My first thought when as I stared down into the empty hole where a building and my boyfriend should have been was the wordless desire to hit someone, very hard. Master Raychelle had tried to teach me that violence shouldn’t be the first answer for a Crystal Guardian, but from what I’d seen it was usually a second choice that was kept close at hand.
“They took him,” I said, anger lacing a feral edge onto my voice.
The foundation was empty. No building. No Darius. That wasn’t the kind of thing earthquakes did. That was the kind of thing people did when they were trying to rescue their comrades from a collapsed building.
Mass teleportation like that wasn’t easy. Only a very experienced spell caster would have been able to pull it off. On a lot of planets that would have narrowed the list of suspects tremendously. Hellsreach had been at war for so long though that master class spell casters were roughly twenty times more common than on typical planets in the Empire. It still made for a small list, relatively speaking, but it was a longer one than I had time to sort through.
Whoever abducted Darius had little reason to leave him alive once they worked out who he was. At best they might try to ransom him, but with Master Raychelle and the rest of the Imperial forces on planet that was foolish chance for them to take.
Dealing with a teleporter was problematic because, in theory, they could be anywhere. In practice though I knew they had to be reasonably close by. I had Master Raychelle to thank for that deduction. She’d spent the last few months, when she had spare time, teaching me as much about anima casting and magic theory as she could. In part it was to prevent me from burning myself out like I had, but it also served to make up for the glaring gap in my education.
I’d never been a superb student. More than one of the Sisters of Water’s Mercy had laid literal curses on me for my lack of attentiveness in class. To be fair though, at the time, it was worth it. Classes at the orphanage were that boring.
Master Raychelle’s classes were a whole different story though. She had a gift for teaching, and knew how to speak to me in a way that made sense. Also, the subject matter she was teaching was easy to stay engaged with. Subjects where the tests are life or death rather than pass/fail tend to command my attention pretty easily it turns out.
What I’d retained from her lessons was that teleportation, even for the most talented caster was a tiring, energy expensive procedure. That told me that the building mover had to live close by. Whoever had set up Salmon Falls as a trap for the Garjaracks was a small time operator in the grand scheme of things. That they had a master class caster on call said the caster was someone they knew personally rather than an outside agent. Especially if the caster was on call at a moment’s notice for earthquake rescue work.
“Fari, are there any abandoned supply depots in the area?” I asked, playing a hunch.
“None on the official records, but give me a moment,” she said. “Ah, there it is! Looks like there’s one about two miles to the east of your current position. It’s hidden but the orbital imaging for this area is sharp enough to make out the irregularities in the vegetation.”
That was within the range for a standard teleportation spell. It had to be the right place. I turned to Cadrus and Nenya.
“I can’t ask you to follow me into this,” I said. “Go back and meet up with your family.”
“I thank you Guardian,” Cadrus said. “Can you not wait for support to arrive though?”
“I’ve called for an Imperial Enforcement Squad,” Fari said. “They’re tied up dealing with the results of the earthquake though.”
“How big was that quake?” I asked.
“Big enough that I’m dealing with its aftermath too.” Master Raychelle said, cutting into the mental link that Fari and I were speaking on. Master Raychelle is a Void anima caster like I am, but she’s also a talented mentalist as well. Seeing her appear beside Fari was surprising only because I’d rarely seen her do it, not because I had any doubt she was capable of doing so.
“What is your situation there?” she asked.
“The quake wiped out the town that Darius and I were inspecting. Things were complicated even before that though,” I said.
I explained to her, in short, quick sentences, how the town had been set up as a trap, how I was sending a Garjarack family into the nearest Imperial aid center and how Darius had been injured by a collapsing building and then kidnapped.
“Do you think you’re in any shape to mount a rescue?” Master Raychelle asked.
“Yes,” I said without hesitation.
“Alone?” Master Raychelle asked.
“She doesn’t need to go alone!” Nenya said. “We can help her!”
Cadrus looked at his daughter and narrowed his eyes. On a human I would have guessed that meant either disapproval or fatigue but I was still learning Garjarack body language so as far as I knew it could have been a sign of breathless excitement. Given the circumstances though, I was going to guess that the father wasn’t thrilled with the idea of his daughter tagging along to take on a random number of hostile humans with only a broken Crystal Guardian to support them.
“Thank you Nenya, but I can’t ask that of you,” I said. “This is going to be dangerous and your family needs you.”
“We are all family,” she said. “Isn’t that the teaching father?”
“Yes,” Cadrus agreed. “But perhaps we will be a hinderance to the Guardian?”
“I know how to fight!” Nenya said.
“You are not ready for this battle,” her father said.
“But I’ve trained…!” Nenya began to protest.
“You are unarmed and unarmored my daughter. Do not seek to fight from a position of weakness when the fight may be avoided,” Cadrus said.
“But the Guardian is unarmed!” Nenya said.
“I’m a Crystal Guardian,” I said and let a flicker of Void anima darken my eyes to the pitch of deepest night. “We’re never unarmed.”
It was a straight up lie. My options for tackling a pack of combat ready humans lead by a master class wizard were extremely limited. There was a mystique to the Crystal Guardians though. People believed we could do the wildest things. That was helped in part by the fact that each Crystal Guardian was either extremely talented (like Master Raychelle) or had a relatively rare gift with anima casting (like me). The greater part of our reputation though came from simply encouraging people to believe that we were amazing.
The deception might be hard to live up to sometimes, but I watched how Nenya’s eyes lit up at the thought that I was going to somehow save the day and saw how worthwhile it was to make the effort to be larger than life.
“Also,” I added. “I won’t be alone. Fari, you still have access to the planetary defense systems right?”
“That’s correct,” Fari said.
“You could be useful Nenya. Trust me on that,” I said. “But the planetary weapons have a rather large effect radius and it’ll be easier if Fari only needs to avoid hitting one of us.”
Nenya nodded at my words and looked at her father.
“I thank you again Guardian Watersward,” he said. “For what you have done for my family, I hope that we can repay you someday.”
“This isn’t the last you’ll see of me,” I told him. “I’ll have some questions for you once this is all calmed down.”
“Head back to the clearing about a hundred yards behind you,” Fari said to Cadrus and Nenya. “I’ll land the transport there in five minutes once I’ve picked up the rest of your family.”
“I’m going to get Darius,” I said with a nod at the Garjaracks before I broke into a run in the direction Fari indicated for the hidden supply depot.
“Talk to me about your plan,” Master Raychelle said. “You plan to act as a forward observer for Fari who will use one of the non-lethal planetary defense systems to disable the kidnappers, correct?”
“That seemed like the best idea,” I said. “No chance of a miscasting burn for me, and plenty of firepower to take the kidnappers down with.”
“What about the master class wizard who teleported the building away?” she asked in the same tone of voice she used when she was quizzing me.
“They should be exhausted by a teleport that large,” I said. “Also they’d need to be at the destination area to cover such a large area unless they were galactically talented at space warping. In which case they wouldn’t have needed to take the whole building.”
“You were paying attention my lecture last week,” she said.
“I pay attention to all of your lectures,” I said.
“At least when I have you alone,” Master Raychelle said.
Darius had offered to help with my studies, but it turned out to be a little too distracting to share a lesson book with him. I honestly have no idea what Master Raychelle’s lecture was on that day unless she happened to actually be talking about gorgeous shoulders and earlobes that were begging to be nibbled on. Darius had been banished from helping with lessons after that which was terrible for everything except my ability to focus and learn the material being presented.
“I’m not distracted now,” I said.
“Yes you are,” Maste Raychelle said. “You worried and angry and acting before you think. As your mentor, I should order you to stand down and await official backup.”
“But you’re not going to do that?” I asked. When she put it like that, standing down almost seemed reasonable, even if there was no chance I’d actually agree to it.
“No,” Master Raychelle said. “The quake that just hit was bad. We have a thousand mile swath of devastation to deal with and we need every available resource on search and rescue in a dozen different cities. If that wasn’t the case I’d be scrambling there to be with you myself.”
A thousand miles of devastation like what we’d seen in Salmon Falls was beyond my ability to imagine clearly. All I could picture was buildings reduced to rubble as far as the eye could see with people trapped in each one of them.
“I understand why you can’t be here,” I said. “There’s a lot more lives than just Darius hanging in the balance now.”
“There are, but that’s not why I’m willing to authorize you to undertake this rescue,” Master Raychelle said.
“I know I haven’t known him long, but he does mean a lot to me,” I said.
“That’s another strike against you doing this,” she said. “In any conflict, you need a calm, clear head. That’s exponentially harder when the conflict involves people we care about.”
“I can stay focused,” I said.
“I know, and that’s why I’m willing to trust you here,” Master Raychelle said. “You have a wonderful mind Mel. I’m not going to hold you back from using it.”
“Thank you,” I said, feeling a little stunned. I was used to compliments on my martial prowess, generally from guys I’d knocked onto the mat in under a round of sparring. Compliments on being smart though were kind of foreign to me.
“I am going to insist you keep me in the loop however,” Master Raychelle said. “I can help with the search and rescue here and keep a remote eye on you with no problem if you’ll do your part in telling me what’s happening.”
“Well, right now, I’m closing in on the supply depot,” I said. “I’m guessing this is where the humans got the bombs that they were blasting Salmon Falls with. Probably enough weaponry there to outfit an entire rogue militia force.”
“The aerial images make it look like one of the bases Darius was telling us about,” Fari said. “The ones that were intended to be ‘left behind’ in case the Empire forced a peace treaty between the two forces.”
“At least we know what they were really fighting over now,” I said. One of the big mysteries when we’d first arrived was why the human forces from Exxion IV and the Garjarack forces from Exxion II had continued fighting a land war over Hellsreach, aka Exxion III. As it turned out “trying to gain control of an ancient war world” had been the incentive to keep the two sides fighting for decades.
With that kind of prize on the line, I expected that we’d find an extremely well stocked garrison waiting for us. The human forces from Exxion IV had twenty years to prepare for the Empire shutting down their open warfare after all. Leaving behind enough firepower to ensure their hidden forces could keep waging the war for decades more seemed like the kind of investment both sides would be willing to make in a heartbeat. I had the image of a few dozen soldiers waiting in ambush for me, armed to the teeth and ready to kill at the first sign of trouble.
Instead, we found just about the last thing in the world that I was expecting.
Darius hadn’t been kidnapped by a group of master saboteurs or hardened militia men. The collapsed building was visible in the center of a clearing as I sprinting around a large rocky hillside, and there were no armed guards in sight.
Through the dense trees I saw that a shanty town that had been erected outside of the torn-apart supply depot. Dozens of people were swarming over the wreckage and lifting away pieces of it to free the men who were still trapped underneath.
I watched as they carried out an unfamiliar body, a young man, but not Darius thankfully. Even from a distance I could tell that he’d been crushed under the weight of the brick and stone. A older man ran forward and cradled the young man’s body in his arms, rocking back and forth in the kind of agony that spoke of a lifelong connection between the two.
These were the people who’d been trying to kill the Garjarack family. These were the people who had kidnapped Darius. I was supposed to hate them. I was supposed to smite them with righteous vengeance.
Instead I walked quietly forward to see how I could help.