Ascent, Ch. 19
Mina didn’t realize she had screamed, not even when the automaton was flung through the far wall on her right. Her eyes, now wide open and unblinking, darted back and forth between him and Nine, who now stood in the center of a blue inferno with a blank stare. Her voice failed her, and not one part of her body moved. She didn’t even notice that her light spell had gone out.
Somewhere nearby, green pelts flew towards the man on fire, but they seemed to break and dissolve upon contact with the divine magic that now encircled his body. Then in the next second, he was right in front of the white-haired girl—and she still couldn’t think.
A figure collided into her before it brightened in a brilliant, icy color as both she and the source of the light fell to the floor. Her mind caught up quickly at that point: R-6 had called to her and shoved her out of the way of Nine’s charge. The redhead was in the middle of jumping back to his feet now, his aura and wings already moving to intercept an incoming blow from Nine.
With a quick look around, Mina noticed SEL-4 standing nearby. The wild one bared no smile when she muttered, “Fuckin’ hell.” Then she threw down her arms, generated her magic blades over them, and crouched down. From there, she sprang into a run straight into the fray.
At last, Mina’s voice returned to her. “Wait—”
The man on fire shoved away R-6, turning immediately to counter the punches and swipes SEL-4 rained down on him in the second after. Each contact between magic blade and fiery hand sent the sounds of sparks to thunder around the room. Farther from them, L-7’s running movements created a strong gust in her wake as she shot through the thinner flames until they intensified behind their epicenter. By the time R-6 rejoined the melee by following the trail of pelts, Mina had found the strength to stand again.
“Nine!” she cried. “Nine, stop! We don’t want to hurt you!”
That she could hear herself over the sounds of combat was nothing short of a miracle. Even as the words poured out of her, though, she thought back to their previous battles. Mina wondered if they could knock Nine out of his current trance without killing him like they had done with R-6 before. She threw up a couple of light balls just in case any stray blows came her way and concentrated her attention on her friend.
He’s feeling— what is he feeling now? Soon after she began her study, she found nothing. Not even his earlier despair. In fact, it was like hearing static crackling through a speaker or seeing darkness beyond a door. Realizing this sent a chill through her whole body. Why can’t I sense anything from him?
L-7’s voice rang out from nearby. “Ten, you’re the empath! Anything you can tell us?”
“I-I don’t know,” replied Mina. “I think he’s acting on pure instinct. But I can’t read him at all!”
It was all the team leader could say before SEL-4 went flying into her, knocking both of them to the floor. This left R-6 to grapple with Nine alone, which he did with his wings rather than his actual hands. Soon, though, even he was thrown in their direction. Mina darted around Nine to tend to her fallen friends, though the team leader was quick to tell her to hold off for now.
“I’ll live through this,” she said, nodding to the man on fire. “Keep your eyes on him.”
The wild one sat up, rolling one of her shoulders before she brought her blades out again. “Is he berserked? Because that’s what it looks like.”
“It’s similar,” agreed Mina, “but all he’s using is his augmentation spell, just on himself. And with Are Six, I could still read him. That’s how I knew he was scared despite how feral he was. Right now, I can’t sense a thing about Nine. It’s like the divine magic he’s using is blocking me from reading him. He… he must’ve thought Em was a threat, and that’s why he attacked.”
R-6 was already back on his feet and moved to stand in front of the others. “That’s how I was. All instinct. Everything a threat—” Then he blocked a move from Nine, trying to force the latter away.
Hearing that, L-7 pursed her lips. “So he can’t tell friend from foe right now. And we have no idea how much stronger all that divine magic is making him.”
The white-haired girl made quick glances back and forth. “We don’t have to kill him, right? Can we just knock him out?”
“Looking at things right now, Ten—Mina…” SEL-4 prepared herself to charge, her tone grim. “I think you might be asking too much.”
“Em said something about a strain on his body.” The team leader shot a look at both the wild one and the white-haired girl. “Ten, find Em; I’ll cover you. Sel Four, help Are Six.”
“Tch. Easier said than done.” Nonetheless, the wild one rushed in anyway.
After that, Mina and L-7 ran for the ruined wall. Though the latter fired more shots at the raging inferno that was Nine, the former found herself tossing one of the light balls at an incoming arc of divine flame. The two forces collided, causing both of them to dissolve while the trace remains of the flaming arc dissipated just before they could hit the upper wall.
Once they reached their destination, the team leader stood by the hole and let loose with suppressive fire while the white-haired girl slipped around her to dart through. She spotted M1-11 on the floor right away, and while he had a leg stuck under some debris, he had otherwise taken the time to prop himself up on his elbows. His eyes were open wide before Mina knelt in front of him.
The look changed instantly to one of worry. “Oh, Mina! Thank goodness! We need to talk!”
“Yeah, we do!” she replied. “What did you say about Nine straining himself?”
“It’s just like Doctor Preston said: Trifling with the power of the gods is risky. More than that! It’s a major health hazard!”
Mina threw a glance at the battle, still quite visible through the hole, then another back at the automaton. “What do you mean?”
“He won’t last long like that. I’ve been scanning him since we found him, and his heart rate went from fast to insane the second he used that spell on himself. At this rate—if he doesn’t snap out of it in ten minutes, he’s going to die.”
Hearing that left her numb. “What? No! We have to stop him!”
“I-I… don’t know. How damaged are you?”
“My most vital systems are still in tact. When he hit me, he took out a chunk of my central chassis but missed my fuel supply. The shakeup to my systems is making it hard for me to generate barriers. Also, my leg is stuck. My sensors are telling me it’s in one piece still, but I’m not at the right angle to lift the debris off of it.” He moved to pull himself away from the debris pile but to no avail.
“So you can’t help us.”
“No. Not like this. I’m sorry.” The next words he spoke sounded strained and sad. “Mina, you were saying earlier that he’s just acting on instinct, right? So he doesn’t hate us?”
“Yeah. I don’t think he meant to hurt you at all. What he’s doing now is all on reflex—”
Within the storm of the battle, another wall either smashed apart or was dented badly. M1-11 whipped his head towards the direction the sound had come from. “O-o-oh, that’s not good. He’ll tear down the whole place at this rate.”
“Then we’ll need to improvise a strategy,” L-7 shouted from where she was. “Mina! Start making more light balls.”
“But I don’t want to kill him!” replied the white-haired girl.
“Then pin him down. Knock him out. Do whatever you have to so he stops moving. Come on!”
The team leader left in a blur, leaving Mina to dip out of the hole alone soon after. What she saw was another broken wall on the opposite side, and the only other fighter out there besides L-7 was R-6. The white-haired girl bit her lip as it occurred to her that SEL-4 must’ve been the one who’d been sent through the wall earlier.
Shoot, she’s probably hurt bad—
Mina whipped out three more light balls, letting a total of four hover behind her as she made her way over to the other side. She hadn’t gone far when R-6 was almost shoved into her, but they were quick to regain their balance. Upon catching sight of two flaming arcs coming their way, Mina commanded two of the light balls to intercept. Just like before, the attacks dissipated where they met. She had but a second to actually register that before R-6 yanked her back. In the place where she’d been standing landed a small jet of divine flame that left a blackened breach in the floor. Somewhere during that whole commotion, SEL-4 climbed out of the hole in the opposite wall, bruised and cut but aware.
Mina called to Nine again and again, partly on instinct, mostly out of desperation. Even amidst dodging attacks, defending herself, and covering for her friends, she spoke aloud her train of thought: In all the uncertainty that had developed from the information they had found, the only solid fact he’d latched onto was that they were going to die at some point. And it terrified him.
“That’s what it is, isn’t it?” she asked him. “Nine, it’s true we don’t know if we’re really the last people alive. That’s why we’re going to check. And even if we are the last… it wouldn’t be so bad to spend our lives together, would it? If we don’t know what to do one minute, we can think of something in the next. Can’t we?”
He looked in her general direction, but the focus in his eyes didn’t return while she spoke or as the fighting continued. Everything they threw at him, he shrugged off: Against L-7’s high speed charge, he grabbed her by the face and sent her flying back. Mina’s light balls didn’t slow him down much, and no matter how much of the flames dissolved on contact, they just kept coming. When SEL-4 intercepted a blow that would’ve killed the team leader, she exchanged strikes with Nine until he slammed her into the floor stomach down. R-6 ran into him afterwards, sending them both out the door and taking part of the surrounding wall with them.
Mina rushed to catch up to them, screaming for Nine to stop, only to have to drop and roll suddenly when both men barreled back into the room. She rose to her feet, making another light ball but wondering when or if she should keep throwing.
“Nine? Can you hear us?” She looked to see if he’d make some kind of acknowledgement, but he gave none. Seeing this, she bit her lip. “The end doesn’t have to be now, Nine. Please… don’t make it now!” A surge of magic snapped, then a second time, as the man on fire exchanged attacks with the redhead. One momentary wince later, and Mina called, “Snap out of it before you die!”
Only then did it hit her. He knew. He knows what this power does to him better than anyone else, so he had to have known! Which means— The next breath she drew in shuddered, and her vision blurred fast enough that she had to fight it. Nothing she did, though, could stop the sinking pit in her gut from forming. He wants to die.
Another loud, nearby crackling of clashing magic forces cleared her vision instantly, and her head shot up immediately. R-6 was almost right in front of her, his arms locked in a grapple with Nine’s. Even at this point, the latter appeared to be looking at nothing at all, not even at the person in front of him.
The redhead snarled as he struggled against the push of his opponent. “Don’t hurt her!”
Springing to her feet, Mina formed a light ball in one hand and reached for Nine with the other. “I can help you! Just stop channeling the spell!”
Once more, the man on fire responded with silence. His grip on the redhead’s arms tightened then, at which point he stepped forward and brought them both down somewhat. Suddenly, Nine whirled around, dragging R-6 and sending Mina flying in the same motion. One stomp on the floor helped him to stand up again, during which he swung upwards. He let go of R-6 in the next second, and the redhead went straight through the ceiling. Nine continued his haphazard spin as the debris from above landed around him or turned to dust in the part of his aura that went over his head.
Mina recovered as Nine slowed his spin to a stop. As she wobbled back onto her feet, she could hear her friend breathing hard. For the moment, though, he had stopped attacking. She thought of making another light ball to replace the one she’d lost when she’d fallen just now, but she didn’t. It might provoke him, she thought quickly, except just approaching him would set him off, too. That’s how this whole fight started.
So she met in the middle by just keeping herself ready to move. “Nine, it’s going to be okay. We’ll make the most of it. You’re hurting us a lot right now… and yourself. Please, just stop. We already made it this far together; we can—”
He turned towards her, causing her remaining words to clog up in her throat. She took a step back but locked eyes with him. No focus had returned to them; they were glowing with a white light, making his gaze all the more blank. Yet even this close to him, Mina could sense no emotion from him. Right then and there, it finally clicked with her that he couldn’t hear her. She wouldn’t be able to talk him out of fighting further.
Now what do I do—just knock him out how— The image of her light spells dissolving the blue flames from earlier in the battle suddenly crossed her mind. But the light balls alone won’t be enough. I need something more intense, more constant, like his power—
Then she remembered what she had learned while fighting Cele 2. How she had cleared away the brood spawns. I’ll have to use that? On Nine? On the inside, she screamed like something had gutted her. No, no, NO.
Nine raised one fist behind his head and charged. Mina ran to avoid him but could feel the tingling of the divine fire lapping at her back as he moved passed her and dented the floor. Her hands whipped out a light ball each as she kept running to put a large gap between herself and Nine. It got him to follow her and to turn away from SEL-4, who had yet to stand up again. She didn’t realize until the last second, though, that she’d gone to where L-7 had landed earlier. Oh shit oh shit—
The team leader was clutching her side but managed to say one thing. “Whatever you’re going to do, Ten, do it now!”
Mina didn’t hesitate. She drew upon as much magical energy as she could gather at once, and her bracelets glowed at their brightest to reflect that. Her whole body felt it, too; the massive surge ran through the whole of her being. The light balls that she had formed barely retained their spherical shape due to how frequently they sparked, crackled, and bulged. That was when the blue inferno came barreling towards her.
Mina threw the light balls in front as the huge swath of magic continued to run through her. “I’m sorry, Nine.” Then she unleashed the spells as thick beams that screeched as they launched forward. If she were estimating this correctly, the beams were even more intense than they were when she used them against the brood spawns.
Nine was close enough by then that he couldn’t avoid the beams, so the two forces clashed in a series of bright flashes and snapping sparks. The strength of the impact sent him back close to the opposite wall, behind which was M1-11. However, the white-haired girl didn’t let up on her attack—not when Nine was still on his feet. Not when, slowly, he was walking against the beams.
“Stop it. I don’t want to kill you!” cried Mina. But I can’t stop this attack, either; the others can’t defend themselves right now—
Her frantic thoughts slowed down somewhat, though, as she watched what unfolded before her. The divine fire surrounding Nine began to shrink in size the longer she channeled the beams. Just like with the light balls, the point of contact between the beams and the divine flames dissolved both. This was actively reducing the size of the aura, which earlier had been almost high enough to touch the ceiling.
Mina, for her part, had to bite her lip to make sure she concentrated on maintaining her spell. No matter how much the magic flowing through her burned her on the inside, especially in her arms, she wouldn’t relent. Don’t give up don’t give up—
This kept Nine from advancing any farther once he was halfway across the room. Eventually, his aura reached a point where it didn’t rise higher than a smidge above the surface of his skin. At that point, the beams threw him straight into the wall behind him, denting it, cracking it—
—and finally extinguishing the divine flames.
Mina stopped her spell and then doubled over, but she kept herself from falling completely. Her arms were numb, her body ached, her breath was coming in short, and she felt lightheaded. But she could stand. She could still move. She could tend to everyone.
His heart rate—
Once that last fact clicked in her head, Mina made her way over to Nine, who was now slumped against the wall. When she knelt down beside him and checked his pulse, she paled upon feeling how quick it was. His breathing was haggard, too. The divine flames must’ve protected him from the bulk of the beams’ power because the only damage he seemed to have taken was the shredded hole in the front of his white shirt and the black one underneath. It didn’t look like she had scarred the skin much. Mina set to work on casting the Sacred Palm spell, but soon sensed with it that the former staff wielder had sustained the most damage on the inside.
She went ahead with the healing anyway. “Hang on, Nine. I’ll take care of this.”
Even with casting just the Sacred Palm spell, her arms were numb save for the aches that prickled near the surface of her skin. She sought out the heart first to see if she could calm it down. Unfortunately, Mina realized right away that she didn’t know if she was making any progress on that front.
No; he needs help; I have to save him— Her gaze darted from her hands to her friend and back again. “I’m sorry! We had to knock you out, that’s all. That’s what I tried to do. Nine, don’t die on me, please!”
She tried to draw on more magical power to strengthen her healing spell, but her body screamed and she couldn’t. At the same time, her friend’s condition worsened. I’m healing him why is he getting worse—
A hoarse voice said then, “D-Don’t….”
This startled Mina to the point where she almost stopped channeling her spell. She recognized the voice instantly, of course. It was Nine’s. Despite his current condition, he had managed to speak just now.
She shook her head fast. “What are you talking about? You need help!”
“So do… the others.” His dark eyes barely held any focus on them, but they went from looking forward to looking at her. “Help… them.”
“But what about you?”
“No. Don’t. Not… me.”
Mina was half aware of her vision growing misty. “You can’t give up.”
“I hurt you all. Didn’t I…?” Nine convulsed, and when he coughed, blood seeped down the side of his mouth. “Help the others. I’m done… bringing you down.”
“Nuh-uh. We’re going to get through this together. There’s still a chance I can—”
He seemed to take in a few breaths very quickly—but then, in an instant, his eyes turned dull and he went still. Completely. That was when Mina sensed that his heart had stopped. She was healing nothing now. Part of her recognized that, at least. But only a part.
She grabbed his shoulder with one hand. “Nine?” One shake, and then, “Nine? Aye Nine?” Three more shakes, each much stronger than the last. “Ivan Nine!”
No response. Of any kind.
“You… you’re kidding. I told you. We were figuring something out.” Mina choked as she went on. “We’ve been through a lot. We would’ve just… gone through more. We’re like family.” She leaned against him then, closed her eyes, and let her tears fall. “Oh, Nine… you didn’t have to do this…!”
She couldn’t have stopped her own sobs even if she wanted to. Mina held onto her friend. Hugged him tight, even, hoping against reality that his heart would start again. But it didn’t. He made no other movements, made no other sounds. He just lay there slumped against the wall with the white-haired girl resting her head on his chest, crying and screaming both inside and out.
And soon enough, it sunk in. Nine was gone.
One of the first friends she had ever made was gone.