I don’t always think clearly when I or someone near me is in mortal peril. Judging from the size of the bomb blasts that had been going off and my distance from the rift that was forming, I was pretty sure I could get far enough away for my emergency shield to soak the explosion safely.
The Garjarack family wasn’t that lucky though.
I glanced around to see if there was any shelter they could reach and saw that there were at least a dozen spots they could get behind that would protect them. Some of them. The fast ones. The adults.
If the children had been in good shape they might have escaped the bomb’s kill radius too, but one look at them showed how impossible that would be. The children could scuttle maybe a dozen feet away at most before the bomb obliterated them and the adults weren’t going to leave them behind.
I couldn’t let that happen. For the first time in two months, I called on the Physical anima that was resting in me and began weaving it into a protective spell. I felt fire burn along the edges of my arms as I swirled the spell into existence but a cool breeze cut me off.
“Mel! Wait! I’ve got this!” Fari said.
A brilliant light stabbed down from the heavens and pierced ground where the Garjarack family stood. There was a dull thump nearby and an explosion in the far distance. When I could see again a couple of seconds later, the lizardfolk family was still there, the rift that had opened near them was not and everyone was blinking in surprise.
“What was that?” I asked.
“Local area teleport denial spell. The defense grid has a lot of those in its arsenal,” Fari said.
“Does Darius have a bead on the hostiles yet?” I asked.
“I do. You can lock this whole place down if you want Fari. They’re not getting away from me now.” he said.
“I’ll cut off their escape if we need to, but I want to leave teleportation open as an option. The family Mel found may need immediate evac,” Fari said.
“The looters?” Darius asked.
“Yeah,” I said. “They’re not in good shape.”
I walked closer to them and released the partially formed shield spell so that the Physical anima I’d placed into it flowed back into me. I could still feel my skin tingling with the burn it had brought on.
“What was that?” one of the adults asked.
“The people who were bombing the town tried to transport a bomb here. One of my friends stopped them. They won’t be targeting us again,” I said.
“Did you kill them?” one of the elderly Gar asked. She seemed eager for an affirmative response to that question.
“We’re going to bring them in for questioning and trial,” I said.
“They poisoned our food!” the elderly Gar said. “They should die.”
“I’m more concerned with keeping you and your family alive at the moment,” I said.
“And what about the families in our city? Who is going to keep them alive?” one of the adults asked.
I scowled. It was a good question, and I didn’t have a good answer to it. The systems to care for the populace of Hellsreach during the current transition period had, clearly, fallen short. Or it had been sabotaged. That wasn’t my immediate problem though. At that moment the global problems of the world had to take a back seat to the issues facing the people right in front of me.
I wasn’t trained in working with people diplomatically, but I’d seen the Sisters at the orphanage deal with this kind of situation before, so I stole a move from them.
“How many hands do I have?” I asked the adult Gar and held my palms so that they were turned up and facing towards her.
“Two,” she said, annoyed.
“Right, which means there are more of you to help than I have hands to work with,” I said. “So you’re going to help me, and then, once your family is safe and fed, we’re going to look into what happening with your city.”
The Gar were tired, and angry. Worse, I was a human who was telling them what was going to happen. It didn’t matter that I was offering to help, or that I was speaking in a sane, rational and peaceful manner. The Gar woman before me was too scared and too hurt to do anything but fight. Fortunately, she wasn’t alone. The adult male Gar stepped up beside her and put his hand on her side. It was an odd gesture to see, but with the shape of their bones it wound up being the equivalent of resting a hand on a human’s shoulder.
“We appreciate your words Guardian Watersward,” the male Gar said. “May we take these supplies we have gathered?”
I saw the family eyeing the crates hungrily. Unless I missed my guess, they hadn’t eaten a decent meal in weeks, if not months. I looked down at the boxes and started to suggest that we break one open immediately before one of the kids passed out. That’s when my heart sank.
“I wish you could,” I said. “But they’re not safe.”
“What do you mean” the elderly Gar woman said.
“The safety seals are broken. Those crates have this weeks transport stickers on them but they’ve already been open. I think they’ve been tampered with,” I said.
“What’s wrong with them?” the elderly Gar woman asked.
“They’re probably poisoned,” I said. “A slow acting one I would guess. Could anyone have known that you were going to come here?”
“No,” the elderly Gar woman said. The rest of the Gars nodded their heads in agreement with her.
“This town is well across the border,” I said. “How did you know to come here to find supplies?”
“The ship,” the adult Gar woman said. “The one we came in. It’s a human ship and its beacon was still active.”
“I’ve worked on maintaining the spell nets for our fighters,” the adult Gar male said. “That’s how I knew how to read the logs on human ship.”
“How did you get the ship?” I asked. I suspected I knew what the answer was, but I was hoping I was wrong. Sadly, I wasn’t.
“It crashed just outside our city.” the elderly Gar woman said. I could see the same ideas sparking to life behind her eyes that were raging in mine.
“And it was still flyable?” I asked.
“Yes,” the adult Gar man said.
“No crew though right?” I asked.
“No,” the elderly Gar woman said. “No, curse us, there wasn’t.”
She saw what I did but the rest of the family was still catching up.
“I don’t understand,” the adult Gar woman said. “Why does it matter how we got the ship.”
“Because it was a trap.” the elderly Gar woman said.
“The ship was bait. Someone was trying to lure you in and have you take these supply crates back to your city,” I said. “Think about all of the explosions. Someone was bombing this city, but they never landed one near you. Or blew up your ship. They wanted you to be afraid, to pick up the supplies and race out of here as quickly as you could. Or at least that was the plan until my friends started hunting them.”
“When we got home we were going to share these with all of our neighbors,” the elderly Gar woman said.
“Your culture is known to be a tightly knit one by comparison to the local human cultures,” I said. “I think someone knew that and was counting on you sharing these supplies.”
The Gar were quiet in response to my words, except for the adult Gar woman. She sobbed in rage, her hands clenching so tightly they shook.
“We’ll leave the crates behind and I’ll have an investigator come and confirm my guess,” I said.
“I’m getting the nearest Imperial overseer on the way now,” Fari told me telepathically. “I’ve also alerted the West Mountain Aid Center to be ready for you. It’s the closest site that’s under direct Imperial oversight.”
“Good thinking, and thank you,” I said to her telepathically before speaking aloud to the Gar again. “I have a ship. If you’ll come with me, I can take you to a real aid center. We can make sure you get safe food and good medicine.”
“Why should we trust you,” the adult Gar woman said. She spoke the words at barely more than a whisper but the screaming rage behind them was perfectly clear.
My first instinct was to yell back at her. I was trying to help them. Being mistrusted was aggravating and a waste of my time. Some part of me was smart enough to keep my mouth closed for a couple of seconds though so my brain could tell my emotions to shut up.
All it took to solidify that bit of self control was to look at the family before me. I’d spent two months resting in comfort and luxury. They’d spent that time starving and had probably spent their lives in the kind of war fueled misery I’d only read about. They had every right to be distrustful and the last thing they needed was for me to chew them out. So, again, I took a page from the Sisters of Water’s Mercy playbook.
The Sisters were harsh when they needed to be, but they didn’t usually meet anger with anger. I thought about using my title as a Crystal Guardian to buy their trust, but that was complicated by the twin facts that I wasn’t actually a full Crystal Guardian yet and, even if I was, they wouldn’t have had any reason to believe me just because I said was. Instead, I chose a different approach.
“You don’t have to,” I told the Gar woman. “I’d like to get your family to an aid center as soon as possible. If you would trust a Garjarack aid station more than an Imperial one, I can request clearance for a Garjarack transport to come here and pick you up.”
“Why are you helping us? You’re human.” one of the other Garjarack’s, the elderly male, asked. He was as distrustful of me as the adult woman but not as consumed by rage.
“I’m a Crystal Guardian,” I told him. “This is what we do.”
“You help people? Is that it?” he asked. “Why are you the first one we’ve seen in twenty years then?”
“Do I look twenty years old to you?” I asked him. The actual answer to his question was a complex one. In part the Crystal Guardians were stretched much thinner than galactic society imagined them to be and I wasn’t going to shatter that illusion if I didn’t have too. The other thing that had kept the Empire from intervening in the situation on Hellsreach was the presence of a Cabal of natives who were working to keep the planet to themselves. Since most of the Cabal was human, I didn’t think explaining that to this family would do much to calm their anger.
“I have no idea. All of you look the same to me.” the elder Gar man said.
I almost laughed. As insults went, it was probably oldest and most widely used racist comment in the galaxy. It was rude as hell, but as put down’s went it lacked a certain amount of sting coming from someone of a completely different species than me.
“We’ll go with you,” the eldest Gar woman said.
“Gram?” the adult Gar man said. “Are you sure?”
She looked at me like she was inspecting a hunk of meat to see if it had turned rotten. Some part of my brain chose that moment to notice that, even when they became elderly, Garjarack’s still had certain mechanical muscular advantages on humans due to the length of their bones and the angles their muscles were set to work at. The old woman probably couldn’t break me in half, but I wasn’t sure it would be all that fun if she tried.
“Yes.” That was all that the elderly Garjarack woman said, just “Yes”, and the entire family nodded and fell into step with her. Even the adult Gar woman who was still silently fuming.
“Lead the way to your ship,” the elderly Gar woman said.
I turned back towards the direction I’d come when I felt claws of ice reach through me.
We were in danger.
I looked around for another rift. Nothing.
“Fari, what’s happening here?” I asked telepathically.
“I don’t know. You’re sensing danger right? I don’t see or hear anything…wait,” she said. “There’s a tremor building below you. It’s a strong one. Mel, you need to get everyone away from those buildings.”
I looked around and saw how little that was going to help. The town wasn’t that built up, but if the structures around us collapsed, we’d be crushed by the falling debris whether we were in them or not.
“I can’t get them out of the shadows all these buildings,” I said to Fari.
“Trust me!” she said.
So I did.
In the last seconds before the monster earthquake hit, I gathered the Gar family around me in a tight circle and then watched as the town was destroyed.