The world spun, a dizzy blur of bare stone and dark air and nausea and the scent of ozone and blood.
She struggled for air, the breath knocked out of her lungs. She was half aware of being sprawled and vulnerable on the uneven stone of the floor, but movement was beyond her; her arms and legs wouldn't work properly. A glimmer of magic still clung to her, a spatter of the blue-green light of a healing spell. She wasn't sure who'd cast it.
Gunfire thundered deafeningly in the enclosed space, once, twice, again. The split-second flash of it traced everything with red-gold; in the dim smoke-haze, with magic making sparks of colored light in the air and human bodies moving fast and sure between them, it was almost like a strobe light in some exclusive dance club. Funny what thoughts came to mind in odd moments of stillness, with battle raging all around.
Someone leaped with a dancer's grace, his fists trailing fire, only to be swatted out of the air by the broad flat of a blade longer than he was tall.
She should have been in a dance club. She should have been anywhere but here. She didn't belong here, surrounded by violence and magic, facing down a dark and monstrous shape god only knew how far down out of the sunlight. She didn't belong with these people who handled their weapons like extensions of themselves, who fought and killed and bled without flinching, who carried forces of nature within their own bodies to unleash at their commands.
Leviathan moved within her, like a ripple of cool water through her veins. It pushed back the nausea, but nothing could help the shivering knots tangled up inside her, a feeling that had not so much to do with fear as it did the knowledge of just how much she'd changed. She could feel the guardian forces coiled in her mind, shifting against one another, eager for battle, ready to be called – nothing to be afraid of, nothing she hadn't gotten used to, and yet—
A blaze of energy scorched the air, a pillar of light that roared like a train engine and was nearly as big; amidst it she could just see the silhouette of a small human shape braced against the torrent, nunchaku held out to support the faint red curve of a disintegrating shield.
She knew magic, had learned the theory of it before she'd ever dabbled with guardian forces and junctions. She'd never been afraid of it; she'd always taken for granted that the spells would lie quiescent until they were cast, as obedient to her will as her dog. And they always had.
Things were different now.
Sometimes it seemed like she'd never quite woken up, like even now she was just a passenger in her own body. All the time now she could feel the energy welling up beneath her skin, a pressure building up inside. Magic was no longer a matter of pushing the spell out, but of letting it out in careful trickles, and it was all too easy to let loose too much; the difficulty had become holding it back. It could take over if she let it, surge up and consume her, running rampant until her human body could no longer keep up with it.
There was always a hint of unease in their eyes after that happened. Nobody ever said anything – nobody dared, not and risk a furious reprimand from their leader – but she could see it in their faces every time she came back to herself in the wake of a fight. These people – these strong, battle-scarred, fearless people – her friends – were afraid of her.
How could she blame them? She was afraid of it herself.
Somehow she found it in her to scramble halfway up, hands bracing on stone to keep her kneeling upright. There was no time for this, no room for a personal crisis when everyone was fighting for their lives. She wasn't one of them, but she'd long since stood in the emptiness of the desert and volunteered to help shoulder the load; maybe sometimes they were scared of her, but they needed her now, and she couldn't let them down.
She hardly had to do more than lift a hand. The energy leapt to hand almost without needing to be called, pouring out in a searing blast far stronger than she'd intended. A miniature sun bloomed to life in the middle of the battleground, too much too fast ohgodtoomuch—
—not enough. The air was full of the scent of smoke and burnt flesh and she could see pieces of crisped hide flaking off the massive shape of their enemy, but it was still moving, and that huge heavy sword came swinging down at her from overhead to strike a ringing tone from the crystalline blade of the body that was suddenly there to catch the blow.
"This is reality."
Behind him she saw him straining under the weight of that monstrous weapon, holding it off with as much sheer force of will as with what strength a battered and abused body could hold, a dark streak painted down the side of his face and his neck to soak the white collar of his jacket, struggling to protect her and losing an inch at a time.
"No one can help you."
With a sudden jerk of that huge sword, he was flung aside, sent slamming into the stone floor in an ungainly sprawl that sent the weapon clattering from his hands.
"Sit back and enjoy the show."
The magic came boiling up inside, pressing against her breastbone and the backs of her eyes until she thought her skin would split with it. It lifted her off her feet, a blaze of light bleaching everything black and white, unfolding from her back in great white wings.
It poured out of her and she let it go, vaguely conscious of the warmth of tears on her face as she surrendered control once again.
"Just stay close to me..."