Zawalla City was in “uncontested territory”. That meant the land it sat on held no tactical significance for either side in the conflict over Hellsreach. That was the theory anyway. In practice any city with infrastructure greater than a lean-to could be tactically useful if one side or the other controlled it. Zawalla had the advantage that it’s isolation made transporting troops and supplies through it costly enough that both the Gar and Human forces had better options where they could focus their military might.
Those “better options” included regions of land where natural ley lines were more prevalent. In the equatorial regions that the Gar and Humans fought over, the ley lines were as dense as the thickest jungle. That allowed the troops to reshape the land and fly their transports through the air with much less anima expenditure. Spell casters who knew what they were doing and ran low on personal energy could recharge their anima faster by drawing on the plentiful energy that flowed around them. That technique could lead to other sorts of issues if it was over used, which was why Master Raychelle hadn’t taught me much about it yet. She’d filled me in on the basics though when she explained the basic points of the conflict on Hellsreach.
The basic points should have been enough to see me through the assignment so I hadn’t asked for a more in-depth course in Hellsreach history. I’d assumed that the only thing I needed to worry about was the safety of Pallas Arachnegen, our negotiator, while she worked out the details of the peace agreement. Looking back, I had to shake my head at my optimism.
“I don’t think you could have guessed that any of this would happen.” Fari said when I shared my self-recriminations with her.
“Maybe not, but I had to know something would go wrong.” I said.
“If it helps, I checked on other diplomatic missions the Crystal Guardians have undertaken and this is in the top 3% of ones that have encountered problems.” Fari said.
“Does that make me an A+ trouble maker?” I asked.
“I think Red Robes would grade you that way.” she said.
“I bet he’d want to throw a few demerits on my report card too.” I said. “If Master Raychelle brought me here to learn, then I’ve destroyed a lot of school property so far.”
“Don’t worry, I’m sure we’ll get to destroy some more!” Fari said.
“Just so long as we leave the school standing. I think I might flunk out if I break the planet on them.” I said.
“Yeah, I would advise against doing that.” Fari said. Her tone was light and humorous but there was an undercurrent to it that reflected a millenia of memories of planetary destruction. I could have apologized for the joke but I didn’t think that was what she needed. I would never blame her for what others had done with the Jewel of Endless Night when she was a part of it. None of it had been her choice or her fault. That didn’t mean it hadn’t hurt her, but I could see she wanted to put that hurt behind her so I chose to believe that she already had. It’s weird but acting like something is a certain way can often be one of the first steps to make it become true.
“How close are we to Mulwin’s apartment building?” I asked.
“It’s still a few miles away. From the dispatch messages I’m picking up, they just cleared the street around it for traffic again.” Fari said.
I sniffed and the heavy aroma of smoke stung my nostrils. I hoped we were closer but even running at a steady jog, I couldn’t cross distances a fraction as fast as I could with the flight pack. That played into Fari’s plan but it meant I had to spend a lot more time outside and exposed than I would have preferred.
I didn’t mind being out, alone, in a “bad part” of the city after dark. I’d learned how to stay out of sight and avoid trouble years ago and with the power Fari carried for me I could make trouble regret ever running into us if it came to that. Zawalla City disturbed me in another way though. It reminded me of home.
The spot where I landed was the back side of an abandoned restaurant. It was covered in scrub grass and weeds that engulfed the long, one story building. The lights of the city petered out towards its periphery but there was enough illumination to see that no one had cared for the place in at least a decade or more. Even the road that ran past it showed signs of disuse.
It was the emptiness of Zawalla’s abandoned outskirts that called back images of my hometown and the lifeless grey that covered it the last time I walked its streets. The deeper into Zawalla we walked though the more signs of life I saw. Zawalla’s geography was different from my hometown’s too. I forced myself to focus on that in order to drag my mind away from thoughts that led nowhere pleasant.
Zawalla rested in a wide, bowl-like depression in the low hills that grew in height until they shot up into the sheer cliffs of Hellsreach’s Great Northern Necklace. The Northern Necklace was a range of mountains that ringed the world and encircled the top of the temperate latitudes. There was a similar chain of mountains in the south. Travel to the arctic regions was possible but the added difficulty imposed by the mountains meant that the population of the north and south polar areas was sparse even in the most seasonable weather periods.
Despite its relative remoteness though, Zawalla City had a population that was larger that any of the cities on my homeworld. As I flew within range of it, Fari tapped into the city’s municipal spell matrix and mined the local knowledge web for information quicker than I could follow her. That let her answer the questions I thought to ask as fast as I could come up with them.
“Why is this place so big?” I asked her.
“It’s been outside the conflict areas where the Garjarack and Human forces have fought for the last two decades. With the Common Council’s forces in place to the south to defend it, Zawalla City is one of the safer spots to live for people not involved in the conflict.” she said.
“Makes sense that Mulwin would take an apartment here.” I said. “How much do you think will be left of her building?”
“Almost nothing.” Fari said. “The dispatch reports I can hear have declared it a total loss.”
“That fits with what we’ve seen. Red Robes hasn’t held back on anything he’s done so far.” I said.
“I’m counting on that.” Fari said. “ If he wanted to make sure Mulwin’s apartment couldn’t be searched, burning it was the best option. A regular fire might not have consumed the building fast enough though. That’s why I’m sure he would have used a fire elemental to stoke the blaze.”
“And you think that we can contact that elemental?” I’d never heard of someone conjuring the same spirit as another caster, which suggested it was either an advanced technique or a crazy idea that Fari had come up with on her own. Either way, I wanted to see if we could manage to do it.
“I think so.” she said. “What I’ll need you to do is simple. Or simple to describe anyways.”
“Easy in theory, difficult in practice? That sounds like every lesson Master Hanq ever taught me.” I said.
“I think you should be able to be able to handle your part of the spell. It will take careful control of your Void anima but you’re talented with that. It’s my portion of the spell I’m worried about.” she said.
“Why? I’m guessing you’re handling the mental anima part of the spell right?” I asked.
“Yes. I’m used to being able to expend as much power as I want though. For this I’m going to need to match the summoner’s mental state based on the traces of mental anima that remain in the environment. The tricky part is I can’t used any more magic than they did or I might fry your mind.”
“I think I see why people don’t do this often.” I said. “For what it’s worth though, if this has that kind of risk associated with it, I feel better about our chances of succeeding.”
“Why?” Fari asked.
“I think any scheme that’s going to work for us has to be one that puts us outside the realm that Red Robes can plan for. He’s not all powerful, so there have to be some possibilities that are too extreme and unlikely to be worth spending resources on. This feels like one of them.” I said.
“There is one other thing you should know about this idea.” Fari said. “If we succeed, the elemental will be summoned but it will be aware of the release word that freed it from the previous binding. Since we have to construct the same spell to summon it, that means it will know how to escape the binding we put on it.”
“Can you add another binding spell to the summons?” I asked.
“Not without risking that it will call a different elemental.” she said.
“So what do we do about an out of control elemental?” I asked.
“I’ll be able to compel a single answer out of it. Once we have that, you’ll need to dispel it.” she said.
“That’s not as easy as just saying ‘go away’ is it?” I asked.
“No. The only way I know to dispel an uncontrolled elemental is to destroy the body it creates for itself.” she said.
“Sounds like this will be fun then.” I said.
“Did I mention that their bodies can melt steel with a touch?” she said.
“Sounds like it will be a lot of fun.” I said.
“If you want to back out, I won’t be offended. I know this isn’t the kind of thing we should be try on our own. Not in a crowded city like this.” Fari said.
“If we were fooling around and trying this for fun, I would agree with you. As it is, I think you’ve found the best option that we have available to us.” I said.
“What if I screw it up though?” Fari asked.
“You won’t. You’re crazy good at anima casting. Millennia of experience remember? I know you can manage it.” I said.
“Thank you.” she said. She was beside me in her blue ghost form, so I got to see her shoulders relax as the tension she’d held in them drained away.
“We might as well get started then. We’re almost there.” she added as I turned the corner out of an alley and emerged onto a street that was brightly lit despite the deep dark of the night above us.
“Go ahead.” I told her and opened my mind to the spell she began to cast.
According to Master Raychelle I have a decent amount of mental anima. I feel like it’s a tiny drop compared to my Void and Physical animas though. Mostly that’s because those were the first two animas I worked with and my martial training helped me develop my body and give me an awareness of it that I don’t have with my mind. I guess if I’d been a better student in school I might have more natural talent with mental spells but instead I feel clumsy and out of control when I try to cast them. Even with my other animas, I feel like most of the time I get by with brute force. Void anima is simple to use and Physical anima isn’t much more complex. If there’s a problem, I hit it. If that doesn’t work I yell and hit it harder.
Fari is the polar opposite of me. Her casting is graceful in a way mine will probably never be. She makes the most complex weavings look simple and the simplest weavings into pure art.
I felt the spell she cast spread out from the center of my mind like a gossamer veil. Rather than obscuring my vision though it joined our perspectives together. Telepathy spells are beyond me, but they’re easy enough to explain. They allow you to talk in private and at a distance. This spell was that effect taken a light year further.
We saw the same things, we felt the same things and as I moved my anima around I felt her hands helping me shape and direct where it went.
From what Master Raychelle had explained, group casting is difficult because the participants can fall out of synch with each other and ruin the effect at any time. That wasn’t an issue for us. With Fari’s joining spell in effect, we were two people moving together as one. It was weird and thrilling and solemn all at the same time.
Without her needing to tell me, I moved all of my Void anima except for a tiny spark out to the invisibility spell that shrouded us from detection. In response she cast a detection spell to locate the echoes of the spirit that had destroyed the burned apartment building.
We had both assumed that the echoes would be faint and difficult to find given the time that had passed since the fire elemental had been banished.
We were wrong.
Through the lens of the post-cognition spell, we saw the after-image of the elemental burning bright as the sun and as tall as the building it had destroyed.