Reconstruction can be a long, tiring process. In the wake of a massive earthquake everything gets disrupted. Water, food, and other essentials become scarce commodities even in areas where they’d been abundant. For the towns and cities that were caught in the middle of the war and stretched to the breaking point before planet-wide calamity hit Hellsreach, the situation was even more dire.
Two months after a cabal of Hellsreach natives managed to unlock the planet’s hidden “battle world systems”, the the people of Hellsreach were still reeling from the damage they’d caused.
In a way, I was too.
I was lucky. Unlike a lot of others, I had access to some very talented cleric-healers and I’d been given the time I needed to recover from the injuries I’d sustained in the fight to regain control of the world before it destroyed its neighbors. Despite the time and attention though, the healing process was slow. I’d injured myself with magic, and damaged my anima reserves by channeling more energy than should have been humanly possible. Since the alternative had been to wither and die under the assault of a weapon meant to scour worlds clean of life, I’d say I made out pretty well. That didn’t change the fact though that the only way I was going to recover fully was to let nature have the time it needed.
Among the activities that my healers had approved for me were things like quiet dinners for two, walks in the Honey Rose gardens and light sparring sessions provided I wore sufficient protective equipment. They hadn’t been happy with the sparring sessions, but I’d started pressing for them as soon as I was released from the hospital. After two months of restricted practice time, I was slower and flabbier than I’d been in years.
That made “how I found myself in an active war zone” an interesting question.
“Never let it be said that you don’t take me on the best dates,” I told Darius as we crouched behind a partially exploded wall in the ruins of a beach town named Salmon Falls.
“I swear, this was supposed to be a safe area!” he said. The two months we’d been together let me evaluate his expressions better than I’d been able to when we met. He was scared and that was making him angry. From way he was balanced on the balls of his feet, ready to leap out and engage the forces that were assaulting the town, I knew he wasn’t afraid for himself. He was afraid for me.
I could drop him nine out of ten times in our sparring matches, but only so long as anima casting was off the table. Once magic came into the picture, I couldn’t compete. It wasn’t that I was incapable of casting spells. Not anymore. I just couldn’t afford to risk a miscast until I fully recovered.
In theory, that meant I shouldn’t be anywhere near “out in the field”, but in practice our resources were stretched too thin for me to stay on my butt for another month.
Before joining the Crystal Guardians, I’d viewed them like most of the galaxy did; they were a corp of unstoppable troubleshooters that the Empress unleashed on any worlds that tried to backslide into barbarism. The first time I’d seen one in action, she’d been so dangerous that a squad of elite combat soldiers led by a master class anima caster hadn’t been enough to take her down.
I wasn’t like that. I’d never had the years of training in spell casting that most of everyone else in the galaxy got. My talents had kept my own powers hidden from me for years and I was still working on understanding them. Even as a “late bloomer” though, the Crystal Guardians had been willing to bring me on board. I wasn’t unstoppable, but I was another pair of hands to help carry the load of a galaxy that the Crystal Empire had a lot less under control than it appeared.
“I’m not complaining,” I told Darius and flashed him a smile which did nothing to calm his nerves. He knew me well enough to know what I was thinking and to know that it was probably a bad idea.
“I will personally cast a binding spell on you if you try to go out there,” he said.
“You know I can break anything you can cast, right?” I said. I was teasing him, which under the circumstances wasn’t the nicest thing I could have done. The trip had been his idea, a chance for me to get out and start helping with the reconstruction. It had been a lovely gesture. I’d been climbing the walls for weeks for an opportunity to do something, anything to help.
Master Raychelle, my Guardian mentor, had insisted at first that I follow the healer’s orders and rest, but had started to budge on that point as my condition improved and the situation on Hellsreach worsened. She’d cleared me for Relief and Recovery work when Darius proposed visiting some of the towns outside the main combat zones where the disaster mitigation plans were progressing slowly.
“She’ll be good,” Fari said, appearing beside us in her usual translucent blue form. “Won’t you Mel?”
“No promises,” I said. “It looked like there were still people in this town. We can’t let whoever’s conjuring artillery down onto us blow them to bits.”
“Garjarack scavengers,” Darius said. “I saw them after the first bomb went off. This was supposed to be a human settlement. Any lizard folk here are looters.”
“How would Gars get this far into territory held by Exxion 4?” I asked.
“The same way humans get into territory held by Exxion 2,” he said. “Attack fighters gutted and fitted for cargo space. Until the ceasefire they’d get blown out of the sky if they crossed deep into enemy territory.”
The distinctive sound of space being rent asunder sent both Darius and I diving to the ground. The bomb materialized through the warp breech inside a house three doors down from us. When it went off, I felt the shockwave more than heard it.
“We’re going to have to go out there,” I said. “Even assuming they haven’t blown up our transport yet, we’d never get out of here if they’re free to blow us up when we try to take off.”
“They’re going to blow you up if you go out there without any anima shields,” Darius said.
“I’ve got an anima shield.” I said and pointed to the enchanted belt that I was wearing.
“You’ve got a reserve anima shield,” Darius said. “Those are only supposed to be used for emergency environmental protection.”
“Then I’m good to go,” I said. “My environment wants to kill me and I’d say this is pretty clearly an emergency.”
“I can do this by myself,” Darius said. “Trust me.”
It was a pure and heartfelt plea. This has been his idea and he’d been charged with protecting me. We’d turned down an armed escort because all able the bodies were needed elsewhere. This was supposed to be a safe and easy mission and it had turned out to be anything but that. I could see the guilt in his eyes, lurking behind the fear of my being injured.
“Ok.” I said, and sat back against the wall.
I saw his eyes widen in surprise and then narrow to inspect me more closely. I remained sitting and smiled at him. He inspected me for another couple seconds and then turned to look for a path out of the house we were hiding in.
“I’ll be right back.” he said and dashed out of the building in a crouch.
I watched him go and counted to five.
“You’re not going to stay here are you?” Fari asked me.
“And let him take all the risk?” I said.
“He’s not on restricted spell casting,” Fari said.
“That doesn’t make him invincible,” I said. “Anyways, I’ve got something he doesn’t.”
“What’s that?” Fari asked.
“You!” I said. “You still have a link into the surface defense weapon systems right?”
“I do. Why?” Fari asked, sounding very wary. She’s spent too long as the controlling spirit of a planet killing super weapon to be thrilled with having control over another planet killing super weapon.
“Set up a sense link with me,” I said. “I can’t cast spells but I can act as a spotter for you. And to be clear, I’m not asking you to shoot anyone. With the defense systems you were telling me about, we should be able to disarm and disable anyone I can see without killing them.”
“I can do that.” Fari said, relief plain in her voice.
“Probably worth doing the same with Darius,” I said.
“Way ahead of you,” she said as I got up and headed for the bombed out section of wall opposite the path Darius had taken.
My primary magical gift is the ability to manipulate Void anima. With it I can drain the energy from spells, shield myself from attacks and turn invisible. Sneaking through the ruins of Salmon Falls would have been a lot easier if I was free to do any of those things. To be fair though, I wasn’t completely devoid of magic. From the first time I’d cast a spell, I’d had a sixth sense that warned of me danger. Even when I intentionally suppressed my magics, I left that alone. I figured I wasn’t likely to finish healing if someone managed to blast my head off.
With the smoke that the bombs had kicked up, I didn’t have the need for invisibility either, but that came with some drawbacks of its own.
“I’m not getting much from the sense link spell,” Fari warned me.
“I know. I’ll try to get to a clearer area.” I said and headed towards the shore, where I’d seen the people who remained in the town.
The next bomb materialized a quarter mile from me. I felt it coming in time to take shelter, even though I was safely out of the blast range.
“How’s Darius doing?” I asked Fari.
“He’s ok. I’ll link you two together,” she said.
“You’re on the move too, aren’t you?” he asked after the mental link formed between us.
“I’m not going after the artillery lobbers,” I said. “They’re all yours.”
“You’re trying to find the looters?” he asked.
“It can’t be coincidence that they’re here at the same time someone is blowing up the town,” I said.
“I’ll give you that. I don’t think they’ll know anything about the artillery lobbers though,” Darius said.
“Doesn’t hurt to ask,” I said.
“It will if they kill you,” he replied.
“I’ll have to ask them nicely then,” I said.
“Let Fari ask them. From a distance,” he said.
“They won’t know what to make of Fari,” I said. “I want to see how they respond to being caught by a Crystal Guardian.”
I heard another explosion, smaller than the last few. That was worrying. It could have been that the artillery lobbers were running out of bombs, but I didn’t have that kind of luck. What was more likely was that they were drawing a bead on their target and felt safer using small devices that could fit through tinier, and faster to form, rifts.
That next small explosion followed a few seconds after the first one, confirming my theory.
“They’re getting closer,” Darius said. “Idiots.”
I understood what he meant. They were rushing their attacks to take him out quicker, but that told us that he was in a spot they could observe and that it was one which was close enough to their position to make them panic.
“Be careful.” I said. Idiots tend to make dumb mistakes, but those mistakes can sometimes be as deadly as the plans of the most clever people out there.
“That’s my line.” he said. “Seriously, no getting shot.”
“No promises.” I told him. I had every intention of remaining whole and unperforated but sometimes the best intentions can go awry.
The smoke began to clear as I got towards the beach. That let me see the state of the town better. From our approach by air, we’d seen that Salmon Falls was in much worse shape than it should have been. According to the official reports there were a thousand people living here and collecting emergency supplies from the Imperial rationing center. Walking the shattered streets I had to wonder if even a dozen humans remained in the burned out structures that surrounded me.
The buildings troubled me. They looked like they’d seen some repair work done to them, but it was all superficial. A house that I passed had newly restored walls but the inside was gutted by fire and filled with debris. I found a supply depot that was in the same state and started to question what I was seeing.
“Fari, Darius, there’s something wrong here,” I said. “This supply depot is empty but the looters haven’t been here. No one has. The insides are an empty pit.”
“I saw a building like that in the north here,” Darius said.
Another explosion punctuated our conversation.
“They’re losing track of you.” Fari said to Darius.
“I’m moving building to building,” he said. “Can you plot out where they are from the sight lines they’ve had on me?”
“Maybe,” Fari said and then amended her statement. “Yes. there’s two groups of them. I’ll show you an overlay of the area they’re in.”
“Do you have enough info to take them out with the defense systems?” Darius asked.
“Not with any of the non-lethal ones,” she said. “You’ll need to actually see them for me to bring those online. As you get closer I can reduce the size of the areas they’re in and target them better.”
“Let me see that too.” I asked.
“You said you were going to stay out of this,” Darius said.
“I will,” I said, even though part of me yearned to get to our attackers before him and keep him safe.
Fari’s overlay appeared as a series of glowing lines and circles superimposed over my normal vision. I saw the area the artillery lobbers were in outlined in red and Darius outlined in blue. He was creeping towards them to catch them unaware. That gave him the best chance of finishing the battle with the first group before the second group could pinpoint his location. It also meant I needed to avoid being blown up for a few minutes more at least.
“Fari, which buildings in town would be most likely to have supplies stored in them and be visible from the artillery lobber’s positions?” I asked.
“There’s three warehouses and a medical center that fit those criteria,” she said.
“How far away is the medical center?” I asked.
“You’re heading towards it now. Take a left at the next cross street and then a right at the road beyond the fountain,” she said.
“Any signs of people there?” I asked.
“I can’t make out what’s up there,” she said. “I’m pulling the information on the streets from the Exxion 2 provisioning camp records and correlating it with what you’re seeing.”
“Have I mentioned that you’re amazing?” I asked.
“Not yet today,” she replied.
I didn’t have invisibility to rely on, but I wasn’t that bad at sneaking without it. A life spent avoiding guys who were bigger, meaner and magically enhanced meant I’d learned how to stay out of sight early on.
I was determined to make the looters first sight of me a shocking surprise that came less than a second before Fari apprehended them. As it turned out though, I was the one who wound up shocked.
I found the looters at the medical center, right where I’d guessed they would be. What I hadn’t guessed was that they would be a family. Three old lizard folks, a pair of adults and more than a handful of young children, each with the same distinctive pattern and coloration to their scales.
None of them were armed, and none of them looked like they posed any threat whatsoever. They were tired, barely able to stand on their feet. Their clothes were damaged enough to count as rags and they moved with the jittery panic of people terrified of their situation.
“What are you doing here?” I called out as I stepped away from my hiding spot around a corner.
My words hit the Garjarack family like a stun button. They each jolted in place, some of them dropping the boxes they were carrying out of the medical center.
“Who are you?” the eldest female said, stepping forward towards me.
We were fifty feet apart, but I put up my hands as a show of non-hostility. It didn’t mean much, but the gesture seemed to communicate my intent as much as the words I spoke.
“I’m Guardian Mel Watersward of the Crystal Empire,” I said. “I’m here to help.”
I saw the eldest Garjarack’s shoulders slump and guessed that she was feeling relief. On a human it might have read as despair, but I’d talked with enough of the lizard folks while recuperating to have a sense that their body language differed from my own species in some key ways.
“Are you a healer?” one of the adult Gars asked. He pointed to two of the Gar children and I saw that neither of them looked well. They were shaking with the kind of palsy that came from desperate undernutrition. I’d seen cases of it at the hospital the first week that I’d been there.
The war between the humans and the Gar had gone on so long that both sides had developed a class of “on planet” servitors who’d been treated as slave labor for the war effort. The shortages brought on by the planet-wide earthquakes had been enough to tip the most poorly treated on both sides over the edge into painful, unpleasant deaths. At least in the cases where the Imperial relief forces hadn’t gotten to them in time.
By two months after the crisis though we were supposed to have systems and supply lines in place to distribute food to those in need.
“I’m not, but I can take you to one,” I said. There were plenty of clinics setup to help people like this. Or at least there were supposed to be. I had a few terrible suspicions beginning to take root on that front.
Those suspicions were pushed to the back of my mind by a more urgent awareness though.
One moment, I could tell that we were safe and the next my danger sense stabbed through me like an icy spear. I looked around and out of the corner of my eye saw a rift beginning to form in the middle of where the Gar family was standing.
I wasn’t supposed to cast spells. I couldn’t risk a miscasting. If I didn’t shield them though, the bomb that came through the rift was going to was going to reduce them to a gory stew right in front of my eyes!