I woke up locked in a holding cell. Shackles bound my hands and feet to a wooden cot. No blanket covered me and no pillow supported my head. It wasn’t exactly the way I’d planned for things to go but I could say that about most of my life.
“Good, it looks like you’re awake.” a man in heavy combat armor said. He sat on a chair beside the cot. Beside him stood another soldier. Both of them wore the same insignia that Darius had, which meant they were with the Hellsreach Common Council forces that I’d “allowed” to arrest me.
I’d planned to turn myself over to them peacefully. Given the kind of danger a skilled anima caster represents though I couldn’t blame them for leading with stun spells and asking questions later. That was what stun spells were designed for after all.
“Please state your name, rank and affiliated organization.” the man said. His words were as crisp as his haircut but there wasn’t a fire of urgency behind them. I was a prisoner. He’d dealt with plenty of prisoners. If I was exceptional those exceptions would be dealt with by someone above his pay grade and it wouldn’t be his problem to deal with it.
I looked at him, and the soldier next to him and the guards on the other side of the prison bars. The three of them who weren’t speaking were armed and had their weapons in hand. I might not be special in their eyes but they could tell that I was dangerous.
“Are these guys who they appear to be?” I asked Fari on the mental link she’d kept open.
“Yes. They’re with Darius’ faction. They brought you in and had a cleric look you over before releasing the sleep spell.” she said.
“Where’s your amulet at?” I asked.
“They brought me to the armory. It seems to be a well defended spot. I’m in a vault on the basement level in a building across the compound from where they have you.” she said.
“What happened to Darius?” I asked.
“They stunned him too. Once they identified him as one of theirs they woke him up and began debriefing him.” she said.
“What about Lt. Mara and the rest of her squad.” I asked.
“They’re in a quarantine tent near the base’s hospital.” she said.
“Were they able to wake the squad up? Did they even try?” I asked.
“Yes and yes. Lt. Mara is being debriefed now too.” Fari said.
“That part worked at least then” I said.
“I repeat.” the man said. “Please state your name, rank and affiliated organization.”
“Mel Watersward. Crystal Guardian, Initiate Class. Ambassador for Her Imperial Majesty the Crystal Empress.” I said. It felt strange giving that kind of answer. Like the titles were a form of armor that I wore.
“Well Miss Watersward…” the man began to say before I cut him off.
“Guardian Watersward. The official form of address is ‘Guardian’, even for Initiates. You should review your diplomatic protocols Major Nive.”
Fari had filled me in on his name and it was fun to see his eyebrows shoot up when he heard that I knew more about him than I should.
“You make an extraordinary claim Miss Watersward.” he said. He didn’t let his anger or surprise show in his voice, but rejecting my proper title was as good as a slap in the face. The hand and foot shackles weren’t winning him any diplomatic points either though so I let it slide.
“I did what you asked. I stated my name, rank and affiliation. Now that you know those, Major Nive, you are required to release me.” I felt a rush in making demands like that and knowing that I was right to do so. A part of me was terrified at the situation though. Strapped to a cot and surrounded by unfriendly guys with weapons? I’d spent a good portion of my life fighting to avoid being in that position or any position like it. The old me that lingered in the back of my mind screamed out in rage and fear at my failure to stay free. She was drowned out though by an ocean of confidence. I could take everyone in the room and anyone else they could throw at me.
Under normal circumstances that kind of thinking would have been pure insanity, but I was so drunk on power that in this case it might have been an accurate assessment of the situation.
The troops who’d apprehended us had found only Darius and I waiting for them in the clearing. They’d been right to be concerned at the threat they were facing but they’d underestimated me anyways. I’d absorbed the power from the giant bone stealer before they arrived. That had freed Fari of the need to keep control of it and allowed me to finish healing the injuries I’d sustained. It had also left me with so much anima at my disposal that I’d had to shunt most of it off to Fari to hold onto for me.
Even with the stolen anima well out of reach, I could feel it waiting at the other end of mental link Fari had setup. That well of strength was comforting but what I could do with it scared me.
The first time I’d fought with anima, my power had overwhelmed me. I’d been badly injured and I’d thought my Void anima had taken on a life of its own. Controlling me and making me kill. In hindsight, I could see that I’d been lost in the rush of the power and the shock of a mortal injury. I’d come back to myself, but in a sense I’d never left myself either. It had been my own power not anything external that had pushed me over the edge. The anima that Fari held for me was drawn from dozens of people who’d been murdered in the Deep Run Facility. With the spells ensnaring the power to their killers broken, their ghosts would be able to rest peacefully but the power itself still carried a heavy and intoxicating weight to it. Fari could shield my mind from some of the external influence the anima could exert but she couldn’t change the parts of me that might react to it in an improper manner.
“I’m afraid that before we can release you, we will have to verify your identity through official channels and document your activities since arriving on the surface of the planet.” Major Nive said.
“You could have verified my identity with a simple Clairvoyant spell to contact the Imperial embassy. Why are you still holding me?” I asked.
It was a pointless question. I knew why they had me locked down – I represented a change that no one on Darius’ side wanted to happen. Major Nive could have been working for Red Robe’s faction too, but I had to guess against that.
Red Robe’s wanted me dead. If he or his agents had me unconscious and chained down then they’d do their best to make sure I never woke up.
“We’ve had intermittent communication delays, so we are sending the information by a reliable courier.” Nive said.
“And how long will the courier take?” I asked.
“That depends on how long the Imperial Embassy keeps her waiting.” he said. “The last shuttle to the orbital stations has already left for the day, so you will be detained here until tomorrow at the earliest.”
“Under what charges?” I asked.
“Mass Homicide. Also Forbidden Summoning, Destruction of Governmental Property and Littering.” Major Nive said.
“Littering?” I asked.
“Yes, your companion indicated that you were at fault for the charnel pile of bones where you were discovered.” he said.
“What’s the fine for littering?” I asked.
“Community service and a fine.” Nive responded.
“And for Mass Homicide?”
“Death, or incarceration in the Deep Run Containment facility.” he said.
“I can see a problem you’re going to have with that.” I said.
“Yes. We are aware of the status of the Deep Run facility.” he said.
“That would be the Destruction of Governmental Property charge then I take it?” I asked.
“You’re a bright girl Miss Watersward. You should put that intelligence to work and figure out that cooperating with us is the only chance you have at this juncture.” Niva said.
“Are you under the impression that I would be here at all if I wasn’t cooperating with you?” I asked.
“I imagine you want me to think that.” he said. “The problem is you can’t trade on the Guardian’s reputation with me. I’ve served with them. I know the kind of things they can do. They’re talented but they’re only people. If I shoot you now, we both know you’ll be dead, the same as anyone else.”
Depending on what he short me with, that could be horribly true or laughably wrong. I didn’t see the need to point out either case to him though.
“So you’re asking me to sit here, quietly, like a good little prisoner, while you sort of what your going to do with me?” I asked.
“No. I’m telling you that you’re going to sit there quietly, like a good little prisoner while my chain of command sorts out what we’re going to do about you. That’s going to happen one way or the other. The option I’m giving you is whether you want to remain conscious, or whether you’d prefer we stun you again and leave you asleep for the next several days?”
I smiled at him. I meant it to be reassuring. Or at least I think I did. From his reaction and the reaction of the guards with him, I think it wound up looking more predatory than I’d intended.
The last time they’d stunned me, I’d known there was danger coming and suppressed by natural reactions. I hadn’t wanted to scare them and for that thought I’d eaten a stun bolt that would have left me with a splitting headache if I hadn’t had anima to spare to wash away the pain. Since I was paying attention to my defenses this time I was eager to have them shoot me again.
‘More power’, a greedy voice inside me said, as though absorbing a few stun bolts would be noticeable compared to the anima that Fari was holding onto for me.
I stomped that voice down and forced my face into a neutral position. The didn’t settle the guards down but Major Nive was able to continue on in a professional manner.
“Normally you would be given legal counsel to speak to about this. Since we have no staff on the premises qualified to handle a case like yours, I am also to instruct you that anything you say or do from this point forward is admissible as evidence in the case against you.” Nives said.
“That sounds familiar.” I said. Even though my homeworld had been outside the borders of the Crystal Empire, it had adopted a lot of the Empire’s conventions, including its legal system. The concept of “anything you tell us, we will use to punish you” came up in a ton of the holo-vids that I’d seen, usually right before the watch commander tricked the suspect into opening his mouth and confessing to everything.
“Good. The next food period is in four hours. Arrangements will be made to provide you with a meal at that time.” Nives said and rose from his chair to leave.
Unlike in the holo-vids, he had no interest in coercing a confession from me because he didn’t care if I was guilty or not. He just wanted to buy time for his superiors to capitalize on having an apprentice Guardian as a hostage.
I wasn’t opposed to that idea in theory. Despite how they’d treated me, I still viewed the Hellsreach natives as the underdogs in the battle for their planet. I could have done without the whole “imprisoned in chains” thing, but even that was something I had to grudgingly admit made sense. They couldn’t afford a fancy anima suppression room and without that they had to be careful with any experienced anima caster they captured. The heavy armor they wore let them fight leagues above their own natural process but full scale anima battle was always expensive, even when everyone survived it.
If this had been a normal situation therefore I might have done what the Major said and waited for the official channels to sort out the mess. I knew I was in the right and I knew that my side had the power to ensure a reasonable outcome prevailed.
But this wasn’t a normal situation. Red Robes had a plan in motion that he had killed hundreds of people to safeguard. He taken on not just two Crystal Guardians but the inevitable might of the Empire that would follow us. Whatever he was working on was big to be worth attracting attention on a galactic scale.
That didn’t leave me with the luxury of letting things sort themselves out. Fortunately it also didn’t leave Red Robes with the luxury of leaving me alive. He had to make a move, which meant in some small way, he was predictable.
It was the middle of the night when guard shift changed over. That’s when the assassin’s came for me.