There’s nothing like prospect of imminent violence to motivate people to move quickly. Thanks to the warning Yael and I gave our side, we were ready when the first attacks hit the building we were hiding in. Opal and Master Hanq gathered us into the main living room of the apartment and had an anima shield projected around us before I knew what was happening.
“What will they start with?” Taisen asked. We were all back to back to be able to see the attack from whichever direction it came.
“Depends on how many of them there are and whether they want us alive for questioning.” Master Hanq responded.
“I see three, no, four transports landing.” Yael said. Her eyes were glowing with a silver light.
“Surrounding us?” Opal asked.
“Yes. There’s an opening on the north side of the building though. They don’t have anyone with line of sight on the door there.” Yael said.
“That’s the trap then.” Opal said.
“If they want us dead won’t they just setup off a spellbomb to kill us?” I asked.
“Good thing that we have you here then right?” Taisen tried to make a joke of it but his voice was too strained to convey any humor.
“They won’t use spellbombs. Their own troops are too close and they can’t be sure the bombs would work.” Opal said.
“If they want us alive, they’ll destroy the building to flush us out into the open. Easier to deploy snare spells there.” Master Hanq said.
“They’re sending teams in. At least six. The others are hanging back.” Yael said.
“So much for taking us alive then.” Master Hanq said.
“Most of us anyways.” Opal said, looking at me.
“I am not going to let them capture me.” I said. “Whatever it takes.”
The idea of losing control to the Void anima in me was terrifying but the idea of Akell’s people getting their hands on me was worse.
“Just for the record, if they capture me, I expect to be rescued before I miss my next meal.” Taisen said. There was more humor in his voice, but I couldn’t tell if that was because he had more hope or less.
I didn’t have long to think about that though. I was just about to ask Master Hanq what they were going to hit us with when the south facing wall of the apartment building exploded inwards.
Whoever owned the apartment had a sparse decorator. That helped since it meant there was less debris that slammed into the anima shield which covered us. Between Opal and Master Hanq’s skill, we felt none of that blast though I could see it had demolished the room from the shattered bits that lay around the edge of the shield’s dome. I tensed for the next explosion but the smoke outside the anima shield was thick enough there was no chance I was going to see it coming. I didn’t need to be able to see however to hear the crack of anima bolts being fired at us.
“Their commander’s a novice.” Opal said.
“I always enjoy educating the young.” Master Hanq.
I glanced around to see what he was talking about and noticed that the our shield was holding the anima bolts that the casters had fired at us suspended in midair. Master Hanq drew his arms into his chest and then shot both palms outwards toward our unseen enemy. The bolts that had been caught by the shield flared back in the direction they came. I heard screams from the distance and the continuous hail of bolt caster fire ended.
“It’s unwise to use projected anima attacks against a sufficiently skilled caster.” Opal said, sounding like she’d donned her teaching hat for a moment.
“Guess Akell hadn’t mentioned us when he called back to base.” Master Hanq said.
“Yes. He probably only mentioned that Mel was here and that they should come pick her up. The poor foolish boy, he’s digging himself in so much deeper.” Opal said with a pleased smile. She might not have explicitly planned for that but things were clearly moving the way she’d hoped they would.
“What will they do next?” Yael asked.
“If they’re smart they’ll send in their best casters and have them equipped for close in work.” Master Hanq said. He began affixing a new gem to his right hand, while Opal took over both sides of the anima shield. She had just raised her hands to support the glowing sphere when an impossibly loud explosion detonated against the shield.
I felt myself lifted into the air and flung against Taisen. The edge of the anima shield bashed into me and the whole group of us tumbled end over end. I spun back to my feet as soon as we stopped moving and felt a wave of dizziness pass over me. It was a familiar feeling. I’d felt that way lots of times when I took a hard hit to the head. The only difference this time was that that the loopyness faded quicker than usual. I mentally blamed that bit of good fortune on Taisen, and assumed he was radiating a mending aura or something else “healery” like that.
I looked around to get my bearings and found that we had been blasted out of the apartment entirely. None of us seemed to be damaged but the anima shield was fizzling out as I watched.
“Or they’ll do that.” Master Hanq said, picking himself up.
“Hellbreacher missiles. I didn’t know Karr Khan had acquired enough of them to let his regular troops use them. That’s an unfortunate turn of events.” Opal said.
“We need to go on the offensive. They’ll blast up to pieces if we try to turtle up.” Master Hanq said.
“Agreed. Yael, watch after Healer Taisen and Ms. Wardsward.” Opal said as she drew her own anima blade. Unlike Yael’s and the soldier’s, Opal’s blade didn’t glow with the red light of Physical anima. Instead it shone with the blue aura of Mind anima. That meant even a small scratch could disable or stun her foes. A serious blow would leave their bodies alive but their minds would be extinguished. Anima blades are universally serious weapons, but Mind Anima struck me as particularly nasty to fight with. Given our current foes, that didn’t bother me too much though.
The last of the anima shield faded and Karr Khan’s forces swarmed onto us.
In retrospect, I wish I’d been able to watch that battle from a safe distance. Like orbit perhaps. It would have been an amazing learning experience to see people like Opal and Master Hanq in a real fight, if I wasn’t in real danger myself at the same time.
The troops that assaulted us wore the same elite guard uniforms that Akell’s squad had. There were, however, a lot more of them. That meant neither Master Hanq, nor Opal were holding back much. The troops were aware of that too though. For all their aggressiveness, they were covering each others openings and presenting a solid front to our two best fighters. Master Hanq and Opal had to be careful as well, though that was less for themselves and more to make sure that only a few of the troopers could engage with Yael at a time.
Watching Yael was a bit of an eye opener too. I’d been right that she would probably had mopped the floors with me if we’d come to blows. She moved as fast as the elites did, but with tighter and more precise motions. I could follow what she was doing, but on my best day it would have been hard to match the complex dance that she stepped through as she dodged, parried and struck at the soldiers to keep them off of Taisen and me.
Fights, even well managed ones, are the definition of chaos. Despite our best efforts we were separated within a couple mins. Master Hanq, Opal and Yael were handling the direct fighting, so I should have been able to observe the battle, follow its flow and call out the openings that would let us get back together. That would have worked fine if the soldiers hadn’t held a portion of their number back to act as snipers. They’d learned not to shoot at us randomly, but their commander was also smart enough to figure out that not everyone on our side could reflect their anima bolts back at them.
I caught sight of the commander standing on top of one of the nearby buildings. She was wearing the same kind of robes as Akell had been, which would have made her rank clear even if she hadn’t been calling order to the troops near her.
I yanked Taisen around the corner of the building that was a few steps away from us in time to hear a trio of bolt casters fire and the brickwork we’d hidden behind shatter. Yael followed us, holding back two of the soldiers were were pressing her fiercely.
“Taisen, how fast you can heal me if I get hurt?” I asked. It was a terrible idea, but I figured if he could mend my wounds quickly enough, I could take Yael’s place in holding the soldiers off. That would free her up to deal with the real threat. It would also mean that I’d get to experience pain in a way no one ever naturally could. As terrible ideas went, it deserved an award, probably one labeled “Gross Stupidity”, with the accent on both parts of the title.
“With your Void anima? I can’t.” he said.
“What do you mean, your last spell worked like a champ.” I told him.
“My last spell? Mel, the mending spell I cast on you shattered the instant I cast it. I don’t know if you can be healed with anima magics at all!” he said.
I tried to put that together with the healing I’d felt after I left the clinic. My thoughts were interrupted by a soldier’s scream as Yael speared him to the wall with her anima blade. That left her open to his companion but with a flick of her wrist she cast a bit of silver anima into his face and stepped easily out of the path of his attack. The soldier shook his head to clear his vision and then proceeded to attack thin air. He made a dozen slashing strikes and single thrust before rolling backwards. Yael would have sliced him in half but two other soldiers broke away from their fight with Opal to shield their companion.
It was a nice bit of work on the soldiers’ part. Too nice. The coordination they were showing was too smooth given the chaos of the battle. Even practiced fighters couldn’t keep an entire battlefield in their minds eyes, or be aware the instant that one of their number needed assistance. I looked up and saw the commander had moved to another building’s roof to keep us in sight. Her snipers were leaping over to join her as well. She was doing more than shouting orders. She was coordinating the battle on a deeper level than that.
“Yael. Commander across the street and up. She’s isolating us. You’ve got to take her out.” I yelled.
“If I leave, you’ll die.” she said.
“So it’s win-win, right?” I didn’t mean to make the joke, but I couldn’t help myself, especially since I figured there was a good chance I was going to die either way. Yael didn’t respond but I could almost hear her scowl. On the other hand though, she didn’t leave which said something.
Probably that she thought Taisen was cute too, and didn’t want to risk him getting skewered when my crazy plan fell apart.
I felt the chill of danger and looked up to see that the snipers on the rooftop had gotten into a firing position again. The three soldiers on the ground that were attacking Yael had her completely on the defensive. Master Hanq and Opal were both cut off from us by the squads of soldiers they were fighting. In short, our options for where to go and who we could defend against were being steadily whittled down.
Taisen stepped in front of me and raised an anima shield but the chill kept growing. He was last anima caster that we had and he was locked in place defending against the snipers. It was the only thing he could do, but I knew as he did it that it was a fatal mistake.
My breath stopped. One of us was going to die. It wasn’t a suspicion. I was certain of it. I blinked and my vision clicked over to the weird, darkened view of the world once more as time slowed before me.
Taisen wasn’t cute anymore. He was gorgeous. A boundless flame of physical anima. Any image I’d ever had of what an angel should look like was replaced by the being of radiant life that stood before me. It was hard to see the others, but Yael stood out due to her proximity. Her flame wasn’t as singular and awe-inspiring as Taisen’s was. Hers was a rich medley of different colors with red and silver in predominance. Compared to her, the soldiers that she fought were candle flames before a bonfire.
Around the two of them were spun threads of silver that lead back to the soldier’s commander. In fact there were threads around all of the flames I could see. It was like the commander was a puppeteer and everyone on the ground was dancing under her fingertips. It was another type of anima. Aetherial anima, though I’d never seen it before or heard it described like that. Watching the commander move though, I couldn’t imagine she was doing anything other than casting a spell. It wasn’t one that directly controlled people though, it just seemed to limit them and push them into certain paths.
The threads around Yael, slowed her if she attacked and hedged her into the path of the blows the soldiers threw at her. The one’s around the soldiers did the reverse. Other threads manipulated the environment in the same way, placing a rock under Yael’s feel or smoothing the path for one of the soldiers.
As she fought, Yael was weaving silver threads of her own, but with three enemies pressing hard against her, she didn’t have the freedom to create as complex a series of patterns as the commander did.
I watched the commander, trying to understand what it was she was doing. I followed the thickest thread that she held, the one that she was placing the most energy into. It flew high in the air and lead to the building we were next to. I looked up and saw a single flame waiting there. On a purely visceral level I knew I had to cut that thread. That was the attack the commander was the most focused on lining up. That was the one that meant death for us.
My vision snapped back to normal and I dragged in a shocked breath. I was still looking up, still looking at the sniper who was sighting in on Taisen. The healer had cast his anima shield as a wall to give it a prayer of stopping the sniper fire from across the street. That meant it wasn’t providing any shelter from the sniper above us though.
I tried to call out to Yael but the first three soldiers had been reinforced by three more and there were a pair of casters on the rooftop supporting them as well. Opal and Master Hanq being swarmed by the soldiers but were giving out far more damage than they were taking. Despite that though, they were still cut off from us.
No one could stop the sniper. No one except me.
I’m don’t know why I started climbing the wall to reach the roof. Climbing three stories should have taken me roughly a million times too long in terms of reaching the sniper before he shot. Maybe I was thinking that I could attract his attention that way? Maybe I had some subconscious inkling of what I was capable of? Either was possible, but the most likely reason was that I was desperate and lacked any better options.
I didn’t literally fly up the wall, and I didn’t rip it to pieces. It just felt like that. Between the time when the sniper peered out over the edge and was able to line up his shot, I somehow threw myself up three stories and knocked him back from the edge.
Finding myself on top of the wall was almost as big a surprise for me as it was for him. I had the distinct sense of the silver anima thread I’d seen, the one that spelled our deaths, shattering like glass as I leapt on the sniper and began pummeling his face in. I wasn’t worried about his bolt caster. That had gone flying out of his hand when I first hit him. No kept hitting him as hard as I could because I was terrified that he’d get his anima knife out.
I’d hit him about a thousand times when I felt another chill of danger and rolled away from the shots of the commander’s snipers. By habit more than anything, I came back up to my feet in a hand-to-hand defensive stance. As though that would help me against snipers.
I was slightly shocked therefor when the next set of shots froze in the air before my outstretched left hand. The one with the ribbons of dark smoke playing around it. As the light in the shots dimmed and flickered out, I felt myself grow slightly warmer as their power drained into me.
I tried to will the Void anima away before it took me over again, but all I succeeded in doing was to push more of it into my left side. The snipers looked at me and then at their commander. At her nod, they leapt from the roof they were on, across the thirty foot divide to land on the same roof as me.
I hadn’t expected that, but for as bad as going hand-to-hand with three elite soldiers was, it didn’t seem like instant suicide. At least until they twisted their bolt casters into anima blades. Then I knew I was in trouble.