By the time the bolt caster exploded, Arvana knew her day was going to be miserable, but the signs were there as soon as she woke up. Marsh’s frantic call that they had a line on the black market weapons they needed and the confirmation that Zazog’s crew would be at the Hooded Beacon for lunch was not how she wanted to be greet a new day. Or any day really.
Marsh and Keel had been planning a counterstrike on the Beacon family for weeks. She knew from the first time they told her about it that there wasn’t any chance she could convince them to take a saner approach to the problem (like leaving for a different planet), so she’d settled for pointing out the obvious holes in their plans. The idiots thought they could overcharge some enchanted knives and take Zazog’s crew in a straight up melee fight. When neither of them could score a clean hit on her in a sparring match, they dropped that idea and moved to the plan of getting some real weapons.
The bolt casters seemed like the perfect foil for Marsh’s hot headed zeal. He didn’t have any contacts in the black market and Arvana reasoned that few people would be willing to sell a nut like him the kind of military grade hardware they needed to pull off the assault.
As it turned out though, while Marsh was a little too passionate to close a deal on the weapons, Keel (or rather Keel’s money) was able to convince the right people that a transaction could be made that wouldn’t get traced back to the seller.
They tested the weapons out in an old basement and nearly killed themselves in the process, but with the confirmation that the bolt casters worked as advertised, they had everything they needed to move forward.
Arvana’s part of the job was simple, in theory. She was there to maintain a secure communication web for them and cover their getaway with an illusion. As a primarily Mental anima caster, Arvana’s illusions were purely mind-affecting, but the Beacon family didn’t have any kind of non-intelligent surveillance on their restaurant since that kind of thing always came back as evidence that could be used against you in court sooner or later.
Marsh and Keel thought they were protecting her by keeping her “out of the actual fighting”, but that was mostly because they’d never tried to cast an obscuring spell that covered three people at once and have it hold up during an armed conflict. She’d practiced a few times before they went through the door to the Hooded Beacon and the results had been sufficiently dismal that she’d insisted they wear masks as well. Magic was incredible in what it could do, but simple physical props made it a lot easier and were much more dependable.
Marsh had enchanted the three would-be vigilantes with a haste spell that made the world seem to slow to a crawl before they burst into the restaurant. That had given Arvana the sense that things were happening in a simple, controlled manner. They’d stroll in, blast Zazog and his crew, she’d cloak them and they’d stroll right back out. For them it would take about a minute, and for everyone else inside the restaurant they’d be in and out in under two seconds. In the aftermath the Beacon family would get an anonymous message that anything they extorted from the neighborhood was going to come back to them in medical and repair bills. The Beacons would leave off the extortion racket and people’s lives would get better.
Or at least that’s what Marsh and Keel thought. Arvana knew the plan was doomed, and people were going to get hurt. People got hurt all the time though. She figured the best she could do was to make sure it wasn’t the people she cared about who were on the receiving end of that pain. At least not this time.
The assault went smooth and according to plan right up until the moment when Keel’s nerve broke.
At their accelerated speed, Arvana had time to hear the bolt caster that he was carrying go off and turn to look in his direction before the inevitable disaster occurred.
Later, as they were running away, Arvana had the presence of mind to ask herself if that moment, the one ‘misfire’ on Keel’s part doomed them or saved them.
They were supposed to pick out Zazog’s group and take them down. That was predicated on finding Zazog’s group before the restaurant descended into chaos. The moment Keel pulled the trigger that option vanished.
Marsh tried to argue for killing everyone in the restaurant, but fortunately their black market weapons chose that moment breakdown. It was the kind of amazing coincidence that was too ridiculous for Arvana to even assign a conspiracy too. If the weapon’s dealer had wanted them dead there were plenty of easier, safer methods of accomplishing that than to let them walk into a den of criminals with partially functioning murder devices.
With the loss of their weapon, Keel and Marsh were willing to flee, at last, and Arvana felt a surge of energy as the world slowed down even further. She started to spin the invisibility spell as they ran for the door and was two twists of the anima weaving away from completing it when one of her companions dropped their bolt caster and it exploded.
The force should have killed them. It reduced the door, the window and even the brick steps leading up to the restaurant to microscopic particles. None of the three of them were proficient enough with shielding magic to withstand that sort of destructive force but, before Arvana was even aware of the blast, she found herself tumbling into the road outside the Hooded Beacon. Something, or someone had protected them with a very short lived shield. Arvana thought she saw the remnants of it fade away but couldn’t be sure it wasn’t just an after image of the blast.
As the three of them got to their feet, the haste spell diminished but still held as did Arvana’s invisibility spell, though only be the barest of threads.
Neither Marsh nor Keel thought to question their good fortune. Between the excitement of the attempted assault on the restaurant, the terror of their weapons failing and the mind rattling force of the explosion, the two boys were running on little more than pure animal instinct. The same was true for Arvana, with the major difference being that as a Mentalist, one of her animal instincts was to cast a spell to dampen her emotions and enhance her senses. She wasn’t a calm, cool killer by nature, but she could fake that mindset for a while with the right spells.
As they fled, invisible to the people who were rushing towards the excitement at the restaurant, Arvana fitted the bits and pieces of the failed raid into place. The picture they revealed wasn’t a pleasant one.
Someone wanted them out of the restaurant and didn’t want any of the patrons injured. Their weapons shouldn’t have failed. Not all three of them at once. The speed they were fleeing at was wrong too. Marsh wasn’t a good enough caster to pull off that strong of a haste spell. In his panic it didn’t look like he was maintaining it all in fact.
And then there was the invisibility spell. Arvana thought back. She’d been in the midst of casting it when the explosion went off. There was a brief blip of time, a few hundred microseconds of real time, when she was totally stunned by the explosion. There were spellcasters who were good enough to cast through that kind of distraction. She was not one of them.
Marsh and Keel peeled around the corner of an Puffed Pastry shop and dashed for the entrance to the crypts that ran beneath the city. The crypts were the perfect sort of labyrinth to lose pursuers in. Arvana wanted to smack her two companions for heading to them however since using the crypts was a dead giveaway that they were locals. She was prevented from following through on that course of action by a sickening thought.
Someone else had finished the invisibility spell for her.
A cold, nauseous feeling lodged in her stomach and stuck with Arvana all through their flight to the far end of the crypts. If she hadn’t cast the invisibility spell, if someone else had sewn it shut and maintained it for the few moments before Arvana reached out for it again, that meant someone else was in control of it. Whoever finished the spell was on the inside of it, and able to see them as clearly as Arvana could see Marsh and Keel.
Zazog was a beast. Huge, tough and even stronger than he looked. They’d selected him as their target because putting him in the recovery ward seemed like an attainable goal. He was a very big fish, and Marsh believed his fall would send just the right sort of message to the Beacon family.
They were on the stairs leading up to the rooms they shared on the top floor of a run down theater when Arvana managed to put things properly into context. Zazog was huge and tough and strong compared to the local competition, but that didn’t mean he was the worst thing they had to worry about. If he was really powerful, he wouldn’t be on a minor world like Haldron’s Edge.
“What happened there?” Marsh asked. “What kind of junk did they sell you?”
“The casters were good!” Keel said. “We checked them out!”
“He’s right,” Arvana said. “They were fine.”
“They blew up! How is that fine?” Marsh asked.
Keel looked crushed by the question. He’d sunk a lot into obtaining the weapons, but their loss was inconsequential compared to the pain losing them had inflicted on Marsh.
“The caster didn’t blow up,” Arvana said. “It was destroyed.”
“By who?” Marsh asked.
“Someone in the restaurant,” Arvana said. “We shouldn’t have been able to make it out there.”
“You invisibility spell…” Keel began to say.
“It wasn’t mine,” Arvana said. “Just like the speed spell wasn’t yours right Marsh?”
“What do you mean?” he asked.
“Did you remember to maintain the spell after the caster blew up?” Arvana asked.
“Yeah, of course,” Marsh said.
“When did you let it drop then?” Arvana asked.
A small, mean part of Arvana was happy to see that her sick feeling was communicable. The gears in Marsh’s head turned slower than in hers but he wasn’t stupid. Nor was Keel.
“I didn’t,” Marsh said. “I didn’t maintain it. That was somebody else’s spell.”
“On us the whole way back here?” Keel said. “That’s impossible. No one’s that good.”
“No one local,” Arvana said.
“What, you think we stumbled on a Warlord or something?” Keel said.
“I have no idea what we stumbled on,” Arvana said, her words meant for more than Marsh and Keel’s ears.
“What’s going to happen next?” Marsh asked.
“I think they let us get away because they didn’t want a fight there,” Arvana said. “And I think they covered for us because they didn’t want any of the rest of the Beacon goons involved.”
“That’s good right?” Keel asked.
“No,” Arvana said. “That’s very bad.”
“It means they want to hunt us themselves,” Marsh said.
“How long do we have?” Keel asked.
“Before someone that good catches us?” Arvana said. “They’re probably already here.”
“What can we do?” Marsh asked.
“Make them an offer,” Arvana said.
“I’ve got some money left still,” Keel said.
“Not that kind of offer,” Arvana said. “They’re not going to need money. Not with that kind of skill.”
“What do you think they want?” Marsh asked.
“We’re not going to know until they tell us,” Arvana said. “And then we’re going to have a decision to make, probably on how we want to die.”
With what Arvana knew, she was pretty sure the gesture was a hopeless one, but she started gathering the magic needed for the worst spell she knew, and she prepared herself to cast it wrong.
A Mind Shatter spell, when properly cast, is a pure attack of magic and will, designed to fry another person’s brain and wipe away their ability to ever think again. It’s an ugly attack and one that Arvana had no business knowing how to cast, but she’d learned most of her magic from people who dealt in ugly spells so it came with the territory.
If Arvana followed the correct forms of the spell, the magic would be shaped into a lance and sent out to spear through her target’s defenses. She knew the attack wouldn’t be enough to stop whoever was pursuing them, their defenses had to be stronger than hers by a lot to manage what the casting she’d seen. That’s why she twisted the anima into the wrong shapes. Not a lance but a wave, not restricted to her target but rather ravaging everything around her. She wouldn’t survive the attack and neither would Marsh or Keel, but if she cast it that meant death was the preferable option compared to whatever their pursuer had in store for them.
“And what if what they want is you?” the woman sitting in the chair in the center of the room asked.
The woman had been there the whole time, had been with them the whole time, but a subtle block in Arvana’s memory had prevented her from noticing it. Arvana knew her mental wards were solid, but against this woman they might as well not have been there at all.
She looked around at Marsh and Keel. Nether were moving. Both of them stood like they were suspended in time, but there was no haste spell in effect. They were stuck in a web of a much more complicated casting than that.
“What do you want?” Arvana asked.
“I’m trying to decide,” the woman said.