Any one of the three soldiers on the roof with me would have been a problem to fight. Taken together though they were impossible. Don’t get me wrong, I had as much hubris as the next teenager who’d spent over ten years learning to fight. The girl in me who’d sweated through thousands of workouts, who’d drilled her forms until her knuckles bled, she wasn’t opposed to fighting these guys. All that hard work seemed like it should be put to some use after all.
Then there was the girl who’d watched the soldiers hold their own against the superhuman skills that Yael had shown. She was less interested in tangling with them.
The girl who got the deciding vote though was the one who’d tried to take on one of Karr Khan’s elites already today. She was the one who’d been stabbed repeatedly in the chest and nearly gone insane as a result. Needless to say, she suggested that I put as much distance between myself and the soldiers as I could.
I’d scaled the building and left Yael and Taisen in the alley below. I could have returned to them, but that would have put us in the same position that we’d been in, except instead of one sniper over our heads, there would be three. With a sinking feeling in my stomach, I knew the best course of action was to lead the soldiers away from the fight. That would give the enemy commander fewer resources to work with. Yael would be free to go more on the offensive that way, since she’d only be protecting Taisen.
Running away was a great plan for everyone, or at least everyone who wasn’t me. If I got into trouble, I wouldn’t have any backup or help to call on. Worse, given how far the soldiers had jumped when they leapt between the roofs, I was going to need superhuman strength and speed of my own to stay ahead of them.
I didn’t stop and think through all of that. Most of it I figured out once I was already in motion. I knew instinctively that fighting the soldiers was a death sentence. When “fight” isn’t an option it doesn’t pay to dawdle on taking “flight”.
I’d tumbled backwards and pitched myself over the side of the building before I fully understood what I was doing. The sensation of falling was weird, in part because I hadn’t fully expected to be plummeting like that, but also in part because the fall felt slower than usual, like I was falling through water rather than air.
I caught a glimpse of the ground as I twisted in mid-air. A three story building doesn’t sound all the tall but, when there’s nothing but three stories of air separating you from the pavement, three stories might as well be three miles.
My mind was scrambling to find some way I could avoid splattering all over the grey stones when my right hand caught the edge of one of the cloth signs that was draped across the tenement building’s front side. Taking my weight on one arm like that should have hurt like hell. I’d pulled muscles before doing less stupid things. I tried to move to put myself in a better position, but the fall was too quick. Somehow though my right arm stayed in its socket just fine. I didn’t even feel any discomfort.
Not feeling pain is generally a good thing but, on the occasions when you know you should be hurt, its absence can be worrisome. All too often that’s a sign that you’ve damaged yourself so badly that your body can’t process the extent of the injury.
I felt my body swinging towards the wall and managed to finish twisting so that I met the wall with my feet and absorbed the shock with my bent legs. I hadn’t drilled that move, but it came naturally. Then I let go of the banner and kicked away from the wall which felt about as far from natural as I could get.
It also felt “right” somehow. Like I knew it was going to work out ok, and that it was what I needed to do.
I could have said that “something” was guiding my actions, but I knew that wasn’t true. I was the one in control still. I was making decisions and acting on them faster than I was consciously aware of. It was like I was seeing the immediate future and acting on it before it arrived. My mind latched onto that notion. It was possible to do that. I’d read about it. Future viewing was the domain of Aetherial anima casters though. No one else could manage it that I knew of.
The wheels in my head were spinning furiously, picking up other details that I’d been overlooking. I was more physically capable than I should have been. I’d run longer and easier than normal despite the beating I’d taken. I’d attributed that to Taisen’s mending spell but according to him the mending spell had never been in effect. I’d survived a shot from a bolt caster that should have killed me. No mending spell for that either. I’d punched a soldier so hard he’d flown out of sight into the mists we were fighting in before. And I was sensing danger and seeing the world in weird new ways.
It didn’t take a genius to figure out that I was using anima. Anima that I’d always been told I didn’t have.
Taisen had suggested that my abysmally low anima scores didn’t seem natural. When he’d talked about how he was out of balance towards Physical anima, I’d assumed the same was true with me and the Void anima that I carried. As I sailed across the gap between the buildings another possibility occurred to me though.
Void anima consumes other anima. I’d seen plenty of examples of that in the last several hours. I was filled with Void anima, to the point where I used it unconsciously. To the point where it used me in fact. But what if there was more in me than Void anima? How would I ever have known? With my Physical, Mental, Energetic and Aetherial animas suppressed by the Void anima I carried, there’d be no way to measure them and no way for me to use them.
No way until someone taught me the simple, basic, stupidly obvious, beginner’s trick of separating the anima within me.
I crashed through the building on the far side of the street and felt anger surging through me. The impact registered as nothing more than sound though. A thunderclap of shattering wood and glass. With effortless grace, I flipped myself over and landed in a short skid in the apartment that I’d hurled myself into. The shattered glass rolled off me without leaving a mark. No cuts, no scrapes. I was fine. Unhurt. Just like I should have been for years.
The apartment I’d landed in was gray. A clean table with a stack of mail in one corner, a basic enchanted cooling box taller than me and a stove big enough to cook dinner for a large family. All of the appliances were ruined though. Bleached gray by one of the spellbombs and then exposed to the outside thanks to the gaping hole I left in the wall where a window had once been. At my feet was the wreckage of a cabinet of dishes that had stood beside the stove.
It didn’t matter that I’d destroyed someone’s kitchen though. They weren’t here anymore. Just like I wouldn’t have been here if I hadn’t been freakishly lucky. If Taisen hadn’t taught me how to grab onto my Void anima, I wouldn’t have been able to shield us from the spell bomb. No shield and I’d be nothing more than gray dust like the rest of the city. Like the family who’d lived in the apartment I’d destroyed.
The first soldier flew through the hole I’d smashed in the wall and rolled as he landed. He came up with his anima blade drawn, in a perfect guard position.
I hit him with the refrigerator.
I’d been told so many times while I was growing up that I was deficient. I wasn’t going to have a good job since I wasn’t talented at anything. I should never have kids since they’d be as crippled as I was. I was bad, I was broken, I was useless.
The soldier tried to get up off the kitchen floor, so I hit him again. And again. I might have hit him a few more times than that too. Things went a little blurry there for a bit. I wasn’t worried. I hadn’t lost control to the Void in me, the blur was because my eyes were filled with tears of rage.
I could have died in the bombing. I saw that in every grey thing around me. What was worse though was that the only life I would have known would have been a joke. A shadow of what I should have been. I could feel strength surging through me and all I could think about were all the times when I’d been weak.
I shook the tears from eyes to find that I’d knocked the first soldier back out of the room. I’d also beaten the refrigerator to pieces in the process and tossed it after him. All I had left in my hand was the door handle to it. I dropped that and considered throwing the stove and sink out the window to discourage pursuit but I didn’t feel like I had the time for that. Instead I made a hasty retreat before the other two soldiers followed me.
Out in the hallway, I found a ladder leading up to an access panel for the roof. Hiding seemed like a bad idea. I’d be gambling on the commander not having a tracking spell on hand and that wasn’t a bet I wanted to take. I was tempted to head underground and try to get them lost in the sewers but the Hellbreacher round that had shattered our anima shield would have been a nightmare down there.
That didn’t mean the roof was the right choice though. They were waiting for me there. The other two soldiers. They’d known which way I would run? No. She’d known. Their commander. I saw her on the roof of the building I’d jumped away from. She was directing them personally. Weaving the strands of our fate with her Aetherial anima.
That was going to stop.
I’d had enough of being pushed around. I’d had enough of being weak. I let anger that I’d bottled up since before I could form memories drive me forward, faster than I’d ever imagined moving.
Right into her illusions.
Aetherial anima is all about subtle magics. It can allow the user to glimpse the future. It can let them influence chance to a degree where it seems like they can control fate. It’s most common use though is projecting illusions. Depending on the skill of the caster those can range from distracting noises to full sensory hallucinations. Even with the best illusions though, if you’re smart, you can resist the effect and see the illusions for what they are.
Master Hanq had pounded the techniques for doing that into me over and over since many of them didn’t require any particular skill with anima. With my head full of anger though I had no room for his lessons. There was just sheer, idiotic rage boiling over in me. I regretted that the moment my fist passed through the image of the first soldier and I saw the trap I’d fallen into.
Without their mass to resist my momentum, I couldn’t stop myself from flying over the edge of building. Superhuman strength is wonderful but with nothing to hold onto it couldn’t help me. Superhuman speed was even better but, my stupidity had allowed the commander to use my own force against me.
I screamed in frustration, my anger turning against myself as I fell. I’d finally found the power I’d been missing all my life and less than minute later I was helpless again. All because I was so messed up that I couldn’t remember that I was supposed to keep running. I’d spent ten years learning to fight and I’d let myself make one of the most basic mistakes you can make in a fight. The shame and the anger hurt worse than the anima blade had, and I knew there was no magic healing that would repair the damage they were doing.
I didn’t fall far but that wasn’t a cause for celebration. The other two soldiers who stood beside the commander fired some kind of anima netting lines at me. The cords snagged me out of mid-air, where I couldn’t dodge to avoid them and started hauling me back towards the roof they were on. I felt the Void anima in me suck the magic out of the snare lines but it was too late. There were real cords there and they’d already bound me up tight. The soldiers had to switch to hauling me by hand as I swung back and slammed against the side of the building they were on. That didn’t slow them at all though and I was pulled up and dropped at the commander’s feet less than a handful of seconds later.
I struggled and screamed but it was over. Like Yael had foreseen, I was captured. I’d thought I could fight hard enough that, if I couldn’t win, I could at least force them to kill me. Looking back though I saw that was naive.
In the end, despite all the power I had, I was still weak. Still useless because of how bad and broken I was. Looking at the commander, I saw in her eyes the truth of what a lot of people had told me. I was going to come to a bad end because I couldn’t protect myself and I wasn’t worth fighting for.
I closed my eyes and reached inside for anything I could find. I couldn’t trust my anger and my fear wasn’t going to buy me any sympathy from the soldiers. I could try to call the Void anima again, but that could literally be a fate worse than death. I’d be gone and all that would be left would be a monster that would either destroy the few people I cared about or a tool was turned to whatever ends Karr Khan saw fit. I searched further but I couldn’t find anything.
All that lay before me was darkness. I couldn’t see any light to hold out hope for.
“Step away from her.” I heard Yael say.
She was standing on the opposite side of the roof we’d all gathered on. In one hand she held her anima blade. The other was supporting Taisen who bore an ugly wound on his side.
She was alone, or worse than alone, but she was still willing to take on the commander and her soldiers? I felt a chill run through me. She couldn’t win that fight. She was going to die. For me.
I could feel how powerless I was. Beaten, captured, helpless, and yet I was not going to let her or Taisen’s deaths happen.