I saw three enemies on the bridge. Two teenagers -- Isaac and David -- and a Caster-type servant. I looked closely and saw the glint of a command seal on David's hand. He was the master. Caster was already preparing an attack, but if I struck David down first, this could all be over in an instant.
But my instincts screamed that wasn't the right play. Isaac, the short-haired boy that was farther back, was planning something. His body brimmed and boiled with magic circuits, but that on its own wouldn't be enough for him to get past my Mark. I sensed a trump card, some secret maneuver that would end me if I got cocky.
My master's voice piped up in my head, echoing my concerns.
"The servant is low on magical energy and won’t be a problem. Kill the mage first. He's the only one blocking my telepathy."
I hovered in place, my Mark’s flames searing the air around me. Caster watched me closely, waiting for my move. They knew their attacks were useless based on our last encounter, so they were playing defensively. My next maneuver would decide the fight.
I rushed for Isaac, the mage. Caster's eyes widened in horror -- he hadn't expected that. I was already in front of the boy brandishing my sword before Caster got a spell off at me. When it hit my Mark’s barrier, a much stronger reciprocating spell shot back at the servant. It hit Caster at full force and launched him backwards a couple dozen feet.
The original spell penetrated the red-green fire around me effortlessly, and it hit hard. In my mind, I screeched in pain. In reality, I made no sign of acknowledging the spell. My Mark didn't actually block or reflect enemy attacks -- it only returned a stronger blow to match whatever the enemy hit me with. But I was still a Saber with high magic resistance, so I bore the attack stoically.
The strength of my Mark was, in part, based on an illusion. The Mark broke the conservation of energy; it didn't absorb and reflect my enemy's blow, and it didn't protect me in any way. An attack would hit me, and a new attack would come into existence out of nothing. A divine-type Pure Vengeance magic that made no logical sense.
Because the returned attack was so violent, the enemy would assume their initial blow was blocked or reflected. They'd try to retreat, and I’d slice them down. It worked as long as I hid my reaction.
Luckily, I was very good at hiding pain.
* * *
My brother slid his knife into the goat’s neck. I tried to keep my face still like his, but I couldn’t help but grimace as it cried out. He held the animal firmly until it stopped bleating and finally went limp.
I could never do what my brother did. That’s why I tended the gardens. He looked up at me with cold eyes. They looked as dead to me as the goat’s. I shivered.
My parents came out to help us lug the animal into the hut. They seemed happy; we’d all eat well tonight, thanks to my brother. I smelled wine on their breath and sighed quietly. I knew their good moods wouldn’t last long.
* * *
One smooth motion. Cut. It was over in an instant. There was a lot of blood.
Whatever plan Isaac had, I’d just ended its chances of success. The raw terror in his eyes faded as both halves of his body slid to the ground in a messy heap.
David, the master, was next. Giving them as little time as possible to react, I rushed him, my cloak flapping in the air behind me. I aimed the tip of my sword to penetrate his heart.
A sudden rush of magical energy hit me like a train, a distilled offensive force that pushed and pulled and crushed my body. I held up my arm against it and felt the bones in it shatter. A few of my ribs cracked audibly. My vision went red and started to tunnel.
It was too much energy for the weak Caster to have generated. “What?!” my master screeched in my head.
My Mark returned an attack of its own instantly, one many times stronger. I’d failed to hide my reaction, failed to uphold the illusion that I was protected from his attacks by my Mark. But it didn’t matter. If the attack was strong enough to hurt me this much, the Mark’s return volley should utterly decimate the enemy servant.
It didn’t. Caster generated an even more nonsensical rush of massive magical energy and cancelled out the reflected blow. The air calmed. He stood unharmed.
The servant cursed. “I shouldn’t have done that.”
I managed to stay conscious, barely. But I was clearly wounded. I looked hurriedly for David, trying to see if the two of them had set up a trap. But no, the boy was rushing over to the mage I’d just eviscerated, sobbing like a child. He wasn’t going to be a problem. I braced myself for the servant’s next attack.
“I guess I’m all in,” Caster murmured with a grimace. He readied his staff and prepared to run at me. I jumped back and held my sword in my off-hand, my other arm dangling uselessly.
“Good, keep your distance, Saber,” my master said in my mind. “That servant just did something I didn’t know was possible.”
Her next words dripped with disgust. “He... burned his own soul as fuel.”
A cold horror soaked through me. I grit my teeth and growled at Caster. “Wasteful.”
It was the first word I’d ever spoken to him. He shrugged. “So, you figured it out, huh?” He held his staff at the ready for an attack.
Wasteful. Repulsive. Hateful. Mana would come back with food and rest, but Caster would never get back the part of himself he just destroyed to protect that boy. Even after he died and returned to the throne of heroes.
The crunched up bones in my arm throbbed. I shook off the pain and spat blood on the ground. Caster stood still. He'd used part of his soul to power the initial attack, and then a larger part to cancel out my Mark's returning volley. If he pulled the same maneuver again, he would kill me.
My master spoke in my mind. "He doesn't want to do it again. He wasn't planning to in the first place; he acted on pure instinct when you threatened his master. That's why I couldn't foresee the attack with my telepathy."
Would he do it again if I attacked now?
"He's not sure," my master replied.
I needed to run. I couldn't risk him releasing another monstrous amount of energy at me.
"I agree. Retreat with me and rest. I'll have you healed after a few hours, then we can track them down and finish things."
I flew backwards, towards the other side of the bridge from Caster and David, the latter still crying over the butchered mage. At least I'd managed to kill that one. I couldn't shake the feeling he had secretly been as dangerous as the servant. I didn't know how Caster had figured out the trick to my barrier, but I wouldn't be caught off-guard again.
Caster didn't pursue me. I fled out of sight and rejoined my master.
* * *
My dad struck me, not for the first time. I fell to the ground, crying as quietly as I could while he yelled.
I knew I deserved it. Nearly all the plants in my garden had died, their lives stolen by some unknown disease. If it weren’t for my brother, we’d all starve to death in the coming winter months.
Mom watched from the side, still clutching her drink, her eyes as livid as Dad’s. My brother stood by her, staring at the floor. He never intervened when Dad got like this.
I tried not to look at any of them. I felt a bubbling tension in my chest towards my brother. It would be a long time before I recognized the feeling as hatred.
* * *
The illusory red-green fire churned around me as I flew towards Caster and his master. My master had felt a small burst of magical energy and recognized it as Caster’s. Since he was too far for my master to read his mind, we didn’t know why they’d broadcast their location so readily. But I didn't want to wait for my master to catch up and find out, even if it put me at a disadvantage. I wanted to end Caster as soon as possible.
I hated him. He treated a precious gift as a utilitarian power source. The soul isn't something to be toyed with or manipulated. I'd heard of mages artificially preserving their soul and moving it between vessels. But I'd never heard of someone deliberately destroying it so they could harness the released mana.
It was vile. He was vile. He disrespected his own essence on a fundamental level. He was killing himself slowly in the most thorough way possible. There was no greater disrespect to the divine gift of life.
I saw them both then. I thought I saw a third person with them for a moment, then I blinked and the mirage vanished. It was just the two of them. Caster, the servant, and David, the child.
I slowed to a stop about fifty feet away from them, a couple stories up in the air. I was ready for a trap. The sun was finally rising, exposing the clearing with orange light. The trees surrounding us were bare. The grass was brown and dead.
Caster shouted up at me. "You can drop the fake barrier now."
I grit my teeth, and slowly lowered to the ground. The grass was scratchy against my bare feet. I didn't want to rush Caster and scare him into another soul-burning attack. I could probably withstand it now that my master had healed me, but I didn't want to take the chance.
I walked towards him, then stopped about twenty feet away. Neither Caster nor David moved. I needed an opening. I spoke to them again, for the second time. "How'd you figure it out?"
“There’s barely any mana circulating in that fire around you. I knew there was something tricky going on, so I paid attention while attacking you. You were doing your best to hide it, but you still felt the pain of my attacks.”
I stood still. The wind fluttered my cloak and David’s long hair in the same slow rhythm.
“The reflections are many times stronger than the attacks that hit them as well. But you weren’t using mana to generate them. The energy came out of nothing -- it didn’t make any sense.”
Like me, he was stalling. I watched David closely out of the corner of my eye.
“A magic like that could only be called a miracle. Something divine. In your case, a divine curse.”
My grip tightened around the hilt of my blade. He was goading me into attacking him.
“You see, I noticed something else when I attacked you that last time. I know the strength of my magic precisely. And I felt the power of the blast your curse reflected back at me. It was exactly seven times stronger.”
I narrowed my eyes.
“I know your identity now, first murderer.”
No more talking. I dashed towards him, already anticipating the sensation of my blade cutting into his neck.
* * *
Without thinking, I grabbed the knife my brother had dropped on the earth nearby. It was still slick with blood from a recent butchering. I stared at my brother, his eyes still full of rage.
He’d just hit me again, a habit he’d picked up lately to vent his stress after Mom and Dad got angry. I’d decided in that moment that no one would ever hit me again.
I took one step towards my brother, and, in one motion, shoved the blade into his chest. The rage in his eyes turned to confusion, then pain. He let out a small sound, and fell.
My parents wouldn’t wake from their drunken stupor for several more hours. I walked to the edge of the fields and into the surrounding forest, resolved to be far away from this awful place when they did. I rubbed the growing bruise on my cheek.
If I searched long enough, maybe I could discover a sanctuary as warm and welcoming as the Garden my parents were cast from. I wanted to find a place that felt like home, for the first time. I never did, of course.
* * *
I realized immediately I’d fallen for Caster’s trap. He snapped his fingers, and a searing white light blinded me. I slammed my eyelids shut and kept the momentum of my strike going. The blade connected with flesh and bone, but I could tell I hadn’t hit his neck.
Then a pain erupted in my left side, and with a cold certainty I knew that pain was death.
The white light faded. I opened my eyes. My sword was buried in Caster’s arm. David stood to my left. His hands gripped the hilt of what I now recognized was a knife stabbed into my side.
David looked unharmed, which made no sense. He should be on the ground bleeding, feeling the pain of seven knives plunging into his body.
“How?” I mouthed at Caster. He grimaced, still using his arm to keep my sword from cutting into him.
“I didn’t put it all together until I projected Isaac’s secret weapon. He knew this whole time. He must’ve hidden it from us since he was the only one who could resist your master’s mind-reading. He didn’t want you to know we had an edge.”
David pulled the knife out of my side. It vanished from his hands into a cloud of blue mana. I let go of my sword and fell to my knees. A small weapon like that shouldn't have been enough to kill me. But a creeping black poison seemed to emanate from the wound. I knew it was over.
"Isaac managed to craft a manifestation of the concept of a murder weapon. That was the only way around your retribution curse -- to kill you with something that predated its existence. To recreate the first murder."
I coughed. "You could've killed me by soul-burning again. With that trick you had the power to beat me and regenerate from the retribution attack."
Caster sighed. "I burned most of it when I was alive and foolish, then most of what was left as a heroic spirit. I started this war with less than two percent of my original soul intact." He paused. "I have very little of my self left. If I burn any more of it, I'm lost."
I nodded. I understood Caster more now. His actions were hateful, but he seemed to grasp their weight, the gravity of his crimes. I didn’t know if that made me hate him more or less.
My master must have caught up with me, because I heard her voice in my head again. "I'm sorry for failing you, Saber. You can rest now."
I felt her hand wrap around mine, and I realized it wasn't her psychic commands I was hearing. It was her real voice. I was also laying flat on the ground... when had that happened? I was up on my knees just a moment ago.
My master's face rose into my blurry and darkened vision. She smiled at me. It made me feel wistful, at peace. My mouth opened and words tumbled out of their own accord.
“My parents were always bitter about being cast out of the Garden. They were cruel, and they taught us to be cruel in turn.”
The whole world knew my past. But I’d never actually spoken with anyone about it before.
“I regret killing him. It wasn’t his fault he was broken. It wasn’t even my parents’ fault really.”
I smiled, grimly. “It was all God’s fault. He’s the reason my parents turned out so twisted.” I spat blood off to the side. “I doubt even the Grail could’ve given me the power to kill Him though. I’ll probably never get my revenge.”
I looked at David, his face pink from crying. I sighed.
“It was a stupid wish anyway.”
I stared into David’s eyes. He didn’t look angry at me, or happy that he’d managed to kill me and get revenge. He just looked sad.
“I’m sorry I killed Isaac,” I said, meaning it. My voice got very quiet. “I saw the way you cried for him. You loved him, right?”
David was still. Then he sniffled, closed his eyes, and nodded.
“And he loved you too?”
He nodded again.
“I envy him then. I wish I knew what that felt like. To love and be loved.”
I closed my eyes. I felt warm and comforted by my master’s presence. She squeezed my hand. “I’m sorry I couldn’t give you that, Saber,” she said.
I squeezed back weakly. “That’s okay, Master. At least now I know what I’m looking for.”
I felt my grip slacken. Then I didn’t feel anything at all.