I wasn’t supposed to hunt down the guy who’d dropped a city killing bomb on me. I’d been instructed to protect the group of people who were currently laying on the ground in front of me. That was my mission and they had wound up in a slumber induced by a magical poison. It seemed crazy to think I could hunt down the man in the red robes. With an arm and a leg out of commission, I didn’t look like I had the ability to protect myself, much less keep them safe and bring a mass murderer to justice.
In theory I didn’t need to worry about any of that. I was an apprentice Guardian. No one would blame me if I retreated. I was probably right that Master Raychelle was alive and active. If so, I could find a safe place to hide and wait till she sorted everything out. That would be the smart move. The responsible move. But it wouldn’t have been my move.
For as much as I believed that Master Raychelle was alive, I’d seen Crystal Guardians in action. I’d seen them beaten. I knew that they weren’t all powerful or even powerful enough sometimes. The truth was, I couldn’t be certain that Master Raychelle was alive and if she was, that she was in any position to fix things.
“If they’re sending in group troops, we need to get out of here.” Darius said.
“We’ll need to work out a way to transport your squad.” I said. If we left them behind, the best case result would be that they’d be used as hostages against us. Our adversary was brutal enough that they were more likely to be killed outright. One less set of witnesses to provide anyone with clues as to what happened in the Deep Run Containment facility.
“I can help with that.” Fari said. She moved the thirty foot long body of bones she controlled over to the sleeping soldiers and picked them up with gentle care.
“It seems disrespectful to be using the bones of the slaughtered like that.” Darius said, looking away from the bone stealer.
“None of the ghosts were in the transport chamber, so I don’t think they know what’s happening with their former physical parts.” Fari said.
“I don’t think they’ll mind us using what’s left of their bodies to bring down the people responsible for their murder.” I said.
“That’s probably true.” he said. He lapsed into a silence that spoke volumes about how much our recent experiences had upset him. He wasn’t going to show any of that of course. Not any more than I was. I think neither of us wanted to be the one to look like “the weak one” first.
“Do you need a lift?” Fari asked me.
“No. I can manage.” I said and tried to stand. I’d been healing my injuries as fast as my Physical anima would allow but I wasn’t particularly talented at that sort of thing so I managed to make it all of two steps before my leg gave out and I pitched into Fari’s side.
Fari caught me as I fell and lifted me gently onto a bone saddle she’d constructed on the back of the monster. She was quick and graceful enough to make it look like we’d practiced that move. Darius wasn’t fooled though.
“You should have let me apply the medical kit to those wounds.” he said.
“It would wind up drained dry like the one that Sergreant Bancryths used to fix my ankle.” I said.
“It’s more important that you be mobile than we have a working medkit.” Darius said.
“You’re assuming that neither of us will get hurt in the near future. Recent history doesn’t support you there.” I said. “Give me a little more time and I’ll be fine.”
I wasn’t sure if that was true, but I knew I had to make it happen somehow. I’d planned to drain the energy from the bone stealer’s that Fari controlled but since we needed them for transportation that wasn’t an option. I’d have a similar opportunity if Red Robes sent ground troops against us but I wasn’t sure I would take that either. It was one thing to steal the magic of a summoned creature. It was another to steal the life of person. If push came to shove it was an option, but I was haunted enough as it was, I didn’t need to add any new ghosts to my catalog.
“Where should we go?” Fari asked.
“Which side has the nearest air base to here?” I asked Darius as he climbed up onto the bone stealer’s back behind me.
“There’s a Gar base west, about twenty miles from here.” he said.
“What about the local forces? Do you have anything closer than that.” I asked.
“Yes, but we don’t have Ghost Duster bombs.” he said.
“Let’s head there anyways. I’m willing to bet that the Gar and the human forces aren’t packing them either.” I said. There were other defenses against the city killing bombs than the Void anima shield I’d cast. Military forces would have those defenses in place whether or not their opponents were using Ghost Duster bombs, which meant the primary use for such devices were against undefended civilian targets.
“We’re not going to find our culprit there.” Darius said.
“I know that.” I said.
Red Robes had been working in a luxurious room far from any front line battle field. It was a permanent room, given the in-built casting circle, and the way the bookshelves had been stocked suggested that it was part of a private residence. They were too messy to have been for ornamental display. That kind of room could have been located anywhere on the planet but there was one spot that seemed more likely than any other; White Reef, the planet’s capital and largest city.
As guesses went, it wasn’t a bad starting place. White Reef was distant but not out of spell casting range. Anyone interested in local power would gravitate towards it since White Reef was officially neutral ground between the Gar and the human forces. The Hellsreach Common Council was headquartered there. Most of the trading companies from outside the Exxion system who had set up shop to do business were there too.
The peace conference had been set to take place outside of White Reef as a show of commitment to the process. The story we’d been given was that the peace conference was on the active border between the Gar and Human controlled areas because both sides wished to affirm their willingness to abide by the decisions the negotiators reached. In practice it had made us easier targets to blow out of the sky and muddied the waters as to who was responsible.
“Your base will have the best medical care that we can get for Lieutenant Mara and the others though.” I said. Darius could only see my back, so I didn’t think he would be able to read my expression and catch the lie of omission in what I’d said.
“Having them come to us would be a lot faster.” he said.
“Not an option as long as our communication spells are jammed.” I said. “I’m not sure it would be safe for the rescue party either. Red Robes is still ahead in this game. If he wants us isolated out here, I’d have to imagine that he’s got pieces left to play to insure that.”
“Then how are we going to get out here? We can’t jump at every shadow we see.” Darius said.
“Jump at? No. Jump into? Fari, are you still linked into my senses?” I asked.
“Yes. Do you need me to disconnect?” she asked.
“No, stay linked in please. You’ll need it to see where we’re going.” I said and cloaked us in Void anima again.
Darius flailed forward and grabbed my shoulders. I felt electricity tingle down my arms and legs. Being hit, punched and even stabbed were familiar experiences but being touched felt alien and I shivered in response.
“A little warning of that would be appreciated.” he said, pulling his hands away.
“Sorry.” I said. “Let’s get moving.”
Fari set the bone stealer into motion and I had to grab onto an exposed rib with my good arm to keep from falling out of the saddle. On any other sort of beast that wouldn’t have been enough. My leg was partially mended but the jostling and shocks of a horseback ride would have left me in agony and reopened the wound. Under Fari’s control, the giant bone stealer didn’t move like a horse though. It didn’t bounce and I felt no impacts. Instead, it flowed like water across the land, a hundred legs cushioning each step as it raced forward into the new boundary of the forest that marked the edge of the Ghost Duster bombs area of effect.
“Asking if you’re keeping me in the dark about anything would be kind of foolish at the moment wouldn’t it?” Darius said.
“You can trust that I’m clever enough to figure out what you mean.” I told him.
“I can trust you?” he asked.
“Well, between the two of us, I’m not the one who arrested the other at the point of an anima blade and then called in a squad of backup.” I said.
“You’re saying I should have called in two squads right?” he said. His tone made me smile. Both of us were trying to cope with what we’d seen and what we knew lay before us. Humor helped.
“I’m saying you should have called them all in. We could have gotten done with this sooner rather than later that way.” I said.
“Then I’d have missed this lovely ride in the wherever we are.” he said.
“Better enjoy it while you can then. Fari’s making good time.” I said. I kind of hoped he’d put his hands on my shoulders again. Or at least my good one. It wasn’t the time or the place for that, so I held off on suggesting it openly. Later though, if there was a later and if we hadn’t been forced to kill each other, I told myself I’d see about making my intentions clearer to Darius.
“I do think you should give up on the peace process.” he said without preamble. “We’re not at a point where that’s going to help anyone.”
“I know.” I said. “There’s a lot more going on here than what we thought there was. That doesn’t mean we’re going to give up though.”
“You can’t just come in and fix things. It’s not that simple.” Darius said.
“I know that too. And Master Raychelle does too. We’re not here to fix things though. We’re here to make sure that you, all of you, fix things.” I said.
“But no one wants things fixed. Not with the way they are now.” he said.
“The multiple murder attempts kind of drove that point home.” I said.
“That’s not us though. You know that right?” Darius asked. It sounded like he wanted to convince himself as much as me.
“I believe it’s not you.” I said, reaching back and resting my hand on his. “I also know that the people we’re fighting against, the one’s who have profited off this conflict, they’re clever enough to hide themselves somewhere that no one has noticed or been able to do anything about for twenty years. They could be in your organization just as easily as they could be in the off worlders armies and you wouldn’t know.”
“We’re the ones who are suffering in this conflict though.” he said, and again it sounded like he was wanted to convince himself as much as he was trying to argue with me.
He sighed and continued.
“But you have a point. Even on our side, there are people who are doing ok. People on the Council.” he said. The last bit was quieter. It hurt him to say it, but I couldn’t tell why.
“That’s why we’re here.” I said. “We can’t fix your problems, but we can make sure that the people who don’t have a voice are given one. You’ve said no one here wants peace, but that doesn’t fit with the people I’ve known.”
“Humans? Gars? I used to live in a big city. We had all kinds of species who lived there.” I said. “I was in one of the ‘bad sections’, so we had more non-humans than average. The thing was though, there weren’t ‘bad people’ living there. Most of them didn’t want anything more than to just get on with their lives and not be bothered. All it took was a few idiots, a few people of a few different species to decide they hated each other, and everyone thought the same was true for the rest of us.”
“I don’t know that’s something you can fight though.” Darius said.
“I don’t know that it’s something you can afford not to fight.” I said.
“I can see why the Crystal Guardians recruited you.” Darius said.
“Ah, it wasn’t for that. I think they were afraid what I’d do if they left me alone.” I said. It was a joke, but I meant every word of it. I had an image of what a Crystal Guardian should be and it wasn’t me. Or it wasn’t me yet. If they’d left me to make my own way in the galaxy, I think I could have gotten by, but I would have fumbled around a lot more and I’d seen what happened when I lost control of my powers.
“Don’t look now, but I think your Master kind of left you alone here didn’t she?” Darius asked.
“Am I talking to myself now?” I asked.
“I thought I could trust you to know what I mean?” he said.
“I do. I’m just rejecting your definition of alone.” I said.
“We’re less alone than you might think.” Fari said.
“How close are we to the Hellsreach forces camp?” I asked.
“About two hundred yards.” Fari said.
“One of the local patrols has found us?” Darius asked.
“Not yet.” Fari said.
“What are you going to do?” Darius asked me.
“Drop the invisibility shield and let them arrest me again.” I told him.
“I don’t know if that’s a good idea.” he said. “Let me take the squad in. You and Fari can stay free that way.”
It was a solid plan. A good idea. Unfortunately it wasn’t the idea I had in mind.
“Do you trust me?” I asked.
“You’ve saved me from monsters at least three times so far.” he said.
“Good.” I said and dispelled the cloak of invisibility we were hidden under.