Chapter 21: Goodbye Shapers

I stride through the city in the aftermath of battle, with Malfoy and Sirius at my heel. The streets are still littered with blood and bodies, mostly of battle alphas and glaahks. I spot one spot one corpse wearing Shaper robes, a servile bent over it and rifling through its possessions. Here and there, humans are poking their heads out of windows and daring to come out again now that the fighting has quieted down.

"Lifecrafter Lexen," says another servile, running up to me.

"Report, Dobby," I say. It amuses me to no end that this servile's name was Dobby, and that he was one of the first in this colony to rise up against his master and slay him in the night for his mistreatment.

"No more fighting," Dobby says. "Dumb creations dead. One prisoner."

"Where?" I ask.

Dobby points. "Old servile punishment cells."

"Thank you, Dobby," I say, heading off that way.

"My brothers will be able to hold the perimeter against any Shapers that dare to try to retake this colony," Malfoy says.

"Still will want Trajkov to come through and set up some reaper turrets if he has a chance to," I say.

"Have faith in your mighty children," Malfoy says. "You don't need fungus to defend the town."

"I'd still be more comfortable with it," I say. "It might wind up saving the lives of drayks."

We come to a small, cramped building with bloody posts along the wall outside. A man's screams echo from inside, and I step into the building and locate which one of the three tiny cells the sound is coming from.

A half-naked Shaper, beaten and bloody, is chained up inside the cell and being flogged by a servile. He looks up at me as I enter, a flicker of hope daring to spark in his eyes. "Lifecrafter," he whimpers. "Please, have mercy. I surrendered. I won't fight you anymore."

"You deserve no Mercy, Shaper scum!" says the servile torturing him. None other than Rispy, I realize suddenly. I didn't recognize him from behind. I didn't think he'd stoop so low.

"Rispy," I say firmly. "He surrendered. Stop this. Don't stoop to their level."

Rispy lowers his whip and turns to look at me. "Why should I? He's a Shaper."

"Because there's no need to destroy an enemy that's already been defeated," I say. "It's far more useful to turn them to our own side."

"Relax, Rispy," Sirius says. "There will be more Shapers to kill. Just stick to killing the ones who are still trying to fight."

"You guys are so soft," Rispy says, snorting. "But fine. You can have him. Just don't blame me if he turns on us later." He stalks out of the building.

"Thank you, merciful Lifecrafter," the Shaper murmurs. "I owe you my life."

"Yes, you do," I say, releasing him from his bonds. "What is your name?"

"Finn." He stands up unsteadily, but at least he can still stand.

"I'm Lexen, and this is Sirius," I say. It looks like Malfoy decided to guard the door rather than squeeze inside this tiny building with us.

I go up to Finn and check his wounds, and bring forth healing magic to repair some of the damage done to him. Sirius waves a wand at him and gets him cleaned up a bit as well. Finn bows his head to us in gratitude.

"What will happen to me now?" Finn asks.

"Have you thought about a new career as a Lifecrafter?" I say, smirking.

"Betray the Shapers?" Finn says. "Well, I suppose I don't really have a choice, do I?"

"There are always choices," I say. "Just some of them are liable to wind up being less than optimal."

"You obviously weren't feeling like 'Oh, I'll die before I bow to you rogues!' anyway," Sirius says.

"This is true," Finn says. "I have no desire to die for the Shapers."

"Then come," I say. "There's no reason for you to stay in here."

We leave the building, Finn following along after us and Malfoy rejoining us. "So, you would let me join you?" Finn says. "You'd let me be a Lifecrafter?"

"Of course," I say. "On the moral side, there's no honor in needlessly refusing a sincere conversion, nor in tormenting prisoners who are already beaten. On the practical side, there's no sense in wasting resources, and we need people who can Shape."

"I'm not a very skilled Shaper, though," Finn says. "They never trusted me with being able to make anything much beyond basic creations."

"You can learn," I say. "Or you can use canisters, but I wouldn't recommend that, personally."

"Why not?" Finn says. "You look like you've used a lot of them yourself."

"I did," I say. "No longer, though. I didn't realize, at first, the terrible price that they exacted upon my mind. It took me months before I was able to avoid becoming enraged at the slightest thing. I should have realized what they were doing to me sooner. I should have listened to Sirius's warnings."

"At least you finally did, in the end," Sirius says.

"They make you angry?" Finn asks.

I nod. "You grow angry very easily. You start to see other beings as lesser creatures, not worthy of your time. I've seen some who hardly seemed aware of what was even going on around them. They don't affect everyone the same way. I was fortunate, I suppose. Or just stronger willed than some. But even I am nothing next to Trajkov."

"I think I would rather learn the hard way, then," Finn says. "I would rather not do that to myself."

"That's probably for the best," Sirius says. "Already they're having a hard time keeping up canister production for the existing addicts."

"At least they can make new canisters now," I say. "So, Finn, let's get you some new robes, and I'll see about loaning you some books."

"Just like that?" Finn says. "You aren't going to make me swear oaths of loyalty or anything?"

"I don't see the point," I say. "If you say you'll join us, I'll take you at your word. If you intended to deceive us, swearing an oath would hardly stop you anyway."

"I suppose that's true," Finn admits.

We head over to the Shaping hall. Not a huge one, but then it's not really a huge colony. It was sufficient for the town's defenses. Too bad those defenses weren't sufficient for the rebel army. There's a closet with some extra Shaper robes, and I toss one to him. He pulls it on, and Sirius does a quick bit of transfiguration to get rid of the Shaper symbol.

I look around a bit, and find a heavily locked door in the back of the Shaping hall. I channel magic through it to get it open, focusing hard on the idea of freedom. During the past months, I had some trouble casting that spell for a little while. That was the surest sign of anything that I had forgotten what I was doing. But I got over it, and I got better, and while I might not be where I was before, I can at least say that I still believe in freedom.

The door opens into a small library containing only a few books. I go over and glance through them. "I hope you can make sense of these," I say. "Looks like a book on battle alphas. It's over my head, I'm afraid."

"Let me see," Finn says, almost eagerly. "Oh, wow. It's totally worth joining up with you just for the chance to read this stuff. The Shapers didn't trust me enough to teach me much."

Finn spends a minute skimming over the battle alpha book and heads out into the Shaping hall. He heads over to one of the Shaping platforms and, as I watch wide-eyed, a new battle alpha forms in front of him.

"What in the Abyss?" I say. "How did you do that?"

"Huh?" Finn says. "I just followed the instructions in the book."

"But you only looked at it for a minute!" I say.

"Oh," Finn says, and then laughs. "You never actually had any Shaper training, did you."

I shake my head. "What's that have to do with anything? They don't teach you speed-reading, do they?"

"Actually," Finn says. "Yeah, they do."

"What?" I exclaim.

"The first thing they really teach is how to learn and absorb knowledge quickly," Finn says. "We spend years just training our brains how to process and retain information."

I gape at him. I must learn that. But it's too late for this life. I'll need to come back to this world another time. Preferably once I think I might stand a chance of convincing the Shapers to let me join them.

"We don't spend years mastering every single creation and spell," Finn goes on. "Just how to learn them. When they actually bother to teach us anything, it doesn't take all that long. Of course, the trouble is getting the opportunity to learn in the first place."

"Well, I think that knowledge should be shared," I say. "I really do believe in freedom for all beings. That includes Shapers, too. Now I just need to convince some of the Takers of that..."

"Yeah..." Finn says distantly. "I thought they were going to kill me, or worse... Of course, now the Shapers will kill me if they get the chance. But the Shapers aren't here now."

"You're under the protection of the rebels now, Finn," I say.

"Which means there's a few dozen drayks and a large number of angry serviles in between them and you," Sirius says.

"Just... keep me safe from the drayks and serviles, please?" Finn says nervously.

"Lifecrafter!" Dobby exclaims, running up to me. "Scouts report enemy forces from west!"

"How many, and what kind?" I ask.

We've been holding this colony for a few months now. Dobby has taken over administration, but I'm in charge of the military side of things.

"Battle creations," Dobby says. "Glaahks. Drayks. Glowing Shapers."

"Are you sure they're enemies?" I say, raising an eyebrow.

Dobby nods. "Killed three serviles. Only one escaped, got back safe to tell us."

"Shit," I mutter. "That's not good."

"The Shapers are being hypocrites now?" Sirius says, raising an eyebrow. "Going the way of Goettsch?"

"Or some sect of them has, it seems," I say.

I go out to prepare the defenses, get the drayks and serviles on alert, and rally the human fighters as well. Several human mages step up to help defend the town. Things were a little rough at first, but the humans eventually decided that they like living under the rebels better than the Shapers. Especially since we'll let them freely learn any sort of magic they want. But for most of them, life just went on.

"I don't care if they're rogue Shapers or not," Rispy says. "They're still Shapers, and they still seem to think they should have some hold over us."

"This just makes them more dangerous," I say.

I climb to the top of the watch tower and get my first glimpse of the invading army. Three augmented Shapers, by the looks of things, at the heart of an army of creations. If it weren't for Dobby's report, I would have thought them to be on our side.

As the army approaches, a terrified servile comes up to the gates. "Message! Message for rogues!"

I go over to speak with him. "What is your message?"

"Shapers say surrender," the servile says, wide-eyed and stammering. "Surrender and submit to will of Shapers, and you live."

I look at him thoughtfully for a long moment. "I will not parley with a messenger," I say. "I will discuss matters only with your master. Go back and tell them that."

"Yes. I go." The servile scrambles away and races back to the enemy army.

I don't expect them to actually do it. And even if they agree, it's a big risk. But I'll gladly take risks like this. I have no need to fear death, after all.

The servile returns, and tells me, "Shaper agree. Meet in middle. Alone."

A Shaper comes forward, and stops in the middle in between the two armies. I go up to meet him. When we're this close, it's very much clear that he has used a lot of canisters. I have to wonder where he might have gotten them from. Is he a traitor from the ranks of the rebels?

"So, Shaper. Or is it Lifecrafter that you call yourself? No matter. I am Barzahl. I will discuss the terms of your surrender."

I snort softly. "I don't understand why you're even fighting," I say. "You're obviously not loyal to the Shaper Council."

"No," Barzahl says. "The Shaper Council are fools who would deny us the fruits of our own research. But to allow creations to run rogue and take over the place? This is madness. Surely you can see this yourself. You are a powerful Lifecrafter! Why do you let mere creations command you?"

"The only one who commands me is Trajkov," I say. "And that is by my own choice."

"You still allow creations free reign," Barzahl says. "You put them on an equal level with humans and even those who can create life themselves!"

"Equality is meaningless," I say. "What I support is freedom. Hence, I will discuss terms for peace. Not surrender. I have no desire to fight you, but I will if I must, to protect those whose safety and well-being has been placed in my hands."

"You expect to bargain for peace when you are facing down an army you cannot match?" Barzahl scoffs.

"Expectations imply that I could guess how this encounter might go or have known your motivations beforehand," I say. "I can hope, however. If you seek to oppose the Shaper Council, then let us conquer the Shapers first and work out our own differences later."

"Unacceptable," Barzahl says. "I will crush your petty rebellion and bring the Shapers in line with my own views along the way."

"Fighting a war on two fronts is foolish and will only hurt both of us," I say.

"Then surrender," Barzahl says. "Simple as that. And unlike the Shapers, I will not kill you out of hand for being what you are. I can offer you power. Canisters. A position of influence in my new empire."

"No," I say. "I'm not interested."

"Then there is nothing more to discuss," Barzahl says. "We must fight."

"There are always choices," I say. "I have made mine, and you have made yours. I'm not afraid to die for my cause. Can you say the same?"

A double standard, perhaps. I'm not afraid because I know what will happen if I die. I don't know what will happen if Barzahl dies, beyond that he won't be a threat to us any longer. The Elkandu believe in reincarnation, but have yet to find any solid proof of it.

Barzahl laughs at me. "I'm not the one who will die here today."

I signal to my forces to attack. Thorns and fire fill the air.

Barzahl lifts a hand at me and hurls a surge of powerful magic at me. I try to dodge, too slow, too late-

I wake. I blink up at the ceiling. This is not my quarters at the Shaping hall.

I'm back in Torn Elkandu.

I look down at my ten year old body, so frail and weak without the augmentations of the canisters, and realize I've gone back to the start again.

What was that spell that Barzahl cast at me? I didn't recognize the sort of magic he was using. I suppose it must have been some Shaper variety of the Killing Curse. Well, I suppose it's nice to know that sort of magic exists, even if I hadn't expected to encounter it this time.

So. I guess I really did die for my cause after all. I don't know what will happen from there on out. I don't know who might win the battle. Maybe they'll manage to kill Barzahl and put his forces into disarray. At least my side had the advantage of not needing me around to personally direct my creations. My drayks are perfectly capable of doing what needs to be done on their own.

Well, there's no use in worrying about it now, I suppose. It's not like it would be any different for them if I had merely died and gone back to that morning. Just that now, that life is over for me.

I rub my eyes. I'll miss them. But it's not like I can ever see them again. Another chance, another life. The whole of the multiverse is at my grasp.

A/N: Lexen's adventures continue directly in "Stormseeker: Unwanted Destiny."