Laying on the ground struggling to keep from bawling my eyes out wasn’t the best plan for survival. I knew that, but after a thousand ghosts funneled through my mind I didn’t have enough left in me to do anything else. Not right away at least. To tell the truth, it was tempting to lie there forever. Giving up seemed so easy, and maybe even the smartest play I could make. With what I had seen, it seemed like the only thing opening my eyes was going to do was let more of the grey city crawl inside me.
For a long moment that was more than I could bear. So I stayed there. Curled up inside myself. Wrapped in the darkness of my eyelids.
The ghosts hadn’t hurt me. Not physically. I’d even been buffered from their emotional pain. The tears I fought against weren’t for them. They were the selfish, childish tears that I’d held back a thousand times before.
I’d been knocked down a few times in the last hour or so, and getting back up was getting harder each time. Where will and desire left off though, stubborn habit pushed me back to my feet.
Something looked wrong when I did and it took me a moment to notice that it was the grass under my feet. The green grass.
In running from the shelter, I’d stumbled into a park and collapsed there. Looking behind me I saw that the grey hadn’t disappeared. Instead, there was a sharp dividing line where the effect of the spell bomb stopped. On one side, there was only bare earth and death and, on the other, the grass and trees were green and vibrant.
“Someone might be alive still.” I said in a whispered breath.
I looked around and got my bearings before taking off towards the orphanage. There were other people I knew, but my first stop had to be what passed for my home. I might have hated parts of it but it was still my place. Maybe the only place where I belonged.
Ten minutes of jogging later and I was surrounded by grey once more. More than one bomb had fallen. More than one area of the city had been razed of life. I tried to reassure myself that the Sister’s complex wouldn’t have been hit. We were in an unimportant section of the city, and on the outskirts of it at that. There wasn’t any logical reason to waste pricey magical ordinance on a target like that. That argument didn’t make me feel any better though since the same could be said about attacking my world in general.
I ran faster, trying drown the thoughts in my head with the rushing wind. Physical exertion had grounded me in past, but not this time. Even at a flat out run, I couldn’t distract myself from thinking about what I was going to find when I got back. The image of the dormitory as a grey and empty shell was crystal clear in my mind’s eye.
There wasn’t going to be anyone there for me.
I couldn’t tell if that was another vision of the future or the voice of despair speaking. Or if there was any difference between them.
That thought made me angry. I hated feeling whiny and weak. I hated the idea that I couldn’t do anything, that I had to just watch as horrible things happened. I’d spent years fighting that. Fighting the other kids at the orphanage when they tried to push me around, fighting guys on the street like Badz and Davos and Maraz who thought that I was easy prey because I was a girl, or because I was smaller than them, or because I didn’t hit them first.
The bombs had been different though. I couldn’t fight back against a bomb, especially not one that the actual military couldn’t deal with.
And yet I had. In a way. I looked at my normal seeming left hand. I could still feel the darkness within me, the Void anima, clearer than ever before. It’s presence was a contradiction. Alien and yet familiar. Terrifying and disgusting and somehow reassuring.
I didn’t know what that meant, except that it made Taisen’s offer of help more appealing. Even if he was crazy. In his favor was the fact that his mending spell was working fantastically. Despite the pace I was running at, I wasn’t feeling tired at all.
That might have been why I had the energy to jump high enough to land on the roof of a hover truck when something broke the silence that was smothering the city.
I crouched on the roof of the truck and looked around like a frightened cat to identify the source of noise. Overhead I saw an airship, one of the big ones, its engines screaming as it tore through the sky. I strained my eyes to follow it but it was too far away by the time I caught sight of it to make out any markings. It could have been one of ours doing a fly over to see what kind of damage had been done, but the cynic in me doubted that. Anyone who was looking to bomb us would have targeted our meager military bases first. Given the size of the airship it seemed a lot more likely that it was landing troops to secure whatever they’d been willing to murder a city for.
I wasn’t sure what that meant in regards to me. I doubted they’d be expecting to find lone girls running through the city, but I was pretty sure they’d be happy to shoot any they came across. Hiding was one option, but there were almost too many problems with it for me to count, the largest of which being that if anyone I knew was alive, they wouldn’t be if a troop of invaders found them before I did.
With that off the table, I picked up my pace. Taisen’s mending spell must have been incredibly overcharged by the the extra energy he poured into it because, as fast as I ran, my body was able to keep up without tiring. I was so into the effortless running groove in fact that I didn’t even notice when someone shot me.
One moment I was sprinting down East Canal street and the next I’d tripped and gone sprawling through a stand that sold dried fruits and tourist knick knacks. The crack of the bolt caster was distinct enough to tell me someone was shooting. The pain in my left arm followed along after that to let me know they were shooting at me.
“There was a live one!” I heard an armor muffled voice shout out.
“Target down. Advancing to confirm kill.” another said.
Several more called out “Advancing to support” in response to that.
I wasn’t used to dealing with military types but it didn’t take a master of mind magic to work out that they were talking about me. That should have been terrifying but instead I felt a cold anger simmering inside. On its own, it might have sparked some rather stupid and suicidal thoughts, but my fear mixed with it to keep me rational.
There were a lot more of them than I wanted to try fighting, but there was no way in hell I was going to sit and wait for them to kill me. Staying low to the ground I broke for the alley behind me. Cries went up from the soldiers and bolts crashed into the bricks of the shops I was running between.
I felt the cold passage of a pair of bolts narrowly miss my head as I dodged and weaved my way to the alley’s end. The fence that blocked off the alley to prevent traffic from passing down it was twice my height and topped with rusted spikes. That would have made the alley a dead end but, fortunately, there were piles of shipping boxes piled against it that let me spring over the top of the fence and hit the ground of the far side in a rolling tumble.
I made it to the far end of the alley by the time the soldiers reached the fence and, without pausing, cut to the left and then across the street to disappear down another alley on the far side of the road. I heard the soldiers behind me as I ran, their leader calling for them to fan out and search in both directions. Unless I missed my guess they’d also be reporting my position to someone who could dispatch more troops, possibly with the kind of magic wielders who would be able to pin down my location no matter where I ran.
That thought kind of sucked. On the other hand, the thought of leading half the invasion force on a wild goose chase brought a grim smile to face. I knew it wouldn’t really be half the invasion force but if I was going to entertain the delusion that I would live to see the next sunrise, then a grand delusion seemed like the way to go.
I cut across a few more roads and took a few more alleys to get away from the troops that were pursuing me before dodging into a store that had been open when the bombs hit. I locked the door behind me and dashed into the back room before the pursuing soldiers caught up.
With a second to think, I tried to put together a plan but I came up blank at first. My escape hadn’t been entirely due to luck. The soldiers were carrying a full load of field equipment. I was unencumbered. They were professionals trained in searching and capturing cities (most likely), but I knew this area. I didn’t have to guess which alleys led to which streets, or what the fastest way to get out of a line of sight was. Also, I was able to run as fast as I could and they needed to stay wary of traps and ambushes. I had a lot of advantages, but something still didn’t feel right about the fact that I’d gotten away from them.
I looked at my arm. The one that had been shot. It still hurt a bit but it looked fine. As far as I knew that was impossible. Even civilian bolt casters are designed to pack enough punch to kill someone. The anima shields that your typical thug like Davos could raise gave them a good chance of withstanding a glancing shot, but a dead center hit would still punch right through them. Any respectable military wouldn’t mess around with bolt casters like that. They’d go for the ones that would kill you even on a glancing blow.
In my case I should have been even deader than most since I didn’t have any anima shield to protect me. Even if it was an extremely glancing blow, it seemed like I should be short one left arm. Not that I was unhappy to still be roughly symmetrical, or alive for that matter.
I pitched that line of thought away. Maybe if I found Taisen again he could explain it. Given that I’d never even held a bolt caster there was probably a lot I didn’t know about them I decided.
What I needed to think about instead was how I was going to get back to the orphanage without leading the soldiers to any survivors who might be there. I tried to plot a path from where I was to there and saw too many places where I’d be visible for too long. Too many places, unless I was underground.
I closed my eyes and sighed. The sewers could get me close to the orphanage.
“Maybe the bombs will have killed the things down there too.” I said, hating the idea but knowing that it was my best option.
I figured the soldiers would doubleback and start checking the shops as soon as they confirmed that they’d lost me. That meant I needed to keep moving as fast as I could, so once I had the idea, I had to start acting on it. What I hadn’t figured was that not all the soldiers would have made it past me or that there’d be one carefully moving through the alley behind the shop that I’d hidden in.
I didn’t see him as I slipped out the back door, but I heard him charge the bolt caster as he lowered it to my head. He did call out a warning or order me to freeze. His immediate reaction to seeing me was to shoot to kill.
Adrenaline flooded my body and I reacted faster than thought would have allowed. I dropped and spun, catching the barrel of the caster with my right hand and shoving it aside. The twisting spin pulled my right side away from the soldier and gave forward momentum to my left.
If I’d been thinking, I would never had tried to hit him. He was in armor sturdy enough to deflect any punch I could throw and he had a solid anima shield in place on top of that. My best bet would have been to knock him off balance and run for it. Instead I hit him with a left handed palm strike to the center of the chest that had all of my weight behind it. Against armor and an anima shield, he shouldn’t even have felt the blow.
Impossibly, I watched his anima shield shatter under my blow and felt a surge of force drain through me. The soldier didn’t trip or stumble, he dropped like a puppet whose strings had been cut.
Without a shot being fired or any noise being made, the fight was over and the soldier wasn’t moving.
I looked down at my hands in shock.
Black smoke was drifting lazily around my left hand again and my right held the soft glimmer of a tiny anime shield.