Taisen and I weren’t friends. We’d met barely a few hours before and, while I found him pretty enough to look at, we hadn’t established a particularly deep relationship in the few dozen sentences we’d said to one another since I walked into his clinic. What Taisen was though was an ally and the prospect of finding an ally where I needed one was, at that moment, the most joyous thing I could conceive of.
“She’s gotta get here. She’s gotta get here.” I heard him whispering as he paced back and forth in the hallway below the access hatch to the rooftop I was one. I smiled at that. It was nice to know he’d be happy to see me. Unless of course he was actually waiting for Yael.
One small hop took me over the lip of the access hatch and I plummeted down about ten feet to land at Taisen’s feet. The landing was harder than I would have preferred and left me sprawled on the floor. Fortunately it also left me visible since the knock I took to my head was enough to break my concentration.
“You made it!” Taisen said, forcing a yell down into a very loud whisper.
“Yeah. Can you get me out of this though?” I asked, struggling against the ropes that bound me.
“Certainly. Hold still a second.” Taisen said as he produced a multi-tool from his back pocket. I thought it would take him forever to cut me out of the bindings but the tiny anima blade the multi-tool contained tore through the ropes like they were made of tissue paper.
I accepted his hand to help me stand up and then rubbed my arms and legs to restore feeling in them. On a whim, I tried to concentrate my Void anima again and let my physical anima flow around my body. The pins and needles went away instantly and I felt good as new. Physically at least.
“Come on. We have to get out of here. They’re going to be after us soon.” Taisen said.
I turned to him and felt the wild joy that had hit me fade away. Taisen was offering safety, but he was only offering it for me. Yael was on her own.
Yael and I weren’t friends anymore than Taisen and I were. We were barely even allies for that matter. There were tons of arguments that urged me to follow Taisen’s sane and rational advice. It would mean safety. It would mean denying the Karr Khan’s forces what they were most interested in. And it would mean leaving behind a girl who didn’t particularly like me. Even trying as hard as I could though, I wasn’t able to come up with similarly sane or rational reasons for staying and trying to help her.
But that’s what I did.
Something about running away and leaving someone else behind to die tripped a circuit in my brain that overrode all logic, all reason, and even all my fears. The thought of carrying the weight of another person’s death by choosing to run away was infinitely worse than the thought of dying myself if I stayed.
I’d been crazy and stupid a lot in the previous few hours. That had been for myself though. This was being crazy and stupid for someone else, and somehow that made all the difference when it came to accepting the likely consequences of my intended actions.
“I’m sorry. I can’t do that.” I told the horrified Taisen as I faded away before his eyes.
He reached out to grab me but I’d already started moving before his shock work off.
“Don’t turn me in a monster. Please.” I asked the Void anima as I felt it swirling around me. It was cold and hungry, but then it was always cold and hungry when it was awake. So long as that was all I felt from it, that was fine with me. I didn’t plan on letting it stay hungry for too long.
I felt the Void settle over me like a second skin and could have sworn that I heard it purr. The prospect of feeding on anima appealed to it. That worked out well. With the Void outside of me I was able to pull my other anima inside and separate them that way. I felt for my physical anima again and felt its wonderful strength flowing through me.
The leap back onto the roof was effortless. Taisen, being reasonably intuitive, had followed me to the access hatch but since he lacked my invisibility he wasn’t able to follow me any further than that. At least not without attracting a whole lot of attention.
I looked over at Yael and Zyla and saw that the fight had entered it’s most desperate phase. Yael’s defenses had slowed enough that Zyla was able to make broad attacks that kept the young Guardian constantly in motion, punishing her injured leg.
Zyla forced the fight to the edge of the rooftop about five feet away from me. Yael tried to buy room to maneuver with another blast of force but Zyla dodged it and disarmed Yael with a nasty cut along the inside of the Guardian’s sword arm. Yael’s anima blade tumbled over the edge of building as she lost her grip on it and the fight was over.
Yael didn’t look ready to admit that while she still had breath in her body though. She still had some power left in her and wasn’t backing down, but Zyla was less wounded, less winded and much better armed. The Karr Khan commander had won the battle even if she’d lost the war when she let me get away.
I watched as Zyla raised her blade into a high guard which I saw also doubled as the setup for an execution strike. Zyla knew Yael wasn’t going to quit. Neither of them would. It was almost a kindness that she was going to finish the battle without further delay or anguish.
“I will make this painless.” she said to Yael.
Yael might have had a plan, some clever “catch the blade and leap away” stratagem, but I never got to find out what that was.
I caught Zyla’s arm and crushed down hard. The Void anima around me leapt at the chance and devoured the skin tight anima shield that Zyla was projecting. That cost me my cloak of invisibility but it seemed like a good trade given how vulnerable it left Zyla.
“The duel’s over. You win.” I told her. “And for your prize, you get to fight me.”
Zyla tried to spin away and escape my grip but one of us had Physical anima left to draw on and the other was her. I twisted her arm and forced her to drop her anima blade before spinning her around to serve as a shield against some of the soldiers who had bolt casters trained on us.
“You’re going to want to tell them to stand down.” I told her.
“No.” she replied through gritted teeth.
“She’s right.” Yael said.
“I am pledged to return the Void caster. No threat you can make will cause me to abandon my duty.” Zyla growled at me.
“Your brother said you guys know about Void anima. You know what I can do to you right?” I said. I was angry at her, and I hoped that made me sound serious despite the fact that letting the Void anima take me over again was about the last thing I wanted to do.
“I am well aware of your capabilities.” Zyla said without flinching.
“That’s not why you should listen to her.” Yael said. She was holding her left hand over the wound on her right arm and I saw the glow of a healing spell at work to repair the injury.
“There’s nothing you can say that will cause me to abandon my task.” Zyla said.
“I know. I won’t convince you with words.” Yael said.
“You wish to try to bribe me then?” Zyla asked.
“No.” Yael replied.
“Then how will you convince me.” Zyla asked.
“I won’t. And she won’t either.” Yael said. “They will.”
At her words the thunderous roar of one of the Karr Khan’s troop transports filled the air. I looked over the side of the building and saw it rise up to the level of the rooftops. At the same moment a series of detonations shook the ground and buildings for blocks around. The other transports had exploded.
“Good work apprentice.” Opal said through the flying ship’s external speakers.
“You’ve stolen one of our ships!” Zyla screamed.
“To be precise, we’ve stolen the last one of your ships. The rest have met with some technical difficulties.” Opal said.
“That doesn’t matter. The weapon systems are locked down and without shielding my forces will blast you from the sky if you try to flee.” Zyla said.
In answer the transport pivoted to point at one of the buildings that didn’t have soldiers on it. A second later a gout of fire shot from the ship and the building shattered into a pile of debris.
“What was that about the weapon systems being locked down?” Master Hanq asked over the speakers.
Zyla was silent but I could feel the anger radiating off her. It was Yael who spoke next though.
“You can’t win here. Not now. If you don’t withdraw, we will kill your troops and you as well. Some of us may die in the process but you will not complete your mission.” Yael said. “Look to the future.”
From anyone else I would have assumed that was simply advice but given that both Yael and Zyla were Aetherial casters, I guessed that she meant it literally.
Zyla took a long time before she responded. I felt her slump down a moment before she did though and I knew that we’d won.
“This isn’t over, but I will not spend lives needlessly. Go and know that I will follow, or if not me, a more senior Scion.” Zyla said.
“So you’re saying we should bring you with us as a hostage?” I asked her.
“No. They’ll be able to track her too easily.” Yael said.
“Fine. I’ll let her go once you all are aboard the transport then.” I said.
“For your own sake, you should come with me.” Zyla said.
“Never in a million years.” I told her.
“I don’t know what Akell has told you but you would be honored, one of the First Scion Circle. Otherwise the Karr Khan will hunt you for the rest of your life.” Zyla said.
“Or for the rest of his.” I said. I resisted adding ‘however short that might be’ and allowed my tone to convey that sentiment instead.
“He is immortal.” Zyla said with a note of true belief in her voice.
“He won’t be if I ever meet him.” I told her.
“You are a fool.” she said.
The transport flew in close to the rooftop just as Taisen hopped up to meet it.
“Setting the shields to admit you three. Come on, let’s get out of here.” Master Hanq said.
Taisen climbed into the ship as I helped Yael get back to her feet.
“You fought well.” Yael said to Xyla, with a small bow of her head in her former opponent’s direction.
“Not as well as you did.” Xyla replied, glancing at the transport and then at me.
Yael gave a small smile at that and let Opal help her into the transport.
“You’re a monster.” I told Xyla as I let her go. “However you think of yourself, however you justify what you do, look around and see what you really are. You’re standing in a very tidy graveyard and it’s all your fault. Whether you pushed the buttons or not, this is what you did.” I gestured to the dead city around us.
“We are all monsters to someone.” she replied, her face expressionless.
“No. That’s not an excuse.” I spit the words at her and added, “I meant what I said about your Khan. If I ever meet him, he’s going to die.”
Zyla didn’t respond to that. There wasn’t anything she could say I guess.
I jumped into the air ship as it started to lift off and watched the buildings fall away far beneath us. In a minute, I was farther away from the city than I could remember being in years.
“She’ll keep following us, but we can keep you safe.” Opal said.
“I don’t know if you can.” I told her.
“I know to watch for her now. She won’t be able to surprise us like that again.” Yael said.
“That’s not the problem.”
“She’s worried about what she’s going to become if she stops holding back.” Master Hanq said. He’d always been good at reading my expressions.
“What do you mean?” Opal asked, looking at me.
“I could feel it on the roof. The Void anima I have. It wanted to do a lot more than I let it. It wants me to be the monster I was before you knocked me out, and I don’t know if I can hold it back. With people like her, or Akell, or any of them, I don’t even know if I want to.” I admitted.
“We have a lot to talk about then.” Opal said as she put her hands on my shoulders.