The first thing I saw when I managed to force my eyes open was Yael lying face down and unmoving on a low table in front of me. I didn’t recognize her at first, but even so I knew it was a bad sign. So was the fact that I was shackled to the wall and unable to move.
I searched my memories, feeling weak and disoriented in a way that only being pummelled into unconscious can provide. I laughed a bitter chuckle at myself as I did. It didn’t say great things about my decision making capabilities that being beaten senseless was a familiar experience for me.
My brain was running like sludge, but I was able to piece together bits and pieces of memory from it anyways. I’d run to confront Akell and stop him getting his hands on the Ravager. I’d failed at that and he’d captured me. I’d been afraid he would use the Ravager to kill the rest of the people on my world, but he had other plans it looked like. Specifically, he was angling to kill his “father” the Karr Khan.
I remembered laughing at that – in my defense it was kind of a funny concept – and he’d reacted with unbridled rage. Based on the lack of memory of what happened next, I guessed that his attack must have been too fast for me to notice and too powerful for me to do more than survive.
Looking around it was hard to say where he’d taken me. The room I was tied up in was covered in sigils, so it wasn’t a random place that he’d tossed me. There was a background tone that faded into and out of my hearing that was familiar too. It sounded like an engine working but not a kind that I’d heard in a long time.
Then there was the issue of Yael. The last I’d seen her, she was taunting Zyla and an army of elite soldiers to come fight with her. She’d bought me the chance to stop Akell, and it looked like that had cost her severely.
I knew that we were both prisoners of the Karr Khan’s forces. Akell had cackled his plan to use me to lure the Karr Khan into striking range and with the kind of power he was slinging around I couldn’t see how he’d have a problem with that. The only question I had on that topic was what had changed his mind so suddenly?
It could have been natural I supposed. As a “Third Circle Scion” he’d probably lived his whole life as “less than second best”. With as much power as he’d stolen from the dead of the shelters, added onto the power the Ravager gave him, I could see why he’d want to take a shot at claiming the top spot.
The funny thing was, if I wasn’t nearly certain that he’d kill me too, I’d have been all for him taking out the Karr Khan.
The more I thought about Akell’s behavior though, the more I had to wonder if outside forces were at work. I knew Opal had mucked around in his mind, but she had left him sane. The walking pool of madness that was claiming to be Akell reminded me of something else. I thought back to the experience I’d had with the ghosts of the murdered dead. I’d almost gone nuts too, and those ghosts hadn’t had a reason to be angry at me specifically. If Akell had tapped multiple shelters and absorbed all of that hate and pain and fear, I could easily imagine that the will that was driving him wasn’t entirely his own anymore.
That didn’t change the fact that he was carrying one of the most powerful weapons I’d ever heard of though.
I didn’t know what to make of her. She’d been the one to let him see through my invisibility. Her powers were his to command, and she was definitely supporting him. I hadn’t been able to defend myself because of the overwhelming force she allowed him to bring to bear. Maybe. I couldn’t be sure of how anything worked between those two, or even if the force that I’d felt Akell unleash had been nothing more than the anima stolen from the dead.
What I did know, was that she’d reached out to me. Even when she knew I wasn’t going to get to her in time. She’d still tried to talk to me. It was stupid, but part of me was looking at her like the Ravager was one of my younger “classmates” at the orphanage. She was millenia old, at least, she could kill entire planets and she couldn’t be destroyed but it still felt like she was small and helpless too. I hated that. Hated the thought of helpless people getting picked on.
I thought of Badz and his crew. I’d nearly caved Badz’s head in with a plank of wood for trying to life drain Laz, one of the boys from the orphanage. Had the damage I’d done to him and his goon friends slowed them down enough that they got caught by one of the bombs? Part of me hoped so, but another part was angry at the thought.
Badz and his goons were scum, but that didn’t mean that it was ok for someone like Akell or the Karr Khan to kill them and steal all of their magic. In their own way they were helpless too, at least in the face of what the Karr Khan had done to the city.
That train of thought brought me around to my own situation. I’d fought and I’d lost. It wasn’t my fault. There was no way, even if I’d been a lot more familiar with using anima, that I could have taken on Akell and won. He had too big of a headstart and too much power at his disposal by the time I reached him. The only reason I even found him in fact was that he’d waited for me to catch up. I couldn’t be blamed for losing to him, but that didn’t change the fact that I had.
“If you’re still alive, keep swinging. It’s as simple as that.” Master Hanq had told me early on when I’d asked for ‘the secret move that would let me win any fight’. It had sounded like terrible advice at the time, and it was, but there was a grain of truth to it.
The thing about grains of truth though, is that they’re easy to overlook when you’re beaten and shackled to a wall. I was tired, and I hurt everywhere. I’d lost so much I couldn’t even tally it all up. Even the things I’d gained had come with terrifying conditions and price tags on them. I felt like I was ready to give up. I just needed someone to surrender to.
As if on queue, the door to the small cell slid open with a soft whoosh and Zyla stepped into the room. I sagged in defeat. I wanted somebody to surrender to, just not her.
“You are awake. Good. I have to prepare you.” Zyla said. Her movements were stiff and short which told me Yael had given her one hell of a beating. Her words were just as stiff and short too though and I wasn’t sure what to attribute that to.
“Prepare me for what?” I asked.
“You are going to meet with the Khan and be inducted into our ranks.” Zyla said.
“Why?” I asked.
“Because it is the Karr Khan’s desire.” she said without looking at me. She’d entered the room carrying towels and a robe. From a sealed compartment in the wall, she produced a basin and a jug of water.
I considered telling her what Akell was going to do when he met the Karr Khan but decided against it. The two of them killing each other suited me fine, and Zyla wouldn’t have believed me if I told her anyways.
“What’s going to happen to Yael?” I asked instead, looking over at the motionless girl.
“The Guardian will be converted.” Zyla said with a catch in her voice on the last word.
“What do you mean ‘converted’?” I asked.
“It is a process inflicted on the Khan’s strongest enemies.” Zyla said. She didn’t seem happy with the notion which told me it had to be truly horrible.
“What are you going to do to her?” I demanded.
“My part is done. My duty only relates to you now.” Zyla said, dodging the question.
“What did you do to her, you monster?”
“I have done nothing to her. We fought and she was on the edge of victory when my brother appeared. He called for a cessation of our battle and then struck her down when she stepped away from me.” Zyla said. There was anger in her voice but it wasn’t directed at me.
“So you captured us both then. What is this ‘conversion’ thing. What is going to happen to her?”
“She will become a Devouring Shadow.” Zyla said.
“And what the hell is a Devouring Shadow?” I asked.
“It is a being of almost pure Void anima. When our elite forces need backup and we do not wish to risk a Scion, we will unleash a Devouring Shadow to destroy those who stand before us. The touch of Devouring Shadow consumes all of the anima from a person’s body, even the fundamental anima that allows them to live. There are very few defenses against them.” Zyla explained.
“When are they going to do this to her?” I asked, renewed anger running through me.
“It has already begun.” Zyla said.
“What!” I shouted. “How?”
“She has been branded with the Khan’s sigil. The seed of darkness will grow through her mind and her body. As it consumes her anima it will become stronger and stronger. The longer she can resist, the mightier our servant will be once it finishes devouring her.” Zyla said.
She wet one of the towels and placed it beside the basin. She then walked over to me and reached for one of my arms. I thrashed and kicked in the shackles but they held me tight against the wall. I screamed in rage, but that didn’t help either. A moment later my hand came free from the shackles though. Then my other did.
Zyla had released me.
She bent down to undo the shackles on me legs and I smashed her on the sides of the head with my palms. It was both foolish and stupid. Foolish because I should have known that she wouldn’t have released me if I posed a threat to her and stupid because, even if I could have hurt her, I would have been better off waiting until my legs were free.
Zyla showed no pain from the blows to her head, but she did look up at me silently.
“Fighting won’t do you any good. Not in here.” she said.
I saw the sigils on the walls sparkling with brief flashes of light as I moved. I tried to feel for my Physical anima and, as I expected, I couldn’t reach it at all.
“The cell suppresses your anima, but not mine. You can’t hurt me here. Not even with your Void anima.” Zyla confirmed for me.
I stewed on that in a silent rage. Zyla waited a moment and then freed my legs too.
“What are you going to do to me?” I finally asked.
“I am to have you cleaned and dressed for your meeting with the Khan. I have put out what supplies we have for that as well as the robe you are to wear.” she said. “I will leave and give you a few minutes to clean yourself and get dressed.”
She turned to leave but I stopped her.
“Wait. You were supposed to clean me yourself weren’t you?” I asked.
“That is the standard practice for prisoners.” she confirmed.
“Then why are you leaving?”
“Do you wish me to stay?” she asked.
“No, but I don’t understand.” I said, feeling perplexed.
“That’s true. You don’t.” she agreed and left, closing the door behind her.
I looked at the water and the robe and turned away from them to kneel down beside Yael. My whole body ached from the beating I’d taken and then hanging in the shackles but Yael looked a lot worse off. Deep purple, black and green bruises covered her face and neck. On her arms I saw thin cuts in the skin that looked like she was cracking apart like an eggshell.
I touched her arm to turn her over and saw the first movement from her since I woke up. It wasn’t a pleasant sight though. Even my gentle touch sent a shiver of pain down her.
A sickening weight landed in my stomach as I figured out why Zyla had left me free in the cell alone. It wasn’t my dignity she was concerned with. It was Yael’s.
She was giving me the chance to kill the apprentice Guardian before the shadows devoured Yael and turned her into a monster.