Traveling cloaked in darkness has its benefits, but sneaking past a nest of monsters can be pretty unnerving even when you’re sure they can’t see you. Fari had been able to plot us a route back to the entrance room, but none of the paths were completely clear. I’d thought about fighting our way through the bone stealers that we encountered – we were going to have to deal with them eventually after all – but the first fight had convinced me of how bad an idea that was.
My wounds were mostly healed, thanks to the magics I’d stolen from the bone stealer Darius and I had fought together. ‘Mostly’ is not, however, the same as ‘completely’. I had a decent physical anima shield. I’d also been draining the monster as we fought. Despite that it had hit me with more than a dozen stab wounds. The wounds slowed me, even mostly healed as they were. Part of that was because the bone stealer had been trying to live up to its name every time it pierced my skin. I’d spent as much energy keeping my bones in my body as I had healing myself. That made it all too easy to see how the prison had fallen. Each attack was deadly on its own but, if any of them landed, you could find yourself suddenly missing your skeleton, which most people were rather attached to.
That image was lodged in my mind as we crept up the spiraling stairway a trio of the monsters had decided to burrow into to create an ambush trap.
Unlike the stairwell we descended, where there was a wide open area in the middle of the stairs to facilitate the transport of equipment, this stairway was for human and Garjarack use only. The walls on either side of us were cut through the stone superstructure of the prison. The bone stealers had modified that slightly, digging pits into the walls where they could lie in wait for anyone foolish enough to walk into their grasp. That gave them extra room to maneuver but left us cramped for space on the single file stair.
All of the paths that lead from the detention areas to the exit had chokepoints like that. Areas where a small number of guards could keep the prisoners from escaping in the event of riot or other loss of control of the facility. What the architects hadn’t planned for was the release of a magical bio-weapon of sufficient power and speed that it would be able to overcome and kill nearly everyone in the prison before reinforcements could arrive. To be fair, I’m not sure there are a lot of good plans for “a problem we’re completely unaware of, with capabilities beyond what we can predict”
My hope was that we’d get to show the people who summoned the bone stealers what that felt like in person. To do that we had to survive and escape though.
I stopped Darius when we were at roughly the center of the bone stealer’s trap. They’d strewn more empowered bone shards on the floor as a sensor network. The Void anima I had us cloaked in prevented us from being noticed, but I couldn’t stop them from noticing if the active feed from the bone shards went dead if we stepped on one of them.
So I picked the shards up.
“Is that safe?” Darius asked over the mental link he’d established between us. The blocking spell that was preventing me from contacting Master Raychelle wasn’t able to affect the “touch range” telepathy spell that Darius had cast.
“Not at all.” I said. I’d been pretty sure that moving the shards wouldn’t alert the beasts. Master Raychelle had taught me about about a similar spell that I’d encountered and, while I couldn’t cast one like it, I had a general sense for how that sort of trap worked.
I would have left them alone entirely but seeing the shards had given me an idea. As usual for my ideas, it wasn’t a tremendously good one.
“You’re free to lie me you know.” Darius pointed out.
“Where’s the fun in that?” I asked him as I led us past the last of the ‘little’ bone stealers. At six feet long it felt strange to call it ‘little’ but compared to what lay ahead of us it was an accurate description.
“So does that mean you were telling the truth that you could handle the one that took my squad?” Darius asked.
“Time will tell.” I said. It would have been easy to play on the Crystal Guardians’ reputation and offer him easy assurances. It also would have been easy for him to point out that I wasn’t really a Crystal Guardian yet. More importantly though, I didn’t want him to be too relaxed for what was to come. I had a plan, but the key to making plans work was being aware of when (not if) they went wrong and being primed to act and adapt on the fly.
As it turned out, when we got to the entrance chamber the plan went wrong almost immediately.
“Why are there two of them here?” I hissed over the telepathic link.
One of the big bone stealers was bad enough. I had a trick in mind to deal with one of them though. Unfortunately I only had one Fari to go around which left me one short in terms of agents that could take over an active bone stealer.
I looked into the entrance room and saw that the squad was strapped to the exit portal. Still hostages. On the bright side they were living hostages since I could see the sparks and glints of living anima in them, even with the anima suppression field in effect.
That ruled out one source for the second big bone stealer. It was still a creature of horror, but I breathed out a sigh of relief anyways. The best I could do was avenge the people it had killed, but at least I still had a chance to save the ones I’d been charged with protecting.
Doing so was going to be really unpleasant though.
“Fari, can you turn off the suppression field? Or get me a copy of the pass key for it?” I asked.
“No. I checked the system earlier. The suppression field is at its lowest setting already and the authorization for the pass keys is kept off site.” she said.
“That’s what I figured they’d do. Can’t let the inmates have a chance at that kind of an advantage, especially not at the portal out of the prison.” I said.
“I’m guessing that’s going to leave it up to me then.” Darius said. “Tell me you’ve got a better plan than my walking in there and fighting my way through two of those things?”
“Better? Probably not. More likely to work? Umm, hopefully?” I said.
“Can I do anything?” Fari asked.
“Definitely. In fact you’re kind of the key to this.” I said. “I need you to crank the suppression effect all the way to the maximum. Then I need you to take over this little guy.”
I held out the core of the bone stealer that we’d fought.
“What are you going to be doing?” Fari asked.
“Helping Darius get you some spare parts to build a fighting body out of.” I said.
Darius looked at me. He was still blinded by the Void anima but he knew I could see him.
“I think I hate this plan. I think I hate it with every fiber of my being.” he said.
“I’m willing to entertain a better one.” I said.
“I am too. And for the life of me, literally, I am not coming up with one.” he said.
“Take all the time that you want.” I said. “But bear in mind that there was only one of these things here about fifteen minutes ago, so going by the current trend we’ll probably see another show up fifteen minutes from now.”
“No, with how my luck has been today, it’ll show up twenty seconds before I get the great idea that lets us beat these things without keeping turned into a chunky stew.” Darius said.
“Mmm. Chunky stew. Now I’m getting hungry.” I said.
“Should we move away from here?” Fari asked. “I’m not going to be able to access the prison’s spell web until you drop the Void anima cover from us.”
“I know, but I think we have to stay. The moment the heavy suppression kicks in, the bone stealers are going to notice. I’m guessing their response to a non-specific threat like that will be to kill a hostage, they’ve got plenty to work with, so we’re going to need to hit them as soon as you throw the switch.” I said.
“Let’s do this sooner than later then. The longer I think about it the worse it seems and the less I can think of anything better.” Darius said.
“On three then. One, two..” I dropped the veil of Void anima and sprinted into the room to make sure I had the bone stealers’ attention first.
The strength and speed that were surging through me were slammed out of me when I crossed the threshold into the suppression field. It felt like the after effect of getting violently ill, more like a surge of weakness than a return to my baseline state.
I kept just enough speed to dodge the first attack by the lead bone stealer and felt stone chips from the wall slice across my arms as it’s claw gouged a huge furrow through the rock behind me.
Then it slowed down too.
I couldn’t feel the heavier suppression kick in since my anima was locked up even on the lightest setting. The bone stealer noticed it though. Master Raychelle had said they were difficult to suppress, but she hadn’t said it was impossible.
Darius charged through the door after me. His anima blade was blazing with light, but the heaviest suppression setting apparently didn’t fully differentiate friend from foe and I watched the blade’s light dim substantially as he crossed the threshold. He still had some level of exemption from the suppression effect though since the blade didn’t wink out entirely.
That saved my life. Even slowed down, the bone stealers were still reasonably quick and they had a lot of appendages to attack with. And few vulnerable spots. And there were two of them. Both focused on me.
The second one didn’t get a chance to attack me though, despite its best efforts. Darius sliced off one claws and pitched it out into the hallway where I’d dropped both the stolen bone stealer core and Fari’s amulet.
I was able to spare a glance at the doorway and saw the claw that Darius had thrown there link up to the core. Fari couldn’t communicate with us over the telepathic link due to the suppression field but I trusted that if she said she could take control of a bone stealer then it was as good as done.
Without an anima blade of my own, I was forced into a very mobile and defensive fighting style. Also known as the way I’d had to tackle most fights I’d been in before I’d figured out how to work with anima on my own terms.
I retreated from the bone stealer that had targeted me. I stayed just inside its reach to taunt it to attack since I needed it to expose itself.
The bone stealer was all too willing to oblige on that front. It was more or less built to fight after all. It didn’t try the binding thread that it had used on the squad. The anima suppression field was too heavy for that. In fact it was so heavy that the binding thread on Darius’ squad was starting to evaporate. The thread had a material base, which was why it could survive in the suppression field at all, but not enough of one to stay solid when all of the anima holding it together was driven out.
The bone stealer slashed at me and caught its claw in the wall. It didn’t have the superhuman strength needed to tear through solid rock anymore. It also didn’t have the structural integrity to resist me kicking it to pieces. Grabbing the edge of the claw with my hands, I spun and hit it with a circular kick that shattered the arm the claw was attached to.
The bone stealer didn’t howl in pain or anger. It attacked me again. Like the spirit machine that it was.
I rolled away from the next attack and threw the claw that I’d torn off to Fari. Darius threw another bit of bone to her as well and the body she was constructing began to take shape.
It wasn’t fast enough though.
Darius took a stab wound to the leg and went down on one knee with a scream of pain.
I tried to tumble over to him but the bone stealer I was fighting blocked my path. The other bone stealer exchanged blows with Darius before scampering up and over his guard. He tried to twist to skewer it but it landed on him from behind. I yelled for him to move but I knew it was going to be too late so I pitched myself into the bone stealer in front of me, intent on breaking straight through it to get to him.
I parried and kicked and shattered a seven of the monster’s large bones, but the bone stealer got its hits in too. One stab to my shoulder took my right arm out of action and another in my left hamstring dropped me to the ground.
The bone stealers were more fragile under the suppression effect, and apparently unable to rip our skeletons out, but twenty foot long monsters were not easy to fight even when they had those handicaps.
It was Fari who saved us there. Just like I’d hoped she would.
With enough bones to create giant body of her own, she sailed into the room and landed on the bone stealer that had grappled Darius. The monster didn’t pay her any mind. From its vantage point, Kari was just another one of its own forces come to help out.
Darius and I had only thrown her a few of the bones she was using. The rest had come from the three little bone stealers we’d snuck past. The moment I’d entered the suppression effect they’d noticed their traps had been triggered. They’d also noticed their traps were nowhere near where they should have been and had raced up the stairs to discover who was tampering with pieces of themselves.
When they’d found the core of the other bone stealer with an odd crystal attached to it, they’d picked it up and tried to recreate their missing comrade. That had been my plan for facing the one big bone stealer but it had worked just as well with three of them.
Once the bone stealers made the mistake of connecting to the core Fari had taken over, they’d all become nothing more than tools in her arsenal.
The three little bone stealers had less mass than either of the big ones, but all Fari needed was enough mass to push through to the big bone stealer’s core.
The conjured horror figured out what she was doing a split second before she made contact. Its roar was unearthly. Bone stealers are creations. They don’t have true self awareness, but they’re quite capable of a response that looks and sounds like blinding rage.
That didn’t save the it from Fari’s attack though.
She slipped in and pried the monster off Darius’ bleeding form, before subsuming its bulk into the creation that she was controlling.
That’s when the next thing went wrong with my plan.
The beasts roar hadn’t stopped Fari, but it had summoned its master.
The master didn’t speak. Not to us at any rate. All I heard was chanting in a language that I couldn’t understand. I recognized the cadence and structure of the chat as ritual spell casting from the holo-plays I’d seen. The ones where someone was casting a spell to destroy a whole lot of people at once.
The bone stealer that had been attacking me leapt on the teleportation disk and tore the cover off it, exposing the enchanted crystals that lay underneath it.
I hobbled after it and managed to yank off one of it’s many legs. That didn’t nothing to get it off the teleportation disk though. I thought about trying to tackle it off the disk, but even if I could have run at it and didn’t mind stomping on Darius’ squad, I was pretty sure my mass and striking force wasn’t going to dislodge a creature as large as the bone stealer. Not with a whole lot of Physical anima to back me up.
There was only one way to get that kind of power that I could think of and without Fari to protect my mind I wasn’t sure I’d stay sane afterwards but I grabbed onto the bone stealer anyways and prepared to try draining it with the Void anima that was locked inside me.
Then the thing fell apart on its own.
“It’s transferred into the teleport grid. It’s trying to destroy the whole facility!” Fari shouted, using whatever vocal capabilities her captured bone stealers possessed to speak.
I watched the teleport crystals start to glow. It wasn’t a warm little glow. It went from bright, to blazing, to blinding.
That’s the kind of progression that ends in gigantic space-folding explosions from what I’d read so I did the only thing I could.
I hit it with a big stick.
Unsurprisingly, hitting overcharged crystals with a stick, or in this case a large femur, can provoke explosions too.
There was light without sound but no pain. My body felt too fluid to feel pain. My thoughts turned blue and gelatinous before a thump on the ground snapped me back into a human shape with my mind only slightly addled.
I blinked away the blindness of the explosion and felt strength flood back through me. I was out of the suppression field!
Looking around, I saw that we were all out of the suppression field. Darius, Fari, myself and his squad. We were all laying on the ground outside the entrance to the Deep Run Containment Facility.
In between us, I saw the scorched remains of the exterior teleport circle. It had been obliterated by the explosion. There wasn’t any way back into the prison. All contact with it had been severed.