I’d never seen someone in as bad a shape as Yael was. Between the obvious damage and what I could guess was happening inside her, I couldn’t imagine how she could be bearing the pain she was in. Zyla hadn’t left me any weapons, but then I clearly didn’t need any in order to end Yael’s suffering.
I stood over the fallen Guardian and felt paralyzed. I couldn’t have stopped Akell, but I might have been able to keep him busy for longer. Did that make her condition my fault?
No. This was Akell’s doing. I wasn’t going to shoulder that guilt.
That didn’t make any difference to Yael though. Akell was the one who put her in this state, but I had the chance to do something about it. I could let her become a monster and a slave, or I could finish what Akell had started.
Both of those options sucked.
So I chose another one.
“Are you prepared?” Zyla asked as she came back into the room.
Her answer was me hitting her from behind.
The blows did no damage but they surprised her. That was all I needed. With her anima shield in place I couldn’t beat her into unconsciousness. Joint locks on the other hand work just fine. Unlike punches and kicks, a good martial hold is a matter of skill and geometry. Zyla had access to her Physical anima, so she was at least dozens of times stronger than me.
Just like everyone else I’d ever fought with. So I needed a tool that took strength out of the equation.
Enter one of my favorite techniques: grappling! In a two-on-one fight, like I’d had in the alley against Badz’s friends, grappling is impractical. Take one guy down the ground and his friend will just kick your head in. Zyla didn’t have backup though, so all I needed to do was beat her. Or more precisely, arrange her limbs so that she beat herself.
It wasn’t a tremendously dignified position that we wound up in. I was laying underneath her and behind her back when we hit the ground and we were wrapped around each other like a pretzel. The important thing was it was a pretzel configuration that I’d chosen. For all her superior strength, Zyla didn’t have a prayer at escaping from me. I’d twisted her arms and legs into positions where any effort she made to escape would be effort spent shattering her own bones or ripping her limbs out of their sockets.
“I’m not doing your dirty work for you.” I told her as we struggled. Zyla didn’t even pretend to not understand what I was talking about it.
“You’re condemning her to a fate she considers worth than death.” Zyla growled at me.
“What do you care?” I yelled at her, as I flip her over and ground her face into the smooth floor of the cell.
“She was an honorable foe. She understood.” Zyla said.
“That’s what this is? You think this is about honor? What honor can there possibly be in killing her. In killing a whole damn city!” I screamed.
“There is honor in duty. In service. She understood that.” Zyla said. There were tears running down her cheeks, probably because the hold I had her in was agonizing.
“She’s not dead yet.” I said.
“Yes. Yes, she is. She’d been branded. The woman she was is gone. If her mind hasn’t been devoured yet, then its being torn apart right now!” Zyla screamed.
“Then take the brand off her. Cut it out, burn it, whatever it takes!” I said.
“That’s impossible! The Seed has already begun to grow. Touching it is death.” Zyla said. She sounded terrified and I knew it wasn’t of anything I could do to her. We were silent for a moment as the weight of her words sank into me, down to a bitter, hard core in the center of my chest.
“Then die.” I said. I felt a terrible cold echoing in my words.
“It wouldn’t save her.” Zyla said, her voice barely above a whisper.
“What would.” I asked, my voice still cold and hard as ice.
“Nothing. Or maybe the Karr Khan. I don’t know.” she said.
“And how do I make him do that?” I asked.
“You can’t. He hates the Crystal Empress and all of her forces. He would never spare one of her Guardians.” she said.
“So you can’t be any help to me then?” I asked.
“I am your enemy. I cannot help you.” she said.
“What about the bit about me being a member of the family?” I asked.
“You’re never going to be one of the Khan’s children. Not the you who exists now.” Zyla said.
“What do you mean?”
“What is happening to the Guardian is a shadow of what is going to happen to you. They told me when they branded her. Your resistance has been too great and your skill with Void anima is too strong to rely on loyalty binding spells. Plus you’ve been in the company of a Sapphire Guardian. They can’t be sure what hidden surprises she has left in you.” Zyla said.
“So they’re going to do this to me too?” I asked. I wasn’t frightened or surprised. I was carrying far too much anger to have any room for emotions like fear or shock.
“No. You will receive a different type of brand. The Betrayer’s Chain. It will turn you into a vessel for the Karr Khan’s will directly. You will retain your memories and your skills but the will that drives them will no longer be your own. Once the guardian’s anima is consumed she will become a monster under our control, but she will never know the things she is made to do. You on the other hand will see everything. Will feel everything. But you will have no power to stop it.” Zyla said.
I was silent in response to that. I thought I’d known bad people. The ones who would prey on anyone who was weaker than themselves. The ones who would take from people who had nothing. The ones who didn’t care who they hurt so long as they profited from whatever they were doing. What I hadn’t known was that they were amateurs. They were petty and destructive, but this was what it looked like when people got professional about destroying others.
“How can serve someone who would do that?” I asked.
“Everyone would do that. Those who believe otherwise are only clinging to a fantasy out of weakness or fear.” Zyla said. I knew the tone in her voice. I’d heard it in my classes thousands of times.
“That’s what you’ve been told to say. That’s what someone taught you. What’s the real reason?” I asked.
“You don’t understand.” Zyla said.
“I’m getting sick of hearing that. I understand just fine. You’ve been beaten into believing the only thing you can do is support the biggest tough guy you know. You think that somehow if you deny yourself entirely and do only what they want you to do, no matter how hard or horrible that is, that you’ll be noble and pure in some way.” I said.
“That’s not true. You have no idea what you’re talking about.” Zyla said.
“Don’t I? You think you’re special because you’re a ‘Second Scion Circle’ girl? I’ve seen gangs handing out all kinds of stupid badges of honor. You’re the same. You’ve just got bigger guns and better training.” I said.
“We are nothing like the scum of your world.” Zyla said. From the anger in her voice, I knew I’d hit a nerve. She was too smart not to see what she really was on some level. She’d just been clever enough to fool herself that being one of the Khan’s pet monsters was ok because she had a code to live by.
“The only difference I see is that they’re dead and you’re still drawing breath.”
“You’re going to change that aren’t you?” Zyla asked. “That’s what this all is. You’ve never killed before and you’re working yourself up to it.”
“Nice attempt to analyze me, but I’m sorry princess, you got it wrong.” I said with a chuckle.
“You can’t let me live. As soon as you release me, I’m going to overpower you and put you back in the shackles. You have to kill me.” Zyla said.
“That’s what your life is, isn’t it?” I asked her, “It all ‘us vs. them’. Win at all costs. Be the best or you’re nothing.”
“The only way I would be nothing is if I abandoned my duty.” Zyla said.
“No, the only way you become nothing is by treating other people like they’re nothing.” I said. “You respect Yael, but you don’t have the first clue how she thinks.”
“And you’re so close to her that you do?” Zyla asked.
“Close to her? No, she practically hates me. But unlike you, I’ve actually listened to her. Do you know what everything she’s ever said has told me?” I asked.
“That she cares about other people. What she loathes about me can be summed up in one phrase; I’m a danger to myself and others.” I said.
“Then she should have killed you herself.” Zyla said.
“That’s not the way she thinks. That’s not the way her mentor thinks either. In fact from what they’ve told me, that’s not the way any of the Crystal Empress’s forces work, and they kicked your precious Khan’s butt.” I said.
“We did not lose to the Empress’s forces. We were betrayed from within.” Zyla said.
“Oh I get it, that’s why, for your generation, your Khan was on a big loyalty and honor kick. More convenient to keep the minions in line that way. Guess Akell missed those classes.” I said.
“Mock me all you want. It doesn’t matter. What happens to the Guardian is on you now.” Zyla said.
“You know what, you’re right.” I agreed. “Up to this point, what happened to her was Akell’s fault. It was your fault and it was your stupid Khan’s fault. But I’ve had enough of you. All of you. I didn’t do this to Yael, but I’m here, now, and I’m the one who can do something about it. So you’re right. She is my problem, and I’m not going to let her suffer like that.”
“If you let me go, I am going to restrain you again.” Zyla said.
I blinked at that. She was telling me, as clearly as she was able to, that I had to murder her too. I knew what it was like to hate myself sometimes, but compared to Zyla I felt like a beacon of stability and sanity in the light of that declaration.
“Yael and Opal would never have killed you. Not if they could help it.” I told her.
“If it was necessary they would have.” Zyla said, her voice a flat monotone.
“I don’t think they would. Yael saved me when she had absolutely no reason to. They value life far too much to casually toss it aside. They’re different from you. And they’re different from me.” I said.
“What do you mean?” Zyla asked, a trace of fear coloring her voice. It’s one thing to ask for death, it’s another thing to believe its really going to happen.
“I’m not a Guardian. I wasn’t raised by the Crystal Empress. I learned a whole different set of lessons.” I said and began tightening my hold on her neck. “Do you know who I learned this technique from?”
“Who?” she gasped out as I started to choke her.
“Master Hanq Okoro. I didn’t know it for the longest time, but he was a Warlord too back in the day. Can you imagine the kinds of things he taught me?” I asked.
Zyla couldn’t answer because I’d cut off the air to her lungs with my hold.
“So you know who that makes me like?” I asked and then answered, “That makes me like you. We’re not so different really. You’re a monster and so am I.”
Zyla started struggling for air, but it was to no avail. I had her wrapped too tightly.
“That makes this really easy. I want you to think about that. For the rest of your life, however little there may be, I want you to understand that you’re no different from me.” I said and tightened the hold on her throat the last bit further that I needed.
Chokeholds are dangerous. The line between knocking someone out and killing them can be thin and different for different people. With Zyla I had an advantage though; she had a pretty hefty amount of Physical anima to draw on. That made the line much broader. I still let up on the blood blocking hold after a few seconds though. I wanted her unconscious, not dead.
I knew she’d never be an ally. She could have respected me choking the life out of her, but she wasn’t going to forgive the things I’d said any time soon (or ever probably). The truth though was that I was following what Master Hanq had taught me.
“Killing someone’s a mess. Just avoid it if you can.” he’d said, and that had been all he’d had to say on the subject. At least in words. Watching him in action though, I’d always seen how, for as brutal as he could be, the people he fought with generally lived to fight another day. Or at least lived to see another day. In his own way, he treasured life as much as the Guardians did.
And in her own way, Zyla did too.