Buildings falling over and explosions bursting in the night have a remarkable capacity for attracting attention at a military base. Less than a minute after the woman with the rocket launcher opened fire, everyone on the base was awake. With a precision born from years of real experience, they scrambled to their battle stations. Some of them manned the defense emplacements and scanned the skies for any signs of an inbound hostile force. Others organized into fire brigades to suppress the flames that engulfed the fallen building. Neither of those groups worried me. The ones I had to watch out for were the ones who split into kill squads and spread across the base searching for the rocket wielder.
I wasn’t their target but, under the circumstances, if they stumbled on an escaped prisoner they’d be more likely to shoot first and ask questions never. I could have tried to disguise myself, but I was still shackled. Even in a uniform at night someone would notice the chains dangling from my wrists and ankles. I had other options than disguise though.
I kept the Void anima cloak furled around me and crept towards the building Fari pointed out as the place my gear and her jewel were stored. The anima cloak hide me from sight and sound, but I had to be careful, even people who couldn’t see or hear me could still trip over me.
Retrieving our belongings took longer than I would have preferred. Every minute without another rocket attack was another minute that Heladran Mulwin, the rocket shooter, could use to escape. If she got to her home before we did, she would gut the place, or burn it to the ground, and find a bolt hole where she could hide. I didn’t know the time frame for Red Robes’ plan but I couldn’t risk that he would finish it before I found him and the only way I saw to find him was through Heladran.
I got through most of the base without incident but the security room where Fari’s Jewel was looked impossible to enter unseen. I had to pass through three sets of guarded doors and the guards were on high alert. The trick to that sort of situation is to let someone else open the doors for you. That took an extra few minutes of waiting but, eventually, an army major came to the first security door. I “drafted” him, following closely enough through the door that it was able to close at its regular speed after he was waved through it.
I trusted my Void anima, but it was hard not to be terrified when I was surrounded by armed and armored soldiers. If my invisibility faded, or if any of them could perceive Void anima, I was doomed to go down in a hail of blaster bolt fire.
Several nerve wracking minutes latter I left the building the same way I had entered it. None of the guards had seen me and none of the automated systems had detected me. I figured that gave me a few minutes at most before they discovered I’d been there. I could hide myself, but hiding the fact that I’d reclaimed my items wasn’t something I had the spell casting talent to manage. Not yet anyways.
“Why did you take one of their anima blades?” Fari asked. She knew my skill, or the lack thereof, with anima blades.
“I need to get out of these chains.” I told her.
“I can block the location tracking spell on them.” she said.
I winced. Of course the shackles had a tracking spell on them. That meant I had even less time than I’d thought.
“Do you need to be near them to maintain the block?” I asked.
“I can cast a nullifying spell but it will wear off over time.” she said.
“How long will it last?” I asked.
“A few hours.” she said.
“That should be plenty of time.” I said. “If we’re here a couple of hours from now, we’re going to want them to find us.”
“Ok. Be careful where you cut the shackles though. If you break one of the tracking seals, it will register on their scanners.” Fari said.
“Wouldn’t that be easier than the blocking spell though?” I asked.
“I have a displacement spell on the tracking seal now. If the seal’s broken, that spell will fail too and they’ll get an accurate reading on our position.” Fari said.
“I see. Thanks for the warning.” I said.
“What’s your plan to get out of here?” Fari asked as I got to work on cutting through the thickest part of the shackles.
“I’ve got my wings back.” I said, tapping the harness that I had wrapped around my chest. “Heladran would have to steal a transport shuttle to outfly these.”
We both paused and listened.
“You were waiting for the sound of a transport shuttle taking off weren’t you?” Fari asked.
“We ran into a fate binding in the prison. If there was another one active that would have been a perfect moment for it to twist things.” I said.
“So are we free of that sort of interference then?” she asked.
“I doubt it. So many people here scheme for so many different ends that any Aetherial caster worth their anima will favor subtle castings. The one in the prison was kind of blatant but they had less time to throw it together. From here they’re going to be more in their comfort zone unless we can knock them out of it.”
“Thoughts on that?” she asked.
“Stay alive and stay free.” I said. “As plans go ‘get captured and let them try to kill you’ is kind of stupid.”
“You had me.” Fari said.
“Yeah. That’s what kept it from being a suicidal plan.” I said. “Sooner or later though, Red Robes or someone in his organization will work out that you’re supporting me.”
“Maybe not. I’m somewhat unique.” Fari said.
“Yeah, but even if they can’t figure out who and what you are, they’ll start taking into account what you can do.” I said.
“Good thing I haven’t shown them all my tricks yet.”
“I’m willing to bet we haven’t seen all of theirs either.” I said as I cut the last of the shackles loose.
Escaping from the base wasn’t difficult. It hadn’t been designed as a prison. Most of the defensive positions were situated to prevent people from getting into the base. There hadn’t been much planning in their defenses for keeping people in, and being able to sneak out under a cloak of invisibility made it just that much easier.
I took to the air about a mile away from the base. After the wounds I’d taken to my ankle and leg I wasn’t sure running that far would be a good idea but the energy I’d liberated from the bone stealer had been able to repair me and clear away the fatigue of the day. I leapt from the ground and soared over the top of the nearest tree before unfurling the anima wings from my flight pack. Around them and myself I wrapped a thin layer of Void anima to keep us hidden. It took a lot of energy to maintain both spells and I braced for a wave of exhaustion to crash over me. Instead, I felt exhilaration rush through me. I had a much deeper well to draw on than usual. Between the unfamiliar sensation of flying and the rapture of the power that Fari held for me, my breath caught in my throat.
There were a lot of ways I could have escaped the base, or captured the assassin. I had so much power to spare. Too much. I thought back to the last person I’d known who’d harvest the anima from a mass slaughter. He’d smashed through a mountain of lethal traps, stolen Fari from her resting place and beaten me like I was a rag doll. He’d had the power to stand against a full Crystal Guardian and to kill everyone else who was in his path. All it had cost him was the core of his mind.
I wasn’t the same as Akell. He’d taken the power of people that he’d been responsible for killing. Fari hadn’t been there to protect his mind from the ravages of the ghosts’ memories. He’d mainlined all of power he taken where I was smart enough to use it only as I needed it.
Or at least I thought I was smart enough.
He’d thought he could handle it too though.
“Don’t let me use the bone stealer’s power.” I asked Fari. “Not unless I need it.”
“You haven’t been using it all that much yet.” she said.
“I know. I don’t think I should. It’s too tempting.” I told her as we soared, wings outstretched and caressing the tops of the trees.
“I don’t think you have much to worry about there. You’re handling it well, and I can hold a lot more than this if you need. The Jewel hasn’t lost any of its storage capacity.” she said.
That meant that I could kill the entire planet and not come close to filling up a fraction of a percent of the Jewel’s anima space. It had held a star’s worth of power and no matter how great a caster was, we’re all insignificant on that scale.
“I don’t think it’s good for me to focus on that.” I told her. “I don’t want to start seeing people as walking batteries that I can kill to get a quick boost of power.”
“You didn’t kill those people.” Fari said.
“I didn’t save them either.” I said. “I know I didn’t have a chance to, but I’m still stronger because they died.”
“You’re worried the power itself will be tainted by that?” Fari asked. “Or that you will be?”
“No. I don’t feel like I’m evil. And there’s a ton of good reasons to keep their power and use it to fix things as much as I can.” I said.
“What are you worried about then?” Fari asked.
“It feels so good.” I said. “I feel like I should be grossed out by even the thought of using power from dead people, but all I feel is strong and confident and safe.”
“I know.” she said. Fari didn’t talk about the time before she met me much. Bound into the control system for a planet killing super weapon, she’d been part of wars on a scale that I couldn’t comprehend.
“Power feels wonderful.” she said. “And it feels terrible. And you never want to touch it again and you don’t want it to stop. And it can break you.”
“You survived though.” I said, switching from thinking about my issues to helping her deal with hers.
“I wasn’t given a choice. The spells that bind me to the Jewel won’t let me go. I fell apart so many times I lost count.” she said.
“How did you bring yourself back together?” I asked.
“I didn’t. Time did. Somewhat. I’m not the same girl that I was. Or maybe I’m just the essential parts of her with the rest stripped away. I’m sorry, I know that’s not helpful.” she said.
“Maybe it is.” I said. “I don’t want to turn into a monster, but I know that I kind of am already.”
“No. You’re not!” Fari said. I was surprised by the fire in her voice but I bulled ahead with my point.
“I can hurt people in ways they can barely imagine. And I’m willing to do it if I think its for the right cause. Point me in the wrong direction and terrible things will happen.” I said.
“You don’t know what terrible things are.” Fari said. It was just a whisper on our mental link.
“Maybe not, but I know you saw them. They tore you apart but they didn’t make you into something you weren’t. They didn’t make you into a monster and that gives me hope.” I said.
“Why?” Fari asked.
“Because if part of me is a monster that means part of me isn’t and if I can keep both parts, then I think I can live with myself.” I said.
“What if it turns out that I am more of a monster than you know?” Fari asked.
“I’d hope you are!” I said. “Everyone needs at least some monster in them and you’ve been too wonderful so far.”
“I could hurt you though.” she said.
“What do you mean ‘could’? Of course you’ll hurt me. I’ll hurt you too. Master Hanq hurt me all the time. It’s what people do. What’s important is what you do afterwards. That’s what proves that you’re friends.” I said. I figured that lesson out ages ago when it came to picking sparring partners. Through a lot of bad choices, I’d learned to spot the people you could trust in the ring. You’d beat each other bloody but they’d help you up off the mat when the round was done. Then there were the jerks that would cheat like crazy and kick you in the face after the final bell rang.
“I’m not used to hurting people like that.” Fari said.
“That’s because you’re not as much of a monster as I am.” I said.
“I’ve killed whole planets.” she said.
“You never had a choice about killing someone. I have and all ten thousand of him are dead now.” I said.
“I was there. You didn’t have a lot of choice in that.” Fari said.
“Maybe not. We’ll see how it goes with Red Robes I guess.” I said.
Somehow asserting my monstrousness had helped. The temptation and exhilaration of the stolen anima was still there but I felt like I knew my bad side better. If I didn’t want to become a life stealing murderer I wasn’t going to be forced into it by some secret dark urges. I might screw up, I might even make some horrifying mistakes given what I was capable of doing, but they’d be my screw ups, my horrors and it’d be up to me to make amends or not as I decided.
“We might have a problem with that.” Fari said.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“I’m intercepting official communications. There’s a fire at Mulwin’s apartment. Someone got there before us.”