Walking into the shanty town wasn’t the kind of move that was going to ensure a long and healthy life for me. If I’d been planning on a long and healthy life I wouldn’t have signed up to be one of the Empress’s trouble shooters though.
“They’re not going to be happy to see you Mel,” Fari said.
“I know that,” I assured her.
“They have bombs,” she said.
“I know that too,” I said.
“If you’re in the middle of them, I’ll have to hit you with the stun burst too,” she said.
“If I have to ask you to stun burst a refugee community, I’ll be more than willing to take the hit myself as well,” I said, as I made my way through the dense forest that separated me from where the action was. Out of the corner of my vision I noticed that I’d picked up an “escort” of sorts along the way.
A guard had been hiding in the tree canopy outside of the village. I hadn’t noticed him until he touched down about a dozen yards to my left. He was cloaked by a camouflage spell but in my Void anima sight, the spell glowed a brilliant red, defeating its purpose entirely.
I considered turning to deal with him. His spell was lousy and inefficient, so there was a decent chance I could take him in a straight hand-to-hand fight, but I pushed the idea aside. I wasn’t here to break faces, I was here to rescue Darius. My best hope of doing that was to approach these people in an unexpected way.
“That’s a bad idea Mel,” Master Raychelle said. “Fari’s attack may not disable everyone in in the area, but it will definitely disable you in your current state.”
“If she has to stun burst the town, she’ll hit the people trapped in the wreckage too,” I said. “The only thing keeping them alive is their residual shields and those won’t stand up to an attack like that.”
“Think clearly,” Master Raychelle said. “You don’t want to throw your life away if Darius can’t be saved.”
“I’m not going to throw away either of our lives,” I said. “I’ve got a plan.”
“Share it with me,” Master Raychelle said.
I reached the edge of the clearing and people started to notice me. It was last moment that I could turn away but I cast that option aside.
“No time,” I said and marched right out of the forest.
There were easily thirty people gathered around pile of rubble that made up the collapsed building and three times that number running around in the kit bashed houses beyond it. Some wore military uniforms, others wore the coveralls common for support staff but most had on simple tunics and pants.
I swept my robes around me and locked eyes with the nearest adult I could find.
“I need your Mayor or Chief here with a damage report and a tally of injured as fast they can get it!” I said.
The woman I addressed looked at me like I was speaking some obscure outworld dialect rather than Galactic Common. I didn’t wait for her to finish processing my words before I continued though and I didn’t slow my pace towards the rubble pile.
“This structure, it came from Salmon Falls didn’t it?” I asked and again didn’t wait for an answer before continuing, “You’ve got no support enchantments on it and you’ve got multiple people still trapped within. We need to get them out of there before the next aftershock hits or we’re going to lose them.”
I passed through a crowd of people who had no idea to what to make of me and stopped short at the base of the rubble pile. It helped tremendously that I was human. If I’d tried this in a Garjarack village, their natural reaction would have been to shoot me, but I looked just enough like the people here that they didn’t file me immediately into the “enemy” category. They were too used to the enemy having scales and a tail and it made their thinking sloppy.
“Hell of a transport job,” I said. “I’m going to want to talk to the caster who pulled that off. Incredible feat. Shame they didn’t leave the top floors behind though.”
“Who are you?” one of the men asked at last.
“Guardian Watersward. I’ve got Imperial support in-bound, but there’s no telling when the next part of the quake is going to hit, so we need your people and mine out of that pile now,” I said.
Playing on my status as a Crystal Guardian was shaky in the sense that I was technically only an initiate and not a full Guardian yet, but in this case I was all the Guardian these people were going to get. The concern about the aftershocks was very real too, but not what I was most worried about with this crowd. Their animosity towards “Gar sympathizers” was more likely to get Darius and I killed than the chance of the building collapsing any further. That was the reason they needed to think Imperial troops were on the way.
That was also a cue to Fari to actually send the Imperial support that I needed. Bluffing would only keep them from shooting me for so long. Once the crisis was past and Darius and their people were free, they’d have time to ask themselves how much they really wanted outsiders knowing where they were and what they’d been up to. I had Fari as an ace in the hole but I really didn’t want to have to start shooting them, even after I got Darius out of the line of fire.
Stun bursts are non-lethal, but only in the sense that any reasonably healthy body should be able to withstand their effects. Forcibly knocking someone unconscious is disruptive no matter how you do it (barring certain Mental anima spells) and for people in as bad shape as these folks looked to be it was an open question how well they could tolerate that kind of disruption.
“What are you doing here?” one of the women nearby asked. She wasn’t the official leader of the group. Her clothes were a mix of dark and light beige colored layers, rather than a military uniform or even the support staff coveralls. Despite her dress though, she carried herself like a fighter.
“Helping you,” I said. “Has anyone done a scan to locate where your people are in all of this?”
“We didn’t ask for any Imperial help,” the woman said and grabbed by my arm.
It was a direct challenge to my authority and I let her do it, fighting back the reflex to break her arm and dislocate her shoulder. She and the rest of the people here could do immense harm to me. The only way I saw to prevent that was to act as if the opposite was true.
“Then you’re extremely lucky that I was in the area,” I said and looked down at her hand, silently asking if grabbing me really seemed like a good idea to her.
The tension moment dragged on for what seemed like an hour with neither of us moving. I filled my head with visceral plans for how I would take her apart as well as everyone that stood within twenty feet of me. Part of me knew I’d be lucky to get through a handful of them but I focused on what victory would feel like rather than letting myself imagine the agony of defeat.
She pulled her hand away before I got to the really interesting ideas on how I could fight that many opponents, but she didn’t back off.
“How are you going to get them out there?” she asked. The rest of the community was focused on the two of us which offered the advantage that I only had to negotiate with one of them. With how people tend to be though, I knew it was only a short time before someone else got brave enough to stick their opinion where it wasn’t needed.
“Like this,” I said and turned back to the rock pile. “Fari, boost the sense link to maximum and see if you can located any of the trapped people as we go.”
I was counting on her being able to detect where the people were because my next idea would be a terrible one if I misaimed it.
“You can channel the planetary defense spells through your gem right?” I asked her privately on our telepathic channel.
“Sure, that’s easier that targeting them over the sense link,” she said.
“I know you’re splitting your attention at the moment, can you turn control of the transport over to one of the Gars?” I asked.
“Yes, they’re all loaded in now,” she said. “What do you in mind for me?”
“Forget the stun blasts, I need you to bring one of the petrification rays online,” I said.
“You plan to use that on the building, not on the people?” Master Raychelle asked, guessing at my plan without me needing to spell it out.
“Right. If we can keep the building from falling down any further we can use more aggressive means to get them out of there,” I said.
“What did you have in mind for your ‘more aggressive means’?” Master Raychelle asked.
“I suppose the Matter Annihilation Batteries are still off-limits right?” I asked. Even my worst plans shied away from using anti-matter as the answer to my problems, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t a tempting tool to think about deploying.
“We’re already dealing with one global catastrophe today, let’s not make it another one shall we?” Master Raychelle requested.
“They’re on hard lock down too. I can’t interface with them,” Fari added. It didn’t surprise me that she’d already checked out the status of the Matter Annihilation Batteries. Part of why we got along so well was that we thought disturbingly alike sometimes.
“Cold Plasma cutters should do the trick then,” I said. Plasma cutters work by invoking an incredibly hot flame that can melt virtually anything. For Cold Plasma you layer another spell on top to reabsorb the intense heat from the cutting blade and the material that’s being melted. This helps prevent things like melting the people that you’re trying to save.
“Those are in short supply,” Master Raychelle said.
“Not if you know someone as talented as Fari,” I said.
“You want to use my gem as a rock cutter?” Fari asked. “Please. I’m much better than that!”
I felt the charge start to grow in gem that I wore on my chest. It was Fari’s home and the remnant of a world killing super weapon. Its world killing days were past, but it still possessed the same energy storage capacity as it once had and Fari was still a frighteningly good caster even if her current form imposed some limits on the spells she could manage.
“Step back. This is going bright,” I said, warning the people around me away as I pulled Fari’s gem clear of my shirt and held it out towards the rock pile. I didn’t have a definite idea what Fari was going to do, but I figured it would be safer to have everyone out of the area of effect no matter what it was.
I needn’t have worried of course. Given time and the right circumstances, Fari’s spell casting control is incredibly precise.
Beams of petrification stabbed out from the gem and froze a very specific set of the stones in the pile into place. Under the effect of the spell they fused together and became a new superstructure for the building. That alone guaranteed that the people trapped inside wouldn’t be killed in the next aftershock. There was still the problem of saving them from the damage they’d already endured though so once the supports were in place Fari really cut loose.
Plasma cutters are hard to look at. In consideration of my poor tender eyes, Fari slid a black overlay across my vision that blocked out 99% of the light that was coming in. That meant I was the only one who got to watch the dozens of Cold Plasma cutter flames that Fari summoned from the gem. Everyone else was blinded by the light in my hands that was brighter than the midday sun.
Under Fari’s control, the cutters lashed out like the heads of a fiery hydra and tore the rock pile apart. She used some other sort of effect, an air-inversion spell I think, to whisk away the frosty dust that she was reducing the rocks to. Both of the spells were incredible to watch in action but the thing that really blew my mind was the microscopic control of her casting. In less than a minute she’d unearthed all six people who’d been trapped in the rubble, including Darius!
There were times, and this was one of them, when I really wished Fari had a physical form so that I could hug the hell out of her.
“I regret ever doubting your awesomeness,” I said, staring in awe at the work she’d done.
“Go get Darius before the villagers’ vision clears!” Fari said.
She didn’t have to tell me twice. I sprinted up the rock pile before any of the people around me could see well enough to stop me.
I found Darius in a small cocoon of rock embedded in what had originally been the ground floor. He was laying on top of the remains of the basement and sub-basement levels but the rest of the building had almost entirely buried him. From the way he was posed, I could see that he’d felt the quake coming and had prepared for it as best as he could. That hadn’t been enough to save him completely but his shield spell had created a small, pocket of open space in the debris that rained down from the floor above. It was enough to keep him from being crushed to death and had bought me time to get to him, just as I’d hoped.
Seeing him there, eye closed and chest unmoving was a creepy sight though. I knew he wasn’t dead. He was in a “Survivor’s Trance” designed to minimize bodily needs for things like air and water while continuing to supply anima to defensive spells like the shield that had protected him. I knew that but believing it was difficult with what I was seeing.
“Come back to me.” I said and brushed my hand across his face.
I don’t know if it was my words, or the touch, but something broke the trance spell and his eyes flickered open.
“Wow, that’s not a bad way to wake up,” he said as he opened his eyes to see me.
I smiled back and brushed his hair. He looked a bit disoriented but under the circumstances I couldn’t blame him..
“You’re not in your bed. You’re under a collapsed building,” I said. “How do you feel.”
“I’m ok,” he said and then took a moment to wiggle his feet and flex his hands to verify that fact.
“Good. It looks like you got your shield cast in time. Can you get up?” I asked.
“Let’s see,” he said and lifted himself out of the rock cocoon. I helped him up onto his feet and he looked around, confusion written all over his face.
“I’ll explain later,” I said on the telepathic link that Fari set up for us. “Just follow me lead for now.”
“I must have taken a hard hit than I thought,” he said telepathically. “This doesn’t look anything like Salmon Falls.”
“It’s not,” I replied. “Salmon Falls was a lot safer than this place.”
“People were trying to bomb us in Salmon Falls,” he said.
“Yes, these people to be specific,” I said.
“Ah, I see, I’ll wait till later for that explanation then,” he said.
I looked at the crowd below us. Their vision was coming back and some of them were starting to see what Fari had accomplished.
“I need medical personnel and family members up here immediately!” I called down to them. That got the response I was hoping for, which shocked me more than anything else had since we’d landed in Salmon Falls.
As I watched the medics in the small village tend to the wounded I got a better sense of what we were dealing with. The other people who were trapped in the rubble weren’t the casters that Darius was. No one in the village except the teleportation wizard was that skilled. They were reserve troops, backline support staff and the family members that grew up around them. Just ordinary people stuck in a bad situation.
“Do you have any healing skills Guardian Watersward?” one of the medics, a woman named Illya, asked me.
“No, I’m sorry,” I said. Not only didn’t I have healing skills, I knew I probably never would. My talents lay in Void anima manipulation which was dangerous enough to use around healthy people, much less the injured. To be a healer required a very different touch than the one my calloused and rough hands were able to give.
“I know the basic Curing spells,” Darius said, “Where can I help?”
It was a smart move in terms of winning the villagers over to our side, but I could see that wasn’t why Darius was doing it. He’d grown up hating the war on Hellsreach, but he consciously wrestled with himself not to hate the people who fought it. Reaching out to them in their hour of need didn’t necessarily feel right to him, but it was what he knew he needed to do.
I found myself observing them with a different eye though. I had no reason to hate them or the war they’d fought. I was an outsider, and I was supposed to use that status to render impartial judgments on the people of Hellsreach.
Their pain and poor conditions resonated with a spot in me that had seen people in their kind of shape too often while growing up. The Sister’s of Waters Mercy had never been a rich group, and there were plenty of times they’d had to scrape to get by, but they’d always kept us housed and fed. I wasn’t sure these people had any more than that and I suspected they had to put up with less pretty often based on the fortunes of the war.
At the same time though, they’d been trapping and murdering Garjarack’s. The family I rescued definitely wasn’t the first to have fallen into their trap and if I hadn’t stopped them from bringing back the tainted supplies I was sure that a lot more Garjarack than just they would have died too.
It was my duty to stop things like that and bring the perpetrators to justice. Looking at the shattered bodies of the ones who’d been the most actively responsible for the trap, I had to wonder if the planet hadn’t enacted its own justice on them though, and whether the Garjarack would be willing to accept that too.