When an animal encounters a predator, it will react in predictable ways. The first response is usually to seek to put as much distance between itself and its enemy as possible. Then it will bare its teeth or claws and try to make itself seem too threatening to mess with, unless it chooses the opposite route of playing dead.
Pretending to be non-threatening had never worked for me, so I tended to go for the claws and teeth approach by instinct. That’s how I found myself out of the bed I was in and pressed into the corner of the small room where everyone had gathered. What was new was that my hands were burning with a brilliant light and that I’d moved so fast I had no memory of crossing the distance from the bed.
“I told you we shouldn’t have had him in here.” Master Hanq said. He was glaring at the commander boy who was strapped to chair on the other side of the room.
“You also said she was going to be ok.” the offworld girl said. She was the nearest one to me. I registered the anima blade, or really the anima sword, that she held in her hands before I processed much else about her. My body shivered in revulsion at the sight of it. I was trying to repress the memories of what the soldier’s anima knife had done to me, but the glowing sword the girl held was making that difficult.
“Yael, sheath that.” the older woman said. I glanced at her but it wasn’t till the girl put the blade away that I was able to take my eyes off it and see who I was dealing with.
The older woman wasn’t that old, maybe in her early thirties assuming she was as human as she appeared to be. She was wearing a dark brown traveling cloak and a leather jerkin and breeches in a lighter shade of brown. Her blonde hair was cut at shoulder length and the clasp on her cloak was a silver medallion with a blue jewel in it. She was about my height, so fairly tall, and, due to the clothing she wore, it was hard to tell if her thin build was a sign of slender frailty or carefully developed muscles. Judging by the softness of her face and the kindly expression she wore, I wasn’t going to bet on muscles, but something told me I didn’t want to mess with her anyways.
Yael, the younger girl, on the other hand seemed like she was spoiling for a fight. She was shorter than me but stockier. Her clothes were the same as the older woman’s which suggested they was some kind of uniform, but the outfits didn’t look like from any military I was familiar with. The scowl on the girl’s face made me wonder if I’d kicked her in the teeth, repeatedly, at some point. On the chance that I hadn’t yet, I decided I should probably be ready to do so in the future since it looked like she was one good excuse away from drawing that anima sword again.
Behind them, I saw both Master Hanq and Taisen watching me. They’d been standing near the bed I’d been laying on, but in jumping away from the boy’s voice I’d put myself on the opposite side of the room from them.
Master Hanq rolled his eyes at me, making me feel a little foolish for overreacting. The knowing smile that adorned his broad, dark face also told me that he’d more or less expected me to react as I had. I noticed he’d positioned himself between the boy and I, though I’m not sure if that was for my benefit or the boy’s.
Taisen meanwhile was looking sort of panicked. It was a cute look for him. If I had to guess, I’d say that despite being a physical anima prodigy, he had probably the least fighting experience of anyone in the room, given how out of his depth he looked.
Then there was the commander boy. His robes betrayed the fact that he’d taken a fairly serious beating recently. His face looked fine, flawless in fact, but where he could heal his injuries with anima, fixing his clothes would have taken more freedom of movement than they’d allowed him.
“What is going on here.” I asked, calming down to the point where rational thought became possible again.
“We’re hiding from the troops of Warlord Karr Khan until nightfall. Then we’re going to get out of the city.” the woman said.
“Who are you?” I asked, my tone neutral.
“My name is Opal Kinsguard. You’ve met Healer Taisen already I believe, and this is my apprentice Yael.”
“What about him?” I felt my teeth grit against each other as I asked.
“I am Akell of the Third Scion Circle of Karr Khan. You may all address me as Master.” the boy said, the smug superiority of his tone at odds with his apparent predicament.
“Well, except of course for you sister.” he added. “You may address me as ‘Senior Scion’.”
“I’m not your sister.” I said. I knew that he was baiting me. Probably out of some kind of deathwish. I held myself back, but the glow that had disappeared from my hands began to crackle along my fingers again.
“Is there a reason we haven’t gagged him yet?” Yael asked. I revised my opinion of her upwards several notches.
“That wouldn’t be a civil way to treat a dignitary of his rank.” Opal said. There was something about the way she said it and the sparkle in her eye that struck me as odd. It took a moment for me to see it, but looking at the smile that snuck onto Akell’s face at her words made it clear. She was playing him. On some level he probably knew it too, but his title meant something to him and he expected it to mean something to the people he met, so he couldn’t help but buy into her deference a bit.
“If you seek to parlay with the Undying Warlord for your survival you would be wise to release me from these restraints immediately.” Akell said.
“I’m afraid we can’t do that. We need to understand why Karr Khan has assaulted this world first.” Opal said.
“Why to reclaim our lost sister of course.” Akell said. Even I could tell he was lying about that.
“And the assault on the city?” Opal asked calmly.
“It was an expensive trip to make. The Undying Warlord required some tribute from this world as well.” Akell said.
“Your troops are soul siphoning the ghosts that remain imprisoned within the shelter wards in the city.” Yael accused Akell. It made a sick kind of sense.
I’d been blasted with the anima remnants of the people who’d died in the shelter I’d visited. The wards that were set to keep attacks out had also held the ghosts in. That meant the shelters were essentially enormous anima batteries that could be drained and stored if you had access to the right tools and rituals.
“Of course. It’s not like the former hosts have any need of that anima any more.” Akell said without shame or remorse.
“You murderer.” Yael growled and drew her anima blade again.
“Stay your hand Yael.” Opal commanded her apprentice in a soft voice.
“Why?” I asked. Everyone turned to look at me so I clarified my statement. “Why is he still breathing.”
“Because he is going to tell us what we need to know. And because he is going help us stop Karr Khan the Undying Warlord once and for all.” Opal said.
“Yes, of course, that seems very likely.” Akell said, his voice dripping with sarcasm.
“You might want to consider what happens if the rest of us stop believing the nice lady there.” Master Hanq said. He didn’t have to flex his arms, or crack his knuckles. He was totally relaxed and yet the implied threat in his words came across as a clear and certain promise.
“You’ll kill me? Do you know what the Undying Warlord does to those who harm his Scions? Slay me and you will spend a century begging for death. As will everyone you have ever known or cared about.” Akell said.
“You will want to consider the fate of your brother Scions Jakeet and Magikel.” Opal said.
“Those fools? They ran afoul of the Crystal Empress. The Undying Warlord will make her pay for their deaths when the time is right.” Akell said, his voice turning harsh.
“Oh they’re not dead at all. Didn’t you know that?” Opal asked. “No I suppose he wouldn’t have told you. That would be kept from the any but the First Circle Scions I imagine.”
“You’re lying, and you’re quite poor at it.” Akell said.
“Am I? Would you like to see them? I have a message from Jakeet that he asked me to deliver to any of his ‘siblings’ that I might run into.” Opal said. She walked over to Akell and placed her index finger on his forehead.
Whatever happened next was something that only Akell, and possibly Opal, saw. They were still and silent for a long moment before either stirred.
“That’s not possible. You lying witch. I will kill you myself.” Akell snarled.
“You’ve had a long day, and this is a lot of absorb. Sleep now.” Opal commanded and Akell went suddenly limp.
“Taisen, would you move him to the next apartment over. He should sleep for the next few hours, but I don’t want to chance him waking early and overhearing anything we don’t want him to.” Opal said.
“Certainly.” Taisen said with a deferential bow. He then wheeled the sleeping Akell out of the room we were in.
“Were you able to get what you were looking for?” Master Hanq asked Opal.
“Most of it. I’ll need to meditate for a few minutes to piece it all together. Why don’t you bring your student up to date on what had transpired. I can see she has a crowd of questions lurking in her mind and they’re better answered coming from someone she knows.” Opal said.
“What should I do?” Yael asked. She’d put away her sword but it didn’t mean she looked any less dangerous.
“Focus on the illusion you’re casting. We need to be overlooked here and Karr Khan’s forces will have trackers out searching for Akell, even if he is just a minor member of the clan.” Opal instructed. Yael nodded and together the two left the room to meditate.
Master Hanq gave up leaning against the opposite wall of the room and came over to sit down beside me as I collapsed to the floor.
“So what would you like to know?” he asked me.
“Everything.” I said.
“That’s a tall order.” Master Hanq said.
“Who are these people?” I asked.
“Agents of the Crystal Empress. Ruby Guardians, unless I miss my guess.” Master Hanq said.
“Seriously? Taisen was telling the truth about that?” Of all the unbelievable things I’d experienced in the last several hours, that one held the special place of being the first that had completely crossed the line of plausibility.
“Taisen’s the cleric they have with them right? Then, yep, he was telling the truth. They’re really with the Ruby Guard. Or at least Opal and Yael are. I don’t know about the cleric. He doesn’t seem to have the training for it.”
“What are they doing here?” I asked.
“They came looking for you.”
“The cleric said he’d been treating you and that you saved him from the spell bomb. He wouldn’t say anything more, but it’s kind of obvious why he was excited to see you.” Master Hanq said.
“He thinks you’re cute.” my teacher said. I felt a blush creep up to the tip of my ears. I knew Master Hanq was just teasing me, but it still felt weird. I didn’t talk about boys with him. For that matter I didn’t talk about boys with much of anyone. Not even the cute ones.
“And he knows about the way you can use Void anima.” he said, more seriously.
My heart sank at that. Among the memories I was trying to repress, that was one of the biggest and most unpleasant ones.
“I guess everyone saw that.” I said, feeling ashamed.
“You want to talk about it?”
“Not yet. I don’t even want to think about it.” I said.
“When you’re ready then.” Master Hanq said.
I wrestled with myself for a moment. There was a lot I wanted to know about what I’d done and about what I could do, but losing control like I had was terrifying. The image of Master Hanq withered and dead like the soldiers flickered through my mind and I wanted to throw up.
I waited for Master Hanq to break the silence. To help me pretend nothing was different. He keep silent though. He wasn’t going to insist I tackle this, but he wasn’t going to help me run away from it either.
“What about that daughter of the Undying Warlord thing? What was that about?” I asked him.
“It’s a Karr Khan thing. Supposedly the original one was the guy who first figured out how to work with void anima. The whole clan’s crazy. They think that that everyone who can use void anima is descended from him.” Master Hanq said.
“How do you know about them?”
“Believe it or not I had a life before I started training little knee biters how to bust people’s heads.”
“I’ve always wondered about that.” I said.
“Oh trust me, you don’t want to listen to an old guy like me tell old war stories.”
“Don’t suppose they’d have any fights like the one you had with Akell there would they?”
Master Hanq snorted.
“Him? Was that supposed to be a fight? I’ve had longer warm ups than that. Of course part of that was Opal and Yael showing up when they did. I did the boy a favor by pummeling him. Pretty sure Yael would have beheaded him if he’d still been fighting when she got to him.”
“You said they were Ruby Guardians, what’s the deal with that?” I asked.
“They’re the Crystal Empresses special forces.”
“How special can they be, Yael’s my age isn’t she?”
“They usually operate solo.” Master Hanq explained.
“So how strong are we talking about. Could you take one?” I asked.
“I’ve seen one of them take down three Warlords at once back in the day. The warlords didn’t even lay a hand on him.” Master Hanq said.
“How did that happen? I thought the old warlords were super tough. Didn’t they have to fight their way to the top of the pile?”
“They did. These three weren’t the strongest or the best warlords out there but they were pretty good. Young enough to be strong, confident enough to not hold back, and just stupid enough to believe that they were invincible.” Master Hanq said.
“You’d think they’d have known better after the Empress kicked their butts out of known space.”
“I mentioned the stupid part right?” Master Hanq said.
“So why are they here? For me? How did they even know how to find me?” I asked.
“The cleric told them. You filled out some paperwork at his office right?”
“Oh yeah. I guess this would be only place they’d know to look for me. What about Akell though? How did he know to be here?”
“I don’t know. He didn’t get chatty until you woke up.”
“Yeah, thanks for that by the way. That’s just what I needed to wake up to.” I frowned.
“My apologies.” Opal said as she returned. “I needed him to be distracted so that I could probe his recent memories.”
“You’re a mentalist?” I asked. Casters who worked with Mind anima weren’t as common as the ones who worked with physical anima, and most of them were specialized for enhancing their own mental capabilities. Being able to actually read other people’s minds was a rare and creepy gift.
“Among other things, yes.” Opal said.
“What did you see in the boy’s mind?” Master Hanq asked.
“He was here for Mel, but that’s not why the Karr Khan’s forces are here.” she said.
“Tell me something I don’t know.” Master Hanq said.
“They think this world holds the key to destroying the Empress and claiming control of the worlds that are under her protection.” Opal said.
“Are they crazy?” I asked.
“Yes, but I’m also afraid they might be right.”