Marching towards one of the bone stealers felt a whole lot better that trying to move through the prison and avoid being ambushed by one. My brain took the sense of relief that came with being the predator rather than the prey as an excuse to find other things to worry about though.
“There’s something else that’s bothering me here.” I told Darius and Fari as we crept along, shrouded in the darkness of Void anima. “Why are people fighting over this world in the first place?”
“Hellsreach is a proxy theater. It lets the Gar and the Humans from Exxion 2 and Exxion 4 squabble without damaging any of their own resources.” Darius said.
“It’s not like its free to fight here though. Why are either of them spending the resources to make trouble at this point when the Empire won’t let them claim control of the place?” I said.
“I think we have very different views of what the Crystal Empire will and won’t allow.” Darius said.
“Maybe, but something feels weird about this.” I said.
“You mean this is different from the other prisons full of massacred people who’ve been reanimated as skeletal abominations that you’ve been in?” Darius asked.
The hallway we were walking down was isolated from the detention areas. It was a maintenance area, sealed so that only authorized staff could enter it. Authorized staff, or some with the control of the facility’s systems that Fari had. Tubes that ran along the ceiling of hall while it’s floor was composed of grates where additional emergency stores were kept. Both were a perfect spot for the bone stealers to hide in. Thanks to Fari though, I knew not to bother looking at them for possible attackers. The bone stealers weren’t above or below us, they were slithering through the gaps in the walls themselves. I couldn’t sense them, even with the magical sight my Void anima granted me, but I could tell they were there from the holes that had been torn into the walls at irregular intervals.
“Sarcasm? That strikes you as helpful at the moment?” I asked Darius. In fact it was. His humor helped me ignore the undercurrent of dread that was playing through my mind. As first missions went, this one seemed a little on the “extremely lethal” side.
“No. Focusing on the task at hand strikes me as helpful.” Darius said.
“The task at hand is more than getting out of here. Your people don’t want peace. Master Raychelle’s not going to be leaving here until we get it. What’s bugging me is why you don’t have it already?”
“Probably because the two side in the war here hate each other and have for centuries?” Darius suggested. “I don’t think it’s really that complicated.”
“I’d agree with you if there were only two sides here. Especially if they were split down species lines like I thought they were. The problem is you.” I said.
“How am I the problem? Or my friends? We don’t want people fighting. We want them to leave.” Darius said.
“The fact that you exist proves that this isn’t a two-sided war. It’s got three sides at least, and probably four or more unless I miss my guess.” I said and stopped.
We’d come to an intersection . To our left, the corridor ran past a series of hydroponic gardens that were lit by a flickering blue light. Fari’s map suggested that one of the big bone stealers had take up residence in the control room for the garden. If we were going to be down here long, we’d have to come up with a way to deal with the monster if we wanted to have access to a food supply. While it was true I was starting to feel a bit peckish, I wasn’t anywhere near close to hungry enough to want to mess with one the big monsters. Except the one that I had too.
I took the corridor to our left and headed toward the secure door to the prisoner’s quarters that Fari had unlocked for us when she was in control of the facilities systems.
“Four sides? You’re thinking whoever conjured these monsters is a player on that scale?” Darius said.
I felt a smile creep over my face and was glad we were cloaked in darkness so he couldn’t see it. So many of the guys I’d known on Belstarius were just this side of plankton in terms of keeping up with an intelligent conversation. I hadn’t even been aware of how much I’d been expecting that I was talking to hear myself talk until Darius showed he was keeping up with me. Cute and smart. It felt like my birthday present had shown up early. Except for the part where we were probably going to throw down the moment our common enemy was out of the picture.
“They’ve got to be. They were able to take out a major facility of one of the three active factions with only a few hours notice. Imagine if instead of a prison they’d unleashed these bone stealers on one of your major cities?” I said.
“Not a pretty picture. We’d get it under control but the damage would be appalling.”
“That’s what’s making me think there’s possibly five factions at work here.” I said.
“The Garjarack fleet, the the Human fleet, us, the bone stealer boss and whoever they’re hiding from?” Darius guessed. I felt my knees wobble. I was really going to hate having to fight him.
“It’s possible those last two are members of one of the first three factions.” Fari said. “It’s not uncommon for there to be hidden powers within organizations of that scale.”
“You could be right. You probably are in fact, but I think we can still consider them their own factions. From the galactic histories that I’ve read, secret cabals rarely have the best interests of their host organizations as a top priority.” I said.
“Why is that important right now? Aren’t we supposed to be collecting the ‘bait’ you talked about?” Darius asked.
“We’re still heading for it, right Fari?” I asked.
“We’re heading for where it was. I can’t access the facility’s systems while we’re cloaked.” Fari said.
“If the facility’s sensory spells can detect these things, why can’t we?” Darius asked.
“The facility has better coverage. They have sight receptors set up almost all over the place.” Fari said. “Also its warded to prevent scrying spells apart from its own systems from working in here.”
“That’d make it harder to plan a break-in I guess.” I said.
“What will do we if the bone stealer has moved?” Darius asked.
I pressed my free hand to his chest to stop him. I’d felt a chill pass through me at his words, and I’d learned even in the short time that I’d been aware of my powers what that meant. There was danger nearby.
I looked down at where Darius would have stepped and saw a vanishingly faint glow of physical anima. It was embedded in a tiny bit of bone, one so small that Darius’ footfall would have snapped it like a twig. I’d seen a trap like that before. One poised to trigger when the anima that made it up was disrupted.
In the back of my mind, I felt a silver thread of Aetherial anima dissolve as I thwarted the fate binding’s attempt to get us killed. I tried to reach and find the source of the fate spell but the thread disintegrated faster than I could follow. That was aggravating for a number of reasons, not the least of which being that it meant the Aetherial caster had a clue that we were alive and capable of destroying their oh-so-subtle workings against us. Where the fate binder had gotten away though, the bone stealer had not.
“We’ll call it to us.” I said looking at the little enchanted bone and seeing it for the two edged sword that it was. “Are you ready?”
“Still blind, but otherwise yeah.” Darius said.
“I’m going to drop the cloak in about five seconds. Get ready to defend yourself in case the beast gets by me.” I said.
“What can I do?” Fari asked.
“Link into my senses and shout a warning if I miss anything.” I said.
I felt the warm touch of Fari’s mental anima mingle with mine, radiating up from the center of my chest where I wore her amulet to encircle my eyes and ears.
Taking a calming breath, I slammed my foot down on the trapped bone and pulled the Void anima cloak into a ball in my hands.
I thought we might have to wait for the bone stealer to appear but it defied my expectations and shot out of one of the holes in the wall like it had been launched from a bolt caster. It was one of the small ones, though in this case that meant it was only around seven feet long rather than thirty.
With the speed of my unfettered Physical anima backing me, I slid into the monster’s path and parried the bone stealer’s attack. I met its slicing talons with the ball of Void anima I’d coalesced into my left hand and ripped its power away from it. Shattered bones and ones that fell apart as their magic failed rained off the monster. In exchange I felt power surge into me. Power and raw hate. As with it’s larger cousin, absorbing the bone stealer’s power meant absorbing some of the mental anima it carried too.
That was as dangerous as hellfire it turned out. Bone stealers aren’t complex creatures, but they are incredibly focused ones. Riding on top of the rage they were born from, they also carried the pain and fear and anger of the people they’d murdered to create their bodies. Getting carried away by that riptide of emotions was an extremely likely scenario for anyone who tried to draw out the magic that was in them. Especially anyone who was still new to spell casting and didn’t know how to safeguard herself. Fortunately, I had Fari with me.
“I’m guessing you don’t want the berserker anima bonus from this thing right?” she whispered in my mind. My reaction was going to be a wordless snarl, until I felt the sanity smothering flood of emotions wash off me, leaving only my own fear and anger and excitement behind.
“Right.” I said, as I sized up the bone stealer. I felt the spell that she wove settle on my head like a helmet. It touch on my Void anima and sluiced the tainted power into the infinite well of emptiness that the Void led to.
The bone stealer’s attack had carried it past both Darius and I. My parry had thrown it still further against the wall on the other side of the hall where it clung like an enormous, grisly spider.
It’s perch on the wall put it about five feet away from me and slightly more from Darius. I was moving pretty fast in reaction to its first attack so I was able to see the summoned beast let out a hiss as it coiled its remaining bones together for another leap. From my side I also saw the bright glow of Darius’ anima blade spring to life.
Less than a second after it landed, the bone stealer leapt at me again, exploding off the wall hard enough to shatter the rock there. I wondered at its choice of targets. I’d already wounded it, as much as a creature like that can be wounded, which should have made it wary of me. Darius was the one with the visible weapon though, and the anima blade was something which the bone stealer could have been programmed to be careful of. Seeking out the unarmed targets was a great strategy for being able to reproduce more of its kind.
As long as the unarmed target wasn’t me.
Instead of fleeing or cowering, I moved the way Master hanq had taught me to. I stepped into the attack, robbing it of power and catching the bone stealer off guard. That sounded great and it probably saved my life. It didn’t however mean I got away from the attack without injury.
Catching the bone stealer “off guard” meant that I only got about a dozen puncture wounds from it before I was able to slam it into the wall and tear its head off. Being fast and strong is great. Being skilled is wonderful too. None of those mean you’re invulnerable though.
There’s a funny thing with bone stealers that I pretty much saw coming at the start of the fight; pulling the head off a magical animated pile of bones doesn’t do a lot to slow it down. Even shattering the aforementioned head doesn’t accomplish much beside ensuring that it can’t bite you in the ankles. From what Master Raychelle had said, I had to destroy its heart to shut down a bone stealer. The problem with that was that all the parts that weren’t its heart were devoted to shredding me before I got anywhere near the thing’s one weak spot.
That’s where Darius came in.
None of my encounters with anima blades had been pleasant ones. Not until that moment. I was draining the bone stealer’s flailing limbs of power as fast as I could and using the stolen magics to repair the damage it was doing, but it was a miserable way to fight. That pain was distracting and I wasn’t sure I was going to pull it apart faster than it could tear me to ribbins.
That is until Darius slashed off half of the bone stealer’s body. He hit it with a focused swipe of his anima blade and the ribs and sharpened bone shards on its right side where sliced completely away from the monster.
That exposed the bone stealer’s core and from there the fight was over in less than a second. I ripped the core out of center of the beast and encased it in Void anima, sealing its power away. Cut off from its heart, the rest of the monster fell to the floor in front of us like a puppet whose strings had been severed.
I let the power I’d stolen flood through my body, closing up puncture wounds and slashes as best it could. I flinched at the pain that remained as the power ran dry and scowled. I hadn’t expected the little ones to be that bad.
“And now we get to tackle the big one that’s ready and waiting for us.” I said, looking at the stairs that would lead us up to what might be our final battle field.