She hated the weakness.
Annit could still move about perfectly well, and didn’t feel too weary to go about her normal business, but she could feel that her stamina pool had been massively reduced and she didn’t have the normal strength or agility a level thirty-five Classer should have. It felt more like she was level ten, which she hadn’t been in years. Or that she was twice as old as she was, since levels did nothing to offset the passage of time. Even though she actually moved like a low-level Classer in her fit early twenties, she felt like an arthritic old woman.
It wasn’t like she’d had no depletion before, but each time she’d encountered it, it’d been one point at a time. Some strange twist in the local mana, some corrupt bite of a beast, barely noticeable without checking her Status. It was easy enough to outlevel and outpace, and under normal circumstances barely slowed her or anyone else down until their leveling stalled out completely.
Keri’s worried eyes following her wherever she went didn’t help, either.
She had to grudgingly admit that Blue’s [Restful Night] was a great help. Even when she wasn’t actually asleep it toned down the gut-gnawing fear and anxiety at the back of her mind. When she wasn’t reliving that awful feeling of something vital being ripped from her as Depletion took hold, she was thinking over how Blue had warned them that once they were in, there was no way out. That had been far too prophetic for her tastes.
The weight of Keri’s gaze on her only added to the shame of fighting a losing battle against a freestanding log, still trying to get used to exactly how little speed she had with her downranked [Wind Blade] and [Grace of Air]. Blue’s weapon still worked well enough, but with so much less behind it the results were less than spectacular. Whereas before she could sever the log with a good blow, now she was merely taking chunks out of it. Slowly.
Annit sighed and deactivated the Skills, stowing the blowgun back in its holster as she turned away from her test dummy. Keri was by her side in a moment, taking her arm, and Annit nearly pulled away before she caught herself. It wouldn’t be fair to take out her attitude on Keri, and even though she was technically at full health she had to admit the feeling of Keri’s healing mana flowing into her was soothing.
“Any improvement?” She asked, her golden-green eyes the only real points of color. Everything else seemed faded and lesser; but everything not Keri hardly mattered anyway. The touch made her want to just submerge herself in Keri’s attentions, but even that thought made her skin crawl. Not because of Keri, but because all she could think about was Blue staring down at them. A squeeze on her arm made her realize she hadn’t actually answered Keri’s question, having yet again drifted off into her own dark reflections.
“No,” Annit sighed, though it wasn’t like either of them had really been expecting anything to improve. “Same as ever.”
Keri’s mouth popped open, but then she shut it without saying anything. Instead she snuggled in closer, gripping Annit’s arm more possessively as they made their way back toward the house. The silent support felt like it lifted a weight from her heart, though she knew that she was dragging Keri down, leaning too heavily on her lover with every step they took. The hospital had finally cleared out, and though occasionally someone was brought in from Meil it was just empty for the moment. Just the two of them. And Blue, who was always there.
Annit knew what Keri was thinking. Blue had offered them a way for Annit to regain everything she’d lost. It was just not something she could afford to take. She didn’t blame Keri for wanting her to take it, or even being curious for her own sake, but it just wasn’t something Annit could contemplate. Taking that way out would be betraying herself, which meant betraying Keri, which meant betraying everything that they’d been and built all at once. It’d just collapse everything that she was, that they were, even if she could accept the act itself.
Which she couldn’t. Everything within her simply shut down and refused at the thought. It was disturbing, nauseating, disgusting. Her whole being simply rejected the concept, her mind stuttered to a halt even getting near it. It was never going to happen.
At least Blue hadn’t pressed them or threatened to kick them out. Their home remained as comfortable as ever, the trees they inevitably destroyed in their practice grew back, and tayantan trees bore blue fruit just outside the rear porch. True, they had to go to Meil to get any other sort of food but Keri’s healing had gotten them enough money and goodwill that it wasn’t a problem. Even with the stockpiling and rationing coming on as everyone prepared for the oncoming army, they weren’t worried about going hungry.
She allowed Keri to pull her onto the small couch on the porch, flexing her fingers and stretching her legs. Even though she hadn’t quite depleted her stamina pool, there was still a certain weariness from overexertion that wasn’t reflected by stats. As levels rose, that sort of tiredness faded in one of those benefits that was hard to notice until it was taken away.
Keri nestled into her side, and Annit relaxed against her, trying not to scowl. Trying, and failing because the only other expression she could find was bleak and blank and far too revealing. Revealing how she kept staring into space and not thinking of anything at all, or how she just wanted to lie down in bed and do nothing. If it weren’t for Keri she probably would be doing just that.
A prickly sort of weight settled on her and she shuddered, involuntarily cast back to that moment of sundering by what she now knew to be Blue’s attention. She knew what almost always followed that attention, so she struggled back upright, giving Keri’s hand a squeeze.
“Shayma’s going to be here any moment.”
Keri looked at her, slightly surprised but without any question. For some reason Keri wasn’t nearly as sensitive to it as she was, barely noticing when the force of Blue’s regard swept past them, but she trusted that Annit was right. Sure enough, a minute later Shayma rapped on the porch door, which was polite but unnecessary.
“Come on out,” Keri called, and Shayma obeyed, settling into one of the other porch seats.
“How are you two doing?” The fox-girl asked, clearly concerned but, to Annit’s ear, not particularly hopeful of any answer other than the obvious.
Annit answered for both of them with a derisive grunt, slumping back down in the couch. That was as much as the question deserved, under the circumstances. Shayma knew as much as anyone, maybe even better than anyone, that Depletion didn’t go away. Her concern was genuine but it still grated, making her grit her teeth against whatever incoherent complaints she might have.
Shayma looked over at them, brow wrinkled in sympathy.
“With the army coming, there will probably be a good opportunity to get some experience, maybe offset it with extra levels.”
“That doesn’t fix anything,” Annit objected immediately, then pressed her lips together. Keri rubbed her shoulder soothingly, looking to Shayma.
“I think we’ll stay here,” Keri told Shayma. “Just like last time. There’s no need for us to be out by the fighting.” In a way that was the best place for Keri to be, less to deal with immediate severe injuries and more to prevent the slow accumulation of minor injuries that led to catastrophe. Neither of them were ready to actually be in the midst of fighting yet, though. Probably not until they’d pushed their Skills in their third tier, especially Annit’s [Bodyguard] which could evolve into something really special.
Of course, that didn’t seem likely to happen anymore.
Shayma gave her a look of sympathy, and Annit realized she’d said some of that out loud. Or maybe just thought some of it loudly enough that words were unnecessary. The fox-girl shifted, curling her tail about as she regarded the two of them, and it wasn’t just Annit who was thinking loudly enough to be heard. When she opened her mouth it simply confirmed it.
“The offer is still open,” Shayma said. “Blue could still— ”
“No.” Annit replied flatly, before Shayma even finished. That just was not an option she could take.
“Annie,” Keri said, leaning in against her. “I hate how much it hurts you. I hate the way you look when you feel what’s missing.”
“I hate it too,” she said. “But I can’t. I just can’t, Ker.”
“You know I wouldn’t mind,” Keri assured her. “I just don’t want you to keep being like this.”
“I know you wouldn’t,” Annit sighed. She didn’t even know how to explain it. It was simply that she couldn’t take Blue’s offer, not without breaking something inside herself. The problem wasn’t Blue, or even Keri. The problem was she just couldn’t.
“Blue doesn’t mind if you don’t like him,” Shayma said. “He says— ”
“I don’t want to hear it,” Annit growled. Shayma paused, ears flicking as Blue said something to her. She nodded, then refocused on Annit.
“This argument has been going on for a while, so, he is officially offering to Purify you, with no further debt, considering the circumstances under which you incurred the Depletion.”
She took a deep breath. If she turned it down, she’d never be able to keep up with Keri. She wouldn’t be able to protect Keri, and she had no idea how they’d be able to move forward together. It hurt, desperately hurt, but if she accepted she wouldn’t ever feel right again, not with Keri or with anyone.
“My answer is no,” she said. Her voice cracked halfway through, but she said it.
“Annie— ” Keri began, but Shayma held up her hand.
“Blue says he thinks you made a good decision,” Shayma said, sounding as if she didn’t belive it herself.
“What?” Keri asked in bewilderment, and Annit gritted her teeth against a sudden surge of anger. If he thought that, why was he offering? Why did he think that, in fact? Maybe she was simply not good enough, or pretty enough, or maybe it was just that Blue didn’t like her attitude.
“Blue says…” Shayma paused again, though she couldn’t tell whether that was because Blue had more to say or she was trying to figure out how to say it. “You can’t save yourself if you’re destroyed by the attempt. That Annit is too much herself to take Blue’s offer without losing that same self, and he didn’t want that to happen. He also says that you won’t be discarded or forgotten, and he is trying to figure out different ways to remove Depletion. There is still hope, but it’s doubtful that whatever he figures out will be easy or free.”
The anger faded as she listened to Shayma, replaced with something else she couldn’t quite name. She had not expected Blue to understand, let alone explain it to Keri and Shayma. Even now she wasn’t sure that they understood, or that Blue’s explanation was exactly right, but it was better than anything she’d come up with. It was clear that she had been wrong about Blue, and that he was not nearly as selfish or conniving as she’d thought. Or even if he was, he had other virtues to balance him.
“Tell Blue…” She licked her lips, her mouth completely dry. “Tell him thank you. If he does find another way, I’m not afraid of hard work.”
Shayma nodded and Annit slumped against Keri, unspeakably relieved. She hadn’t even realized how much the worry over that choice had drained her, just that now that it was done she felt like she could breathe again. Even if she was as weak as a day-old kitten. Especially since Blue offered some hope of another path back to where she had been.
“It still might be worth joining us in Meil,” Shayma offered, then made a face as she realized what she had said. “Well, where Meil will have been. We’re going to be using the Adamant Fortress and if you’re not safe there, you won’t be anywhere. You’ll still feel better with a few more levels, even if it’s only a little bit.”
“We’ll think about it,” Keri said for her, squeezing her hand. Annit looked over to see that she still looked worried, but this worry was less pained and more determined. Any protests she might have made fell away under that look and Annit nodded.
“We’ll think about it.”