Monthly Archives: February 2014

The Seas of Tomorrow – Chapter 13

    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.

The Seas of Tomorrow – Chapter 12

    Any one of the three soldiers on the roof with me would have been a problem to fight. Taken together though they were impossible. Don’t get me wrong, I had as much hubris as the next teenager who’d spent over ten years learning to fight. The girl in me who’d sweated through thousands of workouts, who’d drilled her forms until her knuckles bled, she wasn’t opposed to fighting these guys. All that hard work seemed like it should be put to some use after all.

    Then there was the girl who’d watched the soldiers hold their own against the superhuman skills that Yael had shown. She was less interested in tangling with them.

    The girl who got the deciding vote though was the one who’d tried to take on one of Karr Khan’s elites already today. She was the one who’d been stabbed repeatedly in the chest and nearly gone insane as a result. Needless to say, she suggested that I put as much distance between myself and the soldiers as I could.

    I’d scaled the building and left Yael and Taisen in the alley below. I could have returned to them, but that would have put us in the same position that we’d been in, except instead of one sniper over our heads, there would be three. With a sinking feeling in my stomach, I knew the best course of action was to lead the soldiers away from the fight. That would give the enemy commander fewer resources to work with. Yael would be free to go more on the offensive that way, since she’d only be protecting Taisen.

    Running away was a great plan for everyone, or at least everyone who wasn’t me. If I got into trouble, I wouldn’t have any backup or help to call on. Worse, given how far the soldiers had jumped when they leapt between the roofs, I was going to need superhuman strength and speed of my own to stay ahead of them.

    I didn’t stop and think through all of that. Most of it I figured out once I was already in motion. I knew instinctively that fighting the soldiers was a death sentence. When “fight” isn’t an option it doesn’t pay to dawdle on taking “flight”.

    I’d tumbled backwards and pitched myself over the side of the building before I fully understood what I was doing. The sensation of falling was weird, in part because I hadn’t fully expected to be plummeting like that, but also in part because the fall felt slower than usual, like I was falling through water rather than air.

    I caught a glimpse of the ground as I twisted in mid-air. A three story building doesn’t sound all the tall but, when there’s nothing but three stories of air separating you from the pavement, three stories might as well be three miles.

    My mind was scrambling to find some way I could avoid splattering all over the grey stones when my right hand caught the edge of one of the cloth signs that was draped across the tenement building’s front side. Taking my weight on one arm like that should have hurt like hell. I’d pulled muscles before doing less stupid things. I tried to move to put myself in a better position, but the fall was too quick. Somehow though my right arm stayed in its socket just fine. I didn’t even feel any discomfort.

    Not feeling pain is generally a good thing but, on the occasions when you know you should be hurt, its absence can be worrisome. All too often that’s a sign that you’ve damaged yourself so badly that your body can’t process the extent of the injury.

    I felt my body swinging towards the wall and managed to finish twisting so that I met the wall with my feet and absorbed the shock with my bent legs. I hadn’t drilled that move, but it came naturally. Then I let go of the banner and kicked away from the wall which felt about as far from natural as I could get.

    It also felt “right” somehow. Like I knew it was going to work out ok, and that it was what I needed to do.

    I could have said that “something” was guiding my actions, but I knew that wasn’t true. I was the one in control still. I was making decisions and acting on them faster than I was consciously aware of. It was like I was seeing the immediate future and acting on it before it arrived. My mind latched onto that notion. It was possible to do that. I’d read about it. Future viewing was the domain of Aetherial anima casters though. No one else could manage it that I knew of.

    The wheels in my head were spinning furiously, picking up other details that I’d been overlooking. I was more physically capable than I should have been. I’d run longer and easier than normal despite the beating I’d taken. I’d attributed that to Taisen’s mending spell but according to him the mending spell had never been in effect. I’d survived a shot from a bolt caster that should have killed me. No mending spell for that either. I’d punched a soldier so hard he’d flown out of sight into the mists we were fighting in before. And I was sensing danger and seeing the world in weird new ways.

    It didn’t take a genius to figure out that I was using anima. Anima that I’d always been told I didn’t have.

    Taisen had suggested that my abysmally low anima scores didn’t seem natural. When he’d talked about how he was out of balance towards Physical anima, I’d assumed the same was true with me and the Void anima that I carried. As I sailed across the gap between the buildings another possibility occurred to me though.

    Void anima consumes other anima. I’d seen plenty of examples of that in the last several hours. I was filled with Void anima, to the point where I used it unconsciously. To the point where it used me in fact. But what if there was more in me than Void anima? How would I ever have known? With my Physical, Mental, Energetic and Aetherial animas suppressed by the Void anima I carried, there’d be no way to measure them and no way for me to use them.

    No way until someone taught me the simple, basic, stupidly obvious, beginner’s trick of separating the anima within me.

    I crashed through the building on the far side of the street and felt anger surging through me. The impact registered as nothing more than sound though. A thunderclap of shattering wood and glass. With effortless grace, I flipped myself over and landed in a short skid in the apartment that I’d hurled myself into. The shattered glass rolled off me without leaving a mark. No cuts, no scrapes. I was fine. Unhurt. Just like I should have been for years.

    The apartment I’d landed in was gray. A clean table with a stack of mail in one corner, a basic enchanted cooling box taller than me and a stove big enough to cook dinner for a large family. All of the appliances were ruined though. Bleached gray by one of the spellbombs and then exposed to the outside thanks to the gaping hole I left in the wall where a window had once been. At my feet was the wreckage of a cabinet of dishes that had stood beside the stove.

    It didn’t matter that I’d destroyed someone’s kitchen though. They weren’t here anymore. Just like I wouldn’t have been here if I hadn’t been freakishly lucky. If Taisen hadn’t taught me how to grab onto my Void anima, I wouldn’t have been able to shield us from the spell bomb. No shield and I’d be nothing more than gray dust like the rest of the city. Like the family who’d lived in the apartment I’d destroyed.

    The first soldier flew through the hole I’d smashed in the wall and rolled as he landed. He came up with his anima blade drawn, in a perfect guard position.

    I hit him with the refrigerator.

    I’d been told so many times while I was growing up that I was deficient. I wasn’t going to have a good job since I wasn’t talented at anything. I should never have kids since they’d be as crippled as I was. I was bad, I was broken, I was useless.

    The soldier tried to get up off the kitchen floor, so I hit him again. And again. I might have hit him a few more times than that too. Things went a little blurry there for a bit. I wasn’t worried. I hadn’t lost control to the Void in me, the blur was because my eyes were filled with tears of rage.

    I could have died in the bombing. I saw that in every grey thing around me. What was worse though was that the only life I would have known would have been a joke. A shadow of what I should have been. I could feel strength surging through me and all I could think about were all the times when I’d been weak.

    I shook the tears from eyes to find that I’d knocked the first soldier back out of the room. I’d also beaten the refrigerator to pieces in the process and tossed it after him. All I had left in my hand was the door handle to it. I dropped that and considered throwing the stove and sink out the window to discourage pursuit but I didn’t feel like I had the time for that. Instead I made a hasty retreat before the other two soldiers followed me.

    Out in the hallway, I found a ladder leading up to an access panel for the roof. Hiding seemed like a bad idea. I’d be gambling on the commander not having a tracking spell on hand and that wasn’t a bet I wanted to take. I was tempted to head underground and try to get them lost in the sewers but the Hellbreacher round that had shattered our anima shield would have been a nightmare down there.

    That didn’t mean the roof was the right choice though. They were waiting for me there. The other two soldiers. They’d known which way I would run? No. She’d known. Their commander. I saw her on the roof of the building I’d jumped away from. She was directing them personally. Weaving the strands of our fate with her Aetherial anima.

    That was going to stop.

    I’d had enough of being pushed around. I’d had enough of being weak. I let anger that I’d bottled up since before I could form memories drive me forward, faster than I’d ever imagined moving.

    Right into her illusions.

    Aetherial anima is all about subtle magics. It can allow the user to glimpse the future. It can let them influence chance to a degree where it seems like they can control fate. It’s most common use though is projecting illusions. Depending on the skill of the caster those can range from distracting noises to full sensory hallucinations. Even with the best illusions though, if you’re smart, you can resist the effect and see the illusions for what they are.

    Master Hanq had pounded the techniques for doing that into me over and over since many of them didn’t require any particular skill with anima. With my head full of anger though I had no room for his lessons. There was just sheer, idiotic rage boiling over in me. I regretted that the moment my fist passed through the image of the first soldier and I saw the trap I’d fallen into.

    Without their mass to resist my momentum, I couldn’t stop myself from flying over the edge of building. Superhuman strength is wonderful but with nothing to hold onto it couldn’t help me. Superhuman speed was even better but, my stupidity had allowed the commander to use my own force against me.

    I screamed in frustration, my anger turning against myself as I fell. I’d finally found the power I’d been missing all my life and less than minute later I was helpless again. All because I was so messed up that I couldn’t remember that I was supposed to keep running. I’d spent ten years learning to fight and I’d let myself make one of the most basic mistakes you can make in a fight. The shame and the anger hurt worse than the anima blade had, and I knew there was no magic healing that would repair the damage they were doing.

    I didn’t fall far but that wasn’t a cause for celebration. The other two soldiers who stood beside the commander fired some kind of anima netting lines at me. The cords snagged me out of mid-air, where I couldn’t dodge to avoid them and started hauling me back towards the roof they were on. I felt the Void anima in me suck the magic out of the snare lines but it was too late. There were real cords there and they’d already bound me up tight. The soldiers had to switch to hauling me by hand as I swung back and slammed against the side of the building they were on. That didn’t slow them at all though and I was pulled up and dropped at the commander’s feet less than a handful of seconds later.

    I struggled and screamed but it was over. Like Yael had foreseen, I was captured. I’d thought I could fight hard enough that, if I couldn’t win, I could at least force them to kill me. Looking back though I saw that was naive.

    In the end, despite all the power I had, I was still weak. Still useless because of how bad and broken I was. Looking at the commander, I saw in her eyes the truth of what a lot of people had told me. I was going to come to a bad end because I couldn’t protect myself and I wasn’t worth fighting for.

    I closed my eyes and reached inside for anything I could find. I couldn’t trust my anger and my fear wasn’t going to buy me any sympathy from the soldiers. I could try to call the Void anima again, but that could literally be a fate worse than death. I’d be gone and all that would be left would be a monster that would either destroy the few people I cared about or a tool was turned to whatever ends Karr Khan saw fit.  I searched further but I couldn’t find anything.

    All that lay before me was darkness. I couldn’t see any light to hold out hope for.

    “Step away from her.” I heard Yael say.

    She was standing on the opposite side of the roof we’d all gathered on. In one hand she held her anima blade. The other was supporting Taisen who bore an ugly wound on his side.

    She was alone, or worse than alone, but she was still willing to take on the commander and her soldiers? I felt a chill run through me. She couldn’t win that fight. She was going to die. For me.

    I could feel how powerless I was. Beaten, captured, helpless, and yet I was not going to let her or Taisen’s deaths happen.

The Seas of Tomorrow – Chapter 11

    There’s nothing like prospect of imminent violence to motivate people to move quickly. Thanks to the warning Yael and I gave our side, we were ready when the first attacks hit the building we were hiding in. Opal and Master Hanq gathered us into the main living room of the apartment and had an anima shield projected around us before I knew what was happening.

    “What will they start with?” Taisen asked. We were all back to back to be able to see the attack from whichever direction it came.

    “Depends on how many of them there are and whether they want us alive for questioning.” Master Hanq responded.

    “I see three, no, four transports landing.” Yael said. Her eyes were glowing with a silver light.

    “Surrounding us?” Opal asked.

    “Yes. There’s an opening on the north side of the building though. They don’t have anyone with line of sight on the door there.” Yael said.

    “That’s the trap then.” Opal said.

    “If they want us dead won’t they just setup off a spellbomb to kill us?” I asked.

    “Good thing that we have you here then right?” Taisen tried to make a joke of it but his voice was too strained to convey any humor.

    “They won’t use spellbombs. Their own troops are too close and they can’t be sure the bombs would work.” Opal said.

    “If they want us alive, they’ll destroy the building to flush us out into the open. Easier to deploy snare spells there.” Master Hanq said.

    “They’re sending teams in. At least six. The others are hanging back.” Yael said.

    “So much for taking us alive then.” Master Hanq said.

    “Most of us anyways.” Opal said, looking at me.

    “I am not going to let them capture me.” I said. “Whatever it takes.”

    The idea of losing control to the Void anima in me was terrifying but the idea of Akell’s people getting their hands on me was worse.

    “Just for the record, if they capture me, I expect to be rescued before I miss my next meal.” Taisen said. There was more humor in his voice, but I couldn’t tell if that was because he had more hope or less.

    I didn’t have long to think about that though. I was just about to ask Master Hanq what they were going to hit us with when the south facing wall of the apartment building exploded inwards.

    Whoever owned the apartment had a sparse decorator. That helped since it meant there was less debris that slammed into the anima shield which covered us. Between Opal and Master Hanq’s skill, we felt none of that blast though I could see it had demolished the room from the shattered bits that lay around the edge of the shield’s dome. I tensed for the next explosion but the smoke outside the anima shield was thick enough there was no chance I was going to see it coming. I didn’t need to be able to see however to hear the crack of anima bolts being fired at us.

    “Their commander’s a novice.” Opal said.

    “I always enjoy educating the young.” Master Hanq.

    I glanced around to see what he was talking about and noticed that the our shield was holding the anima bolts that the casters had fired at us suspended in midair. Master Hanq drew his arms into his chest and then shot both palms outwards toward our unseen enemy. The bolts that had been caught by the shield flared back in the direction they came. I heard screams from the distance and the continuous hail of bolt caster fire ended.

    “It’s unwise to use projected anima attacks against a sufficiently skilled caster.” Opal said, sounding like she’d donned her teaching hat for a moment.

    “Guess Akell hadn’t mentioned us when he called back to base.” Master Hanq said.

    “Yes. He probably only mentioned that Mel was here and that they should come pick her up. The poor foolish boy, he’s digging himself in so much deeper.” Opal said with a pleased smile. She might not have explicitly planned for that but things were clearly moving the way she’d hoped they would.

    “What will they do next?” Yael asked.

    “If they’re smart they’ll send in their best casters and have them equipped for close in work.” Master Hanq said. He began affixing a new gem to his right hand, while Opal took over both sides of the anima shield. She had just raised her hands to support the glowing sphere when an impossibly loud explosion detonated against the shield.

    I felt myself lifted into the air and flung against Taisen. The edge of the anima shield bashed into me and the whole group of us tumbled end over end. I spun back to my feet as soon as we stopped moving and felt a wave of dizziness pass over me. It was a familiar feeling. I’d felt that way lots of times when I took a hard hit to the head. The only difference this time was that that the loopyness faded quicker than usual. I mentally blamed that bit of good fortune on Taisen, and assumed he was radiating a mending aura or something else “healery” like that.

    I looked around to get my bearings and found that we had been blasted out of the apartment entirely. None of us seemed to be damaged but the anima shield was fizzling out as I watched.

    “Or they’ll do that.” Master Hanq said, picking himself up.

    “Hellbreacher missiles. I didn’t know Karr Khan had acquired enough of them to let his regular troops use them. That’s an unfortunate turn of events.” Opal said.

    “We need to go on the offensive. They’ll blast up to pieces if we try to turtle up.” Master Hanq said.

    “Agreed. Yael, watch after Healer Taisen and Ms. Wardsward.” Opal said as she drew her own anima blade. Unlike Yael’s and the soldier’s, Opal’s blade didn’t glow with the red light of Physical anima. Instead it shone with the blue aura of Mind anima. That meant even a small scratch could disable or stun her foes. A serious blow would leave their bodies alive but their minds would be extinguished. Anima blades are universally serious weapons, but Mind Anima struck me as particularly nasty to fight with. Given our current foes, that didn’t bother me too much though.

    The last of the anima shield faded and Karr Khan’s forces swarmed onto us.

    In retrospect, I wish I’d been able to watch that battle from a safe distance. Like orbit perhaps. It would have been an amazing learning experience to see people like Opal and Master Hanq in a real fight, if I wasn’t in real danger myself at the same time.

    The troops that assaulted us wore the same elite guard uniforms that Akell’s squad had. There were, however, a lot more of them. That meant neither Master Hanq, nor Opal were holding back much. The troops were aware of that too though. For all their aggressiveness, they were covering each others openings and presenting a solid front to our two best fighters. Master Hanq and Opal had to be careful as well, though that was less for themselves and more to make sure that only a few of the troopers could engage with Yael at a time.

    Watching Yael was a bit of an eye opener too. I’d been right that she would probably had mopped the floors with me if we’d come to blows. She moved as fast as the elites did, but with tighter and more precise motions. I could follow what she was doing, but on my best day it would have been hard to match the complex dance that she stepped through as she dodged, parried and struck at the soldiers to keep them off of Taisen and me.

    Fights, even well managed ones, are the definition of chaos. Despite our best efforts we were separated within a couple mins. Master Hanq, Opal and Yael were handling the direct fighting, so I should have been able to observe the battle, follow its flow and call out the openings that would let us get back together. That would have worked fine if the soldiers hadn’t held a portion of their number back to act as snipers. They’d learned not to shoot at us randomly, but their commander was also smart enough to figure out that not everyone on our side could reflect their anima bolts back at them.

    I caught sight of the commander standing on top of one of the nearby buildings. She was wearing the same kind of robes as Akell had been, which would have made her rank clear even if she hadn’t been calling order to the troops near her.

    I yanked Taisen around the corner of the building that was a few steps away from us in time to hear a trio of bolt casters fire and the brickwork we’d hidden behind shatter. Yael followed us, holding back two of the soldiers were were pressing her fiercely.

    “Taisen, how fast you can heal me if I get hurt?” I asked. It was a terrible idea, but I figured if he could mend my wounds quickly enough, I could take Yael’s place in holding the soldiers off. That would free her up to deal with the real threat. It would also mean that I’d get to experience pain in a way no one ever naturally could. As terrible ideas went, it deserved an award, probably one labeled “Gross Stupidity”, with the accent on both parts of the title.

    “With your Void anima? I can’t.” he said.

    “What do you mean, your last spell worked like a champ.” I told him.

    “My last spell? Mel, the mending spell I cast on you shattered the instant I cast it. I don’t know if you can be healed with anima magics at all!” he said.

     I tried to put that together with the healing I’d felt after I left the clinic. My thoughts were interrupted by a soldier’s scream as Yael speared him to the wall with her anima blade. That left her open to his companion but with a flick of her wrist she cast a bit of silver anima into his face and stepped easily out of the path of his attack. The soldier shook his head to clear his vision and then proceeded to attack thin air. He made a dozen slashing strikes and single thrust before rolling backwards. Yael would have sliced him in half but two other soldiers broke away from their fight with Opal to shield their companion.

    It was a nice bit of work on the soldiers’ part. Too nice. The coordination they were showing was too smooth given the chaos of the battle. Even practiced fighters couldn’t keep an entire battlefield in their minds eyes, or be aware the instant that one of their number needed assistance. I looked up and saw the commander had moved to another building’s roof to keep us in sight. Her snipers were leaping over to join her as well. She was doing more than shouting orders. She was coordinating the battle on a deeper level than that.

    “Yael. Commander across the street and up. She’s isolating us. You’ve got to take her out.” I yelled.

    “If I leave, you’ll die.” she said.

    “So it’s win-win, right?” I didn’t mean to make the joke, but I couldn’t help myself, especially since I figured there was a good chance I was going to die either way. Yael didn’t respond but I could almost hear her scowl. On the other hand though, she didn’t leave which said something.

    Probably that she thought Taisen was cute too, and didn’t want to risk him getting skewered when my crazy plan fell apart.

    I felt the chill of danger and looked up to see that the snipers on the rooftop had gotten into a firing position again. The three soldiers on the ground that were attacking Yael had her completely on the defensive. Master Hanq and Opal were both cut off from us by the squads of soldiers they were fighting. In short, our options for where to go and who we could defend against were being steadily whittled down.

    Taisen stepped in front of me and raised an anima shield but the chill kept growing. He was last anima caster that we had and he was locked in place defending against the snipers. It was the only thing he could do, but I knew as he did it that it was a fatal mistake.

    My breath stopped. One of us was going to die. It wasn’t a suspicion. I was certain of it. I blinked and my vision clicked over to the weird, darkened view of the world once more as time slowed before me.

    Taisen wasn’t cute anymore. He was gorgeous. A boundless flame of physical anima. Any image I’d ever had of what an angel should look like was replaced by the being of radiant life that stood before me. It was hard to see the others, but Yael stood out due to her proximity. Her flame wasn’t as singular and awe-inspiring as Taisen’s was. Hers was a rich medley of different colors with red and silver in predominance. Compared to her, the soldiers that she fought were candle flames before a bonfire.

    Around the two of them were spun threads of silver that lead back to the soldier’s commander. In fact there were threads around all of the flames I could see. It was like the commander was a puppeteer and everyone on the ground was dancing under her fingertips. It was another type of anima. Aetherial anima, though I’d never seen it before or heard it described like that. Watching the commander move though, I couldn’t imagine she was doing anything other than casting a spell. It wasn’t one that directly controlled people though, it just seemed to limit them and push them into certain paths.

    The threads around Yael, slowed her if she attacked and hedged her into the path of the blows the soldiers threw at her. The one’s around the soldiers did the reverse. Other threads manipulated the environment in the same way, placing a rock under Yael’s feel or smoothing the path for one of the soldiers.

    As she fought, Yael was weaving silver threads of her own, but with three enemies pressing hard against her, she didn’t have the freedom to create as complex a series of patterns as the commander did.

    I watched the commander, trying to understand what it was she was doing. I followed the thickest thread that she held, the one that she was placing the most energy into. It flew high in the air and lead to the building we were next to. I looked up and saw a single flame waiting there. On a purely visceral level I knew I had to cut that thread. That was the attack the commander was the most focused on lining up. That was the one that meant death for us.

    My vision snapped back to normal and I dragged in a shocked breath. I was still looking up, still looking at the sniper who was sighting in on Taisen. The healer had cast his anima shield as a wall to give it a prayer of stopping the sniper fire from across the street. That meant it wasn’t providing any shelter from the sniper above us though.

    I tried to call out to Yael but the first three soldiers had been reinforced by three more and there were a pair of casters on the rooftop supporting them as well. Opal and Master Hanq being swarmed by the soldiers but were giving out far more damage than they were taking. Despite that though, they were still cut off from us.

    No one could stop the sniper. No one except me.

    I’m don’t know why I started climbing the wall to reach the roof. Climbing three stories should have taken me roughly a million times too long in terms of reaching the sniper before he shot. Maybe I was thinking that I could attract his attention that way? Maybe I had some subconscious inkling of what I was capable of? Either was possible, but the most likely reason was that I was desperate and lacked any better options.

    I didn’t literally fly up the wall, and I didn’t rip it to pieces. It just felt like that. Between the time when the sniper peered out over the edge and was able to line up his shot, I somehow threw myself up three stories and knocked him back from the edge.

    Finding myself on top of the wall was almost as big a surprise for me as it was for him. I had the distinct sense of the silver anima thread I’d seen, the one that spelled our deaths, shattering like glass as I leapt on the sniper and began pummeling his face in. I wasn’t worried about his bolt caster. That had gone flying out of his hand when I first hit him. No kept hitting him as hard as I could because I was terrified that he’d get his anima knife out.

    I’d hit him about a thousand times when I felt another chill of danger and rolled away from the shots of the commander’s snipers. By habit more than anything, I came back up to my feet in a hand-to-hand defensive stance. As though that would help me against snipers.

    I was slightly shocked therefor when the next set of shots froze in the air before my outstretched left hand. The one with the ribbons of dark smoke playing around it. As the light in the shots dimmed and flickered out, I felt myself grow slightly warmer as their power drained into me.

    I tried to will the Void anima away before it took me over again, but all I succeeded in doing was to push more of it into my left side. The snipers looked at me and then at their commander. At her nod, they leapt from the roof they were on, across the thirty foot divide to land on the same roof as me.

    I hadn’t expected that, but for as bad as going hand-to-hand with three elite soldiers was, it didn’t seem like instant suicide. At least until they twisted their bolt casters into anima blades. Then I knew I was in trouble.

The Seas of Tomorrow – Chapter 10

    I’d never met the Crystal Empress but I’d always had the impression that she was more of a cosmic force than an actual person. It had only been a little over twenty years since the battles that ended the Feuding Warlords era. Twenty years since almost half the galaxy had united under one banner and cast off a millenia of tyranny and barbarism. By the standards of the galaxy, twenty years was less than a blink, but for me it was my entire and life and then some.

    “What could anyone find here that would threaten the Celestial Empress?” I asked, getting to my feet as Yael entered the room behind Opal.

    “You don’t need to know that.” Yael said. She didn’t look ready to reach for her anima sword, but that didn’t mean there were any traces of friendliness on her face.

    “Yael, you don’t need to treat…” Opal began to say, but Yael cut her off.

    “I’m not treating her like the enemy. She hasn’t had any training in resisting mind magics. Anything she knows, Karr Khan’s forces will be able to pull out of her in an instant if she’s captured.” Yael explained.

    “We already have reason to make sure she is not captured by them.” Opal said.

    “You’ve told me to pay attention to the subtle premonitions I get though. I can feel so many futures  where she leaves this world with them. Can we really take chances with something like this?” Yael asked.

    “You are right to be cautious.” Opal sighed.

    I could hear a curtain closing with that sigh. They weren’t going to say anything else. I was being cut out. Not important enough, or strong enough, or good enough, or whatever, to be worth treating like a real person.

    “They’re afraid Karr Khan’s going to find one of the Jewels of Endless Night.” Master Hanq said without concern. Opal and Yael both froze in place, their eyes going wide at him revealing their secret.

    “How do you know about that?” Opal asked, her voice quiet and calm and ever so dangerous.

    “Hung around too many bad people for too many bad years.” Master Hanq replied.

    “What are the ‘Jewels of Endless Night’?” I asked. Yael’s hand twitched towards her anima sword but I forced myself to ignore it. As long as it was sheathed, I could pretend it wasn’t there.

    “Anima weapons. Left overs from the Silent Aeons.” Master Hanq said.

    I wasn’t a great student, but I’d picked up the basics of galactic history. Before the Crystal Empress there was a thousand years of strife and warfare among the stars. Warlords carved out fiefdoms of planets and systems and constantly fought to expand their fragile, short lived, little empires. The more enlightened ones tried to recreate the Pan-galactic Congress that had ruled the galaxy for millennia before it fell apart, but no one before the Crystal Empress had the power, charisma and support to pull it off.

    Before the era of the Pan-galactic Congress though, there had been another time of unending warfare. The Silent Aeons. The Pan-galactic Congress had brought the worlds of the galaxy together and allowed for communication and commerce between the sapients who lived under its rule.

    Before that, in the Silent Aeons, there was no universal way of communicating across the stars. Races would discover one another only by chance and more often than not, one would destroy the other. There aren’t any records that can tell us how many civilizations were destroyed or how many destroyed themselves, but with how often ‘newly discovered worlds’ turn out to have all sorts of ruins hidden on them, the number is probably a pretty large one.

    “They’re more than anima weapons.” Opal said. “They allow their bearer to summon powers well beyond anything an anima caster can manifest.”

    “Is that why you’re here? You want to get them for the Crystal Empress before the Khan guy can lay his hands on them?” I asked.

    “No. We’re here to destroy the Jewel, if there’s one hidden here.” Opal said.

    “I didn’t think that was possible.” Master Hanq said.

    “Why would you destroy it?” I asked. “If they’re that powerful why not use it to wipe Khan and his people out of the sky?”

    “Many reasons, but primarily because the Jewels can’t be controlled. The bearer can invoke them but its the Jewels that choose how they will act. The bearer’s will becomes subsumed by the power they hold.” Opal explained.

    That brought back my memories of killing the soldiers. Of being completely out of control.

    “How do you stop someone like that?” I asked.

    “You don’t. Once someone invokes one of the Jewels, they become nothing more than vessel for the Jewel’s will. ” Opal said.

    I looked over at Yael. She was still looking at me like we were ten seconds away from getting into a knockdown brawl. Or like I’d been left as nothing more than a vessel for something else’s will. It bothered me that I couldn’t know if she was right or not.

    “Why do they think one of the Jewels is here?” I asked.

    “They call to each other.” Yael said. She was watching me through narrowed eyes, judging each twitch and reaction I made. I almost paid more attention to that than the implication of what she said. The meaning behind Yael’s words hit me a sec later though.

    “Wait they’ve already got one of these things?” I asked.

    “We believe so. It’s likely how they managed to open their own portal to travel here.” Opal said.

    “That’s how powerful these things are?” I asked.

    “That’s one ability of one of the Jewels. It’s called the Traveler. The same Jewel was probably responsible for the spellbombs breaching your planetary shield.” Opal said.

    “That’s insane! They could wipe out any planet they wanted then!” I objected.

    “The worlds that are under the Empresses protection have better shielding that you had here, but yes, they could cause considerable damage to many worlds.” Opal said.

    “Why would they need another one of these things then?” I asked.

    Opal and Yael both went silent. They exchanged a glance and seemed to come to a consensus but it was Master Hanq who broke the silence.

    “It’s the Ravager isn’t it? Or the Assassin?” he asked.

    “What are those?” I asked.

    “There’s a lot of mythology around the Jewels. Some are even famous if you’re into the kind of thing. The two that I’ve heard of people searching for are the Ravager and the Assassin.” Master Hanq said.

    “I’m guessing the Assassin kills people. What does the Ravager do?” I asked.

    “The Assassin doesn’t just kill people. It can kill anyone, anywhere. Tell the Jewel who you want dead and they die, no matter where in the galaxy they are. Simple as that. The Ravager is for when you’re not in the mood to discriminate. It doesn’t have the Assassin’s range but it will kill everyone on a planet.” Master Hanq said. “Or at least those are the stories people tell.”

    “So if they get the Assassin, they send it to kill the Empress directly, and if they get the Ravager they portal over to her homeworld and just kill her and everyone else there.” I said.

    “Maybe. Except I heard the Empress bound a couple of the Jewels, so I don’t know if they’ll actually work against her.” Master Hanq.

    “They’re all bound.” Yael said.

    “Yes, each one is wrapped in powerful obscuring spells. Its why they can’t find each other precisely and instantly.” Opal said.

    “A planet’s a big place to search. They’ve got to have a way to hone in on it right?” I asked.

    “Karr Khan’s forces contain some of the most gifted Void anima casters in the galaxy.” Yael said. Just below her words, I could hear anger and fear warring with each other.

    “How does that help them?” I asked.

    “There are Void anima spells that can see through the anima of illusions and obscuring spells. It’s difficult, but if the Void caster has the time and focus they can eventually pierce any magically created concealment.” Opal explained.

    “Why hide them at all? Why not just drop them into a star or something?” I asked.

    “It’s been tried. Even the Jewels other than the Traveler can move themselves though.” Yael said.

    “Can you see through the illusions then?” I asked.

    “No, that’s why we need Akell.” Opal said.

    “Why would he help you though?” I asked.

    “As you have observed, I am a mentalist.” Opal said.

    I guessed that meant that what Akell “wanted” wasn’t going to be an issue for much longer. He probably had all sorts of mental training, but given that she had as much time to work on him as she needed, I suspected Opal wasn’t going to have any difficulty with that. The prospect of seeing someone have their will ripped away from them was kind of horrible, but then Akell was the kind of horrible person that I didn’t mind seeing bad things happen to, so I found it hard to come up with the moral outrage that the Sisters would expect me to show.

    I was about to ask if Akell would be able to beat the rest of the Khan’s forces to the Jewel when Taisen walked in. He had a bloody lip which he was in the process of healing.

    “What happened?” I asked. I couldn’t see any way he could have gotten injured unless he’d beaten himself up for some reason.

    “Your plan is in motion.” Taisen said, speaking to Opal. “But I didn’t have to fake losing the fight to Akell. The boy’s quite dangerous.”

    “Does he think you’re dead?” Opal asked.

    “Probably. If I hadn’t been expecting his attack, I wouldn’t have been able to regenerate the injuries he inflicted fast enough.” Taisen said.

    “What happened!” I demanded.

    “Our prisoner has escaped.” Opal said, a mischievous smile playing across her mouth.

    “What? We’ve got to stop him! He’ll lead his people right to us!” I said.

    “I don’t think so.” Master Hanq said. “But perhaps we could be filled in on the scheme you’re running here Opal?”

    “It’s nothing that profound. You saw that I exchanged a memory with Akell. It was of two of his brothers. They had failed in a mission, much like Akell had. When they tried to return to Karr Khan, the Khan ordered them to be executed but promised that they would be listed as having ‘fallen in battle’. Apparently “falling in battle” is a common fate for Karr Khan’s scions. The Ruby Guardian’s who defeated them originally were able to rescue them from the execution and turn them over to the Empresses side. Given the way Karr Khan raises his scions, they were quite willing to renounce him once it was clear how he really felt about them.” Opal said.

    “You did more than just show him a memory though didn’t you?” Master Hanq asked.

    “I only planted an idea.” Opal said.

    “Let me guess; if he comes back with the Jewel, Khan’s not going to care about him missing Mel.” Master Hanq said. “And then you placed a tracking spell on him.”

    “She also predicted that if he was only partially asleep, he’d wake up, disable or kill me and then make his escape.” Taisen said.

    “I apologize for asking you to play that role. How badly did he hurt you.” Opal asked.

    “No permanent damage, just enough to make me regret healing his wounds earlier.” Taisen said.

    “So what are we going to do? Follow him?” I asked.

    Opal and Yael paused, both looking at me, but each in very different ways. I couldn’t read Opal’s expression. She looked hopeful, but I couldn’t tell for what. Yael was much easier to make out. Her scowl wasn’t ambiguous. She didn’t like me and she didn’t see any reason to hide it.

    “I don’t think there should be a ‘we’.” she said, her voice firm. “You two should find somewhere to hide. You’ll be safer and we’ll be safer.”

    “You seriously think I’m going to hide in a hole? After what they did to my planet? Are you crazy?” I yelled at her. For a moment I forgot about the anima sword she was wearing. I think she did too, because she backed away when I jumped to my feet.

    “While I agree with you Yael,” Taise said, stepping forward to keep us apart, “I’ve had this discussion with her before and I don’t think that’s a suggestion she’s any more likely to take now than she was then.”

    “If she knows what’s good for her…” Yael began, but Opal cut her off.

    “Be calm my apprentice. None of us know how this is going to play out yet.” Opal said and put her hand on Yael’s shoulder to steady her. I felt a twinge seeing the gesture. The Sisters didn’t believe in any sort of bodily contact. When they needed to correct us, it wasn’t with a reassuring hand, it was with an “instruction wand”.

    Scowling for a whole bunch of reasons, I relaxed and backed off too. There wasn’t any point to starting a fight with Yael. Plus if the Ruby Guard was as tough as Master Hanq made them out to be, she’d probably clean the floors with me.

    “I understand what you’re facing Opal. And you as well Yael.” Master Hanq said. “This is a very sensitive mission that you’re on and you’re far from any backup.”

    “And how would you know that?” Yael asked.

    “There are more direct routes that you could be taking if there was another Ruby Guardian here, or nearby enough to join you soon. You’re not waiting for anyone to arrive though, which tells me you’re on your own for this one.” Master Hanq said.

    “If we are, that would be all the more reason to be careful to avoid betrayal.” Opal said.

    “Agreed, but we’re not going to betray you, and you know that.” Master Hanq said. They held each others gaze for a long moment and I was pretty sure I felt magic echo in the room.

    I also started to feel a chill spread through my chest. It was a familiar feeling, but not a welcome one.

    “We’re in danger.” I said, restraining the panic from my voice.

    “I don’t…” Yael started to say. I’m pretty sure she was going to finish it with something like ‘sense anything wrong’, but her expression changed to match my own as she focused her magics outwards.

    “Yes. We are.” Opal said, not taking her eyes from Master Hanq.

    “You needed proof right?” Master Hanq said with a smile.

    “Shall we then?” Opal asked.

    “It will be a delight.” Master Hanq agreed.

    I couldn’t begin to figure out what weird, private conversation they were having, but the smiles on both of their faces were similar. I didn’t know what it meant when Opal looked like that, but I’d seen Master Hanq smile that way a few times. He wore that expression when he was about to commit a whole lot of mayhem.

    “Karr Khan troops are landing outside! They’ve pierced the illusion I had in place!” Yael said.

The Seas of Tomorrow – Chapter 9

    When an animal encounters a predator, it will react in predictable ways. The first response is usually to seek to put as much distance between itself and its enemy as possible. Then it will bare its teeth or claws and try to make itself seem too threatening to mess with, unless it chooses the opposite route of playing dead.

    Pretending to be non-threatening had never worked for me, so I tended to go for the claws and teeth approach by instinct. That’s how I found myself out of the bed I was in and pressed into the corner of the small room where everyone had gathered. What was new was that my hands were burning with a brilliant light and that I’d moved so fast I had no memory of crossing the distance from the bed.

    “I told you we shouldn’t have had him in here.” Master Hanq said. He was glaring at the commander boy who was strapped to chair on the other side of the room.

    “You also said she was going to be ok.” the offworld girl said. She was the nearest one to me. I registered the anima blade, or really the anima sword, that she held in her hands before I processed much else about her.  My body shivered in revulsion at the sight of it. I was trying to repress the memories of what the soldier’s anima knife had done to me, but the glowing sword the girl held was making that difficult.

    “Yael, sheath that.” the older woman said. I glanced at her but it wasn’t till the girl put the blade away that I was able to take my eyes off it and see who I was dealing with.

    The older woman wasn’t that old, maybe in her early thirties assuming she was as human as she appeared to be. She was wearing a dark brown traveling cloak and a leather jerkin and breeches in a lighter shade of brown. Her blonde hair was cut at shoulder length and the clasp on her cloak was a silver medallion with a blue jewel in it. She was about my height, so fairly tall, and, due to the clothing she wore, it was hard to tell if her thin build was a sign of slender frailty or carefully developed muscles. Judging by the softness of her face and the kindly expression she wore, I wasn’t going to bet on muscles, but something told me I didn’t want to mess with her anyways.

    Yael, the younger girl, on the other hand seemed like she was spoiling for a fight. She was shorter than me but stockier. Her clothes were the same as the older woman’s which suggested they was some kind of uniform, but the outfits didn’t look like from any military I was familiar with. The scowl on the girl’s face made me wonder if I’d kicked her in the teeth, repeatedly, at some point. On the chance that I hadn’t yet, I decided I should probably be ready to do so in the future since it looked like she was one good excuse away from drawing that anima sword again.

    Behind them, I saw both Master Hanq and Taisen watching me. They’d been standing near the bed I’d been laying on, but in jumping away from the boy’s voice I’d put myself on the opposite side of the room from them.

    Master Hanq rolled his eyes at me, making me feel a little foolish for overreacting. The knowing smile that adorned his broad, dark face also told me that he’d more or less expected me to react as I had. I noticed he’d positioned himself between the boy and I, though I’m not sure if that was for my benefit or the boy’s.

    Taisen meanwhile was looking sort of panicked. It was a cute look for him. If I had to guess, I’d say that despite being a physical anima prodigy, he had probably the least fighting experience of anyone in the room, given how out of his depth he looked.

    Then there was the commander boy. His robes betrayed the fact that he’d taken a fairly serious beating recently. His face looked fine, flawless in fact, but where he could heal his injuries with anima, fixing his clothes would have taken more freedom of movement than they’d allowed him.

    “What is going on here.” I asked, calming down to the point where rational thought became possible again.

    “We’re hiding from the troops of Warlord Karr Khan until nightfall. Then we’re going to get out of the city.” the woman said.

    “Who are you?” I asked, my tone neutral.

    “My name is Opal Kinsguard. You’ve met Healer Taisen already I believe, and this is my apprentice Yael.”

    “What about him?” I felt my teeth grit against each other as I asked.

    “I am Akell of the Third Scion Circle of Karr Khan. You may all address me as Master.” the boy said, the smug superiority of his tone at odds with his apparent predicament.

    “Well, except of course for you sister.” he added. “You may address me as ‘Senior Scion’.”

    “I’m not your sister.” I said. I knew that he was baiting me. Probably out of some kind of deathwish. I held myself back, but the glow that had disappeared from my hands began to crackle along my fingers again.

    “Is there a reason we haven’t gagged him yet?” Yael asked. I revised my opinion of her upwards several notches.

    “That wouldn’t be a civil way to treat a dignitary of his rank.” Opal said. There was something about the way she said it and the sparkle in her eye that struck me as odd. It took a moment for me to see it, but looking at the smile that snuck onto Akell’s face at her words made it clear. She was playing him. On some level he probably knew it too, but his title meant something to him and he expected it to mean something to the people he met, so he couldn’t help but buy into her deference a bit.

    “If you seek to parlay with the Undying Warlord for your survival you would be wise to release me from these restraints immediately.” Akell said.

    “I’m afraid we can’t do that. We need to understand why Karr Khan has assaulted this world first.” Opal said.

    “Why to reclaim our lost sister of course.” Akell said. Even I could tell he was lying about that.

    “And the assault on the city?” Opal asked calmly.

    “It was an expensive trip to make. The Undying Warlord required some tribute from this world as well.” Akell said.

    “Your troops are soul siphoning the ghosts that remain imprisoned within the shelter wards in the city.” Yael accused Akell. It made a sick kind of sense.

    I’d been blasted with the anima remnants of the people who’d died in the shelter I’d visited. The wards that were set to keep attacks out had also held the ghosts in. That meant the shelters were essentially enormous anima batteries that could be drained and stored if you had access to the right tools and rituals.

    “Of course. It’s not like the former hosts have any need of that anima any more.” Akell said without shame or remorse.

    “You murderer.” Yael growled and drew her anima blade again.

    “Stay your hand Yael.” Opal commanded her apprentice in a soft voice.

    “Why?” I asked. Everyone turned to look at me so I clarified my statement. “Why is he still breathing.”

    “Because he is going to tell us what we need to know. And because he is going help us stop Karr Khan the Undying Warlord once and for all.” Opal said.

    “Yes, of course, that seems very likely.” Akell said, his voice dripping with sarcasm.

    “You might want to consider what happens if the rest of us stop believing the nice lady there.” Master Hanq said. He didn’t have to flex his arms, or crack his knuckles. He was totally relaxed and yet the implied threat in his words came across as a clear and certain promise.

    “You’ll kill me? Do you know what the Undying Warlord does to those who harm his Scions? Slay me and you will spend a century begging for death. As will everyone you have ever known or cared about.” Akell said.

    “You will want to consider the fate of your brother Scions Jakeet and Magikel.” Opal said.

    “Those fools? They ran afoul of the Crystal Empress. The Undying Warlord will make her pay for their deaths when the time is right.” Akell said, his voice turning harsh.

    “Oh they’re not dead at all. Didn’t you know that?” Opal asked. “No I suppose he wouldn’t have told you. That would be kept from the any but the First Circle Scions I imagine.”

    “You’re lying, and you’re quite poor at it.” Akell said.

    “Am I? Would you like to see them? I have a message from Jakeet that he asked me to deliver to any of his ‘siblings’ that I might run into.” Opal said. She walked over to Akell and placed her index finger on his forehead.

    Whatever happened next was something that only Akell, and possibly Opal, saw. They were still and silent for a long moment before either stirred.

    “That’s not possible. You lying witch. I will kill you myself.” Akell snarled.

    “You’ve had a long day, and this is a lot of absorb. Sleep now.” Opal commanded and Akell went suddenly limp.

    “Taisen, would you move him to the next apartment over. He should sleep for the next few hours, but I don’t want to chance him waking early and overhearing anything we don’t want him to.” Opal said.

    “Certainly.” Taisen said with a deferential bow. He then wheeled the sleeping Akell out of the room we were in.

    “Were you able to get what you were looking for?” Master Hanq asked Opal.

    “Most of it. I’ll need to meditate for a few minutes to piece it all together. Why don’t you bring your student up to date on what had transpired. I can see she has a crowd of questions lurking in her mind and they’re better answered coming from someone she knows.” Opal said.

    “What should I do?” Yael asked. She’d put away her sword but it didn’t mean she looked any less dangerous.

    “Focus on the illusion you’re casting. We need to be overlooked here and Karr Khan’s forces will have trackers out searching for Akell, even if he is just a minor member of the clan.” Opal instructed. Yael nodded and together the two left the room to meditate.

    Master Hanq gave up leaning against the opposite wall of the room and came over to sit down beside me as I collapsed to the floor.

    “So what would you like to know?” he asked me.

    “Everything.” I said.

    “That’s a tall order.” Master Hanq said.

    “Who are these people?” I asked.

    “Agents of the Crystal Empress. Ruby Guardians, unless I miss my guess.” Master Hanq said.

    “Seriously? Taisen was telling the truth about that?” Of all the unbelievable things I’d experienced in the last several hours, that one held the special place of being the first that had completely crossed the line of plausibility.

    “Taisen’s the cleric they have with them right? Then, yep, he was telling the truth. They’re really with the Ruby Guard. Or at least Opal and Yael are. I don’t know about the cleric. He doesn’t seem to have the training for it.”

    “What are they doing here?” I asked.

    “They came looking for you.”

    “Why me?”

    “The cleric said he’d been treating you and that you saved him from the spell bomb. He wouldn’t say anything more, but it’s kind of obvious why he was excited to see you.” Master Hanq said.

    “Why’s that?”

    “He thinks you’re cute.” my teacher said. I felt a blush creep up to the tip of my ears. I knew Master Hanq was just teasing me, but it still felt weird. I didn’t talk about boys with him. For that matter I didn’t talk about boys with much of anyone. Not even the cute ones.

    “And he knows about the way you can use Void anima.” he said, more seriously.

    My heart sank at that. Among the memories I was trying to repress, that was one of the biggest and most unpleasant ones.

    “I guess everyone saw that.” I said, feeling ashamed.

    “You want to talk about it?”

    “Not yet. I don’t even want to think about it.” I said.

    “When you’re ready then.” Master Hanq said.

    I wrestled with myself for a moment. There was a lot I wanted to know about what I’d done and about what I could do, but losing control like I had was terrifying. The image of Master Hanq withered and dead like the soldiers flickered through my mind and I wanted to throw up.

    I waited for Master Hanq to break the silence. To help me pretend nothing was different. He keep silent though. He wasn’t going to insist I tackle this, but he wasn’t going to help me run away from it either.

    “What about that daughter of the Undying Warlord thing? What was that about?” I asked him.

    “It’s a Karr Khan thing. Supposedly the original one was the guy who first figured out how to work with void anima. The whole clan’s crazy. They think that that everyone who can use void anima is descended from him.” Master Hanq said.

    “How do you know about them?”

    “Believe it or not I had a life before I started training little knee biters how to bust people’s heads.”

    “I’ve always wondered about that.” I said.

    “Oh trust me, you don’t want to listen to an old guy like me tell old war stories.”

    “Don’t suppose they’d have any fights like the one you had with Akell there would they?”

    Master Hanq snorted.

    “Him? Was that supposed to be a fight? I’ve had longer warm ups than that. Of course part of that was Opal and Yael showing up when they did. I did the boy a favor by pummeling him. Pretty sure Yael would have beheaded him if he’d still been fighting when she got to him.”

    “You said they were Ruby Guardians, what’s the deal with that?” I asked.

    “They’re the Crystal Empresses special forces.”

    “How special can they be, Yael’s my age isn’t she?”

    “They usually operate solo.” Master Hanq explained.

    “So how strong are we talking about. Could you take one?” I asked.

    “I’ve seen one of them take down three Warlords at once back in the day. The warlords didn’t even lay a hand on him.” Master Hanq said.

    “How did that happen? I thought the old warlords were super tough. Didn’t they have to fight their way to the top of the pile?”

    “They did. These three weren’t the strongest or the best warlords out there but they were pretty good. Young enough to be strong, confident enough to not hold back, and just stupid enough to believe that they were invincible.” Master Hanq said.

    “You’d think they’d have known better after the Empress kicked their butts out of known space.”

    “I mentioned the stupid part right?” Master Hanq said.

    “So why are they here? For me? How did they even know how to find me?” I asked.

    “The cleric told them. You filled out some paperwork at his office right?”

    “Oh yeah. I guess this would be only place they’d know to look for me. What about Akell though? How did he know to be here?”

    “I don’t know. He didn’t get chatty until you woke up.”

    “Yeah, thanks for that by the way. That’s just what I needed to wake up to.” I frowned.

    “My apologies.” Opal said as she returned. “I needed him to be distracted so that I could probe his recent memories.”

    “You’re a mentalist?” I asked. Casters who worked with Mind anima weren’t as common as the ones who worked with physical anima, and most of them were specialized for enhancing their own mental capabilities. Being able to actually read other people’s minds was a rare and creepy gift.

    “Among other things, yes.” Opal said.

    “What did you see in the boy’s mind?” Master Hanq asked.

    “He was here for Mel, but that’s not why the Karr Khan’s forces are here.” she said.

    “Tell me something I don’t know.” Master Hanq said.

    “They think this world holds the key to destroying the Empress and claiming control of the worlds that are under her protection.” Opal said.

    “Are they crazy?” I asked.

    “Yes, but I’m also afraid they might be right.”

The Seas of Tomorrow – Chapter 8

    Beyond a certain level, pain isn’t something you can fight. The body just shuts down. That’s what I expected to feel as I fell away from the soldier’s bloody knife. The pain didn’t come though. The weakness didn’t either. There wasn’t even fear. All I felt was emptiness. I was so removed from what had happened that it felt like I was standing outside my own body.

    I watched like an external observer as “Mel’s body” stumbled away from the soldier. The soldier leapt back to gauge the result of his attacks, but it was clear that they’d done their job.

    “Mel” wasn’t breathing. “Her” limbs weren’t working. I’m not sure her heart was beating.

    I wasn’t afraid though. I couldn’t process what was happening well enough to be afraid.

    I pulled my hands away from my chest and again it was like watching someone else. Some part of me expected them to look normal. That part needed to see the blood to believe it was real. The rest of me wanted to look away though. That side of me, that could feel the pain, that wasn’t crushed under denial and shock, knew all too well what the soldier’s anima blade had done. Neither side of me was ready for what I actually saw though.

    There was no mistaking that there was blood on my hands.

    But it wasn’t red.

    What my hands came away drenched in was something inhuman. It was alive on its own. It flowed down my arms, crawling over me and unevenly covering my forearms. My vision blurred as though I was crying, and then darkened like night had fallen.

    There was something wrong with me. I felt a wave of revulsion and panic sweep over me as my emotions caught up to what was happening. Then I watch as my blood covered hands curled into claws.

    I didn’t want to die.

    I knew that more than I knew anything else in the world. It was the only thing that I knew in that moment. As the world grew dark and dim and faded away from me, I knew that I didn’t want to leave it. No matter what I wanted to live.

    “Mel’s body” rose to her feet. That was terrifying. I hadn’t tried to get up. In fact, I wasn’t in control at all. Whatever was moving the arms and legs that had been mine, it wasn’t me. I tried to fight it, to make my body run, but instead I moved forward.

    In the darkness that had fallen over the world, I made out a brilliant light nearby. It was warm and red and vital. I watched as it flickered towards my body. My left arm raised of its own accord and caught the flickering light. Except my arm no longer looked human at all. In place of smooth skin, my arm was covered in a dark carapace that ended in a sharp, serrated talon.

    I tried to blink, and while I wasn’t able to move my eyelids, my vision did clear. For just a moment I saw the world as it was. My arm was encased in a field of dark anima and I had caught the soldier as he tried confirm his kill.

   I watched as he slashed at my arm to free himself. The anima knife shattered and I felt its power flow into me. More anima poured in after it.

    I was injured, my physical anima was literally bleeding out of me faster than it could repair the damage that I’d sustained. Alone there was no way for me to recover from the injuries I’d sustained.

    But I wasn’t alone.

    My vision faded back to dimness and I saw the soldier as nothing more than a strong vital flame. One with so much life to draw on.

    When I’d sucker punched Badz with a wooden plank to the head, I’d done so because of what he’d been planning to do with Laz. Guys like Badz, Davos and Maraz have plenty of physical anima, but in their line of work plenty is never enough.

    One way to get more is to train and practice and work hard to build it up. That way offers the best long term rewards, with Master Hanq being a prime example of how far natural talent and hard work can take you. Badz, Davos and Maraz wouldn’t have been the thugs they were if they believed in getting ahead by hard work though. They opted for the faster, easier path to power; stealing it from others.

    There’s a number of ways you can take magic from other people. I’d read up on them as a kid thinking I could find some easy way to reverse my terrible anima scores. Unfortunately none of the options for stealing someone else’s power were what you might call “nice”.

    Badz and his crew used “soul reapers” – devices that ripped the magic right out of their victims. The people who were drained suffered symptoms similar to a severe flu. There were rituals that could establish more permanent conduits but they were difficult to setup and usually required a willing donor.

    What I did to the soldier had nothing to do with a willing donor, but it was quite permanent nonetheless.

    In my dimmed vision, the flickering flame sputtered and strained away from me. It couldn’t escape though. In great, delicious gulps, the flame rushed into me. My ears rang with screams that gurgled into an inhuman sound and a laughter that somehow sounded even more alien.

    I blinked again, trying to find some kind of control. I was stronger, I could feel my wounds fading into memories, but the thing that had control of my body was far bigger than me. I saw other flames nearby and my body reacted with a beastial hunger. Before it bounded away after the nearest flame, I caught sight of what the soldier who’d attacked me really looked like.

    I knew he’d be dead. The flame I’d seen was his anima, all of his anima, and I’d consumed it. What was left of him was barely recognizable. The corpse was withered and shrunken, like a piece of fruit that had shriveled in the sun for years. Without his uniform to identify him, I might not have been able to tell he’d even been human once.

    I fell on the next flame as it charged at me and looked away. I didn’t want to see what was really happening anymore. However tightly I shut my eyes though I couldn’t block out the screaming or the laughter.

    I’d wanted to hurt them, to pay the invaders back for the murder of a city, but that wasn’t what this was about. This was about taking everything from them because I was hungry. I’d needed the first soldier’s power to save my life. As I ripped everything vital out of the second soldier I was filling a different need though.

    I’d spent my life feeling powerless compared to the people around me. It didn’t matter that the stolen anima wouldn’t remain with me. All that mattered was that I’d tasted power and I needed more. I needed enough that I would never be hurt by anyone again.

    I couldn’t stop myself from tearing the life out of the second soldier. I hated them too much, and there was a part of me that felt like they deserved this. The laughter bothered me though. I couldn’t figure out why they were laughing while something so terrible was happening to them.

    They weren’t of course. From the moment I got my hands on them all they could do was scream, and even that was short lived. The only one who could be making the mad, alien sounds that followed the screams was me.

    I tried to stop that, to struggle back to myself enough to at least touch on sanity again. The laughter only grew louder though. That’s when I found something to be afraid of that penetrated even the dark haze I was smothered by.

    I was hungry for power, for life, and I couldn’t stop taking it. I knew as I listened to my laughter that I wasn’t going to stop with the invaders. I was going to consume all of the life that I could find. I was in a dead city so there weren’t that many people that could be harmed. Only Master Hanq, the Sisters and the children who’d survived the bombs.

    The first soldier’s life had given me back my health and had charged up me up stronger than I’d ever been. The second soldier’s life added everything he was on top of what I’d become. I was faster, stronger, tough and more powerful than either of us had been. With that much raw energy at my disposal, I didn’t know if Master Hanq would be able to stop me and by the time I was done with the rest of the elite team I wasn’t sure anything could stand against me.

    I felt a third flame drain into me and forced my vision back to the mundane. I was terrified that I’d just killed the one man who’d ever wasted any time on me. It was almost a relief to watch another of the soldiers turn into a mummified husk in my grasp rather than Master Hanq like I’d feared.

    That relief turned to horror as I caught sight of two other flames. One was an enemy, the boy in the robes, the commander of the expedition. The other was Master Hanq. The hunger in me went wild watching them in action. Physical anima and energetic anima flashed around and between them like a lightning storm.

    For Mel, the girl I’d been, this was the greatest exhibit of martial anima prowess that I’d ever seen. Master Hanq had years of experience and dedication to the craft and was clearly the superior of the two fighters. The robed boy, while overmatched was not completely on the ropes though. His style was deadly and precise. What he lacked in experience, he compensated for in vigor and speed. In its own way, there was beauty and grace to their battle.

    Whatever was controlling my body saw none of that however. All it saw was an answer to its insatiable hunger, a chance to have enough power that it would be safe at last. I tried to cry out, to warn them of what was coming, but I couldn’t make a sound as I sprinted forward to tear into both of them.

    “You don’t want to do that.” a woman said in a soft and gentle voice.

    I tried to spin to see who it was, and my body followed, all parts of me in agreement on that action. There was no light beside me, no person standing there.

    “I don’t think you’re that far gone yet.” the woman said, encouragement in her voice.

    I spun again. The only lights I could see were Master Hanq and the boy. The Sisters and the children had escaped indoors and were probably fleeing to another building already.

    “Will you let me help you?” the woman asked.

    I felt my arms lash out and hit nothing but empty air.

    “Sleep for now then. We’ll work this out once you’re back to yourself.” she said.

    With her words came a tendril of blue fire. The void anima in me reach up to consume it and I felt it filter out through the darkness in me and pull me completely under, away from all the cares and worries and terror of the world.

    I would have liked to stay in that guilt-free, panic-free, pain-free state, but that’s not the way life works. After what felt like less than a moment, the harsh, cruel world beckoned me back.

    “She’s coming back around now.” I heard Taisen say. It took me a moment to place his voice and I only managed it because I thought I’d been dreaming about him.

    “You’re sure she’s not going to try to kill us?” someone asked. I didn’t recognize the voice, but I could place it as an girl from offworld by her accent.

    “I make no promises.” the woman who knocked me out said. There was a light, friendliness to her tone that made it clear she didn’t truly believe I was a threat.

    “She’ll be fine. Won’t you Mel?” Master Hanq asked.

    I opened my eyes at that. So many surprises greeted me, first and foremost of which being that I was seeing just the normal, mundane world. No weird dark haze at all.

    The second, even more welcome, surprise was that I had control of myself again.

    “You’re…I’m…” I stammered, trying to take everything in.

    “Just fine.” Master Hanq repeated, a big smile breaking across his wide face.

    “Why wouldn’t she be? She is the daughter of the Undying Warlord after all.” the boy who’d lead the expedition of invaders said.


The Seas of Tomorrow – Chapter 7

    Half a dozen on one are terrible odds. That was true even for someone as talented as Master Hanq.

    I’d never been able to pry much of his background out him. As an anima caster, he was more talented than anyone I’d ever met, but for some reason he rarely used those abilities. I’d seen him spend hours working on magical techniques while I was drilling basic combat forms, but the few times I’d seen him in serious fights, he’d stuck to purely mundane means of dispatching his opponents.

    Of course what I considered a serious fight wasn’t much more than a light workout for him. Most of them ended less than ten seconds after they started. One on one fights were even quicker than that. It wasn’t that Master Hanq was blindingly fast. He never seemed to move that quick, just a little quicker than the other guys.

    “Fights aren’t about magic.” he’d said one day when he was trying to cheer me up about my abysmal anima scores. “They’re about power, and there are a lot of ways to be more powerful than the other guy when you get into a fight.”

    Given that he stood somewhere close to seven feet tall and weighed enough that scales just said “ouch” when he got on them, I could see where he’d have the power to fight without magic. I’d always been a bit dubious of how well that advice applied to me though. Being on the tall side for a girl and having a fair amount of wiry muscle was fine if I was fighting someone in my own weight class.  If I had to fight a guy like him Master Hanq though I had no illusions as to how I’d do. If I was lucky I’d get one hit in before he turned me to paste.

    One on one, the soldier would have been in the same boat as me. Which was why they acted as a group and carried extremely deadly weapons. In this particular case they weren’t deadly enough though.

    Between the time that Master Hanq put a spear of light through the squad leader and the time the ex-soldier’s corpse hit the ground the rest of the squad had their weapons sighted on him, charged and were firing. It was an impressive display of tactical coordination. I’m not an expert on military strike teams, but if these guys weren’t an elite unit I had no idea who would be.

    Master Hanq had apparently expected as much though. He crossed his arms in a warding gesture and the soldiers’ anima bolts were absorbed into the motes of blue fire that danced around him. The motes surged in brightness and, with another gesture, he cast them down to the ground.

    The soldiers scattered, diving for cover. The boy in the robes who was in command of them didn’t budge. Instead he raised a shield of crackling light around himself.

    My teacher hadn’t been aiming at any of them however. Instead, the blue motes slammed into the ground near the captives. There was an explosion of dust and smoke that followed which completely obscured the front of the dormitory and everyone that was gathered near it.

    I watched as Master Hanq leapt from the roof of the dormitory. He eclipsed the sun for a moment, his dark skin a perfect silhouette against the sky and then he fell into the magically thick smoke and dust, trailing blue fire in his wake.

    “Form on me, and kill the wizard.” the commander boy shouted to his troops. There were calls of assent from cloud but then I heard a strangled cry that cut off in an instant. It was hard to tell but I was pretty sure a grown man had made the noise and it didn’t sound like Master Hanq.

    “Two down.” I whispered to myself.

    I couldn’t see the action anymore, but it occurred to me that I was still plainly visible to anyone who walked out of the cloud of dust. I’d rushed out from cover when it looked like Laz was going to be shot and had frozen when Master Hanq made his appearance. Playing “statue” however wasn’t going to lead anyone to mistake me for one. I looked around for the closest cover or concealment while my mind spun over what options I had.

    Going to ground seemed like the smart move. The last thing Master Hanq needed was for me to become a hostage or a distraction. He was going to have a tough enough fight with the soldiers and once the commander boy joined in things would turn ugly quick.

    I started to scramble over to one of the nearby apartment buildings to duck into its entrance. It wasn’t the best hiding spot but it would have been enough to keep me out of sight. I didn’t even make it halfway there though before two soldiers stumbled out of the dust cloud.

    Cold swept over me as they looked up. We were no more than twenty feet apart and their bolt casters were already pointing in my direction and charged. I considered leaping at them but the fact that I was thinking about it meant I wasn’t doing it. My legs wouldn’t move in that direction. Fear had nailed my feet to the ground.

    The nearest soldier shook his head and grabbed his partner by the shoulder. They exchanged silent hand signs, and headed back into the cloud in the direction the commander boy had called from.

    There was no way they hadn’t seen me and yet they’d paid no attention to me. I looked at my hands again and found the same dark smoke curling around them that I’d seen when I ran into the sewer cat.

    “I’m invisible.” I didn’t even speak the words. I let them form soundlessly on my lips, trying to grasp the reality that was before me.

    I could hide.

    I could hide perfectly. If I wanted to, I could be safe forever. Some deep, old longing in me rejoiced at that notion. The number of times I’d wanted to crawl away and disappear from the world were too many to count. Some days, it felt like they didn’t make numbers that went that high.

    Running away and being free of this whole situation was tempting, but I felt something deeper moving in me too. I remembered the ghosts. I remembered the man and his daughter who had left Taisen’s clinic when I was waiting there. There was no way they’d gotten out of the radius of the spell bomb that I’d lived through.

    Concealed within the dark smoke, I felt a confidence I’d rarely known. The soldiers couldn’t see me, so they couldn’t hurt me. That chased the fear away and into its place stepped anger. They couldn’t hurt me, but they’d hurt a whole of others. If I was the noble sort, I’d say that I thought about how I could balance those scales. The truth was I just thought about hurting them worse than they’d hurt us, and the idea seemed delightful.

    I stepped into the cloud and I felt my vision shift. I knew the smoke and dust were there but it didn’t block my vision. I could see the people who were obscured by it in a weird sort of half light.

    The Sisters were using the distraction that Master Hanq had provided to usher the children back into the dormitory. I doubted they’d stay there, but putting a building between themselves and the soldiers seemed like a solid plan to me.

    Master Hanq was in close combat with one of the soldiers. He had the man almost entirely disabled and was using him as a moving shield against another soldier.

    The two soldiers who’d preceded me into the cloud were moving in unison towards their commander, covering the possible fields of fire as best they could. Their commander was not making things easy for them however. He’d left the place he’d been standing and was moving cautiously towards the area where Master Hanq was fighting.

    I waited until the two soldiers had wandered a little way past where the commander boy had been standing. Their steps slowed and their body language screamed confusion at not finding him where he’d ordered them to meet him. That’s when I struck.

    I’d been hoping that my blows would have the same effect on these soldiers as the one I’d fought earlier. Things didn’t quite work out that way though.

    I hit the first soldier with a spinning hammer fist to the base of his neck, followed by a sidekick to the back of his knee. I put every bit of force I had into the blows and was rewarded with brilliant flash of light at each of the impact points. The soldier gasped and went down, but not like a ragdoll as I’d been hoping. Instead, he fell into the kind of evasive tumble that I’d only seen well trained people pull off.

    My vision flickered in the wake of the attack and everything got harder to see. Whatever special effect being invisible gave me, it had worn off. The other soldier turned and raised his caster at me, which told me the invisibility was gone too.

    Practiced reflexes took over from there. As the soldier brought the caster up, I slid forward and grabbed the barrel of the weapon. He triggered a shot but it was too late, I’d already deflected the barrel away from myself. The snapshot left him off balance which I capitalized on without thinking about it. Jerking on the barrel, I pulled him to stumble towards me and met his chin with an elbow strike that had all of my weight behind it.

    There was a brief flash of light again, but this soldier didn’t stumble to the ground. He flew off into the air at the force of the blow and was lost in the cloud before he landed.

    I heard and felt the movement behind me as the other soldier caught his balance. In one motion I turned to look at him and stomped downward to pin his caster to the ground. He didn’t fight me for the weapon. Instead he swept my legs out from under me with a low spinning kick and came up with a glowing ruby knife.

    Anima weapons tend to use focusing crystals to help the wielder manipulate magical forces. In the case of a bolt caster, there’s a crystal in the weapon that converts the user’s physical anima into kinetic force, augments it and projects it at whoever the user wants dead. In the case of a melee weapon like a knife, the magical force doesn’t have to be projected, so it can be concentrated and honed to a much more potent level.

    In a sense it was a compliment that the soldier had drawn an anima knife on me. It’s the kind of thing that high powered casters will do when they need to kill someone who’s on their level or higher. I didn’t feel thrilled by that compliment though.

    Seeing my imminent demise in the soldier’s hands, I rolled away from him and kicked up to my feet to buy myself time to think. He was good enough not to give me any of that though. I’d barely stood up when I had to drop and fall away from his next attacks. He didn’t let up either. This wasn’t like a sparring match where we paused for breath after a good exchange. He was coming as fast as he could with each blow meant to kill.

    I moved without thinking, the long hours of training and drilling with Master Hanq being the only thing that kept me alive. The thing with dodging though is that you can’t dodge everything. Especially not when you’re fighting someone who’s just as fast as you.

    I felt the first slash that I didn’t get out of the way of on my arm. From the damage I took, I know the second one landed on inner thigh. I didn’t feel it but that one slowed me down. The next three I felt as rapid pokes to the chest.

    Knives don’t poke you of course. I just hadn’t felt the pain as it pierced my vital organs. In less than a second, I’d taken two serious cuts and three fatal wounds. As it turned out, that was really unfortunate for him.

The Seas of Tomorrow – Chapter 6

    The wrong thing to do after sucker punching someone is to stand over them gawking at what might be their corpse. There was so much that didn’t compute about the soldier lying at my feet though that I couldn’t manage much of anything else for a few heartbeats after I put him there.

    Fear once again came to the rescue. I knew with bone deep certainty that if I hung around I was going to be found and then killed in short order. That got me in motion, at least mentally. A quick scan of the alley showed that I was still alone. The access cover to the sewers was where I expected it to be and in just as bad shape as I recalled. Getting in wasn’t going to be a problem.

    I looked at the guy who’d tried to kill me next. I could take his bolt caster but, from what I knew of them, military bolt casters placed a heavier demand on their user’s physical anima in exchange for their increased stopping power. The chance I’d be able to use one seemed dismal at best. Worse, there could be anti-theft enchantments on it. Even a simple locator spell could lead to tragic consequences if it let the invaders follow me to any survivors of the bombings.

    I considered trying to hide the soldier’s body, but the best I could come up with was to put him inside the shop I’d been in. It wasn’t much but if it delayed pursuit for a minute that might be all I needed. I grabbed soldier to try dragging him into the shop. I’d thought he’d be pretty brutal to lug around, especially with all his gear, but it turned out he was surprisingly light. That said “alien” to me, none of the species who’d set up camp on Belstarius were hollow boned the way the soldier seemed to be.

    My focus on escape kept me from thinking too deeply on any of that however. Or on the fact that I’d probably just killed someone. There was a little conclave in the back of my mind debating on whether to feel righteously gleeful, terrified, ashamed, dirty or stoic about that issue but the overwhelming need to be somewhere else, or anywhere else as long as it was safe, kept that debate out of my conscious awareness.

    Not that the sewers were that much more pleasant to contemplate.

    There’d always been legends about the sewer tunnels, but most of them were just things the kids at the Sister’s orphanage made up to scare each other. I was too old to believe most of them, but I couldn’t deny that the sewers were a dangerous place.

    They’d been laid down by hand, rather than direct spell working. Spell constructed buildings and utilities are generally of high quality, but also extremely expensive. Belstarius didn’t have that kind of money when it was being founded so the original settlers cut corners and used manual labor and machinery to put in a sewer system designed to service the grand capital that they imagined would someday grow up. That had worked out fairly well for them, or at least those of them who didn’t die during the construction.

    That led to the most common myth the kids would tell; that the sewers were haunted by the dead workers who’d perished building each tunnel and cistern. Then there were the tales of the monsters who’d been bred for the sewers. Refuse eaters who weren’t so picky about whether the garbage they were ingested was still moving or not. Of the two, I knew the refuse eaters to be true though less sensational than stories made them out. The normal variety grew to the size of my arm and were shy creatures. They weren’t any threat or problem. The problem was the creatures that preyed on them.

    In theory the predators were shy too. In practice that depended on how many people were in your group. Small teams who ventured into the sewers rarely found them. People who went searching for them solo on the other hand didn’t always come back.

    “They’ll have to catch me first.” I whispered to myself.

    The light from the shield I was holding on my right hand was enough to navigate the otherwise pitch black of the tunnels. It was also enough light to attract anything that was feeling hungry to me. Or the soldiers, if any of them thought to look below the streets they were searching. With my only other option being to run around bashing into walls blindly though I opted to take the risk and rely on speed to see me through. Predictably, I wasn’t that lucky.

    I’d counted on being able to find my way to the street near the orphanage because the sewers were laid out in a simple grid pattern. That was true, but I hadn’t accounted for the presence of the “nests” that the predators had setup. I stumbled through one as I whipped around a corner and, as I was tripping over it, discovered that I’d come face to face with a sewer cat.

    My momentum pitched me forward and I rolled up into a crouch about three arm lengths away from it. The creature was bigger than me, probably twice my weight and half again my height. It had the kind of speed that a human like me would need to burn a lot of physical anima to match. Lots of training could also get you there but, despite the years of martial instruction I’d scrounged out of my teacher, I wasn’t eager to put those skills to the test against a beast like the one in front of me.  For one thing, it was packing the equivalent of four deadly daggers in each hand, plus a mouthful of razors. If it hit me, I’d be ripped to shreds. I felt a cold chill run through me at that thought.

    Seeing the look in the sewer cat’s eyes, I knew I wasn’t going to have much of a vote in the question of whether we were going to fight. I’d kicked it in the head in the course of stumbling past it. It was more than a little annoyed.

    And yet it didn’t attack me.

    In fact it didn’t look at me, or even seem to register that I was there.

    I tried moving my right hand. It didn’t flinch. I did though.

    My hand wasn’t glowing anymore.

    But I could still see ok.

    Something was very wrong.

    Looking at my hands, I saw that both of them were covered with wisps of black smoke. The smoke ran up my arms and played across my chest. I reached up to my cheek and brushed a wisp of smoke away from my face. My skin was cold to the touch.

    A mewling grumble caught my attention and I saw an adorable little sewer cat kitten stick its head up out of the nest. The big cat, apparently the mother, was looking around too warily to pay attention to her offspring though. That shocked me even more. A mother defending her young should have ripped me to pieces already.

    Not wanting to tempt fate any further I got to my feet and tip toed backwards away from the nest. The mother cat glanced at where I was a few times but her gaze didn’t linger on me any longer than it did anywhere else.

    Once I got far enough away, I broke into another run, trusting whatever weird sight I’d acquired to not cut out and leave me in the dark. As I ran, it occurred to me that the sewer cats were a good sign. The shelters had been underground and were better defended than the sewers. If the sewer cats had survived that had to mean that the area I was traveling under hadn’t been hit by a bomb. The elation at that thought was short lived though. Less than a minute later I ran into an empty nest. I might have tried to make myself believe that it was just abandoned but the material of the nest was the same uniform grey as the dead areas I’d run through.

    I exited the sewers a few minutes later, to find the city around me grey and lifeless as well. Overhead, another of the invaders’ transport ships streaked across the sky.

    “I can at least get my stuff.” I told myself, trying again to push away the vision of what the orphanage would look like. I wasn’t successful at that, but I couldn’t survive on what I was carrying with me, so I was able to push myself towards home despite the mounting emotional pressure that wanted to keep me away.

    When I arrived at the orphanage I saw both my worst fear and my best hope mixed together. Half of the dormitory was grey, but the other half was still the melange of cheap paints that it had always been. It took me a second to figure out what had happened.

    “The bombs. They were right on the edge of the one of the bombs!” My breath was coming fast and irregular and I could feel my hands shaking. “Someone’s alive. Someone had to have survived.”

    We didn’t have a nearby municipal shelter, so the dormitories were set up with sub-basements that served as our “shelters”. They didn’t have the spell wards to keep anyone out. In fact they barely had any supplies of food or water. That wasn’t enough to weather a long term siege but it meant that anyone who’d taken refuge in the sub-basements would still be there.

    I broke from the cover of the building that I’d been peeking around just in time for one of the invaders’ ships to come screaming down into the empty lot besides the dormitories. I couldn’t tell if they’d seen me but I dashed back behind the nearest corner for cover anyways.

    Cursing every grace the Sisters had ever tried to teach me about, I glanced back around the corner to watch what was happening. The good news was that it wasn’t one of the big troop transports that had landed. The bad news was that it looked like a personal ship instead, though it bore some of the same insignia as the soldiers I’d encountered had.

    Taisen had said he’d checked me for curses and hadn’t found any. I was finding that increasingly unlikely. However good his mending spell was, I was inclined to believe he absolutely sucked at noticing curses. There was no other reason I could conceive of that I would run into someone important enough to have their own ship when I was a stone’s throw from home.

    The exit ramp from the small flyer descended and a squad of a half dozen soldiers in combat armor exited. Behind them came a human boy. He was in his late teens and was wearing a long red robe with a grey mantle that hung down to his mid chest. His hair was dark and pulled back in a braided ponytail.

    “Damn, one landed too close.” the boy said, looking at the dividing line of grey and color on the dormitories.

    “Search the buildings.” he directed the troops. “Assemble any survivors here.”

    “Orders if we encounter resistance sir?” the squad leader asked.

    “They need to be alive. I don’t care what shape they’re in beyond that, just make it quick.” the boy said. He made a gesture with his hand that cut off any further discussion and the soldiers hurried into the nearest dormitory in an attack formation.

    The order to keep their soon-to-be captives alive gave me some hope, but it was tainted by knowing the kinds of things that could be done to live prisoners. The invaders hadn’t hesitated in killing millions in the capital city. There was no reason to think they’d be any more merciful to the people who’d happened to survive.

    It also wasn’t comforting to hear that a bomb had landed “too close” to the dormitories. That meant they’d known of its existence and that it had factored into their plans. Given what had been happening with me, I had to believe that some part of their plans had centered around me.

    That left me with the question of what I was going to do about it. Unfortunately the only answer I could come up with was “not much”. The boy was on his own and only wearing robes rather than combat armor. A much dumber girl than I might have assumed that he was therefore an easy target. I knew better. In addition to my physical training, my martial teacher had taught me about evaluating people who were picking a fight with you, or who you wanted to pick a fight with.

    The robes the boy wore weren’t a sign that he was vulnerable. They were a sign that he didn’t need combat armor because his shields were just that good. He was around my age and if he was naturally gifted and had been trained extensively since he was young it was likely that he was more dangerous than the entire squad of soldiers that he commanded combined.

    A part of me wanted to try taking him on anyways. Between the training I had and the new things I seemed to be able to do, I had wonder if I could put up a good fight. Since the price of failure was either death or a fate worse than death, I was able to keep that particular impulse under control.

    At least until they started bringing the kids out.

    The soldiers hadn’t wasted time in finding them. They had them marching out the door less than ten minutes after they landed. The biggest ones went first, followed by the smaller ones, all lined up just like the Sister’s had us stand when we were going somewhere as a group. At the end of the line walked four of the Sisters. The four who looked after the younger classes. The classes that were on the living side of the dormitories.

    I bit back a cry of rage and more tears. There weren’t many kids my age in the dormitories, most had moved out or moved on. There were some girls I hated who were a year younger, a few boys who I mostly ignored because they were both ugly and idiots and a small group of boys and girls who I got along well enough with that we could say hi without it being a challenge of some kind. It was the ones a couple years or more younger than I was that I liked the most. They were a good group of kids.

    Or they had been.

    And the Sisters who’d looked after us. Who would have been taking care of getting their charges into the proper rooms. I’d hated them, but I’d loved them too. They were harsh and unforgiving. We were as much a burden on them as anything else, but in their own way they’d cared about us. In all the universe, they were the only ones who cared about us really.

    That was over though. They were gone. The kids near my age. The Sisters who looked over us. All of them. Erased.

    I thought of walking into the grey dormitory and meeting their ghosts and I started shaking uncontrollably. I watched as the soldiers had the kids and the Sisters kneel down for their leader to review. The prisoners had all been bound in restraints, so their arms were behind their backs. The boy in the robes walked up to each of them, cupped their chins in his hand and looked them in the eye for a moment.

    “Not here. That’s not possible.” he said when he reached the end of the line. “Was this everyone?”

    “Yes sir.” the squad leader answered.

    “No.” the boy said and returned to the Sister at the end of the line. He grabbed her face again, harder than before. “Is this everyone? Or did one of them hide somewhere?”

    She didn’t answer him. She didn’t have to. Even from several dozen feet away I could see the look of utter contempt on her face.

    “You won’t talk. You think you’ve got nothing left to lose perhaps? Kill one of them.” the boy said. The order was casual but the effect was immediate. The squad leader charged his weapon and strode over to the nearest child.

    Laz. The young boy I’d saved. His face was stained with tears but he looked up at his killer and he wasn’t crying anymore. He wasn’t pleading, or afraid, or angry. There was a look of quiet defiance in his eyes as the squad leader stepped towards him and brought his bolt caster up.

    I started to move forward, knowing I was far too late to do any good. Knowing I was just going to die too. A squad plus someone with full wizard training was a death sentence to oppose unless you were a wizard yourself.

    The children and the Sisters knew that too. If the wizard boy wanted their dignity though he was going to have to work a lot harder than just killing them to get it.

    The cold rage I’d been holding in swept over me at the thought that this was how things were going to end and I promised myself that I would take at least one of them with me. For Laz if nothing else.

    The squad leader never got to aim his caster at Laz though. A crack like thunder split the air as he was transfixed by a bolt of blue light. The charge that he had prepared in his bolt caster fired wildly into the sky as the soldier dropped lifeless to the ground.

    “You don’t want to do that.” a deep, booming, wonderful voice called out from the top of the dormitory. Looking up I saw a man standing there. He was too far away and at the wrong angle for me see the lazy, confident grin on his face that I knew would be there. All I could make out were the orbs of blue fire that played around each of his massive outstretched arms.

    I barely caught myself from cheering out loud. My teacher had shown up!