Chapter Twenty-one: Mindbreaker
Anders was on the floor before he realized what happened. His shoulder, his neck, his arm, his chest-all of it searing with pain, wide, and burning, and deep, and growing . He reached for his collarbone and his hand came back plastered in sticky red. There were feathers around him on the floor, and loose hair clung to the back of his neck in wet clumps. There was a pool of blood around his head. Every time he reached for focus, or for magic, nothing came. He struggled to move, to do anything as he watched Reaver inch closer over the tops of his boots like a wolf claiming its prize.
He tried to get up and failed. The pain was too great and he choked out something garbled as he fell back down, Reaver's towering shadow falling at his feet. Anders gasped, unable to draw in a proper breath. And Reaver-Reaver smiled.
"Tsk, what is it with mages, glowing blue, and trying to squirm away like worms after I shoot them?"
Anders blinked, darkness pulling at the corners of his eyes. His head felt weighted with stones. Looking up at Reaver was the hardest thing he had ever had to do, but with every coal burning in his gut Anders would make sure that if he were to fall right here, right now, that he was the last thing he saw. Again he tried to move, and for the first time he noticed the familiar blue lightning crackling over his fingers, his arms, his entire being. But it was useless.
Blood loss. Something had been severed, something-
Anders blinked again, his vision swirling. He had to focus. He was a doctor, he knew what was happening. Objectively, he knew, and yet when it wasn't a patient, when it was him -
Reaver slid Anders' leg out of the way with grace as he approached. Anders could only twist, to try and squirm away, but Reaver was on him in an instant. Anders screamed, a sound which tore through his throat as he was blinded by hot white, fingers pulling uselessly as Reaver drove the heel of his boot into Anders' wound.
"You should have just taken my offer earlier, perhaps then you wouldn't be in such agony." This he said slowly, each word separated by a sharp kick to his victim. "You just had to accept your part. You, and that wolf, and that little shit." He reeled his heel back before stomping back down on Anders' shoulder, delighting in how faint the mage's protests were becoming. "You just had to play your parts!" Reaver let out a low breath. "But they're not with you now, are they? Now. What is the best way to draw out a stubborn empath and the were-man that is most certainly with him?"
The question being fiendishly rhetorical, Reaver aimed his pistol with a smile. Blue eyes full of lightning glared up at him and Reaver stared back down at Justice with Justice with poison in his smile. "Goodbye, Nurse ."
But the bang that should have split the room didn't come: instead a lifeless boomerang clattered to the ground - struck out of the air with a simple swing of the former lord's golden cutlass.
Reaver cocked a manicured brow. " Really now, " he scoffed. He turned to see the teenager who had thrown the weapon closer than he had been moments before, black blade poised to strike when an opening presented itself. "I have centuries of experience - as a pirate lord, a lord of industry, and as an Oasis Guardian - and you think you can come at one such as myself armed with only a boomerang and a jian blade?"
Sokka swallowed, blue eyes flicking from Reaver to Anders. He couldn't let Anders die. Especially not now, not when he'd stopped Reaver before. He just needed a chance.
Reaver pouted as if fighting Sokka held all the inconvenience of swatting a fly. Without taking his pistol from his shot, he flexed the wrist holding his sword. He was ready for a one-sided duel: Sokka's black, meteoric iron against Reaver's gilded steel and bejeweled revolver.
"A gun makes things uneven," Renkotsu stepped forward, the long tail of his sky-blue bandana billowing out behind him. He had abandoned his canon in a swelling pile of sand, its primitive fuses ruined, and stood before Reaver with empty hands. "But expected of someone who claims he was once a pirate."
Reaver cocked a brow. "And what of you?" he said, observing Ren for a moment with curiosity. "It's your turn now, isn't it? Go on, take a shot."
"Not much of a point: you're a preternatural master of projectiles, highly opportunistic, with self-admitted 'centuries' of experience," Renkotsu summarized. He brushed his fingers over the wires of his vambraces. "Any projectile is useless," he clearly, factually stated.
"Finally! A man who can see reason! Someone who sees his fate and is ready to just lay down and die ." And with that, Reaver shot Ren square in the chest.
But when his body only jerked from the hit, and did not fall to aforementioned death, Reaver fired again. And again. And again. Each with the same dark red mist springing from the wound, staining Ren's shirt, but nothing more.
" You're supposed to be dying!" Reaver huffed as if Renkotsu's survival were a personal insult. His eyes narrowed, it finally clicking into place. "You're awfully fleshy for a hollow man."
Reaver let his pistol fall away from Anders' limp form. When he brought it to bear and aimed between Renkotsu's eyes, Ren stood his ground. Reaver frowned. "You walking corpses all share one weakness," he went on.
Renkotsu glared up and over the barrel at Reaver. "I am not going to die a third time," he retorted, words hard and edged, "Let alone to a man who has never once suffered it himself!
"How little you know," Reaver replied, cocking the chamber.
The immortal snarled as he turned to face the voice, the image of defiance in his view: Wash held aloft her sonic pistol, and across the chasm of the ballroom they stared one another down.
"Is this it then," said Reaver, "your whole little coalition is here?"
"You're some piece of work," Wash spat, her eyes narrowed. Reaver smiled.
"A masterwork, perhaps. And you," he replied, "are the hag that has been hiding in woods these last few years, pestering me."
He stepped over Anders' body, driving his heel into the wound. Justice screamed, his one functioning arm gripping Reaver's knee as he writhed. Thwat. With his other boot, Reaver kicked Justice hard across the face. The arm holding his knee let go.
Reaver addressed the crowd: "If anyone else so much as steps one toe his way, I'll save you the trouble and end his life myself," Reaver warned, firing a warning shot in between them both. Flakes of marble burst across the floor. "And maybe take out one of these two, while I'm at it," he added, pointing to the bodies of Alastor and Nadine across the hall.
Wash had her sonic pistol held straight out, her hands experienced, unwavering as the high-pitched whine filled the air. "You underestimate us," she said back, to which Reaver scoffed.
Heturned, glancing towards the lieutenant with annoyed indifference. He clicked his tongue. "And how is that, hm? I will block any shot you make. I can stop any bullet."
"For starters," Wash said quietly, "this gun doesn't use bullets."
She pulled the trigger and a sonic blast sent Reaver flying across the room. He careened into a pillar, colliding into it with a sharp crack. He crumpled into a heap at its base, Dragonstomper flying out of his hands and onto the floor beside him.
Renkotsu was on him in an instant, igniting the oiled wires from within his sleeves and shooting coiled snakes of flame down upon their foe. Reaver dodged one, and then the other, his reflexes faster than should have been humanly possible. But Renkotsu expected that, and a few carefully placed blows later Reaver was exactly where he needed to be - away from his Dragonstomper, away from the wounded.
"Go get Anders," Wash called to Remus and Naoya, following Reaver with her scope as she bolted for his fallen gun. "Hurry up!"
They didn't need to be told.
" Anders! " Remus rushed forward from behind Wash, throwing himself to the floor beside the wounded mage with his wand outstretched. "Anders, stop," Remus breathed. "Anders, don't move, don't move. I can-"
Remus reached for Anders' shoulder, but a hand encased in blue lightning snatched his wrist, pressing on bone harder than should have been possible with so much blood pooling on the floor. Remus bit back a pained grunt, and he saw nothing brown in the eyes staring back at him.
"Justice," he pleaded, "please, let me-I have to-"
When words failed him, Remus held his wand aloft with his one free hand and uttered the most powerful healing incantation he knew. But nothing happened, and the air left his lungs.
"What-?" Remus tried again. When it didn't work, he tried another. Then another, and another . He swore, choking back a panicked noise and brushing back his fringe from his eyes, unaware of the streak of Anders' blood it left across his brow. "My magic-Naoya, I can't-!"
"Please," Justice choked, and for the first time Remus witnessed fear in the spirit's eyes.
Naoya knelt beside the two of them, taking a deep, steadying breath. Trying to stuff down the feelings of his friends beside him, their feelings that threatened to wash over his senses; of the fight happening just beyond the cover of the lieutenant's guard. "I can stop the bleeding, but, Remus… You have to focus. I can't handle you and Justice worked up and this close." His large eyes looked to Anders's wound, then to Remus. "I need to put what I can into healing. Can you… expose the wound?"
Remus swallowed. His mouth was dry. He let go of Justice's hand, reaching for the dagger Anders carried at his side and freeing it from it's scabbard. Remus cut away the leather and cloth of Anders' coat, tearing open what remained of the feathered pauldrons to expose the wound. From the front, it was a large hole. But the exit wound on the back was nothing short of an explosion.
Oh, God , Remus thought, was Anders even conscious anymore? Was Justice the only thing keeping him-
Skin came away with the cloth and Justice cried out when the coat was pulled away.
"I'm sorry, I'm sorry," was all Remus could say over and over, the words barely more than a whisper, yet more like a chant as Remus gripped the dagger with white knuckles
Naoya quickly surveyed the bloody hole, hands shaking as he slowly spread his long fingers out over the red. Another steadying breath and he closed his eyes, pressing all the energy he could muster into the wound. Like a blanket, the wound became encased in a desperately thin layer of pink skin. But the muscle did not regrow. The bones of what had formerly been a clavicle protruded dangerously from beneath the new layer, which continued to ooze glaring red, though not nearly as strong as before.
But Naoya stopped, breathing hard and hardly able to hold himself up. "There," was all he could manage.
"That's-not enough," said Remus. "You've just barely stopped the bleeding, he's, he's-we can't move him like this, Naoya, please!"
Naoya shook his head, immediately realizing his mistake as the room dissolved into a swirling mass. He tried to catch himself, leaning on his hands as he placed them on the ruined parquet underneath him. "I stopped him from bleeding to death! Remus… the room's spinning, I'm running on empty. If I keep going, you'll be carrying us both out!"
Remus' stomach went even colder as the forms of Mabel and Dipper ran out into the smoke.
"No, stay back!" Remus tried to say, but as he held his hand out to stop them he caught sight of the blood across his palm and just about choked. Dipper skidded to a halt at the pooling red, but Mabel knelt down over Anders' body and turned.
"Dipper, your bag!" she said, making grabby hands at him. She added, "Hurry!" as her brother fumbled with his hands, his eyes locked onto Anders.
"Give it to me," Connor growled, arriving beside Dipper and plucking the bag from his shoulders like nothing. Dipper continued to stare, his entire body still as stone. "What do you need?"
"The red needle thingy," said Mabel, and Remus turned.
"From the medbay?" Remus gasped, and as the stimpak emerged wrapped in Connor's claws he could have kissed a troll.
"Mabel, wait," Dipper said quickly. "I thought you said Anders didn't know what they would do! Don't you think we should read the instructions-"
"Nope! No time!" she said, sinking the needle deep into the meat of Anders' shoulder.
A horrible hissing came from the reservoir as the fluid inside was depressed in less than a second. Justice's breath hitched and he buckled, the blue lightning across his skin fading and then bursting with renewed vigor so bright that the others had to shield their eyes. Where Naoya had left a simple covering of skin, new tissues rebuilt themselves and the cavern began to refill. Bone sank back under the surface, and Anders' chest expanded as he took his first full breath in far too long.
But it was still not enough. The exit wound was still gaping, still raw and very much open. The thin skin protecting the rest of his injury would break like tissue paper. They needed to get Anders out of here if he was still going to make it.
Mabel wiped away the remaining blood with her sleeve. "I'm just going to pretend this is strawberry jam," she breathed, grabbing hold of the bag and mounting it on her shoulder. "Connor, can you carry-?"
But Connor was gone. Nearly halfway across the hall, they watched the balverine dodge a blinding hail of fire and sonics to cross the battlefield and reach his leader. The last two of their stimpaks was clutched in his maw.
"Naoya, can you…?" Remus grunted, carefully wrapping Anders' wounded arm around his shoulder. But Naoya was not in any condition to lift the limp mage from the way he leaned against the wall to stand up, quietly watching the skirmish on the ballroom floor.
Dipper was right there beside him to bear the brunt of Anders's weight on that side. "I've got him," he said.
Wash let off another volley of rounds, sound waves tearing through the room in globs of distorted air. Reaver ducked, then swung himself around to avoid the flaming wires before allowing them to wrap completely around his cutlass. Then, he yanked. Hard. Renkotsu toppled onto his knees as Reaver dragged him.
Reaver's hair was disheveled and blood was seeping onto his brow from beneath his scalp, and as he dodged one more blast from the sonic pistol his eyes were alight with a hate and fury none of them had ever seen before. He pushed a fallen lock back into place with a glove dirtied with residue. Reaver was backed into a corner, pinned between the wall and the approaching Firestarters. All around him his mansion was collapsing; changing into something else entirely. Reaver's empire was literally crumbling into dust around him.
Reaver twisted his sword, severing the wires with a sharp jerk of his now flaming blade, and when he turned to Wash there was nothing resembling mercy in his face.
Just as his sword fell to meet her flesh, Reaver stopped and uttered several foreign curses when Sokka's blade collided with his own.
Sokka swung hard and fast, but every opening was cut off, every swing blocked by the skill of an opponent literal centuries beyond his skill. Sokka ducked as Reaver sliced through the air with a flourish. Reaver's cutlass smashed against the ear-tips of his wolf-shaped helmet and it skidded across the floor, upturned after being knocked off. Undeterred, Sokka tried one last time: he didn't need to beat Reaver, only to keep him occupied long enough to-
Sokka screamed, falling to the ground and clutching the right side of his head. His sword clattered uselessly onto the floor at his knees, and he stared, stunned, at his opponent.
"You shouldn't bring only a sword to a gunfight," Reaver muttered over him, staring down at his prone form. From within his jacket, Reaver had produced a smaller, much less intricate pistol that barely fit in the palm of his hand; barely bigger than a peashooter. But it was enough to do the job.
Sokka attempted to get away, crawling backwards as he clutched his ear, trying to ignore the red - his own red - dripping through his fingers. His ear stung horribly. He didn't know how bad the damage was. He just knew that he had to get away to get up and fight again.
"I have had enough of this- this little game ," Reaver growled, and he aimed his secondary pistol one last time.
Everything stopped. There was no sound of impact, no fleshy thump against the floor.
Smoke fell away from the barrel of the gun, but the bullet was held in between it and its target, floating in midair mere inches from Sokka's eye. It clattered against the floor, rolling away from its target. Sokka let out a sigh of relief that seemed to use all the air in his lungs.
Reaver turned on his heel to face Naoya, who stood opposite the ballroom from him. The psychic frowned, a rare seriousness about him. Even with his bangs hanging in his face, it was easy to tell that his eyes were dark and tired.
"And here is the part-man of the hour," Reaver greeted, flashing his teeth in a sickly grin. "All this mess just because you didn't want to do one, little thing. Just one, eensy-teensy, tiny thing. I'm beginning to think innate, inhuman stubbornness that makes a mess of multiple universes is a certified Itsuki-family trait." When Naoya didn't react, Reaver's mouth drew up into an annoyed pout. With the small, palm-pistol, he aimed right at Naoya. "At least an opponent who shuts up is a welcome change of pace. Last chance to do that tiny, minute thing. Isn't this what you'd rather have, someone who volunteers? And I do volunteer. So do it. Unlock my blood or however it is you do it. Make. Me. Truly immortal ."
"So you're not really immortal," Ren partially-sneered. "Only ageless."
Reaver chuckled as if he'd won. "The Oasis told me he can change one's fate." His tone implied that it was the most obvious thing in the room. "He can manipulate someone's abilities, gift someone 'potential powers' that one may not have been born with but that run in their bloodline. And going way back I have true immortals."
Naoya finally spoke: "Do you have a monologue prepared for everything? If so, can you just kill me already?" He was still frowning, his expression hadn't changed in the least. "And I'm not going to do that."
"I'm sorry, what was that? It sounded like you-"
"Did I stutter ?" Naoya said, lilting his voice in a mocking imitation of Reaver. "Maybe I wasn't clear enough: no ." He stepped forward, throwing his arms out wide, broken glass skittering across the floor in front of him in his small release of his powers. "No. You know you're not going to get what you want by now, you're not that stupid. So shoot me."
Reaver's ocean-dark eyes narrowed, not appreciating the imitation in the least. Without missing a beat, he aimed his gun at Wash. "How about your little outfit's leader instead? It's no skin off of my bones who I shoot." He again turned his gun back on Sokka. "But, then again, you didn't step in until this one…" Next it was Remus and the twins, still struggling with Anders. "Oh! What about the slow-moving targets trying to skedaddle out of my ballroom-"
Naoya's pupils constricted until they became mere black pinpricks on large orbs of amber. STOP , his consciousness shaped the command into a wave that went out and touched the minds of every living being in the chamber.
A constant high-pitched ringing noise that seemed to come from nowhere yet everywhere at once filled the air. It wasn't painful. It was like a pressing, numb paralysis - they couldn't move their limbs or turn their heads - but Reaver was stuck with his finger unable to pull the trigger.
No one in the ballroom could move a muscle unless Naoya gave them back control over themselves.
He didn't like it when others were in pain. He didn't want anyone to die. He didn't like this!
The psychic stood, thin frame heaving with his own rage. Only once before had someone made him feel like this . Images flashed through his mind of a ruined rooftop and the limp body of a lifeless demon's corpse on the cracked concrete… of beautiful, translucent dark wings broken and mangled, of blood painting the ground. It was the anger of finding Kaname on the ground all over again . Those memories fueled his outrage further
Naoya had killed before, and he hated that feeling; but killing wasn't the same as wanting to completely obliterate someone, an emotion he hated himself for even more. And the only person who could stop him, the girl who had stopped him before - those now long months ago - wasn't present. Mana wasn't there . There was no one else of his ilk there who could pull his mental plug and whisper promises of peace to the long-broken pacifist.
Warm ripples of psi radiated out of his body as he walked towards where the Lord of the Golden City stood frozen, Naoya's almost pupiless amber eyes locked on the signature weapon of the man who'd caused all this - discarded on the floor.
He turned and picked up the ornate, antique firearm, as if he were admiring a designer object he knew was a knockoff. It was already cocked and ready to fire. He turned it over in his hands before turning the barrel on the immortal. There was no soft, mischievous glint to his eyes, only a hard, alien determination.
"My people don't like using weapons. Especially don't like guns," Naoya listlessly stated, "Guns kill too easily. They're loud. They're messy. There's usually no conscience behind pulling a trigger." His stature was too short to press the gun anywhere but Reaver's jaw, and his demeanor somehow darkened even moreso as he pushed the barrel against what was in his reach. "But give me one good reason why I shouldn't blow your brains out right here. In front of everybody. And let your 'pets' eat them off the floor."
"Now, Itsuki," Reaver started, his voice taking on a submissive tone. "Er- Naoya , you wouldn't shoot a man asking for a show of mercy, would you?"
Naoya said nothing
"A trade, then? I could perhaps-"
"Your deals suck," Naoya said abruptly. His head tilted sharply in a small, jarring motion - as if he were imitating his normal movement. "But isn't this what you wanted? 'How does that ability of yours work, Itsuki?' This is what you wanted."
But Reaver kept doing what he did best, talk: "Your grandmother was just starting to work out the Organization's terms out when I first met her." He managed to swallow. "And, if I remember right, she settled on, what was it… peace with no quarters? If making peace fails, you 'eliminate' the problem and…" He grinned. "And you do not leave witnesses. Now doesn't that sound so familiar? You have a whole room of witnesses, Naoya. So, really, are you going to-"
"If you really knew as much about me - and what I am - as you say you do, you should know that I don't like rules very much. Especially my family's."
If Reaver could have cursed under his breath, he would have. "So what, then, do you want?"
"It's not about what I want. You wanted to make a deal with a mindbreaker, but joke's on you because mindbreakers don't make deals." He leaned closer. "If the Oasis told you about me, it left out that part. Or maybe you didn't listen beyond what mentioned you? Seems to be your thing, Reaver."
"Naoya-", a strained voice interjected and Naoya met Dipper's eyes, wide with a fear that made the psychic's gut clench. He saw Mabel behind him, one foot suspended mid-stride by Naoya's mind-he could feel the strain on her, on them both, like he was a part of them-he felt the pounding of Remus' heart, and he saw the wetness on his shoulder as Anders' wound began bleeding anew, so much blood-
Assaulted by the emotions in the room, Naoya's pupils dilated ever-so-slightly before was able to filter himself out from everybody else, his pupils contracting again, and he pressed on. "What is Astriferous?" The ringing that permeated the air drew sharply into a short, painful crescendo that made only Reaver cry out before going back to the previous constant tone. "Tick-tock, Marksman ."
"I've already told you, you miserable esper! I wasn't lying earlier when I told you it's a space between worlds. It's a dark, bloody, sentient hole! Takes as it pleases! Does what it wants! Sometimes certain people will throw other people in-and the people who want to go home almost never do."
Almost. But Naoya wouldn't be here if it were always.
"How did you meet my grandmother?" Again, he asked in the same harsh tone.
"F-Ford! She- She was traveling with a man named Stanford Pines! Insufferable scholar of all things strange, paranormal, and all-around dull!"
"You knew Great Uncle Ford?" Dipper could be heard, and he shouted, "Tell us what you know!"
But Naoya was the one controlling this scene. He was the one asking questions. And he had one final, miserable point to drive home:
"How do we go home?"
Reaver swallowed. "I honestly have no clue." The harsh tone came again, and again Reaver cried out: "I. Don't. Know! I don't know how Sara and Ford got home without me! We thought it to be a rule of three! In my prior experience, it's always a blasted rule of three! But evidently they found someone else after I ended up here and lost my plant trail. That's all they kept me around for, anyways." Reaver sneered. "What? I had crimson tiger lilies, thank you."
"Last question," Naoya said slowly, and instead of another mental shock, he pressed the cold barrel of Reaver's gun against the side of the former lord's chin."What are the plants for?"
Reaver glanced down at his chin as best he could, and then back up to Naoya. There was a panicked look in his eyes, an undignified accessory over his posh attire. "Like I told you, like I've continued to tell you: they mark people destined to do deeds here. Mostly, they let you access the Repository." A silent pause encouraged him to go into further detail: "The Repository has relics immemorial, substances of entire worlds written on backed pages of precious jewels and gemstones - legitimate books of ages! I can't tell you how Sara and Ford got home, but the Repository gave us the idea for the three-plants rule! I stole one of Ford's notebooks in retaliation the last time they visited, you can check that chicken-scratched drabble!
Naoya didn't remove the gun from Reaver's face. He didn't change his posture or expression. He didn't budge. His eyes, mostly an alien amber, just kept staring in an inhuman, empty manner. Reaver's dark, blue eyes went wide, as if he were seeing the most haunting image.
"Sarashina, please ," fell out of Reaver's mouth. "N-Not again. You got what you wanted from me - I don't have a plant anymore! "
The explosion rent the air; not simply loud, but reverberating through space, through marble, through bone. In a violent crack of gunpowder and red spray, Reaver twisted and fell back onto the tile, into the gray and pink splatter that stained the once-fashionable tile of the ballroom floor.
Dragonstomper clattered to the floor, dropping from Naoya's grip. The psychic clenched his eyes shut, grabbing at his head with his hands as he swayed uneasily before suddenly going lax.
The release was instantaneous.
The strange paralysis was lifted as Naoya collapsed into a heap on the floor beside Reaver, but the silence continued as shock was replaced by something else. Every set of eyes scattered between Naoya, and Reaver's body, the echo of the gunshot still ringing like a wail through their ears.