Monthly Archives: March 2014

The Seas of Tomorrow – Chapter 22

    The first thing I saw when I managed to force my eyes open was Yael lying face down and unmoving on a low table in front of me. I didn’t recognize her at first, but even so I knew it was a bad sign. So was the fact that I was shackled to the wall and unable to move.

    I searched my memories, feeling weak and disoriented in a way that only being pummelled into unconscious can provide. I laughed a bitter chuckle at myself as I did. It didn’t say great things about my decision making capabilities that being beaten senseless was a familiar experience for me.

    My brain was running like sludge, but I was able to piece together bits and pieces of memory from it anyways. I’d run to confront Akell and stop him getting his hands on the Ravager. I’d failed at that and he’d captured me. I’d been afraid he would use the Ravager to kill the rest of the people on my world, but he had other plans it looked like. Specifically, he was angling to kill his “father” the Karr Khan.

    I remembered laughing at that – in my defense it was kind of a funny concept – and he’d reacted with unbridled rage. Based on the lack of memory of what happened next, I guessed that his attack must have been too fast for me to notice and too powerful for me to do more than survive.

    Looking around it was hard to say where he’d taken me. The room I was tied up in was covered in sigils, so it wasn’t a random place that he’d tossed me. There was a background tone that faded into and out of my hearing that was familiar too. It sounded like an engine working but not a kind that I’d heard in a long time.

    Then there was the issue of Yael. The last I’d seen her, she was taunting Zyla and an army of elite soldiers to come fight with her. She’d bought me the chance to stop Akell, and it looked like that had cost her severely.

    I knew that we were both prisoners of the Karr Khan’s forces. Akell had cackled his plan to use me to lure the Karr Khan into striking range and with the kind of power he was slinging around I couldn’t see how he’d have a problem with that. The only question I had on that topic was what had changed his mind so suddenly?

    It could have been natural I supposed. As a “Third Circle Scion” he’d probably lived his whole life as “less than second best”. With as much power as he’d stolen from the dead of the shelters, added onto the power the Ravager gave him, I could see why he’d want to take a shot at claiming the top spot.

    The funny thing was, if I wasn’t nearly certain that he’d kill me too, I’d have been all for him taking out the Karr Khan.

    The more I thought about Akell’s behavior though, the more I had to wonder if outside forces were at work. I knew Opal had mucked around in his mind, but she had left him sane. The walking pool of madness that was claiming to be Akell reminded me of something else. I thought back to the experience I’d had with the ghosts of the murdered dead. I’d almost gone nuts too, and those ghosts hadn’t had a reason to be angry at me specifically. If Akell had tapped multiple shelters and absorbed all of that hate and pain and fear, I could easily imagine that the will that was driving him wasn’t entirely his own anymore.

    That didn’t change the fact that he was carrying one of the most powerful weapons I’d ever heard of though.

    The Ravager.

    I didn’t know what to make of her. She’d been the one to let him see through my invisibility. Her powers were his to command, and she was definitely supporting him. I hadn’t been able to defend myself because of the overwhelming force she allowed him to bring to bear. Maybe. I couldn’t be sure of how anything worked between those two, or even if the force that I’d felt Akell unleash had been nothing more than the anima stolen from the dead.

    What I did know, was that she’d reached out to me. Even when she knew I wasn’t going to get to her in time. She’d still tried to talk to me. It was stupid, but part of me was looking at her like the Ravager was one of my younger “classmates” at the orphanage. She was millenia old, at least, she could kill entire planets and she couldn’t be destroyed but it still felt like she was small and helpless too. I hated that. Hated the thought of helpless people getting picked on.

    I thought of Badz and his crew. I’d nearly caved Badz’s head in with a plank of wood for trying to life drain Laz, one of the boys from the orphanage. Had the damage I’d done to him and his goon friends slowed them down enough that they got caught by one of the bombs? Part of me hoped so, but another part was angry at the thought.

    Badz and his goons were scum, but that didn’t mean that it was ok for someone like Akell or the Karr Khan to kill them and steal all of their magic. In their own way they were helpless too, at least in the face of what the Karr Khan had done to the city.

    That train of thought brought me around to my own situation. I’d fought and I’d lost. It wasn’t my fault. There was no way, even if I’d been a lot more familiar with using anima, that I could have taken on Akell and won. He had too big of a headstart and too much power at his disposal by the time I reached him. The only reason I even found him in fact was that he’d waited for me to catch up. I couldn’t be blamed for losing to him, but that didn’t change the fact that I had.

    “If you’re still alive, keep swinging. It’s as simple as that.” Master Hanq had told me early on when I’d asked for ‘the secret move that would let me win any fight’. It had sounded like terrible advice at the time, and it was, but there was a grain of truth to it.

    The thing about grains of truth though, is that they’re easy to overlook when you’re beaten and shackled to a wall. I was tired, and I hurt everywhere. I’d lost so much I couldn’t even tally it all up. Even the things I’d gained had come with terrifying conditions and price tags on them. I felt like I was ready to give up. I just needed someone to surrender to.

    As if on queue, the door to the small cell slid open with a soft whoosh and Zyla stepped into the room. I sagged in defeat. I wanted somebody to surrender to, just not her.

    “You are awake. Good. I have to prepare you.” Zyla said. Her movements were stiff and short which told me Yael had given her one hell of a beating. Her words were just as stiff and short too though and I wasn’t sure what to attribute that to.

    “Prepare me for what?” I asked.

    “You are going to meet with the Khan and be inducted into our ranks.” Zyla said.

    “Why?” I asked.

    “Because it is the Karr Khan’s desire.” she said without looking at me. She’d entered the room carrying towels and a robe. From a sealed compartment in the wall, she produced a basin and a jug of water.

    I considered telling her what Akell was going to do when he met the Karr Khan but decided against it. The two of them killing each other suited me fine, and Zyla wouldn’t have believed me if I told her anyways.

    “What’s going to happen to Yael?” I asked instead, looking over at the motionless girl.

    “The Guardian will be converted.” Zyla said with a catch in her voice on the last word.

    “What do you mean ‘converted’?” I asked.

    “It is a process inflicted on the Khan’s strongest enemies.” Zyla said. She didn’t seem happy with the notion which told me it had to be truly horrible.

    “What are you going to do to her?” I demanded.

    “My part is done. My duty only relates to you now.” Zyla said, dodging the question.

    “What did you do to her, you monster?”

    “I have done nothing to her. We fought and she was on the edge of victory when my brother appeared. He called for a cessation of our battle and then struck her down when she stepped away from me.” Zyla said. There was anger in her voice but it wasn’t directed at me.

    “So you captured us both then. What is this ‘conversion’ thing. What is going to happen to her?”

    “She will become a Devouring Shadow.” Zyla said.

    “And what the hell is a Devouring Shadow?” I asked.

    “It is a being of almost pure Void anima. When our elite forces need backup and we do not wish to risk a Scion, we will unleash a Devouring Shadow to destroy those who stand before us. The touch of Devouring Shadow consumes all of the anima from a person’s body, even the fundamental anima that allows them to live. There are very few defenses against them.” Zyla explained.

    “When are they going to do this to her?” I asked, renewed anger running through me.

    “It has already begun.” Zyla said.

    “What!” I shouted. “How?”

    “She has been branded with the Khan’s sigil. The seed of darkness will grow through her mind and her body. As it consumes her anima it will become stronger and stronger. The longer she can resist, the mightier our servant will be once it finishes devouring her.” Zyla said.

   She wet one of the towels and placed it beside the basin. She then walked over to me and reached for one of my arms. I thrashed and kicked in the shackles but they held me tight against the wall. I screamed in rage, but that didn’t help either. A moment later my hand came free from the shackles though. Then my other did.

    Zyla had released me.

    She bent down to undo the shackles on me legs and I smashed her on the sides of the head with my palms. It was both foolish and stupid. Foolish because I should have known that she wouldn’t have released me if I posed a threat to her and stupid because, even if I could have hurt her, I would have been better off waiting until my legs were free.

    Zyla showed no pain from the blows to her head, but she did look up at me silently.

    “Fighting won’t do you any good. Not in here.” she said.

    I saw the sigils on the walls sparkling with brief flashes of light as I moved. I tried to feel for my Physical anima and, as I expected, I couldn’t reach it at all.

    “The cell suppresses your anima, but not mine. You can’t hurt me here. Not even with your Void anima.” Zyla confirmed for me.

    I stewed on that in a silent rage. Zyla waited a moment and then freed my legs too.

    “What are you going to do to me?” I finally asked.

    “I am to have you cleaned and dressed for your meeting with the Khan. I have put out what supplies we have for that as well as the robe you are to wear.” she said. “I will leave and give you a few minutes to clean yourself and get dressed.”

    She turned to leave but I stopped her.

    “Wait. You were supposed to clean me yourself weren’t you?” I asked.

    “That is the standard practice for prisoners.” she confirmed.

    “Then why are you leaving?”

    “Do you wish me to stay?” she asked.

    “No, but I don’t understand.” I said, feeling perplexed.

    “That’s true. You don’t.” she agreed and left, closing the door behind her.

    I looked at the water and the robe and turned away from them to kneel down beside Yael. My whole body ached from the beating I’d taken and then hanging in the shackles but Yael looked a lot worse off. Deep purple, black and green bruises covered her face and neck. On her arms I saw thin cuts in the skin that looked like she was cracking apart like an eggshell.

    I touched her arm to turn her over and saw the first movement from her since I woke up. It wasn’t a pleasant sight though. Even my gentle touch sent a shiver of pain down her.

    A sickening weight landed in my stomach as I figured out why Zyla had left me free in the cell alone. It wasn’t my dignity she was concerned with. It was Yael’s.

    She was giving me the chance to kill the apprentice Guardian before the shadows devoured Yael and turned her into a monster.

The Seas of Tomorrow – Chapter 21

    The worst kind of race is the one where the guy you’re racing against is at the finish line before you even start running.

    “I think I would have liked working with you.” the Ravager said as the mental projection faded away and I found myself standing in the mouth of the cave.  Behind me lay the two dead bodies the trap had drained of life. Ahead of me the cave plunged downwards into a misty, unwelcoming darkness.

    “Wait!” I called out as I felt the Void anima the Ravager had extended pull away from me.

    “The other one who seeks me has breached the last barrier. I am sorry.” the Ravager’s fading voice said.

    I swore. Loudly.

    Two of Zyla’s soldiers, ones I’d snuck past without even being aware of it, raced into view at the mouth of the cave. The stream of profanity I spewed tipped them off to where I was but they would have been better off pretending they hadn’t heard me. In the seconds it took them to locate me in the gloom and bring their bolt casters to bear, the first trap fired again.

    Tendrils of Void anima shot out and pierced the soldiers through. I turned away but the sound was unmistakable. They barely had time to scream as their energy and life were ripped out. I shivered. Without my conversation with the Ravager, that could have been my fate too.

    I tried not to dwell on the thought of dying (which seemed all too likely) and took off into the cavern. As a precaution, I cloaked myself in invisibility as I ran, since I didn’t know what to expect and that seemed to be my best all around defense. As it turned out there wasn’t much to defend myself from though. The next defense was a sealed doorway. Or what was left of it.

    It had been blasted open and the ward stones on its exterior shattered. The same was true of the next three traps that I found. I couldn’t tell how strong the traps had been, but given that they were designed to protect a legendary artifact from being recovered, I had to guess that they weren’t weak. Akell being able to smash through them like they were made of kindling was almost as worrisome as the fact that he was going to reach the Ravager before I did.

    There were other traps guarding the long twisting passages down to where the Jewel lay. Mental anima mazes and Aetherial illusions that would have turned me back or led me astray if the Void anima I was wrapped in hadn’t eaten the parts of them which tried to touch me.

    I was able to shortcut part of the trip by following the openings that Akell had blasted in the walls and floors of the underground lair.

    “He’s got to be getting tired.” I told myself. The destruction he’d caused and the traps he’d powered through didn’t seem like something even a talented or desperate human could have managed.

    Akell’s apparent power didn’t make a whole lot of sense, but the more I thought about it the fact that the Ravager was located in a place like this at all bothered me more.

    “Why are there tunnels leading to the Jewel?” I wondered. It seemed like a needless security flaw to let people walk right up to the Jewel with only the anima traps protecting it. I was losing the race to Akell when neither of us should have been able to get within a mile of the Ravager if any sane defenses had been setup to protect it.

    I chewed on that thought as I ran past more disarmed traps and then remembered something Opal had said. I’d asked about tossing them into a star but she claimed that wouldn’t work because the Jewels could teleport themselves to safety. That this dungeon was the sort of place where they were hidden told me they could do more than teleport to safety. They could probably teleport in a lot of circumstances, either whenever they wanted to or under broad enough set of conditions that they had to be left somewhere that was accessible to potential users. I considered what that mean and decided it wouldn’t surprise me if the Jewels stayed entombed in dungeons like this because they wanted to. That way, they could be found, but only by someone powerful or clever enough to be a fitting master for a legendary artifact.

    Or maybe it was so they wouldn’t be found at all.

    It hadn’t sounded like the Ravager was eager to take up her old job. She could have been lying to me, but under the circumstances I couldn’t imagine why she would bother. That bugged me too. She’d reached out to me and spoke to me, but she was aware of where Akell was. Why would she have bothered testing me (and I was pretty sure she’d been testing me) if she knew she was going to fall into Akell’s hands long before I could reach her?

    I ran onwards plagued by questions like that. I had the growing certainty that I wasn’t like the answers though even in the I lived long enough to hear them.

    “And so you’re here at last. Took you long enough didn’t it.” Akell said as I stumbled to a halt at the door to the central chamber. It had been blown inwards like the others had. Inside, Akell sat on a small pedestal, lounging like a lazy cat. That was fitting because it looked like the chamber he was in had been shredded by a particularly violent and mad feline.

    Huge rents in the polished white stone floor and walls had broken the intricate symmetry of the thousand warding circles that had been placed to protect the room and its contents. It wasn’t the damage to the door or Akell’s presence that tripped me up though. It was the renewed sense of the Ravager’s Void anima touching on my invisibility cloak.

    “I’m sorry.” I heard her say in my mind.

    “You can dispense with the child’s spells.” Akell said. “They won’t be you any good against me. Not now.”

    He held his right hand up to his chest and on the back of it, I saw a black diamond that had bonded to his flesh. The Ravager, the Jewel of Endless Night, was his.

    I stepped into the room and let my invisibility spell fall away. I felt calm. We’d failed and it was all going to end. Akell could snuff out every life on the planet in an instant from what I’d been told. Somehow that was liberating, maybe because it meant I didn’t have anything left to lose.

    “Good. I expected you to be more troublesome, but I can see that this is simply my destiny, finally being revealed at last.” Akell said.

    “Your destiny?” I said, circling slowly toward him. “Planning on buying a spot in the First Circle?”

    “That was what I’d been thinking. Before I claimed this.” Akell laughed. He got off the pedestal and I could see that he wasn’t moving like a regular human any more. Anima flared around him as he floated up to a standing position and then descended to the ground at a speed that had nothing to do with gravity.

    “I’m surprised you made it in here. Kind of doesn’t look like you even need the Jewel.” I said, continuing to circle him and play for time. It wasn’t a plan as such. There wasn’t anyone who could come to my rescue that I was waiting for. I just didn’t feel like dying yet.

    “Oh, it’s still useful. I can feel the other animas fading already, but the Jewel? That’s eternal. As am I now.” Akell said. He started strolling through the room in a lazy circle to match the own I was walking.

    “Other animas?” I asked, a terrible suspicion settling into my bones.

    “From all the witless fools in the city.” he said with a laugh.

    “You found one of the shelters, didn’t you? One that had been hit by the bombs.” I guessed.

    “Not just one. They were right where mother had said they would be. So easy to harvest.” Akell said. He hadn’t struck me as entirely sane from the beginning but watching him stalk around the small room, seeing the odd ticks in his movement and hearing the unnatural clicks and catches in his voice told me that the “boy” I was looking at was nothing more than the thinnest of facades over a pit of madness.

    “I can’t believe you disturbed them. The ghosts should have ripped you apart.” I said.

    “Now sister, you almost sound like you would be happy to have seen that.” Akell said.

    “Still kind of hoping to.” I said.

    Akell laughed. It was the kind of boisterous, deep laugh that only someone completely unconcerned with their own safety can make.

    “I am so sorry to disappoint you then sister. The ghosts weren’t strong enough to overcome me before and they are certainly of no consequence now that I wield the Ravager’s power. There is nothing and no one who can stand against me any longer.” Akell said.

    “And what happens when someone takes it away from you?” I asked.

    “I cannot be separated from the Jewel. It is wrapped in the strands of my life and it has made them eternal. I can no more be defeated than death itself can.” Akell said.

    “Sounds boring.” I stopped circling. He was going to explode sooner or later and I wanted to get in at least one good punch before that happened.

    “It’s a boredom I’ll have to live with. Forever!” he screamed in delight.

    “So what are you going to do with forever?” I asked. I was going to point out to him that other people had worn the Jewel and none of them had made it to “forever”, but I figured there was no reason to spoil that unpleasant surprise for him.

    “Many things. I’d been thinking I would start by killing you and that damn Crystal Empire Guardian, but I’ve reconsidered.”

    “And why would you do that?” I asked.

    “You’re going to be useful to me.” he said.

    “Don’t think I will be.” I told him.

    “You’re not going to have a choice.” he said.

    “Cause you’re going to threaten me? Hate to break it to you but you’ve got nothing to hold over me.” I said.

    “My silly sister, I don’t need threats.” he said.

    The attack came so quickly that I wasn’t aware of it until I found myself embedded an inch into the white stone wall. I tried to pull myself out of the wall but I couldn’t budge. A force heavier than the mountain we were standing under was holding me in place. I tried to consume the anima that was powering the spell with the Void anima I had, only to discover that it was already doing that. Whatever power Akell had, I couldn’t drain it fast enough to make a difference.

    “I could hurt you of course.” he said and from his other hand lightning shot out and filled my world with a whole new sort of pain. Briefly. The shock lasted less than second before my Void anima started consuming it too.

    “But what would be the point of that?” Akell said, dropping the lightning and flapping his hand like it had been stung.

    “What are you going to do then?” I forced the words out past gritted teeth.

    “Well, I’d planned to join the First Circle. Or rather that’s what mother had planned for me.” he said and stalked around the room. He didn’t walk closer to me, he didn’t even seem to care that I was there. It was like he had a huge audience of followers that he was speaking to rather than one rather unfriendly girl who was stuck to the wall.

    “Those dreams are far too small for the bearer of the Ravager though. The Karr Khan thinks that, because the Traveler’s bearer is his subject, all of the Jewels should belong to him. What a fool. The Traveler is the least of the Jewels. With the Ravager’s power I can annihilate all of my enemies.” he said, pacing and gesturing frantically as he did so.

    “Which brings us to you. The Karr Khan wants you. He wants all of his children under his banner. When I bring you before him, he will reward me. Riches, a place of honor, my own fleet to conquer in his name.” the fires of madness were literally burning in his eyes. The pale purple glow was as inhuman as his voice when he spoke again.

    “He will give me all these things, and I will kill him.”

The Seas of Tomorrow – Chapter 20

    I’d been slung from one emotional extreme to another so hard and often in the last several hours that the pleasant calm that settled over me as I ran through the forest felt more than weird. It felt alien. On the surface it seemed insane too. I was running towards an unknown number of elite soldiers, and the mystically trapped caverns beyond them, and an artifact of indeterminate, but immense, lethal power that would probably be in the hands of someone who hated me. Any one of those should have had me making tracks in the opposite direction as fast as possible. Instead my heart felt ok and my steps were light.

    It might have been that I’d simply lost my mind, but I didn’t feel crazy. I felt like I was doing something. Something that I needed to do. Something that mattered.

    “Head southwest for about a mile. When you see my signal cut straight north and head for the cave entrance.” Yael had said before we put our plan in motion. I don’t think either of us was happy with the plan, but Yael seemed content to play the part of ‘decoy’ to draw Zyla and her forces away from the entrance of the caves.

    I’d only known Yael for a few hours but she wasn’t terribly difficult to understand in some ways. That she was willing to play ‘decoy’ told me that she thought the real fight we had to worry about was the one against Zyla. Zyla was smart and powerful and had significant resources to call upon. I couldn’t disagree with Yael that Zyla was a major threat. Where our opinions diverged was on the subject of her brother Akell. He was the one closing in on the ultra-deadly relic. If he reached it, which seemed more likely than not, we’d probably be dead before we knew it.

    That might have been why Yael was focused on Zyla. She was dealing with the problem that could be dealt with. It was a lesson that Master Hanq had struggled to teach me without a lot of success.

    Given the forces that Zyla was going to bring to bear on Yael though, I wasn’t all that eager to trade places with the apprentice Ruby Guardian. Instead, I played my own role in the plan and jogged onwards, shrouded in Void anima. I gone invisible In part that was so that I could stay hidden and in part so that I could view the strands of anima that made up the Aetherial web that Zyla had cast to ensnare us.

    “Why can’t I just  destroy the web? Could she form a link to me like Weri did on the transport?” I’d asked Yael before I left.

    “No, but she would feel the loss of the strands that you consumed. The moment she felt that she’d move to capture you since you’re her primary target.” Yael had explained.

    “And the spell will sense me even under a shroud of invisibility?” I’d asked.

    “Maybe. As I said, she’s a talented caster. What’s worse is, you wouldn’t know she’d discovered you until you were right where she wanted you to be.”

    “Are you going to be able to handle her?” I’d asked.

    “Don’t worry about that. Focus on what you have to do.”

    And so I ran with my part of the plan firmly in mind. Wait for Yael’s signal. Head to the cave. Stop Akell from reaching the Jewel. Simple. Also impossible, but waiting around to die was a worse flavor of impossible to have to swallow.

    I’d tracked around the outskirts of the web and was almost due south of the cave when Yael’s spell went off. In the shadow misted vision that the Void anima gave me, I saw the lightly glowing strands of anima that made up Zyla’s entrapment spell suddenly flared into blinding silver luminance. One by one they flew away from me and joined into a single courscating path that lead back towards where I’d left Yael. She’d grabbed the entirety of the web and turned it into a giant arrow pointing to herself.

    The silver arrow was bright enough to make me blink and look away from it after a second. If my guess was correct, Zyla had gotten a much better look at it than I had, which meant Yael had more or less jabbed the Karr Khan’s commander in the eye and yelled “come get me” at the same time. Zyla was smart, but even smart people get mad, and mad people can do all kinds of stupid things. As proof of that, since I was still more than a little mad at the Karr Khan, I switched course like we’d planned and started heading towards the most deadly place that I knew of on the planet.

    I stayed cloaked in Void anima, I wasn’t entirely stupid, and managed to sprint past a pair of guards who hadn’t followed Zyla to support her in her fight with Yael. I left them behind without raising even a blink of suspicion and less than a minute later found the entrance to the cave. When I saw what waited there for me however, I wanted to turn back.

    There were dead people in the cave’s mouth. Only two, but I recognized what had killed them. Their corpses were shriveled and sucked dry. Just like the soldiers that I’d killed with Void anima.

    Neither Zyla nor Akell were supposed to be able to use that kind of magic, which meant the soldiers had been probably killed by one of the traps left to guard the Jewel of Endless Night. Since neither of the corpses were wearing the kind of robes that Akell had been wearing, it seemed like a good guess that they were both members of Zyla’s forces. That meant that they’d been killed after Akell had entered the caves, which in turn meant he’d bypassed the trap without deactivating it.

    So I got to face a cave full of live traps, rather than disarmed ones. I paused about twenty feet away from the bodies. Fighting people was something I could do, something I’d trained for. Life devouring traps on the other hand, I had no idea how to handle.

    “We made a mistake.” I told myself silently, thinking that I should have been the one to attract Zyla’s attention while Yael went for the Jewel. She had the kind of broad training in dealing with anima casting that would give her a chance here. I, on the other hand, was probably going to blunder somewhere and die horribly as a result.

    The image of my body as wrinkled and dead as the two soldiers were flashed through my mind and froze me in place. Other images followed it though. The dormitory’s that were my home, covered in grey. The empty shelter I’d found. The lifeless streets I’d run down.

    “So be it.” I decided. I couldn’t change those and I might not live, but there were worse things than dying. Like letting that happen to another city or another world.

    As I stepped up to where the soldier lay, the trap that had killed them fired again and engulfed me.

    I felt the usual chill in my chest before the danger flared and cloaked myself in Void anima even tighter to try to evade the effect. That didn’t work out so well because I was standing in the trap and there was nowhere to dodge away to.

    My vision, which had been colored by the gauzy shadows of my invisibility cloak, was plunged into total darkness. What startled me more though was the tactile sensation I felt, as though someone was holding me in a tight embrace.

    I tried to step forward or twist away from the force that held me but with no sense of the world around me I couldn’t tell if I was making any headway or not.

    “Have you come to save me?” someone asked and I nearly jumped out of my skin.

    The tactile sensation changed, slightly, and I recognized it. It felt like the link that Weri had forged when I our two Void animas had touched.

    “Who are you?” I asked, unsure of who I could possibly be talking to under the circumstances. I tried to look around to see where the voice was coming from as well, though I was pretty certain it was a magical projection inside my mind rather than someone literally standing beside me and speaking.

    “I have many names. I am the one who is sought. You know of me as the Ravager.” the voice said.

    “The Jewel of Endless Night?” I blurted out before I could stop myself.

    “That is another of my names.” the Ravager said.

    “How are you talking to me? I thought you were an artifact?” I said.

    “I am now. I was not always though.” the Ravager said.

    “What did you used to be?”

    “A mortal. Like you. All of my sisters and brothers were before we were sacrificed and reforged into soul weapons to fight the Great War.”

    “Can I see what you look like?” I asked her, guessing the Ravager was a ‘she’ from the sound of her mental voice.

    In response to my question, the shadows receded and I saw a large, four legged, thickly furred creature with many tails standing before me. She wasn’t as heavily muscled as the mountain cat had been but she was noticeably bigger, almost the size of a horse, with eyes that faced forwards and gleamed with awareness and intelligence.

    “What did you mean ‘rescue you’?” I asked after a minute of taking her in and trying to make sense of what was going on.

    “I can see in the shadow of your mind, that you do not come to my sanctum craving my power, but in that you are alone.” the Ravager said.

    “That’s true, I guess. I don’t want to use you. I want to stop someone else from doing that.” I said.

    “Why?” the Ravager asked.

    “Why what?”

    “Why do you not crave the power I hold? Are there not those you wish to destroy?” she asked.

    I thought about that.

    “Right now it’s because I don’t understand it.” I said.

    The Ravager cocked her head to the side in confusion at that so I continued.

    “I used to want power because I hated being weak. Then I found out that I do have power, only it scares the hell out of me. Some of its good, but I’ve already done some terrible things too. If I had the kind of power that I’ve heard you possess, I don’t know what I would do with it, or what it would make me become.” I said, explaining to myself as much as I was to the Ravager.

    “Why don’t you wish to find out? You have enemies, I can see that they are close.” the Ravager asked.

    “I’ve already almost lost myself to the Void anima that I’ve got. If I’m going to turn into a total monster, I want to at least sacrifice myself for something that’s worth it.” I said.

    “And what would be worth it?” the Ravager asked. She was staring at me with so much intensity that her eyes were starting to blaze with a dark inner light.

    “Preventing another world from dying.” I said, holding my voice in a monotone. I couldn’t grieve for my home yet, there was still too much to do.

    “So you would slay one world to save another?” the Ravager asked, beginning to stalk around me.

    “That would still mean that a world had died wouldn’t it?” I asked as she paced behind me.

    “Yes it would.” she agreed.

    “What about you?” I asked, looking ahead and listening to her soft footfalls.

    “I have slain worlds for many reasons, at the command of many masters.” she said.

    “And on your own? What would you kill a world for?” I asked. It was a surreal thing to be talking about but I felt like that was the question she’d been waiting for me to ask. Maybe even waiting for anyone to ask, ever.

    “I am tool, a reforged soul, meant only for destruction.” she said, but I heard a catch in her voice.

    “But you were a mortal once. And you can talk, and think still right?” I asked.

    “Yes.” she agreed. She stopped pacing around me, so I turned to face her again.

    “Then you’re still a person aren’t you? Even if you’re bound by compulsions and don’t have a body like you used to, there’s still a part of you that’s who you’ve always been.” I said.

    “I…” she began and faltered.

    “You.” I agreed and then asked, “What would you slay a world for?”

    She looked away from me and there was a long moment of silence that followed. When she looked back the glow in her eyes had changed to a warm, sunlight shade.

    “I have seen too many worlds perish. I have heard the cries for mercy as they fell and tasted the rivers of blood that flowed in the wake of their destruction. There is nothing for which I would slay another world.” she said.

    I walked up to her and put a hand on her bowed head.

    “Then no one should ever ask you to.”

The Seas of Tomorrow – Chapter 19

    If I had to pick someone to take on the world with, Yael would not have been my first choice. She wouldn’t have been my second, my tenth or my hundredth choice either. As it was though, she was my only choice.

    “You should leave.” Yael said without preamble. It was nice to see that we were in agreement on working together.

    “You can’t even stand yet.” I pointed out. She was still sitting on the ground at the base of the rock she’d crashed into. Between the slow pulses of power that radiated off of her and how careful and controlled her breathing was I could tell that she was working a spell that was near the limits of her ability.

    “It’s more efficient to heal myself this way. I’ll be fine. Go look for Master Kinsguard and Taisen.”, she said.

    “No.” I replied.

    I knew how annoying it could be to have someone distracting you while you were doing delicate work. She was the one who’d opened her mouth and started this though, so I didn’t have much sympathy for her.

    “Don’t argue with me. I don’t need your help.” she growled.

    “Good. I don’t particularly feel like giving it to you. I also don’t have any idea where anyone else is and I’m not going to run off on a wild hunt for them.” I said.

    “Then what do you want to do?” Yael asked. The irritation in her voice could not have been doing anything good for her spell casting.

    “Akell needs to be stopped. Zyla needs to be stopped. The Karr Khan needs to be stopped. I don’t think what I ‘want’ to do really matters.” I said.

    “Good. Then leave. You’re going to be a distraction if you stay.” Yael said, as she released her spell and climbed to her feet.

    “Answer me this first; can you take on all of them, and win, guaranteed?” I asked.

    “I can buy time for Master Kinsguard.” Yael replied. Her face was all hard lines and tension.

    “You just said you lost your link to her.” I reminded her.

    “That doesn’t mean anything.” She restrained herself from screaming the words at me but not by much. Despite the volume and the harshness she put into the words though there wasn’t a lot of conviction behind them.

    “Yes it does. It means you’re gambling that help will come.” I said.

    That got under her skin deep enough that she drew her anima blade on me.

    “Yes. Yes I’m gambling. The odds are long. I could die or worse. That’s what it means to be a Guardian. That’s what we do.” Yael’s scowl made me step back as much as the anima blade in her hand did. I felt myself shrinking in the face of her anger and grabbed hold of the fear that was snaking up my spine.

    “So are you arrogant or just stupid then?” I asked, stepping in closer to the tip of the blade she held out.

    “What do you mean?” Her scowl deepened into a snarl. If I wanted to get stabbed, it looked like it would be pretty easy to arrange. One more insult, maybe two at the most.

    “You’re facing impossible odds and you’re not fully trained either. It’s not good enough for you to go out there and die like a good little Guardian, you’ve got to go out there to win this.” I said.

    “That’s what I’m trying to do.” Yael replied, lowering her anima blade to her side.

    “No. You’re not. If you were trying to win you’d be figuring out how to take advantage of everything you had available to you. Ever since you woke up, you’ve been gearing yourself up for a big, hopeless battle.” I said.

    “And you think you know what I should do?” she asked.

    “No. I just know that trying to send me away to protect me like a good Guardian isn’t going to increase the chances of you winning this. Yes, I’m new to what I can do, but I can still do things you can’t, and I’m not an idiot. I made a mistake on the transport. I’m not going to make that same mistake again.” I said.

    “Great, so you’ll make other ones instead.”

    “Yeah. So what? So will you. So would Master Hanq or Taisen or your teacher. Nobody’s perfect.” I said.

    “If I have to protect you, I’m not going to be able to fight as effectively as I could alone.” Yael insisted.

    “Then don’t protect me. If I get killed, it’s on me, not you. If I get captured, I’ll free myself or die trying.” I said and forced myself to breathe to release the tension that had clamped my hands into fists. “Listen, I don’t want to work with you either, but you’re the one who knows where the Jewel is and where Akell is going to be. He’s got enough of a head start on us already and we don’t have time to argue about this.”

    “It’s not that simple.” Yael said, closing her eyes and shaking her bowed head.

    “Yes it is. You need all the help you can get, and I’m all that’s available for now.” I said.

    With a sigh, the apprentice Ruby Guardian looked up at me. She was still frowning.

    “You should really run.” she said again, but then added before I could speak, “But if you’re not going to then you’re right. We should move out.”

    “Are you finished healing up?” I asked.

    “Close enough to it. I can fix the rest as we move.” Yael said.

    “Where do we go?” I asked.

    “The Warlord said there was a cave entrance on the northern side of this mountain. If we get close, I can follow the trail of the tracking spell that Master Kinsguard put on Akell.” Yael said. I bristled at her calling Master Hanq a warlord, but didn’t call her on it.

    “Can you run?” I asked.

    “Yes. Try to keep up.” she replied and took off at a superhuman sprinting speed.

    I reached out for my Physical anima and let it flow through me. Catching up to Yael was almost effortless. It wasn’t a fair race though. She was holding back to reserve strength for healing while I was free to run as fast as I wanted to. Being able to overtake her wasn’t that useful of course since she was the one who knew where we were going. At least in theory. I started to doubt that when I noticed that we were running a long zig zag pattern up and down the side of the mountain. I’d become convinced that we were looking in the wrong spot when she skidded to a stop and froze in place.

    “What is it?” I asked, stopping beside her.

    “I found the trail.” she whispered. She had her eyes open but her gaze was turned inwards.

    “And something else?” I guessed.

    “Zyla’s here, waiting for us.” she whispered in reply. I knew it was foolish but I started looking around for either of the Karr Khan’s Scions.

    “How close is she?” I asked, reducing my voice to a whisper as well.

    “It’s hard to tell. She’s well hidden. Not moving either. The cave is a little more than a half mile directly ahead of us though.” Yael said.

    “So she’s focused on us rather than Akell?” I asked.

    “Definitely. She might have subordinates going after him, but she’s set up a web around this place to trap us.” Yael said.

    “What kind of web?” I asked.

    “Physical and anima. She has personnel stationed in a ring around her position, probably with several that I can’t sense, and she’s rigged lines of Aetherial anima that radiate out from the cave entrance we need to reach.” Yael said.

    “Aetherial anima? Why? What’s she doing with it?” I asked.

    “Looking to lure us into a trap.” Yael said. “If we touch one of the threads, it will ‘stick to us’. That will let Zyla pull us to where she is.”

    “Can we go around it?”

    “Not that I can see. The cave mouth is completely sealed by the treads and they remain solid a fair distance away from the cave.” Yael said.

    “Ok then, what would you do in a situation like this?” I asked.

    “Take out the thread caster.” Yael replied.

    “Which would be her, so she gets the fight she wants anyways.” I said.

    “She’s had time to prepare. That let’s her set the opening moves of the game.”

    “We need to turn it around on her then. Put her into a position that limits her somehow.” I said.

    “That’s why we take the direct route. It’s a trap, but going into it with our eyes open gives her the least chance of binding us further with destiny spells.” Yael said.

    “We’re not bound yet are we?” I asked.

    “A little, her magic is strong and it’s taking advantage of the existing conditions. We have to follow Akell if we want to stop the Jewel from being unleashed, so our path is naturally constrained to lead to him, even if we find alternate means of getting there.”

    I thought about that for a moment and then remembered what Zyla’s big “First Circle” brother Weri had done to me.

    “If she has a spell hanging out there, can you use it as a link to her?” I asked.

    “Yes, but she’ll be able to block most of the spells I could cast down it.” Yael said.

    “What about one that summons her to us? That would still be fulfilling the principal effect of the original spell, but it would let us fight her somewhere that she’s not setup to ambush us.” I said.

    Yael paused to consider that idea.

    “It would work, but she won’t come alone. It’s not a teleport, or a mental compulsion. Destiny spells control and guide random events and the choices that people have available. She’d come to wherever we summoned her but she’d be aware of what was happening and be expecting trouble.” Yael said.

    “Just like we are now.”

    “Except that she’ll have a small army at her back.”

    “Can we escape the army?” I asked

    “Not if there’s two destiny spells pulling us together.”

    “Can we beat the army?”

    “Hard to say. Zyla knows what we can do. She’s not dumb enough to bring a force that doesn’t have a chance against us. But she may be counting on the advantage of the trap she has setup.” Yael said.

    “And what’s the chance that this is all an illusion?” I asked.

    “Definitely not. It’s too solid and too rooted to be an illusion. She’s staking her plan on this.”

    “Why is she so focused on us? Shouldn’t finding the Jewel be more important?” I asked.

    “To the Karr Khan? Probably, but they don’t know for sure that it’s in this mountain. All they know is that a failed Third Circle is going in and setting off all the traps for them. If they take us out they can get the Jewel whenever is convenient.” Yael said.

    “And Zyla has the perfect spell for finding us.” I added.

    “Not perfect, but good enough.” Yael said.

    “Wait. Zyla has the spell that’s good enough to find us?” I said.

    “Yes. She’s a very good Aetherial caster.”

    “What about the troops that are with her? Are they that good?” I asked.

    “Very unlikely. Aetherial casters don’t tend to be front line troops unless they’re commanders like Zyla.” Yael said.

    “So even if she leaves some troops behind when she comes to find us, they won’t necessarily be able to notice one of us sneaking by them?” I asked.

    “No. They probably won’t. I see where you’re going with this though and I don’t like it.” Yael said.

    “I don’t either, but I think it’s our best shot. If you call Zyla out, we know she’ll come. She has to right? She’ll bring her troops with her, but if I’m not here you can fight as defensively as you need to.” I said.

    “Meanwhile you’ll cloak yourself and try to sneak in after Akell?” she asked.

    “I know it’s dangerous. He’s seen me in action too, but he’s probably not expecting me to show up.” I said.

    “What if Zyla has other traps laid. Or Akell hasn’t set off all of the traps that lead to the Jewel?” Yael asked.
“Then at least I’ll clear part of the way for you.” I said.

    Yael about that thought for a moment and then turned to me.

    “This plan sucks. It’s probably going to get us both killed, but I’m not coming up with anything better. I’m going to say this one more time: you should run away. You don’t have to die here.” she offered.

    “Neither do you. So let’s focus on staying alive. We’re not going to stop them as corpses.” I said.

    Yael looked at me and blew out a slow breath.

    “Agreed. Now give me a few minutes, I have an idea that I want to work on too.” she said with the gleam of a wicked insight burning in her eyes.

The Seas of Tomorrow – Chapter 18

    The airship’s explosion didn’t knock me out. That would have been a mercy. Instead I was sent tumbling out into the open sky as pieces of the ship flew away from me in all directions. I tried to see where everyone else went but in the chaos of the ship’s destruction I couldn’t make out anything. All I could see was the field of debris that was rapidly spreading outwards.

    We’d been descending when Weri destroyed the transport. Despite that, the ground looked a whole lot farther down than I’d ever seen it before. Add to that the fact that Master Hanq had been pushing the transport over its top speed so that we’d have a chance to reaching Akell before he got the Jewel and I knew I was traveling forward at a pretty terrifying velocity too.

    None of that was as scary as the notion that everything that was happening was my fault though. Yeah, Weri had been the one who’d blown the transport up, but he couldn’t have done that if I hadn’t screwed up. I’d tried to use a power I didn’t understand and that had given him the link that he needed to channel his power to where we were. In trying to act like a big hero, I might have killed all of us in the process. The shock of that left me numb and unthinking for the first few seconds as I fell.

    That blank panic could have been the death of me, but a cold spike of pain in my chest jolted me out of my mental daze. Guilt? Fear? Self-recrimination? Those all got shoved to the back of my mind by the undeniable fact that I was falling to my death. The sight of the ground growing ever closer made a  wave of cold shoot down my arms and legs. It wasn’t a pleasant sensation but it did make it easy to focus on the present and clear my mind of the emotional baggage that was holding me back.

    “I’m going to go splat really soon.” I told myself. My sense of time was out of whack. On the one hand I felt like I was falling slower than I expected and on the other the ground was approaching a lot quicker than I knew I could deal with.

    I studied what was underneath me and saw there was a farmhouse, a road, a forest and a lake not too far off. From what I’d read that meant my options were to go splat and ruin someone’s home, go splat and get run over, get skewered and then go splat, or to go splat and then drown. Left to its own devices, gravity seemed inclined to splatter me over the road but I was pretty sure I could angle myself into getting skewered on a tree if I preferred.

    “An anima shield?” I asked aloud, thinking that I might be able to protect myself from the trees that way.

    “I’ve got no idea how strong of a shield I can generate, or if I can whip one up in the first place.” I argued. “And the odds are that, even if I can summon one, it’ll probably pop on the first branch.”

    I imagined a soap bubble around me shredding on the first tree that I hit and leaving me to be tore apart by the next lower set of branches.

    “That might work!” I yelled over the rushing wind as another idea occurred to me. I’d screwed up by playing around with my powers before but, falling alone in the sky, the only one I could hurt was myself, and I was as good as dead anyways.

    Closing my eyes, I pulled the Void anima into my left hand again and reached for my Physical anima. I couldn’t move through my martial forms while I was falling but the practice with the invisibility spell had shown me how to shape anima as I projected it and I used that same idea to push my Physical anima out into a shield around me.

   Opening my eyes I saw a glow surrounding my body and felt a spark of elation blaze up in my heart. That was dampened by how much closer the ground looked though so I closed my eyes again and continued with my idea.

    I could feel the shield around me like a second skin. I gave it a little push to expand it and felt it grow larger as it drifted away from me. Then I called for another shield to surround myself with.  As fast as I could I built up layer after layer of shielding.

    I was on my 14th or 15th layer when I felt the first impact. I was moving much too quickly at that point to be aware of the individual shields failing. All I could perceive was an enormous roaring crash with the shattering of what seemed like millions of tree branches. I was tossed around and turned end over end but less than a second after the crashing started I was laying on the ground and I was in one only mildly damaged piece.

    I barely had time to notice that I’d survived the fall when I heard another crash, this one on the other side of the lake from where I’d landed.

    I tried to get up and found that the world was still spinning for me. The shields had prevent me from being skewered and had broken my fall but I’d been tossed around in all sorts of insane ways in a very short period of time and my brain was not entirely thrilled with that.

    I pulled myself up against one of the nearby trees and caught my breath for a few seconds, while I considered my situation. Even as addled as I was, I could guess that if I’d managed to survive the fall then everyone else who was with me could have done the same. They were all real casters, not clueless nobodies who had to invent basic things on the fly.

    My options were to try to regroup with them or to run far away. Run away shouldn’t have appealed to me, but given the trouble I’d caused them already it was actually tempting. As I sat there and thought about it though, my self-pity party started to feel a bit hollow. I’d made mistakes, but I’d done some good too. I’d bought Yael time by stopping Zyla from killing her and I’d managed to hide the ship well enough that it had taken one of the Khan’s best casters to find us. I knew I had a lot to learn, and that I was probably as dangerous to myself and them as I was to the Khan’s forces, but elation at surviving the fall helped me reclaim some of the confidence the insane day had shaken out of me.

    After a few more breaths to calm my nerves and sort out my head, I got up slowly and started heading toward the crash that I’d heard. Taisen had been right, I discovered. My body did seem to be better able to repair itself than it had been. In the minute or two it took me to get out of the forest, my head cleared up and the ringing in my ears went away. By the time I got to the lake I’d moved from a walk, to a jog, to a run and was still picking up my pace.

    From the size of the crash, I knew that what had come down was either a sizeable chunk of the transport ship, or one of my companions who’d been using anima to cushion their fall. I could tell roughly where the impact was from the shattered tree tops that I could see.

    I’d landed near the north end of the lake, so I detoured slightly to run around it and then made my way up the steeps hills on the far side of the lakeshore. About two miles further on, I found the first signs of the crash. Whoever had landed there had picked a forest to land in like I had, but theirs was a lot sparser than mine had been. I followed the irregular line of broken trees to a small clearing. A small very rocky clearing. At its center Yael lay bent backwards over a boulder. She wasn’t moving but something else in the clearing was.

    I’d seen pictures of mountain cats before, but I rarely made it outside the city and had never seen one in person. It was smaller than I’d expected. Not much bigger than I was, but the way it moved was amazing. It had been creeping up on Yael’s unconscious body when it heard my approach and had drawn itself back into a defensive posture by the time I sped into the clearing.

    I skidded to a halt about halfway into the clearing and the cat looked back at me with cold, clear eyes. I was big enough to be a fellow predator, but small enough that it might have been worth fighting me for the meal. It flowed sideways, tensing and relaxing with perfect balance on each step. It was evaluating me to see what kind of a threat I was before it chose between fight or flight.

    “You don’t want a piece of me today kitty.” I warned it and relaxed into a fighting stance. If it came to straight contest of speed and muscle, I would lose badly. I smiled. I had more to rely on than pure muscle power. For the first time in my life, I was facing a physically stronger foe, and I wasn’t overmatched.

    Then the damn cat disappeared.

    I swore, loud enough to wake the dead, but sadly not loud enough to wake Yael.

    A familiar coldness spread through my chest and I knew I was in danger.

    So I vanished too.

    The world was cloaked in pale shadows as I pulled the Void anima over myself. I looked around hoping to catch a glimpse of an anima fire, but I couldn’t see the cat even in this state. That left me even more uncertain of what was happening. The one thing I did know was that Yael was still exposed and vulnerable, so I started making my way over to her carefully.

    I was expecting a trap or an ambush so when I felt myself brush against something cold, I reacted instantly. That saved my life. Four claws that were capable of tearing through steel passed within an inch of my throat as I rolled back and away from mountain cat.

    It’s attack had been a reflexive one. It hadn’t anticipated that I would move in towards it so quickly and it had struck out at me the way only an animal can. With that brief encounter though the situation had shifted and it was back into a defensive crouch.

    I mirrored its actions, crouching low and preparing myself for the moment it chose to spring at me. The world around was still covered in pale shadows, but I could see the mountain cat clearly. I was puzzled by that until I felt the threads of Void anima that were connecting us. It was like we we were under the same cloak of invisibility and so could see each other clearly once again.

    Master Hanq had said that early human anima users had used the movements of the animals around them to inspire the physical gestures of their anima spells. Watching the cat move and try to pull free of the connection between us, I began to wonder if they’d been more than just inspired by the animals they’d studied.

    “What can you teach me?” I asked the mountain cat.

    He looked back at me with narrowed eyes, his only response a slow shifting of his weight back and forth as he waited for me to move. I knew he couldn’t understand me. Not the words that I was saying at any rate, but I kept talking in the hopes that the words would influence my body language enough to communicate some of what I was trying to convey.

    “This one’s not lunch for you. You need to find your food somewhere else.” I said as I stepped towards Yael.

    The cat made a low growling sound as I moved. I was closing the distance to it, threatening it in a very simple way. The growling was a mixed sign. On the one hand it meant it didn’t want to fight me, since it was trying to warn me off. On the other hand it meant it was still willing to fight since it was holding its ground and not running away.

    “Seriously cat. Get out of here. Or show me how you’re doing that.” I said as I circled closer to Yael while staying the same distance away from it.

    The cat moved in step with me, pacing away from Yael but keeping me at the same distance. I was captivated as I saw it glide across the clearing’s floor. The wisps of Void anima around it followed its movements almost as though they were leading the way and the cat was following.

    “Wow, you are just beautiful aren’t you?” I asked it. That didn’t buy me any points with the creature though. I was an interloper and I was taking a decent meal away from it.

    I tried circling closer to Yael but backing off a step from the cat. It didn’t react to that, so I crouched down, folding my legs so that I was resting on the back of my heels. I saw confusion pass through its eyes and I could understand why. I was as weird and unusual to it as it was to me. Even if it had seen people before, it couldn’t have encountered one that could see it while it was cloaked in shadows.

    On a lark, I held out my hand to it and started making little “come here” motions in its direction.

    “Come on. There’s no need for us to fight. Come over here and I’ll show you we can be friends.” I’d wanted a kitten as a pet when I was little and some insane part of my brain was apparently still holding on to that desire.

    The cat did a weird, backwards scuttling motion in response to my request and the Void anima around it swirled and swallowed it up. I could still it as a darker shadow among the pale ones that shrouded the clearing but beyond that it was hard to tell much about the creature.

    Until it turned and ran away at full speed.

    The little girl in me pouted in disappointment but the rest of me, the part that was still sane, was more than relieved to see the cat go. It occurred to me that it might return, but even as I dropped the Void anima off of myself, I could still feel the threads of it that had connected the two of us. I wondered if that would make it harder for the cat to sneak up on me again, but I knew better than to assume that would be the case however likely it felt.

    Without the cat to distract me, Yael became my next concern.

    The rock she was laying on had pieces shattered off of it which suggested that she’d had an anima shield in place when she landed. I couldn’t tell if I should move her though, or even touch her for that matter. If I knew how to use my Physical anima, I could have tried to a crude healing spell to help wake her up, but I’d learned my lesson in the transport about experimenting when it could affect someone else. With my luck I’d give her a spark of anima and she’d wake up just in time for the Void anima in me to consume all the power she had, like it had done to the soldiers.

    Since I couldn’t risk that I settled for the only other thing I could think to do. I sat down beside her and started talking.

    “Yael. I don’t know if you can hear me, but you need to get up. We can’t stay here. There’s creatures around here, and Akell’s still on his way to the Jewel. You’ve got to get up.” I said.

    She didn’t even stir at my words, which made my stomach sink.

    “Come on Yael. Our teachers need us. I don’t know what happened to them, but if we survived you know they have to be ok.”

    I saw her twitch slightly at that, but she didn’t open her eyes or respond in any way.

    “Listen, what you did on the roof was brave, but if you buy it here, then Xyla basically kicked your butt in the end.”

    Her hands clenched at that and I heard a groan escape from his lips.

    “That’s right, show that Warlord’s brat what you’ve got.” I said.

    Yael drew in a deep breath and spoke without opening her eyes.

    “Shut up. Stop talking.” she commanded.

    “Get up then.” I said.

    I watched as she pulled herself slowly off of the rock and down into a sitting position beside it.

    “Anything broken or seriously injured.” I asked.

    “You destroyed our ship.” she said, grinding the words out.

    “Yeah. Didn’t mean too. Thought I could stop Weri.” I said.

    “That was stupid. It cost us everything here. I knew we shouldn’t have brought you with us.” she said, finally opening her eyes to glare at me. I was tired of that.

    “Excuse me princess. I didn’t know. I didn’t get the perfect training sessions that you did.”

    “That’s why you shouldn’t be here.” Yael growled.

    “Then you wouldn’t be here either.” I growled back. “Or how do you think you would have gotten away, if I didn’t cloak the transport?”

    “I’m a master illusionist. It wouldn’t have been a problem if you weren’t there!” she yelled.

    “Me? Why am I the problem?” I demanded. It wasn’t anything I hadn’t told myself already but I hated hearing it from her nonetheless.

    “Because you’re too wild and unpredictable. You can’t control yourself. Anything I cast, you could rip to ribbons just because you don’t know any better.” Yael said.

    “I’m controlling myself just fine now.” I spit out through clenched teeth. The truth hurts, enough that I was wishing the cat would come back, or that I hadn’t interrupted it’s lunch when I did.

    “And how long is that going to last? How long before you screw up again, because you don’t know what you’re doing and don’t have the training that you need?” Yael asked in a low and cold voice.

    “I have no idea!” I yelled at her. Fire and rage and all the self doubt that I’d swallowed made a maelstrom inside of me but it all turned inwards.

    “I have no idea.” I repeated, softer, and then asked in voice barely above a whisper, “Why did you save me on the roof. Why didn’t you just let them take me.”

    Yael sighed and I saw some of the tension ease out of her shoulders.

    “You don’t deserve that. No one deserves what they would do to you.” she said.

     We were silent for a moment before I spoke again.

    “You really hate them don’t you?” I asked.

    “Yes.” she said. The lack of hesitation told me that Taisen was right. It was personal for her. I’d been curious when he said it, but confronted with the reality of her pain, I found that I didn’t have any desire to pry into it.

    “That makes two of us then.” I offered.

    We were silent for another long moment. I could tell that Yael was focusing on the injuries she’d sustained; repairing herself as best she could.

    “I get that you can’t trust me, but for now it’s just the two of us.” I said. “We don’t know where our teachers landed and we don’t know where Taisen is. All that we know is that Akell doesn’t have the Jewel yet.”

    “Because we’re not dead.” Yael said.

    “Yeah. The question is, do you know where he was headed?” I asked.

    “Yes. We’re close to it. It’s under this mountain that we landed on.” she said.

    “Can we rendezvous with the others?” I asked.

    “I don’t know.” Yael said and then added, “I don’t know if they’re coming.”

    “Why wouldn’t they be coming?” I asked.

    “I can’t hear Master Kinsguard. She always keeps a mental link open with me, but I can’t hear anything on it.” Yael said.

    “What does that mean?” I asked, fear curling around in my belly.

    “That something has severed the link, or that someone is blocking it.” Yael said. “Or that she’s…”

    She broke off before she could finish the sentence, but I could see the same pain and fear in her eyes that I was feeling.

    I’d assumed that if Yael and I could survive the fall that the three more experienced casters could too, but we had no way of knowing that. Or of knowing what had happened to them after they landed. As far as we could tell, we could be the last two people on the planet who weren’t working for the Karr Khan.

The Seas of Tomorrow – Chapter 17

    Extending yourself too far, for too long, is dangerous. I’d learned that a hundred times over in the martial lessons that Master Hanq had taught me. Practicing all the time sounds great, but the body has limits and when you exceed them, the damage you can cause will set you back a lot farther than taking time off to rest would. Despite knowing that however, I still climbed into the transport and got to work on cloaking us in a veil of invisibility.

    “How did you find the location of the Jewel so fast?” Taisen asked.

    “Akell showed us.” Opal said.

    “That’s right, you have a tracking spell on him don’t you?” Taisen asked.

    “Several. Fewer now than when we parted company, but he was intended to find the ones that he did.” Opal said.

    “So how did he know where the Jewel was? I’ve been here for two years and I never caught a whiff that there was an ancient artifact was on this planet.” Taisen said. I detected a note of hurt professional pride in that declaration.

    “You’re not a Void anima caster.” Yael said.

    “And Akell is?” I asked, wondering how much more dangerous that would make him.

    “No. He can’t use Void anima at all. That’s why he’s relegated to the Third Circle. The Void anima users in the Khan’s clan are automatically given membership in the First Circle.” Opal said.

    “He does have a friend in the First Circle though.” Master Hanq said.

    “His mother.” Opal confirmed. “From what I saw of her in his memories, she’s very adept. She’s also one of the casters on the warship who’s trying to locate the exact coordinates of the Jewel.”

    “So the Khan’s troops know where it is?” Taisen asked. I would have asked the same thing but I was starting to follow the casting of the invisibility spell better.

    I was a novice. I knew that. I felt clumsy and horrible and useless at casting. I’d felt that way before though. A lot of times. Each time Master Hanq introduced me to a more complicated martial form, it felt weird and difficult. For a while at least. In time though, I figured each of them out and there was a gradual shift to where doing the form felt like the most natural thing in the world.

    I could feel the same thing starting to happen with the invisibility spell. I knew I was being inefficient in my casting. My motions were smooth and fluid but they didn’t match up well with the way the Void anima was flowing off of me. It was like I was painting the ship with an invisible ink that ran from me in fits and spurts. When the “anima paint” wasn’t flowing on its own, I had to force it out, which was what wore me down. With some simple alterations in the movements though I was able to allow the anima to flow more smoothly.

    I had to smile at that, in part because it was working and in part because none of my teachers would ever have believed that I was doing what I was.

    I glanced over at Opal as I continued casting and saw that she was watching me. Possibly still concerned at what I might do if I let the Void run away from me. I felt an odd mix of emotions at that. Relief that I didn’t have to worry about losing control. Sorrow that I couldn’t be trusted. Hope that maybe I’d get a chance to learn how to do this the right way from her.

    I glanced away before she could read that in my eyes. I felt like a little kid for even thinking it. Having Master Hanq as a teacher was luckier than someone like me deserved in the first place. The chance that an actual Guardian of the Crystal Empress would have time for me was pure fantasy material. Besides, she already had a protege.

    “We don’t think the Khan’s forces know exactly where the Jewel is.” Yael said. “If they did they would be landed their search parties to retrieve it.”

    “Then what coordinates did his mother give Akell?” Taisen asked.

    “The nearest dark spot.” Yael said.

    “One of the obscuring spells on the Jewel creates shadow images of it. They look like the Jewel and even have a link to the real thing. They are one of the last lines of defense to prevent the Jewels from being found.” Opal explained.

    “What they told me was, because the shadows are linked to the real Jewel, it’s much harder to pierce that spell than any of the rest.” Master Hanq added.

    “And if you try to pick up one of the illusionary jewels?” Taisen asked.

    “Various horrible things happen, including, for one of the shadows, that the real Jewel is teleported away.” Opal said.

    “Why wouldn’t they all do that?” Taisen asked.

    “The teleport is a desperate option. It leaves the real Jewel revealed.” Opal said.

    “Which means anyone with one of the other Jewels can find it easily.” Taisen said, filling in the blanks.

    “Especially if they happen to hold the Traveller already and can warp directly to it.” Opal said.

    “So which is Akell heading towards? One of the illusions or the real gem?” Taisen asked.

    “The real one, we think.” Yael said.

    “I’ve surveyed this planet a few times. I wasn’t looking for the Jewels but I did find a bunch of anomalous areas. Visited some of them to see what was there but I didn’t find anything. The thing is I thought I’d visited all of them but it turns out there was one that I missed. I knew about it, but I couldn’t recall it until Ms. Kinsguard was kind enough to break a compulsion that I didn’t notice I was under.” Master Hanq said.

    “What kind of compulsion?” I asked, spitting the words out in between movements to maintain the invisibility spell.

    “A forgetting charm, and a powerful one at that.” Opal said. “There aren’t many kinds of compulsions that can be made to last for a long term and even fewer that work on someone with Mr. Okoro’s level of training.”

    It was a little strange seeing Opal and Master Hanq getting along so civilly. She was a Guardian and he was a Warlord. That should have been an explosive combination but all I was seeing was an easy, respectful understanding passing between the two of them. Fighting through an army of elite soldiers together had apparently quieted any doubts that they had about each other. At least for the duration of the current crisis. After that I guessed we’d find out if the Crystal Empress actually had given my mentor amnesty for past crimes.

    I hoped that was the case. I hadn’t known him all my life, but he’d been there for a most of it and it was hard to imagine him as someone terrible. If the Crystal Empress did want to put him on trial, I wasn’t sure I’d be able to let that stand.

    “Akell is heading to that dark spot then I take it?” Taisen asked.

    “He stayed in the city for a while, probably searching for transportation, but yes, he’s heading directly there now.” Opal said.

    “Damn destiny spells.” Taisen complained.

    “Wouldn’t work on the Jewels. It was pure dumb luck that he was closest to the right one.” Master Hanq said.

    “Can we catch him?” Taisen asked.

    “That depends on how adept he is at navigating past the illusions and traps which the Jewel is shielded by.” Opal said.

    “Worst case then is that he gets the Jewel before we show up.” Taisen said.

    “No, the worst case is that he uses the Jewel before we show up.” Opal said.

    “I thought he would want to return it to the Karr Khan to win back his place.” Taisen said.

    “That’s why he’s seeking it. Once he holds the Jewel’s power though anything may happen.” Opal said.

    “Assuming he gets to it that is. He’s not as smart as his sister Xyla. Or as powerful. The traps should be more than enough to disable him or keep him away from the Jewel itself.” Yael said.

    “They should be, but I had hoped we would retain an advantage in terms of getting to the Jewel first. If it had been anywhere on the planet outside the range of ground transportation we could have easily tracked and overtaken Akell before he got close to the Jewel.” Opal said.

    “I’m beginning to suspect that destiny magics are involved.” Master Hanq said.

    “If the Jewel’s could be found with an Aetherial spell, they’d have been located ages ago.” Opal said.

    “That’s true for spells that we or the Khan’s forces can cast, but what about one cast by the Jewel itself?” Master Hanq asked.

    “That’s not possible, the Jewel’s require a wielder to work their magic. If they didn’t everyone on this planet would be dead already.” Opal said.

    “That only tells us that they require a wielder to exercise some of their powers.” Master Hanq pointed out.

    “Does it matter? Akell’s ahead of us. Either the traps will stop him or we will.” Yael said.

    “Very practical. I like it. Remind me to make you a job offer when this over.” Master Hanq.

    He was teasing her. Yael figured that out by the time her hand was halfway to her anima blade. She froze in the middle of the action and glared at him. Tempting as it was for her, she wasn’t going to kill a Warlord just for taunting her. Nor was she going to kill our pilot while he was flying the transport we were in.

    “Zyla will be there.” she said instead, letting her anger at Master Hanq seethe out through her former opponent’s name.

    “You can sense her?” Taisen asked.

    “No, we’re still too far away and the invisibility spell is blocking my view out.” Yael said. “She’ll know we’re looking for Akell though. The plan’s not a deeply subtle one. She can’t track us, so she’ll follow our quarry instead.”

    “If we take the time to fight her again, Akell will definitely get his hands on the Jewel.” Master Hanq said.

    “She probably won’t give us a choice.” Yael replied.

    “I could sneak us in.” I suggested between a pair of kicks.

    “We can’t count on that. She knows you’re with us. She’ll have methods in place to detect you. If she didn’t she wouldn’t even bother showing up.” Yael said.

    “Or she’ll have contacted someone who can deal with you before you show up to become a problem in the first place.” a man said from behind me.

    I whirled around, hanging onto the invisibility spell by the skin of my teeth.

    The guy behind me was taller than I was but not by much. He was built like a statue, all perfectly sculpted muscles and long flowing hair. He looked like the kind of rich pretty boy who I imagined spent his time in trendy clubs and racing fast hovers. The aura of power that crackled around him suggested he was far from being one of the “idle” rich though.

    “It’s a projection.” Opal called out.

    “Not “it”. He. Weri of the First Scion Circle to be specific. And, yes, I’m afraid I can’t be there to deal with you in person.” the man said. “But that’s quite ok. You see you stole something of ours. That transport that you’re so carelessly flying about in? I can’t affect you from here perhaps, but that ship is bound to the Karr Khan’s clan and we do not accept betrayal in any form.”

    I felt the transport start to shake.

   “He’s triggered the self-destruct!” Master Hanq shouted from the cockpit.

    “Block it!” Opal shouted back and leapt into the co-pilot’s seat.

    “I am. It’s why we’re not sky debris already.” Master Hanq said through gritted teeth.

    “I’m taking us down.” Opal said.

    Without speaking Yael drew her anima blade and began slashing the projection repeatedly.

    “That’s only costing me the barest erg of power you realize.” Weri said.

    “I thought…” I said, struggling to keep the invisibility spell going despite the apparent lack of protection that it offered. “I thought you wanted to take me in alive?”

    “Oh you will be captured alive. Or if you lack the power to survive a little spot of trouble like this, you’ll be declared an unfit halfbreed and my sister will be absolved of the charge of bringing you in. She won’t be happy with that, but sometimes we must save people from the peculiar notions they hold dear.” Weri said.

    “I’ll kill you before that happens.” I said and dropped the invisibility spell. If Yael was taking away a little bit of his power by slashing the image he was projecting then I had an idea.

    As it turned out though it was a terrible idea.

    I called the Void anima into my left hand and plunged it into him. I’d meant to consume the anima that he was projecting and hopefully burn him out in the process. Or, to be honest, I hoped to kill him, I just didn’t think I’d get that lucky. I didn’t get anywhere close to that lucky in fact.

    “You truly are untrained aren’t you?” Weri said, as a malicious grin settled onto his face.

    I felt the void that I was reaching out with touch on something else that was cold and empty. Weri’s Void anima. Before I could react or pull back I felt a link form between us, and I knew something terrible was going to happen.

    “Thank you new sister. This is much more efficient than what I had planned.” Weri said and with those words I felt a wave of force travel down the link between us and explode outwards from me.

The Seas of Tomorrow – Chapter 16

    There weren’t many people who could claim to have once commanded a small army, much less a large one.

    “You were one of the warlords who got away.” Yael said without emotion. I glanced at her and saw I was wrong. It wasn’t that she didn’t care, her voice was flat because she was exerting a tremendous amount of control over herself. I felt myself shifting into a defensive posture in response to the raw tension that was knotting her muscles into tight cords.

    “I’ve been many things.” Master Hanq said. “Today I was a person who knew how to take over a combat transport and extricate an apprentice Guardian from a bind she’d placed herself in.”

    “I had that situation in hand. My destiny weaving was better than hers.” Yael said, her voice still tightly controlled.

    “Maybe it was. Maybe it was better than you know.” Master Hanq said. He was the mirror opposite of Yael. Where she was visibly fighting back her rage, he appeared calm and tranquil. The magic word there was “appeared”. I didn’t need Opal’s mental gifts to see how much of a lie that was. I’d known him for too long to miss the subtle signs that showed that he was even more on edge than Yael was.

    On anyone else, I might have mistaken the too-relaxed posture he stood in as fear.  I knew he wasn’t afraid of Yael, however talented she might be. Opal, he might have reason to fear, but under the circumstances they both seemed to be looking at each other as allies. That didn’t leave many likely explanations. I was less of a threat than Yael was and Taisen was, arguably, less of a threat than I was.

    Something had him seriously concerned though.

    “My magics didn’t make you who you are.” Yael said. “That’s not how they work.”

    “There’s a great deal of debate on that.” Master Hanq said. I could already hear the philosophical lecture that he had lined up in his head, fortunately Opal stepped in to cut off “class time”.

    “We don’t need to get into that now. There are much more pressing matters at hand.” Opal said, gesturing to the stolen transport ship.

    “They won’t be able to track it here.” Master Hanq assured us.

    “Your defenses look solid, but that means that we can’t use it again until Miss Watersward is recovered.” Opal said.

    “That could be too long.” Yael said, turning to take me in with the same glare she’d focused on Master Hanq. If he was guilty by his own admission, then I was guilty by association.

    “I might be able to help with that.” Taisen said.

    “How?” Master Hanq asked.

    “Metaphysically she’s fine. The strain the casting put on her looks like it was channeled through her body. That’s common among new casters, I’m sure we all remember feeling it too. I can’t work on her directly, but I can teach her a few techniques that should help her rejuvenate herself.” Taisen answered.

    “I’m used to teaching her. I can handle that.” Master Hanq said.

    “I need you to go over the intelligence you’ve collected here with Yael and I. We’re still tracking Akell, but that’s a fall back plan. Ideally we’d be able to locate the Jewel of Endless Night before the Khan’s forces get within a thousand miles of it.”

    “It’s up to her.”  Master Hanq said, not looking happy at proposed groupings.

    I thought about it for a moment and decided that the kind of questions I had weren’t ones where I could expect a straight answer from Master Hanq.

    “It’s fine. The sooner you compare notes, the sooner we can end this Khan guy.” I said. It was ridiculous but I wanted to follow through on my promise to Zyla. That I would kill the Khan. I knew it wasn’t sane. My world had given up on being sane though, so the only way not to go crazy was to join it.

    Master Hanq shot me a look in response to my answer that I couldn’t interpret. This wasn’t the time for whatever he was thinking though, since he shook his head to clear the thought out and then turned towards the table that Opal was clearing off for them to work at.

    “We’ll need quiet for this. Do you have any survival tents in this gear?” Taisen asked.

    “There are some space-capable habitation modules in the grey crates behind that bench.” Master Hanq said, pointing towards one of the workstations on the other side of the grotto.

    I followed Taisen thinking I’d help him set the tent up. As it turned out the “habitation modules” were bricks about the size of my hand. Taisen held two of them together and passed a small anima change into them. Faster than even my improved reflexes could follow the bricks enfolded into a sealed hemisphere that surrounded us. The walls were as thin as paper but as resilient as steel plating thanks to the enchantments that were laid on them.

    “High quality gear here. I can see why he didn’t sell it.” Taisen said.

    “Too good to let go?” I asked.

    “In a sense. There aren’t many people who’d have access to this kind of gear. If it started showing up on a market, even one of the black ones, his enemies would be able to figure out that he was out there and unless he was very careful it wouldn’t be hard for them to discover where to look for him.” Taisen said.

    “Why would you think he had enemies looking for him?”

    “He was a Warlord. They always have enemies.” Taisen said.

    “How is that possible? I thought your Crystal Empress wiped out all of the Warlords in the Charted Worlds.” I asked. I knew that wasn’t true, but I was curious to hear what Taisen’s take on his Empress was.

    “Galactic history is a bit more complicated than that.” he replied.

    “Looks like Yael is too.” I said. “Which kind of doesn’t make sense. She can’t be much older than me, so the Warlords were gone before she was even born. Did the Empress just drill the hatred of them into her head?”

    Taisen chuckled at that.

    “I can tell you’ve never met the Empress.” he said.

    “Meaning what?” I asked. The chuckle had been annoying but I tried not to let it show.

    “Meaning that she’s compassionate to a fault. The popular notion is that she lead the largest army the galaxy has ever seen and wiped out all of the Warlords she came across. I guess that plays better to people than the negotiations and diplomacy that really happened.”

    “So you’re saying that there wasn’t the biggest interstellar war of all time about twenty years ago?” I asked.

    “That happened too. Don’t get me wrong, a lot of Warlords didn’t want to step aside quietly. Even among the ones who understood what was coming, there were plenty who couldn’t give up the lives they’d created for themselves.” Taisen said.

    “You’re not that much older than me, how much of that could you remember?” I asked.

    “From personal experience? Almost nothing. But I’ve talked with some of the people who were there. The Five Guardians, some of the Warlords who turned and joined their side. Even some Warlords fought against the Crystal Empresses forces and surrendered when they were beaten.”

    “So if she did such a good job, why would she miss someone like Master Hanq?”

    “He went underground. Gave up his position and the life he had to hid away on the edges of the empire. The Empress didn’t miss him, she respected his wishes.” Taisen said.

    “She respected a Warlord? How is that not disgusting and terrible?” I asked. I was glad the walls of the tent were blocking us from the others. I didn’t want to think about Master Hanq like that, but it was what he’d all but admitted to being.

    “Not all Warlords were horrible monsters. Depending on what he did as a Warlord, she may have given him amnesty.” Taisen said.

    “Or she might have just missed him.” I said.

    “Yes, that’s possible too.”

    “That doesn’t explain why Yael looks like she wants to rip his head off though.” I said.

    “I would imagine that is something personal. She’s not a native to the empire, so I would guess that she’s had experience with the Warlords who fled outside the bounds of charted space. I think those are the ones that people get their impression of Warlords from.”

    “The ones like this Karr Khan guy you mean?” I asked.

    “Him and others like him. The ones who escaped to the worlds beyond Charted Space weren’t the ‘nicer’ Warlords out there. Any bad things you’ve heard of Warlords doing? They got a thousand times worse after the Warlords lost their wealth, their privilege and their position.”

    “Why would guys like that care about guys like Master Hanq though? He’s no threat to them.” I asked.

    “Old grudges, revenge, trying to make a name for themselves. There’s a billion reasons we do terrible things to each other, and with the stress they’re under, the Fringe Warlords aren’t the most stable of people to begin with.

    “What about this Karr Khan guy?” I asked. “What’s with his clan thinking he’s immortal? Brainwashing?”

    “Yes and no. From what I’ve heard, the Karr Khan keeps his people on a special palace-ship while they’re growing up so that he can test and indoctrinate them. That said however, he’s also managed to survive events that annihilated those near him. It’s unclear if any level of physical force would be sufficient to actually destroy him.” Taisen said.

    “So how are we supposed to stop him?” I asked.

    “By letting Opal and Yael do the work they’re trained for.”

    “I thought you were an official agent of the Crystal Empress too?” I asked.

    “I am, but my assignment is collecting information.”

    “What about your doctor work? Was that for real?” I asked.

    “Completely. The special agent thing is a lot slower and less interesting than you might think.”

    “Present day excluded?” I guessed.

    “Well it was pretty slow until this girl showed up in my office looking like she’d been hit by a hovertruck. A few dozen times.” Taisen said with a small grin.

    “Yeah, wait, you said you didn’t heal me, so why aren’t I still beat to a pulp?” I asked.

    “You fixed yourself up.” he said.


    “Unconsciously, I would guess.” Taisen said. “I would also guess that was the first time you’d been hurt that badly in a fight?”

    “Maybe? I don’t know. I’ve gotten into some bad jams before too.”

    “This was the one that pushed you over the edge then.” he said.

    “Meaning I’m crazy?”

    “Meaning, you had to choose, on a subconscious level, whether you were willing to die to keep hiding what you could do.”

    “I don’t get it. I never felt like I was hiding. I never wanted to pretend like I didn’t have any talent at all. Why would that happen?” I asked.

    “There are a lot of possible reasons. Working out what they are isn’t important right now though. I know this is hard but the best advice I can give you is to let go of the past.” Taisen said.

    “I thought you were supposed to be giving me advice on how to patch myself up?” I said.

    “I have been.”

    “We’ve been talking about Warlords. How is that helping me patch myself up?” I asked.

    “It’s not what we’ve been talking about, it’s what we haven’t. Try to turn yourself invisible again, just for a moment ok?” Taisen said.

    I did what he asked and felt a dull ache radiate down my spine. It wasn’t pleasant but it was worlds better than how I’d been feeling when we started talking.

    “The key is to let it happen. Your body wants to heal. Let your anima move where it needs to. Let your body fix itself. It sounds simple but its incredibly hard to do sometimes. There’s always something that comes up, something that gets in the way taking the proper care of ourselves.” Taisen said. At the same time, I heard a knock on the habitat’s airlock.

    Master Hanq, Opal and Yael were waiting for us outside.

    “We have good news and bad news.” Master Hanq said.

    “The good news is that we know where the Jewel is.” Opal said.

    “The bad news is that Akell is going to get to it before we can get there.” Yael finished.

The Seas of Tomorrow – Chapter 15

    Despite the wind tearing by outside the transport and the clouds that blew past us faster than the wind could carry them, I didn’t feel like I was getting any farther away from my problems.

    “Are they following us?” Taisen asked.

    “No ships on the sensors yet, but they’ll be there soon enough.” Master Hanq answered.

    “They’ll expect us to bail out of the ship after setting it on autopilot.” Opal said.

    “Expecting it and being able to guess where we wind up when we do are two different things.” Master Hanq said.

    “We might have another option.” I said. “I could try to cloak us.”

    “Weren’t you just saying you can’t control the Void anima?” Yael asked.

    “Yeah. If I’m going to be swallowed up by it though, I might as well do something useful with it before then.” I said. It sounded good, but I was hoping that Opal would tell me it was a terrible idea and that I could just relax.

    “If you think you can, you should try.” Opal said.  I felt my stomach drop.

    “You should all get away from me. Just in case.” I said. I moved towards the back of the transport where the unloading door was. “If anything goes wrong, just flush me out the back ok?”

    “I will stay with you.” Opal said. “We can talk once you have the cloak in place.”

    “I don’t know if it will be safe.” I said.

    “You’ll come to no harm.” she said. That wasn’t what I’d meant and I was pretty sure she knew it.

    Master Hanq was already at the opposite end of the troop transport since he was flying the thing. Taisen and Yael looked at each other uncertainly for moment before Taisen spoke up.

    “It’ll be easier to tend to your wounds up front.” he said to Yael and helped her stand again so they could move forward. I watched them shut the door and wondered how long it would take me to tear through that if I got taken over again.

    “You might want to at least sit on the far end of the ship.” I suggested to Opal. It wouldn’t give her much of a running start but she probably didn’t need one either.

    “That won’t be necessary. Come and sit here.” she said.

    “Why?” I asked.

    “You’re going to try using anima outside yourself for what I would guess is the first time. That can be exhausting. If you’re sitting you won’t have as far to fall if you pass out.” she explained.

    “Sounds reasonable.” I agreed with a shrug and went to sit where she’d directed me to.

    “You’ve never had any formal training in working with anima have you?” Opal asked.

    “Nope, just what Taisen showed me how to do.” I said.

    “And what was that?”

    “He told me about separating the Void anima that’s in me from my own animas.” I said and then explained how I’d been injured and what I could remember of Taisen’s attempts to treat me.

    “Can you show me how you separate them?” Opal asked.

    “I guess.” I said and held up my hands with their palms facing each other. Into my left hand I gathered the Void and I felt a chill manifest around me. The shadowy wisps of smoke I’d seen earlier began to spiral around my palm. At the same time, I moved the bright light of my Physical anima into my right hand.

    Active and passive, empty and full. My right hand rose as my left hand descended and I saw motes of light from my right hand fall down into a swirling vortex between my hands. The wisps of smoke were swept up two, dark and light trailing one another in a circle encompassed by my outstretched hands.

    Without thinking about it, I brought my hands together and felt the power that I held before me flow back into my arms.

    “Fifth tier. Very impressive.” Opal said.

    “Fifth tier?” I asked.

    “The anima manipulation which you just performed would pass the fifth tier difficulty test for a Guardian. It usually takes the better part of a decade of training to achieve that.” Opal said.

    “But Taisen said it was a simple rest spell?”

    “You went well beyond the rest spell he spoke of.”

    “But I’ve never had any training. I couldn’t do anything with anima before today.”

    “I think I’ll need to speak to our pilot about that.” Opal said.

    “He never taught me about anima, he just taught me how to fight.” I thought back on the various lessons Master Hanq had given me. They’d all been practical. I’d learned to walk right, to take a fall, to hit and dodge and block. I’d never learned anything about magic from him though.

    “Perhaps. For now we should focus on cloaking the ship.” Opal said.

    “Any suggestions?” I asked her.

    “Emptiness is one of the defining traits of Void anima. Hiding us is one of the most natural things it can do. Let it extend outwards from you and shape it however feels the most natural to you.” she said.

    “What about it taking me over? What if I can’t stop it?” I asked.

    “It won’t. Your Void anima isn’t something that’s alien to you. It’s a part of who you are.” Opal assured me.

    I held my breath for a moment and thought about that.

    “Can you use Void anima?” I asked her. I was getting nervous about how long it was taking to cloak the ship. Rushing into it seemed like a terrible idea though.

    “No. My talents lie in manipulating Mental and Physical anima.” she said.

    “How do you know this Void stuff is a part of me then. It doesn’t feel like it’s ‘me’.” I said.

    “I know only what I’ve learned by speaking to other Void casters.” she said.

    “How many have you known?”

    “Known well? Only one.” Opal said.

    “Were they one of the Karr Khan’s ‘Scions’?” I asked.

    “No, she came by her abilities in a different way.”

    “So maybe the Void anima we use is different too then.” I said.

    “You are no more one of the Karr Khan’s offspring than my friend is. Whether you are different from her is something you will need to discover for yourself.” Opal said.

    “I don’t want to kill you all in the process though.” I said.

    “Rest your heart on that. I’m here and I won’t let you lose control or hurt any of us.”

    I paused again, trying to decide if I believed her. She seemed calm. She seemed like she knew what she was doing. She’d just beaten a small army of elite soldiers and didn’t look any the worse for the wear. Against that I stacked how I’d felt after I’d absorbed the soldier’s animas when I was out of control. Maybe she could take me, maybe not.

    The deciding factor was Master Hanq. If I went crazy, I knew he wouldn’t leave me like that. He’d find a way to stop me.

    “Ok. I’ll try.” I told her and closed my eyes.

    The Void anima was waiting for me when I turned my mind to it. I felt an urgency running through me. It wanted to be out. That made it harder to let it go. When I’d turned myself invisible I’d felt like I had the Void under my control. At least enough to stomp it back down if it tried to break loose. Letting it out to cover the ship though meant letting it drift farther away than I’d be able to call it back.

    I tried to force myself to do it, but that didn’t work at all. The harder I tried the more I froze up.

    “We need another plan. This isn’t working.” I said breathing hard and feeling more than a little bit desperate.

    “It is. You’re almost there. You have the power, but you’re not letting it go.” Opal said. “Think of the techniques you’ve learned. Let the anima move through you and out of you the way the force of a blow does.”

    I opened my eyes at that and stared at her.

    “I need to stand up.” I told her. It was a simple idea but like Taisen’s rest spell, it felt like the key to so much more.

    “That’s fine. I’ll catch you if you fall.”

    I got to my feet and reached out for the Void again. I moved my arms and the Void moved with them. I slowly began to step through one of the first forms that Master Hanq had taught me and felt a bone deep understanding clicking into place.

    Master Hanq had taught me that when you throw a punch the last thing you wanted to do was to tense up your muscles. Idiot punks would flex like that to make themselves look tough. All that tightening your muscles did to a real punch though was to slow it down and rob it of force. That’s exactly what I’d been doing with the “spell” I was trying to cast too. I’d been clamping down to keep control of the Void anima and holding it so tightly that I couldn’t let any of it do it’s job.

    Through the slow and fluid motions of the martial form that all changed. I couldn’t directly control the Void anima that I let go of but I could shape it indirectly through the movements I was making. It felt exhilarating but I was careful to keep a lid on that. Rage wasn’t the only way I could lose myself to the pull of the Void anima. Getting addicted to its power seemed all too easy too.

    As area invisibility spells went, my casting was probably one of the poorer examples out there. It hid us from the world well enough, but it kept hiding the world from us too. I spent almost an hour weaving and reweaving the spell to allow Master Hanq to see where we were going. I’d fix up the spell to give him a view port to look through and then the smoke would drift around and blot out his vision forcing me to fix it up again. I was starting to feel light headed and a little sick to my stomach by the time Master Hanq landed the ship.

    “We’re secure, you can let the invisibility shield go.” Master Hanq said after a minute.

    “Let it go slowly, you’re going to feel a little…” Opal started to say as I stopped mid-step in my form. In my defense I was really tired. That didn’t save me from pitching head first towards the deck of the ship the moment I stopped casting the spell though. I would have taken a nasty knock to my head but, true to her word, Opal caught me before I’d fallen more than a few inches.

    “A little spent.” she finished saying.

    “Yeah. I just need a moment to catch my breath though. I’ll be ok.” I said, my thinking was muddled and my vision more than a little bleery.

    “You’ll need more rest than that. Think of it like you’ve been using a muscle you’ve never worked out with before.” Opal said.

    “Don’t worry, you’ll feel worse tomorrow.” Yael added.

    “If I’m alive tomorrow.” I muttered and then asked with a bit more volume, “Where are we anyways?”

    “My secret hideout.” Master Hanq said.

    “What? You never said anything about having a secret hideout!” I complained.

    “Wouldn’t have been a secret then would it.” Master Hanq said, going for one of the most obvious jokes ever.

    We disembarked from the transport ship and I took advantage of help that Opal offered. I didn’t feel like I was going to fall over again, but I could definitely tell what she meant about having worked out a muscle that I hadn’t used before.

    Master Hanq had landed the transport inside an amazing cave area. I guess the correct term would have been a “grotto” since the mouth of the cave opened onto the ocean and parts of the spacious interior were flooded.

    Around mouth of the grotto, I saw a series of glyphs that were carved into the rock. There was no glow or obvious sign of power to them but when I tried to move towards them I felt something nudging me back. Since it was less of a physical force and more of a compulsion I assumed it was some kind of Mental anima effect.

    Inside the grotto there were stacks of crates. Expensive looking crates of polished steel. There were also benches and tables set up too. Workstations with Aetherial lathes and crystal cutting tools and wind forging anvils and all sorts of other magical gadgets.

    “What is all of this?” Taisen asked before I had a chance to.

    “Leftovers from an old life.” Master Hanq said.

    “What’s in the crates?” Yael asked.

    “Weapons.” Master Hanq replied.

    “There’s enough to outfit a small army here. What would you have these?” Opal asked.

    “Because I used to have a large army and this was all I had left after the Crystal Empress was done with me.” my mentor said with a big, dangerous smile on his face.

The Seas of Tomorrow – Chapter 14

    Taisen and I weren’t friends. We’d met barely a few hours before and, while I found him pretty enough to look at, we hadn’t established a particularly deep relationship in the few dozen sentences we’d said to one another since I walked into his clinic. What Taisen was though was an ally and the prospect of finding an ally where I needed one was, at that moment, the most joyous thing I could conceive of.

    “She’s gotta get here. She’s gotta get here.” I heard him whispering as he paced back and forth in the hallway below the access hatch to the rooftop I was one. I smiled at that. It was nice to know he’d be happy to see me. Unless of course he was actually waiting for Yael.

    One small hop took me over the lip of the access hatch and I plummeted down about ten feet to land at Taisen’s feet. The landing was harder than I would have preferred and left me sprawled on the floor. Fortunately it also left me visible since the knock I took to my head was enough to break my concentration.

    “You made it!” Taisen said, forcing a yell down into a very loud whisper.

    “Yeah. Can you get me out of this though?” I asked, struggling against the ropes that bound me.

    “Certainly. Hold still a second.” Taisen said as he produced a multi-tool from his back pocket. I thought it would take him forever to cut me out of the bindings but the tiny anima blade the multi-tool contained tore through the ropes like they were made of tissue paper.

    I accepted his hand to help me stand up and then rubbed my arms and legs to restore feeling in them. On a whim, I tried to concentrate my Void anima again and let my physical anima flow around my body. The pins and needles went away instantly and I felt good as new. Physically at least.

    “Come on. We have to get out of here. They’re going to be after us soon.” Taisen said.

    I turned to him and felt the wild joy that had hit me fade away.  Taisen was offering safety, but he was only offering it for me. Yael was on her own.

    Yael and I weren’t friends anymore than Taisen and I were. We were barely even allies for that matter. There were tons of arguments that urged me to follow Taisen’s sane and rational advice. It would mean safety. It would mean denying the Karr Khan’s forces what they were most interested in. And it would mean leaving behind a girl who didn’t particularly like me. Even trying as hard as I could though, I wasn’t able to come up with similarly sane or rational reasons for staying and trying to help her.

    But that’s what I did.

    Something about running away and leaving someone else behind to die tripped a circuit in my brain that overrode all logic, all reason, and even all my fears. The thought of carrying the weight of another person’s death by choosing to run away was infinitely worse than the thought of dying myself if I stayed.

    I’d been crazy and stupid a lot in the previous few hours. That had been for myself though. This was being crazy and stupid for someone else, and somehow that made all the difference when it came to accepting the likely consequences of my intended actions.

    “I’m sorry. I can’t do that.” I told the horrified Taisen as I faded away before his eyes.

    He reached out to grab me but I’d already started moving before his shock work off.

    “Don’t turn me in a monster. Please.” I asked the Void anima as I felt it swirling around me. It was cold and hungry, but then it was always cold and hungry when it was awake. So long as that was all I felt from it, that was fine with me. I didn’t plan on letting it stay hungry for too long.

    I felt the Void settle over me like a second skin and could have sworn that I heard it purr. The prospect of feeding on anima appealed to it. That worked out well. With the Void outside of me I was able to pull my other anima inside and separate them that way. I felt for my physical anima again and felt its wonderful strength flowing through me.

    The leap back onto the roof was effortless. Taisen, being reasonably intuitive, had followed me to the access hatch but since he lacked my invisibility he wasn’t able to follow me any further than that. At least not without attracting a whole lot of attention.

    I looked over at Yael and Zyla and saw that the fight had entered it’s most desperate phase. Yael’s defenses had slowed enough that Zyla was able to make broad attacks that kept the young Guardian constantly in motion, punishing her injured leg.

    Zyla forced the fight to the edge of the rooftop about five feet away from me. Yael tried to buy room to maneuver with another blast of force but Zyla dodged it and disarmed Yael with a nasty cut along the inside of the Guardian’s sword arm. Yael’s anima blade tumbled over the edge of building as she lost her grip on it and the fight was over.

    Yael didn’t look ready to admit that while she still had breath in her body though. She still had some power left in her and wasn’t backing down, but Zyla was less wounded, less winded and much better armed. The Karr Khan commander had won the battle even if she’d lost the war when she let me get away.

    I watched as Zyla raised her blade into a high guard which I saw also doubled as the setup for an execution strike. Zyla knew Yael wasn’t going to quit. Neither of them would. It was almost a kindness that she was going to finish the battle without further delay or anguish.

    “I will make this painless.” she said to Yael.

    Yael might have had a plan, some clever “catch the blade and leap away” stratagem, but I never got to find out what that was.

    I caught Zyla’s arm and crushed down hard. The Void anima around me leapt at the chance and devoured the skin tight anima shield that Zyla was projecting. That cost me my cloak of invisibility but it seemed like a good trade given how vulnerable it left Zyla.

    “The duel’s over. You win.” I told her. “And for your prize, you get to fight me.”

    Zyla tried to spin away and escape my grip but one of us had Physical anima left to draw on and the other was her. I twisted her arm and forced her to drop her anima blade before spinning her around to serve as a shield against some of the soldiers who had bolt casters trained on us.

    “You’re going to want to tell them to stand down.” I told her.

    “No.” she replied through gritted teeth.

    “She’s right.” Yael said.

    “I am pledged to return the Void caster. No threat you can make will cause me to abandon my duty.” Zyla growled at me.

    “Your brother said you guys know about Void anima. You know what I can do to you right?” I said. I was angry at her, and I hoped that made me sound serious despite the fact that letting the Void anima take me over again was about the last thing I wanted to do.

    “I am well aware of your capabilities.” Zyla said without flinching.

    “That’s not why you should listen to her.” Yael said. She was holding her left hand over the wound on her right arm and I saw the glow of a healing spell at work to repair the injury.

    “There’s nothing you can say that will cause me to abandon my task.” Zyla said.

    “I know. I won’t convince you with words.” Yael said.

    “You wish to try to bribe me then?” Zyla asked.

    “No.” Yael replied.

    “Then how will you convince me.” Zyla asked.

    “I won’t. And she won’t either.” Yael said. “They will.”

    At her words the thunderous roar of one of the Karr Khan’s troop transports filled the air. I looked over the side of the building and saw it rise up to the level of the rooftops. At the same moment a series of detonations shook the ground and buildings for blocks around. The other transports had exploded.

    “Good work apprentice.” Opal said through the flying ship’s external speakers.

    “You’ve stolen one of our ships!” Zyla screamed.

    “To be precise, we’ve stolen the last one of your ships. The rest have met with some technical difficulties.” Opal said.

    “That doesn’t matter. The weapon systems are locked down and without shielding my forces will blast you from the sky if you try to flee.” Zyla said.

    In answer the transport pivoted to point at one of the buildings that didn’t have soldiers on it. A second later a gout of fire shot from the ship and the building shattered into a pile of debris.

    “What was that about the weapon systems being locked down?” Master Hanq asked over the speakers.

    Zyla was silent but I could feel the anger radiating off her. It was Yael who spoke next though.

    “You can’t win here. Not now. If you don’t withdraw, we will kill your troops and you as well. Some of us may die in the process but you will not complete your mission.” Yael said. “Look to the future.”

    From anyone else I would have assumed that was simply advice but given that both Yael and Zyla were Aetherial casters, I guessed that she meant it literally.

    Zyla took a long time before she responded. I felt her slump down a moment before she did though and I knew that we’d won.

    “This isn’t over, but I will not spend lives needlessly. Go and know that I will follow, or if not me, a more senior Scion.” Zyla said.

    “So you’re saying we should bring you with us as a hostage?” I asked her.

    “No. They’ll be able to track her too easily.” Yael said.

    “Fine. I’ll let her go once you all are aboard the transport then.” I said.

    “For your own sake, you should come with me.” Zyla said.

    “Never in a million years.” I told her.

    “I don’t know what Akell has told you but you would be honored, one of the First Scion Circle. Otherwise the Karr Khan will hunt you for the rest of your life.” Zyla said.

    “Or for the rest of his.” I said. I resisted adding ‘however short that might be’ and allowed my tone to convey that sentiment instead.

    “He is immortal.” Zyla said with a note of true belief in her voice.

    “He won’t be if I ever meet him.” I told her.

    “You are a fool.” she said.

    The transport flew in close to the rooftop just as Taisen hopped up to meet it.

    “Setting the shields to admit you three. Come on, let’s get out of here.” Master Hanq said.

    Taisen climbed into the ship as I helped Yael get back to her feet.

    “You fought well.” Yael said to Xyla, with a small bow of her head in her former opponent’s direction.

    “Not as well as you did.” Xyla replied, glancing at the transport and then at me.

    Yael gave a small smile at that and let Opal help her into the transport.

    “You’re a monster.” I told Xyla as I let her go. “However you think of yourself, however you justify what you do, look around and see what you really are. You’re standing in a very tidy graveyard and it’s all your fault. Whether you pushed the buttons or not, this is what you did.” I gestured to the dead city around us.

    “We are all monsters to someone.” she replied, her face expressionless.

    “No. That’s not an excuse.” I spit the words at her and added, “I meant what I said about your Khan. If I ever meet him, he’s going to die.”

    Zyla didn’t respond to that. There wasn’t anything she could say I guess.

    I jumped into the air ship as it started to lift off and watched the buildings fall away far beneath us. In a minute, I was farther away from the city than I could remember being in years.

    “She’ll keep following us, but we can keep you safe.” Opal said.

    “I don’t know if you can.” I told her.

    “I know to watch for her now. She won’t be able to surprise us like that again.” Yael said.

    “That’s not the problem.”

    “She’s worried about what she’s going to become if she stops holding back.” Master Hanq said. He’d always been good at reading my expressions.

    “What do you mean?” Opal asked, looking at me.

    “I could feel it on the roof. The Void anima I have. It wanted to do a lot more than I let it. It wants me to be the monster I was before you knocked me out, and I don’t know if I can hold it back. With people like her, or Akell, or any of them, I don’t even know if I want to.” I admitted.

    “We have a lot to talk about then.” Opal said as she put her hands on my shoulders.