The most annoying thing about Master Raychelle vanishing on me wasn’t that she’d left me alone, in chains, with a group of soldier who wanted to lock me up. It wasn’t even that she’d left all of us in a prison that had been overrun by freakish magical horrors. No, the most annoying thing about her disappearance was how everyone looked at me like I was supposed to be able to explain where she went.
“Prisoner is loose.” Lt. Mara called out, bringing the squad back to order.
“No visual.” several of the soldiers reported.
“Alright, where is she?” Lt. Mara asked me.
“As an offhand guess? Looking for survivors. You know, like she said she was going to. Twice.” I said.
“It’s not a good time to be a wiseass.” Lt. Mara warned me.
“Yeah, and it’s never a good time to be a dumb one.” I said, staring back and meeting her glare with one of my own.
Leaders tend to dislike people challenging their authority, especially in times of stress. I knew that but I still couldn’t resist needling them.
“At this moment I am forced to assume that the conditions here are the result of a scheme enacted by your mentor. Can you give me a reason I should not proceed under that assumption.” Lt. Mara said.
“Nope.” I said.
“Just like that? You’re not denying it at all?” she asked.
“There’s no point in denying it. I know she didn’t but as far as you’re concerned you have no idea what her capabilities or motivations are. Doesn’t matter what I say, if you’ve already made up your mind.” I said.
“Actually, she hasn’t made up her mind yet. Not completely.” Master Raychelle said to me telepathically.
“I thought you said this spell was compromised by some mentalist.” I asked her, replying on the psychic link that she’d forged to me at the start of this mess.
“It is, but the prison is shielded, so our eavesdropper won’t be able to listen in.” she said. “I need you to stay with the soldiers. Help them reach the commander’s office safely. I will join you there or at the teleport circle depending on what I find.”
“What are you looking for?” I asked.
“Not what. Who.” she said. “Whoever summoned the Bone Stealers wasn’t targeting us, not directly.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“The Bone Stealers are nasty but they wouldn’t have been able to kill me alone, much less the two of us and a squad of armed soldiers. So therefor, they weren’t summoned here to kill us. They were meant to silence someone before we could speak to them.” Master Raychelle said.
“Who?” I asked.
“General Kep Vex, I believe. Also known as the Bloody Tide.” she said.
I’d never heard of the guy, but it wasn’t that surprising. Up until a few days ago, I’d never head of the Exxion system either.
“Sounds like a nice guy.” I said.
“He’s a traitor to both the humans and Garjaracks and a war criminal. The Hellsreach Council has had him incarcerated for thirty years, since well before the time when the system joined the Crystal Empire.” she said.
“You think he knows something from the bad old days? Something someone is willing to go to this much trouble to keep us from finding out about?” I asked.
“I didn’t until we got here, now I’m fairly sure.” she said.
“And the chance that he’s still alive?” I asked.
“Minimal. Bone Stealers are thorough and he’s not young anymore.”
“I thought you said age brought experience?” I said. Master Raychelle was old enough to be my grandmother and then some. Despite that I was under no delusions how a fight between us would go, even without anima casting. Just on pure skill, she could beat me like a rag doll if we ever got into a serious fight.
“Not all experiences are good ones.” she replied.
“So why look for him?” I asked.
“There is a chance he’s still alive, or that others are. Whatever their crimes, the people here don’t deserve to be recycled into monster parts. If I’m too late for General Vex, I may still be able to find notes or a memoir of his.” she said.
“So while you’re off doing something useful, I get to baby sit the soldiers who think I’m going to stab them in the back any second?” I asked.
“Why do you think I took an apprentice?” she asked in return.
“Tell your master ‘hello’ for us.” Lt. Mara said.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“You were distracted just now. I know what it looks like when someone’s holding a psychic conversation.” Lt. Mara said. “And while you’re telling her ‘hello’, tell her that I’m going to have to shoot her on general principle if we run into each other again.”
“She says you won’t have to worry about seeing her again, if she doesn’t want you too.” I said. Master Raychelle might not like me putting words in her mouth. And it probably wasn’t a great idea to encourage paranoia in the nice Lieutenant with the deadly weapons either. Despite all that it was still kind of fun to push her buttons.
“Wonderful. And what are you going to be doing?” she asked. I was willing to bet that she wouldn’t have been particularly upset if I disappeared too.
“I’ve been ordered to help keep you safe.” I said.
“That’s going to be a neat trick with those shackles on.” she said.
“Yeah, I’m not going to lie. They are not making the job any easier.”
“Let me see what I can do about that.” she said as she walked behind me. For a brief, foolish, moment I hoped that she was willing to be reasonable. Nobody is ever reasonable though. There’s something about sapient thought that seems to preclude it.
I felt the additional pair of manacles click in place on my wrists and reminded myself that this was the price I paid for taunting someone who already had me locked up.
“Worth it.” I muttered under my breath.
“Let’s move out.” Lt. Mara commanded her squad, ignoring me if she’d even heard me at all. I wound up in second-to-last place again, with Darius watching our backs.
The prison had the same kind of mish-mash appearance as the soldiers I was with. It wasn’t a new facility and over the years had needed quite a few repairs. The patchwork of fixes should that some of the repairmen had a better work ethic than the others did. That was unfortunate because the original hallways and offices looked like they would have been pretty spartan, and therefore difficult for ambushers find hiding spots. With the cobbled together fixes though, and the general clutter that builds up in an old facility, there were so many good hiding spots that I gave up on looking for incoming foes. Instead I shifted my shoulder to feel the jewel that I was wearing move. That helped me focus on it more clearly.
“Fari, can you sense these Bone Stealers?” I asked silently.
“Not directly. Their minds are well shielded.” she replied.
“What kind of indirect options do you have?” I asked.
“I could eavesdrop on the soldiers you’re with. Use them as active listening posts and combine what they’re hearing and seeing into a composite of where we are. That’ll let me spot the Bone Stealers farther out if they try to charge us. If we blunder into them then there’s not much I can do.” she said.
“Sounds like the best plan we have available.” I said and let her get to work. I had a sort of danger sense that would warn me of trouble as well, but I was hesitant to rely on that. I could feel it humming along my nerves already due to the general peril I was in. Whether it would be able to pick up on the summoned creatures was something I expected I would have to learn the hard way.
We got to the first stairway down before we saw the next sign of the Bone Stealers. The walls of the stairway were cracked outwards and the stairs themselves looked like they’d been flattened by some colossal force.
“Huh.” I said, trying to imagine how the damage had happened.
“See something you recognize?” Lt. Mara asked.
“No, just putting the pieces together.” I said.
“What pieces?” she asked.
“That one Bone Stealer than you folks killed? It was bugging me. A single critter that size couldn’t have been a serious threat to this prison. I mean you did good work taking it down, but the guards here probably could have managed the same thing, just with more casualties. So why is everyone dead?” I asked.
“Because it’s not a single creature, if we’re to believe your mentor.” she said.
“Even a bunch of them like the one you fought wouldn’t be able to get through the prison’s security though.” I said, pointing at the thickness of the stairway’s door frame and the locking mechanism that once held it shut. “For something like this you’d need a much bigger critter.”
“Or ones that can combine.” Darius said.
“What do you mean?” Lt. Mara asked him.
“They assemble themselves out of bones right? From the way this stairway looks, I’d say something really big came down it.” Darius said.
“Yeah, a lot bigger than any one person’s bones would account for.” I said.
“That’s going to be a problem then.” Lt. Mara said.
“Only if it finds us.” I said.
“On this sort of mission, you have to assume that scenario will occur.” Lt. Mara said.
“This sort of mission?” I asked.
“Are we fate bound sir?” Darius asked Lt. Mara.
“Too many wild coincidences. I think we have to be.” Lt. Mara said.
“Someone’s casting Aetherial spells at us?” I said. “You really need to let me go then.”
“You are our prisoner still. Don’t worry, this isn’t the first time we’ve had to fight our way through a fate binding. We’ll be ok.” Lt Mara said.
“We’ll all be ok.” she added, looking around at the rest of her squad. They didn’t seem like they entirely believed her assertion however. My guess was their experience had taught them otherwise.
“You don’t understand.” I started to say, but Lt. Mara cut me off.
“No, you don’t understand. If we are fate bound, and whenever you need to ask that question, you can be pretty sure the answer is yes, but if we are fate bound that means that chance is going to roll against us at almost every possible opportunity. We cannot afford to take risks, any risks, until we’re clear of this battle field, and you are a risk.” she said.
“What you have to risk with me is your trust. I can break the fate binding on you. I can even make it so we can get to the commander’s office safely.” I said.
“You’re an Aetherial caster? You can’t be that good of a one or you wouldn’t be trapped her with us.” Lt. Mara said.
“I’m not an Aetherial caster at all. I’m something a lot worse, but I can protect you.” I said.
“No deal. It’s too big of a risk.” Lt. Mara said.
“Everything is a risk here. You can’t let paranoia make you take the wrong one.” I said.
“You’re right. I have to go with what I know rationally. That means I don’t have the luxury of believing wild claims that would happen to be very convenient at the moment. Even if you can do what you say, you could use those abilities to vanish like your mentor did. That might be all someone’s waiting for to send the hordes in on us.”
“You fixed up my ankle and my arm, also I’ve been ordered to protect you, so it’s a safe bet that I won’t run away.” I said.
“There’s no such thing as a ‘safe bet’. Any time you gamble you can lose.” Lt. Mara said. “I won’t gamble with the lives of my squad like that.”
She turned and walked to the front of the squad to lead us down the damaged stair to the commander’s level.
“You should keep these on for show.” Darius whispered and I felt the manacles unlock from my arms.
“What are you doing?” I whispered back.
“Being an idiot.” he whispered.
“Why?” I asked.
“Stupidity doesn’t need a reason. It’s a natural human trait.” he said.
“So is self delusion. They usually go together. You’ve got a plan, and you know it’s a bad one. That says you’re not stupid, just desperate.” I said.
“You know there’s a fate binding here. I know there’s a fate binding here. The Lieutenant does too. I’ve seen what they can do and let me say that any fate binding that starts with ‘summon monsters to kill everyone’ is one that I’d really rather have the Crystal Guardian on our side for, thank you very much.”
“I appreciate the vote of confidence.” I said.
“Well, now that it can come back to bite me, I’m guessing we won’t encounter any of the beasts and I’ll get court martialed once they see I disobeyed orders.” Darius said.
“Trust me, the odds on that are really low.” I said.
Just as the roaring started from the stairwell landing far below us.
“See. No worries.”