People think a lot of strange things about martial training. I’ve heard guys claim that because they practice so hard they’re immune to pain for example. My old teacher, Master Hanq, was never the “gentle and lenient” sort, so I had plenty of chances to learn what pain was like. That did precisely nothing to keep the slashes and stabs the bone stealer had inflicted on me from hurting.
That hadn’t been the point of Master Hanq’s lessons though. What I’d learned from him was that pain didn’t mean you got to lay down and quit. There was a time and a place to quit, but “lost in a subterranean prison that was filled with magical monsters who wanted to eat your spine” was not one of them.
“If Lt. Mara and the rest are ok, then we need to make for the communicator.” Darius said. He was running his hand over a tracking gem on his gauntlet but it wasn’t activating. I’d seen that type of gem before. It was used by explorers as a distress beacon in case they ran into trouble and needed to broadcast a simple message across long distances. Given that the telepathy spell between Master Raychelle and I was blocked, I wasn’t surprised to see that Darius’s communication gear was jammed too.
“What part of ‘captured by a giant bone monster and webbed to a teleportation circle’ says ‘they’re ok’ to you?” I asked him.
“The part where the giant bone monster didn’t kill them like she said they normally would.” He gestured to Fari and looked to her for confirmation of his claim. She started to object to that but I beat her to the punch.
“I don’t think ‘being used as bait’ counts as ‘ok’.” I said.
“Yeah, fine. I’m sure they’re pretty miserable but I also know Lt. Mara would want me to complete the mission, rather than run into a trap and get killed.” he said. He gave up on the beacon gem and checked his anima blade. It was still functional which, under the circumstances, I was ok with.
“Do you seriously think the communications room isn’t one giant trap too?” I asked him. I was starting to get a picture of what we were up against and I didn’t like the details my mind was filling in.
“We don’t know what’s happening there.” he said. “But we do know that’s where we can contact reinforcements.”
“That sounds like a good way to get more people killed.” I said. Reinforcements were such a tempting idea, and tempting ideas give me pause. Calling for help is a basic, instinctive reaction to being lost, with monsters all around you, but I knew it couldn’t be the right course of action. Not against a smart foe who was a step ahead of us still.
“The Council can send in more than one squad. These bone stealers are bad but we’ll be able to clean them out once the regular troops are here.” Darius said.
I got up and stretched my shoulders to feel out the damage I’d taken in the fall. It wasn’t that terrible, mostly because I’d had stolen anima to burn to heal it quickly.
“I won’t argue on how well your troops can take these things out. Ultimately it doesn’t matter though. Whoever did this, whoever’s been attacking Master Raychelle and I, they’ve gone to an awful lot of trouble and been pretty damn well prepared for things so far. Do you think this is where it ends? That this is all they could manage? If they can’t stop the message from getting out in the first place, then it’s a fair bet that they’ll have something ready for the kind of troops that the Council would throw at a problem like this.”
Darius got to his feet as I spoke. He didn’t have a supply of stolen anima to patch himself up with, but I’d manage to shield him from the worst of the fall, so we were in about the same shape.
“You’re saying they’ve predicted all of this?” he asked. He stretched the same way I had, and for the same reason from what I could see.
“Not predicted, just prepared for.” I said. “If they could predict what we were going to do they wouldn’t have been this sloppy.”
“If they’re as powerful as that, why would being sloppy matter?” Darius asked.
“Look where they’re actions have got them. They have us trapped in here, but they haven’t managed to kill either Master Raychelle or me. All they’ve done is give us evidence that there’s someone behind the scenes with a lot of power and influence.” I said. It was evidence that we would have turned up eventually, but if they’d played things with more subtlety it could have taken a while.
“Enough to keep us stuck down here forever I guess.” Darius said. He was looking around the room we’d landed in. There were plenty of exits, but none of them looked particularly inviting.
“Nope. They can’t keep us trapped that long and they know it. Think about what their strategy is. They kidnapped Lt. Mara’s squad. Why do that?” I asked.
“To use as bargaining chips.” Fari said. She’d been listening to us but I’d seen that she’d been half distracted too. “The squad‘s all webbed in now and it sounds like the bone stealer has settled in to wait for its ambush.”
“What do you mean bargaining chips?” Darius asked.
“Bad description maybe.” Fari said. “The effect of having your friends alive and in peril at the exit is that we can’t even approach the teleport circle without risking their lives. It’s an implicit bargain that they live as long as we stay away from them.”
“Not just us.” I said. “They’re strapped to the teleportation circle, so anyone who forces an override on it from the outside and teleports in will be killing them too. It’s a way to slow us down.”
“Why slow you down? Why not just kill you?” Darius asked.
“Slowing us down buys them time. It boxes us in too so that they can take a more focused shot at us. As for killing us directly, well, they tried that already. The artillery strike on our airship sort of said ‘I’d like you to stop breathing now please’ in definitive terms.” I said. “Crystal Guardians don’t die that easy though. Heck they didn’t even manage to kill me, and I’ve only had about two months of training so far.”
“Two months of training with the Guardians?” Darius asked.
“Two months of training as an anima caster.” I said.
“How is that possible? Didn’t you go to school?” he asked. It was kind of freakish that I was such a neophyte at anima casting. Most kids tested out to have some kind of talent and then had specific courses to learn to develop it throughout their school years. I’d missed all of that in one sense – with my low test scores, I hadn’t ever been formally trained in any of the anima disciplines. At least not until two months ago.
As it turned out I did have some facility with casting anima spells though, thanks to the martial training that Master Hanq had given me. He’d never actually said that he was showing me the basics of spell casting. He’d shown me how to fight, and in doing so had taught me about how power moves through the body. He’d also helped me develop the discipline to focus my mind. That was still a work-in-progress in some ways but the techniques that I did have were tremendously useful with the spells that Master Raychelle was trying to teach me.
“It’s a long story.” I said. “If we get out of here alive, buy me a dinner and I might bore you with it.”
“Mel, there’s something else you should know.” Fari said. “I can’t detect the bone stealers but there are other living minds here. They’re cloaked, which is why it took me this long to find them, but they’re definitely there.”
“Prisoners?” I asked.
“And guards.” she said.
“Where are they?” I asked.
“Scattered all over. The ones where I can piggyback on their senses seem to be tied up like Lt. Mara’s team are.”
“How many of them look like they’re in good ambush locations?” I asked. I felt like I was caught in a net and was only seeing it revealed in bits and pieces.
“All of them.” Fari said.
“Do they each have their own bone stealer guarding them?” I asked.
“Not exactly. Some of them have two.” she said. I tried to imagine fighting two creatures like the one that had attacked us in the stairwell. My imagination rose to the morbid challenge and offered a variety of grisly options on what the results might be.
“How many of these things are there?” I asked.
“At least thirty.” Fari said.
“I ask again, with that much power at their disposal, why didn’t they just kill you?” Darius said.
“To be honest, I’m not sure thirty is enough to get the job done.” I said.
“You said you just started learning how to cast anima spells two months ago. I’ve been practicing for the last twelve years and I couldn’t scratch that thing.” Darius said. From the anger in his voice, I could tell he was embarrassed by that failure, so I opted not to mention that I’d torn a path completely through the beast.
“I’ve got a few tricks you don’t.” I told him. “And Master Raychelle has been practicing her skills for over sixty years now. She’s the one they’re scared of.”
“That doesn’t make sense.” Darius said. “I know the rep the Crystal Guardians have but even if she’s powerful, she’s still just one woman. She can’t win a fight with an entire planet.”
“That’s probably what they’re thinking too. ‘If we just hit her hard enough we can stop her, send in the monsters!’ For reference, that’s a catastrophically bad plan. It tends to make people like her cranky more than anything else. Surprisingly, I think the people we’re dealing with know that though.” I said.
“Why do you say that?” Fari asked.
“They’re not here.” I said. “If they thought the bone stealers could kill us, they would have come with their conjured beasts. They stayed away though, and that tells me they’re afraid of us. Or afraid of Master Raychelle at least.”
“She’s not here from what I can see, so how does that help us?” Darius asked.
“It’s actually excellent for us. It means they’re underestimating me and pretty much ignoring you.” I said.
“I’ve heard plans that begins with those kinds of thoughts.” Darius said. He had a look that said he’d be a lot happier if I was handcuffed again. Preferably behind bars somewhere. Ideally on a planet that he’d never heard of and was never going to visit. I inspired that look in a lot of people for some reason.
“You seem to have lived through all of them.” I pointed out.
“You want to go rescue Lt. Mara and the squad.” he said.
“How did you guess?” I asked, letting a wolf’s smile crack across my face.
“You said earlier that your boss told you to protect us.” Darius did not echo my smile. He frowned instead. Almost glowered really.
“You were listening. And you remembered. I’m impressed.” I said.
“Do you have a plan?” he asked. “And is it by any chance ‘wait for the mentor who has more than two months of experience to come along and fix things’?”
“Yes, in fact, I do. And no, we can’t wait for Master Raychelle for this.” I said.
“Why? If she’s so powerful, why can’t she deal with this. We barely survived meeting that thing and, from what I can tell, that was only because it had better things to do than to mess with us.”
“You need to check your memory. It grabbed the whole squad, but it ran away from me. I admit I’m new at this, but trust me, I can deal with that monster. That’s what Master Raychelle asked me to do, and so that’s what she’s planning on. We’ve got to rescue them so that she’ll be open to play the long game and be ready to deal with whoever’s actually behind this.” I told him.
“Where would we even begin?” Darius asked.
“I’ve accessed the central control network for the facility.” Fari said. “I have the schematics for the whole place available now. There’s five different routes that will take us back to your squad.”
“Wait, you spliced your way into the control spells that run the facility? From here?” Darius asked.
“Yes. It’s a nice system, but it’s pretty simple to interface to with a little mental anima.” she said. Darius looked at her in amazement and then closed his eyes. A moment later his head rocked back like he’d been hit by an uppercut.
“Ouch. That was a stupid idea.” he said, blinking his eyes.
“What did you try to do?” I asked.
“I told you mental anima casting was one of my strengths. I tried to interface with the control spells on the facility.” he said.
“What happened?” I asked.
“These are the most powerfully guarded control spells I’ve ever seen. You can’t be telling the truth.” Darius said, turning to Fari.
“Mel’s trained for two months. Raychelle has trained for sixty years. I’ve trained for millenia. These systems are amusing, but they’re far from the most powerful that I’ve ever seen.” Fari said.
“I did mention that she’s older than she looks didn’t I?” I asked him.
“Right.” he said, still looking uncertain, “So what’s the plan? How do we rescue them?”