TITLE: JUST A TOOL

CHAPTER 36: A TRUTH TO BE UNCOVERED (iii)

-XI-

I have burns in plenty all over, but nothing a good slather of Repair Serum can't fix. The worst of it needs the top layer of damaged skin to be scrapped off, but surprisingly, it doesn't hurt very much when Piqa does that – I suppose a lot of the nerves have been incinerated along with the skin. I wouldn't have complained even if it had actually been excruciating – I imagine it can be no worse than what Ayn's going through right now.

Piqa's limited equipment detect no major internal damage. I am in amazingly good shape, considering I just walked away from what was basically a firestorm. I've been avoiding thinking about the reason for that, but it's getting increasingly harder not to see Ayn's burns in my head. My anxiety expresses itself in my own words, repeating themselves in an unending loop in my thoughts.

Don't go. Don't leave me behind. I need you.

I'm relieved at the distraction when Piqa finally gets over his initial shocked silence to ask about Ayn.

I skip the details. "Fletcher's fixing him."

He must have been expecting me to tell him Ayn had died, the way he turns into mush at my answer. I hold him, and stroke his back, and mumble comforting nonsense into his hair. I hadn't realised that he was so fond of Ayn. It makes me wonder briefly if he had reacted the same way the last time I had gotten as badly hurt.

Not that I deserve such a reaction from him at all the way that Ayn does.

When we pull apart, he makes eye contact with me; immediately his own expression changes into one of concern. I don't know what he's seen in my face, but whatever it is that he sees, it makes him hug me in turn. Perhaps he sees the words that are running through my head

As he does so, he tells me, "He'll be fine. I'm sure of it!"

I am momentarily confused; not by his words, but because he's said those words more fiercely than I've ever heard him say anything else before. Yet I don't say anything in response.

There is nothing I can say that would change anything now.


Piqa makes me go for the next meal. I obey docilely, allowing him to herd me to the dining area and put food in front of me that I eat mechanically. My mind is buzzing with plans: how to confirm who was responsible for the mess; how to get my hands on that despicable slick of scum once I've identified him—because I'm almost certain it's a him—and what I'm going to do to him when I do.

A shadow falls across my table. I look up, and there he is: the Tool who's been on my mind from the moment I'd seen those coordinate numbers changing out in the Zone. Phraq. It's a mental reflex – I associate him with anything negative that involves Warhammers.

He has his disgusting teeth-baring smile on. "How are you, Xi my dear?"

I ignore him. It's bad enough that he's been plaguing my thoughts; his physical presence is threatening to destroy what little composure I have left.

He doesn't take the hint. "I heard you had a boo-hoo."

It never fails to enrage me how he purposely uses infantile terms when he's speaking to me. "Go away!" I say curtly.

He strikes a remonstrating pose. "Oh, come on, don't be so snappy. I was worried about you and I came over especially to see how you were."

"I don't want to see you, or hear you, or even remember you exist," I snarl. My tone alone should be enought to warn him that I'm not in the mood for his hypocrisy.

He shrugs. "Fine, fine, I'll go away soon. But before that..." he makes a show of looking around the area where I'm seated. "Where's your trusty partner?"

He's probably heard that Ayn was hurt and now wants to gloat. I open my mouth to tell him it's none of his fricking business but I don't get to say it because he leans just then on one corner of the table and unbalances it, making my food tray jump and clatter.

"So sorry," he says with that patently fake innocence that only he is capable of; "I've been terribly clumsy lately."

I know he just did that deliberately, along with his apology, but I can't figure out what his plan is yet, so I just glare at him.

He beams at me as if I've just given him a smile instead. "I really don't know why I keep making such embarrassing mistakes," he declares, "Did you know? I even punched in the wrong coordinates with my big clumsy fingers during the last skirmish!"

I stand up suddenly, upturning my chair and knocking my tray onto the floor. Immediately, we become the centre of attention for the entire dining area. I don't care.

It was him.

Phraq was the cause of all this; he was the Warhammer who'd changed his strike coordinates to target Ayn and I. I suspected it, and now I know it. I don't need any more proof. The fricking pukebucket just admitted it himself. This truth, now uncovered, pushes me into efficient action.

"Die."

Phraq takes a step back as my Sword appears, crackling and buzzing. It hadn't been easy, but I'd managed to hold on to that last charge of energy instead of discharging it back into the core of the base like I was supposed to upon re-entry. The charge is quite small, just enough for the Sword to be visible, flickering and fuzzy along the outline. It's barely enough to make a mark on a Hostile's armour. But it's more than enough to turn Phraq into a burn mark on the floor. I see dread dawning in his eyes. He knows he can't outrun the Sword; nor does he have enough time to build up enough energy for a strike of his own.

And most fittingly... he has no Shield to protect him.

"What did I do?" he sputters, panic having leached all the self-assurance out of his voice.

I send my Sword to hover over his head, and he falls to his knees, staring at me. I hold his gaze, and I see fear. I realise that I am the source of that fear. I shake my head slightly in incredulity as the thought takes full shape.

Phraq is afraid of me.

It is a new feeling for me, and it throws me off focus just for a moment. My Sword shimmers and loses its shape. But that lasts only a heart beat. I focus, and my Sword flares up again with renewed deadliness. The shadow of fear in his eyes grows more prominent. There is no more doubt in me. I know that he fears me.

I like this feeling.

"You tried to kill me," I say coldly.

I bring the Sword down to caress his hair. Dreadlocks fall like slicks of blood, tiny flames still lapping across the shorn ends.

"I don't know what you're talking about!" he gasps, flinching from the heat of the Sword.

I ignore his lies. "You almost killed Ayn."

I make my Sword float just near enough to his skin to breathe a row of blisters across the back of his neck. The stink of scorched tissue fills the air. He shudders, just managing not to cringe.

"You're making a m..."

"Shut up!" I snap in the middle of his desperate plea.

He goes silent. Along with the fear in his eyes, there is now resignation. He knows I'm not bluffing. As a line of smoking black appears across his neck where his skull joins his spine, he bows as if in supplication. But I know he will not beg; he is too proud for that, too stupidly arrogant even up to the last moment of his life.

I brace myself for the final act. "Die!" In that one word is all my hate for him, all my fear about losing Ayn, all my turmoil, all my pain.

Phraq closes his eyes for his doom.

But it doesn't happen.

Someone has pushed Phraq aside to lie toppled on the ground... someone who is now standing over Phraq, literally putting his own body between my target and my Sword. It would be a small matter to send the Sword swooping down to annihilate both of them, but I don't do that.

Because the person standing in my way is Piqa.

"Don't, Xi," he says quietly.

"Get out of the way," I tell him, equally quietly.

"They'll kill you," he counters.

"You think I fricking care?"

"They'll kill Ayn too."

I am forced to concede to the truth of his words. I breathe in. Out. In again. My sword fades away, the energy dissipating into the surrounding air and making the assembled Tools' hair and garments flutter.

I jerk Phraq up off the floor by a handful of his shirt, grab some remaining hair and an ear and use that to yank his face towards me.

"You'd better hope Ayn lives," I hiss into his face. "Cause that's the only thing that's stopping me from burning you up, one piece at a time."

I push him back down with a violent thrust into his breastbone. His neck whips back and his head cracks satisfyingly against the floor. I didn't do very much to him, all things considered – his sharp intake of breath when he hits the floor shows he's still decidedly alive, as does the muttered curse that follows.

I leave before I'm tempted any further to do something about that current status of his.