Monthly Archives: April 2014

The Seas of Tomorrow – Chapter 30

Bearing an artifact of unimaginable cosmic power wasn’t quite the rush I’d expected it to be. That might have been due to the screaming agony I was in thanks to the three foot long spike of stage flooring that had been rammed through my shoulder. Or it was possibly due to the presence of the anima consuming shard of the Karr Khan’s soul that was shredding me from the inside. Strangely those weren’t the first things that came to mind though. The first thing that captured my attention was that I was falling. Towards the wall.

“Taisen! What’s happening?” Opal called out as she dived to catch me. Yael grabbed the unconscious bodies of both Akell and Zyla and we all landed against the wall of the yacht together.

“Apologies. Had to dodge a few gnats.” Taisen replied over the ship’s speakers. It wasn’t hard to figure out that he’d run to the ship’s control deck while I was fighting the Jewel. We needed someone to fly the yacht for us after all.

“Gnats?” Yael asked.

“Space fighters. The Khan’s fleet has launched a few. They don’t seem to be particularly happy with us.” Taisen said. The ship banked hard again and we all started falling towards the surface I would formerly have considered to be the amphitheater ceiling. With amphitheatres being open to the sky this presented something of a problem. Fortunately the sky that we saw above us was only an illusion. Unfortunately the hull plating that lay under the illusion wasn’t particularly soft or yielding to land on.

“Can you lose them? We’re getting tossed around like marbles here.” Yael called back. The yacht had gravity and inertia control spells on it, but Taisen had obviously had to reduce power to them to allow for the kind of maneuvering that he was doing.

“Lost plenty of them. Just a few left.” Taisen called. The ship spun wildly and plunged downwards. Opal caught us all in a flexible, springy web spell which at least reduced the impact trauma a bit.

“How many is ‘just a few’?” she asked.

“I’m not sure. The yacht’s targeting crystal can only handle a hundred separate targets.” Taisen said.

“Can you evade them?”

“Yes. Just don’t ask me for how long. This is harder than it looks.” Taisen said.

“Head us towards the planet then, as much as you can.” Opal said.

“That sounds like you have a plan. I like that. If you need to you can lie to me to tell me I’m right.” Taisen said.

“I have a plan.” Opal replied. The light chuckle in her voice didn’t tell me one way or the other whether her words were true, but I still had faith in her.

“If you remove the spear that’s in your shoulder, I can repair you.” Fari said.

I’d gotten used to hearing her voice. Seeing her standing beside me as a translucent blue form was a little weird though.

“You’re outside the Jewel?” I asked in my mind, as I pulled the plank out of my shoulder.

“No, we’re together now, so you can see me directly.” Fari replied.

“Don’t do that! It will only…” Yael started to say but trailed off as a flame of physical anima coursed over the wound and fixed the damage that had been done in an instant.

“You didn’t just take the Jewel off Akell, you took it for yourself.” Opal said. It wasn’t a question, it was a confirmation. I could see the muscles on her throat constrict but her voice remained soft.

“Took her.” I said.

“What do you mean ‘her’?” Yael asked.

“The Jewel is more than a weapon. There’s a person tied to it.” I said.

“The control mechanism.” Opal said. “A soul bound to the Jewel to shield the bearer from its power and to direct the functions of the Jewel as the bearer wishes.”

“Yeah, that sound right.” I said.

“I am only a tiny part of the Jewel.” Fari said.

“And that sounds wrong.” I told her. It was the ‘I’m only’ that I objected to.

“She’s speaking to you, isn’t she? The control mechanism.” Opal said.

“Yes. Her name is Fari.” I said.

A bone rattling shock passed through the ship and we change course so suddenly that Opal’s webbing snapped in dozens of places.

“Sorry. They’re getting closer.” Taisen called out.

“Oh, but we are already here.” the Karr Khan said.

Below us, on the stage, the remaining spotlight was projecting the image of the Khan standing within a circle of his devoted followers.

“Nice trick with the light, but we’re not afraid of illusions.” Yael said.

“You should be.” the Khan said. With a flick of his hand, a beam of light shot from the stage and pierced through Yael’s abdomen like a spear.

“He’s close enough to manipulate the anima in the room.” Opal said as she raised a barrier around us.

“Did I mention we have a few warships after us too?” Taisen called over the speakers.

“Yael! Are you ok?” I asked, looking at the young guardian’s wound. The beam had seared a hole straight through her. It wasn’t large, but it didn’t take a large hole to cause fatal complications.

“I’m alive. I’ll be fine. We’ve got to stop him.” Yael said through gritted teeth.

“There is no stopping me, little guardian. I am Eternal, and I have you in the palm of my hand already.” the Khan said.

The ship shuddered to a violent halt and I heard parts of it shattering and shearing off.

“Capture web. Trying to get us out of it.” Taisen said. The ship’s engines changed from their steady hum to a high pitched whine, but I didn’t feel any acceleration to indicate that we were breaking free.

“Struggle all you wish. There is no escape for any of you.” the Khan said.

“There’s always an escape.” Yael said with a dark look at me.

I didn’t understand what she meant at first, not until I saw that she was glancing at my hand. Where the Jewel of Endless Night rested.

“Fari, you have a limit of the range you can effect things at? Right?” I asked her.

“Anything on a single planet.” she said.

“How about in space?” I asked.

“The emptiness of space blocks my power. I can slay everyone within the ship I’m on but nothing beyond. Space warfare was the domain of the other Jewels.” she said. I could hear trepidation in her voice and I knew why it was there. I’d told her that no one should ask her to use her power again, and now that I had control of her, I was talking like I was going to use her against my enemies the same as all of her other masters had.

That wasn’t going to happen.

I saw what Yael was thinking though. If we couldn’t escape the Khan’s grasp in life, I could slay us all and we’d be spared the fates worse than death that the Khan had in store for us.

That wasn’t going to happen either.

In part I just didn’t want to die. The thought of dying after all I’d been through made me angry. In part I also knew that if we all died, that would leave Fari adrift in the galaxy somewhere just waiting to be claimed by another bearer who would probably use her to murder millions or billions of people. Like Opal had said, our lives didn’t balance against that very well. Mostly though, I wasn’t going to use the Ravager’s power that way because I had a promise to keep.

Also, I had an idea.

“Fari, I need you to choose something.” I told her.

“Choose? What choice can I make?” she asked.

“Do you want to stay like you are? Do you want to keep the power that you have?” I asked.

If she really was nothing more than a control mechanism, there would only be one way she could answer that question. Control mechanisms don’t fight against their own defenses though. They don’t reach out to people just to have contact with someone sympathetic before a new master claims them. And they don’t hold back and spare a friend when they are ordered to destroy all life onboard a ship.

“No.” Fari said in a whisper. “I never wanted it. Destroy me. Please.”

“You can see Aetherial anima can’t you?” I said, putting together a few ideas at once. Yael didn’t see a future for any of us past this meeting. If that included the Jewel of Endless Night, then Fari might have seen the same thing.

“You saw that I would be the one bearing you when we reached this spot. When you couldn’t see anymore future.” I said.

“I didn’t know how you would get here, but yes, I knew you would be the one to finally end me.” she said. There wasn’t any fear or hesitation in her voice, just a deep and earnest longing.

“Sorry Fari. That’s not quite what I have in mind.” I said as a wolfish smile spread across my face.

I pulsed Void anima to my skin and freed myself from the safety of Opal’s web. Without those restraints holding me in place, I fell through the shield around us and landed on stage where the image of the Karr Khan stood.

“This is really you, isn’t it?” I asked him.

“Yes.” the Khan said. “You have seen my power and I know the limits of the Jewel you carry. You know there can be no victory for you here. No meaningful resistance. Bend to my will and you will suffer far less in the end.”

“You really think that’s a good idea don’t you? You don’t think there’s anything wrong with what you’re doing? Can’t see any flaws in it?” I asked him.

“Only the Eternal can be perfect.” the Khan said. “And so I am. Perfect now and more perfect the greater I become. Unlike the Empress and her Guardians, I see the universe as it is. I don’t hide behind pretty thoughts and hopeful dreams. One person cannot change the galaxy. It takes a multitude and so that is what I have become. But there is so much more that can be done. With that Jewel under my control I shall become more than a multitude. I shall become all! The galaxy will know the peace of true harmony as all within it become vessels for my will!”

“That’s brilliant.” I said, struggling to keep my smile constrained.

“Thank you.” the Khan said.

“You got just enough right that you bought into your own delusions completely.” I said.

“They’re going to be in docking range in about thirty seconds.” Taisen announced over the speakers.

“Are we in the atmosphere yet?” Opal asked.

“Sorry. Couldn’t make it that far.” Taisen replied.

“Did you think to lure me into a position where the Ravager could strike me down? Come now. My defenses are far stronger than yours, Guardian.” the Khan said.

“Would you like to bet on that?” I asked him.

The eternal, invincible warlord flinched, ever so slightly, at the question and that was all the confirmation I needed.

“What do you mean?” the Khan said.

“You know exactly what I mean. You’re already here after all. You said it yourself.” I told him.

I saw pure rage wash over the Khan’s face only to be swept away behind an iron mask.

“For your insolence I will see you suffer as few have before.” the Khan said.

“That’s nice. Except you’re forgetting the promise that I made.” I said.

“What promise?”

“If we ever met, I promised I would kill you. And now we’ve met.” I said.

I released the Seed of Darkness completely from the bounds of my Void anima. It had free reign to tear into me and with the Khan’s primary body so close it was more powerful than ever before. It consumed my anima faster than I could have imagined, but I had the Jewel of Endless Night to draw on. The Seed could only consume me so fast, I didn’t have that limit when it came to the Jewel though.

“Goodbye Khan.” I said as the full power of the Jewel poured into me.

It wasn’t like drinking an ocean. It was like becoming an ocean. I wasn’t using the power of the Jewel the way Akell had, I was taking it and making it my own. Fari would never have to be part of a genocide again. She wouldn’t be one of the Jewels of Endless Night at all once I was done.

What I hadn’t anticipated was that I wouldn’t be Mel when I was done either. I’d thought that I could transfer the power of the Jewel to myself and become its new control mechanism. I didn’t have the centuries of spells bound up in me that Fari did though. As I took in the Jewel’s anima, my sense of self shrank. “Mel” became a single drop of water in the ocean of power that I contained.

“Having problems controlling the Jewel’s power?” the Khan cooed in my mind. “Of course you are. Because you are weak. I was waiting for this. I wanted you to see it. See the sort of power I will wield. All thanks to you.”

I couldn’t contain the power of the Jewel. It was the energy of a slain star. The original creators had bound the power of a sun into the heart of the Jewel. No matter how much I tried to hold of it there would always be more. I didn’t have to hold it though. If I let it build up and then released it all at once I would detonate like a bomb.

“I can destroy us both.” I said and began calling the power of the Jewel.

“You will disappear before you can!” the Khan laughed. “Your will is held together by your desire to live. Once you understand that your death is inevitable you will fall apart and I will claim what remains.

“Who is to say that her death is inevitable.” Opal asked, appearing in my mind as I felt her place her hand on my shoulder.

My mind had been drowning in the Jewel’s vastness. When Opal added her power to my own though I felt my mind expand and become bouyant. I was myself, and something much more as well. I looked at the heart of the star that I had taken from the Jewel. It was a world larger than me, but I could see its horizons thanks to Opal’s gift.

“No tricks of yours will sustain her.” the Khan said. “She is only one girl. She is too weak to wield the power she holds.”

“You’re wrong.” Yael said, laying her hand on my other shoulder. “She’s not alone, and she’s never been weak.”

Despite her wounds, Yael added her physical anima to mine and I felt solid and grounded in a way I never had. Though the our ship hung suspended in space, I was connected to something a lot greater the its decks. Around me, the whole world could turn and I would be the fulcrum.

“You play games, desperately trying to buy time for your hopeless plans to save you.” the Khan said. “You do not have the resolve, the clarity of vision, the will to go beyond your human limitations, and so you shall fall before me.”

“I have always hated you. Did you see that?” Akell asked as he placed his hand over Opal’s.

Fire swept through me. It was unforgiving and remorseless. For as terrible as it was though, there was also a brutal honesty to it and an unrelenting force. With Akell’s power added to ours, I felt the energy of Jewel begin to move.

“My foolish child. The Guardian stitched your mind back together I see. Such a waste. Your time is passed. I have no more need for treacherous, imperfect underlings. Look to the future. There is nothing that awaits you.” the Khan said.

“The future shows only darkness.” Zyla said, as she placed her hand on Yael’s. “For all of us.”

I felt Zyla add her strength to ours and with it, the vision she saw of the future. It was so near, just a moment away and it was black.

“You are wrong, and I was wrong to follow you father. Even if it is too late, I will stand against you now though. I see at last that I am not like you, no matter how much of your blood may run in my veins.” Zyla said.

I only barely heard her words. I was too caught up looking at the darkness that was our future. The ocean of the Jewel’s power stretched out before me and when I looked out beyond it all I saw was the unknown.

I looked down at my hands and found they were shaking. I looked at the people around me. Opal and Yael, Akell and Zyla. Friends, enemies, rivals, monsters and heroes. They were all behind me.

So what lay ahead of me?

I felt Fari take my hands.

“I didn’t see you dying.” she said.

I blinked.

It wasn’t death that was ahead of us.

It was tomorrow.

There were so many possibilities in this moment, and so many more to come that there was no way to see them.

I reached out with my Void anima. I wasn’t afraid of the dark. Not anymore.

“I get it now.” I said and wrap us all in my darkness.

Opal, Yael, Akell, Zyla, Fari and the Khan. All of the Khan.

The Seed of Darkness within me was a piece of him, connected to all the others. All the thousands of spare bodies that he had hollowed out. Each contained a piece of him, but all were still part of the greater whole.

“How do you think this is going to go? There are five of you standing against the thousands of me.” the Khan said.

“Count again.” I said.

The five of us were able to pull unbelieveable power from the ocean that was the Jewel, but the Khan was right, even with that we couldn’t have stood against him. We weren’t alone though.

Through our circle of five, the ghosts that I still carried roared forth.

Then the ghosts that Akell had absorbed followed them.

Then came the other ghosts whose blood was on the Khan’s hands. The dead of my city. The dead of those his multitude of hosts had slain. Against the Khan’s ten thousand strong army of alternate selves, we sent ten million angry souls wielding the raw power of the cosmos.

The power of the Jewel was vaster than any one person, but together we harnessed it and, carried on the voices of dead, it found the Khan.

Across the stars, he burned. All of him. No spec, no mote, no tiny shard was spared. Everything was reduced to ash. Ten thousand times, Death opened its doors and drew him in, not pausing until the entirety of the ‘Eternal’ Khan was accounted for.

The Seas of Tomorrow – Chapter 29

The Jewel’s first blow nearly took my head off. I’d been expecting resistance, but I’d thought it would try to hit me with an anima attack, not a fist to the underside of my chin. Wrapping myself in Void anima saved my life anyways though since most of the force of the blow came from the anima the Jewel was puppeting Akell’s body with. I felt the anima behind the blow bleed through me and be hungrily gobbled up by the Seed of Darkness.

I rolled away from the next punch with stars still going off in my eyes. Most of the force came from the Jewel’s anima but Akell was was stronger than he looked. He had plenty of muscle power to work with too.

I tried to catch him in a hold and pin him down while I wrestled the Jewel off him but, unlike his sister, he wasn’t so cooperative with that. Our hands were joined together, my left and his right, fighting over the Jewel. He couldn’t get away from me but by the same token I was limited in the holds I could put on him.

I kneed him in the ribs and hit him with an elbow strike to the neck without slowing him down. He in turn materialized a blade of pure Energetic anima from his hand and stabbed me in abdomen.

That had worked a lot better for the soldier I fought because his blade had a material element to it. My Void anima wasn’t able to eat the metal blade that the soldier had stabbed me with. Akell’s pure anima knife was another matter entirely though. I drank its energy in, fighting to keep the power away from the Seed of Darkness as much as possible.

The Jewel that was controlling Akell’s body didn’t slow or show surprise at the failure of its attack. Instead it tried to grab my throat. Akell temporarily lost the use of pair of fingers for that move and I was able to get to my feet for better leverage and striking power.

I didn’t stay there for long though. We were still joined at the hand so the Jewel dropped Akell’s body backwards, pulling us both off balance. I twisted as we fell to catch him with another elbow strike when we landed but he was faster than I was. He turned the fall into a roll, kicking me in the abdomen and hurling me past him.

The stage had a distinct lack of training mats and an abundance of hardwood flooring. Between the kick and slamming into the ground at high speed, I was lucky that my spine didn’t shatter. The Jewel didn’t let up though.

I’d landed so that Akell and I were head to head with our bodies pointing away in opposite direction. The Jewel somersaulted backwards, towards me, bringing the toe of Akell’s boot down on my unprotected throat. That wouldn’t have killed me immediately but cutting me off from my crippling addiction to oxygen would have made the rest of the fight difficult and brief.

I saw the boot coming and fought to get my arm in the way to block it but I was too slow.

“No.” I heard the Ravager say as Akell’s kick was interrupted by ghostly blue hands.

I was stunned, physically and mentally. My arms felt like I was fighting with lead weights on and the pain I was in was slicing my thoughts to ribbons as fast as they formed. But I still saw the gift I’d been given.

My free hand snagged Akell’s foot and pulled him off to the side so that he landed on his knees. That let me roll that way as well and scramble to my feet again. This time when he tried to pull me off balance, I was able to pull him up instead. I “helped” him stand with a knee strike to the head and then one to his solar plexus.

“Ravager, help me!” I said as I jerked Akell forward and threw him back down to the ground.

“I can’t. Its the defense spells that you’re fighting. I can’t turn them off.” she said.

Akell slammed into the floor and I added to the damage by stomping him in the face. Normal humans can’t take abuse like that. Even if he’d had an anima shield in place I should have fractured his skull thanks to my Void anima. The Jewel that was controlling Akell wasn’t bound by human limits though. It shrugged off the blow to his head and used the opportunity to catch my leg and send me back to the ground.

Ghostly blue hands caught me before I hit the stage again and I was able to turn the fall into a sideways roll and boot Akell in the head. He kept coming through, throwing my foot backwards so that I fell away from him and he was able to rise again.

“I can’t win this alone.” I told her. I was tired already. The fight wouldn’t have to drag on too much longer before I’d reach the point of total collapse. I needed to end it, but even the best hits i was landing on Akell weren’t slowing him down at all.

“I know, but I don’t have any way to affect my own defenses.” the Ravager said.

Akell shot in to get me in a clench but I caught his arms and it became a contest of pure strength.

“Then don’t turn them off, just help me get the Jewel off Akell!” I said.

Akell was well trained, but his focus hadn’t been as grounded into the physical world as mine had been. If he’d done the workouts I had, he might have been stronger than me, but he’d relied on anima for that whereas I’d only had my muscles to depend on for the longest time. With the fight taking place inside a cage of Void anima, and my ability to steal away any anima the Jewel used to power him, we were reduced to struggling on a purely material level, and there I at least had a chance.

Or I should have.

As I struggled against Akell, I felt the Seed of Darkness moving around within me. I was balancing my Void anima within and without to keep two incredibly powerful foes at bay and I was starting to slip.

Fresh pains tore through me as the Seed found new pockets of strength and ripped them apart. My muscles would move without physical anima, but the shock of losing it hurt nonetheless.

“I don’t know how! I’ve never been removed from a master before!” the Ravager said.

I reached out with more of my Void anima and tried to surround the Jewel on Akell’s hand. It was like trying to hug a mountain. For such a small device, it’s presence in my mind was incalculably vast.

I’d been able to pull the Seed of Darkness out of Yael because it was just a tiny portion of the Karr Khan’s soul. I could envelope it completely. The Jewel of Endless Night however did a good job of living up to its billing. Every path I tried to take to surround it with my anima just showed me more and more of the Jewel.

The Jewel went on the offensive and tried to break our grapple by with a series of kicks to my knees. I blocked the first with a sharp kick to his shin. We spent a few seconds dancing around trying to out stomp each other before I jerked us to the side. We spun with the momentum I’d given us and landed back on our feet. Akell tried to lean back and kick me in the guts again but I beat him to the kick and stepped into the blow so that I could tangle his legs up with my own.

For a few brief seconds we reached another stalemate.

“Then tell me about yourself and maybe I can figure it out!” I said.

“I am Jewel of Night’s Broad Embrace, called Ravager, Planet-slayer, Desolation Maker.” the Ravager said. I felt the mountain I was trying to tear from Akell’s hand grow larger.

“No!” I said. “That’s not who you are. That’s what they made you. Tell me about you, the person I’m speaking with, the girl they turned into the Jewel.”

“She has been dead for Aeons.”

Akell headbutted me and caught me on the lip and chin. I tasted blood and felt a hunger rising in my chest. There was life in Akell. Fighting him was so hard, but if I drained him dry, it would become so easy.

Except then the spell on the Ravager would cast her to the far ends of the galaxy and all this would be for nothing.

“Maybe she’s not. Maybe she never was. Ghosts are powerful right, but you know what’s more powerful?” I asked her.

“What?” she asked.

“The living!” I said. “We’re the one’s who change the world.”

Fighting on two fronts wasn’t working so I let go. I let the Seed free from the darkness I’d wrapped it in. I let my Void anima surge out to devour energy from Akell and I let the last reserves of my own own anima surge through me.

With an irresistible strength I bent Akell’s arms back. He fought back but for that brief instant I had him outclassed in all ways. With the rapidly diminishing surge of power I lifted him into the air and hurled him down so hard the stage shattered beneath us.

Our hands came apart as I threw him away and my connection to the Ravager diminished. The Seed inside me roared in triumph and began gorging on the power I’d stolen from Akell. I hadn’t drained him entirely though so he rose to him feet a second later, fully restored by the power of the Jewel.

In the back of my head, I heard the Karr Khan laughing like a madman. The Seed was no longer hidden from him.

“I am almost upon you.” the Khan taunted me. “And you are almost mine.”

I ignored him. For as big as he was, the Jewel was a far bigger and more immediate problem.

“You’re not dead. I’ve talked to ghosts. You still have desires beyond yourself, ones that have nothing to do with anyone you knew in life.” I told the Ravager.

I saw Akell reach down to the shattered stage and pull forth a splintered shaft of wood. Anima roared along it’s edge turning it into a makeshift but perfectly deadly anima blade.

“Remember who you were. Whatever they did to you, you still have power, you can still do something here.” I screamed. I was growing weaker and slower. When the Jewel attacked, it was going to be at its full power and I wasn’t going to be able stop it. It would drive the wooden anima blade through my heart and then beat me with it until there was nothing left of me.

Except that it didn’t. The puppeteer that was making Akell dance had stopped pulling his strings. Or they were being restrained.

“Your name!” I said. “What’s your name? Not the Ravager! What’s your real name?”

Silence fell. I couldn’t hear the Khan’s taunts, or my increasingly labored breathing or even the hum of the ship.

“Fari.” she whispered. “Fari. Fari. Fari. I haven’t thought of that name in so long.”

I drew my Void anima back in and drowned the Seed in it once more. The Seed was stronger than it had been, but I still had the home turf advantage. At least until the Khan showed up in person.

Akell began to walk forward in halting, stuttering steps. Fari was losing control of the defensive spells again.

“I’m glad to have met you Fari. Are you ready to leave Akell now?” I asked.

“Yes. Get me out of here. I don’t want to do this anymore. I never wanted to do this” she sobbed.

“Then let’s make that happen.” I said and lowering myself into a fighting stance.

The resistance to the defense spells fell away and Akell leapt at me at superhuman speeds. I didn’t have my physical anima to work with but I had one last trick; he was predictable and I was willing to take a hit to get the job done.

The hit, when it came, was agonizing. The anima blade speared through my right shoulder and that side of me became an inferno of pain. My right arm felt like it had been torn off entirely, though if that had happened it didn’t seem like it should have still hurt as bad as it did.

I’d been able to dodge, but even knowing exactly where he would aim didn’t mean I was fast enough to fully avoid the blow. It did mean that I was able to trap his hand again however.

With all of the Void anima I could muster, I opened the connection between myself and the Fari. The Jewel held magic on the scale of the cosmos and I couldn’t grasp that, but Fari was the one who controlled the Jewel and her I could understand.

Like an old friend coming home, I felt the Jewel pull free of Akell’s hand and nestle into mine. Around me, the warding circle crashed down and I heard Taisen and Opal and Yael calling my name as I fell to my knees on the stage beside Akell’s prone body.

The Seas of Tomorrow – Chapter 28

Approaching Opal and Akell felt like walking towards a bomb with the intent of giving it a big, solid hug. I was relieved beyond words that Opal was alive, but Akell’s prone body filled me dread. He was asleep and in terrible shape but that made him no less dangerous somehow. I wondered if I was going nuts to be thinking that but the arctic chill in my chest confirmed that I was walking towards danger rather than away from it.

“Master.” Yael said with a nod of greeting. The smile that graced her face was the warmest I’d ever seen on her. Opal’s smile hadn’t faded from when she saw us enter the room, but it was clear that she was still shouldering a heavy burden.

“Master Kinsguard, we have news. The Khan is on his way here.” Taisen said as he placed Zyla’s unconscious body on the stage.

“I see. We’ll need to leave then. I’m not quite up to fighting him at the moment.” Opal said without rising.

“He’s coming for me.” I told her.

“No. He wants all of us. I can’t see the threads of any of our fates beyond his arrival.” Yael said.

“I’m the one he can track though.” I reminded her.

“What’s happened?” Opal asked. She continued brushing her fingers through Akell’s hair as she spoke and I saw tiny blue sparks drift from her fingers.

Yael, Taisen and I took turns bringing Opal up to speed on what we knew. Starting from the decision to continue pursuing Akell, to Yael’s meeting with Zyla, and then to me finding the Jewel of Endless Night much too late to do any good.

Opal listened to my recounting of what Akell had told me about absorbing the ghostly anima from the shelters without any surprise in her eyes.

“You knew he’d done that already. Are you reading his mind?” I asked.

“There’s not much left to read.” Opal said, her smile fading into a small frown.

“You had to break his mind to stop him?” Yael asked.

“I would have, but I didn’t need to. The strain of absorbing all the stolen anima broke him for me. It’s amazing that he held on as long as he did.” Opal explained.

“You said he was sleeping though?” I asked.

“He is. It is all I can do for him.” Opal said.

“Why do anything for him?” I asked.

“He was my tool. His actions were his own, but they led him down a path I set him on.” Opal said.

“You didn’t plan for him to kill everyone here.” Yael said.

“No. I planned for him to fail to retrieve the Jewel. The deaths here were not my design, but they do serve my ends.” Opal said.

“So you’re keeping him asleep to try to make up for the evil that occurred for our benefit?” Taisen asked.

“No. She’s keeping him asleep because the Jewel will destroy us if she doesn’t.” Yael said. Her eyes were covered by rippling fields of anima as she inspected the fallen boy.

I looked at Akell and, even without anima spells to enhance my vision, I could see there was something wrong. The Ravager was still embedded in his hand and it pulsed with barely restrained power. Yael wasn’t looking at Akell anymore though. She was looking at Opal and she looked anguished.

“What does that mean?” I asked.

“It means that I will need to be the one to take the Jewel of Endless Night to its final resting place.” Opal said. Beside me Yael stood rigid as a pane glass. I couldn’t read her well, but I knew a restrained fighting posture when I saw one.

“That’s right. You were here to destroy the Ravager weren’t you? Where’s it’s final resting place?” I asked. From what they’d told me before, even dropping the Jewels into a star wasn’t sufficient to destroy them.

“The heart of the galaxy.” Opal said. This time is was Taisen’s turn to be shocked.

“I see.”, was all that he said though.

“I don’t. What’s special about the heart of the galaxy?” I asked.

“At the center of our galaxy lies a hole in the fabric of space, time and magic. Nothing that enters it can ever escape.” Opal said.

“So it’s a suicide mission? What was the original plan?” I asked. From Yael’s turmoil, I could tell that “Plan A” had not been to sacrifice either of them.

“If we had reached the Jewel before it awoke, we could have placed it into a drone ship and sent it into the heart that way.” Opal said.

“And we can’t do that now because?” I asked.

“If he is not held in sleep, Akell will awaken and will be able to send the Jewel to safety.” Opal said.

“Why don’t we take it off him?” I asked.

“It can’t be removed from him while he lives.” Opal said.

“Kill him?” I suggested. It was cold of me, but choosing between Akell and Opal was far too easy of a call to make.

“When the host dies, the binding spells are free to hide the Jewel once more. It would be teleported to a random location in the galaxy and a whole new set of defenses would be erected for it from Akell’s animas.” Opal said.

“Ok, that still sounds better than sending you on a suicide mission.” I said.

“My life is a poor balance against the lives that will be lost the next time the Jewel is used.” Opal said.

I pictured the people in my hometown, all of them, weighed against Opal’s life. Then I pictured one of the well developed worlds and the billions of people it supported. That was a lot to put against anyone’s life. My mind went in a thousand directions looking for alternatives and stumbled on a bunch of burrs.

“That makes sense, but it’s crazy, and really dumb planning too.” I said.

“What do you mean?” Opal asked.

“Not your plan, the Khan’s. Why would he have his people looking for the Jewel if it was the first one who found it who wound up with its power permanently? He doesn’t seem like the kind of guy who’s about sharing.” I said.

“Perhaps he was going to take over whoever claimed the Jewel?” Taisen suggested.

“That would be difficult. The Jewel’s wielder would be challenging to implant a Seed of Darkness in.” Opal said. She was smiling again, but in a very different way than she had been before.

“He’s egotistical enough to try.” Yael said.

“He is, but he’s also pretty risk averse.” I said.

“How can you tell that?” Taisen asked.

“He’s a many bodied space horror now right? But he didn’t come here himself. He could have looked for the Jewel personally but he stayed back even though he’s ‘Eternal’.” I said.

“He’s coming here now.” Yael pointed out.

“Yeah. Now that the Ravager’s been found and Akell’s had his butt kicked.” I said.

“That may not be why. Yael, you said the Khan’s fate was tied up with Miss Watersward’s?” Opal said. I could see ideas sparking to life behind her eyes. Ideas that offered new hope.

“Yes. All of our fates are tied together for as far ahead as I can see.” Yael confirmed.

“And how long is that?” I asked.

She looked away rather than answering, which told me all I needed to know.

“Right. So we don’t have much time to work with then. If his plan wasn’t to use a Seed of Darkness to take over the Ravager’s new host, what was he thinking of doing?” I asked.

“The Ravager’s power draws on all forms of anima. You were able to contact it with your Void anima, and you said that the Seed thought it would be able to corrupt the Jewel from the inside, correct?” Opal asked.

“That’s right. He said she was designed to be controlled.”

“It was a unique opportunity for him. The Ravager’s mental anima is usually protected by a sheath of Void magic. In making mental contact with you, the Ravager’s mind was exposed.” Opal said.

“So in talking to me, she opened her defenses and the Khan was able to piggyback on that connection to strike at her?” I asked.

“Exactly. That’s what I believe his plan was all along. Taking over the Ravager’s host with a Seed of Darkness would have been very dangerous for him, because that involves extending himself outwards. The Seeds are designed for attacking the host and converting them to the Khan’s will. If the Ravager reached out to him though, and brushed on his defenses, the conduit that formed would allow him to attack her while remaining shielded from her counterattacks.” Opal explained.

“So basically, he could let a minion claim the Ravager because he’d be able to take control of her anyways. His Void anima would let him contact her safely and the rest is just clever caster tricks. Which means there is a way to remove her from Akell!” I said.

“With the Khan’s talents, I believe there is.” Opal said.

Another phenomenally bad idea began to form in my mind. It wasn’t as bad as letting Opal make a suicide run to the heart of the galaxy though, so I knelt down beside her.

“I think it’s time for you to leave.” I said. Black wisps of smoke began to swirl in a circle around me.

“What are you doing?” Yael asked. There was concern in her voice. I think for me. To her credit though, she also started backing away.

“The Khan could use his Void anima to separate Akell from the Ravager. I think I can do the same.” I said.

“Why?” Opal asked.

“Because whatever else happens, the Khan can not get his hands on her.” I said. The wisps whirled faster at my command and from my feet I started to extend the lines of power to form a new protective circle.

“Why are you raising another barrier?” Taisen asked.

“In case I’m wrong.” I told him.

“You don’t have to fight this alone.” Opal said, still sitting in the center of the swiftly forming circle.

It meant a lot that she made the offer, but I could see how much the last fight had taken out of her. She’d done the impossible by surviving it at all and didn’t look like she had a second round of impossible left in her.

“I know. I want to though. I can do this.” I said.

The Sapphire Guardian looked at me for a long moment and then nodded. When she rose to her feet, her movements betrayed the pain she was in.

“You are not a bad caster.” Yael called from the far side of the circle that I had raised.

“What?” I asked surprised by the charitable outburst.

“You have more skill than you know.” she said. “And more than I could see. I think you’re right. You can do this.”

She held my gaze for a moment and then placed her hands in front of her chest and bowed to me as a salute. Somehow, that helped too.

I nodded back to her, accepting her words and the salute and then turned to Akell.

“Don’t do this.” the Ravager said. Akell was resting at the center of the intricate web of Void anima lines that I had cast and so the Ravager was connected to me again. Throughout my body and in the corners of my mind, I felt the Seed stirring, searching for someway free of the darkness I’d cast it into. I felt like I had enough Void anima to avoid that and maintain the shield that hemmed the Ravager and I in. Probably.

“I have to.” I told her.

“There are defensive spells woven into me. If you touch me while my master still lives, they’ll trigger and fight you.” the Ravager said.

“That’ll make this harder but I still have to try.” I told her.

I laid my left hand on Akell’s right and felt a connection form to the Jewel of Endless Night that had fused to his flesh. At my touch the Jewel came to life and his body began to move. In his eyes there were only spell fires burning.

The boy was gone. I was fighting the Jewel itself.

The Seas of Tomorrow – Chapter 27

When I opened my eyes, I found Taisen and Yael both straining over me. Anima poured off their fingers and into my body doing minor things like keeping my heart beating and my lungs working. Taisen looked haggard, like he’d be awake for weeks without sleep. Yael looked even worse. Her skin was still a mottled patchwork of bruises and she looked as exhausted as I felt.

“That’s enough. Save some strength for yourselves.” I said as I pushed myself up to a sitting position.

“How are you awake?” Taisen asked. He pulled his hands away from me and sagged in relief.

“And are you still yourself?” Yael asked. She was watching me warily, through eyes that sagged with fatigued .

“I’m still me. For now. I’ve got the Seed trapped in darkness. It’s cut off from the Khan’s strength and it can’t eat any of my other anima.” I said.

“You beat a Seed of Darkness?” Taisen asked.

“Not on my own and it’s not fully beaten either.” I said. I’d wrapped the Seed in Void anima, which wasn’t something it could consume, but I couldn’t be sure that I’d be able to hold the Seed like that forever. There was also the problem that as long as the Seed was inside me, I wouldn’t be able to use my anima for anything else.

I tried to stand up and wobbled badly. Taisen caught me even though it looked like he needed someone to catch him. I smiled and put a hand on the wall to brace myself.

“We need to leave as soon as we can.” Taisen said.

“We can’t.” I said. “Or at least I can’t. The Seed’s cut off from the Khan’s strength but it’s still a part of him. He can still sense where I am. If I flee with you, he’ll be able to track us no matter where we go.”

“We need to rescue Master Kinsguard too.” Yael said.

“She was the one who told me to get the two of you out of here.” Taisen said. The color was starting to come back to his face and some of the weariness was falling away.

“She wasn’t aware that the Khan would be coming here in person when she did so.” Yael said.

“The Khan’s coming here?” Taisen said, panic replacing fatigue on his face.

“Yes. Miss Watersward here has gotten his attention.” Yael said.

“Wait, how do you know that?” I asked. The battle with the Seed had been entirely within my mind as far as I knew.

“Aether sight. The lines of your fate are tied up with his. I thought he had you ensnared when you woke up but there’s too much chaos in the strands for that to be true.” Yael said.

“Did you set all this up?” I asked her.

“We’re not precisely where I wanted us to be, and we didn’t arrive here the way I desired but this fits the fate casting that I’ve done to some degree.” Yael said.

I should have been mad at her, but given what she’d put herself through (and how tired I was) all I felt was a mild sense of awe at her dedication to the cause.

“To be honest, Zyla might be able to say the same thing depending on how this all turns out.” Yael added.

At the mention of Zyla’s name I felt a shock go through me. I’d left her unconscious in the cell and I hadn’t extended the protective circle far enough to encompass her. With a groan, I staggered away from the wall and waved the spell ward away. The Ravager had quit attacking and the chill of danger had diminished slightly so I didn’t think we needed the shield’s defenses anymore.

I wanted to run back to the cell to see if anything was left of Zyla but the best I was able to manage was a weak shamble. Taisen and Yael caught up with me before I’d walked three steps.

“Where are you going?” Taisen asked.

“Zyla. I left her in the cell.” I said, nodding towards the door Yael and I had been imprisoned behind. We trudge over and Taisen worked some literal magic on the lock. I’d expected to see another withered corpse but Zyla looked just fine in death. In fact she looked so good, I stepped into the room to check her “corpse” and discovered that she was still breathing.

“I don’t get it. The Ravager killed everyone on this ship, twice over.” I said.

“Not everyone.” Yael noted, glancing at the three of us.

“These sigils are badly degraded. They’re barely functional at all in fact.” Taisen said as he inspected the walls of the room. “I don’t know if they could take another attack, but I would guess that they shielded her in much the same way that you protected us.”

“I’d call that a miracle but it was probably an effect of her fate casting right?” I asked.

“Maybe. It was a dangerous casting if it left her in this state though.” Yael said.

“Like you’re one to talk?” I said with a laugh.

Taisen ignored both of us and bent down to lift Zyla onto his back.

“What are you doing?” I asked.

“This room can’t shield her any further. You had a reason to leave her alive, and we can’t stay here, so she has to come with us” Taisen explained.

“You beat her?” Yael said, turning to look at me. “I thought Healer Taisen got us out of the cell?”

“No. I arrived just after Mel had secured your escape. The timing was more fortunate for me than you in fact.” he said.

“How did you…?” Yael’s words trailed off as she studied me.

“I don’t know.” I admitted. “I hit her with some moves she wasn’t expecting, but I think she wanted me to beat her. Either that or she’s terrible at hand to hand.”

“Why?” Yael asked.

“I had her in a good hold, but there had to be anima tricks she could have used to get out of it.” I said.

“No, why do you think she wanted to lose?” Yael asked.

“Cause her life sucks?” I said. “Or it might have been because of what happened to you. She seemed unhappy about that. I guess she felt Akell was kind of a scumbag in how he took you down. And she didn’t seem thrilled by what the Seed was doing to you either . She couldn’t bring herself to fix things on her own but she did leave me an opening so I could kill you.”

“What?” Taisen said almost dropping Zyla in shock.

“It would have been a kindness.” Yael said quietly.

“Yeah.” I agreed.

“But you didn’t.” she said, studying me again.

“Yeah, I’m not that kind I guess.”

I couldn’t read Yael’s reaction to the joke. I wasn’t surprised by that as I hadn’t seen any evidence of her having a sense of humor yet but, since the joke was for my own sake more than her’s, that didn’t bother me.

“We need to get going. Are you in communication with Master Kinsguard?” Taisen asked Yael.

“No. She has not reestablished our communication link.” Yael said. “But I can sense where she is.”

“Is she still alive?” I asked. I wasn’t sure I wanted to know the answer. The attacks had stopped and that didn’t strike me as a promising sign.

“I don’t know. Something is clouding my sense of her. It’s the kind of interference she’s capable of generating, which would mean that she’s alive, but if someone else is behind it then the location I’m sensing is a trap for us.” Yael said.

“Good. Let’s go then.” I said.

“And if it’s a trap?” Yael asked.

“The only one else who should be alive on this ship is Akell and if he’s still standing then we need to knock him down.” I said.

Yael nodded in agreement and started leading the way.

“Do you need a hand with carrying her?” I asked Taisen, indicating Zyla.

“No, it’s safer this way. I can keep her under as long as I’m in contact with her.” he said. It was a smooth enough lie that I didn’t feel bad about buying it. My noodle-like knees and shaking arms were in complete agreement with the idea of not carrying any more than they had to.

“Thanks.” I told him and followed after Yael.

The apprentice Guardian led us out into the halls beyond the small prison area. Except for the hum of the ship’s engines, silence surrounded us. The same sense of “wrongness” that I’d felt running through my destroyed hometown seeped into me as we passed empty rooms and vacant galleries. There should have been people in all those spaces. Or there should have been fires and destruction.

Images from past swept across my mind. Smoke, burning my lungs and stinging my eyes. The blinding light of a primal torch cutting through a reinforced bulkhead. I felt a panic rising in me that had lain dormant longer than I had conscious memories. There weren’t any fires on this ship though. Nor any screams. I pushed the panic back into the depths of the past and moved on, following Yael.

“How are you feeling?” I asked Yael.

“I’m recovering.” she said, her lips still drawn into a grimace.

Taisen had been restoring her strength but she’d then turned around and shared it back to me. I had the two of them to thank for keeping me conscious long enough to fight back against the Seed. Without that it would have overwhelmed me before I could see through the Khan’s lies. Instead I’d escaped him, though that might only be briefly if Yael was right.

“If the Khan comes here, he’s not going to show up alone, is he?” I asked.

“No.” Yael said and looked away.

“How bad is it?” I asked.

“I don’t know. I can’t see the threads of our fate beyond that point. Too many powers are at work.” Yael said.

I sighed.

“That sounds like the Khan’s work.” I said.

“No one man is the problem. It’s far more than that.” Yael said.

“He’s not just one man.” I told her.

“What do you mean?” Taisen asked.

“When I fought the Seed, the Khan showed up. The Seeds are a part of him. They’re why he’s ‘the Eternal Khan’. He uses them to take over people and carve out their will. People like Yael and me, the ones who annoyed him, he turns those into monsters. The rest he uses as spare bodies. Kill one and he just has another step forward.” I said.

“That’s…” Taisen stopped walking and shook his head. “That’s incredible. Each Seed would need to be a hologram, a reflection of the whole of who he is.”

“You spoke with the Khan?” Yael asked.

“Yes. Or his mental projection. I think all of his parts remain linked even if they’re separated by galactic scale distances.” I said.

“How did you speak to him though?” Yael asked.

“I think it has something to do with my Void anima. There seems to be a connection that forms whenever Void anima from different sources meet.” I said.

“Is that how you pulled the brand off me?” Yael asked.

“Yeah. I think so. I figured it out after the Seed used the connection to drag me into the mind realm he’d created within you.” I said.

“If that’s true, then why isn’t he in control of you now?” Yael asked.

“It’s the other side of Void anima.” Taisen said. “Where Physical anima comes from the magic inherent in form and substance, Void anima comes from emptiness and loss. I’m theorizing here, but I think that when Mel’s Void anima touches another’s, it’s similar to two holes meeting. One hole doesn’t fight the other, you just wind up with one larger hole. The other side of emptiness is isolation though.”

“That sounds about right. When I brought my Void anima into the fight, I didn’t try to destroy the Seed with it. All I tried to do was use it hide my other animas the way they had been hidden up until yesterday. That swamped the Seed in darkness, where it’s still screaming like a madman by the way, and cut off the links that I could see that led back to the rest of the Khan.” I said.

“I hope you are wrong about some of that.” Yael said.

“Why?” I asked.

“Because if the Khan is as you’ve described him, then the strands of fate that I see weaving together against us are all bound to his will.” Yael said.

“What kind of a fight are we looking at?” I asked, even though I pretty much already knew the answer. Yael’s response managed to surprise me though.

“We’re not fighting a man, or even an army. If what you say is true, the Khan is no longer human. The only thing I can compare him to is one of the Outer Ones.” Yael said.

“Those aren’t real are they?” I asked. From what I’d heard, the “Outer Ones” were supposed to be the remnants of ancient civilizations. Creatures from the Silent Aeons that had transcended physical form and magic as we knew it. They were the boogie men used to frighten little spell casters and keep them from trying really crazy stuff with their magics before they learned the rules and the costs.

“I’m afraid they are. We should get to Master Kinsguard as soon as possible.” Taisen said.

I could see a new look of fear in Taisen’s eyes, and I knew what it had to mean.

“You have seen one of them, the Outer Ones, haven’t you?” I asked the healer.

“No.” he said much too quickly. “Not a whole one. One of my classmates made a mistake during a difficult operation though and tried to fix it with a grand summoning spell that went very, very wrong.”

“What happened?” asked Yael. She sounded as concerned for Taisen as I felt.

“We stopped it. Destroyed what was left of him before the summoning could be completed. It wasn’t an Outer One,  it just a small part of such a creature, but it almost destroyed a full class of exceptionally talented casters. Of the thirty of us, five were injured so badly that they couldn’t continue the program and the rest of us required a month’s leave to recuperate before we could continue.” Taisen said.

“I don’t like our chances with just four of us then, and only three of you having a clue how to be a real caster.” I said.

Yael was silent at that. She picked up the pace though and led us through a dozen more empty rooms and hallways, before we got to a large central amphitheater. The Khan might be an Elder Horror, but he apparently still enjoyed some very human luxuries as witnessed both by the scale of the one of his minor yachts and the fact that it had a room with seating for two hundred in it.

The amphitheater wasn’t going to be hosting performances any time soon however. The chairs had been smashed, the lights exploded and here and there small fires were still burning. In the center of the stage, sitting in one of the last remaining spotlights though, I saw a familiar and friendly face.

Master Opal Kinsguard, sat with her head bowed and her eyes closed. Akell’s head rested in her lap while the rest of him laid sprawled out in front of her. They were both so silent and motionless that my breath caught in my throat. Then she looked up and opened her eyes.

“Come in, but be quiet or you’ll wake him.” she said with a gentle voice.

The Seas of Tomorrow – Chapter 26

    Fighting the Seed of Darkness when I’d been in its mental realm had been easy. Absorbing it had been even easier. Living with it as it tore apart the anima within me though? That was just a bit harder.

    “Mel!” I heard Taisen call out to me but it felt like he was a mile away. I knew I was falling, or that I’d already fallen onto the ground. I couldn’t tell which was true, only that I felt like all of the strength had been drained from me and my outsides had gone numb. My insides were a whole other story though.

    “Why is this never easy!” Taisen grumbled. He might have screamed it, but all I could hear was a whisper.

    I wanted to tell him that I’d be ok. I wanted to tell myself that, but the truth was I hadn’t been ready for how bad the Seed’s effects would be. The brand that bound it to me was only on my hand but the Seed had diffused itself everywhere through my body. Wherever I tried to shift my anima, the Seed was there ready to devour it.

    I felt stupid. I’d seen the effect it had on Yael. She was vastly better trained in controlling her anima and the Seed had left her as nothing more than a comatose mass of pain. I didn’t know the kind of tricks that she did, and unless I figured them out, I didn’t think I was going to last a hundredth as long as she had.

    “Healer Taisen? What’s happened? What are you doing?” I heard a groggy Yael ask.

    The pain was still there, and growing worse, but I felt a small reservoir of physical strength pooling up in me.

    “Restoring your power. You’ve been through an ordeal. Rest.” Taisen answered.

    I felt more strength running down my arms and legs. It was a tiny trickle compared to what the Seed was consuming but it was enough that I was able to force open one of my eyes.

    Taisen was on his knees, with one hand on me and the other on Yael. He was pouring energy into both of us, healing Yael of the damage she’d taken and keeping me conscious. Around us, the barrier I’d erected still stood, shielding us from outside attacks.

    “I’m going to get you back on your feet, and then we’ll carry Mel out of here.” Taisen said.

    “Oh, you will never escape me now.” the Seed said, his words echoing in my mind.

    I closed my eyes, and let my focus sink down into my center. It was a meditation technique I’d learned from Master Hanq. I hadn’t guessed at the time that it had anything to do with manipulating mental Anima but, like with a lot of other things Master Hanq taught me, there were more uses for it than I’d originally imagined.

    “I beat you once already.” I told the Seed.

    We were inside my mind this time, so I got to decide what it looked like. Or at least I thought I did. I’d envisioned meeting the Seed in the gray cityscape that was all that was left of my home. I wanted to use it as a talisman to embody why I was in this fight. I wanted to use that empty, hollow rage that I’d felt against any part of the Karr Khan that I could.

    Around me the gray, empty buildings sprang up in the light of what should have been a beautiful day. With them came people though. Not one or two or a dozen, but rather hundreds. I didn’t understand what I was seeing until their faces started catching on my memories. I recognized them not from having seen them in life but from the memories that poured into me when I opened the shelter.

    “Who you think you have beaten little girl?” the Seed asked. I’d expected him to appear before me like he had when we’d met in his mind realm. The figure that loomed over my city though was taller than any of the buildings and appeared nothing at all like a human being.

    The only remnants of humanity in the Seed’s form were grotesquely distorted. A head that was both bulbous and crushed in with so many eyes that a spider would be jealous. From the central mass that could only barely be described as a body, ten thousand arms extruded outwards in all directions except down. Only two of the arms extended downwards and both were plunged into the heart of my city.

    I saw my anima flowing up the veins of one of the arms, while down the other arm  a thick sludge of brown and green and puss yellow flowed. The Seed wasn’t just taking from me, it was also spewing in bits of the Karr Khan’s mind to be able to control the monster that I would become.

    “How the hell are you so big here?” I asked. I could feel my control of the city, of my mind, slipping away from me.

    “You’ve made such a tragic error my dear. I’m sure it felt wonderful to think that you had thwarted my tool. You no doubt rejoiced at ‘saving’ the Crystal Guardian. Unfortunately for you, you managed to catch my attention in the process.” The voice that spoke sounded like the Seed, but I was pretty sure that wasn’t who I was speaking to anymore.

    “So you’re the Eternal Khan then?” I asked.

    “Yes. I have always been the Eternal Khan. All the parts of me are one, as you shall soon be as well.” he said.

    Saying the ghosts “reacted” to the Khan’s words would have been an understatement. The awareness of who was speaking spread through the denizens of my mental city like a wave. Their pale, translucent forms shifted into red, vaguely human shaped, columns of fire. With a scream that was deafening despite being purely psychic in nature, they rose toward the Khan’s inhuman form and began to burn him with their hate and sorrow.

    In response the Khan simply laughed.

    “Are these the defenders you hoped to save yourself with?” he sounded like a little boy who’d found a toy labeled “break me please”.

    I watched, alternately hopefully and terrified. I hadn’t known about the ghosts at all. I thought they’d left me, but if so my memories of them were strong enough to call them back, or more likely they’d waited within me, silent thanks to the fact that I’d done little except work against the Karr Khan’s forces since I’d encountered them.

    Their rage was a fearsome thing to behold. Even from hundreds of yards below them I could feel the psychic heat of the force they were bringing to bear on the Karr Khan’s mind. I remembered the power that I’d gained when I’d absorbed the two soldiers animas and the force Akell had demonstrated getting to the Ravager. Taken together, even ordinary people could be immensely powerful. From those experiences, it seemed like they should have been easily able to destroy the Khan. His laughter filled me with dread though, and as the last of the ghosts reached the main body, my dread was confirmed.

    By the dozens, the raging flames winked out and the insubstantial bodies of the ghosts fell from the Khan’s giant form. Most didn’t make it to the streets below before fading away into nothingness. The few that did, hit the ground, beaten and bereft of the force they’d retained beyond their deaths.

    “So much energy. This is delightful beyond reason.” the Karr Khan said.

    I felt the torrent of life that was rushing out of me expand into a river as the Khan greedily drank more of my anima in huge gulps.

    It’s easy to pretend to be brave. It’s easy to mouth off to people when you’ve got nothing else that you can do to them and nothing more to lose. Maybe it’s even easy for some people to accept death when its undeniably coming for them. It wasn’t for me though.

    I could feel Taisen pouring more of his energy into me, but it wasn’t enough. It could never be enough. He was one man and the Karr Khan was a multitude.

    “Do you want to know what I will do with you once your will is eradicated?” the Khan asked. “Since you were so keen to save the Crystal Guardian, I’m going to make you my tool for destroying them.”

    More of the toxic sludge that was flowing down one of his arms spewed over my city and I felt my thoughts bogging down.

    “You won’t be very strong at first. At least not by comparison to what you will become once I’ve honed you properly.” the Khan continued. “So I will send you against weak targets. Their trainees. Their families. Those they have sworn to protect who cannot protect themselves.”

    “Why?” The question croaked out before I could stop myself.

    “Because the Crystal Empress must be stopped. She is the only one who holds power that can rival my own but she is lost in naivety. The order she is imposing on the galaxy is unnatural. It can last only so long as she holds the million worlds of her dominion together personally. When she falls, she will leave behind a galaxy which has nurtured the weak and the foolish and the wars that will rage then will return everyone to the Silent Aeons.”

    “And you’re better?” I still had some of my anger, but even that was fading quickly as everything drained out of me.

    “I shall never fall. I am Eternal. Under my hand, the million worlds will breed the strongest of minds, the most powerful of wills. My dominion shall grow ever greater as I shall as well. Where the Crystal Empress would hobbled the galaxy catering to the weakest and most useless, under my rule there shall be true prosperity.” the Khan said.

    “She’s already kicked…”, I could feel the words fading away in me but I fought to pull them together anyways, “She’s already kicked your butt once.”

    “Treachery was her only weapon in that battle, and I have taken it away from her, and thanks to you, I will have even more power when next we meet in battle.”

    Standing in the shadow of the Karr Khan’s enormous bulk, I knew he was right. I’d made a tragic error. He was more powerful than I could have ever imagined. I’d been a fool to think I could match him.

    Bitter tears, rolled down my face both in the mental realm and in the physical world. I’d never had anima before, I’d never been anyone special, but somehow I was going to die from having all of my anima drained out and thanks to me the one bright spot in the last millennia of galactic history was going to die. It wasn’t fair or true, but it felt that way.

    “Why can’t I go back to the way I was, when I didn’t have any anima at all.” I complained. It seemed ridiculous to be nostalgic for the far off time of “yesterday”, when I had no strength, but it beat the situation I was in. As my death approached me, I longed to be the girl I’d been. Not strong with anima, but at least strong in her own way.

    “Wait. Why can’t I go back?” I asked myself. Adrenaline is a purely physical agent, with no dependency on anima, and that thought dumped about ten thousand gallons of it into my bloodstream.

    Since the first time I’d separated my animas in Taisen’s office, I’d been thinking of “my Physical anima” and “the Void anima that I carried”. I’d been distancing myself from the terrifying dark anima inside me, especially after I killed people with it.

    It wasn’t “the Void anima I carried inside me” though.

    It was my anima.

    All of it. My Physical anima, my Mental anima, my Aetherial anima, my Energetic anima and, most of all, my Void anima. I was scared of it because I was scared of not being able to control myself. That fear was perfectly reasonable, but rejecting a part of myself was not.

    I’d lived for seventeen years with my Void anima so tightly woven into the rest of my being that none of the dozens of tests I’d been subjected to had ever been able to discern the presence of any other anima. If Master Hanq had known that I’d had any anima to work with it had been as an article of faith, not from anything he could have observed.

    The Karr Khan was huge and powerful. Much more powerful than I was, but this was my mind, my body and my spirit. I had the home field advantage here and he knew it. That’s why he’d appeared so overwhelmingly powerful. He needed to make sure that the last thing I would think to do was to try to fight back.

    With a laugh of my own, I embraced the terror that I’d felt since I first saw my Void anima.

    “What do you find so hysterical?” the Karr Khan asked in an annoyed voice and my spirit soared.

    “This.” I told him and drew my Void anima inwards. I didn’t hold anything apart from it. No reserve of Physical anima, no sheltered thoughts of Mental anima. It wasn’t going to “take me over” because there was no “it”. “It” was me. “It” hadn’t killed those soldiers. I had. “It” hadn’t defended us. I had.

    Just like my mother had taught me.

    I had the briefest of images of her. We’d been on a ship. It had hummed like this one did. There’d been an attack and she’d hidden me. She’d wanted me to be safe, even though she couldn’t be.

    There were other memories there, waiting for some other time. That one image was all I needed though.

    I was not going to go down without a fight.

    In my mental realm the sky darkened and the Karr Khan’s arms that reached out the the heavens, reached out to his other selves, were severed. One by one the lights in the city began to fade away as my darkness reached out to protect me.

    “You can’t escape so easily. This piece of me is still a part of all that I am.” the Khan said.

    “I’m not trying to escape.” my voice came from the darkness all around the Khan’s body. “And you’re the one who’s not getting away from me.”

The Seas of Tomorrow – Chapter 25

    The Ravager’s attack should have left the ship devoid of life. It was capable of killing entire planets, but I’d manage to protect a small area from its effects thanks to the freakish way Void anima worked and the fact that the Ravager was fighting against her master’s wishes. It also helped that Akell hadn’t been aiming the brunt of the attack at me. That wasn’t a comforting thought for a variety of reasons though, not the least of which being what it meant for Opal.

    That Akell had used the Ravager’s power meant he’d either found his target, his “dearly beloved father” the Karr Khan, or someone else had forced him to fight back as hard as he could. I ruled out the first possibility when I remembered Akell gloating about presenting me to his father as a trophy. The boy commander seemed to relish the idea of killing the Khan after the Khan showered him with riches. Akell wasn’t particularly stable so he could have gone ahead with his attack without waiting for me to be around but I doubted he’d spoil his own fun like that if he didn’t have to.

   If he wasn’t attacking the Karr Khan though, that left only Opal on the list of people I knew to be on the space yacht who could force Akell to fight hard enough that he’d have to use the Ravager’s power. It wasn’t hard to imagine her pushing Akell that far either. She’d dealt a blow to his ego when she captured him and used him to find Jewel. He wasn’t the type to be forgiving of that.

    I choked back a sob as the image of what must have happened formed in my mind. Opal was a stranger in many ways still, but I liked her. She’d been kind to me and she’d tried to work with me. I didn’t want to see her as the withered corpse I imagined she’d become. I didn’t want to see it, but the Ravager was an artifact of epic destruction and without Void anima to draw on I couldn’t imagine how strong Opal would have to be to survive its attacks.

    I felt the attack recede and wondered if we’d even be able to find Opal’s body. It was insanity to think of escaping with her when I wasn’t sure we could escape at all. Everyone on the ship might be dead but there were other ships of the Khan’s forces in orbit around Belstarius and I was sure they’d be all too willing to shoot us down in the wake of an attack that had slaughtered the crew of the yacht.

    Not that they were likely to have the chance. Within the circle of protection that I’d cast there was a darkness that was waking up. I couldn’t struggle against it and maintain the barrier at the same time. I wanted to drop the shield so i could turn my attention to the closer threat but the sense of danger from outside wasn’t diminishing.

    A moment later I understood why.

    The Ravager’s second attack slammed into my shield with more force than the first had. I felt a palpable sense of Akell’s rage carried along with the attack.  I was confused by that at first, but then my heart soared. The only reason Akell would have to strike twice with an instant-death attack was if Opal had survived the Ravager’s first blow, and if she survived one attack, she might be able to survive a whole lot more of them, she might even be able to win!

    “Oh, I so hope she does. I enjoy exterminating Crystal Guardians.” I heard a bodiless voice say.

    “What’s wrong?” Taisen asked. He’d caught my expression as I whipped my head around looking for the person who’d spoken.

    “A lot. Did you just hear someone say something?” I asked.

    “No. Are we under attack?” he asked. He was looking at the protective circle that was forged out of Void anima. He’d seen the circle I’d summoned earlier for protection against the spellbombs and seemed to understand that this one was holding back an even more serious threat.

    “Yes. Akell just used the Ravager. Twice. And there’s something in this circle with us.” I said.

    Something that only I could hear. I looked around again and caught sight of Yael laying on the floor, within the circle. A terrible suspicion began to form in my mind.

    “You’re quite correct.” the voice said. “I am the one purifying the Guardian you have sheltered.”

    “You’re the Seed of Darkness they put in her?” I asked in my mind.

    “In this form? Yes, people have called me that.” the Seed said. The delight in his voice made me wish he had a body so I could smash his face in.

    Taisen knelt down in front of me and put his hands on Yael. I saw a grimace of pain cross his face as a bright anima shield covered him and began to flow into the apprentice Guardian.

    “Oh this is delicious! I don’t recall people lining up to be converted before. And such strength too!” the Seed said.

    “What are you doing?” I asked Taisen, despite knowing exactly what he was doing. The Seed fed on anima, but it could only feed on so much at a time otherwise it would be able to convert the host instantly. Taisen was feeding his own energy to Yael to diminish the amount she was losing but that wasn’t a viable strategy long term. It was like giving blood to someone with a severed artery, you could give all you wanted to but in the end you’d both end up dead.

    “Keep us safe from the Ravager.” Taisen said. “I’ll buy Yael the time that we need.”

    Before I could respond the Seed spoke up and from Taisen’s expression he heard it too.

    “Yes, by all means, give yourselves to me for a few more precious minutes of life.” the Seed said.

    I ignored the Seed and turned my attention back to the shield I’d constructed. I could still feel the Ravager’s power crashing against it.

    “Ravager! Fight back!” I called out loud.

    “I am! This is as much as I can do!” she whispered in my mind.

    “The Ravager is here? Oh, this day cannot get any better! No wait, there is one way!” the Seed said.

    I had cast the shield that surrounded us from the Void anima that I carried. It had been instinctive, drawing on memories I could barely bring to mind consciously. My subconscious had saved us, but it hadn’t been able to warn me of the costs involved.

    Looking down at Yael’s body, the vulnerability in my defense became obvious a moment too late. As my vision swam and my awareness fell away into darkness, I saw what had happened. Yael was laying across the lines of power that I’d inscribed on the floor when I summoned the defensive circle. She was touching them and so the Seed of Darkness inside her was touching them as well. That had given it access to me the same way Weri had been able to connect with me and blow up our transport when I tried to smack him with a Void anima attack.

    As my mind descended into the Seed of Darkness’s heart, I felt a familiar presence nearby.

    “Ravager? Is that you?” I called out.

    “Yes, I have drawn her in here as well.” the Seed said. The empty darkness pulled back as he spoke to reveal a man sitting idly askew on an ornate throne of sculpted bones. I’d seen Akell in an almost identical posture when I found him waiting for me in the chamber the Ravager had been hidden in. I approached the Seed, focusing my vision on him, and found that the resemblance was more than coincidental.

    “You cannot keep me here little monster. Once my master ends this attack I will be pulled back to him.” the Ravager said.

    “Yes, but you needn’t go alone. I fact I think I shall insist on accompanying you.” the Seed said.

    “You’re a piece of the Karr Khan.” I wasn’t guessing. The resemblance to Akell was too close. He wasn’t didn’t look like Akell exactly but that was only because he was older, and fouler.

    “Perceptive.” the Seed commented. “But then there are not many who see me whom I am not in the process of converting.”

    “Why have you brought us here?” the Ravager asked. In the Seed’s mental realm, she appeared as a girl shorter than me, clad in pitch black plate armor that was festooned with spikes and serrated edges.

    “To bend you to my will. There’s power in you both, less in the girl than in yourself Ravager, but I am not one to waste potential.” the Seed said.

    “You cannot change me.” the Ravager said.

    “Eveything can be changed.” the Seed said. “But in your case I don’t need to change you at all. You are already designed to be controlled.”

    “Is that what it is with you? You’re just a control freak?” I said. I didn’t have any weapons that could hurt him so I had to settle for trying to aggravate him.

    “I am not ‘just’ anything. I am the Eternal Khan.” the Seed said.

    “Seems like you’re just a tiny piece of him. Or is the real Khan into overcompensating too?” I asked.

    “I’m going to enjoy devouring you. There’s so much you don’t understand. Watching you struggle and squirm uselessly is going to be delightful.” the Seed said.

    “You can feel free to come at me whenever you want. I’ve already promised that I’m going to kill you if we ever meet and I’m starting to think the sooner that happens the better.” I said.

    “Kill me?” the Seed laughed. “I cannot die. I have transcended death.”

    “Everything can die.” the Ravager said. “Everything.”

    “Everything that you know, but you do not know the secrets that I do.” the Seed said.

    I looked at the Seed. He wasn’t sitting as casually as he had been. He was concerned. He needed us to believe that he couldn’t be killed. The kind of guys I knew who were desperate to convince you of something usually did it because they knew that thing wasn’t true.

    “He’s a body jumper.” I said to the Ravager. The Seed’s jaw practically hit the floor. “He splits himself into pieces and controls a whole bunch of people at once. If you kill his primary body his mind snaps over to one of the others.”

    I’d made a totally wild guess based on the bits of information I had about how the Seed operated. In any other place, I probably couldn’t have come up a fantasy as crazy as that, but I had an advantage. I’d made an mistake in allowing the Seed to forge a link to me, but that link ran both ways. If he could draw me into his mental realm, then my Mental anima was more than capable of mining that realm for the information I needed.

    “Got a little greedy there, didn’t you?” I asked the Seed. “You’re not used to having visitors over. Didn’t know they’d be able to read you like an open book if they weren’t busy being driven insane by you devouring them.”

    “You think that matters?” the Seed asked. All traces of humor were gone from his voice. I smiled. There’s something I find deeply enjoyable about annoying people that I hate.

    “I think it does. You think you’re perfect, that you’re safe from everything. I promise you though, you are not safe from me.” I said.

    “Oh yes, please do posture at me. I’ve never had anyone do that before.” the Seed said. “Next you’ll tell me to leave the Guardian alone, and get off your world or you’ll make me wish I’d never been born, right?”

    “It’s far too late for that.” I told him.

    “My master is ending the attack. Mel, I am sorry. I cannot stop him. He’s going to kill the Guardian who opposes us and then he’s going to kill you. Even holding him back, he has too much of my power to draw on.” the Ravager said.

    “Do what you can. Akell said you couldn’t be pulled from him, but I’m willing to bet I can pry you out of his cold dead fingers.” I said as she began to flicker and fade away.

    “You are not leaving here Ravager. Not alone.” the Seed said. When he moved it was with a flashing burst of speed that was impossible for the eye to follow. I’d been expecting exactly that though.

    We were in a purely mental realm, so my awareness and my reaction were instantaneous. The moment the Seed leapt at the Ravager, I was between them.

    I’d pictured intercepting him with a straight punch directly to the middle of his sneering face. In real life, the force that we collided with would have reduced his head to the consistency of a splattered tomato and my hand to a floppy noodle of shattered bone. As mental constructs we only felt the backlash from the other’s power, though that was still enough to hurt. A lot.

    I picked myself up off the “floor” of the mental realm and watched the Ravager finish disappearing entirely. I smirked and looked back at the Seed. he was picking himself up too and looked about as bad as I felt from our exchange.

    “It doesn’t matter. The Ravager is under the control of one of my Scions. I shall have her soon enough.” the Seed said.

    “Not if your Scion has anything to say about it.” I said.

    “He plans to kill me does he? He can’t even handle one of the Sapphire Guardians from what I saw in the Ravager’s mind. What hope can he have against me.” the Seed said.

    “Well, you’ll be dead for one of thing.” I told him.

    “Yes, so you’ve promised. I shall have to deal with that I suppose, and since you’ve denied me the Ravager for the time being, I guess that means I will need to get serious about converting the Rudy Guardian and having her kill you for me.” the Seed said.

    “I thought you weren’t the kind of waste potential?” I asked him as a truly terrible idea formed in my mind.

    “The only potential that refuse has is to be incinerated for fuel.” the Seed said, returning to his throne.

    “So you’re saying refuse just blocked you from achieving your goal with the Ravager?” I asked, a smile of certainty spreading across my lips. It was a terrible plan, but I was sure it was going to work.

    The Seed remained silent, choosing to sneer at me rather than respond.

    “That’s not it at all though is it. You didn’t change your tune because I’m junk. You changed your tune because I’m junk that you’re scared of.” I said.

    I started to pace around the mental throne room.

    “Why would that be? Because I figured out your fake immortality trick? That was pretty stupid of you to let slip, but I’m willing to bet I’m not the first one who’s sussed it out.” I said.

    “You don’t scare me. You annoy me little girl.” the Seed said. That he was sitting on his throne, recoiling away from me rather than attacking told a different story than his words did, and I was pretty sure we both knew it.

    “I guess I just need to try harder then. How about I do this?” I asked and strode up to the throne. The Seed jumped up to meet me, but he had no idea what I was going to do, so he wasn’t able to prepare for it when I grabbed him by the throat. I felt my anima start to drain out as I touched him.

    “You want to devour someone and kill me, then let’s relocate this little battle shall we?” I said.

    With an effort of pure will, I forced my physical eyes open. Taisen was still feeding anima into Yael and it didn’t look like more than a couple of seconds had passed since the Seed dragged me into his mental realm. I based that guess on the fact that I was still wobbling but hadn’t yet fallen over onto my face.

    Forcing my arms to move was difficult. The Seed was trying to stop me from inside. Twisting my mind to prevent me from reaching down and touching Yael. He failed.

    I laid my left hand on the brand that had been burned in her forehead. The one that bound the Seed of Darkness into her. The moment I touch it, I felt my connection to the Seed strengthen immeasurably.

    I pulled on it, latching into the Seed with all the anima I could muster. The sensation was about the farthest thing from pleasant that I could imagine. It was like I was swallowing a swarm of carnivorous bees. For as painful as it was though, there was barely any resistance. I knew the Seed didn’t want me to do this but it couldn’t help being drawn in by my Void anima. Before I could reconsider this rather stupid course of action, the Seed came free from its anchors in Yael and crashed into me.

    I gritted my teeth against the gut rending pain and pulled my hand away from Yael’s forehead. The brand had left her.

    And appeared on me.

The Seas of Tomorrow – Chapter 24

    There’s a cost to any protracted struggle. Wrestling with Zyla, both physically and verbally, left me spent and dizzy by the time I let her go. It would have been a consolation that she was going to wake up feeling even worse than I did, if I hadn’t been reasonably sure she was going to wake up and have every reason in the world to kill me.

    That was a problem for another time though. I had a much more immediate issue to deal with in the form of Yael and the monster that was inside her.

    Little shivers were playing over her skin at irregular intervals. Flashes of pain escaping from the battle she was waging for her heart and soul.

    “Do I take you out of here or is this room suppressing the Seed just as much as its suppressing your anima?” I wondered aloud.

    If the anima suppression effect the room emitted was also affecting the Seed, then leaving her within the room would continue to slow the Seed’s progress while I looked for a way to undo its effects. If the room was only suppressing Yael’s anima though then taking her outside might give her a better chance at resisting the Seed on her own.

    “I wish Taisen was here.” I said. The cleric would be able to monitor her anima levels like he’d done with me. He could probably tell in an instant what was happening inside her. Without him, I had to go on gut instincts and basic reasoning, neither of which had enough information backing them to be reliable. That should have given me pause and encouraged me to proceed slowly. The unconscious body of Zyla at my feet argued against cautious, careful action however.

    I knew it wouldn’t be long before someone came looking for Zyla. She’d come to take me to the Karr Khan and I couldn’t imagine he would be fine with waiting for me to show up whenever was convenient.

    Despite the need for haste, that thought did give me pause. I only had Zyla’s word that she was taking me to the Karr Khan. I had to grant that lying didn’t seem to be her style, but would they have really sent just one person for a task like that? For that matter would they really have no monitors built into a cell that was as insanely over-magicked as this one was?

    The more I thought about it the more it became clear that there were events in motion that I was only seeing a small fraction of.

    On it’s simplest level, Yael had been beaten by Akell and Zyla had come to collect me and provide Yael with an “accidental” death that spared her from becoming a monster. The problem was I knew that both of them were highly accomplished Aetherial anima casters. Both of them could and did fight primarily with destiny spells.

    I shook my head at that. Trying to second guess everything that had occurred as being the result of one or the other’s fate altering spells was a direct path to madness. There was definitely some reality behind destiny spells, but it seemed like Aetherial casters shared a lot with simple grifters, where it was less about what they’d planned to have happen and more about how they could reinterpret events after the fact to make it look like what had occurred had all been part of the completely intentional master plan. That made some people happy, but I thought it was kind of stupid, which was probably a sign that I’d never be much of an Aetherial caster, even if I could survive long enough to get some proper training.

    For as much as overly elaborate planning annoyed me though, I could also see the pitfalls of barging ahead blindly. So I calmed my breathing and considered Yael’s condition.

    She had deteriorated a lot since we’d parted. I didn’t know how long I’d been unconscious but I had to guess it was no more than a few hours. For as bad as I felt, I’d have all sorts of other issues if it had been a few days or longer. I also didn’t know how fast the Seed would normally be able to convert someone as strong as Yael. My best guess was that it would take a while, otherwise, they wouldn’t have left her in here with me.

    Following on that guess, I supposed that if the anima suppression field was going to affect both Yael and the Seed equally then they’d could have stored her in some area far away from me. The best reason to dump her in this room was because they wanted both of us shut down.

    “I really hope this doesn’t kill you.” I told Yael as I lifted her up. A wordless cry of pain escaped her lips and she sagged into full unconsciousness as I hauled her up.

    Stepping out into the hallway beyond the cell felt fantastic. I could almost taste the symbolic freedom I’d gained, but what was a thousand times better was the sense of my anima waking up and starting flowing through me. I felt like an electric charge was filling me up to the tips of my fingers and toes. In my arms, Yael stirred a little and tightened, the relief of unconsciousness falling away from her as her own anima surged back to full power.

    She didn’t wake up immediately though so I looked around to take stock of where we were. The corridor outside the cell was a clean, creamy white, as though the walls and floor were made out of pearl. There were three other rooms nearby, one on the same side as the cell we’d been in and two on the other side. Of the four, only the cell I’d left had a border of sigils around its door. The others seemed to be non-magical holding facilities. The corridor ended in a round doorway that looked like it irised into the wall somehow.

    In the background I heard the hum that I’d noticed before and began to put together a string of clues that led to an unpleasant deduction.

    “This cell is custom made, and it costs so much that there’s only one of them here. Belstarius wouldn’t have needed just one cell like this. Either they’d have setup a whole wing of them to cover all of the caster criminals on the planet or they’d do without and save the money for something else. It could be a random rich person who lived in the city, but the Khan’s forces wouldn’t have just stumbled on it like that. Probably.” I reasoned. “What Akell would know about though would be the facilities on the ship that they came in.”

    More pieces started falling into place. Four cells wasn’t enough for much, unless you only expected to have prisoners to hold in them on special occasions. Even more compelling though was the hum. I recognized it. It was the hum of a starship’s anima plant. I wasn’t sure how I knew that, but I knew I’d heard that sound before.

    I looked down and found my hands trembling. Yael didn’t seem happy with that, so I laid her on the floor. My head swam a little and I felt sick to my stomach again. I didn’t want to be here. In the worst possible way, I did not want to be on a starship.

    I sat down beside Yael and put my head into my hands.

    “I can’t lose it. Not yet.” I told myself.

    “Not ever, hopefully.” the man who spoke was at the end of the short corridor, in the round doorway that had opened soundlessly. I saw only a few thing about him before I jumped to my feet.

    He was tall, pale skinned, unfamiliar and he wore the uniform of one of the Karr Khan’s soldiers.

    An enemy.

    I kicked off the wall behind me and launched myself at him like a missile. There wasn’t any subtlety or planning in my attack, it was pure reflexes and pure speed. I needed to shut him up and take him down before he could call for a pile of other guards.

    For as fast as I was though, even using my returned Physical anima, he was able to dodge out of the way of my charge and avoid the blows I threw at him.

    “Wait! Mel! Stop!” the man said, as he frantically ducked and weaved out of my reach.

    His words didn’t quite resolve in my mind. Fear and panic are great for inducing fast reactions, but lousy at inducing smart ones. What I should have seen as someone struggling to stay away from me, I instead interpreted as someone looking to get out of grappling range so that they could either shoot me or run away and get help. Since that would pretty much seal my fate, I made sure neither was an option for the man.

    A quick feint to the head put him just enough off balance that I was able to sweep his legs out from under him. As he fell I managed to grab his arm and land on him with that arm bent back over his head and my free forearm pressed against his throat.

    “Mel, I’m not your foe. Give me a second.” the man said.

    It finally registered that he knew my name. And that he was not threatening me. That sent me back into the land of utter confusion but a whole barrel of questions that sprang to my mind were answered a moment later as the man’s feature’s flowed and shifted from the unfamiliar look of the guard to a much friendlier face.

    “Taisen? What the hell are you doing here?” I asked him. I didn’t let him go though, in part because I was too stunned and in part because, I couldn’t be sure it was actually him.

    “I believe I mentioned that I’m a secret agent for the Crystal Empress?” he answered.

    “And a shape shifter?” I asked.

    “When I need to be. I’m better at medicine, but once you know the body at that level, there’s a whole lot of things you can do with Physical anima.” he said.

    “What was the first thing I said to you?” I asked him.

    “Honestly, I have no idea. It’s been a long day and my memory’s just not that good. I know we started talking about the condition you were in when you got to the clinic. Oh I know, you didn’t lie to me about it! That was nice.” he said.

    I let him go. It wasn’t impossible that someone else could have known that. Mind magic can do all kinds of weird and unpleasant things, but all things considered, it seemed like a safe bet to assume he was on the level. Especially since I figured I could still kick his butt if he wasn’t.

    “Sorry. I didn’t expect to see you here. How did you even get here? In fact, where is here?” I asked him.

    “We’re onboard one of the Karr Khan’s personal yachts. You and Yael were brought here after Akell claimed the Jewel of Endless Night.” Taisen said, sitting up.

    “Yael! She’s here. They’ve done something to her!” I said, pointing at the apprentice Guardian’s prone form at the other end of the corridor. Taisen got up without any further prompting and went over to the fallen girl. I watched him study her for a minute. He cast a series of spells that left glowing glyphs in the air and circles that shone with different shades of shifting light.

    “This is bad.” he said at last. “Her body is starting to breakdown because she’s drawn all of her anima up into a tight ball to ward off something that’s attacking her. I think her mind and spirit are ok, but her Physical anima is suffering in their place.”

    “Can you stop it? Or stabilize her?” I asked.

    “I don’t think so. Whatever’s eating her is made of almost pure Void anima. Any spells I cast are going to get consumed by it too.” he said.

    “Will that buy her any time?” I asked.

    “Maybe. But it might make the attacker stronger.” he said.

    “From what Zyla said, I’d guess you’re right on both counts. We need to help her hold out though.” I said.

    “Agreed. If we can get her out of here and back to the surface, I might be able to rig up something with a medical stasis pod that would freeze the process in place.” Taisen said.

    “Is that why you’re here? To get us out?” I asked.

    “Yes. Opal asked me to find you and get you both away from here. She’s gone after Akell to get the Jewel back.” Taisen said.

    “What about Master Hanq?” I asked.

    “He said he was going to recruit some help. After the shuttle exploded, the three of us landed together but we were blown miles in the wrong direction. We knew that you and Opal would reach the Jewel long before us, but Opal didn’t think it would be before Akell did.” he said.

    “ She was right. I got to Akell first, but he’d already bonded to the Ravager.” I said.

    “How do you know it’s the Ravager?” Taisen asked.

    “She talked to me.” I said.

    “She talked? Who talked to you?”, he asked.

    “The Ravager, the Jewel of Endless Night. I spoke with her.” I said.

    “That’s not…” Taisen didn’t get to finish his phrase.

    I felt the stab of cold in my chest that had come before serious danger had surfaced several times in the past. As had happened once before, when the city killing bombs had dropped on us, I felt the Void anima in me reach out almost entirely on its own and form a protective barrier around me.

    Where the other barrier had been a simple circle, this one was far more complex though. Within the circle were whorls of numbers, half remembered equations and writing in a  tongue that I couldn’t remember ever speaking. Lines of power crossed through the circle and formed geometries that reinforced the aura that sprang up around Yael, Taisen and I.

    For all that, the barrier barely held against the attack that came.

    Against the shield that I raised, I felt something like a tidal wave crash down. A tidal wave with a familiar presence behind it.

    “I don’t want to do this!” I heard the Ravager cry as a wave of pure death spread across the Karr Khan’s ship.

    That wasn’t what scared me though. What terrified me was the presence that I felt within the barrier. I was holding the Ravager’s power at bay, but there was a darkness lurking within all of my defenses.

    And it was hungry.

The Seas of Tomorrow – Chapter 23

    I’d never seen someone in as bad a shape as Yael was. Between the obvious damage and what I could guess was happening inside her, I couldn’t imagine how she could be bearing the pain she was in. Zyla hadn’t left me any weapons, but then I clearly didn’t need any in order to end Yael’s suffering.

    I stood over the fallen Guardian and felt paralyzed. I couldn’t have stopped Akell, but I might have been able to keep him busy for longer. Did that make her condition my fault?

    No. This was Akell’s doing. I wasn’t going to shoulder that guilt.

    That didn’t make any difference to Yael though. Akell was the one who put her in this state, but I had the chance to do something about it. I could let her become a monster and a slave, or I could finish what Akell had started.

    Both of those options sucked.

    So I chose another one.

    “Are you prepared?” Zyla asked as she came back into the room.

    Her answer was me hitting her from behind.

    The blows did no damage but they surprised her. That was all I needed. With her anima shield in place I couldn’t beat her into unconsciousness. Joint locks on the other hand work just fine. Unlike punches and kicks, a good martial hold is a matter of skill and geometry. Zyla had access to her Physical anima, so she was at least dozens of times stronger than me.

    Just like everyone else I’d ever fought with. So I needed a tool that took strength out of the equation.

    Enter one of my favorite techniques: grappling! In a two-on-one fight, like I’d had in the alley against Badz’s friends, grappling is impractical. Take one guy down the ground and his friend will just kick your head in. Zyla didn’t have backup though, so all I needed to do was beat her. Or more precisely, arrange her limbs so that she beat herself.

    It wasn’t a tremendously dignified position that we wound up in. I was laying underneath her and behind her back when we hit the ground and we were wrapped around each other like a pretzel. The important thing was it was a pretzel configuration that I’d chosen. For all her superior strength, Zyla didn’t have a prayer at escaping from me. I’d twisted her arms and legs into positions where any effort she made to escape would be effort spent shattering her own bones or ripping her limbs out of their sockets.

    “I’m not doing your dirty work for you.” I told her as we struggled. Zyla didn’t even pretend to not understand what I was talking about it.

    “You’re condemning her to a fate she considers worth than death.” Zyla growled at me.

    “What do you care?” I yelled at her, as I flip her over and ground her face into the smooth floor of the cell.

    “She was an honorable foe. She understood.” Zyla said.

    “That’s what this is? You think this is about honor? What honor can there possibly be in killing her. In killing a whole damn city!” I screamed.

    “There is honor in duty. In service. She understood that.” Zyla said. There were tears running down her cheeks, probably because the hold I had her in was agonizing.

    “She’s not dead yet.” I said.

    “Yes. Yes, she is. She’d been branded. The woman she was is gone. If her mind hasn’t been devoured yet, then its being torn apart right now!” Zyla screamed.

    “Then take the brand off her. Cut it out, burn it, whatever it takes!” I said.

    “That’s impossible! The Seed has already begun to grow. Touching it is death.” Zyla said. She sounded terrified and I knew it wasn’t of anything I could do to her. We were silent for a moment as the weight of her words sank into me, down to a bitter, hard core in the center of my chest.

    “Then die.” I said. I felt a terrible cold echoing in my words.

    “It wouldn’t save her.” Zyla said, her voice barely above a whisper.

    “What would.” I asked, my voice still cold and hard as ice.

    “Nothing. Or maybe the Karr Khan. I don’t know.” she said.

    “And how do I make him do that?” I asked.

    “You can’t. He hates the Crystal Empress and all of her forces. He would never spare one of her Guardians.” she said.

    “So you can’t be any help to me then?” I asked.

    “I am your enemy. I cannot help you.” she said.

    “What about the bit about me being a member of the family?” I asked.

    “You’re never going to be one of the Khan’s children. Not the you who exists now.” Zyla said.

    “What do you mean?”

     “What is happening to the Guardian is a shadow of what is going to happen to you. They told me when they branded her. Your resistance has been too great and your skill with Void anima is too strong to rely on loyalty binding spells. Plus you’ve been in the company of a Sapphire Guardian. They can’t be sure what hidden surprises she has left in you.” Zyla said.

    “So they’re going to do this to me too?” I asked. I wasn’t frightened or surprised. I was carrying far too much anger to have any room for emotions like fear or shock.

    “No. You will receive a different type of brand. The Betrayer’s Chain. It will turn you into a vessel for the Karr Khan’s will directly. You will retain your memories and your skills but the will that drives them will no longer be your own. Once the guardian’s anima is consumed she will become a monster under our control, but she will never know the things she is made to do. You on the other hand will see everything. Will feel everything. But you will have no power to stop it.” Zyla said.

    I was silent in response to that. I thought I’d known bad people. The ones who would prey on anyone who was weaker than themselves. The ones who would take from people who had nothing. The ones who didn’t care who they hurt so long as they profited from whatever they were doing. What I hadn’t known was that they were amateurs. They were petty and destructive, but this was what it looked like when people got professional about destroying others.

    “How can serve someone who would do that?” I asked.

    “Everyone would do that. Those who believe otherwise are only clinging to a fantasy out of weakness or fear.” Zyla said. I knew the tone in her voice. I’d heard it in my classes thousands of times.

    “That’s what you’ve been told to say. That’s what someone taught you. What’s the real reason?” I asked.

    “You don’t understand.” Zyla said.

    “I’m getting sick of hearing that. I understand just fine. You’ve been beaten into believing the only thing you can do is support the biggest tough guy you know. You think that somehow if you deny yourself entirely and do only what they want you to do, no matter how hard or horrible that is, that you’ll be noble and pure in some way.” I said.

    “That’s not true. You have no idea what you’re talking about.” Zyla said.

    “Don’t I? You think you’re special because you’re a ‘Second Scion Circle’ girl? I’ve seen gangs handing out all kinds of stupid badges of honor. You’re the same. You’ve just got bigger guns and better training.” I said.

    “We are nothing like the scum of your world.” Zyla said. From the anger in her voice, I knew I’d hit a nerve. She was too smart not to see what she really was on some level. She’d just been clever enough to fool herself that being one of the Khan’s pet monsters was ok because she had a code to live by.

    “The only difference I see is that they’re dead and you’re still drawing breath.”

    “You’re going to change that aren’t you?” Zyla asked. “That’s what this all is. You’ve never killed before and you’re working yourself up to it.”

    “Nice attempt to analyze me, but I’m sorry princess, you got it wrong.” I said with a chuckle.

    “You can’t let me live. As soon as you release me, I’m going to overpower you and put you back in the shackles. You have to kill me.” Zyla said.

    “That’s what your life is, isn’t it?” I asked her, “It all ‘us vs. them’. Win at all costs. Be the best or you’re nothing.”

    “The only way I would be nothing is if I abandoned my duty.” Zyla said.

    “No, the only way you become nothing is by treating other people like they’re nothing.” I said. “You respect Yael, but you don’t have the first clue how she thinks.”

    “And you’re so close to her that you do?” Zyla asked.

    “Close to her? No, she practically hates me. But unlike you, I’ve actually listened to her. Do you know what everything she’s ever said has told me?” I asked.

“That she cares about other people. What she loathes about me can be summed up in one phrase; I’m a danger to myself and others.” I said.

    “Then she should have killed you herself.” Zyla said.

    “That’s not the way she thinks. That’s not the way her mentor thinks either. In fact from what they’ve told me, that’s not the way any of the Crystal Empress’s forces work, and they kicked your precious Khan’s butt.” I said.

    “We did not lose to the Empress’s forces. We were betrayed from within.” Zyla said.

    “Oh I get it, that’s why, for your generation, your Khan was on a big loyalty and honor kick. More convenient to keep the minions in line that way. Guess Akell missed those classes.” I said.

    “Mock me all you want. It doesn’t matter. What happens to the Guardian is on you now.” Zyla said.

    “You know what, you’re right.” I agreed. “Up to this point, what happened to her was Akell’s fault. It was your fault and it was your stupid Khan’s fault. But I’ve had enough of you. All of you. I didn’t do this to Yael, but I’m here, now, and I’m the one who can do something about it. So you’re right. She is my problem, and I’m not going to let her suffer like that.”

    “If you let me go, I am going to restrain you again.” Zyla said.

    I blinked at that. She was telling me, as clearly as she was able to, that I had to murder her too. I knew what it was like to hate myself sometimes, but compared to Zyla I felt like a beacon of stability and sanity in the light of that declaration.

    “Yael and Opal would never have killed you. Not if they could help it.” I told her.

    “If it was necessary they would have.” Zyla said, her voice a flat monotone.

    “I don’t think they would. Yael saved me when she had absolutely no reason to. They value life far too much to casually toss it aside. They’re different from you. And they’re different from me.” I said.

    “What do you mean?” Zyla asked, a trace of fear coloring her voice. It’s one thing to ask for death, it’s another thing to believe its really going to happen.

    “I’m not a Guardian. I wasn’t raised by the Crystal Empress. I learned a whole different set of lessons.” I said and began tightening my hold on her neck. “Do you know who I learned this technique from?”

    “Who?” she gasped out as I started to choke her.

    “Master Hanq Okoro. I didn’t know it for the longest time, but he was a Warlord too back in the day. Can you imagine the kinds of things he taught me?” I asked.

    Zyla couldn’t answer because I’d cut off the air to her lungs with my hold.

    “So you know who that makes me like?” I asked and then answered, “That makes me like you. We’re not so different really. You’re a monster and so am I.”

    Zyla started struggling for air, but it was to no avail. I had her wrapped too tightly.

    “That makes this really easy. I want you to think about that. For the rest of your life, however little there may be, I want you to understand that you’re no different from me.” I said and tightened the hold on her throat the last bit further that I needed.

    Chokeholds are dangerous. The line between knocking someone out and killing them can be thin and different for different people. With Zyla I had an advantage though; she had a pretty hefty amount of Physical anima to draw on. That made the line much broader. I still let up on the blood blocking hold after a few seconds though. I wanted her unconscious, not dead.

    I knew she’d never be an ally. She could have respected me choking the life out of her, but she wasn’t going to forgive the things I’d said any time soon (or ever probably). The truth though was that I was following what Master Hanq had taught me.

    “Killing someone’s a mess. Just avoid it if you can.” he’d said, and that had been all he’d had to say on the subject. At least in words. Watching him in action though, I’d always seen how, for as brutal as he could be, the people he fought with generally lived to fight another day. Or at least lived to see another day. In his own way, he treasured life as much as the Guardians did.

    And in her own way, Zyla did too.