I was back in my home town. For just the briefest of seconds, I was back in the sprawling metropolis I’d grown up in and everyone was dead. I was alone with the empty buildings and the grey all around me. I knew that it wasn’t true, but for a second it was so real.
My own scream brought me back to Hellsreach. Back to Fari and Darius. I wasn’t alone.
But the world was grey again.
Around us, an intricate lacework of Void anima crackled and flared, the last energies of the bomb that had been detonated above us dwindling away as they rained down on the shield that I’d raised. Beyond the shield, the mountain was grey and the trees were gone. The only color left in the area was on the small patch of ground that was covered by my shield. I’d saved us but I couldn’t stop trembling.
“What just happened.” Darius whispered.
“Ghost Duster bomb. Class 8.” Fari said. “Someone dropped one on us.”
“That’s…” Darius stopped. He looked as overwhelmed as I felt.
“Why are we still alive?” He was staring straight ahead, taking in the wide expanse of empty grey where a forest had once stood. I saw his breathing was shallow and that he was blinking more than he should have been. Funny that I could notice that about him when I had no idea if I was breathing at all.
“She saved us.” Fari said. I wasn’t sure Fari had been in any danger. She wasn’t vulnerable to the same sort of things people with flesh-and-blood bodies were.
That was comforting to think about. Her living on. My friend surviving.
“You’re still hurt!” Darius shouted. I heard the panic in his voice. Felt him lift me up. It was a nice gesture. Not a smart one though. It hurt like hell to move with the wounds I had, but I liked the warmth of his hand on my neck anyways.
“Careful. I don’t want to hurt you.” I told him. My Void anima’s not evil, but it is dangerous. Strands of it were running out from me into the shield that protected us. I could feel his anima through them. The life running through his veins. The dazzling blue energy of his mind. And power. So much power. Touching him was like touching a lightning bolt.
Or that might have just been me.
I wasn’t in the best of shape. I knew that. Didn’t mean I could just pull myself together though.
So I let him tend to me.
After he ran his hand along my back to make sure the bone stealer hadn’t punctured the whole way through me, he lay my head down and elevated my feet. I’d stopped the worst of the bleeding myself, with a basic anima spell, but the wounds were still pretty raw.
“I’m going to cast a few simple healing spells on you.” he said.
“No. Don’t.” I told him and caught his hand before he could lay it on the wound on my shoulder.
“It’s okay. I know what I’m doing. I’m not a cleric, but everyone in the Scout Corp learns basic aid spells.” he explained.
“No. You’ll get hurt. I’m dangerous to cast spells on.” I said.
“What happens?” he asked, not pulling his hand away, but not trying to ignore me either.
“The same way I drained the energy from the bomb blast, I drain the energy from most spells that are cast on me. If you tried to cast a giving spell on me like that, I’d probably suck most of your life out before you could pull back.” I told him.
“Is that something the Crystal Guardians did to you?” he asked.
“No. I did this to myself. A long time ago.” I said.
“But touching you is ok?” he asked, looking at where his other hand was supporting my neck.
“For some people.” I said with a smile. It took only until the last word spilled out of my mouth before I figured out what I was saying.
My complexion wasn’t quite the rich ebony that Master Hanq’s was, but it was dark enough to hide the blush that burned across my checks. Or at least I found myself desperately wishing that it was.
“That’s good.” Darius said with an answering smile. His skin was lighter than mine, but I thought I saw the hint of a blush on his face. It could easily have been my imagination though.
“I’ll be ok. I just need some time.” I told him.
“We should have plenty of that. It’s a long walk to the nearest city from here.” he said.
“We may not be that lucky.” Fari said.
“Someone saw my shield?” I guessed.
“There’s a good chance. Whoever threw the Ghost Duster at us will want confirmation that we died. He almost certainly knows that we didn’t.” Fari said.
“Then he’ll try again. And this time he’ll be more serious about it.” I said.
“It sounds like you know who it was that bombed us?” Darius asked.
“We met someone who was spying on us. Fari was able to tap into the Memory Eye spell and let us see who was casting it.” I said.
“Who was it? What did he look like?” Darius asked.
“I don’t know who it was. He was wearing a bone mask and red robes. Does that ring any bells?” I asked.
“Bone mask and red robes? And casting mental anima spells? No, not really. Could you tell how old he was? Or anything about him?”
“He wasn’t stooped over with age and he didn’t have the body proportions of a kid. Also, he was human, not Garjarack.” I said.
“Well that limits it down to 20% of the population or so.” Darius said.
“He got a very good look at you two though.” Fari said.
“What about my squad?” Darius asked.
“Probably them too. The Memory Eye was right above us. If he didn’t think to check what they looked like he’ll be able to call it back later and go over the images that it captured, right?” I said.
“Yeah.” Darius said. “This is bad. We can’t move them and I don’t know what they were dosed or enchanted with. I can’t wake them from the sleep they’re in.”
I sat up. The shoulder wound was still blindingly painful, but I’d managed to fix up my leg to the point where it was merely crippling.
“He’s going to send ground forces next. It’s the only way he can be absolutely sure we’re dead.” I said.
“You don’t think he’s going to cut his losses at this point?” Darius asked.
“That’s not an option. He thinks he can send a message to the Empire, teach them not to interfere with what’s happening here. If he leaves me alive then it’s going to be a race.” I said.
“He’s got another plan, one that’s close to fruition. That’s why he’s fighting so hard.” Darius guessed.
“Yeah. The fate binding that you felt? There were probably more than one.” I said.
“The bomber’s group and their opposition must be pretty closely matched. The conflict here has gone on for decades now.” Darius said.
“Yeah, that seems kind of unlikely doesn’t it?” I said.
“Why? People can hate each other for a long time. That’s galactic history everywhere you look.” Darius said.
“Except you don’t hate each other. This isn’t an interspecies war. This is two global powers fighting over the fate of a third, weaker, power. People fight wars all the time but they eventually win or lose them too.” I said.
“The problem is the wins and losses don’t count. If one side scores a victory and takes some land from the other, the loser’s homeworld hasn’t lost anything they care about. It’s just a game to them.” Darius said. I could see his frustration. He was arguing for something that he’d heard all his life. It was an established fact for him, one that he hated, but one that stretched so far back in time that changing it had been proven impossible.
Except I was pretty sure he was wrong.
“You’ve probably had enough to eat most of your life haven’t you?” I asked him, changing tactics.
“Yeah. I was lucky. My adopted family is…” he paused, considering his words, “We’re pretty fortunate in what we have.”
Adopted. I’d given up on that dream over a decade ago. The thought of a family who picked you out? Who took you in because they wanted you? I’d prayed and prayed for that for about a year before it finally sunk in that I’d never be that lucky. An old and tiny voice in the back of my head was grumbling in jealousy that things had worked out better for Darius. There was another one beside it that was happy for him though. I let them two of them fight it out while I got back to the argument I was making.
“I’m glad. Try this thought out though. You’re willing to believe people are stupid enough to fight a war without end. You’re willing to buy that they’re uncaring enough to destroy their own people who disagree with them and have chosen to live together in multi-species communities. My question is; why are you assuming that greed is any less of a motivation than either of those?” I asked.
He drew in a breath and his brow furrowed as he chewed on the idea.
“Greed’s in there too, but at this point the fighting has gone on for so long that it’s just a part of what they do.” Darius said.
“I’ll accept that. What I’m having a hard time with is that they’ve had a century of practice at killing each other and they’re still terrible at it.” I said. “If either the Gar or the humans were really serious about winning this fight, they could wipe the other out. At least the ones here on Hellsreach. The bone stealers are proof of that. If they’re not serious about killing each other though, then pure greed would have motivated someone one on one of the sides to arrange a peace so that they could stop wasting money on paying the troops and supplying them with weapons and food.”
“Maybe. Maybe if this wasn’t where they trained their troops.” Darius said. “Constant war means they always have veteran troops available. Spell casters who don’t get distracted by the battles around them. Infantry that can resist spells and press on through horrible conditions. Even their officers are sent here to learn what works and what doesn’t because this place is just a game to them!”
“Then I repeat: why aren’t they getting any better at it?”
“Both sides know the other. One gets better, the other learns from them. That’s how it works.” Darius said.
“You may both be correct.” Fari said.
I’d forgotten that she was listening in as well. Kind of a scary thing given that she was still inhabiting a body composed of thirty feet worth of stolen bones.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“Assume that what Darius knows of the conflict here is correct, but assume that there are also those who have found ways to profit from the situation that exists. They may not have been in control of things from the beginning. They may have simply moved into a power vacuum that was waiting to be filled.” Fari said. “If we had access to a full historical record of this world, I could look for the influence of someone like that appearing over time.”
I started to respond to that, but I noticed that Darius was looking thoughtful. I can’t read minds but he wasn’t try to hide his thoughts or keep them from showing on his face. Something in what Fari had said had struck a chord in him.
“That might be hard to find.” he said at last.
“Because anyone who’s been in power for a while will have blurred the evidence pointing back to them?” I guessed.
“Maybe that, but there was a time when the nature of the conflict shifted.”Darius said. “It was twenty years ago. Right after the Crystal Empire annexed the Exxion system. People had expected that would end all of the fighting. It sort of did too. The interplanetary fighting stopped, but the war for Hellsreach rolled on.”
“You think that’s when the our bomber and their opposition grabbed power?” I guessed.
“If you’re right about them, that would be the time window that would work.” he said.
“That would also explain why the war continued despite the peace enforced by the Crystal Empire.” Fari said.
“So why wouldn’t the Empire have done something about that?” I wondered.
“Maybe they were too busy?” Fari said.
“Or maybe they didn’t care either?” Darius suggested.
“If they didn’t care, they wouldn’t have bothered annexing the Exxion system in the first place.” I said. ”And if they had enough time to shutdown the Gar and human space fleets, it wouldn’t have taken much more effort to finish the job and shutdown their planetary forces as well. That was the usual way they did things from what I’ve read.”
“Was there a period of peace, right after the annexation?” Fari asked.
“A year or so. It gave people a false sense of hope.” Darius said.
“Or it gave our bomber time to divert the Empire’s attention and keep it diverted.” I said.
“If they had a scheme or spells in place to keep the Empire away, why would you be here?” Darius asked.
I thought about that and a sinking feeling dragged my gut down. It wasn’t fear, or disgust, it was certainty that I was right and that things were probably even worse than I was imagining them to be.
“The Empire’s recruited some new fate casters of their own. I know a couple of them. One of them is ruthless, deadly and impossible to convince that she’s wrong. The other one’s the daughter of an insane Warlord who tried to kill me.” I said.
“The Warlord tried to kill you or she did?” Darius asked.
“Both.” I answered.
“You’ve had an interesting couple of months I take it.” he said. “What makes you think they’re involved though?”
“The last I heard they were training in this cluster of systems too. I don’t know where Master Raychelle got her orders from but I’m willing to bet if either Yael or Zyla caught wind of a fate casting designed to hide a planet from the Empire they’d throw the nearest thing they could at it.” I said.
“The nearest thing being you?” Darius asked.
“I have kind of a special relationship with fate bindings. I more or less eat them. They know that too. Unless I miss my guess, they’ll be the ones to follow along if I fail this mission.” I said.
“They’d be walking into the same kind of trap that you did though right?” Darius asked.
“Yeah, except the bomber would know at least two ways that could kill a Crystal Guardian for sure in that case.” I said.
“I don’t think there’s another Deep Run facility with a teleporter he could blow up.” Darius said.
“Oh, I’m not presuming that Master Raychelle is dead yet. Remember when I said it would be a race if the bomber didn’t kill me? I didn’t mean a race between me and him. I meant a race between Master Raychelle and I to see who got to him first.”