I’d been slung from one emotional extreme to another so hard and often in the last several hours that the pleasant calm that settled over me as I ran through the forest felt more than weird. It felt alien. On the surface it seemed insane too. I was running towards an unknown number of elite soldiers, and the mystically trapped caverns beyond them, and an artifact of indeterminate, but immense, lethal power that would probably be in the hands of someone who hated me. Any one of those should have had me making tracks in the opposite direction as fast as possible. Instead my heart felt ok and my steps were light.
It might have been that I’d simply lost my mind, but I didn’t feel crazy. I felt like I was doing something. Something that I needed to do. Something that mattered.
“Head southwest for about a mile. When you see my signal cut straight north and head for the cave entrance.” Yael had said before we put our plan in motion. I don’t think either of us was happy with the plan, but Yael seemed content to play the part of ‘decoy’ to draw Zyla and her forces away from the entrance of the caves.
I’d only known Yael for a few hours but she wasn’t terribly difficult to understand in some ways. That she was willing to play ‘decoy’ told me that she thought the real fight we had to worry about was the one against Zyla. Zyla was smart and powerful and had significant resources to call upon. I couldn’t disagree with Yael that Zyla was a major threat. Where our opinions diverged was on the subject of her brother Akell. He was the one closing in on the ultra-deadly relic. If he reached it, which seemed more likely than not, we’d probably be dead before we knew it.
That might have been why Yael was focused on Zyla. She was dealing with the problem that could be dealt with. It was a lesson that Master Hanq had struggled to teach me without a lot of success.
Given the forces that Zyla was going to bring to bear on Yael though, I wasn’t all that eager to trade places with the apprentice Ruby Guardian. Instead, I played my own role in the plan and jogged onwards, shrouded in Void anima. I gone invisible In part that was so that I could stay hidden and in part so that I could view the strands of anima that made up the Aetherial web that Zyla had cast to ensnare us.
“Why can’t I just destroy the web? Could she form a link to me like Weri did on the transport?” I’d asked Yael before I left.
“No, but she would feel the loss of the strands that you consumed. The moment she felt that she’d move to capture you since you’re her primary target.” Yael had explained.
“And the spell will sense me even under a shroud of invisibility?” I’d asked.
“Maybe. As I said, she’s a talented caster. What’s worse is, you wouldn’t know she’d discovered you until you were right where she wanted you to be.”
“Are you going to be able to handle her?” I’d asked.
“Don’t worry about that. Focus on what you have to do.”
And so I ran with my part of the plan firmly in mind. Wait for Yael’s signal. Head to the cave. Stop Akell from reaching the Jewel. Simple. Also impossible, but waiting around to die was a worse flavor of impossible to have to swallow.
I’d tracked around the outskirts of the web and was almost due south of the cave when Yael’s spell went off. In the shadow misted vision that the Void anima gave me, I saw the lightly glowing strands of anima that made up Zyla’s entrapment spell suddenly flared into blinding silver luminance. One by one they flew away from me and joined into a single courscating path that lead back towards where I’d left Yael. She’d grabbed the entirety of the web and turned it into a giant arrow pointing to herself.
The silver arrow was bright enough to make me blink and look away from it after a second. If my guess was correct, Zyla had gotten a much better look at it than I had, which meant Yael had more or less jabbed the Karr Khan’s commander in the eye and yelled “come get me” at the same time. Zyla was smart, but even smart people get mad, and mad people can do all kinds of stupid things. As proof of that, since I was still more than a little mad at the Karr Khan, I switched course like we’d planned and started heading towards the most deadly place that I knew of on the planet.
I stayed cloaked in Void anima, I wasn’t entirely stupid, and managed to sprint past a pair of guards who hadn’t followed Zyla to support her in her fight with Yael. I left them behind without raising even a blink of suspicion and less than a minute later found the entrance to the cave. When I saw what waited there for me however, I wanted to turn back.
There were dead people in the cave’s mouth. Only two, but I recognized what had killed them. Their corpses were shriveled and sucked dry. Just like the soldiers that I’d killed with Void anima.
Neither Zyla nor Akell were supposed to be able to use that kind of magic, which meant the soldiers had been probably killed by one of the traps left to guard the Jewel of Endless Night. Since neither of the corpses were wearing the kind of robes that Akell had been wearing, it seemed like a good guess that they were both members of Zyla’s forces. That meant that they’d been killed after Akell had entered the caves, which in turn meant he’d bypassed the trap without deactivating it.
So I got to face a cave full of live traps, rather than disarmed ones. I paused about twenty feet away from the bodies. Fighting people was something I could do, something I’d trained for. Life devouring traps on the other hand, I had no idea how to handle.
“We made a mistake.” I told myself silently, thinking that I should have been the one to attract Zyla’s attention while Yael went for the Jewel. She had the kind of broad training in dealing with anima casting that would give her a chance here. I, on the other hand, was probably going to blunder somewhere and die horribly as a result.
The image of my body as wrinkled and dead as the two soldiers were flashed through my mind and froze me in place. Other images followed it though. The dormitory’s that were my home, covered in grey. The empty shelter I’d found. The lifeless streets I’d run down.
“So be it.” I decided. I couldn’t change those and I might not live, but there were worse things than dying. Like letting that happen to another city or another world.
As I stepped up to where the soldier lay, the trap that had killed them fired again and engulfed me.
I felt the usual chill in my chest before the danger flared and cloaked myself in Void anima even tighter to try to evade the effect. That didn’t work out so well because I was standing in the trap and there was nowhere to dodge away to.
My vision, which had been colored by the gauzy shadows of my invisibility cloak, was plunged into total darkness. What startled me more though was the tactile sensation I felt, as though someone was holding me in a tight embrace.
I tried to step forward or twist away from the force that held me but with no sense of the world around me I couldn’t tell if I was making any headway or not.
“Have you come to save me?” someone asked and I nearly jumped out of my skin.
The tactile sensation changed, slightly, and I recognized it. It felt like the link that Weri had forged when I our two Void animas had touched.
“Who are you?” I asked, unsure of who I could possibly be talking to under the circumstances. I tried to look around to see where the voice was coming from as well, though I was pretty certain it was a magical projection inside my mind rather than someone literally standing beside me and speaking.
“I have many names. I am the one who is sought. You know of me as the Ravager.” the voice said.
“The Jewel of Endless Night?” I blurted out before I could stop myself.
“That is another of my names.” the Ravager said.
“How are you talking to me? I thought you were an artifact?” I said.
“I am now. I was not always though.” the Ravager said.
“What did you used to be?”
“A mortal. Like you. All of my sisters and brothers were before we were sacrificed and reforged into soul weapons to fight the Great War.”
“Can I see what you look like?” I asked her, guessing the Ravager was a ‘she’ from the sound of her mental voice.
In response to my question, the shadows receded and I saw a large, four legged, thickly furred creature with many tails standing before me. She wasn’t as heavily muscled as the mountain cat had been but she was noticeably bigger, almost the size of a horse, with eyes that faced forwards and gleamed with awareness and intelligence.
“What did you mean ‘rescue you’?” I asked after a minute of taking her in and trying to make sense of what was going on.
“I can see in the shadow of your mind, that you do not come to my sanctum craving my power, but in that you are alone.” the Ravager said.
“That’s true, I guess. I don’t want to use you. I want to stop someone else from doing that.” I said.
“Why?” the Ravager asked.
“Why do you not crave the power I hold? Are there not those you wish to destroy?” she asked.
I thought about that.
“Right now it’s because I don’t understand it.” I said.
The Ravager cocked her head to the side in confusion at that so I continued.
“I used to want power because I hated being weak. Then I found out that I do have power, only it scares the hell out of me. Some of its good, but I’ve already done some terrible things too. If I had the kind of power that I’ve heard you possess, I don’t know what I would do with it, or what it would make me become.” I said, explaining to myself as much as I was to the Ravager.
“Why don’t you wish to find out? You have enemies, I can see that they are close.” the Ravager asked.
“I’ve already almost lost myself to the Void anima that I’ve got. If I’m going to turn into a total monster, I want to at least sacrifice myself for something that’s worth it.” I said.
“And what would be worth it?” the Ravager asked. She was staring at me with so much intensity that her eyes were starting to blaze with a dark inner light.
“Preventing another world from dying.” I said, holding my voice in a monotone. I couldn’t grieve for my home yet, there was still too much to do.
“So you would slay one world to save another?” the Ravager asked, beginning to stalk around me.
“That would still mean that a world had died wouldn’t it?” I asked as she paced behind me.
“Yes it would.” she agreed.
“What about you?” I asked, looking ahead and listening to her soft footfalls.
“I have slain worlds for many reasons, at the command of many masters.” she said.
“And on your own? What would you kill a world for?” I asked. It was a surreal thing to be talking about but I felt like that was the question she’d been waiting for me to ask. Maybe even waiting for anyone to ask, ever.
“I am tool, a reforged soul, meant only for destruction.” she said, but I heard a catch in her voice.
“But you were a mortal once. And you can talk, and think still right?” I asked.
“Yes.” she agreed. She stopped pacing around me, so I turned to face her again.
“Then you’re still a person aren’t you? Even if you’re bound by compulsions and don’t have a body like you used to, there’s still a part of you that’s who you’ve always been.” I said.
“I…” she began and faltered.
“You.” I agreed and then asked, “What would you slay a world for?”
She looked away from me and there was a long moment of silence that followed. When she looked back the glow in her eyes had changed to a warm, sunlight shade.
“I have seen too many worlds perish. I have heard the cries for mercy as they fell and tasted the rivers of blood that flowed in the wake of their destruction. There is nothing for which I would slay another world.” she said.
I walked up to her and put a hand on her bowed head.
“Then no one should ever ask you to.”