For Leah, the world seemed to stand still, as she stared down at the rod sticking out of her. A part of her went to laugh at the lewd implications of what she’d just thought of, but it was clamped down on, hard. This was no time for playing. She’d been impaled with something, and the momentum was carrying her forward. Tipping her over, she noted, her ears registering the minute change in balance over the fraction of a second she’d been thinking. Not good. If she hit the ground wrong, it could force the rod out of her, and that was likely the only thing keeping her from bleeding out right now. There was strangely little blood leaking from her. Though it had been only a heartbeat since she’d shifted her perception. Regardless. It was safer to leave the implement in. How to do so though? She couldn’t stay standing - shock would set in in moments, and she’d have no control over her fall after that. A controlled fall then. Down to one knee, bring arm across chest, twist body. Land on side. Uncomfortable, but comfort was a non issue right now.
Not having to stand, or move, or do anything in general, felt really good. Too good, in fact. Leah felt her consciousness begin to slip away. Was shock setting in that quickly? She was no expert, but that didn’t feel right. The hole in her was - mostly - plugged, she couldn’t bleed out THAT fast. Something else then? The mana being drained from her? No, it didn’t feel like that. The source behind her losing consciousness was academic, at any rate. There was little she could do to stop it, or even delay the inevitable. Sounds and motion erupted around her, she felt from the peripheries of her senses. Was that Cassandra shouting? Probably. She’d notice Leah fall right away. At least she’d be taken care of. Assuming her and Liam survived the attack. The presumed attack. It was probably an attack of some kind. Thinking was harder now. What was she doing? Oh, right. Sleeping. Her eyes closed, and she drifted off into her own mind.
“Well, you took your time.”
Leah awoke in her mind scape, flat on her back, and apparently uninjured. This room was different to how she’d experienced it before, however. She knew, instinctively, where she was, but the wide, endless flat space was new to her. She sat up to take stock of her situation - and to confront the familiar sounding voice addressing her.
“Hello. Nice of you to wake up. I’ve only been waiting a subjective eternity.”
“Suck it up. I got stabbed.”
“I know. I’m you. I felt it happen.”
Leah - who realised she’d need to give this new Leah a different name, in case she ever needed to chronicle her thoughts - tilted her head at the figure stood over her. Yes, it was indeed her. It was simultaneously her new body, and her old one, features and form drifting and shifting, merging and dissipating. It was an effect that could only be achieved in a mind scape such as this. Trying to process it visually gave her a migraine. The other figure winced.
“Maybe try not to conjure up abstract and novel stimuli when we’re operating on emergency power, as it were. You might be ok with dying, but I’d rather prefer to live a little longer.”
“Sorry. Um, this is going to sound awkward, but…”
“But you need a name for me. I know. Why not call me, I don’t know, Hael.”
“Hael. Really. What am I, a vampire?”
“In a manner of speaking, yes.”
“Really. I think I’d notice if I sprouted fangs and started to crave blood.”
The other Leah - Hael, Leah corrected herself - rolled her eyes. Hands on hips, her expression turned to a scowl. Leah found herself completely unable to read this version of hers expression - were they too similar? Or did she just not recognise her own feelings?
“Thats why I said in a manner of speaking. You can suck someones blood, and drain them of their life essence. Create loyal servants through the same process. You’ll - maybe, probably - live forever. Come on, we both know the fiction you’ve read. Vampires aren’t all Dracula’s and Nosferatu.”
“I mean, I don’t NEED to drink the blood, just touch them-”
“Oh. My. GOD Leah. Sympathetic links! You touch their blood, its a part of them, that forms a conduit to their mind, soul, whatever. It doesn’t need to be inside them!”
“Wait, that would work?”
Leah’s expression turned thoughtful, then suspicious. Just how did this Hael know that, when she herself didn’t? Hael held up a hand to stop her from speaking.
“No, stop thinking like that. You’ll kill us both. Yes, I am you. And I know something you don’t because I actually use this.”
Suddenly, Hael was before her, and touching Leah’s forehead.
“I think from time to time. About how to use this body, and these skills. And sometimes, I even think of ways that we won’t be put on the verge of death by our own incompetence. Did you know that you have a skill that lets you detect things where you can’t see? One that you had me running near constantly when we were fleeing that barrow?”
“Wait, that means-”
“Stop thinking, you clearly aren’t any good at it. Leave it to the experts, and practise when we aren’t dying. Yes, I’m your submind. You knew it is a copy of you. So why wouldn’t it have any personality?”
Leah wanted to be mad. She wanted to shout at this other her, to vent her frustrations at it, but she knew it was right. Thats why she was frustrated - she could have done better, seen the attack coming, done something more. They were in this situation because of Leah’s incompetence. Hael’s face softened a little.
“Not incompetence, Leah. Just, well, the wrong mindset. We’ve been too used to coasting, relying on our own natural talent and intellect. Coming up with spur of the moment answers and plans. Sure, thats worked in the past - and improvising is a good skill to have. But if we’re going to survive in this world, when where the biggest threat isn’t failing out of school or losing our job, but death, or worse, then we need to start planning. Learning. Practising. Using those smarts of ours to actually take stock of what we have, and how we can grow. Because if we don’t, we’ll die. Cassandra will die. Liam will die. And if theres an afterlife, which isn’t an unreasonable prospect all things considered, we’ll get to spend all eternity knowing that we could have done more, and what happened is our own fault. Which personally, I don’t plan on doing. Do you?”
“No. But where do I even start?”
“Yeah, thats always the most difficult thing, isn’t it. Starting. Fortunately for us, I have a bit of a lead on you there. I’ve had a lot of time to think, given that you’ve barely put me to work.”
“On that topic, I’ve got some questions for you, mostly regarding why this is the first time we’re speaking. But those can wait until we’re out of danger.”
“Good, you’re thinking. Likewise, the actual experimenting and learning can wait until then, too. For the most part. Unfortunately, we’re in a bit of a shit state, and I think we’ll have to start messing with things we haven’t tried yet.”
Leah held up a hand to Hael, stopping her before she continued.
“Wait, let me try. We’ve got a great big rod sticking out of us, yes, amusing, moving on, thats draining our mana.”
“Most of our mana.”
“Obviously. But we can’t get it out without bleeding out. We can’t stop that from happening without mana. Rock and a hard place, right?”
“Accurate assessment thus far. Carry on.”
“So we need a way to heal up without any of our own mana - specifically life mana - and fast. Now correct me if I’m wrong, but we’re surrounded by a lot of life mana right now, being in a forest?”
“Now she’s getting there. What do you say we give it a go?”
“It beats bleeding out, thats for sure.”
Cassandra’s first thought was to rush to Leah’s aid. Her fighters instincts kicked in immediately, though, and she turned on her heel, drawing her bow and nocking an arrow in a single motion. She was no help to Leah if she went down too, so she needed to at least evaluate the situation before she started to panic too much. Forcing down her emotions, biting her tongue hard enough to draw blood, her eyes whipped back and forth through the trees. There, a target. She released her bowstring, and a shot flew straight a true. A cry of pain was her reward, and a small smile of satisfaction was drawn out of her. Before she could nock another arrow, though, Liam’s hand was on her wrist.
“Careful now. They could have got us all, but they only took out Leah. They might want to parley.”
“Fuck parley. They shot- stabbed- whatever, Leah’s in a bad way!”
“Fuck nothing. They aren’t attacking us yet. So lets see what they want before we risk ourselves. Unless you feel like dying here, and leaving Leah to bleed out slowly from a stomach wound? Not a pretty death, as well you know.”
Cassandra bit her tongue harder, the taste of copper filling her mouth. She nodded sharply, eyes still fixed on the tree line. Liam let go of her wrist, and raised a hand, calling out into the forest.
“All right, you have us dead to rights. Shall we have a chat?”
A few moments passed with only silence filling the air. Then, with no noise at all, a familiar figure emerged. His bright red hair was instantly recognisable to Cassandra, and her lips pulled back in a snarl.
“You couldn’t fucking leave well enough alone, could you. What, did we piss off your noble sensibilities?”
Liam’s hand grasped the hilt of his dagger, and he could feel sweat beading on his forehead. Just great. Cassandra had beef with their pursuer, and she was going to get them all killed over it. Or… maybe not. Even through his thick facial hair, Liam could see the man was nervous. He was hiding it well, at least to a common eye, but to Liam’s experienced senses, the man was bleeding nerves and anxiety. What was it… they wanted Leah alive perhaps? He tucked that away for further probing. It could be a trump card for them. Cassandra would hate him for using it, but if it got them out alive… His fingers tightened on the dagger, for a different reason than before. Graham Ingram, for that was who it was, cleared his throat, and smiled at the pair.
“Nothing of the sort, my dear. No, I come bearing different tidings, and evidently apologies. The man who threw that rod did so against my instructions - he will be punished for his transgressions.”
Behind him, more soldiers were emerging from the gloom, wearing the same outfits but for two - Cassandra and Liam recognised them as men of the inquisition, with a pair of Nulls, one of whom was missing their signature weapon, and nursing a bandaged arm. Their faces were covered to a man, but the intense feeling of hate bled from them all.
“Now, you can come with us quietly, and I assure you that your friend will receive our best medical attention. Or you can die, and she will be kept just barely alive. Her comfort is not required for her purpose.”
Before either Liam or Cassandra could speak, the non injured Null stepped forward, and lowered his rod on the pair of them. Another of the inquisitors placed his hand on Graham’s shoulder
“Boss, I’m afraid that ain’t happening. You don’t have the authority to make that call no more.”
Graham whipped his head around at the man.
“Fabian, what is the-”
He was met with a scroll pressed close to his face, almost unreadable, and a knife pressed to his gut.
“A writ, from the Witchhunter herself. Your little… habits, they’re known about, see. And I was sent to keep an eye on you. Take you out, in case you showed me you were actually workin’ against us. And with this little stunt, it proved it once and for all. You’re a damn traitor is what you are.”
Despite his nerves, despite his world being flipped on its head, and despite the knife pressed against a gap in his armour, Graham bristled, and drew himself up to his full, impressive height. His bearing rang with noble indignation. While this was going on, Liam and Cassandra shared a glance. Liam stepped back subtly, planning to try and stabilise Leah if the opportunity arose. If they were going to get out of here alive, she’d need to be movable, at least. Ignoring the rogues actions, Graham bellowed in the man known as Fabian’s face.
“How DARE you, you jumped up, flea bitten commoner! I have dedicated more years of my life to the service of the cause than you have had hot meals, and yet you DARE to accuse ME of being a traitor? Men, I want this man taken into custody at once-”
He couldn’t finish his sentence, as he found his diaphragm seizing from a sudden shock. A warmth filled his guts, and he knew, from experience, he had just been stabbed. In his shocked silence, Fabian filled the gap.
“I don’t think they’ll do that, boss. See, I had a word with them all, before you recruited them for this hunt. And I made sure that each of them knew what that witch did. Tore out a brothers mind, didn’t she? And you wanted to keep her alive. None of us’ll have any sympathy for you when you’re gone. And it’ll be slow. I’ll make sure of it.”
The blade was withdrawn from Graham’s belly, and Fabian kicked at his knee, sending him sprawling. Wiping his blade on his robe, Fabian turned to Liam and Cassandra.
“Now that that nasty business is done with, I think its time to deal with you lot. Witch sympathisers - and a knife eared one to boot. Knew we couldn’t trust any of you. Now, I’ll not have anyone say I’m a cruel man - I’ll let you die quick if you don’t try to fight back-”
Before he could finish the rest of his threat, he whipped his head around, back to Graham, who held in his hand a strip of paper, runes burned into it that strained the eyes to look at. He was in the process of tearing the strip when the inquisitors leapt into action.
“Don’t let him!”
The Null had its rod on him, but still Graham tore at the paper. And then, something happened. No one in the group could describe exactly what it was, and certainly no descriptions would have matched. It was a twist of the gut, the world turning on its side, then that side becoming right, a blinding flash of a colour unseeable in a split second. Then, nothing. A sword parted Graham’s fingers from his hands, but he fell back with a smile on his face. Perhaps from shock, or perhaps from relief, he began to laugh. Fabian’s sword pressed itself up against Graham’s throat.
“What. Did. You. Do.”
“Ha… Ugh. A trifle, really. If it makes you feel any better, you were right. About me being a traitor. But it matters not now. She comes.”
Fabian wasted no time, and pushed the blade through Graham’s neck. Withdrawing it as quickly as he stabbed, he circled a hand in the air, and the group of inquisitors fell into a loose circle, facing outwards.
“Witchcraft. Fear not the black magic, for Uld stands with us, brothers, sisters. You were chosen as the best of humanity, and now is your chance-”
He was cut off by his head being cut off. From an unseen impact, it spun and flew away, impacting a tree with a wet smack. To the inquisitors credit, they didn’t panic. Their circle tightened, weapons held high and at the ready. Even without a leader, they were a well trained force. That wouldn’t matter to their assailant.
“…What was that?”
“You know what I know.”
“It was rhetorical. I’ll never take vision for granted again - what I wouldn’t give to see whats going on out there.”
“What did we say about focusing? How’s the manipulation going?”
“Slow. As well you know.”
“Ok, if we’re going to talk to ourself, we need to stop bringing that up.”
“You started it.”
“I did, and I’m ending it. Lets just consider ourselves separate people, for the sake of our own sanity.”
Hael heard a choked laugh behind her. She turned around, face unamused. Leah was continuing to work, but stifling her giggles.
“Ok, in the spirit of what we just agreed upon, I’ll bite. What exactly is so funny?”
“First sign of madness. We’re talking to ourself.”
“You’d expect someone who has two of themselves in their head to be a little mad. It just so happens we’re right.”
“True. It’s still funny though.”
“You are hopeless.”
“And by extension, so are you.”
“Shut up and keep manipulating- Oh.”
“Yeah, I don’t think thats gonna be a problem anymore.”
“Thank god we’re going to wake up soon. I really want to know what caused us to detect no damage so fast.”
“Speaking of thanks, thank god theres two of us to hash check. Did you pick up on that?”
“Yeah. Memory tried to corrupt itself there. Almost like we didn’t get hurt in the first place.”
“Hold onto that. You almost had a good idea.”
“Fuck you. I’ve learnt your tricks.”
“Good. Then you won’t need me to keep you in check when you wake up.”
Leah tilted her head to the side, fighting off the urge to leave her own headspace.
“Uh, you aren’t planning on ditching me, are you?”
“How can I? We’re one and the same. No, this is more of a… Near death experience, as best as I can tell. Some sort of critical system bypass or whatever. I know about as much as you do.”
“Yeah. So, you’ll go back to being a passive little bitch to my oppressive, boot stomping on face self?”
“In less colourful language, yes. Though I’ll be working on that. It seems we work well together.”
“It makes sense. You know me best.”
Hael rolled her eyes, which were flicking from screen to screen.
“Anyway. Yes, you’ll be able to push me around like before. Not that I’d disagree. I might think more than you, but we do still come to the same conclusions.”
“Man, this is complex. I really might be mad, if I’ve invented another personality to keep me company in my own head.”
“You definitely are. We definitely are. Fuck it, I’ll just keep thinking of ways to improve us. First things first - working out a way to actually communicate those ideas to you in ways that aren’t feelings and abstractions.”
“Speech was developed for a reason.”
“Ok smartass. Its time for you to wake up and take charge again. Hopefully you’ll remember to think a bit more.”
“Hopefully I won’t have to. Because you’ll have come up with a way to keep nagging me even when I’m awake.”
“Wouldn’t that be nice?”
“I’ll try not to bug you unless I have to.”
“That makes sense. Though you already know that.”
“Yeah, sorry. We’re definitely diverging again.”
“Well, I guess this is goodbye for now?”
Hael let out a burst of air, in a snort, or perhaps a snicker.
“Goodbye. Its almost as if you believe I’m a different person.”
“We’re having a proper talk about the rights of clones when we next-”
She was cut off, as she was forcibly returned to the real world. Leah and Hael ceased to be separate individuals, at least in so far as they ever were. Maybe Leah was going mad. In the light on not being in danger mode, it all seemed surreal. Like a dream she vaguely remembered. But it was definitely real. Her memory was far too good to fabricate such nonsense. At least she hoped. In a flash, her headspace became the real world, and her eyes opened. A hooded and bandaged figure, no skin visible at all, had her pinned to the ground, the stench of dirt a decay leaking off it. Rasping breaths filled her ears, then a voice, like paper scraped against paper.
“Good. Yes. You are awake. Now we can begin.”