I’d never experienced an earthquake before and when it hit I learned that it was something I never wanted to experience again. One moment, the world was still and quiet. A picture of the scene would have made it look like the Gar family and I were clustered together for no good reason. Icy claws in my chest were screaming that we were in peril though and some combination of my regular senses agreed with them. The Garjaracks could sense it too.
One long breath of anticipation passed and then the earth around us tore itself to pieces. The heaving land threw me off my feet and knocked down some of the Gar family too. The elderly Gars and half the kids landed hard, but the two adults and the rest of the rest of the young ones kept their feet.
I could see Physical anima shining on all of the ones who remained standing as they struggled to cast a shield spell that would cover us all. The shaking ground was joined by the roar of buildings around us tearing apart. Dust and debris started to rain down and I could see the Gar losing the weave of the shield spell. It was just too hard to concentrate with the earth throwing us around.
That’s why people long ago invented enchanting. I wasn’t free to cast spells until my anima was finished healing but that didn’t mean I couldn’t use them if they were embedded into a object. Since enchanting isn’t exactly cheap, I’d never had much experience with it growing up. Master Raychelle had worked on rectifying that over the last few months since it was one of the things I could work on while I was recovering.
In theory, enchanted objects are something that anyone can use. That’s the point of them after all. In practice though, the more you know about the enchantment on the item, and the more familiar you are with casting the spell yourself, the more flexibility and efficiency you can get out of it.
My lack of formal training meant that I was rubbish when it came to that sort of thing in general, but at least with shield spells I had some minor amount of talent to fall back on.
The quake had thrown me off my feet, and with the shaking continuing I didn’t see a point in trying to stand again. Instead I raised myself to my hands and knees and chanted the activation phrase for the shield belt that I wore.
By design, the belt was intended to cover only me. It wasn’t a strong shield but it was better than being without one at all. I considered the cost of expanding it cover the Gar family too and calculated that it would drop the strength of the shield to point where it was little stronger than a thick piece of glass. It sucked, but, after calling them all to me for safety, I had to do what I could to provide it.
The shield materialized around us as a lacework of geometric shapes and symbols. The sigils it formed in the air glowed with the dim red light of the Physical anima the belt had stored to cast the spell. It looked so fragile that I thought the dust around us would be enough to blow it away, but then it surged in brightness. The lines grew thicker and hummed with power as I watched in amazement. I hadn’t thought the belt had that much magic stored in it.
I was right on that count too. It wasn’t the belt that was making the shield so strong. It was the Garjarack family I was with.
They hadn’t been able to focus enough to cast the spell themselves, but augmenting an existing spell was a lot simpler. Even the one’s who hadn’t been casting, even the kids who’d been exhausted and fading before the earthquake hit, were pouring energy into the shield.
That’s when the firebirds showed up.
The buildings around us were collapsing inwards, certain to bury us even if the shield prevented them from crushing us to death instantly. Then the sky above us exploded in flame.
The firebirds plunged down from a conjuration point just barely higher than the tallest building. Their elemental screams cut through the din of the falling buildings and the heat of their enormous bodies washed through shield we’d erected. If they’d been trying to kill us, they could have roasted us where we stood, shield or no shield. That wasn’t why Fari had sent them though.
She’d conjured the firebirds to save us, and that’s what they did. Each of the dozen aerial fire elementals slammed into one of the collapsing buildings and knocked it away from us. Gravity and momentum argued that tons of stone and steel from the buildings should fall within the defensive circle that the firebirds established but the enchanted beings would have none of that. They streaked through the buildings, smashing the structures and speeding outwards forming a flower burst of destruction with the Garjarack family and me in the safety of the untouched center.
The major part of the quake subsided a moment later, but the ground still felt unstable as smaller aftershocks continued to rumble through it.
“Is everyone ok?” I asked, looking around at the family. Most of them were on the ground and some weren’t moving yet.
“Darius isn’t!” Fari said telepathically.
“What happened?” I asked, looking around to see which direction he was in. I hadn’t been familiar with Salmon Falls in the first place but the destruction and the smoke brought on by the earthquake and the firebird strike had turned it into an alien landscape. Fari compensated for that by projecting a blinking red and green rectangle overlaid onto my vision to show where he was.
“He was in a building when the quake hit,” she said. “He’s still alive, but he’s trapped and I think the collapse knocked him out.”
“What about the people he was after?” I asked, thinking of the danger they represented to him.
“I can’t tell,” she said. “My sense link to him broke when he passed out.”
I looked at the Gar family again and weighed them against Darius. He needed me. They had each other. Leaving them here, on their own though, felt wrong. They were deep in “enemy territory” and out of their depth.
And so was I. I was used to working without magic. I’d done that my whole life up until less than half a year ago. I’d learned to fight and worked to be as strong as I could to make up for my deficiency but I’d also kept a close eye on when to run. For all my hard won skill at hand-to-hand combat, there were plenty of people I knew I couldn’t tangle with. Plenty of fights that I wouldn’t walk away from if I didn’t run first. I’d survived as much by knowing my limits as by stubbornly going beyond them.
Learning about my magical talents had been a delight and a wonderland of new capabilities, but there were still things I couldn’t handle on my own, as the last two months on the injured list had proven.
Even if I’d been back to full casting status though, I couldn’t assume that digging Darius out of a collapsed building would be something I could handle solo. Sure I could make myself magically strong and fast, but my knowledge of architecture pretty much ended at “buildings have four walls and a roof”.
If I was going to get him out safely, I needed help.
“Are you all ok?” I asked again.
“No,” said the eldest Gar woman. “We are uninjured, but the children need attention. Their reserves are not deep yet, the casting took a lot out of them.”
“Can they walk?” I asked her.
“We can carry them,” the adult Gar female said. Her anger was still there and I think it was confusion more than anything else that kept it from erupting.
“Fari, is our transport still ok?” I asked aloud.
“Yes, I had it lift off as soon as you noticed the quake was incoming,” she said.
“Who is ‘Fari’?” the eldest Gar asked.
“I am!” Fari said, appearing before the Gar family in her translucent blue ghost form.
“What is this?” the adult Gar woman asked.
“She is one of my friends.” I replied with more ice in my tone than I intended. I could accept, intellectually, that the Gar woman had been through hard and trying times, but I couldn’t stop the emotional reaction of wanting to smack the hell out of her for not seeing Fari as a person.
“You won’t have to carry your children,” Fari said. “I’m bringing a transport in that will be able to fly you to an Aid Center.”
“How are you doing that?” the eldest Gar asked.
“I can multi-task,” Fari said. Given that she was an archmage level caster of Mind magic, that wasn’t particularly surprising, but I knew she found it more comfortable to focus on a single thread of consciousness at a time. She’d explained that fracturing her attention came at the cost of making each avatar slower and less capable which she preferred to avoid. Still, it was a handy trick when she needed it.
“I can’t wait for the transport to get here,” I said. “And I need your help.”
“And here’s where the demands begin,” the adult Gar woman said.
“My other friend, the one who went out to take down the people bombing you, he’s injured and buried under a collapsed building,” I said. “I don’t know what state he’s in or how long he has and I need help getting him out.”
“We have children who need us,” the adult Gar woman said.
“I’ll go with you,” the adult Gar man said.
“Me too,” one of the older Gar girls said.
“No Nenya, you’re going to stay here,” the adult Gar woman said.
“She’ll go,” the eldest Gar woman said. “The rest of us will tend to the children and get them loaded into the transport when it arrives.”
There are a variety of anima techniques that let someone kill with a look. I had to assume that the adult Gar woman didn’t know them given the tension that crackled in the air between her and the family’s matriarch.
Since I had neither the training to resolve disputes like that nor any time to spend, I settled for leaving while the opportunity was available.
“Thank you. He’s in this direction,” I said and turned towards the blinking overlay Fari had cast for me.
I set out at a quick jog and found the two Garjarack easily keeping up with me.
“You can travel faster if you wish,” the man said. He was glowing with a thin sheen of Physical anima. Garjarack are, on average, stronger than a human of similar weight and height, but their legs tend to be shorter which makes them slower over long runs. Anima spells cancel out those physical differences of course, but any magic spent on running fast is magic that’s not available for other uses.
“I want to get to him quickly, but we should conserve our energy,” I said. “I don’t know what it’s going to take to get him out of there.”
It was dangerous for me to cast spells, but letting Darius be crushed to death wasn’t even vaguely an option. I was worried about how much anima my two Gar companions could have left. Between their overall poor physical state and the energy they’d given to support the shield, I couldn’t imagine either of them was exactly brimming with magical power.
“I am called Cadrus.” the Gar man said as we ran towards the site where Darius was trapped.
“Thank you for this Cadrus,” I said.
“You have helped us against our enemies,” Cadrus said. “We are stronger working together.”
Darius had told me about the Garjarack and the customs that were common in their local cultures. While pretty much everyone on Hellsreach spoke Galactic Common, many of the Garjarack also spoke an older language from Exxion II. Darius spoke it fluently as well, in part because he was a brainy sort of boy and in part because he had as many Gar friends as human ones. He’d tried to teach it to me, but two months wasn’t exactly enough to pick up fluency in it, especially since we’d had a lot of other things to work on.
The one part that stuck out to me was the number of different terms the language had for describing “friend” or “ally”. I could see it influencing Cadrus’ use of language in Galactic Common. I wasn’t even an “ally” yet, but I’d stepped one level closer to that from “unknown stranger”. If we were speaking in Exxion II’s Common tongue, I would have been able to pick up a lot more about his assessment of me, like whether he still considered me dangerous and whether he was ready to see if I would prove myself an “ally”. As it was I had to settle for letting his actions speak louder than his words.
“Is your friend a Crystal Guardian like you?” Nenya, the Gar girl asked.
“No,” I said, “He’s a native of Hellsreach.”
“You’re working with the people here?” she asked.
“Yeah, I came here to help with the peace negotiations but it turned out that there was a lot more going on than the Empire was aware of,” I said.
“So you’re working with the humans then?” Nenya asked.
“The Empire’s trying to work with everyone. Humans and Gars, natives and off-worlders,” I said. “For me though, I’ve just been trying to recover for the last couple of months.”
“Recover?” Nenya asked.
“I got hurt pretty badly when the planet came online as a battle world. Channeled just a little too much anima, so I’ve been on injured reserve until I get my full powers back,” I said. “Darius has been helping me with that. And other things.”
The ‘other things’ were generally more fun than the therapy of course, but it wasn’t the time to indulge in fond memories. Instead I used those memories as fuel to push me faster to where he was waiting for me.
I was worried about him, but I knew that he was capable in his own ways. The collapsing building might have knocked him out but he had enough defensive spells that he’d be able to hold on for a while. At least long enough for me to reach him. I’d seen him fight through some incredible odds and come out ok, so I knew he wouldn’t leave me like that.
Of course that didn’t mean he couldn’t be taken.
We came to the site of the building collapse and I stopped in stunned silence. Fari’s overlay showed exactly where it should be. It showed exactly where Darius should be too.
But neither of them was there.
Looking down at the ground I saw only an empty hole as deep as the building’s foundations had run. There was no rubble it, and no Darius. He was gone.