I woke up the next morning with a familiar sense of foreboding. The creeping thing that had been following me all my life was right outside the door. I knew that, yet I knew I would open the door anyway. I would beat it back or be swallowed. I remembered a vision I had had of Blue Ava's Angel being ripped open and seeing beyond the torn metal the dust of the stars that had been smashed to get to me. I had thought I knew what that thing was. At that time, I thought it was Jake. I was wrong. It was Rune. I had always somewhere in the back of my mind not trusted his mental stability. After I saw him die and long for death again the way dying men long for life, I knew that there was a danger of him slipping back to what he had been before. If he had never confessed to me all the things he'd done, I might have been willing to overlook that longing. He'd had a lot of years to change. Those years just made it worse. Prompted by threats of cold, he finally seemed willing to tap into his full power. He wanted to let the fire go and turn the universe back to the chaos it had been before God was born. He knew I'd do almost anything to stop him; all three of the guardian angels would. That was our purpose. So to accomplish his goal, he had to let us die.
But how could I stop him? Killing him would give him what he wanted. Killing him was damn near impossible. If there was some way to drain his power, I'd do that, but I wasn't sure how. Up until the moment he walked away, he'd done everything he could to help us win the war. He'd taken the time to rescue me. He'd given me weapons. He'd kept my family safe. How could I possibly kill someone who was that devoted to me? How could I believe he really just turned it all off like a switch? I couldn't. My visions told me not to. My heart told me not to. Until I had another answer, though, I had to believe he'd snapped. I had watched him kill Jake. I didn't see the undying love I kept hearing about. Unless there was something that Shaman wasn't showing me, and I thought maybe there was. I could have looked for it, but I knew I didn't have the energy for that kind of search.
The bad feeling didn't go away as Barrett and I got ready to leave. It got worse. When Regan and Tristan decided to walk to the docks with us, it got so bad, I wanted to start breaking things. He was going to show up, and it wasn't going to be a friendly discussion.
We were a few blocks from the dock when a vehicle buzzed past us almost close enough to run us over. It stopped. I put my hands on my guns. The back door opened, and Rune stepped out with his left hand grasping something still inside the vehicle. His fire was black except for the white-hot center. For a second, I thought about the throbbing heart of fire and his insistence that he wouldn't betray us, that he couldn't because of what he was to us. He didn't know he'd be tortured when he said that, though. Maybe that counted for something. Maybe I could talk him out of it. Maybe I could save him.
"I found something of yours," he said. He was close enough that I could have shot him, but there were too many people around. He pulled Jake's body out of the vehicle and tossed him at our feet. The black armor was cracked and starting to crumble away. Tristan screamed. "Keep your pets on a leash, Shaman. Maybe they won't get killed." Rune got back in the vehicle, and it took off towards the docks.
I started to run after him. The crowd that had gathered pushed me back. My right hand throbbed. Jake was still alive. I turned around. Jake's eyes were open, but there wasn't much in them. Tristan was afraid to touch him. He didn't want to damage the armor any further, but it was already too late. As they kissed one last time, Jake's armor cracked completely open. His body faded, and Tristan was left with fistfuls of dust. I drew both guns and turned towards the docks. I screamed at the crowd to get the fuck out of my way and let Shaman clear my sight.
The perpetual throng at the dock had slowed Rune down just enough. With both guns drawn, they parted for me like the Red Sea. I caught up to him as he ran towards the open hatch of an Imperial fighter with its engines already fired up. He turned around before I could unload my guns into him. His whip snapped my left wrist, and I dropped Getsuei. For some reason, I had put Duncan's untested starburst in my pocket before we left. I pulled it out and rushed at Rune. I pushed the trigger on the starburst and emptied Hizashi into his chest. He fell backwards into the ship. A solider grabbed him and fired a laser pistol at me, hitting my left knee and both shoulders. I was too pissed to notice how purposeful his aim was. The fighter roared out of the dock. I lay on the ramp with tears streaming from my eyes saying "Fuck" over and over.
I felt heat on my face. I opened my eyes and scrambled to my feet, reaching for my guns. But it was only the bonfire at the crossroads. I sat down and watched the flames.
Daigoro was pacing on the other side of the fire. He had his hand on the handle of his sword. Regan was snapping twigs and throwing them into the fire.
"We can't let this continue," Daigoro said. "We can't let him get any closer to his goal."
"How do we stop him?" I asked. "He made us. He can unmake us."
"There must be something we can do."
"I want to get Duncan and Leysa out of there first. And Seren if we can find her."
"A psychic they've been using to track me. She sees through a red haze, too. I don't know what they did to us."
"We've never tried channeling all our power through just one of us. We know it can be done because Shaman can draw on all the stars, and we've lent Shaman our powers before. But we've never pushed it."
"That could kill all of us."
"But would it kill Rune?"
I looked down at my hands. What the fuck is he doing? I thought.
"We can't kill Rune," Regan said. "It's just not possible. Killing the fire could do more harm than good anyway."
"So how do we stop him?" Daigoro asked.
"By loving him."
"I have no love for a murderer."
"What d'you mean?" I asked.
"I don't know. That's what Firefly told me. I don't get it. Maybe Jake saw something we didn't. Or maybe it's that he and Rune are somehow alike. Jake had to do horrible things to save Duncan."
"Rune's not doing this out of love. He wants to destroy everything. He's insane," Daigoro said.
"I don't believe that." Regan closed her eyes to stop her tears.
"His fire has turned black," I said.
"It doesn't matter," Daigoro said. "If he is trying to save us, he's going about it the wrong way. I don't think we should sit around and wait for him to do whatever it is he's going to do. He might not be trying to save us. It's not wise to take that kind of chance. The stars were made to protect the universe from any threat. He's now a threat."
"I have to agree with that. But we aren't ready for any kind of battle. We need better weapons. We need an army behind us."
"It sounds like you have a plan for once."
"Irial's arming GLOBE. He'll hook us up, too. Kaylan won't expect that kind of attack, especially not directly on Xebec. Rune doesn't know that GLOBE is willing to help us. He can't warn Kaylan. GLOBE's attack will only be a diversion for us to get inside. Once we're inside, we can kill Kaylan and do whatever we need to do to stop Rune. If we decide to concentrate our powers, we do it through Regan."
"What?" Regan asked. "Why me? Isn't Shaman the strongest?"
"Yeah, but you love him. And he still loves you. That's the only advantage we have."
"But what if he decides he loves his chaos more?"
"He doesn't. There's nothing to stop him from destroying everything right now. So why hasn't he? Why hasn't he had the army attack Walden City? What's he waiting for?"
"He wants us to make the first move," Daigoro said. "He wants to see what we're willing to do."
"When Barrett and I leave for Xebec, I want everyone else to go to Lore. I'll let Etienne know you're coming. As soon as we get back, we need to plan the attack. The quicker we do this, the better."
The end was coming closer. I didn't like the way things were turning out, but there were no other options. If I'd been able to see whatever it was I kept missing, I wouldn't have worried so much. That wouldn't have stopped me from worrying. There was still plenty of time for things to go wrong.
Barrett and I made it into orbit around Xebec with no incident. Landing and getting inside the building were going to be a little trickier. Jake had shown me exactly where the underground prison was, but there was no way to get to it from outside of the building. We could have made our own entrance, but I wanted to avoid any fighting. We didn't have time for that.
We landed a few miles away from the senate building, and I walked the rest of the way. I was tempted to go in the front door and start shooting anything and everything that came at me. Instead, I sneaked in through an air vent. It dumped me out in a bathroom on the first level not far from the cafeteria. The bathroom wasn't quite empty when I reached the end of the shaft. I waited almost ten minutes, but I finally got in without having to kill the guard.
The hallways were quiet. It was pretty late, and only a few guards were patrolling each floor. I got to the stairs that led down to the underground prison. I was pretty proud of myself. Sneaking had never been my strong suit, but I had done that pretty well. I heard footsteps on the stairs as soon as I put my hand on the door handle. Fuck, I thought. So much for me being sneaky. I drew my guns and waited. I wasn't surprised when Rune opened the door. He seemed to have been expecting me as well.
"It sure took you long enough," he said. If the starburst had damaged his eyes at all, he was already healed. And of course, six bullets through his heart hadn't fazed him.
"What are you doing?" I asked.
"What do you think I'm doing?"
"I'm not sure you know any more."
"You know me better than that."
"I thought I did."
"If I was going to let anything bad happen to you, it would have happened by now."
"Then what the fuck are you doing here?"
"Sabotaging my own every move. How the hell do you think I'm going to keep them from catching you again?"
"But you killed Jake."
Rune said nothing.
"You can't tell me you didn't. And you can't tell me he let it happen. And then you threw him at us like he was a piece of trash. What the fuck is wrong with you?"
"In less than two minutes, there's going to be a very big explosion. It's going to get a lot of attention because the guards will know that someone's trying to break into the prison to rescue the test subjects. They aren't going to go after Duncan and Leysa. The tests are complete. The machine works. Neither of them are going to be able to run very far anyway. The guards are going to be looking for you. You've only got twelve shots before you have to reload your guns. By the time you give yourself twelve more shots, they'll know where you are because I'm in charge of them, and I can feel your presence. If you try to help Duncan and Leysa, you'll all die. So I suggest you run the other way."
"She was found this morning, somewhat … damaged. You can't save her now."
"I still don't understand why you're doing this."
"I don't expect you to. It won't matter when it's over. You're running out of time. Get out of here."
"Whatever you're doing, you won't get away with it."
"Were you listening to anything I just said?"
From below, there was a loud explosion. Alarms went off. Guards began to shout and run around. I heard gunfire from the prison.
"Game's on, Shaman. Which way do you wanna play this?"
Fucking bastard, I thought. I ran back the way I came only to find myself facing a squad of five guards. Rune was behind me. More guards were pouring down from the upper levels, and I could feel demons somewhere nearby. I fired at the guards and plowed through the cafeteria. The only one who followed me was Rune, but more guards kept coming.
The kitchen's back door led into a long corridor that led to a boiler room and waste disposal units. It was hot and cramped and filled with things that would blow up if I shot them. So I did just that. The little explosions and jets of steam I made kept Rune far enough behind me that I thought I had some chance of getting away as long as I didn't get too lost. I finally found a door, but it was just about rusted shut. I had to put my guns up and use both hands to get it open. Even then it seemed to weigh a ton.
Rune was right behind me when I had it open enough to get through it. It closed a lot easier than it opened, and I crushed Rune's right arm as he reached through to try to keep the door open. If he'd had bones, I would have heard them crunch. Elbows don't bend that way, bones or not. But it didn't stop him. He yanked the door open with his left arm, and it melted at his touch. He shook his right arm, and it healed instantly. He'd been holding back with his regenerative ability.
"That wasn't a very nice thing to do," he said.
"Sorry, but I don't feel like playing whatever game you're playing," I said. I drew my guns and fired at him. The hammers fell on empty chambers. "Fuck."
I put my guns up again and started running.
"Don't go that way! You'll - "
I felt my foot hit air and tried to pull back, but I was falling face first into an incinerator. So much for saving the universe. I shut my eyes, and then I stopped falling. Rune pulled me back to solid footing.
"As I was saying, you'll fall," he said.
I turned around and punched him as hard as I could. He stumbled backwards. It felt like there was a little more behind the punch than my muscle power. When I paused to catch my breath, I felt a buzz in my sinuses and heard Yuusei's winds chimes and gong. Rune seemed to realize what was happening as he recovered.
"That's nice, but I don't wanna fight. Especially not here. You falling into an incinerator just isn't a good ending to this," he said.
"Make up your fucking mind! Who's side are you on?"
He pointed to the wall on my left. "See that ladder?"
I looked. "Yeah."
"It goes all the way to the roof. If you start climbing now, you might make it out there before anyone else thinks to look that high up."
"So you're on the ladder's side now. That's just great."
He walked over to the ladder and put his hands on it. It started to melt.
"Hey! Don't melt my escape route!" I grabbed his arm and pulled him away. He could have flung me into the incinerator with a flick of his wrist. Instead, he let me wrestle him away from the ladder, giving me just enough resistance to make me think he was trying to keep me from getting away. When he went over the edge of the incinerator, I tried to pull him back up. He flared, scorching my hands. I had to let go. It was a long way down to the bottom of the incinerator. I watched him fall. There was a bright flash, and I didn't see him any more.
I could hear guards trying to put out the fires in the boiler room. I scrambled up the ladder. It was a long way up, but I made it to the roof. Barrett had heard the explosion and had come in to see what was going on. He was out of Maelstrom and planting explosives on the roof when I got there.
"What the fuck did you do?" he asked.
"It wasn't me," I said. "Shit just started blowing up. Did you see Duncan and Leysa anywhere?"
He hesitated. "I got them. They're not good."
"Then forget the explosives. Let's go."
We got onto Maelstrom and took off. Duncan was a sparkling green slash at the guns. Barrett pushed a button, and his explosives went off. Duncan fired at random, getting lucky enough to hit a gas main that ran by the meeting hall. It went up in a spray of flame and dark glass. When we were out of the atmosphere, cloaked and safely on our way to Lore, Duncan let go of the guns and collapsed on the floor. He was hurt but not on death's door. His arms and face were covered with careless scars that overran all the thin little lines where he'd been opened for bloodletting. In a corner, I saw Leysa. She was nothing more than a cold, grey space. Her chest and back were covered in ragged red holes. Their escape hadn't gone well at all, and she had shielded him with her body as the rain of bullets fell down on them. I bent down beside him. He lifted his head and looked at me. His big green eyes were harder and angrier than I'd ever seen them.
Tears spilled down his dirty cheeks. "Talon … " he said.
"I'm glad to see you, Duncan," I said.
He pushed himself up to his knees and tried not to look at Leysa's body. "It was Rune."
"I know. I saw him."
"He did all this to us. It's his fault. All he's ever wanted is chaos. He wants the universe to go back to what it was before it turned into the universe. To what it was when his fire was first born. He'd let us all die for that."
"No, he wouldn't. He's … " I shook my head. I had to pretend that that was denial. I couldn't tell them what Rune was doing. It would put him at risk. I wasn't even sure I understood what he was doing. "He did, didn't he?" I didn't think I sounded convinced.
Duncan folded himself in half, his supple hands gripping my arm, and he cried a deep, hollow cry that I hoped I would never have to hear again.