There’s a cost to any protracted struggle. Wrestling with Zyla, both physically and verbally, left me spent and dizzy by the time I let her go. It would have been a consolation that she was going to wake up feeling even worse than I did, if I hadn’t been reasonably sure she was going to wake up and have every reason in the world to kill me.
That was a problem for another time though. I had a much more immediate issue to deal with in the form of Yael and the monster that was inside her.
Little shivers were playing over her skin at irregular intervals. Flashes of pain escaping from the battle she was waging for her heart and soul.
“Do I take you out of here or is this room suppressing the Seed just as much as its suppressing your anima?” I wondered aloud.
If the anima suppression effect the room emitted was also affecting the Seed, then leaving her within the room would continue to slow the Seed’s progress while I looked for a way to undo its effects. If the room was only suppressing Yael’s anima though then taking her outside might give her a better chance at resisting the Seed on her own.
“I wish Taisen was here.” I said. The cleric would be able to monitor her anima levels like he’d done with me. He could probably tell in an instant what was happening inside her. Without him, I had to go on gut instincts and basic reasoning, neither of which had enough information backing them to be reliable. That should have given me pause and encouraged me to proceed slowly. The unconscious body of Zyla at my feet argued against cautious, careful action however.
I knew it wouldn’t be long before someone came looking for Zyla. She’d come to take me to the Karr Khan and I couldn’t imagine he would be fine with waiting for me to show up whenever was convenient.
Despite the need for haste, that thought did give me pause. I only had Zyla’s word that she was taking me to the Karr Khan. I had to grant that lying didn’t seem to be her style, but would they have really sent just one person for a task like that? For that matter would they really have no monitors built into a cell that was as insanely over-magicked as this one was?
The more I thought about it the more it became clear that there were events in motion that I was only seeing a small fraction of.
On it’s simplest level, Yael had been beaten by Akell and Zyla had come to collect me and provide Yael with an “accidental” death that spared her from becoming a monster. The problem was I knew that both of them were highly accomplished Aetherial anima casters. Both of them could and did fight primarily with destiny spells.
I shook my head at that. Trying to second guess everything that had occurred as being the result of one or the other’s fate altering spells was a direct path to madness. There was definitely some reality behind destiny spells, but it seemed like Aetherial casters shared a lot with simple grifters, where it was less about what they’d planned to have happen and more about how they could reinterpret events after the fact to make it look like what had occurred had all been part of the completely intentional master plan. That made some people happy, but I thought it was kind of stupid, which was probably a sign that I’d never be much of an Aetherial caster, even if I could survive long enough to get some proper training.
For as much as overly elaborate planning annoyed me though, I could also see the pitfalls of barging ahead blindly. So I calmed my breathing and considered Yael’s condition.
She had deteriorated a lot since we’d parted. I didn’t know how long I’d been unconscious but I had to guess it was no more than a few hours. For as bad as I felt, I’d have all sorts of other issues if it had been a few days or longer. I also didn’t know how fast the Seed would normally be able to convert someone as strong as Yael. My best guess was that it would take a while, otherwise, they wouldn’t have left her in here with me.
Following on that guess, I supposed that if the anima suppression field was going to affect both Yael and the Seed equally then they’d could have stored her in some area far away from me. The best reason to dump her in this room was because they wanted both of us shut down.
“I really hope this doesn’t kill you.” I told Yael as I lifted her up. A wordless cry of pain escaped her lips and she sagged into full unconsciousness as I hauled her up.
Stepping out into the hallway beyond the cell felt fantastic. I could almost taste the symbolic freedom I’d gained, but what was a thousand times better was the sense of my anima waking up and starting flowing through me. I felt like an electric charge was filling me up to the tips of my fingers and toes. In my arms, Yael stirred a little and tightened, the relief of unconsciousness falling away from her as her own anima surged back to full power.
She didn’t wake up immediately though so I looked around to take stock of where we were. The corridor outside the cell was a clean, creamy white, as though the walls and floor were made out of pearl. There were three other rooms nearby, one on the same side as the cell we’d been in and two on the other side. Of the four, only the cell I’d left had a border of sigils around its door. The others seemed to be non-magical holding facilities. The corridor ended in a round doorway that looked like it irised into the wall somehow.
In the background I heard the hum that I’d noticed before and began to put together a string of clues that led to an unpleasant deduction.
“This cell is custom made, and it costs so much that there’s only one of them here. Belstarius wouldn’t have needed just one cell like this. Either they’d have setup a whole wing of them to cover all of the caster criminals on the planet or they’d do without and save the money for something else. It could be a random rich person who lived in the city, but the Khan’s forces wouldn’t have just stumbled on it like that. Probably.” I reasoned. “What Akell would know about though would be the facilities on the ship that they came in.”
More pieces started falling into place. Four cells wasn’t enough for much, unless you only expected to have prisoners to hold in them on special occasions. Even more compelling though was the hum. I recognized it. It was the hum of a starship’s anima plant. I wasn’t sure how I knew that, but I knew I’d heard that sound before.
I looked down and found my hands trembling. Yael didn’t seem happy with that, so I laid her on the floor. My head swam a little and I felt sick to my stomach again. I didn’t want to be here. In the worst possible way, I did not want to be on a starship.
I sat down beside Yael and put my head into my hands.
“I can’t lose it. Not yet.” I told myself.
“Not ever, hopefully.” the man who spoke was at the end of the short corridor, in the round doorway that had opened soundlessly. I saw only a few thing about him before I jumped to my feet.
He was tall, pale skinned, unfamiliar and he wore the uniform of one of the Karr Khan’s soldiers.
I kicked off the wall behind me and launched myself at him like a missile. There wasn’t any subtlety or planning in my attack, it was pure reflexes and pure speed. I needed to shut him up and take him down before he could call for a pile of other guards.
For as fast as I was though, even using my returned Physical anima, he was able to dodge out of the way of my charge and avoid the blows I threw at him.
“Wait! Mel! Stop!” the man said, as he frantically ducked and weaved out of my reach.
His words didn’t quite resolve in my mind. Fear and panic are great for inducing fast reactions, but lousy at inducing smart ones. What I should have seen as someone struggling to stay away from me, I instead interpreted as someone looking to get out of grappling range so that they could either shoot me or run away and get help. Since that would pretty much seal my fate, I made sure neither was an option for the man.
A quick feint to the head put him just enough off balance that I was able to sweep his legs out from under him. As he fell I managed to grab his arm and land on him with that arm bent back over his head and my free forearm pressed against his throat.
“Mel, I’m not your foe. Give me a second.” the man said.
It finally registered that he knew my name. And that he was not threatening me. That sent me back into the land of utter confusion but a whole barrel of questions that sprang to my mind were answered a moment later as the man’s feature’s flowed and shifted from the unfamiliar look of the guard to a much friendlier face.
“Taisen? What the hell are you doing here?” I asked him. I didn’t let him go though, in part because I was too stunned and in part because, I couldn’t be sure it was actually him.
“I believe I mentioned that I’m a secret agent for the Crystal Empress?” he answered.
“And a shape shifter?” I asked.
“When I need to be. I’m better at medicine, but once you know the body at that level, there’s a whole lot of things you can do with Physical anima.” he said.
“What was the first thing I said to you?” I asked him.
“Honestly, I have no idea. It’s been a long day and my memory’s just not that good. I know we started talking about the condition you were in when you got to the clinic. Oh I know, you didn’t lie to me about it! That was nice.” he said.
I let him go. It wasn’t impossible that someone else could have known that. Mind magic can do all kinds of weird and unpleasant things, but all things considered, it seemed like a safe bet to assume he was on the level. Especially since I figured I could still kick his butt if he wasn’t.
“Sorry. I didn’t expect to see you here. How did you even get here? In fact, where is here?” I asked him.
“We’re onboard one of the Karr Khan’s personal yachts. You and Yael were brought here after Akell claimed the Jewel of Endless Night.” Taisen said, sitting up.
“Yael! She’s here. They’ve done something to her!” I said, pointing at the apprentice Guardian’s prone form at the other end of the corridor. Taisen got up without any further prompting and went over to the fallen girl. I watched him study her for a minute. He cast a series of spells that left glowing glyphs in the air and circles that shone with different shades of shifting light.
“This is bad.” he said at last. “Her body is starting to breakdown because she’s drawn all of her anima up into a tight ball to ward off something that’s attacking her. I think her mind and spirit are ok, but her Physical anima is suffering in their place.”
“Can you stop it? Or stabilize her?” I asked.
“I don’t think so. Whatever’s eating her is made of almost pure Void anima. Any spells I cast are going to get consumed by it too.” he said.
“Will that buy her any time?” I asked.
“Maybe. But it might make the attacker stronger.” he said.
“From what Zyla said, I’d guess you’re right on both counts. We need to help her hold out though.” I said.
“Agreed. If we can get her out of here and back to the surface, I might be able to rig up something with a medical stasis pod that would freeze the process in place.” Taisen said.
“Is that why you’re here? To get us out?” I asked.
“Yes. Opal asked me to find you and get you both away from here. She’s gone after Akell to get the Jewel back.” Taisen said.
“What about Master Hanq?” I asked.
“He said he was going to recruit some help. After the shuttle exploded, the three of us landed together but we were blown miles in the wrong direction. We knew that you and Opal would reach the Jewel long before us, but Opal didn’t think it would be before Akell did.” he said.
“ She was right. I got to Akell first, but he’d already bonded to the Ravager.” I said.
“How do you know it’s the Ravager?” Taisen asked.
“She talked to me.” I said.
“She talked? Who talked to you?”, he asked.
“The Ravager, the Jewel of Endless Night. I spoke with her.” I said.
“That’s not…” Taisen didn’t get to finish his phrase.
I felt the stab of cold in my chest that had come before serious danger had surfaced several times in the past. As had happened once before, when the city killing bombs had dropped on us, I felt the Void anima in me reach out almost entirely on its own and form a protective barrier around me.
Where the other barrier had been a simple circle, this one was far more complex though. Within the circle were whorls of numbers, half remembered equations and writing in a tongue that I couldn’t remember ever speaking. Lines of power crossed through the circle and formed geometries that reinforced the aura that sprang up around Yael, Taisen and I.
For all that, the barrier barely held against the attack that came.
Against the shield that I raised, I felt something like a tidal wave crash down. A tidal wave with a familiar presence behind it.
“I don’t want to do this!” I heard the Ravager cry as a wave of pure death spread across the Karr Khan’s ship.
That wasn’t what scared me though. What terrified me was the presence that I felt within the barrier. I was holding the Ravager’s power at bay, but there was a darkness lurking within all of my defenses.
And it was hungry.