It’s one thing to hear that an apartment building burned to the ground. That’s the usual way a bad fire is described. Standing before the ashes of Mulwin’s apartment though I saw just what it took to make that description a reality.
Fari’s post-cognition spell used the echoes of power that remained in the building’s ashes to call forth a vision of its destruction. Across the four lane road, I saw the pile of black rubble spin back up into the sky and resume its shape as a block-wide home for hundreds of people.
The fire that consumed it didn’t start gradually. Whatever elemental was summoned into the building was too big for the structure to contain. Its flames burst out from every window as the interior rooms became fuel for the beast.
The suppression spells triggered the instant the fire began, but that meant they were an instant too late to save the inhabitants. Even with their support structure crumbling beneath them, the protective spells tried to fight the elemental. That saved the surrounding buildings. It bought time for the Zawalla fire brigade to arrive and contain the ancillary damage caused by the massive fire. What the spells did not do though was banish the fire elemental itself.
Lost in the grip of Fari’s spell, I gazed up at the towering monster of flame that raged in the confines of the crumbling apartments and tried to imagine how the fire brigade had managed to smother the blaze. The scene played out further, following their arrival, and I saw their efforts fail with every spell they cast. The elemental was too much for them.
The last of the suppression spells failed and the flame monster surged outwards, consuming the outer walls of the apartments. It turned its titanic maw towards the apartment building behind me and I saw it loom over my head, crossing the street and blotting out the sky in a curtain of greedy fire.
And then it was gone.
Banished by its summoner.
All that was left were ashes, dust and the choking scents of smoke and loss.
Fari’s spell faded and the past fell away from my eyes. The smell of the flames remained though.
“On the bright side, I think there’s enough echoes left that I’ll be able to setup a good link to the fire elemental.” Fari said. She didn’t sound any more pleased with the prospect than I was.
“So we get to ask that thing one question and then we have to fight it or it will run amuck?” I asked.
“Yes.” Fari confirmed.
“Do you think we can do this?” I asked.
“Yes.” she said, though she didn’t sound quite as certain about that.
I breathed in the heavy odor of char and weighed the risks. The fire elemental’s destructive power was undeniable. If we failed, hundreds of people would pay the price. If we didn’t try though Red Robes would finish his work and put his plans into effect. He had murdered hundreds in the last few hours and the war he promoted had claimed a thousand times as many victims as that. The numbers made for a compelling case but I couldn’t balance out lives by looking only at how many of them were on each side of an equation.
If I was going to risk the lives of the people around me, I had to ask myself a lot of questions. Could I keep them safe? What would I be willing to sacrifice to protect them? Was there a better way?
It’s amazing how often people forget to ask that last question. In this case though, if there was a better way I couldn’t see it and Fari, who was a lot smarter than I was, couldn’t see it either. That didn’t mean one wasn’t there, just that both of us had failed to find it in the time we had available. I thought about it that way to force myself to stay open to the possibility of a different approach while accepting that the path I’d chosen was the best I could do.
I knew I might not be able to keep the people around us safe, but the only way to get to Red Robes was to take a gamble and at least this one put the primary exposure to danger on me. I’d sacrifice my safety before I sacrificed any one else’s. If I failed, it wouldn’t help the people of Zawalla that I burned up first, but at least our plan ensured I would fight for them as hard as I could.
“Tell me what I need to do.” I said.
“We’ll need to start at the center of the building, where the fire elemental was first called.” Fari said.
Sneaking past the cordon lines the fire brigade left up wasn’t difficult. The excitement of the fire had fallen away a few hours after the elemental was banished. It was dark and late and people wanted to get back to sleep. Even in the face of a tragedy like this, life went on.
“You’ll be the one calling the elemental back.” Fari said. “I need you to pull in the threads of Energetic anima that remain from it.”
“I’m guessing I can’t just flood the area with Void anima though right?” I said.
“Yeah, you’ll need to be gentle, like you’re pulling on a spider’s web. We’re trying to draw the elemental back by threads that are barely connected to it anymore.” Fari said.
“Might as well get started then before it shakes them off.” I said.
I breathed out slowly to push my fear and doubt away. The cloak of invisibility around me dropped away as I did. I needed all of my concentration for the task at hand. Maintaining an extra spell on top of that would guarantee failure.
Fari talked of the remaining slivers of the elemental as threads, so I focused my mind on that image. I reached out with my Void anima and tried to shape it into thin tendrils that could wrap around the bits of fading Energetic anima and bring it back to me without destroying it. It was hard. My usual spell casting mode was to throw out buckets of Void anima and patch up any holes in the spell with buckets more of the stuff. This felt more like sewing, a skill the Sisters of Waters Grace had tried to teach me many times at the orphanage without the barest hint of success on any occasion.
I found the first strand of the elemental anima in a still hot bit of melt that had melted in the fire. Pulling the anima out of the metal was easy. Too easy. I felt Fari try to help me ease back on the force I exerted but it was too late. The anima snapped loose from the metal and vanished into the Void before I could pull it into myself.
“I know we’re in a hurry, but we can’t rush this part of it.” Fari said.
“Right. Slower then.” I said and gritted my teeth. Moving slowly can be harder than moving fast. I pictured the exercises Master Hanq made me do at “1/10th speed”. An hour of that would leave me sore for days early on.
I sent my Void anima out, moving it with exaggerated slowness as I sought out another spark.
“You’re still a little too quick.” Fari said.
Moving the Void anima slower felt like it was going to be impossible. It was like pushing me off a building and asking me to fall at half the normal rate. After a minute of attempting to control my Void anima at that speed I was shaking with fatigue and all I had to show for my efforts were three more broken strands of Energetic anima.
“You’re getting there.” Fari said. Her mental voice was quiet and hopeful. Based on the results I saw, I was sure her words were meant more as an encouragement than as a reflection of reality.
I pulled my Void anima in and relaxed for a moment, trying to catch my breath and recenter my casting efforts. In the east I saw the sky beginning to brighten with the approach of day. It had taken a while to walk to Mulwin’s apartment from the edge of the city but even with that dawn seemed to be approaching too quickly.
“What’s going to happen if we’re still working on this when the sun rises?” I asked.
“Don’t worry about that. For now, just focus on pulling in those anima threads.” Fari said.
Even the basic lessons in spell casting I received let me translate that; if the sun rose it was going to be even harder to pull in the threads. Since what we were doing was already impossible enough that Red Robes wasn’t planning for it, I didn’t like our chances if I took any longer to work out how to do what Fari needed.
My instincts told me that what I needed to do was to try it my own way. If I flooded the area with Void anima I could reach out to all of the remaining threads at once and pull in the strongest of them that remained. That would solve the problem in one quick swoop and play to my strengths rather than my weaknesses.
Needless to say, my instincts are stupid sometimes, which is why I don’t listen to them if I have half a choice in the matter.
It would feel good to let loose, but I knew all I would accomplish would be to scour the building clean of any trace of the elemental that destroyed it. As miserable as it was, sometimes the only way to get a job done is to do it the hard way.
With a calm inhalation, I gathered my Void anima inside myself. On the exhalation I let it suffuse me. From a silent, cold, sphere in the center of my chest, I pushed it to flow outwards to the limit of my skin.
The threads of anima I needed to find were far away from me and the arrival of the new day was unnaturally close but I put both of those facts out of my mind. I was all there was and I was empty, I was the Void.
Memories from times long gone struggled to fight to the surface of my mind. Cries and screams and fire and loss. It wasn’t the time to see those though, so I focused on the silence at the center of my being instead. I had no memories, I had no senses. I wasn’t a Crystal Guardian, I wasn’t an orphan, I wasn’t Mel. I simply was.
Around me, there was anima of every variety. All of the world was magic when you looked at it from the Void. Every piece of matter was an endless miracle, every erg of energy was the promise of impossible change and every passing thought a fragment of godlike awareness.
I didn’t move, because I couldn’t move. I was the Void, I was absence and emptiness and the space between things.
I was the Void, but I was not alone.
Fari’s touch passed through me like a whisper, the most gentle of impulses, reminding me that I could breathe and so I did.
Inhale and I felt myself, felt the edge of my Void anima where it played along my skin.
Exhale and I grew larger, spreading outwards with my breath to cover a tiny fraction more of the world.
Inhale and exhale, grounding myself and growing. It was slow work, much more so than what I had tried before, but the pressure of the clock was lost to me. I couldn’t sense time passing, or the impending arrival of the sun’s light, except in the flow of world’s anima as it streamed around me.
When I encountered the first of the elemental’s stray anima, I knew what it was. It was too pure, the heat caught in the ruins of a cooking pot had a life to it that the warmth of the rest of the ruins lacked.
I didn’t try to pull that strand in. I just kept breathing and reaching out. Inch by inch, strand by strand, I found the connection that Fari needed to work with. Each bit lay where it had fallen, but within me, they were twined into a gossamer cord reaching beyond the world to the elemental plane from which they came.
To the cord, I felt Fari add her magic and her will. Bolstered by her strength, it changed. What once was gossamer grew stronger than steel, the cord becoming a mighty leash that we pulled on together.
The fire elemental was not used to such summons. There was a proper way to call a being as vast as he. The ritual required calling out the name that flattered him, it required feeding him with expensive incense and rare fuels. And it required the promise of blood and flesh that he would be given to burn.
We offered none of those things. We didn’t entreat the elemental. We didn’t seek to placate him or gift him with payments for his service. We dragged him to us in protest and torment. Our voices demanded his attention and compelled his presence before us.
When he arrived, there was no binding circle to hold him. No protective spell carefully calibrated to contain his wrath. There was only Fari and I to stand before a being who was ancient when the planet we stood on was formed.
It wasn’t going to be a fair fight at all.