7:12 PM, MONDAY, JUNE 7, IMPERIAL PALACE, SEAT OF NEO TOKYO SENATE, AND CONJUNCTION HALL, NEO TOKYO, JAPAN
Lethya stood at the top of the Imperial Palace, wind whistling around her. This wasn’t the roof of one of the wings, or the lower observation deck: this was the very top. On either side stood a statue; on her right was a man, on her left a woman, who were holding hands, their free arms stretched out. Four iron rings were kept in constant motion by very old, very powerful psymantic spells, and every so often one would cross in front of her with a metallic, ringing groan. To get any higher, she’d have to stand on one of the statues, but this was quite enough height for her. Abhaya sat at her feet, watching her curiously. Maia, the Emperor, Lisaoli, Solerad, Whyiran, and Master Hokusai were flanking her, waiting for her first move.
From here, she could see all the damage she’d done to the city with agonizing ease, but she was going to fix some of that, at least. They’d already moved everyone out of there, and the buildings stood silent, broken.
Lethya took a deep breath. There was no spell she knew for rebuilding a city, but it couldn’t be that complex. Her power alone wouldn’t cut it, though, and they all knew it. Fingers shaking, she drew the Azoth from its bag in her pocket.
In her fingers, it blazed, but she swiftly clamped down on the power it was more than happy to throw out. Not now, she willed. We’re doing things my way. It seemed to sigh grumpily, but waited anyway.
Another deep breath washed in and out, and she emptied her mind. Without a spell, it would be harder, harder even than casting more than one spell at once; she needed to concentrate as hard as she could.
The wind wound around them, almost shrieking. She didn’t give it any notice, but began to lay the pattern.
Guidelines were laid, running over buildings where the metal supports had shrunk away or writhed like they were alive in the time it took her to pass. They ran over the heaps of rubble still piled in the streets, raced over the shards of glass littering the ground, and outlined indents in the pavement where her feet had fallen. Psymantics traced the path of where the magnetic highway’s stabilizing chargers had formed a ‘pavement’ to keep the transports on track, and left tags where they had been.
There were spells she could use, she realized—spells to reunite the pieces, spells to fuse them back together, spells to bend and flatten and smooth things out. The trick was that she was going to have to cast them all almost simultaneously.
As news transports circled from a distance, glowing blue lines rolled like rain over every broken stone of the city, moving faster than lightning, until the street from V.E.O. to the Imperial Palace was lit up in a vast sea of shimmering sapphire spell patterns, myriads of lines, curves, and wheels forming channels that streamed towards the cloudy sky.
When all of the guides were in place, she bit her tongue, realized she might bite through it if she got distracted, released her tongue, squared her shoulders, planted her feet firmly, closed her eyes, and tapped into the power of the Azoth.
White light shot through her, gleeful at its newfound freedom, but she immediately reined it in and sent it down one path to a reassembling spell. As more power flowed through her, she sent it down lines that would put it into more reconstruction spells that would reform the damaged walls of the standing buildings. Another wave of power was herded into channels that rammed through metal, pulling whatever it touched back into its proper form and proper place. More power was hustled off to pull the remnants of the magnetic chargers back together, down to the tiniest fragment, and restore the spells that kept the floating ones in place; the pavement was rippling, leveling out the dent running down it.
Once that was set in motion, she let it run on—it would take some time for all the spells to finish—and turned her attentions on the three skyscrapers that had collapsed. The rubble there had been left alone, other than the removal of human remains. Unconsciously mirroring the statues, she raised one arm and directed the power of the Azoth through it.
Slowly, giant metal beams rose from the wreckage, some twisted and mangled beyond their original cast, others merely buried under tons of debris. The bent ones twisted like giant, thick snakes, then stiffened until they were as straight as their counterparts, while more levered themselves from under the wreckage and fought to straighten themselves as well. From the other two mounds where the buildings had stood, more metal was doing the same. Chunks of concrete and piping began floating in a swarm around the metal skeletons, reforming the systems they’d been in. Wiring, the first to knit itself together, began crawling up the framework that had just finished reconnecting, bolts flying to lock the beams into place. Rewoven carpeting formed floating mats that lowered onto a finished floor; fractured mechanica, computing devices, desks, and chairs floated through empty transport shafts and stairwells and, once on their proper floor and in their proper place, began to fit themselves together. Crumpled papers smoothed out and returned to where they’d been before, light spheres fixed themselves into the ceiling, and tiles laid themselves down. Potted plants—which were thoroughly watered from a broken pipe before it too was whisked away to where it was needed—were replaced on desks and in corners of rooms; office supplies and personal items were returned to drawers; VidScreens rebuilt themselves and tucked themselves into panels in the walls. Heating systems flattened the dents and situated themselves again; windows formed a transparent film over the open holes where they had been.
Maia tore her gaze away from the sight of three skyscrapers erecting themselves again and glanced at Lethya. She was shaking, sweat rolling down her face, but the Azoth still burned brightly in her free hand and still pumped its strength through her. All that power—if she lost control of it—
She had to be concentrating so hard that once this was over, she would have a monumental headache. Trying to direct that much force was like trying to channel a tidal wave, but Lethya had managed to do it when she’d broken everything she was now trying her best to fix. The catch was whether she could last without the rage dragging her on this time.
Ander stood in the middle of the now-flat street, watching in amazement. Far away, a tiny white light blazed at the very top of the Imperial Palace, blinding fire only psymancers could see roaring up around the parts of the city Lethya had hit. His psymantic sense was reeling, the effect on it the effect of staring at the sun would have on his sight, but he couldn’t look away now.
Lethya was doing this? He saw her brand of spellcasting in every strand of power that was weaving nets in the air, around the buildings, over piles of rubble; was this her way to make up for at least some of the damage she’d inflicted?
The world around him rocked and moaned, as if reluctant to let itself be warped again. Steel sang, concrete rumbled, and blue whorls of psymantic power played the conductor’s role. It was like months of rebuilding with no one to do it and compressed into ten minutes, stretching all the way to the Imperial Palace.
If she wanted, Lethya could have a real future in construction, Ander thought grimly, lowering himself into a crouch, one hand touching the ground for extra stability. Mihir was at his feet, squeaking for the first time in weeks, and all Ander could get from him was “Loudscarynoisemoveshakingscary!” and the like. He didn’t think anyone in the school was as sensitive to psymantic power as he was, but it would be like a sonic boom to Jerik and Tyra at least, and anyone else would certainly pick up on it. Psymantic power had long since been incorporated into everyone’s genes, but not everyone had enough to use it. How ‘loud’ it would be depended on how powerful a psymancer they were.
He saw lights begin to go on in some of the lower stories of the skyscrapers; then more turned on as the wave of reconstruction slowed, until everything was restored and lights were on in every window. Wind swooped in, twirling around the buildings almost in delight, and silence rolled like thunder.
Lethya had just done all of that. She had to be a mess.
He picked up Mihir and sprinted towards the Imperial Palace, worried. If she wore herself out again—she probably hadn’t even told anyone what she was going to do, and had passed out at the very top of the palace, it was just like something she’d do—
And then every sense of her, even the faint spark of her aura, vanished from the top of the palace.
Lethya, who was still shaking after channeling all that power from the Azoth, wiped her brow and stuck the dim jewel back into its bag in her pocket. Using any more of its power would risk using it up entirely, and she had no intention of doing that as long as it could be used against Jaegar.
Some of the Azoth’s power had stayed in her, though, and she let it bolster her own power. She couldn’t use the jewel to do what she needed to do now. “I think it’d be best if we teleported,” she said, trying to hide the tremors in her voice. “It may be a bit uncomfortable, and Maia, I need you to picture the exact location, but it’ll be lots quicker.”
The others nodded, and Lethya cleared her mind again, then built the constraints. The spell would take anyone who was in the sphere; she linked the location to Maia and waited, letting her power well up in the air enough and completely fill all the requirements. At the same time, she tugged a bit on the others’ essences and locked them into the spell, so there could be no mistake about who all would be coming. Normally anyone in the sphere would be taken, but locking them in guaranteed against any slip-ups.
Just as the power reached the breaking point, she let it loose. The world shattered, sending all of them hurling down a tunnel of brilliant, shrieking black and white and gray for only a split second.
Then it was all gone, and she was standing outside an alley in a place she’d never been. “Is this it?” she asked quietly. Her vision faded just a bit, but she bit the inside of her cheek until things fell into focus again.
“Yeah,” Maia said, voice devoid of any emotion.
Lethya steeled herself. This wasn’t going to be pretty in any way: no matter what, Laise was her twin sister, a sister who might have been too perfect but always her sister, and she was going to have to watch her last moments truly alive. But she had the ability to bring her sister’s death that much closer to justice, and she owed her that much at least.
What about Ander?
Lethya realized wearily that she no longer cared. No, that was a lie. She cared about Ander. She cared about clearing his name. And she cared about what had happened between him and Laise. But she’d had more than enough time to think, and she’d come to the conclusion that some things were more important than their competition. Laise would come back. Whatever went on with her and Ander was their business, and Lethya wasn’t going to get involved—it wasn’t worth the pain it would cause any of them. But she wasn’t going to fade away, either. She wasn’t going to stop fighting, flying, or being who she’d become, just because her twin was in the picture.
What mattered wasn’t figuring out how to hold onto the spotlight, because she wasn’t all that desperate to stay in it at all. What mattered now was bringing whatever had done this to Laise to justice.
“I’m ready,” she announced, trying to keep her voice from shaking.
When the sense of Lethya had appeared again in the city, Ander had been relieved and alarmed at once. She was still quite alive, but she was in an area he had never wanted to find her near.
“Didn’t she say she’s gonna find out who killed the lady?” Mihir asked bewilderedly.
It clicked—but why—
It didn’t matter. He teleported himself there, landing twenty feet away from an alleyway he’d never wanted to see again. Lethya stood there, with Maia, the Emperor, and some of the council members off to the side, all with their backs to him.
They hadn’t noticed his arrival, probably because of the large ring of silver-blue radiating with power in front of Lethya. It looked like the past-seeing spell, but for some reason, a strange cloud had gathered in the center. Lethya’s trembling but determined voice whispered the day of Laise’s death, as well as half an hour before she’d passed on—she must have found them in the public records—and he heard her blow on the mist.
The ring spun, expanding and moving faster until a twilight-blue sphere encompassed the sidewalk and nearly fifty feet of the alleyway. The cloud filled it, pulsing with light, until in a final flash the ring vanished and the cloud had settled into forms.
People hurried back and forth down the walkway, an opaque gray. Once they hit the limit of the sphere, they disappeared. None of them seemed to care about the ashy heap of an old woman slumped against a wall; she seemed like any other homeless denizen not uncommon in Neo Tokyo.
Minutes passed before a girl appeared, her gray-toned face eerily mirrored in color as Lethya watched her movements, biting her lip and trying to ignore the sinking of her stomach. Laise was walking slowly down the sidewalk; she eventually stopped and leaned against a wall. She looked unnerved—flustered, even upset; it was something neither Ander nor Lethya had seen very often. For once, her face was dripping with open emotion, frustration and hurt chasing one another over her features. It made her look more like her twin than ever.
The rusty inquiry had come from the old woman, regarding her with a flinty squint from beneath a battered felt hat. Laise opened her mouth, an awkward, choked squeak emerging. Her eyes closed, she cleared her throat, and the mask slipped back into place. “You could say that.” Suddenly she dug in her purse. “Do you—would you like to go get a sandwich, or something?”
Just like Laise—the old Laise that Lethya had known. Breaking down in the street and trying to save everyone all the same.
The woman cracked a worn grin. “Save your money, girl—”
“I don’t need it,” Laise interrupted. “We—I was going to get lunch, and I—I think I’d rather buy you a sandwich—”
There was something wrong in the way the woman stood up, like something trying to move with the proper amount of clumsiness. No one was on the sidewalk but them now; Lethya could see the echoes of a very well-hidden spell to discourage people from even looking that way, much less walking nearby. Her stomach clenched. “I don’t want—” the woman began in her creaking voice.
“Take it.” Laise cut her off, pressing a wad of money into her hand. “Please—just take it—”
And the illusion warped, iron-tight fingers wrapping around Laise’s arm. A man straightened, the form of the old woman falling into nothing as ice ran through Lethya’s veins. She’d seen that face once before, those cold eyes—
“You want me to take it?” Jaegar asked cruelly. “Sure thing, sweetheart.” Spells were sweeping out to block it all—the sound, the sight—nobody would see a thing but the ordinary alleyway sensible girls avoided. It was only because they were looking into the past that none of them were affected.
Laise’s pale blue eyes widened, her face paling as she shrieked for help, and a crackle of sky blue power snaked down her arm and up his. He brushed it off, Rintyran binding spells snapping her arms to her sides and clamping down on her psymantic power. She still fought, trying to break free of that cold, hard grip.
“Aren’t we feisty,” Jaegar said with a satisfied hum. “Do you know, Laise—do you know I could do whatever I wanted to you right here, right now, and nobody would stop me?”
“We can make this fun, if you’d like,” he suggested mildly. “You could cooperate, and at least the last few minutes of your life could be spent a little more agreeably.”
She only kept struggling. “Anybody—someone help—!”
“I’ll have to take that as a no.” Jaegar sighed, and began pulling her towards the alley. “Normally, I would just have at it here, but it’d be dreadful for your body to pop up before—”
“Ander?” Jaegar lifted an eyebrow. His body shifted until it was Deimon eyes he was watching her through. “Any better? No?” He returned to his own form. “I suppose there’s one thing he and I have in common, though.” The Muteran lifted a hand that sizzled with Rintyran. “And something tells me that’s all the evidence they’ll need.”
He dragged Laise into the alley while she continued to scream for help, continued to fight for escape, kept clawing at every hope. But Jaegar had more power, and he had more strength, and Laise—Laise didn’t have a chance.
She didn’t stop fighting until Jaegar dragged her beyond the boundaries of the past-viewing spell, both of them vanishing into darkness. Silence reigned until a sound from the empty street made Lethya, Maia, and the council members whirl around.
To Lethya’s horror, Ander was there, bleakly staring at the blackness Laise and Jaegar had sunk into. The sound they’d heard was him falling to his knees.
Lethya took an unsteady step forward—then she was stumbling towards him, until finally she was there, also on her knees, tears streaming down her face as to everyone’s astonishment she hit Ander in the chest. “Why did you follow me?!” she demanded, voice cracking as she pummeled him, her weary muscles making it impossible for her to actually do any real damage. It didn’t matter. “Why—how—why couldn’t you—why—why—”
It was only when Ander numbly caught her wrists that she realized that the both of them were shaking.
The look on his face was enough to shatter her rage; instead, loss and sorrow took its place, heaving sobs wracking her body as she buried her face in her hands. Then he was holding her to him, almost too tightly; she barely noticed. None of them had been prepared to see what had happened; that Ander had been there somehow made it worse.
Ander’s mind felt frozen in place, and moved like a glacier: inevitable truths being reached, but slowly.
He had just seen Laise’s last few moments alive.
She had been alone, vulnerable from their fight, and Jaegar had found her.
She had been crying for help, and nobody had heard.
She had screamed his name, and he hadn’t been there.
A particularly strong shudder shook Lethya, bringing him briefly back to reality.
Another truth surfaced: he was in love with Lethya; no amount of denial was going to change it. The only thing he could do was keep her safe, though, keep her out of Jaegar’s reach. Laise had been a strong and capable psymancer, but it hadn’t helped her, and if he lost Lethya too—
He wasn’t going to. He wasn’t going to let it happen. He hadn’t saved Laise, but he would do whatever it took to keep Jaegar away from Lethya. It was the only thing he could do.
Maia stood a little ways away, eyes shining with tears. None of them had known how hard this would be; they had just seen Lethya’s attempt to clear Ander’s name for good. Lisaoli’s hand was covering her mouth, though the vision had faded long since; Whyiran’s eyes were closed; Solerad had turned away, shoulders slumped; Master Hokusai’s face was set in a somber mask; and the Emperor had bowed his head, hand over his eyes. It was one thing to hear of these things; it was another to see it in excruciating detail.
Ander didn’t know how much time had passed when he realized Lethya wasn’t crying anymore. She wasn’t awake anymore, for that matter, worn out by everything she’d done and seen. He shifted his grip so she was cradled in his arms and stood. Maia saw the look in his yellow eyes and nodded to the unspoken request. “Let’s go home.” Then she turned to the others, who hadn’t moved from where they’d been watching. “Is this enough to clear his name?”
Only Whyiran could speak. “Yes,” she said tiredly. “It is more than enough.”
1:23 AM, TUESDAY, JUNE 8, 6118 AD, V.E.O. ACADEMY, NEO TOKYO, JAPAN
Lethya woke, still drained and exhausted and in her own clothes, in her own bed and with Abhaya flopped over her stomach. It was rather uncomfortable. But that wasn’t why she was awake.
Ten stories above her stood a presence, one that was calling her. If she had had time to think, she wouldn’t have gotten out of bed, stumbled out into the hall and down to the transportation shafts, and gotten in. If she’d been more awake, she would have listened to Abhaya’s whistles and actually replied to the inquiries in her mind.
But she was still drained and sleepy, and so she did indeed make her way first to the transportation shafts, and then to the roof. When she stepped out, rubbing her eyes, she was still too groggy to be surprised at the person she saw, and too groggy to remember all the emotions and complications attached to that person.
“Laise,” she yawned. “Wha’re you doing here?”
“Where’s the Azoth?” her twin sister asked. Somewhere she’d found a pale blue blouse and black pants; her hair was a perfectly straight, thick blond braid. The lights of the city threw her into harsh relief.
“The Azoth?” Lethya asked. The cold night air was slowly beginning to bring her around. “What do you want that for?”
“I just need it,” Laise said impatiently. “Where is it?”
Lethya yawned again. “… I dunno. Can’t I go back to bed? It’s cold up here.”
Laise took a step closer, eyes flashing. “Lethya, I need the Azoth, and you are going to give it to me.”
“Sure I am,” Lethya said amiably. “In the morning, ’kay? I’m tired.” She turned around to head back.
“Lethya!” Laise seized her sleeve. “Get me the Azoth! Just get me the Azoth, and you can go back to sleep!”
“O…okay.” Lethya ambled over to the transportation shaft and was about to step inside when she turned around. “Why do you want it?”
“I just do!” Laise said irately. “Go get it for me!”
Lethya crossed her arms and scowled. She wasn’t entirely out of it, but her instincts were sounding a harsh alarm. “I’m not gonna get it until you tell me why you want it,” she said stubbornly.
Laise lost it, stalked over, and slapped Lethya across the face. “Why?” she hissed, her face inches from Lethya. “You want to know why?!”
Lethya was finally woken up all the way from the sting of the slap, and stared at her sister with wide eyes dyed blue-purple with surprise. Weakly she lifted a hand that glowed blue, trying to push Laise away, but the light flickered and died. Only a little of her power had regenerated. “Let me go,” she whispered, eyes swiftly lightening to pale purple in fear.
“Give me the Azoth,” Laise ordered icily.
This wasn’t Laise as she knew her. Laise, when she was mad, could be nasty, but this was so wrong… “I don’t have it,” she fibbed.
“You’re lying,” Laise snapped, and dragged her away from the transportation shaft. “Don’t you get it?! I never died. I was stuck in a half-working Preservex, slowly dying, I sent my soul out to try and find help, it got raped and murdered, and now that I’m out I need to get it back, you idiot! If I have the Azoth, I can get my soul back!”
Lethya’s wide eyes were locked on her sister. She was…soulless? But the Azoth was only energy, and nothing could bring back a soul that had been—had Laise’s soul been destroyed? It was dead… or was it another entity? Did it exist anymore? Had it gone on to the afterlife, while this empty husk roved the earth searching for something it could never have? But somehow whatever Laise was now could still love, as evidenced by its feelings towards Ander—could she still anger? Even if she got a hold on the Azoth, when she discovered it wouldn’t work and went into a rage, would she be possessed by the stone like Lethya had? She couldn’t let that happen again—but what of Ander, and Laise—what if somehow it could bring back Laise’s soul?
Nothing can do that, a cool, rational voice whispered in the back of Lethya’s mind. Once a soul has moved into the Afterlife, it cannot return to the same flesh. And Laise, soulless as she is now, cannot be trusted with the Azoth.
“I don’t have it,” she repeated. “You saw what happened when it took me over, you think they’d let it stay with me now?”
This isn’t my sister. Laise is gone. This isn’t my sister.
“Stop lying to me!” Laise said fiercely. “Damn you to hell, Lethya, I NEED IT!”
“I don’t have it!”
“Then tell me where it is!”
“I don’t know!”
“TELL ME!” Lethya heard a thin snarl from the pale Silver dragon nearby—not Abhaya, it felt cold and distant in her mind.
“I can’t!” she said desperately, trying to take stock of herself. Her psymantic strength was very, very low, nothing near what she’d need to fight Laise with that alone. Though unsteady, her body seemed at least in working order, a few hours of rest at least giving her that much.
Every skill—every pre-First Apocalypse lesson she’d had about fighting, though, Laise had had as well, and Laise had, like everything else, been better at it. But Lethya had been at V.E.O. for the past few months.
Laise still had her by the wrist, but she twisted and broke free, ducking into a roll to try to wake up her still-aching muscles. Within seconds she was back on her feet, nerves tingling, cold night air whipping in her face. “I don’t have it,” she repeated, “and if I did, I wouldn’t give it to you.”
Laise was gaping at her; then fury darkened a face too familiar. “Well, well, well,” she hissed, “someone’s going to hold a grudge for three millennia and keep the nice crystal and a normal life all to herself—”
“You’re soulless,” Lethya shot back. “This isn’t about you and me, Laise! Nothing could bring your soul back, not me, not you, not the Azoth—hell, the Azoth is just power, nothing more!”
“You’re lying!” Laise shrieked. “You just don’t want me back, you selfish little—”
“I don’t want you to make the same mistake I did!” Lethya threw an arm out towards the city. “Do you know how that happened? The Azoth actually became part of me when I was in the Preservex, and when I lost my temper, it—it took over and acted on that anger—and hundreds of people died because of that!”
“You killed them and you think you should have the Azoth?” Laise didn’t seem to understand what Lethya had been getting at.
“If you take it the same exact thing could happen, Laise!”
“This is pathetic,” Laise snapped. “I don’t need you, Lethya. I’m just asking to be nice.”
“I already told you I don’t have it.” She was fully awake, body and mind, and though the chill of the wind cut right through her, it also helped her focus.
“If you won’t give it to me, I will take it,” Laise warned her.
Lethya drew a breath, jaw clenched. Would it just be easier to let her have it? What if she just was holding back out of spite?
It won’t work, her rational voice said sternly. And you cannot back down again.
As the words fired out of her, Lethya knew she should have said them a very, very long time ago. “You can try.”
Laise clearly hadn’t expected her to fight back; it was written all over her face. Then, in a flash, her composure was back—and a bolt of ice-blue psymantics was lancing towards her twin.
Lethya dodged quickly, only to find Laise there, a kick sweeping towards her stomach. She flipped over her twin’s leg and landed on her palms, lashing out with her foot at Laise’s chest. It missed, like she’d expected; it was a move both of them had been drilled in.
Lethya was back on her feet as quickly as she could make her limbs move, tracking her twin with both her physical and psymantic senses—a good move, because Laise had disappeared into cloaking spells, but ones Lethya knew. She turned, feigning confusion, knowing Laise would probably go for her back—and her guess was correct.
She turned in time to catch Laise’s wrist and hauled her forward, rolling her twin over her shoulder, but Laise had gotten a grip on her twin’s forearm and yanked her forward, making her lose her balance as well. By the time Lethya had squirmed out of her grasp, she was back on her feet, and Lethya hadn’t regained a defensible stance. One good sweep of the legs, and her feet had been knocked out from underneath her.
In the past, that would have been the end. Laise would have been in the “kill” position, and she would be “dead.” But things had changed since then.
Lethya screwed her eyes shut and threw a scrap of power into a light spell—though just a scrap to her, it was still far more than was necessary, and as a result, a blinding flash left Laise sightless, letting Lethya roll away and get back up.
“You want to fight dirty, do you?” Laise’s voice was strained as she rubbed at watering eyes, jerking around futilely as she tried to search out her twin. “You want to bring power into this?”
Pale blue frosted the air, sizzling bolts of psymantics striking in a thousand different directions around the roof. Lethya dodged those she could, trying to pull together a shield—it formed just in time, but only lasted long enough to fend off the psymantic blow before dissolving.
From Laise’s wandering gaze, she hadn’t regained complete vision yet, and Lethya took advantage of that. Her bare feet made little noise as she approached from behind, then charged—but Laise heard, turning, swinging at her again—
They exchanged a flurry of strikes before Lethya managed to get a hit in, winding her twin. Laise staggered back as Lethya backed away as well, watching suspiciously.
“That’s a new trick,” Laise managed to spit out.
“I’ve been training,” Lethya informed her coldly. Then she attacked again, and this time Laise was on the defensive, blocking blow after blow and losing ground until they were at the edge of the roof.
Suddenly Laise missed a block, Lethya’s fist flying towards her neck—her mind was screaming for her to stop, or she’d kill her twin—less than a breath remained between Lethya’s knuckles, and the skin of Laise’s throat.
Lethya froze, and it was all Laise needed.
Ice-blue power wrapped around her arms and feet, wrenching them away from one another and pulling her away from Laise. Her twin straightened, glowering at her, then lifted a hand. Lethya lifted with it, struggling against the chains of energy that held her fast.
“This farce has gone on long enough,” Laise said venomously, and with a wave of her hand Lethya was thrust over the edge, dangling high over her twin in the open air. “You’re going to tell me where the Azoth is now.”
Lethya clenched her fists. Enough people had died because of her, in one way or another. She couldn’t let it continue. “I don’t know.”
The spell released her for just a split second and she dropped a foot, a small scream escaping her lips. “I don’t want to kill you, Lethya!” Laise said angrily. “Even after everything you’ve done to me—”
“All I did to you?!” Lethya shouted. “You always had to beat me at everything! Everyone thought you were perfect—”
“Which is why Mama always spent time with you—”
“—you knew I liked Akio, and you went and took him away anyway! You took up all of his time!”
“He was too good for your little group! He was a genius, and all his talents were wasted on your stupid little pranks! And no matter how hard I worked, everyone liked you better and you didn’t even try to let me make friends! You always got to them first!”
“You’re so full of crap! If you weren’t in the spotlight, why the hell did you always push me out of it?! I could fly twice as well as you and I didn’t tell anyone but Rye, just so you’d look better! I figured that I was never going to be perfect like you, so why even try? It’d be easier to let you look like the best at everything!”
“I was the best at everything and you’re lying!” Laise’s voice had risen to a high-pitched shriek. “You didn’t even try! It’s not my fault! You were just as much a greedy brat then as you are now—keeping Akio for you and your stupid little pranks!”
“He wasn’t even sixteen! Not everyone needs to be perfect like you—he needed time to have fun!”
“You’re jealous!” Laise’s eyes were flashing dangerously like an avalanche. “You’re jealous that I got to him first, just like I got to Ander first! You don’t want me to have the Azoth so I won’t come back! You want to have him all to yourself!”
“You’re crazy!” Lethya yelled back, but she felt as if she had been hit in the stomach. What if that was true? What if she was deluding herself so Laise wouldn’t take Ander away?
She couldn’t be—she knew what would happen if Laise got the Azoth— “I don’t have it, and I don’t know where it is!”
“I can feel it, you little bitch!” Laise exploded, face contorted in wrath. “I know it’s somewhere close! You’re so selfish! I’ll kill you if I have to!”
Lethya hadn’t even heard Laise. Her eyes had shifted the second they’d caught the flash of the transportation shaft, and now they were locked on where Ander now stood. His eyes were wide and a stunned yellow-orange. Abhaya and Mihir were at his side, and Abhaya screeched, flying over to Lethya.
Laise heard the dragon’s cry and turned around. The hate in her eyes went out, replaced with shock, and the beginnings of dismay, when she saw the Deimon. “Ander…”
He’d seen her at her true nature, with no soul to guide her. He’d thought she still was mostly who she had been, that her death hadn’t changed her that much, but now he knew. She saw it in his eyes: he was beginning to realize something was terribly, irreversibly wrong with her. And who wanted someone with no soul?
The spell slipped again, but she didn’t react in time to catch it—wasn’t sure if she even wanted to. Lethya fell.
Ander flew past Laise and leapt over the roof.
Lethya plummeted towards earth, on a free fall for the second time in her life. Last time, it had been off the top of Halisyen. Now it was off the top of V.E.O. Well, at least she’d fallen off both buildings, so no one could say that it wasn’t an equal-opportunity death.
If she died, what if she gave her soul to Laise? Maybe it would work, because Laise already had all her own memories, as well as a soul, and since they were identical twins… It made sense that the Avatar of her soul had had no memories of her past; separated from her mind, it had no access to that information. If Laise had survived in a half-broken Preservex this long, was it possible Maia had too? What if Maia was an Avatar like Laise had been? What if she was an Avatar? No, she remembered coming out of the Preservex…
She was going to die, obviously. Ander was most likely too moonstruck by Laise’s appearance to notice she’d dropped, much less the fact that Laise had been dangling her over the edge of the school. They were probably getting married right now. She closed her eyes. Was it going to hurt? Sure, being stabbed to death had hurt, but this was falling off of a building. Who was going to take care of Abhaya? Would Ander be upset? After all, she might be dead, but Laise was still there for him.
Maybe if she tried to veer over a little she’d hit someone’s balcony and get away with a broken leg or two.
Nah… it wasn’t likely.
The ground was probably very close now, but she didn’t dare open her eyes and find out. Instead, she shut them tighter.
Then there was a thump and she came in contact with something, but it sure didn’t feel like the ground. Instead, it felt like a pair of arms holding her. And then she wasn’t falling anymore, she was rising. Opening her eyes, she found Ander had caught her once again.
She didn’t say anything, and neither did he.
When they landed in the middle of the roof, Laise was standing at the edge, watching them intently. Ander’s sharp eyes saw the glitter of tears in her eyes; his ears caught her whisper. “So that’s how it is.” Ander set Lethya down, though his arms still protectively encircled her, and said nothing.
Laise didn’t need an answer. She summoned an ancient transportation spell, mist surrounding her form and lifting her away; she didn’t look back.
Ander watched her go, not even thinking about what his actions towards Lethya meant. There was something truly wrong with Laise. The Laise he knew would never dream of threatening her own sister, would never call her a bitch, all over something she wanted. It took a lot to make Lethya afraid, and the look on her face had been pure terror. He didn’t know why Laise had wanted whatever she’d wanted, or why Lethya wasn’t letting her have it. But something was wrong with Laise, and somehow he knew it would never be right again.
Lethya’s eyes were on the figure swiftly disappearing among the stars. She knew she’d just been added to another hit list. She knew Laise would stop at nothing until she got the Azoth. But the other new knowledge she had was the worst.
She wasn’t sure if she had the strength to do it. She didn’t know if she’d forgive herself; if Ander would forgive her; if she could even do it. If she would live through it.
One day it would just come down to Laise and her. They could no longer coexist without conflict, and the knowledge that Laise no longer belonged among the truly living would have to help. For she now knew that, once it was just her and Laise, only one of them would walk away.
8:50 AM, TUESDAY, JUNE 8, 6118 AD, V.E.O. ACADEMY, NEO TOKYO, JAPAN
“It’s been two weeks since Alethyis Fanyathe was possessed by the Azoth,” the newscaster said tonelessly. “While it has been proved that the damage done to Neo Tokyo was in no way intentional, after receiving permission to use her powers again from the Grand Council, Ms. Fanyathe made a strange request.”
The debris and metal flying back into place looked much more impressive from the angle the camera had captured it. “Using the Azoth, instead of being used by it, Ms. Fanyathe single-handedly undid all the destruction caused by the events of the twenty-fourth. While the lives cannot be brought back, and the memories will never fade, perhaps this is the first step in the healing of Neo Tokyo.”
Lethya turned the VidScreen off, stood up, and left with Abhaya to see if Ander and Jerik were ready to go get breakfast.
Just as Lethya’s hand brushed the door, there was a knock on it. Surprised, she opened it, only to find Ander there with a look on his face she’d never seen before. And then he said something she’d never expected to hear from him, of all people. Jerik, maybe. But not him.
“We need to talk.”
She openly stared at him, then managed a cautious, “All right…. Um…come in, I guess.” He followed her in, the door shutting behind him, and she faced him uneasily in the living room, her hands clasped behind her. “What’s up?” she asked, trying to sound cheerful.
Ander could see right through the pretense but didn’t comment. He was sick of all of this: sick of not knowing how he felt, sick of not knowing the full story, sick of the tangle of one problem after another that his life was quickly becoming. Lethya, at least, had some of the answers he wanted, and he was sick of making himself try to solve everything on his own. After the events of yesterday, like Lethya, he was tired, and in more ways than one.
So he saved both of them time and asked straight out, “What’s wrong with Laise?”
“Laise,” Lethya repeated somewhat faintly. “Oh.” Ander saw the silver of hurt or disappointment flicker in her downcast eyes, and mentally swore, but didn’t know what to say.
She sucked in a breath. This had been weighing painfully on her mind since the her sister had faded into mist, trying to reason out why things had happened the way they had, and it was beginning to make sense. “It’s a long story, so we may as well sit down.” She took a seat on the sofa, and after a moment’s hesitation Ander sat in the other chair. “She…when I went to sleep… right before then, I saw Maia and Laise get into Preservexes too, but they were knocked down before they really started working. I thought they died, but I guess Laise was stuck in a half-functioning Preservex, like she was half-asleep or something, for almost as long as I was asleep. I think if she never got out it would have sucked the power out of her more and more until she died.
“She must have thought the same thing, because she sent an Avatar—an embodiment of her soul—into the real world to go get help. I guess it was a really good Avatar, because it was like a real living person…she wasn’t an amnesiac, her memories were stuck in her brain… But it was her Avatar, her soul, that died, and her mind and body were still alive in the Preservex… I think when the Azoth took me over, it may have woken her up or something, because she’s got a Silver dragon and we were short an egg after that day…but now Laise’s soulless. And she thinks the Azoth can bring her soul back.”
“Can it?” he asked quietly.
She shook her head, staring at the ground and hoping he didn’t see the tears starting to gather in her eyes. “Nothing can bring back a soul once it’s gone. But she won’t accept it.” There was a pause. “And if I give her the stone, and she tries to use it and can’t, then she might be angry enough for it to take her over like it did me. And it will be much worse than what I did, because she won’t have a specific target. She’ll break whatever she can.” The breath she pulled in shuddered, then was let loose in a low whisper. “I’m sorry.”
Ander watched her, thoughts racing. If what Lethya had just said was true, and the scene he’d witnessed last night was no dream… “You can’t afford to give her the Azoth, and she’s not going to believe you if you tell her it won’t work,” he stated, seeing if he had his facts straight.
“She’ll think I’m just trying to keep it for myself,” Lethya confirmed.
“Then she’ll try to kill you,” he said wearily, his heart sinking. This was slowly unfurling into a nightmare. Laise was back, but as a travesty to life. The fact that she was in love with him notwithstanding, it had seemed so perfect—she’d returned, somehow back from the dead, and had seemed so sure she’d be her whole self again; but now the perfect picture he’d had was ripping. Laise was broken, and she couldn’t be fixed. “Won’t she?”
Lethya nodded. Brittle silence filled the room; Abhaya watched them with wide sapphire eyes, confused but knowing the conversation was important. Finally Lethya asked, “So… What do we do?”
“I don’t know,” Ander said heavily. Lethya looked up, surprised. Before, he’d been emotionless, just asking questions. None of his normal attitude, no signs of a brewing argument; just flatness. But now there was something in his voice, in the way his shoulders were slumped, in the pure yellow of his eyes, that said more than the words he spoke. “I… don’t know.”
Lethya bit her lip. This wasn’t like him—he was the win-or-die-trying type; this was the first time she’d seen him in defeat. “Things will work out somehow,” she offered, silently adding, They have to. The only response Ander gave was to glance momentarily her way.
The silence stagnated until Lethya decided she didn’t want to think about such a depressing subject anymore, not when there was nothing any of them could do about it. “We’re going to be late for breakfast,” she pointed out.
That drew Ander’s attention. “Your sister is walking around soulless,” he said irately, “You know I won’t be able to kill her, and she will hunt you until one of you is dead! How can you think about something like missing breakfast?”
“Because if I stop eating entirely, Laise will just have to wait a few weeks before I’ve killed myself for her.” She met his glare squarely, secretly pleased to see irate orange beginning to replace the yellow. “I’m not going out looking for trouble. We both know it’s going to come to either of us at some point, though, and making myself sick angsting over Laise is only going to make it worse. There’s nothing I can do but wait and be ready to burn that bridge when I get there.” Lethya could almost see his mind working, color shifting in his eyes. “It just means someone else besides Jaegar is trying to kill me, and that’s that. And I know that what’s walking around in Laise’s body isn’t really my sister anymore.” She took a deep breath. “That might help me if I… but I’m not going to think about it now. The only thing I’m going to think about is whether I’m going to have strawberry or blueberry jam on my toast in a few minutes.” She stood up, hands planted on her hips.
Ander looked at her, his eyes a confused red-gold. What relieved her was that the pained yellow was completely gone. Please let it work, she thought to herself. Please just let him let it go.
It wasn’t over by any means; both of them knew it, and it was written in both of their faces. But Lethya was telling the truth.
Ander got to his feet, running a hand through his hair, and nodded. “Alright.”
Laise was too far gone; he wasn’t going to lose Lethya too, not to Jaegar, not to anything. Protecting her was all that he could do for either of them now.
“Are you coming?”
Lethya was already at the door, waiting impatiently for him.
“Yeah,” he answered, turning towards the hallway. “I am.”