Chapter Eighteen: The Reckoning
Content warnings for this chapter:
Combat and fear of death; protagonists having to kill someone in self-defense, with physical details of the death.
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The Blood God’s Portal nestled my body like a hand in a glove.
Only now, I realized that all of the other four portals had been trying to squeeze my soul through shapes where it didn’t fit. But this one was made for me. My blood pumped warmly through my veins. I floated, submerged in a sea of gentle pressure, cradling me and feeding me with strength. I breathed in through every pore of my skin, absorbing its energy. My heart, still stained with worries and pain, began to fill with warm, relaxed, irrepressible power. Once my heart was full, the power overflowed into my chest. Once my chest was full, it overflowed into my limbs. Slowly, it expanded into every fingertip. My hands were ready to reach out and grip the handholds of the universe. My toes were ready to launch me into a springing leap that would carry me across the soaring sky. It flowed into my neck and shoulders, pushing aside the old tension and leaving my muscles with perfect strength and control. It flowed into my jaw, my tongue, my lips. From head to toe, every part of me was strong, relaxed, eager, powerful.
And then, when I was completely filled, when my body had received every swallow of fuel it could take, the way folded open. I saw the world laid out before me, clear and beautiful. The rest of the Blood God’s power pulsed at my back, endless, encouraging, ready to lift me up no matter how many times I fell.
Effortlessly, I stepped into the world.
It was the city from my dreams, the city of steel and stone, with a blazing sun that pulsed like a heart. I basked in the warm sunlight, turning my chest to face the power of the wind, my eyes drinking up the vivid colors. The city’s banners of red and gold and black, the sky a midnight blue despite the light, the sun a blazing orange like sunset and midday rolled into one. I raised my arms and unleashed a flare of soulfire around me, just because I could. At last, at last, this was a world I could feel my heart in.
And then she was there as well.
Her feet thumped onto the ground only meters in front of me. Concentrating, she drank a potion, and I felt the shield shimmer into existence around her – the same shield she’d used in the fourth layer. I laughed easily. “Relax, I’m not going to attack you. I know what we’re doing.”
“Tell me what we’re doing.”
She was focused on the plan, and her focus on the plan was beautiful. I smiled as the words rolled off my tongue. “First we’re going to kick Justicar’s ass, and then you’re going to drink the unravelling potion. I survive. You survive. The Blood God rejuvenates. The Waiting God doesn’t. It’s a perfect ending.”
“Good enough.” Her eyes drilled past me, looking into the future. “This is it,” she said grimly. “Justicar will be here soon.”
“Already?” I said. But I wasn’t really surprised. This was my world, the Blood God’s world. There was no reason to wait around. It was time to get things over with. “Let’s go, then!”
“Go? Go where?”
I raised my arm towards the sun, where it hung over a distant part of the city. “Towards the heart of the Blood God’s power.”
Yali set her feet against the flagstones, solemnly facing towards the sun. She stared along the long uphill road, past the enormous arches and jagged towers, to the tiny, distant black dot that was the highest point of the city, standing high astride the skyline like a crown of steel. Perched directly beneath the sun, the crown was joined to the sky by a pillar of brilliant light.
“That is also the location of the final portal,” said Yali. “I understand.”
My muscles warmed from our steady walking. We flowed up the street, like two drops of blood flowing up a vein, returning to the heart. We passed shattered towers still reaching towards the sky, twisted monuments of blackened steel, sculptures like raised fists towering high above. The sheer scale of everything was enormous. Even where one of the great stone fingers had broken from a sculpture and fallen to the ground, it was still taller than we were.
And all throughout the city, densely braided cables of steel snaked about, some as narrow as a finger, some thicker than I was tall. Some half buried in the ground, some crawling up the buildings like vines. An endless network tying the city together, they nestled the buildings and spires, as if they had all grown together as a single being.
“These are like the muscles of the city!” I said. I punched one of them affectionately, and it rippled along its length in response. The city was alive and ready for us.
“I feel like we’re so small,” said Yali.
“I don’t!” I said cheerfully. “We’re the equals of this world! See those towers? They’re so huge! But we have, like, the pride of humanity inside us! We could punch them down if we wanted! Or build our own! Every human is equal in value to the entire world!”
“That, that, that sounded awesome, but I’m not sure if it makes sense?”
I laughed. “Check this out!” I knelt down, pressing my hands to the flagstones beneath us. An enormous hand of stone emerged from the ground under us, its palm lifting us up. It bore us upwards and upwards, past shattered windows and smokestacks, past the tallest spires of ancient temples, until we finally rose above the skyline and saw the entire city laid out before us. The city seemed to stretch on into infinity in every direction, a forest of silent silhouettes against the dusky sky, with the sun as a fire on the horizon above them.
I watched Yali looking out over the city, taking it all in. Her eyes were slightly widened, her head pulled slightly back. Coming from Yali, that meant she was totally blown away.
“And if you think that’s awesome,” I continued, “then just wait ’til you see what you already have, right here.” I pressed my hand over her heart.
She answered by clasping her own hands over my hand on her chest. Then she smiled wistfully. “I love how sincere you are. I will try to, to, to remember this moment, for sometime in the future when I can appreciate it properly.”
I felt the impulse to complain, but a heavier feeling laid over it. “I… understand,” I said, the weight of truth weighing down my voice. “Your heart… isn’t ready to accept this.”
“It will be! Once I take the time to, to deal with things. Once I, I…”
“It just, isn’t something I can think about right now. Not until the situation with the gods is resolved.”
“Right. Then let’s get it resolved.”
I swept a hand across the skyline. From where we stood, a golden pathway rolled out. From the countless little pathways of the city, the muscles rose up, moving firmly into position to carry it, a spiderweb of cables holding it up as it snaked between the rooftops. My pathway gleamed invitingly, a direct route to our destination. I took Yali’s hand and started out along its length.
“Can you make a train, too?” said Yali distractedly.
I laughed. “I could make a train. We could ride as far as the moon and back. But we’ll never get closer to the heart unless we move there with our own bodies.”
Yali smiled wistfully again. “I’m not sure I like this Blood God of yours,” she said.
Yali paused as we walked along the golden road.
“Justicar’s getting close,” she said. “I’m going to drink my potions now.”
Yali drank five potions, one after another. The power of sorcery sizzled around her. I could feel the shield she’d used in the previous layer. I could feel an aura of strength and speed, and some other things I couldn’t recognize. Looking at her with my eyes, I half expected her to look incredibly badass, but she actually looked softer and wiser instead.
Then she spun and looked me in the eye. “When Justicar gets here, she does something that interferes with my Seeing. It’s like a white light that I can’t see past. That’s not a good sign. But still, remember the plan. If Justicar is willing to talk, stay back and let me do the talking. No matter what she says, just stay calm, keep your hands open, and don’t do anything to provoke her. And if she attacks us, kill her.”
“I can do that.” I whipped out a Blood Blade, its whole length bright red and blazing with soulfire. I whirled and slashed it through the air, cutting imaginary enemies into dozens of pieces. In the next instant, I let the blade melt back into my body. I opened my hands and let a warm sense of peace flow through me.
Yali squinted. “That was very fast, how you switched back and forth. I could almost have missed it.”
I smiled confidently. She just didn’t understand. “I didn’t switch anything. My heart goes out to everyone who has blood. My fury strikes at anyone who would tear us down. I am one being.”
“Uh… Okay then.”
We waited together, in an eerie silence, between the rooftops of the many towers. I summoned my soulfire, keeping it at a steady burn over my entire body. Yali concentrated hard, staring into the distance, her face stark in the bright sunlight and sharp shadows.
Here, so close to the end, I let my eyes linger on the curve of her cheek, the subtle tension around her lips that was the only sign she gave of her stress, the tiny motions of her eyes as she scanned the future for danger.
Time passed. My heart beat heavily. This was it.
Yali broke the silence, speaking urgently. “It’s coming. It’s coming. The bright light –”
“What should I d–”
“GET DOWN!!” she screamed.
I dove forwards. Everything exploded behind me, with a roar like an avalanche, crashing steel tearing through the fabric of the universe. The pulse of power surged past me, blanking out my mind like a gust of wind blowing out a candle. Before I could understand what was happening, I was falling, falling, barely conscious, between rows of darkened windows, everything rushing past me, the air and the dust and the slanted towers rushing past me. In another heartbeat, my body crashed down among the wreckage, dangling like a ragdoll over a broken beam. I flopped and landed on my back. I couldn’t get up. My left arm and left leg wouldn’t answer me. They lay limp at my side.
I had been maimed before I was even close enough to see my enemy’s face.
Traces of white smoke blew across the blackened sky. A long gouge had been torn through the city, buildings sliced open as if they had been hit by a sword the size of a skyscraper. Was this Justicar’s attack? It was incredible. Even as I lay stunned, the fragments of my golden bridge kept crashing down around me. Falling among them, a blobby shape –
“Yali –” I gasped.
Yali dropped gently to the ground, landing on her feet. She took a single glance down at where I lay. Her power glowed around her, even stronger than the aura of the potions. I could practically see the Watchful Eye staring from behind her eyes, examining every atom of my existence.
“Heal yourself quickly,” she said. “I’ll hold her off.”
Then she turned and faced towards the distant light.
Her words lit my fire again. I wasn’t helpless this time. I could heal myself and fight, for her, for me, for our blood. Gathering myself, I pushed my strength into my dead arm and leg. I imagined the warmth of my blood flowing into them, waking them up and making them whole again. The first moment my warmth touched them, the thing that awoke inside them was terrible pain. The mass of pain burned at me, threatening to blind me and break my will. But the blood flowing inside me was stronger. I held the pain close to me, wrapping it in a warm embrace and holding it firmly away from anything it would harm. No pain could ever overcome the Blood God’s heart.
As I worked to heal my body, shapes moved in the city above me. From the distance, a spark of light leapt from building to building, fast approaching us. Everywhere she landed, the crumbling edges of walls burned away, leaving crisp flat brickwork and beams of bare steel. So this was Justicar’s soul unleashed, raw and absolute. All at once, I felt a pang of regret. All five of us could do amazing things. If only we had never been set against each other…
With a last leap, the streak of light landed in the street before us, her steel boots scraping on the paving stones.
Yali stood in her way.
If it wasn’t so obvious who our attacker was, I would barely have recognized her. A gleaming helmet fully concealed her face. Every surface of her armor blazed with light, burning at my eyes, burning at my very soul. Her sword, already drawn, pointed towards us with utmost poise. With every tiny movement of the blade, I could feel it scraping on the walls of the world.
An iron-hard voice reverberated from inside the helm. “Farseer. You have a choice to make. My quarrel is not with you. You may stand aside, and the Stern will show you mercy. Or you may throw your lot in with Blood, and face the consequences.”
Yali did not raise her voice. She answered with utter calm, as solemn as a priest leading the burial rite. “No, Justicar. You have a choice to make. You believe that the Blood Child is your enemy, but you have been manipulated and deceived. You still have a chance to step back from the terrible mistake you are making, and learn the truth.”
“You have made your choice,” came the helm’s grim reply.
Justicar struck out towards Yali like lightning. But somehow, her sword didn’t go in the right direction. Yali had already sidestepped the blow. In the next instant, Justicar recovered and took another swing. But no matter how many times the sword slashed and stabbed, it didn’t come close to Yali’s body. Yali kept calmly stepping out of the way, using small, simple movements to avoid every attack. It made Justicar look clumsy and awkward. All at once, I realized what was going on. Yali was using her powers to see exactly where Justicar was going to strike next.
But this was no time for me to lose myself in the spectacle. Yali was creating a delay for me, and she trusted me to make it count. I focused on my arm and leg, forcing more and more energy into them. But it was like a bottomless well. My flesh was still there, but the soul was damaged so badly it was like trying to build a new arm and leg from nothing.
While I worked, I kept half an eye on the battle in the street. Yali and Justicar were at a standstill. As much as the sword darted and flashed, it had no chance of escaping Yali’s awareness. But equally, Justicar continued with a disciplined series of strikes, showing no sign of tiring or slowing down. The deadly dance was mesmerizing. My eyes almost got lost in the movement. But one thing was changing. Every few seconds, the dance slid half a step closer to me. I could see Yali maneuvering to slow down Justicar’s advance, but there was only so much she could do. Justicar could not be stopped from advancing towards me.
But then, Yali struck.
As Justicar took a swing, Yali surged forward, going right past the sword and slamming into Justicar’s chest. In the split second it took Justicar to steady herself, Yali grabbed onto her sword arm and heaved, sending her stumbling. With a disciplined motion, Justicar spun around, landing solidly on her feet and facing Yali again. But there was one difference.
Yali was now holding the sword.
Yali held the sword calmly at her side, leaning on the hilt and pressing the razor-sharp point into a stone brick. She gave Justicar a moment to register what had happened. Then she spoke. “I will give you one more chance to hear what I have to say,” she said.
“Speak quickly,” said Justicar tightly. Her gauntlets glowed, lines of light stabbing into the air, ready to unleash some new attack at a moment’s notice.
“We have all been deceived,” said Yali gravely. “My god, the Waiting God, has become corrupted. It is trying to turn us against each other, to make you strike down the Blood Child for its own secret purposes. But today, true justice is on the side of Blood. Every wrong the Blood God has done, has only been to defend itself from the Waiting God’s violations. If you wish to see justice done, I ask that you cease your attack.”
“You speak of justice. But I know the Stern God’s will.”
“Did the Stern God ask for you to kill the Blood Child by name? Or did it ask for you to protect us all from the killings in this age-old conflict? Even when you serve the Stern, you must use your own judgment to determine what is just.”
Justicar frowned. I could still see her hands crackling with power. She was listening, for the moment, but Yali’s words were only a thin line to keep her hypnotized. I could feel her desire to bring this to an end. At any moment, she could decide to start her attack again and make everything simpler. A thrill of terror passed through me, making me hurry to fix my arm and leg. I didn’t have time to figure out how to heal them properly. I might need to be able to fight at any instant.
If it was just as hard as making new limbs from scratch… I would make new limbs from scratch.
With my good hand, I tore into my dead leg, opening a deep gash that let my blood flow freely into the air. Where it flowed, I shaped it into a mass of living muscle, liquid strength of gleaming red. It slowly expanded into place, a second leg wrapped around my leg, merging into my body, a vessel of my raw will to do what my flesh could not.
Justicar answered Yali again. “You wish to make me doubt. You would have me believe that the Waiting God is a liar. But is it not equally likely – no, more likely – that the liar is yourself? You are the Farseer. You can see what I will say, and you can select whichever lie you see me find plausible. My human judgment is flawed and easily manipulable. I cannot afford to trust one such as you.”
“Can you afford to ignore me? Would the Stern God have you strike us both dead when you have not yet determined the truth?”
“The Stern God’s will is clear enough for this!” said Justicar angrily. “You cannot create doubts that will turn me away from what I must do! I was a fool to listen to you!” She swept her right arm out into the air. “Stern God, I offer up this sacrifice –”
Yali’s body slammed into Justicar, knocking her off her feet. “Now is no time to make sacrifices you will regret!”
“What I will regret is standing idly by while the Blood God is allowed to rejuvenate!”
Justicar struggled to regain her footing. Yali slammed her again, knocking her down into a pile of rubble. “What you will regret,” said Yali imperiously, “is trying to kill Rinn Akatura while I am here to stop you.”
“Her existence comes at the cost of human lives! I will not allow them to die while I can still do something to save them!”
“You cannot. You are wrong twice over. Even if Rinn was what you think, you still have no hope of ending her life. The power of three Ravellers stands against you. If you continue your attack, you will die and accomplish nothing.”
“You ask me to abandon the Stern God’s will!”
“Is it the Stern God’s will for you to throw your life away for nothing?”
“It is the Stern God’s will that even if all seems hopeless, we still fight for what is right!”
“And yet the Stern God also asks that we yield when we must yield, even if it costs our pride.”
“You dare quote the Stern God’s prayer to me?! Now is no time for me to yield! Human lives hang in the balance. You would have me believe I cannot save any of them, but I cannot accept –”
I could feel Yali tense up, steeling herself for Justicar’s next move. She knew that her words had little chance to hold Justicar back. But still she spoke. “Did I say you cannot save anyone? There is one human life that does hang in the balance as you make your decisions. One human life you can still save.”
“The Blood Child? Surely you don’t imagine –”
“Not the Blood Child. Havi Hasayet.”
It was like time froze. The words – Justicar’s human name – hung perilously in the air. No, I screamed inwardly. I could practically see how Justicar was going to react, for a terrible moment before it happened. No, Yali! Use any other way to convince her, but not that! What Yali had said was so logical, so right, even the Stern God should have admitted it. No matter what else happened, at least Havi, the Justicar, would not have to die.
But I knew Havi’s heart. Every time she had been in pain, when she could not bear to live with herself, she had reached out for the Stern, to erase her selfish feelings and replace them with the Stern God’s will. Maybe in another world, the Blood Temple could have been there to show her a different way, but what had been done could not be undone. And as she became the Justicar, every time the Stern God had asked her to erase herself, she had said yes. But now, when even the Stern God would tell her she mattered, it was the one thing she could not accept. She had become one with the living god, just as I had. She had felt the raw conviction of being a vessel for the Stern God’s perfect will. And now she could never willingly go back to her life as a human being, a creature that could suffer and be pitied. And so this final decision, the decision that would end Justicar’s life, was not made by the Stern God overruling her human will, but by the fragments of human will that still remained, still clinging to the lie that the Stern God held every answer.
Justicar leapt to her feet, springing away from Yali. From where she stood, another pulse of power rolled outwards in all directions. It thundered through my head, forcing me to hold on tight to my consciousness. Yali tried to rush Justicar again, but even as she pushed against the air, she was held back, as if a great wind was blowing from Justicar’s body. Justicar stood alone atop the heap of rubble. She was a gleaming suit of armor that drove everything away from herself.
In this moment, she raised her right arm towards the sky.
“Stern God, I offer up this sacrifice, that you may grant me the power to see your will be done!”
A thousand lances of light struck from the heavens, piercing through the arm Justicar had offered. A scream echoed from inside her helmet, tight and strained, the scream of someone doing everything she can to hold back the pain. As I watched, the arm cracked and melted away. In its place, only the light remained, a new arm of raw power.
Justicar did not pause to flex her new arm before she struck. She was instantly in motion, moving impossibly fast. All my instincts screamed out for danger. The arm was so bright it felt more real than the world around us. It was a violation, and act of contempt for the Blood God’s reality. Instinctively, I knew that this was a terrible power, something that could threaten even Yali. I had to move, I had to be ready to protect her. I heaved myself over and tried to push myself up to my feet. I balanced unsteadily on my good leg, then set down the foot of my other leg, the one I had reinforced with blood. It was weak at first, but I tightened the blood into place, fueling its power with my soulfire until it was strong, a powerful limb ready to use its full strength to fight for my love.
I looked up. The scene in front of me was a chaos of magic and light. Instant after instant, the arm of light shot out towards Yali, but collided with the invisible barrier around her, the barrier that would set the world itself against all attacks. With every blow, the hand ground into the barrier, making the air flicker and flash. The ground shook from the force. Bricks crumbled from nearby towers. I saw Yali’s defenses crack and reform, struggling to retain their strength. For an instant, I saw Yali’s face twisted into a mask of fear and rage. And then it was gone and she was calm again, steadily resisting Justicar’s blows. But then I saw it again, just a flicker, not like a regular change of emotion, but like…
It was an illusion. All of her calm… It was a potion. A piece of Alchemist’s caring, the heartfelt work they did to keep us all going, had been helping Yali put on this face that could stand against even Justicar. But now it was cracking, and Yali’s true face was exposed. She no longer seemed invincible. She was losing. Yali, my second heart, was being torn to pieces. Despite everything she had done, she had no chance against the raw force standing against her.
Not without me.
It was time. I stood, powerful and ready, gathering my soulfire around me. This time, I had the strength to fight. I was no longer helpless. My anger had turned my helplessness into strength.
I plunged my one good hand into my heart. I drew forth a blade, the ultimate Blood Blade, a brilliant red wreathed in soulfire, glistening and dripping from its edge like an eye already weeping for my enemies’ ripped-away lives.
“Justicar!!” I screamed.
Bracing my leg of blood against the ground, I sprang towards her. My body sailed through the air, a superhuman leap, my blade surging forwards in a deadly line, spraying droplets of blood on the hungry rubble. I saw Justicar turn towards me, raising her arm to defend herself. I saw Yali throw a potion, the bottle cracking on Justicar’s helmet and distracting her for the crucial moment. I saw Justicar grow larger and larger in my vision as I flew towards her. And then we collided.
My blade, already infused with soulfire, burned through Justicar’s armor like it was paper. With a final thud, it buried itself deep in her heart.
For a moment, everything was quiet. Justicar’s blood flowed, drenching my hand at her chest, mingling with my own.
Then the air flashed and glowed. A choking sound came from inside Justicar’s armor. She lurched, trying to stay on her feet, as more lances of light pierced through her body. I heard Yali yell something, but I couldn’t hear it. The Stern God’s power was surging too loudly around me.
Justicar’s body jerked upright, as if propped up by steel bars. More bars of light smashed through the air, snapping into a vast web, locking me in one place.
“THIS – IS – NOTHING!!” Justicar’s voice thundered in my ears.
I was frozen in place. I couldn’t even move my hand to pull my blade out of her heart. “How?!” I gasped.
Justicar’s voice sounded from all around me. “Did I not tell you? Even if you tear out my heart, the will of the Stern God will always carry me forward!”
Slowly, balefully, Justicar’s arm of light reached across the gap between us. The hand landed heavily on my shoulder, my one good shoulder, the one holding the blade that was in her heart. As the fingers of light curled around my shoulder, I unleashed my rage against them, summoning a wave of soulfire, making them boil and blister. But they held firm. And then they closed, crushing my bones to powder.
Terror pounded through me. I had no arms left to fight with. Desperate for any way to fight, I summoned one last mass of blades, bloody spikes jutting from my arms, my legs, my forehead, every part of the surface of my body, stabbing through the air towards the unbearable pillar of light that was my enemy.
She jerked away, just out of reach.
I strained and strained, but my spikes couldn’t reach her. I felt like I was choking with terror. I was going to be drained again, just as I had been at the end of our last encounter. I was going to die here. She was going to stand just out of reach, crushing me with her power until my soul was nothing more than dust on the wind. I raged against it, struggling against the web, pouring everything I had into my soulfire, my blades. But it wasn’t enough. Even with her own life bleeding out of her, even as her power was strained to the breaking point, it wasn’t enough.
Then Yali’s face loomed up behind Justicar’s shoulder.
With brutal practicality, Yali seized Justicar’s head and shoved it forwards onto my blades.
As the seconds passed, Justicar’s power cracked and dimmed, until its last light flashed once and then went dark forever.
Our bodies were locked together, linked by the dozen spikes jutting from my forehead into Justicar’s. For a long moment, we hung in a delicate balance on the three human feet we had between us. But then, we began to topple. Our bodies fell together, crashing among the wreckage. Justicar’s stiff body landed on top of mine, crushing the breath out of me.
A long moment passed. Justicar was motionless. It was over.
I relaxed into the pain. My spikes melted away into blood, and my new leg melted along with it. Above me, Justicar’s armor splintered into dust and vanished. Her human body slumped down onto mine. With the armor gone, she was thin and bony, lying limp and rigid like an old rubber band that had been stretched one too many times. Just inches away from my face, her head hung slack from her neck, her empty eyes staring past me into nothingness. After all this, in the end, she was so human. So tragically human.
And then Yali was there. Her hands heaved Justicar off of me, letting the sun’s warming light fall on my head and chest. I couldn’t move my arms to lift myself, but I bent my neck towards her, closing my eyes happily. Yali was here. Everything was going to be okay.
She knelt beside me. I felt her place one arm behind my back and lift me up into a sitting position, pulling me close to her. “Drink,” she said softly, lifting a potion up to my face.
Deception!! cried out a tiny part of me. Was she trying to feed me the unravelling potion?! But that was impossible. If it was the unravelling potion, I would be able to feel its energy, that blinding haze of force that threatened to tear the universe apart. But this potion felt warm and wholesome. It smelled of sweetness and comfort, promising to waft my pain away and carry me home. How could I think this was deception? This was Yali. She was strength. She was safety. She was love.
I raised my neck – the only part of me that I could still move – and let her press the potion to my lips. Its sweetness flooded into my mouth. Its warmth expanded in my chest. One by one, its touch passed over each of the pains that were tearing apart my body, and wiped them gently away. And finally, it reached my head, and all of my scrambling thoughts began to fade, leaving me to drift away to a soft and comfortable darkness.