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.