I had experienced death before.
I had stood by my father as he died. The old wretch had stared up at my unsympathetic face as he slipped away, trying to whisper some last words, as if anything he said could change the reality of death or, for that matter, the life that had preceded it.
I had killed.
How many I wasn’t certain anymore. There had been enough that I knew what it was like to see through someone’s eyes as they stared down at a mortal wound. I knew what the struggle to keep the darkness at bay looked like from the inside.
How many times had I seen through Baen’s eyes as that prodigious strength ended another life? She’d snapped a man’s neck like it had been kindling on the road to Lion’s Arch, and I had seen it both through her and her victim’s eyes.
That kill had been but a few weeks ago, but it felt to me like it had happened in a previous life. When was the last time I had been with Akemi? When had I thought of Cymea last? Lucan? They had once dominated my every thought. Even my foolish handmaiden, Maei, or Halleston, the odd little Priory man we’d met on the road felt like memories from some distant and half-forgotten childhood. Even the mission – Tianne, Levaunt, and Sahir seemed to somehow fade away.
Tatianna clung to Coalpaw’s back like a child to her father, and the charr jerked, a sound halfway between a cough and a growl escaping his throat as blood splattered from his mouth. It ran down his chest, soaking into his fur and streaming along his leather jerkin as he looked down to where his captain’s bloody hand had burst through his chest.
“I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry.” Tatianna was whispering over and over again as she buried her face against Coalpaw’s back, holding him as he sagged to his knees and, at her almost tender coaxing, collapsed slowly onto his side. “Darrus, I’m so sorry.” His wide eyes were dimming, even as his vision darted left and right, the last desperate search of a dying brain looking for a way out. Darkness closed in, and he was gone.
Baen came forward like a silent, merciless wave, two-handed sword held above her for a cleaving blow as she swept towards the prone Tatianna. The captain turned to face the oncoming assault, her mouth opening in shock as she threw her free arm up to protect herself.
“No!” I wasn’t sure who it was that screamed. For all I knew it might have been me.
Green light flared, the sword made a sound as though it had struck wood, and Tatianna screamed as she got to her feet, her bloody hand withdrawing from Coalpaw’s corpse as her other arm – more monster than human – leaked a mixture of blood and black ichor. She batted Baen’s sword aside, but my partner didn’t hesitate, coming around in a full circle to bring the greatsword down in a sweeping arc aimed for Tatianna’s neck.
The captain lashed out, bloody palm striking Baen in the chest and sending her tumbling back. She sailed through the air, landing nearly three metres away and rolling unsteadily to her feet, having wisely dropped her sword mid air. She looked up in surprise, eyes narrowing as Tatianna lowered her hand.
“I don’t want this.” Tatianna said, her voice cracking. “I didn’t want any of this.” She looked down at the body of her first mate. “He was supposed to understand.” Her eyes turned up to look at me. “Do you understand?” Baen retrieved her sword, but Tatianna ignored her, the snarling Grapple, the staring survivors of her crew, everything but my pale face. “Kaede? Do you understand?”
“Yes.” I said, barely aware that I was speaking. “I understand perfectly.” I tightened my grip on my sword, breathing out slowly. Tatianna smiled, sadly, fresh tears rising to blur her vision.
“I knew you would. I thought that, maybe…” She shook her head, a soft laugh escaping her lips. “Stupid of me.” She sighed. “But it was a lie from the beginning, wasn’t it?” Her tone hardened. “Kaede Varr. Lady Kaede Varr, noble an’ a Whisperer?”
“I couldn’t tell you.” I said.
“Still hurts.” She said. “Guess that doesn’t matter no more though.” She looked away, and Baen rose to her feet, coming to stand beside me. “I knew there was something off about you.” Tatianna sighed, turning away she could pull the tattered coat on properly and tie it shut with the coarse belt. She was still bare foot, still covered in blood and ichor, but it was considerably more modest. “Both of you. I thought that maybe… maybe one day you’d tell me who you really were. I wanted to trust.”
“So now you try and kill us.” I said, forcing my breathing to remain steady. I didn’t want to fight Tatianna, but I knew what was coming – as she said, she wasn’t ready yet, and there was no way she could let us go.
“None of this was supposed to happen this way.”
“No, it really wasn’t.” I agreed. Baen shot me a quick glance, but her eyes snapped back to Tatianna and the motionless Coalpaw.
“I’m sorry.” Tatianna said, the words barely louder than a whisper. “I-”
She hurled herself aside as Fotti’s rifle roared behind us, hitting the ground and rolling into the darkness of the hallway as the second shot tore up the carpet where she had landed a heartbeat earlier. I’d been so engrossed in the moment that I had entirely failed to notice the asura take up her rifle again, tear-blurred vision peering through her scope.
“Move!” Baen shouted, sword coming up and Grapple rushing ahead to pursue Tatianna as the captain disappeared from sight. “We can’t let her transform!” I found myself running after her, instinct rather than thought guiding me.
I didn’t want to be doing this.
“Left. Third door.” I said, mechanically, as I caught up with Baen. Tatianna was gone by the time we rounded the corner, but her eyes had shown me enough. “She’s in the dark.” Baen gave a soft whistle, and Grapple got behind her as we advanced slowly on the door.
I had spoken softly, too quietly for Tatianna to have possibly heard me, but nevertheless she was moving rapidly now. Flipping a heavy table over to brace the door, she cast about the room, but then ran for the window and clambered out into the little courtyard where we had all eaten breakfast together these last days.
“She’s barricaded this door. Heading for the courtyard.” I said dully. Baen looked at me, and though I couldn’t see her expression I could almost feel the hard questioning in her expression. “She’s running.”
“She’s buying time.” Baen corrected. “Come on.” I ran with her as she went through the next door, and, in a single motion grabbed a chair and hurled it overarm at the far window. The glass exploded outwards, Grapple leaping after it with Baen and I close behind.
I shouted a warning, and Baen leapt aside as the breakfast, as if hurled by a giant, came flying towards us to smash against the wall behind us. Tatianna came at us in a wordless rush, unarmed, her tear streaked expression hard and cold.
Rolling to a crouch, Baen had to again discard the sword to catch Tatianna’s knee before it connected with her chin. She caught the knee with both hands and forced it back down, the necromancer’s heavy right hook glancing past Baen’s face and sending her rolling back.
Grapple lunged forward with a snarl, leaping on Tatianna, who gave a snarl of her own and fell onto her back, the fern hound’s bulk knocking her flat. She kicked the beast off and scrambled up, barely evading my boot as it swept for her face. Rolling to her feet, Tatianna eyed Baen and I warily as she slowly gave ground. I had seen her fight before, but what I had seen against the Lionguard or Ingesbror’s pirates had clearly just been a sham, at least in terms of physical ability. All I knew for certain that was that she was far stronger than she should have been.
“Kae.” Baen said, unlooping the hatchet from her belt and holding it low and ready in her hand.
“What?” I demanded, and Tatianna’s eyes flickered back and forth, uncertain.
“Stop holding back.”