When I opened my eyes, I found Taisen and Yael both straining over me. Anima poured off their fingers and into my body doing minor things like keeping my heart beating and my lungs working. Taisen looked haggard, like he’d be awake for weeks without sleep. Yael looked even worse. Her skin was still a mottled patchwork of bruises and she looked as exhausted as I felt.
“That’s enough. Save some strength for yourselves.” I said as I pushed myself up to a sitting position.
“How are you awake?” Taisen asked. He pulled his hands away from me and sagged in relief.
“And are you still yourself?” Yael asked. She was watching me warily, through eyes that sagged with fatigued .
“I’m still me. For now. I’ve got the Seed trapped in darkness. It’s cut off from the Khan’s strength and it can’t eat any of my other anima.” I said.
“You beat a Seed of Darkness?” Taisen asked.
“Not on my own and it’s not fully beaten either.” I said. I’d wrapped the Seed in Void anima, which wasn’t something it could consume, but I couldn’t be sure that I’d be able to hold the Seed like that forever. There was also the problem that as long as the Seed was inside me, I wouldn’t be able to use my anima for anything else.
I tried to stand up and wobbled badly. Taisen caught me even though it looked like he needed someone to catch him. I smiled and put a hand on the wall to brace myself.
“We need to leave as soon as we can.” Taisen said.
“We can’t.” I said. “Or at least I can’t. The Seed’s cut off from the Khan’s strength but it’s still a part of him. He can still sense where I am. If I flee with you, he’ll be able to track us no matter where we go.”
“We need to rescue Master Kinsguard too.” Yael said.
“She was the one who told me to get the two of you out of here.” Taisen said. The color was starting to come back to his face and some of the weariness was falling away.
“She wasn’t aware that the Khan would be coming here in person when she did so.” Yael said.
“The Khan’s coming here?” Taisen said, panic replacing fatigue on his face.
“Yes. Miss Watersward here has gotten his attention.” Yael said.
“Wait, how do you know that?” I asked. The battle with the Seed had been entirely within my mind as far as I knew.
“Aether sight. The lines of your fate are tied up with his. I thought he had you ensnared when you woke up but there’s too much chaos in the strands for that to be true.” Yael said.
“Did you set all this up?” I asked her.
“We’re not precisely where I wanted us to be, and we didn’t arrive here the way I desired but this fits the fate casting that I’ve done to some degree.” Yael said.
I should have been mad at her, but given what she’d put herself through (and how tired I was) all I felt was a mild sense of awe at her dedication to the cause.
“To be honest, Zyla might be able to say the same thing depending on how this all turns out.” Yael added.
At the mention of Zyla’s name I felt a shock go through me. I’d left her unconscious in the cell and I hadn’t extended the protective circle far enough to encompass her. With a groan, I staggered away from the wall and waved the spell ward away. The Ravager had quit attacking and the chill of danger had diminished slightly so I didn’t think we needed the shield’s defenses anymore.
I wanted to run back to the cell to see if anything was left of Zyla but the best I was able to manage was a weak shamble. Taisen and Yael caught up with me before I’d walked three steps.
“Where are you going?” Taisen asked.
“Zyla. I left her in the cell.” I said, nodding towards the door Yael and I had been imprisoned behind. We trudge over and Taisen worked some literal magic on the lock. I’d expected to see another withered corpse but Zyla looked just fine in death. In fact she looked so good, I stepped into the room to check her “corpse” and discovered that she was still breathing.
“I don’t get it. The Ravager killed everyone on this ship, twice over.” I said.
“Not everyone.” Yael noted, glancing at the three of us.
“These sigils are badly degraded. They’re barely functional at all in fact.” Taisen said as he inspected the walls of the room. “I don’t know if they could take another attack, but I would guess that they shielded her in much the same way that you protected us.”
“I’d call that a miracle but it was probably an effect of her fate casting right?” I asked.
“Maybe. It was a dangerous casting if it left her in this state though.” Yael said.
“Like you’re one to talk?” I said with a laugh.
Taisen ignored both of us and bent down to lift Zyla onto his back.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
“This room can’t shield her any further. You had a reason to leave her alive, and we can’t stay here, so she has to come with us” Taisen explained.
“You beat her?” Yael said, turning to look at me. “I thought Healer Taisen got us out of the cell?”
“No. I arrived just after Mel had secured your escape. The timing was more fortunate for me than you in fact.” he said.
“How did you…?” Yael’s words trailed off as she studied me.
“I don’t know.” I admitted. “I hit her with some moves she wasn’t expecting, but I think she wanted me to beat her. Either that or she’s terrible at hand to hand.”
“Why?” Yael asked.
“I had her in a good hold, but there had to be anima tricks she could have used to get out of it.” I said.
“No, why do you think she wanted to lose?” Yael asked.
“Cause her life sucks?” I said. “Or it might have been because of what happened to you. She seemed unhappy about that. I guess she felt Akell was kind of a scumbag in how he took you down. And she didn’t seem thrilled by what the Seed was doing to you either . She couldn’t bring herself to fix things on her own but she did leave me an opening so I could kill you.”
“What?” Taisen said almost dropping Zyla in shock.
“It would have been a kindness.” Yael said quietly.
“Yeah.” I agreed.
“But you didn’t.” she said, studying me again.
“Yeah, I’m not that kind I guess.”
I couldn’t read Yael’s reaction to the joke. I wasn’t surprised by that as I hadn’t seen any evidence of her having a sense of humor yet but, since the joke was for my own sake more than her’s, that didn’t bother me.
“We need to get going. Are you in communication with Master Kinsguard?” Taisen asked Yael.
“No. She has not reestablished our communication link.” Yael said. “But I can sense where she is.”
“Is she still alive?” I asked. I wasn’t sure I wanted to know the answer. The attacks had stopped and that didn’t strike me as a promising sign.
“I don’t know. Something is clouding my sense of her. It’s the kind of interference she’s capable of generating, which would mean that she’s alive, but if someone else is behind it then the location I’m sensing is a trap for us.” Yael said.
“Good. Let’s go then.” I said.
“And if it’s a trap?” Yael asked.
“The only one else who should be alive on this ship is Akell and if he’s still standing then we need to knock him down.” I said.
Yael nodded in agreement and started leading the way.
“Do you need a hand with carrying her?” I asked Taisen, indicating Zyla.
“No, it’s safer this way. I can keep her under as long as I’m in contact with her.” he said. It was a smooth enough lie that I didn’t feel bad about buying it. My noodle-like knees and shaking arms were in complete agreement with the idea of not carrying any more than they had to.
“Thanks.” I told him and followed after Yael.
The apprentice Guardian led us out into the halls beyond the small prison area. Except for the hum of the ship’s engines, silence surrounded us. The same sense of “wrongness” that I’d felt running through my destroyed hometown seeped into me as we passed empty rooms and vacant galleries. There should have been people in all those spaces. Or there should have been fires and destruction.
Images from past swept across my mind. Smoke, burning my lungs and stinging my eyes. The blinding light of a primal torch cutting through a reinforced bulkhead. I felt a panic rising in me that had lain dormant longer than I had conscious memories. There weren’t any fires on this ship though. Nor any screams. I pushed the panic back into the depths of the past and moved on, following Yael.
“How are you feeling?” I asked Yael.
“I’m recovering.” she said, her lips still drawn into a grimace.
Taisen had been restoring her strength but she’d then turned around and shared it back to me. I had the two of them to thank for keeping me conscious long enough to fight back against the Seed. Without that it would have overwhelmed me before I could see through the Khan’s lies. Instead I’d escaped him, though that might only be briefly if Yael was right.
“If the Khan comes here, he’s not going to show up alone, is he?” I asked.
“No.” Yael said and looked away.
“How bad is it?” I asked.
“I don’t know. I can’t see the threads of our fate beyond that point. Too many powers are at work.” Yael said.
“That sounds like the Khan’s work.” I said.
“No one man is the problem. It’s far more than that.” Yael said.
“He’s not just one man.” I told her.
“What do you mean?” Taisen asked.
“When I fought the Seed, the Khan showed up. The Seeds are a part of him. They’re why he’s ‘the Eternal Khan’. He uses them to take over people and carve out their will. People like Yael and me, the ones who annoyed him, he turns those into monsters. The rest he uses as spare bodies. Kill one and he just has another step forward.” I said.
“That’s…” Taisen stopped walking and shook his head. “That’s incredible. Each Seed would need to be a hologram, a reflection of the whole of who he is.”
“You spoke with the Khan?” Yael asked.
“Yes. Or his mental projection. I think all of his parts remain linked even if they’re separated by galactic scale distances.” I said.
“How did you speak to him though?” Yael asked.
“I think it has something to do with my Void anima. There seems to be a connection that forms whenever Void anima from different sources meet.” I said.
“Is that how you pulled the brand off me?” Yael asked.
“Yeah. I think so. I figured it out after the Seed used the connection to drag me into the mind realm he’d created within you.” I said.
“If that’s true, then why isn’t he in control of you now?” Yael asked.
“It’s the other side of Void anima.” Taisen said. “Where Physical anima comes from the magic inherent in form and substance, Void anima comes from emptiness and loss. I’m theorizing here, but I think that when Mel’s Void anima touches another’s, it’s similar to two holes meeting. One hole doesn’t fight the other, you just wind up with one larger hole. The other side of emptiness is isolation though.”
“That sounds about right. When I brought my Void anima into the fight, I didn’t try to destroy the Seed with it. All I tried to do was use it hide my other animas the way they had been hidden up until yesterday. That swamped the Seed in darkness, where it’s still screaming like a madman by the way, and cut off the links that I could see that led back to the rest of the Khan.” I said.
“I hope you are wrong about some of that.” Yael said.
“Why?” I asked.
“Because if the Khan is as you’ve described him, then the strands of fate that I see weaving together against us are all bound to his will.” Yael said.
“What kind of a fight are we looking at?” I asked, even though I pretty much already knew the answer. Yael’s response managed to surprise me though.
“We’re not fighting a man, or even an army. If what you say is true, the Khan is no longer human. The only thing I can compare him to is one of the Outer Ones.” Yael said.
“Those aren’t real are they?” I asked. From what I’d heard, the “Outer Ones” were supposed to be the remnants of ancient civilizations. Creatures from the Silent Aeons that had transcended physical form and magic as we knew it. They were the boogie men used to frighten little spell casters and keep them from trying really crazy stuff with their magics before they learned the rules and the costs.
“I’m afraid they are. We should get to Master Kinsguard as soon as possible.” Taisen said.
I could see a new look of fear in Taisen’s eyes, and I knew what it had to mean.
“You have seen one of them, the Outer Ones, haven’t you?” I asked the healer.
“No.” he said much too quickly. “Not a whole one. One of my classmates made a mistake during a difficult operation though and tried to fix it with a grand summoning spell that went very, very wrong.”
“What happened?” asked Yael. She sounded as concerned for Taisen as I felt.
“We stopped it. Destroyed what was left of him before the summoning could be completed. It wasn’t an Outer One, it just a small part of such a creature, but it almost destroyed a full class of exceptionally talented casters. Of the thirty of us, five were injured so badly that they couldn’t continue the program and the rest of us required a month’s leave to recuperate before we could continue.” Taisen said.
“I don’t like our chances with just four of us then, and only three of you having a clue how to be a real caster.” I said.
Yael was silent at that. She picked up the pace though and led us through a dozen more empty rooms and hallways, before we got to a large central amphitheater. The Khan might be an Elder Horror, but he apparently still enjoyed some very human luxuries as witnessed both by the scale of the one of his minor yachts and the fact that it had a room with seating for two hundred in it.
The amphitheater wasn’t going to be hosting performances any time soon however. The chairs had been smashed, the lights exploded and here and there small fires were still burning. In the center of the stage, sitting in one of the last remaining spotlights though, I saw a familiar and friendly face.
Master Opal Kinsguard, sat with her head bowed and her eyes closed. Akell’s head rested in her lap while the rest of him laid sprawled out in front of her. They were both so silent and motionless that my breath caught in my throat. Then she looked up and opened her eyes.
“Come in, but be quiet or you’ll wake him.” she said with a gentle voice.