The worst kind of race is the one where the guy you’re racing against is at the finish line before you even start running.
“I think I would have liked working with you.” the Ravager said as the mental projection faded away and I found myself standing in the mouth of the cave. Behind me lay the two dead bodies the trap had drained of life. Ahead of me the cave plunged downwards into a misty, unwelcoming darkness.
“Wait!” I called out as I felt the Void anima the Ravager had extended pull away from me.
“The other one who seeks me has breached the last barrier. I am sorry.” the Ravager’s fading voice said.
I swore. Loudly.
Two of Zyla’s soldiers, ones I’d snuck past without even being aware of it, raced into view at the mouth of the cave. The stream of profanity I spewed tipped them off to where I was but they would have been better off pretending they hadn’t heard me. In the seconds it took them to locate me in the gloom and bring their bolt casters to bear, the first trap fired again.
Tendrils of Void anima shot out and pierced the soldiers through. I turned away but the sound was unmistakable. They barely had time to scream as their energy and life were ripped out. I shivered. Without my conversation with the Ravager, that could have been my fate too.
I tried not to dwell on the thought of dying (which seemed all too likely) and took off into the cavern. As a precaution, I cloaked myself in invisibility as I ran, since I didn’t know what to expect and that seemed to be my best all around defense. As it turned out there wasn’t much to defend myself from though. The next defense was a sealed doorway. Or what was left of it.
It had been blasted open and the ward stones on its exterior shattered. The same was true of the next three traps that I found. I couldn’t tell how strong the traps had been, but given that they were designed to protect a legendary artifact from being recovered, I had to guess that they weren’t weak. Akell being able to smash through them like they were made of kindling was almost as worrisome as the fact that he was going to reach the Ravager before I did.
There were other traps guarding the long twisting passages down to where the Jewel lay. Mental anima mazes and Aetherial illusions that would have turned me back or led me astray if the Void anima I was wrapped in hadn’t eaten the parts of them which tried to touch me.
I was able to shortcut part of the trip by following the openings that Akell had blasted in the walls and floors of the underground lair.
“He’s got to be getting tired.” I told myself. The destruction he’d caused and the traps he’d powered through didn’t seem like something even a talented or desperate human could have managed.
Akell’s apparent power didn’t make a whole lot of sense, but the more I thought about it the fact that the Ravager was located in a place like this at all bothered me more.
“Why are there tunnels leading to the Jewel?” I wondered. It seemed like a needless security flaw to let people walk right up to the Jewel with only the anima traps protecting it. I was losing the race to Akell when neither of us should have been able to get within a mile of the Ravager if any sane defenses had been setup to protect it.
I chewed on that thought as I ran past more disarmed traps and then remembered something Opal had said. I’d asked about tossing them into a star but she claimed that wouldn’t work because the Jewels could teleport themselves to safety. That this dungeon was the sort of place where they were hidden told me they could do more than teleport to safety. They could probably teleport in a lot of circumstances, either whenever they wanted to or under broad enough set of conditions that they had to be left somewhere that was accessible to potential users. I considered what that mean and decided it wouldn’t surprise me if the Jewels stayed entombed in dungeons like this because they wanted to. That way, they could be found, but only by someone powerful or clever enough to be a fitting master for a legendary artifact.
Or maybe it was so they wouldn’t be found at all.
It hadn’t sounded like the Ravager was eager to take up her old job. She could have been lying to me, but under the circumstances I couldn’t imagine why she would bother. That bugged me too. She’d reached out to me and spoke to me, but she was aware of where Akell was. Why would she have bothered testing me (and I was pretty sure she’d been testing me) if she knew she was going to fall into Akell’s hands long before I could reach her?
I ran onwards plagued by questions like that. I had the growing certainty that I wasn’t like the answers though even in the I lived long enough to hear them.
“And so you’re here at last. Took you long enough didn’t it.” Akell said as I stumbled to a halt at the door to the central chamber. It had been blown inwards like the others had. Inside, Akell sat on a small pedestal, lounging like a lazy cat. That was fitting because it looked like the chamber he was in had been shredded by a particularly violent and mad feline.
Huge rents in the polished white stone floor and walls had broken the intricate symmetry of the thousand warding circles that had been placed to protect the room and its contents. It wasn’t the damage to the door or Akell’s presence that tripped me up though. It was the renewed sense of the Ravager’s Void anima touching on my invisibility cloak.
“I’m sorry.” I heard her say in my mind.
“You can dispense with the child’s spells.” Akell said. “They won’t be you any good against me. Not now.”
He held his right hand up to his chest and on the back of it, I saw a black diamond that had bonded to his flesh. The Ravager, the Jewel of Endless Night, was his.
I stepped into the room and let my invisibility spell fall away. I felt calm. We’d failed and it was all going to end. Akell could snuff out every life on the planet in an instant from what I’d been told. Somehow that was liberating, maybe because it meant I didn’t have anything left to lose.
“Good. I expected you to be more troublesome, but I can see that this is simply my destiny, finally being revealed at last.” Akell said.
“Your destiny?” I said, circling slowly toward him. “Planning on buying a spot in the First Circle?”
“That was what I’d been thinking. Before I claimed this.” Akell laughed. He got off the pedestal and I could see that he wasn’t moving like a regular human any more. Anima flared around him as he floated up to a standing position and then descended to the ground at a speed that had nothing to do with gravity.
“I’m surprised you made it in here. Kind of doesn’t look like you even need the Jewel.” I said, continuing to circle him and play for time. It wasn’t a plan as such. There wasn’t anyone who could come to my rescue that I was waiting for. I just didn’t feel like dying yet.
“Oh, it’s still useful. I can feel the other animas fading already, but the Jewel? That’s eternal. As am I now.” Akell said. He started strolling through the room in a lazy circle to match the own I was walking.
“Other animas?” I asked, a terrible suspicion settling into my bones.
“From all the witless fools in the city.” he said with a laugh.
“You found one of the shelters, didn’t you? One that had been hit by the bombs.” I guessed.
“Not just one. They were right where mother had said they would be. So easy to harvest.” Akell said. He hadn’t struck me as entirely sane from the beginning but watching him stalk around the small room, seeing the odd ticks in his movement and hearing the unnatural clicks and catches in his voice told me that the “boy” I was looking at was nothing more than the thinnest of facades over a pit of madness.
“I can’t believe you disturbed them. The ghosts should have ripped you apart.” I said.
“Now sister, you almost sound like you would be happy to have seen that.” Akell said.
“Still kind of hoping to.” I said.
Akell laughed. It was the kind of boisterous, deep laugh that only someone completely unconcerned with their own safety can make.
“I am so sorry to disappoint you then sister. The ghosts weren’t strong enough to overcome me before and they are certainly of no consequence now that I wield the Ravager’s power. There is nothing and no one who can stand against me any longer.” Akell said.
“And what happens when someone takes it away from you?” I asked.
“I cannot be separated from the Jewel. It is wrapped in the strands of my life and it has made them eternal. I can no more be defeated than death itself can.” Akell said.
“Sounds boring.” I stopped circling. He was going to explode sooner or later and I wanted to get in at least one good punch before that happened.
“It’s a boredom I’ll have to live with. Forever!” he screamed in delight.
“So what are you going to do with forever?” I asked. I was going to point out to him that other people had worn the Jewel and none of them had made it to “forever”, but I figured there was no reason to spoil that unpleasant surprise for him.
“Many things. I’d been thinking I would start by killing you and that damn Crystal Empire Guardian, but I’ve reconsidered.”
“And why would you do that?” I asked.
“You’re going to be useful to me.” he said.
“Don’t think I will be.” I told him.
“You’re not going to have a choice.” he said.
“Cause you’re going to threaten me? Hate to break it to you but you’ve got nothing to hold over me.” I said.
“My silly sister, I don’t need threats.” he said.
The attack came so quickly that I wasn’t aware of it until I found myself embedded an inch into the white stone wall. I tried to pull myself out of the wall but I couldn’t budge. A force heavier than the mountain we were standing under was holding me in place. I tried to consume the anima that was powering the spell with the Void anima I had, only to discover that it was already doing that. Whatever power Akell had, I couldn’t drain it fast enough to make a difference.
“I could hurt you of course.” he said and from his other hand lightning shot out and filled my world with a whole new sort of pain. Briefly. The shock lasted less than second before my Void anima started consuming it too.
“But what would be the point of that?” Akell said, dropping the lightning and flapping his hand like it had been stung.
“What are you going to do then?” I forced the words out past gritted teeth.
“Well, I’d planned to join the First Circle. Or rather that’s what mother had planned for me.” he said and stalked around the room. He didn’t walk closer to me, he didn’t even seem to care that I was there. It was like he had a huge audience of followers that he was speaking to rather than one rather unfriendly girl who was stuck to the wall.
“Those dreams are far too small for the bearer of the Ravager though. The Karr Khan thinks that, because the Traveler’s bearer is his subject, all of the Jewels should belong to him. What a fool. The Traveler is the least of the Jewels. With the Ravager’s power I can annihilate all of my enemies.” he said, pacing and gesturing frantically as he did so.
“Which brings us to you. The Karr Khan wants you. He wants all of his children under his banner. When I bring you before him, he will reward me. Riches, a place of honor, my own fleet to conquer in his name.” the fires of madness were literally burning in his eyes. The pale purple glow was as inhuman as his voice when he spoke again.
“He will give me all these things, and I will kill him.”