It took too long for him to rouse. His head felt like it had been split apart by an ax.
He blinked one bleary eye open to realize he was still down on Sally’s floor. It didn’t take him long to recognize what’d happened – to recall the sight – the impossible sight – of the Hendari crystals lined up neatly on her bedside table like rings.
Joseph felt empty, like something had been ripped right out of him. Sally Winters… wasn’t Sally Winters. She was the Queen.
That cold refrain echoed, sounding like distant wind racing through craggy peaks.
He shook up to his knees to realize that James lay on his side only several meters away. Joseph crunched over quickly, though he detected James’s breath a second later. He grabbed his shoulder and pulled him around.
James blinked blearily. “What… what the hell is going on?” He shoved up.
“I’ve got… I’ve got to get out of here,” he hissed. He tried to call Forest on neural comms. It was unsurprisingly blocked.
Someone groaned from the main room. James jolted up. Jerking out, he saw Willis. He shoved down to his knees and helped her up.
She gripped the side of her face with shaking fingers. “What… what happened? What was that light? What were those…?” Her gaze became even glassier.
James swayed too.
They hadn’t touched the crystals, hadn’t even really seen them that close. The mere presence of them had been enough to scramble their heads. Hell, unshielded, simple humans shouldn’t be able to touch Hendari crystals.
Serena? She’d grabbed up all of them.
So what did that tell him?
He kept staggering. He didn’t know if it was what Serena had done to him – or just the fact that Sally was….
He had to clench his teeth as he went to fill in that sentence. It was as if his mind had created tracks for him – these automatic paths that would take him from one side of the equation of what Sally Winters was to its conclusion.
Now he had to rip those tracks up. He grabbed his face, practically squeezed his eyes out of his skull. Sally Winters was the Queen. He had to get to Forest.
No, he corrected himself as a powerful gut-punch of pure emotion sank into his stomach and rattled up his spine.
All he could see was that dream. The one where she’d floated above him, that gate appearing behind her. He could feel his hand stretching out, see her impassive stare now.
Joseph wasn’t a stranger to emotions. They’d been haunting him his entire life. Ever since he’d been taken back from Deus, fear had been his constant friend. But he’d never felt anything as exquisitely powerful as this – as soul-crushingly destroying.
He had to get to Sally. He had to stop her. It didn’t matter that she was the Queen. No – it did – and that was the point.
He shoved up. He looked right at James. “Give Willis a hand. And guard that room,” he added.
“Joseph, what’s going on?” James stammered.
“I’ve got to get out of here.” Joseph ran for the doors.
“Don’t waste time. Transport right there,” James said.
Joseph froze. “What?”
“I know you’re some kind of super secret asset. I don’t exactly know what you are, though. But I’m assuming you have access to your own transporters.”
“I’m not a spy or anything,” James said as he waved his hand quickly, his whole body shaking at the monumental effort of simply moving his fingers. “I just figured you’re different. You’re not like the rest of us. You’ve seen real action, haven’t you, Joseph? I don’t know what you are, but whatever it is, just stop Serena,” his voice wavered with real fear.
It was up to Joseph. Forest had said that many times. When Joseph wanted to reveal himself, he could, and there would be no repercussions. As long as he did so willingly. She didn’t want him accidentally pulling out his sword. This would be no accident.
Joseph took a step back. He snapped a salute. Strong, poised, elegant even. James snapped one back, though he couldn’t control his arm.
Then Joseph ported right out of there. He saw James’s eyes opening. It wasn’t in fear – just awe. And thankfulness.
Joseph had time to enjoy that moment. He’d been so afraid for so long of what his friends would really think of him. Now?
Sally. He had to get to Sally.
He appeared in the command building.
There was a commotion. So no one saw him.
He saw Serena, though. She was rushing forward. In her arms? The Hendari crystals. They weren’t outputting their full power for whatever reason. And they weren’t burning her skin from her flesh.
Her face was… her expression… God, he couldn’t explain it. He needed a thousand psychology degrees to even be able to begin to plumb the depths of how broken she looked right now.
People screamed and jerked out of her way.
She continued to run, skidding and falling over sometimes, but always getting up.
Joseph kept calling Forest. She was uncontactable.
Someone came marching up toward Serena. And that someone was Anna.
Everyone got out of her way. Joseph could tell why.
Anna unraveled her psychic powers. They were like a set of wings. Sorry, a set of swords. As they unfurled around her, people just crumpled as if they’d been cut down at the knees.
Some cadets even screamed, clutching their heads.
He tried to move, but he couldn’t.
He reached a hand out, but Anna made eye contact with him.
With nothing more than a cruel smile, she clicked her fingers.
This debilitating charge of psychic force shot into Joseph. It sank into the base of his spine then rammed right up to his head. It felt as if he’d just been attacked by the greatest force in all the universe. This was worse than some heavy cruiser torpedo. This was even worse than a weapon that could destroy an entire planet. This was the very force Joseph was designed to fall for.
As fear ran through him, getting faster, getting heavier, smothering and crushing him at once, he staggered to one knee.
Serena fell to her knees. The crystals tumbled onto the floor with deceptively quiet clicks.
Anna’s eyes opened wide.
There was no joy there. Just victory. You’d think there would be joy, right? Joseph wouldn’t do her the dignity of labeling her emotion as something as simple as happiness. Standard human minds could feel that. But to feel happy, you needed vulnerability at the same time. You had to accept the nature of the universe – that happiness would ultimately be fleeting. From the look in Anna’s eyes, she now had the power to fight everything that dared get in her way, including impermanence.
She wasn’t stupid enough to lean forward and touch the Hendari crystals. Whatever had happened to Serena was starting to pass. She staggered back and looked at her arms.
These great welting sores were appearing. Her uniform sleeves had already burnt off. She looked like a doll that was about to lose its limbs after her master had played with them too much. She certainly couldn’t be a person – not with the completely empty, vacant stare she shot the world.
“Finally,” Anna hissed, the light of the crystals still enough that it sent light playing up around her slack cheeks and smooth brow.
Joseph had to fight. If he didn’t, Anna would take the entire Academy. If she found a way to control the crystals, it would be over. Every single mission he’d been on wouldn’t have counted for a thing.
Come on, he screamed at himself.
The psychic attack kept slamming into him, but just when it seemed he wouldn’t be able to shift a muscle, he brought up the image of those clicking fingers. They had the same effect as always, even though he’d voluntarily turned to them this time. They broke him free just when it felt like nothing else could.
With a roar, Joseph jolted forward. He pulled a blade up, letting it manifest in his fingers with a surge of crackling force.
But he never reached Anna.
It was her turn to click her fingers.
A cascade of psychic force met him. It blasted him off his feet. Joseph tried to fight against it, but he couldn’t. His head was thrust back, his back arching to the point of snapping as his uniform tore down his arms and legs with the sound of overstretched skin.
“I’ve been trying to make you my toy for quite some time, Joseph Lance. I would tell you to wait your turn. This is too convenient, isn’t it? How about I use you to kill the used toy beside you? She has served her purpose now,” Anna hissed.
Joseph’s arms were pulled out by his sides. He couldn’t move, couldn’t stop himself.
In his head… it was just like Deus. He couldn’t… couldn’t stop.
As the horror crashed through Joseph, telling him he would never be free again, a single tear trailed down his cheek. It did nothing but make Anna laugh.
He formed another blade in his hand. Then he dropped. He turned coldly to Serena. She didn’t look up in fear. She couldn’t move her eyes at all. It was as if someone had pulled out a robot’s central computer but left the power on.
Joseph loomed above her. There was no chance now.
No hope for anyone.
The end had come.
Forest could claim that all the Coalition needed was to stand together as one.
But there are some forces you simply cannot withstand.