Falling into the Void wasn’t a strictly accurate term for what Vunthor, Higgs and I did. Our bodies didn’t actually go anywhere. From Illya’s and the other soldier’s points of view we were simply surrounded by a cloud of Void anima that went from pitch black to some steadily darker hue as it leeched light and heat and life from the cavern around us.
At the heart of the dark cloud, Vunthor-Higgs and I were locked in a deadly embrace and so drowned in Void anima that neither of us could sense anything except the will of the other. The soldiers, the cavern, even our own bodies were left far behind.
Vunthor-Higgs tried to overwhelm me at first. It was the feral, aggressive instinct of a killer. I wasn’t a person to them and with the damage I’d inflicted I wasn’t even an animal. Animals you could still feel something for. You could still try to control them or direct them to be useful. I wasn’t an animal, I was a danger. I’d moved into the same spot they’d put the Garjarack in. No argument, no gesture of goodwill, no reasoned action at all would change how they saw me. I was the thing they hated most in the world, and they had to destroy me.
And I was fine with that.
They poured out Void anima like a dam burst in them and I did the same. Void anima is deadly. It drains the energy and life from everything and everyone it touches. With one exception. Void casters are immune to it. If we weren’t we’d be dead the first time we tried to cast a spell. That “immunity” has limits though since it’s not that Void anima can’t hurt us its that we shape and manipulate it instinctively.
When Hellsreach attacked me with Void anima spikes, the sheer volume, intensity, and speed of the attack overwhelmed my ability to move the Void anima away from my other energies. Even two casters like Vunthor and Higgs didn’t have that much raw magic to work with though so they couldn’t recreate the same effect without mechanical aid.
Or rather they couldn’t recreate it unless I helped them too. Even at our best I was pretty sure we wouldn’t come close to the firepower of a planetary super weapon but we didn’t have to. All we needed to do was to create a field of Void anima so dense and powerful that it overwhelmed our ability to fend it off.
Higgs would survive, for whatever value of “survive” was appropriate to apply to the scattered bits of him that hung on, but Vunthor would wither and die. Without him, Higgs was have no conduit out of the void and would be a powerless non-issue for the colonists unless one of them had Void casting abilities too. Vunthor’s troops were already starting to fracture based on Illya’s actions so they wouldn’t be a problem either I hoped.
I had no idea what would happen with the giga- and deca-beasts but at least with Vunthor out of the picture they wouldn’t be used tactically. If my friends were really lucky they might even just go back to their home realm on their own.
The downside to all this is that I was going to wind up just as dead as Vunthor was, unless I managed to outlast him when it came to holding off the effects of Void anima over-exposure. I didn’t think I had great odds of doing that but terrible odds are still better than no chance whatsoever.
As the Void anima thickened around us, Vunthor-Higgs figured out what I was doing. The magics didn’t have a texture or a feel but my mind insisted on interpreting the fog we were locked in as though it were the thickest tar imaginable. I couldn’t breath and moving was barely possible but that worked in my favor.
It meant Vunthor-Higgs couldn’t flee.
They tried to. Once they saw that I had no intention of letting up, Vunthor panicked and tried to struggle out of my grip using all the strength he could conjure up.
He had more years of experience than I did, but I had more formal training with Void anima thanks to Master Raychelle. Even though it was just a few months and some of it was purely theoretical because I was restricted from casting, I understood what we were doing far better than either of my opponents.
In struggling to break free, Vunthor was expending Physical anima. He had an enormous amount of it stored up, but even that was nothing compared to the hunger of the void around us. Every erg of strength that he expended drained away instantly leaving him weaker but no further away from me than he was.
Wit both of us casting our full power into it, this wasn’t a trap that we could escape (or probably survive). That’s why Void casters don’t fight like this. It was just Vunthor’s bad luck that he’d pushed me far enough to where it was my only option.
I felt him struggled harder to escape and had to suppress a laugh. He was cut-off from his soldiers, and yet he was still wasting his vast reserves of magic on a frothing fit.
I’d beaten him! I knew it!
Then I felt my fingers start to freeze.
It was useless listening to my danger sense. It had been screaming at the top of its metaphorical lungs since I left Darius and Fari. The freezing in my hands wasn’t a product of that though. The Void anima around us had grown dense enough that I couldn’t ward it off anymore. What I felt as cold wasn’t a chill. It was death slowly claiming me.
I pushed back against it. I couldn’t fall until Vunthor-Higgs ran out of power. I had to take them down.
“No matter the cost?” Echo asked me.
I wasn’t breathing but somehow my breath caught in my throat anyways.
“Mom?” I asked before I could stop myself.
“Yes, my little one,” she said.
“What are you doing here?” I asked.
“I’m always here,” she said. “The question is what are you doing here? This is no place for you, not for a long time to come at least.”
“I think I’m kind of dying,” I said.
“Why?” she asked.
“I was in a fight and I lost,” I said. I couldn’t cry here either, but somehow I still felt warm and wet tears running down my face.
“It looks to me like you’re still fighting,” she said.
“Yeah, for as long as I can,” I said.
“Why? Why fight? Why die?” she asked.
“Because I can’t let Vunthor go. He has to die before he hurts anyone else,” I said.
“Killing him isn’t going to keep him from hurting people,” she said. “I can see one person who will be hurt very badly if you continue on, and I know there are many other people who be hurt if she dies here.”
I thought about the promise I’d made to Fari and Darius and my heart cracked in two. I couldn’t imagine them finding my withered corpse and yet I also couldn’t bear the thought of seeing Vunthor get his hands on them.
“I don’t know what else I can do!” I said. Every path open to me lead to violence and death.
“Yes, you do,” Echo said. “You’re my beautiful, brilliant girl and you’re better than this.”
I choked back a sob. She was wrong. I’d never been beautiful and I felt stupid and weak more often than I could begin to count.
“Just breathe,” she said.
“I can’t,” I said.
“Yes, you can,” she said. “This isn’t a magic thing. It’s not about the Void anima around you. You can’t feel it, but you’re still surrounded by air and life. Take it in. Let it fill you up.”
I hesitated. If she was wrong, even one breath would kill me instantly. It was a horrible, terrifying risk to take. I could fall and fail completely in the process.
Vunthor would live. He would get away.
Could I let that happen?
I looked inside myself. It was ugly in there. I was so afraid and so angry. I couldn’t imagine not stopping Vunthor but that wasn’t a sign that it was right to keep fighting. That was a sign that I was blinded by all that anger and fear.
I felt another pair of tears tumble down cheeks as I chuckled at myself. I wasn’t brilliant, but maybe I could manage to be less stupid than I’d been so far.
I breathed in, forcing air into my lungs, and nothing but air. I didn’t try to inhale superhumanly fast or filter the air for harmful particles. All I did was breath in with my diaphragm and let my lungs fill up.
“I don’t have to fight him anymore do I?” I said. “I’ve already broken his connection with the soldiers.”
“You have,” Echo said. “The moment his soldier moved to protect you, his spell on them was broken. He’ll never be the leader that he was before.”
“But he’s still dangerous,” I said.
“He is,” she said. “But not for long, not at the rate he’s going.”
I looked through the void. I couldn’t see him, but I could see Vunthor’s anima. I could see him lashing out, over and over, mad to escape the trap I’d placed us in.
“He’s fighting against himself,” I said as I watched him cast out threads of every type of anima and then tear them to shreds with the Void anima that he wouldn’t let go of.
His struggles kept binding him tighter and tighter, destroying more and more of who and what he was. It was terrible for him, but it showed me something critical.
I knew how to escape the trap. I knew how I could live. All I had to do was give Vunthor my power.
So I did. Instead of attacking him with the Void anima that was under my control, I handed him the power that I had stored up. I gave it gently and freely and he consumed it without even thinking.
If he’d still been my enemy, or still been sane, I would have signed my own death warrant by doing that. Sometimes you have to fight people like Vunthor, other times though you just need to get out of their way and and let them finish destroying themselves.
The hate and rage and fear that Vunthor and Higgs felt made them fight and thrash and spin the bands that were killing them in ever tighter on themselves. They took the power I gave them and did the only thing they knew how to do with it – destroy.
And me? I walked out of the Void storm. Not by overpowering it. Not by bending it to my will. Just by letting it go. I didn’t need to destroy Vunthor. He wasn’t an world shaking menace. He was just a man. He could hurt me, but so could everyone. It was hard turning away from the threat of pain when it was presented so clearly, and I knew I would mess up dealing with it again in the future, but for that one moment I had the clarity to chose and I chose to turn away from the fear and anger I felt towards him.
“I have the best daughters ever,” my Mom said.
I felt the warmth of her smile even though I was still completely blind.
“Will you be ok?” I asked. “Higgs will still be around, won’t he?”
“Oh you just leave that little fragment to me,” she said.
A chill ran down my spine. No Void anima. No danger sense. Just a disturbing realization that I hadn’t inherited only “nice” traits from my mother.
“Will I see you again?” I asked.
“I hope you won’t need too, but when you do, I’ll be there for you,” she said. “Always.”
“Thank you,” I said. “Mom.”
And with that I stepped out of the Void storm and faced off against the army Vunthor had brought with him.
“One down, fifty to go,” I thought and let a smile of completely unfounded bravado spread across my face.