The Karr Khan forces’ commander drew her anima blade with unhurried precision. Her attention was focused on Yael, evaluating the threat the apprentice Ruby Guardian represented. Yael moved with the same slow and deliberate speed. She let Taisen crumple to the rooftop without taking her eyes off the commander or the two soldiers who had captured me.
“Surrender and I will see that you are treated honorably.” the commander said.
“I am familiar with the Karr Khan’s treatment of prisoners.” Yael said. “I don’t believe you are in a position to make that offer for one of the Empresses Guardians.”
“For your injured then.” the commander conceded.
“I’ll pass on that too I’m afraid.” Taisen grunted. He looked like he was barely able to hold himself in a sitting position but he looked at the commander with an unwavering gaze.
“Then we will kill you here.” the commander said. Her voice was flat and empty. She wasn’t making a threat when she spoke of killing them. She wasn’t offering a promise or swearing an oath. She was doing no more than stating her intent. It was almost polite in a disturbed and twisted way.
“You’ll find that’s a costly endeavor.” Yael said. “Your guards won’t survive the encounter and you’ll bear a lifelong injury from it as well.”
Like the commander, Yael’s tone wasn’t threatening or angry. She was being every bit as “polite” as her opponent was. I stopped struggling as I watched them face off against one another. This wasn’t how I was used to fights starting, but everything about the way they were holding themselves said they were serious about ending the other’s life.
“A duel then?” the commander asked, after considering the matter for a moment.
“The terms?” Yael asked, not lowering her guard.
“You and I. You will not target my men, I will not target your wounded companion.” the commander said.
“What about your hostage?” Yael asked, nodding her chin in my direction.
“She is not a part of this.” the commander said. This time there was a note of irritation in her voice. I hadn’t given her that much trouble, so I could only guess that she held me responsible for Akel’s failure.
“She’s not yours.” Yael said. She took a half step forward and raised her anima blade to point directly at the commander
“She belongs to the Karr Khan. I’ve been charged with returning her and in life or death I will see that duty fulfilled.” the commander said, taking a step forward and raising her own blade as well.
“Your forces have already tried to kill her once.” Yael said.
“I have been charged with returning the Void anima wielder to the Karr Khan alive. I cannot comment on orders that other commanders may have received or any errors or failures on their part.” the commander allowed her blade to drift slightly away from Yael as she spoke.
“Will you pledge that neither you nor your troops will do her any harm for the duration of the duel?” Yael asked, advancing another half step.
“There is no need. I am charged with returning her alive and my troops are sworn to my cause.” the commander said, returning her blade to the proper guarding position.
“And that will stand as your pledge?” Yael asked.
“If you doubt my word, why seek my pledge?” the commander replied.
“Because I believe you will keep it.” Yael said and dipped the tip of her blade slightly towards her opponent as a deadly sort of salute.
“Then yes, I will pledge that neither myself nor my troops shall do her harm for the duration of the duel, if you will pledge not to flee this rooftop for the duration either.” the commander said.
“As you wish. We have no proper circle here but let it be understood that neither of us will leave this roof until the the duel is concluded.” Yael said and took a full step forward. She wasn’t close enough to strike the commander, even with a lunge, but she looked ready to fight.
“I am Zyla of the Second Scion Circle of Karr Khan. If you would duel under the accord we have reached, offer your name and look to your defenses.” the commander said.
“I will duel you, Zyla of the Second Scion Circle. I am Yael Clearborn, Ruby Guardian of the Crystal Empress. Defend yourself or surrender when you can fight no longer.” Yael said.
I’d thought they would circle each cautiously, searching for openings and weaknesses. Its the way brawlers begin a fight when one of them hasn’t ambushed the other. Yael and Zyla weren’t brawlers though. There was a half second pause after Yael finished speaking and then they blurred into motion.
I couldn’t follow what they were doing at first. All I could see was an impossibly quick series of slashes with red and silver bursts of light. Zyla’s guards looked like they were having a hard time following the exchanges too because they both stepped backwards and had a look on their faces that said they were awfully glad they hadn’t been invited to be a part of that dance.
I reached out for the Mental anima that had been hidden in me for so long and felt my senses accelerate. Yael and Zyla didn’t slow down, but the hectic confusing blur of their motion became understandable.
Each blow was parried to set up a counterstrike which was in turn blocked to create an opening and so on. Sooner or later one of their stratagems would fall apart and the fight would be over. They were so evenly matched though that I couldn’t tell which way it would go. What I could see was that it wasn’t going to matter if Yael won.
On the buildings near us there were soldiers deploying that Zyla had held in reserve. They were staying their hands for the moment and allowing the duel to play out as Zyla had promised it would but I had no illusions what would happen if their commander fell. Two of the soldiers were no match for Yael, but twenty was another story.
Yael saw that too. I watched as she maneuvered to put Zyla in the way of her troops’ line of fire. That partially negated the peril the soldiers posed but it granted an immediate edge to Zyla. Where Yael had to limit her footwork, the Karr Khan commander was free to follow the most effective lines of attack open to her. The Ruby Guardian paused for a fraction of a second after one strike to regain her orientation and Zyla managed to slide in a blow.
It started as a rising, back handed slash that would have taken off Yael’s left leg. When Yael parried it though, Zyla flickered her wrist over and drove the anima blade forward, straight on a line towards Yael’s heart. Yael’s rising parry took the thrust off course enough to save herself from being punctured, but the blade’s tip caught her in the cheek and splattered blood up into her eye.
That would have been the end of the fight for me, but even half blind against an equal foe, Yael was able to recover. A burst of pure force knocked Zyla back and out of range for a further strike buying Yael time to clear her eye and find her center. Using that much Physical anima wasn’t free though. I could see her breathing heavier than she had been and heavier than Zyla was.
Yael needed allies badly. Especially ones who would be willing to cheat for her. Since I was out of commission that meant Taisen, Opal or Master Hanq. The latter two were still swamped dealing with the other troops. I knew that had to be the case or Zyla never would have agreed to the duel. Taisen however was a very viable option.
Or he would have been if he wasn’t missing.
I scanned around the rooftop looking for him but he was nowhere to be seen. I tried to remember when I’d seen him last but I’d been so focused on the fight between Yael and Zyla that I’d completely lost track of him. He’d been close enough to the edge of the building that he might have fallen off without me noticing but that seemed unlikely, unless his injuries were a lot worse than they’d appeared to be. Of course if there was one person who’d be able to hide the extent of his injuries, it would be a healer.
I struggled against my bonds some more, but all I managed to accomplish was to attract the nearest soldiers attention.
“Settle down or we’ll have to put an inhibitor on you.” he said.
I had no idea what an “inhibitor” was, but my imagination was able to come up with all sorts of unpleasant possibilities, so I settled down. That appeased the soldier enough that he switched back to watching the duel. I couldn’t blame him. Despite her wound and fatigue, Yael was putting on a dazzling display of swordsmanship. So dazzling that I hadn’t even seen Taisen leave, I grumbled.
So dazzling that no one was paying attention to me either.
The thought hit me like a hammer blow. No one was watching me. They were all spellbound by the duel. Literally spellbound. That was part of Yael’s plan. It had to be.
From the flashes of silver anima that were sparking between the two of them, I could see that Yael was at least Zyla’s equal as an Aetherial anima caster. Given that level of skill, she would have sensed the danger in coming up onto the rooftop. I couldn’t believe that someone that talented would blunder into a life or death fight without a plan.
So far I’d seen at least fragments of Zyla’s plan unfolding. The soldiers appearing on the roof had to be her doing in order to provoke the opening in Yael’s defenses that it had. On Yael’s side though, I couldn’t see any evidence of a plan. That told me she was probably winning, despite the way things looked.
Just because I’d never been able to work Aetherial magics didn’t mean that Master Hanq hadn’t taught me strategy and tactics and the value of subtlety. The easiest way to win he’d said was to convince the other guy that everything was going his way. Xyla looked like she had the fight in the bag, but when I looked beyond the immediate battle to the larger picture, there was a different picture taking shape.
Taisen had gotten away somehow and all eyes were off me, for the time being. Given that Yael’s goal was to protect the two of us, she seemed to be in the lead in the race that actually mattered. All I had to do was make good on an escape and she’d be free to declare the duel over and scamper away before Xyla could catch her.
The one problem with that scenario was that, with being tied up and on a rooftop, I didn’t see a lot of options for any kind of escape, even bad or painful ones. Something had made Yael think that I could managed to get away though. I looked around for inspiration and saw an open access hatch leading inside the building. That would have been an obvious choice for a getaway except that it was at least twenty feet away from me and in clear view of everyone. They were all focused on the duel at the moment, but the soldier had noticed me straining against my bonds. If I tried to go hopping over to the hatch he’d probably break my legs so he could get back to watching the fight. Short of something crazy like turning invisible there was no path off the roof that I could see.
Except, of course, that I actually could turn invisible.
My breath caught in my throat and I felt a storm of hopeful butterflies swirling in my stomach. In my anger and fear and confusion, I’d forgotten about the trick I’d learned in the sewers. I already had a whole mountain of things to beat myself up over though so adding that to the list didn’t change much. There was also the problem that I wasn’t sure I wanted to risk using my Void anima again. Turning invisible would be great. Turning into a soul devouring monster who ripped Zyla, Yael, and everyone else apart would not be so great. As risks went however, it seemed like the best one I had available to me.
‘Please, don’t go crazy. I just want to get out of here.’ I pleaded with the Void anima. I didn’t think talking to it was going to help much, but it steadied my nerves as I let go of the other animas in me and felt the Void wash over me.
The world changed, or my perception of it did. Everything grew more shadowed, but those shadows were like the thinnest piece of gauze, just enough to be visible, but not obscuring much of anything that lay beneath them.
Being as bound up as I was, with my legs wrapped together and my arms tied at my sides, I had to roll over and force myself to a kneeling position using my forehead for leverage. Once I got up, the best that I could manage was to hop towards the access panel. It felt surreal moving towards it in plain view of everyone, but no one gave even a glance at me as I floundered along.
I paused at the edge of the access panel. All I had to do was take one more hop and I’d be safe. I’d also be leaving Yael on her own against Zyla and all of her forces. As I glanced back, I saw Yael take another hit, a slash across her right thigh. She wasn’t going to be able to run away from this fight.
From the look of things, she wasn’t even going to be able to continue the fight that much longer.
I looked at her to see if she would give me some sign. A smile to let me know she’d be ok, or a look of pain to ask for help. She didn’t look at me at all though. She couldn’t see me anymore than any of the rest of them could, and she was too focused on Xyla to have spared me a glance in any case.
I wavered on the edge of escaping, caught between my fear of what would happen if I didn’t move and the sick feeling that I couldn’t imagine ever going away if I left Yael to die for me.
I couldn’t do anything to help her fight but there were still ways I could save her. I could willingly give myself up for one. I was pretty sure Xyla would trade regaining me for letting Yael go based on what she’d said at the start of the duel.
I started to say something and shut my mouth. I wasn’t that brave. I could fight these guys. I could even accept the idea of dying in a battle against them. To willingly turn myself over though? I couldn’t do it. It felt wrong in every conceivable way.
The conflict in my heart was threatening to tear me apart when I looked down into the access hatch and found a most welcome surprise waiting there.