I’m not a fan of people who try to intimidate me. I’m also not a fan of anima blades. The guy who was holding me at sword point did have one thing going for him though; with a broken arm and a sprained ankle I wasn’t in the mood to pick a fight unless I absolutely had to.
“From those robes, I’m going to guess you’re an Imperial.” the guy said. The distance he’d picked told me he was a skilled fighter. He was holding the energized blade far enough away that I couldn’t swat it aside and close enough that he could skewer me with it before I could blink.
“And yet you’re still holding a sword on me. You want to explain that?” I asked him. Within the Crystal Empire, I thought it was reasonable to expect a warmer greeting from the locals than a sword to the face.
“You came here to force us to disarm right?” he said. I shifted my weight onto my bad ankle and back off it. My captor kept the blade trained on me, following my center of gravity. Dodging a thrust was going to be a difficult to impossible task, especially with one of my arms partially out of commission too.
“I came here as part of a peace conference.” I said. I tried to step slowly to the side. He responded with a small but clear twitch of his sword. He didn’t mind me shifting around in place but if I tried to reposition us, he was going to stab me on general principle.
“Right. Well, we’d rather not be peaceful just yet.” he said.
“Then I imagine we’re going to have some problems.” I said.
“It seemed like that to me too.” he said.
“So how is this going to go down?” I asked. I watched the anima blade but was focusing on his shoulders and hips. That’s where the attack would begin. I’d been hoping I could hold him off with conversation until my physical anima could get around to regenerating my injuries but it didn’t sound like was going to be an option.
“I’m guessing that you’re going to try to disarm me and I’ll have stab you a few dozen times to make sure you’re not going to pull any crazy Imperial tricks. It’s messy and neither of us will be happy with it, but you’ve got a look in your eyes that tells me you’re nowhere near surrendering yet.”
I could see the tension singing along his nerves. The sword remained steady except at the very tip. He wouldn’t hesitate if it came to a fight, but some part of him dearly didn’t want it to.
“Or, and I know this is insane, we can skip the whole ‘deadly violence’ thing and you can prove me wrong. You could, in this crazy world I’m picturing, come along quietly and save us both a lot of trouble.” he said.
“Do you want me to distract him?” Fari asked me telepathically. Her ghostly blue form was a projection. She often only bothered to share it with me, but she was fully capable of appearing before other people as well.
“Not yet. I don’t have anywhere to run yet, so it wouldn’t do much good.” I thought back to her. I tested my ankle again. I was flooding it with physical anima but it barely felt any better at all.
“And where would I be ‘coming along’ to exactly?” I asked.
“A prison camp.” he said. I saw him flinch as the words came out. I think he expected me to react violently to the idea. He wasn’t wrong, he was just off on the timing. I was definitely going to react violently to prison camp but I’d do so at a time when it would help me avoid it or escape it.
“Doesn’t sound all that appealing.” I told him. I tested my weight on my ankle again. Patience isn’t one of my virtues. The results weren’t promising. I could try to muscle through the pain, but it was going to slow me down. With my best defense against an armed opponent being mobility, that was a problem.
“Yeah, can’t say I blame you there. Not a real friendly crew you’d be thrown in with. You’re an Imperial though. They won’t let you stay there long.” he said.
“You’ll ransom me back to the Empire?” I asked.
“Me? No. My superiors? Sure. Probably get some kind of concessions, maybe even hold off the peace conference for a few months.” he said.
“For a guy who’s against peace, you’re seem oddly willing to talk now.” I pointed out.
“That would be because you’re listening to me. Also I’m trying to buy time for my reinforcements to arrive.” he said.
“Fari, could you setup a scan for incoming sentients and warn me when they’re less than five minutes from getting here?” I asked my ghostly friend telepathically.
“Done. Try not to move my jewel too much or it’ll break the spell.” she said. If I was going to escape, I’d need a least a few minutes to take Mr. Chatty down and find a place to hide. I wasn’t sure that five minutes would be enough but I wanted as much time to pull out information about what was going on from my captor as I could get.
“Leaving aside your hypothetical reinforcements, what did you mean about me listening? Since when doesn’t the Crystal Empire listen to its citizens? I thought this place was all sweetness and light?” I said.
I’d grown up with an admittedly skewed version of the Crystal Empire from living outside its borders. Belstarius, my homeworld, hadn’t been poor, but the stories that flowed out of the Crystal Empire made it seem like we were nothing more than a bleak little backwater that was rapidly being left behind by the wondrous new era of peace and prosperity that the Crystal Empress had brought to the galaxy.
In joining up with the Crystal Guardians, I’d been concerned that I’d either never seen the inside of the Empire or that I’d be monumentally bored if I did. I could almost hear my old teacher Master Hanq laughing at me from across the light years between us.
“Never complain about being bored girl. Fate gets cranky with people that tempt it like that.” he’d told me one day when I was being a brat.
“Maybe in other parts of the Empire but not so much here. Humans and Gar have been fighting this war on and off for over a century. The Empire put a stop to that but they left the wrong people in charge.” my captor said.
“So you want to keep killing people until the folks you like are running things?” I asked.
“One way or the other, there’s going to be killing.” he said.
“Because talking is so hard? Or is there something in the water here that makes you Mr. Kill Happy?” I asked.
“It’s Darius. Mr Kill Happy is on the other side.” he corrected me.
“The Garjaracks? They’re the kill happy ones? I thought both sides invited us here to work out an accord?” I said.
“It’s not that simple.” Darius said.
“Let me guess. There’s ‘honor’ involved? Or you need to get revenge? Or you’re just straight up crazy and think some ancient spirit demands that you kill everyone who doesn’t do what it says?” I asked.
I’d read up a little on the Exxion at Master Raychelle’s insistence. It had three settled worlds and two major species. The humans were your garden variety galactic stock. No bloodborn spell mods, no selectively bred lineages. Just regular people, albeit ones who had been fighting a war for over a century.
The Garjarack were bipedal, humanoids with scaled skin in various shades of green, brown and black. They weren’t “descended from Lizards” any more than humans were “descended from monkeys” but the pictures that I’d seen made it easy to understand why humans hadn’t hit it off with them on first sight.
The active fighting between them had been put to a halt by the Crystal Empire as a price for the whole system joining the Empire and repeating the benefits of interstellar trade. It had been twenty years since either Exxion II or Exxion IV had launched a ship against the other.
Exxion III, Hellsreach, was a different story though. There wasn’t an “official” war on Hellsreach but, from what I’d read, there were insurgent groups who fought back and forth over control of the world. It was a poorly kept secret that the insurgents acted as proxies for the Human and Garkarack forces, but as long as the fighting stayed contained on Exxion III, the Crystal Empire was forced to view it as an “internal matter”, unrelated to either of the other planets in the system.
“Yeah, a hundred years of warfare is just people being stupid or petty.” Darius said, anger kindling in his voice.
“You shot down our air skimmer, shot me out of the sky, maybe killed my mentor and the negotiator who came here to help you work through your problems. Tell me that’s not the textbook definition of stupid and petty.” I said, my own anger rising to match his.
“We have incoming people, Mel.” Fari said telepathically. “About seven of them, all in one ship. They’ll be here in just under five minutes.”
“You really don’t get it do you?” Darius asked. “We’re not the ones who shot down your skimmer. We’re not even the ones who shot you down.”
“Yeah, fine, so the Garjaracks did it. And you want to keep killing them and they want to keep killing you and so we should just let you have at it, right?” I said. I rammed more physical anima into my ankle and tested it again. I couldn’t fix it but I could deaden the pain and provide some reinforcement to ease the load on the tendons. Not optimal, but it was as good as I was going to get. I applied a similar hack of a spell to my arm and started coiling my anima up for the fight that I knew was coming.
“No!” Darius growled in frustration. “This isn’t about the Humans versus the Garjarack. That’s not the problem here. That’s not our fight.”
“Then what the hell are you fighting about?” I was ready to box his head in to see if I could knock some answers out of it.
“I’m with the Garjaracks! And the humans! We’re the natives of Hellsreach. The people we’re fighting? They’re the offworlders! They want this world for their people, but they don’t want us!” Darius yelled. In his anger he’d lowered his anima blade and was punctuating his sentences by waving his free hand around.
It was the perfect chance to deck him. One clean hit, a quick grab of his wrist and a tiny jolt of Void anima would be all it would take. I’d have him disarmed and unconscious in seconds. The only problem was that I’d gotten too caught up in the argument to think of that.
“That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard! The Empire insists that each world have its own representatives. Our coming here should have been the best possible thing for you, but instead you’re going to throw me in a prison camp so you can try to kill two other world’s worth of people?” I wasn’t screaming, I had just raised my voice a bit louder than normal.
“That’s not what we’re doing at all!” Darius said and then forcibly restrained himself. When he continued he was quieter but no less angry. “Listen, both Exxion II and IV have garrisons here. If peace is declared, they will simply change tactics and move the fighting underground. That means that rather than killing each other, they’ll ‘spread their efforts more broadly to remove the support infrastructure that the other side has’. That’s their strategic doctrine. It was taught in schools for years by both sides. Wipe out the populace and the military loses everything. No resources, no replenishment troops, no reason for existing.”
He was pacing back and forth as he spoke, barely even paying attention to me anymore. If I’d started the argument to gain a tactical advantage I would have completely won it with the way he was acting. Unfortunately, his words were a more effective weapon than his sword.
“We have to destroy those garrisons. We have to force both sides back off the planet, or some of my best friends, Human and Gar, are going to die in really horrible ways.” Darius said.
“Putting me in a prison camp is not going to help that.” I told him.
“The Empire has already proven that it can’t handle things at this level. They deal with systems and planets. They don’t have time for the ‘little details’ like this.” Darius said.
“You’re right.” a new voice said. “The Empress doesn’t have the bandwidth to deal with details at that level. That’s why her Guardians exist. We’re here to make sure no one is forgotten, and no one falls through the cracks.”
I turned away from Darius, completely ignoring his anima blade, to see Master Raychelle shake off the veil of invisibility she’d been wearing. At the same time, on the opposite side of the clearing, I heard the ship that Fari had warned me about settle to the ground and the soldiers within begin to get out.