Demon’s Isolation was an unfriendly town in the same sense that the surface of a star is a warm and toasty vacation destination. Veins of Void anima ran through the town and throbbed with a dull pulse like a heartbeat.
“That landing felt extra terrible, “ Darius said, shaking his head to recover. I saw him collect his wits and take stock of what was happening in between the blink of an eye, “And now you have a Void shield covering us. We’re under attack already aren’t we?”
“From the instant we landed,” I said.
“Hostile sapient, or a trap?” Fari asked.
“Something is incredibly wrong with the fate weave here,” Zyla said.
“I don’t think it reaches into this city,” I said. “There’s a Void spell all around us, so probably a trap, to answer Fari’s question. I think it’s killing the fate weave, and everything else in the vicinity.”
“No, it’s not,” Zyla said. “The fate weave’s still present, but it’s different.”
I switched over to Void sight and risked opening my mystical vision to the Aetherial spectrum.
Just as Zyla said, the fate weave was all around us, but it looked very different from the vibrant torrent of power that the rest of Abyz was submerged in.
“They’re joined together,” I said as I inspected the fabric of the spells that surrounded me. There was a lot less Aetherial anima binding us inside the town, but I could still see thick strands of the fate weave trying to wrap themselves around us. They weren’t just less numerous though, they were paler than I remembered them being.
I inspected them closer and found that the threads of the fate weave were braided with threads of the Void anima spell. At the ends of the threads, the magics sunk into each other and merged. From what I’d been taught, that was impossible. The Void anima should consume the Aetherial anima of the fate weave completely. Given what my eyes were seeing I had to conclude that my training had missed a few things.
“What does that mean?” Fari asked.
“That we’ve come to the right place,” I said. “How long do we have until the troops show up?”
“The first ring of a Grand Ward has gone up,” Fari said. “They’ll have teleportation cut off in under a minute.”
“This way,” I said and took off at an anima-assisted run.
“Fleeing from our last detectable position or have you found something?” Darius asked.
“Little bit of each,” I said as I moderated my pace so that Darius and Zyla could keep up with me.
We ran through the wreckage of the ancient city, bounding across streets and buildings with inhumanly long leaps. I’d run through cities for all my life. There were similarities you could find whenever the races who lived there had vaguely humaniform body configurations. Buildings tended to be constructed to the same scale for example. Roads and alleys too.
I had no idea what sort of people had lived in Demon’s Isolation, but from the empty door frames and barren interiors I could tell that they weren’t completely alien.
I could also tell they hadn’t been able to fight whatever had taken them. Apart from the damage our landing had done, the buildings were in remarkably good shape. The long years had taken away any luster they might have once had, but structurally they seemed sound.
The empty structure’s brought back unpleasant memories of my home town. Grey and silent in the wake of a weapon that only vaporized the citizens. There wasn’t any grey here, which I was very grateful for, but the overall effect was the same. We were walking through a tomb.
“We’re disturbing the fate weave but it’s not reacting to us,” Zyla said.
“The Void fibers are anesthetizing it,” I said. “I think.”
“Did Guardian Blackbriar cover anything like this in her training?” Darius asked.
“Not even slightly,” I said. “What I’m seeing is supposed to be impossible, so I’m kind of working it out as I go.”
“Where are we heading?” Zyla asked. “I can feel the fate weave growing thinner.”
“I’m taking us to the center of the Void spell,” I said. “There’s got to be something very interesting there.”
My plan had been to head towards the heart of the Mental spell that made people forget about this place, but the Void magic seemed freaky enough to make the primary focus given our limited time.
“And if there’s not we’ll make something interesting there, right?” Darius asked.
Our plans for escaping weren’t good ones, but they were large and very loud, which would at least make our (very likely) deaths entertaining and useful.
“I don’t think we’ll have to worry about that,” Zyla said. “There’s definitely something in the direction Mel’s leading us. It’s big though.”
I shot a glance over at Darius. He shrugged as he leaped over a small, single story building. We’d worked with “big” before. “Big” factored into most of our more successful plans and was certainly in the docket for this one.
“Fari, are you picking anything up?” I asked.
“Between your shield and the ambient Void anima?” she asked. “Nope, just us.”
“Think the same applies to Agent Riverstone?” I asked.
“I doubt it,” she said. “Whatever is here is important, we can be sure of that, and with the Void anima field that’s in place there’s only a tiny number of casters who could survive being where we are now.”
“So if they were going to put in detection spells, they’d focus on ones that worked against a Void caster,” I said, seeing where Fari’s train of thought lead. “Any guesses which ones we’ve triggered?”
“Probably several of them,” she said. “The anima levels you’re seeing even within the radius of your shield are massive. Anyone willing to set this up would have the energy available to create layered defenses.”
“Any reason we’re not dead yet?” Darius asked.
“They must have to come here to service something,” Fari said. “A warning system plus a troop response if needed is a much better answer to a false alarm than blowing yourself up because you botched a disarming spell or forgot to cast it one time.”
“The troops would need to be protected from the Void anima spell too wouldn’t they?” Zyla asked.
“I’m sure Agent Riverstone was one of the first people who was teleported in,” I said. “She and the rest of the royal operatives are probably shielding the Queen’s troops the same as I’m shielding you.”
“Probably why we’ve stayed ahead of them,” Fari said. “They’re moving at the speed of their slowest member.”
“And watching for counter-traps,” I said.
“But we haven’t had time to set any up,” Zyla said.
In the distance there was giant explosion that was cut off by an implosive silence.
“We haven’t had time to setup any good traps you mean,” Darius said. “With Void casters on the other side I couldn’t risk a decent yield on any of the runes.”
“What just happened?” Zyla asked.
“Runic Traps,” Darius said. “I’ve been scattering them as we go. They don’t pack much punch, but there’s an inversion effect on them so if a Void caster tries to drain the energy of the blast they’ll find that the energy implodes on them and strips away a bit of their Void anima in the process.”
“And you did that on the fly?” Zyla asked.
“Well, on the run, and believe me, I’ve had worse environments to cast them in,” he said.
I nodded in agreement. For one thing, with the city being deserted, Darius could be a lot sloppier in the triggers that he setup for the traps without the worry of an innocent setting one of them off. Even the “low yield” traps he was throwing out behind us still packed enough force to level a small building.
For as potent as they were though, I had to factor in the skill Bo fought me with. Based on that, I was pretty certain that Darius’ traps weren’t going to accomplish anything other than slowing down our pursuers but under the circumstances that was exactly what we needed.
With a final leap to the top of a six story building, I came to a halt and let the others catch up.
“We’re here, sort of,” I said and looked over the edge of the building.
Below our position, a concave depression broke the dense cityscape that surrounded us. The bowl was about a half mile across and in the center, at the lowest point, I saw a great gaping hole. Around the hole were a dozen crates in the kind of irregular formation that said they’d been air dropped into their current positions.
“What in the Crimson Hells is this?” Zyla asked, landing beside me a moment before Darius caught up with us.
“Supplies,” I said.
“The question is supplies for what?” Darius asked.
“Not what, who.” I said.
“You think there are people down there?” Fari asked and then saw what was really running through my head. “You think we’ve found the source of the ghosts!”
“Or it could be monsters,” Darius said. “The city is called Demon’s Isolation after all.”
“Are we that lucky?” I asked him.
“Not according to our last twenty mission logs,” he said.
“Monsters would be better than people why exactly?” Zyla asked.
“Because monsters we could unleash on the people following us,” I said. “People we’ll need to protect.”
“The good news is this puts an end to Mel’s plan to lead the royal forces away so that the rest of us could escape safely,” Darius said.
“You don’t know that was my plan!” I said.
“Mel, dearest, you’re very clever sometimes but try to think when the last time you fooled both Darius and I was?” Fari said, laying a blue spectral hand on my arm.
“That would be ‘never’ in case you’ve lost track,” Darius said and folded his arms.
“That was your great plan?” Zyla asked, staring at me like I’d lost my mind.
“No,” I said. “It was one of my great plans.”
I frowned and tried to not to look any of them in the eyes. I had other plans, but they went from “a lot worse than acting as a decoy” to “no sane individual would even conceive of this.”
“The important thing is that it’s off the table,” Darius said. “The Queen will be able to detect if we split up, and we all know that we have to go down into that pit no matter how much of a death trap it is right?”
My frown turned into a scowl. The supply crates were the kind of thing that would only be dropped for people to use. If the intended target was non-sapient, they wouldn’t be able to open the locking mechanism. People were more dangerous than monsters. Monsters had resilience and special powers and lacked fear or mercy. Those were formidable qualities but people could think and plan and that tended to trump everything else.
The people in the pit wouldn’t know we were coming to them in friendship and probably couldn’t afford to take chances. Unless I missed my guess, the only outsiders they’d seen for decades or longer were agents of the Queen like Bo, and I couldn’t imagine those encounters were very pleasant. I knew, before we took a single step further, that they were going to hit us as hard as they could if we ventured into their domain. The scary thing wasn’t that we would have to defend ourselves. It was that I didn’t know how if we’d be able to hold back enough to not kill a few of them in the process.
Killing innocents, especially ones who’d be unimaginably mistreated for generations, wasn’t something I ever wanted to do, but Darius was right. We had to go down into that pit. The people there were too well hidden. They had to be close to the heart of what was really happening on Abyz.
“The Queen’s forces will be here soon,” Fari said. “We need to get going.”
“And no, you can’t stay here and fight the Queen’s operative while we find out what’s happening with the underground people,” Darius said.
I clenched my fist. He was right about that too, but it was the very next plan I’d considered. I could slow the royal forces down better than any of Darius’ traps and when I fought I tended to do a lot more damage than Darius or Zyla, so having me away from the people in the pit would be a lot healthier for them.. Especially if I had to break out the Void anima spells.
I could be terrifying. It was part of what qualified me to be a Crystal Guardian, but sometimes terrifying is exactly what isn’t needed to resolve a situation.
Ironically, it was for that same reason that I couldn’t stay behind to fight with Bo and the army she was bringing with her. If she pushed me hard enough, I would have to answer in kind, and that wasn’t a scenario that was going to end well for anyone.
“Down we go then,” I said and leapt into one of the darkest on all of Abyz.