched as it flickered towards my body. My left arm raised of its own accord and caught the flickering light. Except my arm no longer looked human at all. In place of smooth skin, my arm was covered in a dark carapace that ended in a sharp, serrated talon.
I tried to blink, and while I wasn’t able to move my eyelids, my vision did clear. For just a moment I saw the world as it was. My arm was encased in a field of dark anima and I had caught the soldier as he tried confirm his kill.
I watched as he slashed at my arm to free himself. The anima knife shattered and I felt its power flow into me. More anima poured in after it.
I was injured, my physical anima was literally bleeding out of me faster than it could repair the damage that I’d sustained. Alone there was no way for me to recover from the injuries I’d sustained.
But I wasn’t alone.
My vision faded back to dimness and I saw the soldier as nothing more than a strong vital flame. One with so much life to draw on.
When I’d sucker punched Badz with a wooden plank to the head, I’d done so because of what he’d been planning to do with Laz. Guys like Badz, Davos and Maraz have plenty of physical anima, but in their line of work plenty is never enough.
One way to get more is to train and practice and work hard to build it up. That way offers the best long term rewards, with Master Hanq being a prime example of how far natural talent and hard work can take you. Badz, Davos and Maraz wouldn’t have been the thugs they were if they believed in getting ahead by hard work though. They opted for the faster, easier path to power; stealing it from others.
There’s a number of ways you can take magic from other people. I’d read up on them as a kid thinking I could find some easy way to reverse my terrible anima scores. Unfortunately none of the options for stealing someone else’s power were what you might call “nice”.
Badz and his crew used “soul reapers” – devices that ripped the magic right out of their victims. The people who were drained suffered symptoms similar to a severe flu. There were rituals that could establish more permanent conduits but they were difficult to setup and usually required a willing donor.
What I did to the soldier had nothing to do with a willing donor, but it was quite permanent nonetheless.
In my dimmed vision, the flickering flame sputtered and strained away from me. It couldn’t escape though. In great, delicious gulps, the flame rushed into me. My ears rang with screams that gurgled into an inhuman sound and a laughter that somehow sounded even more alien.
I blinked again, trying to find some kind of control. I was stronger, I could feel my wounds fading into memories, but the thing that had control of my body was far bigger than me. I saw other flames nearby and my body reacted with a beastial hunger. Before it bounded away after the nearest flame, I caught sight of what the soldier who’d attacked me really looked like.
I knew he’d be dead. The flame I’d seen was his anima, all of his anima, and I’d consumed it. What was left of him was barely recognizable. The corpse was withered and shrunken, like a piece of fruit that had shriveled in the sun for years. Without his uniform to identify him, I might not have been able to tell he’d even been human once.
I fell on the next flame as it charged at me and looked away. I didn’t want to see what was really happening anymore. However tightly I shut my eyes though I couldn’t block out the screaming or the laughter.
I’d wanted to hurt them, to pay the invaders back for the murder of a city, but that wasn’t what this was about. This was about taking everything from them because I was hungry. I’d needed the first soldier’s power to save my life. As I ripped everything vital out of the second soldier I was filling a different need though.
I’d spent my life feeling powerless compared to the people around me. It didn’t matter that the stolen anima wouldn’t remain with me. All that mattered was that I’d tasted power and I needed more. I needed enough that I would never be hurt by anyone again.
I couldn’t stop myself from tearing the life out of the second soldier. I hated them too much, and there was a part of me that felt like they deserved this. The laughter bothered me though. I couldn’t figure out why they were laughing while something so terrible was happening to them.
They weren’t of course. From the moment I got my hands on them all they could do was scream, and even that was short lived. The only one who could be making the mad, alien sounds that followed the screams was me.
I tried to stop that, to struggle back to myself enough to at least touch on sanity again. The laughter only grew louder though. That’s when I found something to be afraid of that penetrated even the dark haze I was smothered by.
I was hungry for power, for life, and I couldn’t stop taking it. I knew as I listened to my laughter that I wasn’t going to stop with the invaders. I was going to consume all of the life that I could find. I was in a dead city so there weren’t that many people that could be harmed. Only Master Hanq, the Sisters and the children who’d survived the bombs.
The first soldier’s life had given me back my health and had charged up me up stronger than I’d ever been. The second soldier’s life added everything he was on top of what I’d become. I was faster, stronger, tough and more powerful than either of us had been. With that much raw energy at my disposal, I didn’t know if Master Hanq would be able to stop me and by the time I was done with the rest of the elite team I wasn’t sure anything could stand against me.
I felt a third flame drain into me and forced my vision back to the mundane. I was terrified that I’d just killed the one man who’d ever wasted any time on me. It was almost a relief to watch another of the soldiers turn into a mummified husk in my grasp rather than Master Hanq like I’d feared.
That relief turned to horror as I caught sight of two other flames. One was an enemy, the boy in the robes, the commander of the expedition. The other was Master Hanq. The hunger in me went wild watching them in action. Physical anima and energetic anima flashed around and between them like a lightning storm.
For Mel, the girl I’d been, this was the greatest exhibit of martial anima prowess that I’d ever seen. Master Hanq had years of experience and dedication to the craft and was clearly the superior of the two fighters. The robed boy, while overmatched was not completely on the ropes though. His style was deadly and precise. What he lacked in experience, he compensated for in vigor and speed. In its own way, there was beauty and grace to their battle.
Whatever was controlling my body saw none of that however. All it saw was an answer to its insatiable hunger, a chance to have enough power that it would be safe at last. I tried to cry out, to warn them of what was coming, but I couldn’t make a sound as I sprinted forward to tear into both of them.
“You don’t want to do that.” a woman said in a soft and gentle voice.
I tried to spin to see who it was, and my body followed, all parts of me in agreement on that action. There was no light beside me, no person standing there.
“I don’t think you’re that far gone yet.” the woman said, encouragement in her voice.
I spun again. The only lights I could see were Master Hanq and the boy. The Sisters and the children had escaped indoors and were probably fleeing to another building already.
“Will you let me help you?” the woman asked.
I felt my arms lash out and hit nothing but empty air.
“Sleep for now then. We’ll work this out once you’re back to yourself.” she said.
With her words came a tendril of blue fire. The void anima in me reach up to consume it and I felt it filter out through the darkness in me and pull me completely under, away from all the cares and worries and terror of the world.
I would have liked to stay in that guilt-free, panic-free, pain-free state, but that’s not the way life works. After what felt like less than a moment, the harsh, cruel world beckoned me back.
“She’s coming back around now.” I heard Taisen say. It took me a moment to place his voice and I only managed it because I thought I’d been dreaming about him.
“You’re sure she’s not going to try to kill us?” someone asked. I didn’t recognize the voice, but I could place it as an girl from offworld by her accent.
“I make no promises.” the woman who knocked me out said. There was a light, friendliness to her tone that made it clear she didn’t truly believe I was a threat.
“She’ll be fine. Won’t you Mel?” Master Hanq asked.
I opened my eyes at that. So many surprises greeted me, first and foremost of which being that I was seeing just the normal, mundane world. No weird dark haze at all.
The second, even more welcome, surprise was that I had control of myself again.
“You’re…I’m…” I stammered, trying to take everything in.
“Just fine.” Master Hanq repeated, a big smile breaking across his wide face.
“Why wouldn’t she be? She is the daughter of the Undying Warlord after all.” the boy who’d lead the expedition of invaders said.