The airship’s explosion didn’t knock me out. That would have been a mercy. Instead I was sent tumbling out into the open sky as pieces of the ship flew away from me in all directions. I tried to see where everyone else went but in the chaos of the ship’s destruction I couldn’t make out anything. All I could see was the field of debris that was rapidly spreading outwards.
We’d been descending when Weri destroyed the transport. Despite that, the ground looked a whole lot farther down than I’d ever seen it before. Add to that the fact that Master Hanq had been pushing the transport over its top speed so that we’d have a chance to reaching Akell before he got the Jewel and I knew I was traveling forward at a pretty terrifying velocity too.
None of that was as scary as the notion that everything that was happening was my fault though. Yeah, Weri had been the one who’d blown the transport up, but he couldn’t have done that if I hadn’t screwed up. I’d tried to use a power I didn’t understand and that had given him the link that he needed to channel his power to where we were. In trying to act like a big hero, I might have killed all of us in the process. The shock of that left me numb and unthinking for the first few seconds as I fell.
That blank panic could have been the death of me, but a cold spike of pain in my chest jolted me out of my mental daze. Guilt? Fear? Self-recrimination? Those all got shoved to the back of my mind by the undeniable fact that I was falling to my death. The sight of the ground growing ever closer made a wave of cold shoot down my arms and legs. It wasn’t a pleasant sensation but it did make it easy to focus on the present and clear my mind of the emotional baggage that was holding me back.
“I’m going to go splat really soon.” I told myself. My sense of time was out of whack. On the one hand I felt like I was falling slower than I expected and on the other the ground was approaching a lot quicker than I knew I could deal with.
I studied what was underneath me and saw there was a farmhouse, a road, a forest and a lake not too far off. From what I’d read that meant my options were to go splat and ruin someone’s home, go splat and get run over, get skewered and then go splat, or to go splat and then drown. Left to its own devices, gravity seemed inclined to splatter me over the road but I was pretty sure I could angle myself into getting skewered on a tree if I preferred.
“An anima shield?” I asked aloud, thinking that I might be able to protect myself from the trees that way.
“I’ve got no idea how strong of a shield I can generate, or if I can whip one up in the first place.” I argued. “And the odds are that, even if I can summon one, it’ll probably pop on the first branch.”
I imagined a soap bubble around me shredding on the first tree that I hit and leaving me to be tore apart by the next lower set of branches.
“That might work!” I yelled over the rushing wind as another idea occurred to me. I’d screwed up by playing around with my powers before but, falling alone in the sky, the only one I could hurt was myself, and I was as good as dead anyways.
Closing my eyes, I pulled the Void anima into my left hand again and reached for my Physical anima. I couldn’t move through my martial forms while I was falling but the practice with the invisibility spell had shown me how to shape anima as I projected it and I used that same idea to push my Physical anima out into a shield around me.
Opening my eyes I saw a glow surrounding my body and felt a spark of elation blaze up in my heart. That was dampened by how much closer the ground looked though so I closed my eyes again and continued with my idea.
I could feel the shield around me like a second skin. I gave it a little push to expand it and felt it grow larger as it drifted away from me. Then I called for another shield to surround myself with. As fast as I could I built up layer after layer of shielding.
I was on my 14th or 15th layer when I felt the first impact. I was moving much too quickly at that point to be aware of the individual shields failing. All I could perceive was an enormous roaring crash with the shattering of what seemed like millions of tree branches. I was tossed around and turned end over end but less than a second after the crashing started I was laying on the ground and I was in one only mildly damaged piece.
I barely had time to notice that I’d survived the fall when I heard another crash, this one on the other side of the lake from where I’d landed.
I tried to get up and found that the world was still spinning for me. The shields had prevent me from being skewered and had broken my fall but I’d been tossed around in all sorts of insane ways in a very short period of time and my brain was not entirely thrilled with that.
I pulled myself up against one of the nearby trees and caught my breath for a few seconds, while I considered my situation. Even as addled as I was, I could guess that if I’d managed to survive the fall then everyone else who was with me could have done the same. They were all real casters, not clueless nobodies who had to invent basic things on the fly.
My options were to try to regroup with them or to run far away. Run away shouldn’t have appealed to me, but given the trouble I’d caused them already it was actually tempting. As I sat there and thought about it though, my self-pity party started to feel a bit hollow. I’d made mistakes, but I’d done some good too. I’d bought Yael time by stopping Zyla from killing her and I’d managed to hide the ship well enough that it had taken one of the Khan’s best casters to find us. I knew I had a lot to learn, and that I was probably as dangerous to myself and them as I was to the Khan’s forces, but elation at surviving the fall helped me reclaim some of the confidence the insane day had shaken out of me.
After a few more breaths to calm my nerves and sort out my head, I got up slowly and started heading toward the crash that I’d heard. Taisen had been right, I discovered. My body did seem to be better able to repair itself than it had been. In the minute or two it took me to get out of the forest, my head cleared up and the ringing in my ears went away. By the time I got to the lake I’d moved from a walk, to a jog, to a run and was still picking up my pace.
From the size of the crash, I knew that what had come down was either a sizeable chunk of the transport ship, or one of my companions who’d been using anima to cushion their fall. I could tell roughly where the impact was from the shattered tree tops that I could see.
I’d landed near the north end of the lake, so I detoured slightly to run around it and then made my way up the steeps hills on the far side of the lakeshore. About two miles further on, I found the first signs of the crash. Whoever had landed there had picked a forest to land in like I had, but theirs was a lot sparser than mine had been. I followed the irregular line of broken trees to a small clearing. A small very rocky clearing. At its center Yael lay bent backwards over a boulder. She wasn’t moving but something else in the clearing was.
I’d seen pictures of mountain cats before, but I rarely made it outside the city and had never seen one in person. It was smaller than I’d expected. Not much bigger than I was, but the way it moved was amazing. It had been creeping up on Yael’s unconscious body when it heard my approach and had drawn itself back into a defensive posture by the time I sped into the clearing.
I skidded to a halt about halfway into the clearing and the cat looked back at me with cold, clear eyes. I was big enough to be a fellow predator, but small enough that it might have been worth fighting me for the meal. It flowed sideways, tensing and relaxing with perfect balance on each step. It was evaluating me to see what kind of a threat I was before it chose between fight or flight.
“You don’t want a piece of me today kitty.” I warned it and relaxed into a fighting stance. If it came to straight contest of speed and muscle, I would lose badly. I smiled. I had more to rely on than pure muscle power. For the first time in my life, I was facing a physically stronger foe, and I wasn’t overmatched.
Then the damn cat disappeared.
I swore, loud enough to wake the dead, but sadly not loud enough to wake Yael.
A familiar coldness spread through my chest and I knew I was in danger.
So I vanished too.
The world was cloaked in pale shadows as I pulled the Void anima over myself. I looked around hoping to catch a glimpse of an anima fire, but I couldn’t see the cat even in this state. That left me even more uncertain of what was happening. The one thing I did know was that Yael was still exposed and vulnerable, so I started making my way over to her carefully.
I was expecting a trap or an ambush so when I felt myself brush against something cold, I reacted instantly. That saved my life. Four claws that were capable of tearing through steel passed within an inch of my throat as I rolled back and away from mountain cat.
It’s attack had been a reflexive one. It hadn’t anticipated that I would move in towards it so quickly and it had struck out at me the way only an animal can. With that brief encounter though the situation had shifted and it was back into a defensive crouch.
I mirrored its actions, crouching low and preparing myself for the moment it chose to spring at me. The world around was still covered in pale shadows, but I could see the mountain cat clearly. I was puzzled by that until I felt the threads of Void anima that were connecting us. It was like we we were under the same cloak of invisibility and so could see each other clearly once again.
Master Hanq had said that early human anima users had used the movements of the animals around them to inspire the physical gestures of their anima spells. Watching the cat move and try to pull free of the connection between us, I began to wonder if they’d been more than just inspired by the animals they’d studied.
“What can you teach me?” I asked the mountain cat.
He looked back at me with narrowed eyes, his only response a slow shifting of his weight back and forth as he waited for me to move. I knew he couldn’t understand me. Not the words that I was saying at any rate, but I kept talking in the hopes that the words would influence my body language enough to communicate some of what I was trying to convey.
“This one’s not lunch for you. You need to find your food somewhere else.” I said as I stepped towards Yael.
The cat made a low growling sound as I moved. I was closing the distance to it, threatening it in a very simple way. The growling was a mixed sign. On the one hand it meant it didn’t want to fight me, since it was trying to warn me off. On the other hand it meant it was still willing to fight since it was holding its ground and not running away.
“Seriously cat. Get out of here. Or show me how you’re doing that.” I said as I circled closer to Yael while staying the same distance away from it.
The cat moved in step with me, pacing away from Yael but keeping me at the same distance. I was captivated as I saw it glide across the clearing’s floor. The wisps of Void anima around it followed its movements almost as though they were leading the way and the cat was following.
“Wow, you are just beautiful aren’t you?” I asked it. That didn’t buy me any points with the creature though. I was an interloper and I was taking a decent meal away from it.
I tried circling closer to Yael but backing off a step from the cat. It didn’t react to that, so I crouched down, folding my legs so that I was resting on the back of my heels. I saw confusion pass through its eyes and I could understand why. I was as weird and unusual to it as it was to me. Even if it had seen people before, it couldn’t have encountered one that could see it while it was cloaked in shadows.
On a lark, I held out my hand to it and started making little “come here” motions in its direction.
“Come on. There’s no need for us to fight. Come over here and I’ll show you we can be friends.” I’d wanted a kitten as a pet when I was little and some insane part of my brain was apparently still holding on to that desire.
The cat did a weird, backwards scuttling motion in response to my request and the Void anima around it swirled and swallowed it up. I could still it as a darker shadow among the pale ones that shrouded the clearing but beyond that it was hard to tell much about the creature.
Until it turned and ran away at full speed.
The little girl in me pouted in disappointment but the rest of me, the part that was still sane, was more than relieved to see the cat go. It occurred to me that it might return, but even as I dropped the Void anima off of myself, I could still feel the threads of it that had connected the two of us. I wondered if that would make it harder for the cat to sneak up on me again, but I knew better than to assume that would be the case however likely it felt.
Without the cat to distract me, Yael became my next concern.
The rock she was laying on had pieces shattered off of it which suggested that she’d had an anima shield in place when she landed. I couldn’t tell if I should move her though, or even touch her for that matter. If I knew how to use my Physical anima, I could have tried to a crude healing spell to help wake her up, but I’d learned my lesson in the transport about experimenting when it could affect someone else. With my luck I’d give her a spark of anima and she’d wake up just in time for the Void anima in me to consume all the power she had, like it had done to the soldiers.
Since I couldn’t risk that I settled for the only other thing I could think to do. I sat down beside her and started talking.
“Yael. I don’t know if you can hear me, but you need to get up. We can’t stay here. There’s creatures around here, and Akell’s still on his way to the Jewel. You’ve got to get up.” I said.
She didn’t even stir at my words, which made my stomach sink.
“Come on Yael. Our teachers need us. I don’t know what happened to them, but if we survived you know they have to be ok.”
I saw her twitch slightly at that, but she didn’t open her eyes or respond in any way.
“Listen, what you did on the roof was brave, but if you buy it here, then Xyla basically kicked your butt in the end.”
Her hands clenched at that and I heard a groan escape from his lips.
“That’s right, show that Warlord’s brat what you’ve got.” I said.
Yael drew in a deep breath and spoke without opening her eyes.
“Shut up. Stop talking.” she commanded.
“Get up then.” I said.
I watched as she pulled herself slowly off of the rock and down into a sitting position beside it.
“Anything broken or seriously injured.” I asked.
“You destroyed our ship.” she said, grinding the words out.
“Yeah. Didn’t mean too. Thought I could stop Weri.” I said.
“That was stupid. It cost us everything here. I knew we shouldn’t have brought you with us.” she said, finally opening her eyes to glare at me. I was tired of that.
“Excuse me princess. I didn’t know. I didn’t get the perfect training sessions that you did.”
“That’s why you shouldn’t be here.” Yael growled.
“Then you wouldn’t be here either.” I growled back. “Or how do you think you would have gotten away, if I didn’t cloak the transport?”
“I’m a master illusionist. It wouldn’t have been a problem if you weren’t there!” she yelled.
“Me? Why am I the problem?” I demanded. It wasn’t anything I hadn’t told myself already but I hated hearing it from her nonetheless.
“Because you’re too wild and unpredictable. You can’t control yourself. Anything I cast, you could rip to ribbons just because you don’t know any better.” Yael said.
“I’m controlling myself just fine now.” I spit out through clenched teeth. The truth hurts, enough that I was wishing the cat would come back, or that I hadn’t interrupted it’s lunch when I did.
“And how long is that going to last? How long before you screw up again, because you don’t know what you’re doing and don’t have the training that you need?” Yael asked in a low and cold voice.
“I have no idea!” I yelled at her. Fire and rage and all the self doubt that I’d swallowed made a maelstrom inside of me but it all turned inwards.
“I have no idea.” I repeated, softer, and then asked in voice barely above a whisper, “Why did you save me on the roof. Why didn’t you just let them take me.”
Yael sighed and I saw some of the tension ease out of her shoulders.
“You don’t deserve that. No one deserves what they would do to you.” she said.
We were silent for a moment before I spoke again.
“You really hate them don’t you?” I asked.
“Yes.” she said. The lack of hesitation told me that Taisen was right. It was personal for her. I’d been curious when he said it, but confronted with the reality of her pain, I found that I didn’t have any desire to pry into it.
“That makes two of us then.” I offered.
We were silent for another long moment. I could tell that Yael was focusing on the injuries she’d sustained; repairing herself as best she could.
“I get that you can’t trust me, but for now it’s just the two of us.” I said. “We don’t know where our teachers landed and we don’t know where Taisen is. All that we know is that Akell doesn’t have the Jewel yet.”
“Because we’re not dead.” Yael said.
“Yeah. The question is, do you know where he was headed?” I asked.
“Yes. We’re close to it. It’s under this mountain that we landed on.” she said.
“Can we rendezvous with the others?” I asked.
“I don’t know.” Yael said and then added, “I don’t know if they’re coming.”
“Why wouldn’t they be coming?” I asked.
“I can’t hear Master Kinsguard. She always keeps a mental link open with me, but I can’t hear anything on it.” Yael said.
“What does that mean?” I asked, fear curling around in my belly.
“That something has severed the link, or that someone is blocking it.” Yael said. “Or that she’s…”
She broke off before she could finish the sentence, but I could see the same pain and fear in her eyes that I was feeling.
I’d assumed that if Yael and I could survive the fall that the three more experienced casters could too, but we had no way of knowing that. Or of knowing what had happened to them after they landed. As far as we could tell, we could be the last two people on the planet who weren’t working for the Karr Khan.