The Sisters who’d raised me had been big on trying to impress us that a life of crime and delinquency would wind us up in a hellhole for the rest of time. It was hard to get closer to what they’d described than the prison I’d let myself be led into.
They’d said we’d be surrounded by fire and brimstone, that we’d be trapped in the dark and cut off from the light of day, that we’d be beyond the reach of even the slightest hope of rescue. When it comes to making your prison inescapable, the Sisters had the right idea it turned out.
The makers of the Deep Run Containment Facility had started by creating an enormous building and warded it against every kind of escape magic they could think of. Then they buried it a thousand miles under the planet’s surface so that it was surrounded by magma. There was only one way in or out and using it required that you know the pass spell to activate the teleport device that would transport you back to the surface. It was the kind of place that people built when they were serious about not letting their prisoners escape. When we arrived I saw that there was one significant problem with the design though.
“It seems something got in here before we could.” Master Raychelle said.
The entranceway was covered in sigils. I’d seen a room like it before. It suppressed a caster’s access to their anima and made casting spells virtually impossible unless you had the required unlocking charm. The sigils were difficult to remove or destroy and didn’t mind in the slightest being covered in blood. Or other less pleasant things.
“Form up.” Sgt. Bancryths called out. The strike team that had captured us unsheathed their bolt casters and took positions in a rough circle around the teleportation arrival disk. On the upside only half of them were pointing their weapons at Master Raychelle and I.
“Deep Run Command what is your situation?” Lt. Mara called into a comm-crystal. Silence reigned for a nerve wracking moment before Master Raychelle spoke.
“They’re all dead.”
“Deep Run Command what is your situation.” Lt. Mara repeated. She scowled at Master Raychelle apparently not processing the carnage that surrounded us.
The blood and viscera that was splattered around the entranceway looked like the result of a bomb going off. The single door that led out of the room had been shredded in a way that was undeniably the result of something with claws.
I couldn’t think of anything that could tear through spell reinforced steel like it was putty but it was a big galaxy so I wasn’t too surprised. To be fair, there wasn’t a lot of room for surprise in my brain with disgust and fear fighting over who was going to make me sick first.
I’d faced off against one of the biggest, most powerful monsters in the galaxy and destroyed him. That should have made facing other monsters easier but somehow it didn’t. That might have been because I knew I couldn’t repeat the trick that I’d used to kill the Karr Khan. There weren’t cosmic class artifacts laying all over the place after all. It might also have been because killing the Karr Khan had cost me a lot. Even more than two months later I still felt the burn from channeling that much power. It got better week by week but I knew I wasn’t back up to my full strength despite being more powerful than I had been in the seventeen years leading up to learning about my abilities.
“I’ve seen this sort of thing before. Someone released a bone stealer in here.” Master Raychelle said.
“What’s a bone stealer?” I asked.
“A conjured entity. Resistant to magic and most forms of physical damage. It propagates by slaying creatures with a skeletal structure and using their bones to build copies of itself. Summoning one is illegal in the Empire and was in most of the Warlord domains as well. Its too easy for them to get out of hand.” she said.
“How do you know one is here?” Lt. Mara asked.
“I don’t know for sure, but look around you. There’s blood but there are no bodies. That’s not because the guards here survived, no one loses as much blood as we see around us and lives. It’s because something else found a use for their bodies.” Master Raychelle said.
“Why? Who would do this? And why aren’t you surprised by it?” Lt. Mara asked.
“Why? Because they wanted to kill us I imagine. Who would do such a thing? I don’t know yet. I hoped by coming here I would be able to find a clue to their identity. And as for why I am not surprised, why should I be, this is the third time today that someone has tried to kill me. I expect the trend will continue.”
“Are we staying or leaving Lieutenant?” Bancryths asked.
“Leaving.” Lt. Mara said.
“I doubt it.” Master Raychelle said.
“What?” Lt. Mara asked.
“I doubt that anyone who went to the trouble of casting a spell forbidden across the galaxy is going to allow us to escape its effects so easily.” Master Raychelle said. “I’m sure they scrambled the pass spell for exiting too.”
“We’ll see.” Lt. Mara said and held out her hand to the pale column of light that radiated off the teleportation disk. She concentrated for a moment but nothing happened.
“We’re trapped in here forever now aren’t we?” Darius asked.
“Certainly not. I wouldn’t have let you take us in here if I thought any plan our mysterious malefactor could put in place so quickly would work.” Master Raychelle said.
“Ok then share. You know all about what’s going on here. What was your plan?” Lt. Mara asked.
“Apprentice Watersward, we are currently without our magics, trapped with no ready means of escape and likely to attract the attention of creatures that it will be difficult to fight. What should be our first step?” Master Raychelle asked, looking at me.
“We need to expand our options. Probably by moving out of this room to regain our casting capabilities. Personally I’d vote for getting out of the shackles these folks have bound us with too.” I said.
“Good. And then?”
“Then we gather information. This place looks like a perfect trap but nothing’s perfect. You seem to know something about it so I’d consult with you first. If you don’t know a way out then Lt. Mara might, or failing that, exploration might turn something up.” I said.
“And the bone stealers?”
“Avoid them, unless there are still people alive in here.”
“What would that change?” she asked.
“A lot of things. They might be alive because they found a weakness in the monsters, or because they’re controlling the bone stealers. They might need our help or we might need theirs.” I said.
“And that is my plan Lieutenant. Locate any survivors, and use what I know of this facility to get us all out of here.” Master Raychelle said.
“How do you know anything about this facility? The Empire’s auditors have never been here.” Lt. Mara said.
“It’s a standard design. I’ve seen similar facilities on other worlds.” Master Raychelle said.
“And that’s how you planned to break out of here?” Lt. Mara said.
“I didn’t plan that we would stay here forever, but I wasn’t sure how we would be leaving once I had the information I needed.” Master Raychelle said. “If I might point out however, this is not the best time for an interrogation.”
“I have a facility that is probably full of dead people and you have answers. Before I march my troops in there I want to know what we’re dealing with.” Lt. Mara said. “And that includes what the real story is with you two. You’re not peace negotiators or bodyguards are you?”
“We are Guardians, not bodyguards.” Master Raychelle said. “Our remit is to defend the people of the Crystal Empire. All of them. And on that note I never said you would be marching your troops into the facility. There’s been enough death here already.”
“Then what do you think we’re going to do?” Lt. Mara asked.
“I think you’re going to keep your troops here, where you have a defensible position and choke point so that you’re not overwhelmed. I think you are also going to extend my apprentice and I a measure of trust and allow us to handle the monsters in the facility.”
“Trusting offworlders was what got this planet into trouble in the first place so, no, I don’t think I’m going to do that.” Lt. Mara said.
“Then what will you do?” Master Raychelle asked.
“With the teleporter’s pass spell scrambled this facility will be on complete lockdown. There is no way out from the inside but there is a communication crystal in the commander’s office. We’re going to proceed there and contact our surface forces. They can unlock the teleporter and extract us.”
I had to admit it didn’t sound like a bad plan. Except for the part where it was probably going to get her whole team killed.
“Lieutenant, I have a scan on something moving at the far end of the hallway behind the door. It’s not human or Gar.” Krysa, one of the Garjarack soldiers said.
“Is it heading our way?” Mara asked.
“Nope. Looks like it’s taking up an ambush position.” Krysa said.
“How smart are these things?” Mara asked.
“About as smart as a hunting cat.” Master Raychelle said.
“I don’t understand how they got in here. This room is supposed prevent any outside magic from getting into the facility.” Darius said.
“The magic was used in conjuring them. Their own powers are bent and twisted within themselves. They’re limited in how they can use anima, but they’re hard to effect with it as a result, and nearly impossible to suppress. That’s true of most conjured creatures.” Master Raychelle said.
“Do they have any weak points?” Lt. Mara asked.
“They’re fast and strong but they’re still only made of bone. Breaking the bones doesn’t destroy them but it will slow them down. Reduce the bones to dust though and the animating spirit will lose it’s hold on the material realm.” Master Raychelle explained.
“How are we set for force runes?” Lt. Mara asked.
“They’re back on the ship. Can’t bring explosive ordinance into a secure facility like this.” Bancryths said. Lt. Mara winced at that.
“Then we do this hard way.” She sighed.
The team changed their formation, staggering themselves so that only one person was moving at a time and the rest had a clear line of fire down the hall. We exited the anima suppressing room with the kind of care and precision I’d only read about in books. Part of me, I’ll admit, was kind of excited by it. That was the part that thought we might not be eaten by monsters in the next five minutes.
The lights in the facility had failed, so Lt. Mara cast a series illumination orbs the size of my fist down the corridor to see what lay ahead. That helped the soldiers but didn’t do much for me since they put Master Raychelle and I at the back of the group. Darius was stuck taking up the rear and keeping us under guard.
With the soldiers in front of me, I didn’t see the bone stealer spring forward towards an illusion that Lt. Mara had cast, but I did hear it. The clickety clack of a pile of bones rambling against each other as it struck was unnerving. Worse though was hearing its otherworldly hissing when it discovered that it had been lured out of hiding by false prey.
The soldiers didn’t need to be told what to do in the face of an enemy like that. Every bolt caster except the one that Darius was holding blasted to life. The hail of deadly fire the squad launched down the hallways connected explosively with the bone stealer, but not explosively enough to reduce it to dust.
The creature managed to dodge a few of the shots and recover at blinding speed from the rest. It was on Krysa before any of us could blink. The lizard woman had been anticipating that though I guessed (probably because she was at the front of the group) and managed to hold off the snapping tangle of teeth and shattered bones that made up the creature’s maw.
I struggled to escape the shackles I was in to help the woman, but her fellow soldiers had her covered. Bancryths and another soldier dragged the bone stealer off Krysa and pinned it to the floor, while Lt. Mara and two other soldiers stepped up and blasted the thing at point blank range.
The creature’s otherworldly hissing became an otherworldly scream as the soldiers refused to let up on their barrage. A dozen second later, they’d fire what seemed like a thousand shots into the monster and, as instructed, reduced its central mass to dust, at which point the rest of the bones collapsed into an inert pile.
“Excellent work Lieutenant. Be aware that they don’t usually hunt alone like that though.” Master Raychelle said.
“That doesn’t change the mission.” Lt. Mara said.
“No. It doesn’t.” Master Raychelle agreed. “There are survivors to search for still.”
“If we find any on the way to the commander’s office we’ll deal with them then. From what you described, I don’t think there’s going to be anyone left alive here though and I’m not risking my troops’ lives to confirm that.” Lt. Mara said.
“I never said you’d be searching for them.” Master Raychelle said.
And then she vanished.