Sometimes it is extremely useful to have wings. Like, for example, when a building is collapsing on you.
With the bone stealer out of sight through the door above us, I couldn’t see what had happened to the hostages it had taken, and with the ceiling plummeting at us like a river of boulders I wasn’t in a position to go find out either.
I’d like to say that I reacted calmly and thought my way clear of the situation. I’d like to but unfortunately there was a witness who could testify otherwise.
Darius was falling with me and the expression on his face was a mirror of the shock I felt. I had one advantage though. This was the second time I’d been pitched into free fall in less than half a day. Given how well the first time went that didn’t do much to make me feel better though.
What did make me feel better was that I was still wearing the flight pack that Master Raychelle had given me before we left on our insane mission, and it had been able to recharge since the last time I used it. The stairwell wasn’t quite wide enough for me to fully extend the wings and I didn’t actually want to slow my fall (since that would have let the collapsing ceiling catch up to us), but I was able to direct my fall and latch on to Darius.
“Ahhh!” he screamed in my ear. I didn’t blame him in the slightest. I barely had time to look down and see how high up we were before the ground was an arm’s length away.
I flared the wings out and pulled us into an agonizingly sharp turn through the door at the bottom of the stairwell. It had been smashed open and widened by the bone stealer that had crashed through it . The anima wings clipped the remains of the doorframe and shattered on it, sending the two of us tumbling across the long room.
We lay there, dazed and tangled up, against the far wall for what felt like an hour but was probably closer to a handful of seconds.
“Are you ok? That didn’t look fun.” Fari said, appearing beside me again.
“Ah! Who the hell is that?” Darius yelled, and scrambled away from both Fari and I.
That was an unexpected reaction for a variety of reasons, especially one in particular
“You can see me?” Fari asked.
“Of course I can see you! You’re glowing like a search light!” Darius said.
“Oh, I’m sorry. Give me one second.” Fari said. Her ghostly form went a lot more ghostly to my eyes, the brilliant blue light fading away to a pale white glow. That seemed to help Darius regain his composure.
“I’ll ask again, who might you be, Miss Ghost?”
“She’s not a ghost.” I told him. “She’s my friend.”
“My name is Fari.” she said.
“A pleasure to meet you, Miss Fari. Now would either of you be able to tell me what’s going on here and what that thing was?”
“It was a bone stealer, right?” I asked Fari.
“Yes, but it was something more too.” she said.
“Why was it so big?” Darius asked.
“It wasn’t.” Fari said. “Or maybe it would be better to say that they can get a lot larger than that, if they have the resources to draw on.”
“That’s wonderful. What did it do with my squad?”
“Yeah, you said it shouldn’t have been able to web them up like it did. What did you mean?” I asked.
“Just that. That’s not a power that bone stealer’s have. A true sapient species like a human or a Garjarak can learn to shape their anima in a wide variety of different ways. Bone stealer’s can’t. The ways they can use anima are pre-built into them. And they can’t learn. There’s really no ‘them’ in there at all. It’s almost better to think of them as machines, like a golem, but with a more specific focus.” Fari said.
“So then how did they do it?” I asked.
“I don’t think they did. I think someone else was using that bone stealer. Casting spells through it.” Fair said.
“Why? Or how? Or I guess both.” Darius said.
“Why do I think that? Because those threads the bone stealer wrapped Lt. Mara and the others in were phantasmal conjurings. It’s same kind of magic that’s used to summon the bone stealers themselves. They’re not capable of casting that kind of spell, or almost any kind of spell in fact.” Fari said.
“What about the ‘how’? I thought this place was cut-off from outside casters?” I asked.
“It seemed to be. When you were in the suppression room, I couldn’t manifest like this. I’m having to put extra force into the effect even here in fact.” Fari said.
“And that’s why he can see you now?” I asked.
“Maybe.” she said.
“Are you very gifted in Mental castings?” she asked Darius.
“Yeah. Sort of. It’s my second best discipline. Is that why I’m about to see you?” he asked.
“Probably. I hadn’t realized you were that gifted, or that I’d need to put out as much anima as I am to manifest here. You’d missed me before so I thought it would be safe to appear again. You must have been able to pick up on my appearance casting this time because you were so close to it.” she said.
“So close to it?” Darius asked.
“Yeah, you two were practically wrapped around each other.” Fari said.
Darius and I both looked at each other and then looked away. I hadn’t thought of it due to the imminent fear of dying but I had basically hugged him tight and wrapped myself around him. That shouldn’t have been particularly embarrassing. I’d done the same to plenty of people. It was just that with most of them I’d been wrestling them into unconsciousness at the time. Darius, I was finally noticing, was kind of cute when there wasn’t a glowing anima blade between us.
Under the circumstances, though that was not at all where my thoughts needed to be going.
So of course that’s exactly where they went.
Because my brain hates me.
“So, you’ve been here all along? Are you a Crystal Guardian too?” Darius asked. He had a bit of a blush too I thought, but I only glanced at him so it might have been wishful thinking.
“No, I just like tagging along with Mel.” Fari said.
“Right into deep dark prisons filled with monsters.” I said, looking around at the room we’d landed in. It was basically a triple width hallway. The wall that we’d crashed in to was on the far end of the room from the door that we’d flown out of. There were doors to the left and right all along the corridor with heaps of ruined equipment in front of each of them.
“I’ve spent a lot of times in places like this.” Fari said.
Darius titled his head and examined her more closely.
“She’s older that she looks.” I told him.
“A lot older.” Fari confirmed.
Darius started to question that but apparently thought the better of it and put his hand down.
“We can’t go back for Lt. Mara and the others.” I said, pointing at the stairwell door. It was filled with the debris that had crashed down from above.
“We don’t even know if they’re still alive.” Darius said.
“They are. I can hear what’s going on around them.” Fari said.
“How?” Darius asked.
“You’re still linked in to their senses?” I asked.
“Most of them. Lt. Mara and Sgt. Bancryths have some training in mind shielding. I didn’t try to include them because I think they would have noticed.” Fari said.
“What are you talking about?” Darius asked.
“Fari linked into the squad’s eyes and ears to act as an early warning system in case something went wrong.” I said.
“The only problem was when something did go wrong, it went wrong too fast and nearby for me to be of much help.” she said.
“If you know that they’re alive, that’s plenty of help.” Darius said.
“Yeah, but they shouldn’t be. Bone stealers don’t take hostages like that.” Fari said.
“That’s more support for the idea that there’s someone directly controlling them.” I said.
“What are we up against here?” Darius asked.
“More ‘who are we up against’?” I said. “This has to be someone local.”
“That’s ridiculous. I know you aren’t happy with us for arresting you but, like I explained, we had a good reason. We don’t want the Empire to force a peace accord down our throats. If you do we’ll wind up stuck with the off worlders here permanently. And, if it comes to that, they’ll start murdering us rather than each other. That, however, doesn’t mean that we’d wipe out our own prison facility. We’re not monsters and we’re not stupid. We just want to live our damn lives!” Darius said. He grew more heated and passionate with each word. That was bad because it brought out the bullheadedness in me.
I felt the urge to smack him upside his cute little head rising with my anger but, as Master Raychelle had suggested, I gave him ten seconds to stop being an idiot before I hauled off and hit him.
“I think what Mel means is that whoever is behind this had to know of this place, and know enough about it to be able to get a summoned creature like a bone stealer into it.” Fari said. She looked at me and smiled. With her mental anima skills, she knew exactly what I was thinking, and what I was holding myself back from doing.
“It could still be an offworlder.” Darius insisted, though Fari’s points had taken some of the heat out of his words.
“By your definition, it could be.” I said with forced calm. “But the point is its someone or a group of someones who have been here awhile and have connections and ties that are keeping them ahead of us.”
“The question we need to figure out is: what are they trying to gain here?” Fari said.
“I think there are some questions we need to work out sooner than that though.” I said. “Like how we’re going to get out of here.”
“Maybe check in with Master Raychelle?” Fari suggested.
I shook my head and wondered if I’d landed on it harder than I’d thought. Calling her should have been the first thing that I did.
“Master Raychelle! Are you still there?” I asked on the telepathic link.
Once again there was no reply though. This time however I felt like there was something in between us. Some blockage that was preventing the call from going through.
“I can’t reach her again.” I said. I tried to hide the sense of dread that provoked. Anything, or anyone that could cut me off from Master Raychelle like that, could probably do all kinds of unpleasant things too. Master Raychelle could probably survive it. She had enough experience that I felt safe in assuming that she could survive more or less anything that got thrown at her on this planet. I think she felt the same way about me, and if so was basing that on what I’d managed to do to get into the Crystal Guardians. The problem was that I wasn’t the one who’d done most of the work. At the end it had been me, two real Crystal Guardians, two people trained to about the same level as a Crystal Guardian and around ten million other people all pitching in together. On my own I just tended to get kind of beat up.
“Miss Fari, what is the bone stealer doing with my squad?” Darius asked.
“I’m only catching glimpses of it, but it’s brought them back the entrance portal and I think it’s webbing them in place over it.” she said.
“Why would it do that?” Darius wondered.
“It’s setting a trap.” I said. “The entrance is the one place it could be programmed to know that we’d have to head to eventually.”
“What’s the point of a trap there though?” Darius asked.
“It depends what it wants. If its placing them over the teleport circle though, I would guess it doesn’t want us to leave.” I said.