The edge of a volcano is not a great place to pass out. Between the heat, the poisonous gases and the lake of molten rock, I had plenty of reasons to fight to stay conscious after Makkis’ projection winked out. Staying conscious, as it turned out though, was about all I was able to manage.
I wanted to walk back to the base. I wanted to make sure that Darius was ok and that Fari was as in control of things as she appeared to be. I wanted to do a lot of things but all I was able to manage was to hold onto the rock ledge I’d landed on and keep the spells going that were shielding me from the elements.
Based on the reaction of the rescue team that Fari assembled to pick me up, I must have looked absolutely terrifying when they saw me. Darius later told me that I was snarling and on fire with my eyes replaced with burning red embers. I don’t remember any of that, but it would explain why my rescuers waited until he arrived, to attempt to secure me on a stretcher and load me on a transport back to Zawalla.
A week later, I was still in resting in bed and still weaker than I could remember being in years. The healing had begun though. For me and for Hellsreach.
“The negotiators said they had a good session today.” Master Raychelle said. She’d come to visit me after the latest session of the Unified Planetary Talks concluded.
With Hellsreach disarmed and its weapon systems under Imperial control the off worlder forces were more than willing to partake in the peace discussions. The Common Council had a seat at the negotiating table as well, after having been officially recognized by the Crystal Empire as a planetary governing body.
“How are things going with re-adjusting the orbital path?” I asked.
“A little touch and go there.” Master Raychelle said with a smile. “Your friend almost flew us directly into the sun, but she managed to work out the navigational controls before we built up more than a microburst of momentum.”
“I hear the sun’s nice this time of year.” I said.
“I suppose it’s at least a dry heat there.” Master Raychelle agreed with a smile.
“Since she has the navigation under control, does that mean Fari’s going to be staying in charge of the system?” I asked.
Fari herself spoke up in my head, using the mental link she’d re-established once I was in good enough shape to form coherent thoughts.
“No way. I’m out of here as soon as they get some decent casters in to take over for me.” she said.
“I thought you said the systems felt like home?” I said.
“You were half delirious then. I said ‘I feel as big as a house in this thing’. A haunted house at that. It’s creepy being in here all alone.” she said.
“No worries.” Master Raychelle said to Fari. “Guardian Opal will be arriving tomorrow. She doesn’t have your level of experience with massive anima control systems, but she’ll have a hand picked team with her who should be able to manage the adjustments to the planet’s orbit that are still required.”
“Have they decided what they’re going to do with Makkis and Breeg?” I asked, changing the subject to one that had been weighing on my mind.
“The former Councilmen have been taken into Imperial custody. They’re going to face trial off world for their crimes here. We’ve promised the Common Council that they can also be tried here on Hellsreach as well and that Hellsreach trial will have first rights for acquisition of their assets.” Master Raychelle said.
“What about the people who worked with them?” I asked.
“That’s going to be a judicial headache for years to come I imagine.” Master Raychelle said. “High treason charges don’t come with a limitation on when they can be filed. We’ll have investigators here next week to start going through their records and turning over stones to find their accomplices but that’s not an easy task.”
“I told myself I was going to kill him.” I said. I’d debated telling Master Raychelle that. It didn’t seem like the type of thing she would approve of.
“And now?” she asked. “What are you telling yourself now?”
“I don’t know.” I said. “I’ve heard there are groups of his supporters who are calling for his release already. It seems like letting him live is dangerous.”
“It is.” Master Raychelle said. “Do you think we’d be safer if he was dead?”
“Safer from him? Definitely. Safe from people like him? I don’t know. Probably not. Anyone crazy enough to believe in him, is probably as dangerous as he is.” I said.
“So do we kill them all?” she asked.
I pictured it. It would be easy enough, once I had my strength back to creep into his cell and end Makkis’ life. I could even go to the homes of his most vocal supporters and kill them too. Then there would be their families to think about though. An aggrieved spouse, an enraged child. They could turn against me for killing their loved one, so I’d have to kill them as well. And on and on the killing would go.
“No.” I said with a sigh.
“You’re very cruel.” Master Raychelle said.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“Makkis, Breeg and the others schemed for twenty years to put these events into motion. They invested their lives into this one pursuit. Along the way they gathered more power and prestige than anyone else on the planet. You took that all away from them, and now you’re going to force them to live with what they’ve done and be called to account for their crimes. Their power is shattered and the world can see them for the small, pathetic, monsters they are.” Master Raychelle said. “Can you imagine how much easier it would be for them to be dead. Their lives from here on out will be a broken shadow of the ones they’d thought they would lead. It would be kinder to spare them that, but I don’t think they deserve that much kindness.”
“I could adjust their holding cells. Let them see what it was like on the edge of the volcano for you.” Fari offered.
I smiled in appreciation at the offer, but shook my head.
“No, I think Master Raychelle is right.” I said. “They’re beaten. Everything they had fell apart when you took control of the planetary systems. That’s going to gnaw on them forever. Anything else we do to them just reflects badly on us.”
“Speaking of that, I still need to get an official report from you on your actions after we parted.” Master Raychelle said.
“I thought that’s what we did yesterday?” I said.
“We only got up to the point where you spoke with Makkis in the prison cell.” Master Raychelle reminded me. “I know what you did afterwards, but given the events that followed I know you also had a plan in place that Makkis missed.”
“Darius would be the one to talk to for the specific details about that, but I can give you the general ideas we came up with.” I said.
“That should be enough for the initial report.” Master Raychelle said. “The evaluation committee will go into greater depth with you during your after-duty review.”
She’d warned me about the inevitable grilling session I would need to sit through. The “After-Duty Review” was standard practice after any operation where planetary laws were so much as infringed on. I thought my actions were justifiable, and I had reasonable hopes the evaluators would as well, but I had assaulted a number of individuals and destroyed a fair amount of private and public property. The actual list of charges went on quite a bit longer than that, but most were only there for technical reasons and would be upheld or absolved based on the merits of the more serious issues.
“Darius and I knew that Makkis would stop anything I tried to do. We also knew he wanted to use me to get to you.” I said.
“You didn’t know for certain that I was even alive though.” Master Raychelle said.
“I didn’t but I was willing to bet that you’d escaped Deep Run. More importantly though, it looked like Makkis believed you were alive, and that was the card we were able to play against him.” I said.
“You knew he would focus on you.” Master Raychelle said.
“Exactly. That meant that if I left an invisibility cloak on Darius, he’d be able to move freely as long as he didn’t go near the lower exit or the weapon system controls where Makkis expected to see me.” I said.
“So where did you send him?” Master Raychelle asked.
“The Spell Forge.” I said. “Makkis told me that he cast Fari into it, so I sent Darius to build a link from the Forge to the base’s security system.”
“How did you know I was still alive?” Fari asked.
“Sheer, unbridled hope.” I told her. “Plus I reasoned that you’d dealt with millions or billions of times more power than Hellsreach had access to when you were managing the Jewel of Endless Night.”
“My gem’s carefully constructed to be my home though. The Spell Forge is designed to rip magic apart.” Fari said.
“And that’s why Makkis didn’t see this coming.” I said. “He thought you were just a spell. I knew better.”
“I don’t know what I am though.” Fari said.
“You’re a uniquely talented girl.” Master Raychelle said. “Also one who we should probably get an official ID setup for. I know you can hide in that gem of yours but after this I suspect you’ll be due some recognition as well.”
“From there you pretty much know what happened.” I said, continuing my story. “Once Fari was able to escape the Spell Forge, she cut through the protections on the planetary control systems like an anima blade through soft tissue. That put us in control of both its weapon systems and the World Drive that was changing the planet’s orbital path.”
“I couldn’t have done it without both of you.” Fari said.
“And she’s modest too.” I said with a smile.
“No, seriously!” Fari said. “Master Raychelle had most of the weapon systems offline by the time I was freed. That made it a lot easier to capture the entire grid. If they hadn’t been shut off, Makkis could have used any of the terminals I didn’t take control of to kick me out of the system. And it was thanks to you Mel that I had the time to take over the one in the base we invaded. I flubbed the activation spells twice before I got a lock on the central control enchantment. If Makkis hadn’t been ranting at you, he would have noticed me in there and activated the purging spells manually.”
“Hey that reminds me!” I said. “Did I actually guess right about you and that General guy that you went off to rescue?”
“What about ‘that General guy’ did you guess?” Master Raychelle asked.
“I figured you must have found him and he filled you in on what Hellsreach actually was.” I said.
“Yes, eventually he got around to mentioning that.” Master Raychelle said.
“What did he say first?” I asked.
“I believe it was something like ‘I’ve been expecting you’. Then he threw a gamma ray bolt at me.” she said.
“A gamma ray bolt?” I asked.
“A very high order Energy anima attack. Extremely difficult to block or dodge.” she said.
“What did you do?” I asked.
“Fought him.” she said. “I have to confess, I was glad when the teleportation gate exploded. I was afraid he was going to get away from me too easily.”
“So how did you get out of there?” I asked.
“We blasted our way out.” she said.
“You worked together?” I asked.
“Oh no. He was quite intent on killing me.” she said. “To be fair though, he assumed I was an assassin sent by Makkis to finish him off since his services were no longer needed.”
“Wait. You fought your way to the surface? But Deep Run was buried miles underground I thought. It was floating in magma from what Darius said.” I said.
“I didn’t say it was an easy battle, did I?” she asked. “It wasn’t quite as bad as you imagine though. We only had to traverse a few miles of the molten interior before we encountered one of the maintenance sites dedicated to observing and manipulating the World Drive.”
“He stopped fighting when you got there?” I asked.
“No. He fought harder then but I had more room to maneuver.” she said.
“So when did he stop fighting?” I asked.
“When he woke up and he wasn’t dead.” she said. “Once he saw that I wasn’t intent on killing him, he was willing to answer my questions. That’s how I discovered what the Human and Garjarack forces had been fighting over for a century.”
“So everyone but us already knew what Hellsreach was?” I asked.
“They knew it contained lost weapons from before the current Galactic era. Weapons dangerous enough that neither the human nor Garjarack forces could allow the other side to possess them. I don’t think anyone besides General Vex, Makkis and his conspiracy, knew that the planet itself was a weapon though.” she said.
“So what happened to the General afterwards then?” I asked.
“He’s been paroled pending a new hearing on the charges against him.” Master Raychelle said.
“Wow. Who’s managing his parole?” I asked.
“I’ve been keeping an eye on him. In fact, it’s getting a bit late. I need to head out soon, we have dinner arrangements planned for tonight.” she said.
“Dinner arrangements? Are you guarding his parole or going on a date?” I asked.
“The mark of a true Crystal Guardian is the ability to multitask.” Master Raychelle said.
“But…but..” I stammered. I’d expected her to deny the ‘date’ part. She was too old for that. Wasn’t she?
“I can see what you’re thinking, and no, you never get too old ‘for that’.” she said.
I felt my face grow hot with embarrassment.
Which of course meant that Darius chose just that moment to wander into my room.
“Hello and good evening!” he said, giving a small bow to Master Raychelle and I. “I heard that you’re being released tomorrow?”
“Yes, she is.” Master Raychelle said and rose to leave. “I’ll be back in the morning with a fresh set of clothes for when you check out. Be sure to rest till then.”
That seemed like a terribly unfair demand, given that she was getting to go out and have fun, but I had to admit that rest was something I definitely still needed. I watched her go and scowled at the back of her head.
“I won’t stay long then.” Darius said. “I just wanted to tell you how things were going.”
“How are your Dads doing?” I asked.
“Very well! They’d like to meet you again, under less ‘exciting circumstances’.” he said. “I was thinking perhaps you would be interested in going to dinner with us all tomorrow?”
I beckoned him to come closer and then beckoned him to lean down. It was much easier to kiss him that way.
“Having dinner with your Dads would be great, but I’d kind of hoped we could have a dinner with just the two of us first.” I said.
“I…I would…really like that!” he stammered. I think I stunned him with the kiss, though I’m not sure what he was expecting when I had him lean down to be in range for one.
I saw his excitement drain away into a small frown though a moment later though.
“I didn’t think we had time. Aren’t you leaving tomorrow?” he said.
“Yeah, I guess I am. I don’t know what Master Raychelle has in mind once I’m released from here.” I said.
“Oh, that’s what I wanted to mention!” Master Raychelle said, stepping back into the room with the kind of timing that told me she’d been listening to everything we said. “Your healers are checking you out of the hospital tomorrow, but you’re going to be on restorative therapy for the next three months. They’re concerned that you’re showing signs of long term anima damage due to all the power you’ve channeled recently. I’ve transferred my assigned duties here for the next season, and you’re officially on sick leave.”
“For three months?” I asked.
“Minimum. We take the health of all the Crystal Guardians seriously. You won’t be casting any spells for the next two weeks too. So plan on spending a lot of time in non-strenuous activities.” Master Raychelle said.
I looked up Darius who had a foolishly delighted smile on his face.
“Oh, I don’t think that will be a problem.” I said.
Despite the aches and pains in my body, I felt light and happy, like I was sailing along on the winds without even needing wings.