Starblaze and Blasterfire: Part Eight
It was all too clear that the mine's tunnels had been abandoned for lifetimes – there were drippings and scuttlings in the darkness beyond the range of their iridan lamp. Yaxal asked nervously, "Just how stable is the rock?"
Trinian said, "As long as Zaraq keeps his fireworks to himself, we'll be fine."
Bea said, "Keep that shiny wrench up, Cassius. I wouldn't want to be wandering blind in here."
She was right – there were fissures in the floor. Some were big enough that a person could fall right in, but Cassius didn't look down them to check how deep they might be. He just kept looking ahead as he jumped over the cracks.
Zaraq kept close behind Cassius and Suroxano in the front – Bea, Trinian, and Yaxal followed him, and then Zep, Jory, and Kyrival brought up the rear. Zaraq asked, "Think we can work you making shiny metal into our shadow devices? That stuff's got to keep them away. Perhaps if we –"
Then, with a grunt, Trinian tripped and fell over a rough place in the rock. Cassius heard something shatter, and his stomach twisted itself into a knot. He knelt down beside Bea, who was helping the captain get up.
His visor had shattered – the Kougra's orange eyes seemed strangely unfocused to Cassius as he helped him remove the remains of it. "Are you okay, Captain? You don't look good."
The Kougra looked down at the area around his feet, littered with the red fragments. He took a few deep breaths, then covered his eyes with his hands. "My visor's not just to make laser-fire clearer and give me a bit of night vision. I'm half-blind without it."
Jory asked, "How in Mira's name could you have served in Valka's command without being able to see?"
Trinian turned away from them. "I was a clerk."
Bea asked in shock, "What?"
Their captain's shoulders were trembling – Cassius laid a hand on one as Trinian continued, "I was a clerk. A paper-shuffler. Someone needed to file stock lists and intelligence reports. The closest I ever got to a battle before these last few days was when we barricaded the door to keep the robots out during the siege of the Space Station."
Jory's voice was cold. "So you've been lying to us all these years."
Trinian cried, "What could I have done? I got the Aurora contract through a friend. How else could I ever have earned any respect? Would you have respected a glasses-wearing desk jockey who'd never seen any action?"
Yaxal crossed his arms. "Trinian, lighten up. We didn't respect you anyway."
Cassius said, "Hey! That's not called for. Jory never told us that he was a legendary mercenary with a robotic arm and leg. Bea's never told us the truth about her past, period. And even those of us who've told the truth about where we've been – when did we ever share hopes and dreams? When did we ever rely on each other? I couldn't tell you what you do in your free time. You couldn't tell me what I do in mine. What the captain did isn't really all that much worse in the scheme of things."
Only then did he risk turning around. Suroxano was impassive. Kyrival and Zep just looked dumbfounded. Yaxal and Jory were scowling, and Zaraq twisted his hands in the corners of his jacket.
Bea knelt where she had been, her eyes wide. If Cassius hadn't known how tough she was, he would have thought that she was about to cry.
Zep said, "I think we need to be moving on. Trinian, are you okay?"
Zaraq held out a hand and helped the captain to his feet. "Here, Trinian. I'll lead you – tell you where to step, where to jump."
Trinian smiled a little sadly. "Thanks, Zaraq."
As the others turned away, Bea asked, "Cassius, do you think I'm a liar?"
Cassius had no intention of answering that question one way or the other. "You're bigger, stronger, faster, and meaner than I am. You'll pardon me for choosing silence."
Bea chuckled. "Well, you're the one with the magic shiny wrench."
Suroxano called, "Cassius! We need the light up front!" His voice echoed in the cavernous darkness of the tunnel – what could hear them down here? What else was with them down in the darkness?
Cassius hurried to take his place in the line.
Finally, they reached a metal door that seemed none the worse for wear for all the time it had spent underground. Suroxano raised his hand and knocked.
Immediately, the door shone with a blinding light, causing Cassius to fall to his knees, as he could dimly sense that the others had done. The door had to be iridan – and that meant that Ulami had to be on the other side! Cassius tried to look up – if his eyes could adjust to darkness, perhaps they could adjust to light.
It was working! He could see that the doors were opening, though their light grew no less intense, and he could see the figures of a Grundo and a Draik in the space beyond. He got to his feet. "We're friends! General Zeptimius and Sir Kyrival are with us! So if you could stop blinding everybody now, we'd be grateful, ma'am."
The light from the doors started to dim – Cassius realized with a slight shock that he didn't have to blink away afterimages the way the others obviously had to. What was happening to him? How could all these strange things happen?
A girlish voice asked, "Kyrival? Are you out there? I can hardly see a thing!"
Kyrival cried, "Xianna!" He stumbled through the doors like a blind man and caught the little royal Grundo up in a tight hug. "Xianna, I've been terrified! We've all been terrified! Marzai's been worrying himself to distraction!"
She said from the midst of Kyrival's armor, "How is that any different than normal?" Zep laughed.
Suroxano asked, "Ulami, why did you feel it necessary to withdraw here without a word? The people of your city have feared that you were dead, or worse."
Ulami – a fairly young, slender gold Draik with long red hair and an embroidered tunic – looked back into the room beyond. It was a cave, actually, made of the same grey chipped rock that filled the rest of the mine. Cassius could see that the floor was covered in strange diagrams and swirls. She said, "I needed the iridan. Its essence is all around here. The rest of it is too deep to be delved for, but I can still use its power.
"I found the diagram for the spell in an old corner of the mages' library, under a thick coat of dust. If executed correctly, it will help the city itself defend us against Jalitha. But I needed three things. I needed the iridan power, first. Then I needed a place where no one else would disturb the spell. It's a finicky one – one line out of place and it'll fizzle into nothing. And finally, I needed the ruler of Eoxan-zortha to help work the spell."
Xianna's rose-pink eyes twinkled as she stepped away from Kyrival. "That would be me." Then she added more solemnly, "We thought we could sneak off easier if we didn't tell anyone, and then we'd attract less notice. Marzai would have insisted on a guard, and then Jalitha would have thrown everything she has at us, shadows, pirates, and sorcery alike."
Ulami commented, "I'm glad you got involved, Suroxano. We'll be able to use your help."
Zep said, "But what we need most is to have you and Princess Moonstone back in the city. The people need to see you. They believe in the power of the prophecy, milady. They believe that they need you to have any hope."
Ulami said, "I serve them best here, by completing this spell. Oh – you brought another light mage! Perfect! I can give him the starter for the spell."
Cassius looked around for a second, and then realized that she was looking at him. "Ma'am, I'm sorry, I'm afraid you're mistaken. I'm no mage."
Yaxal said, "If he were a mage, he wouldn't have needed to fix all the Aurora's pipes with Mallard tape!"
Zaraq said, "Well, he did make his wrench glow."
Everyone was staring at Cassius again – it made all his black fur stand on edge. He didn't know what to do or what to say, beyond wishing fervently that he could sink into the ground or get eaten by space fungus or something, anything, to be anywhere but here and the center of attention and have the Chief Mage of Eoxan-zortha calling him a mage, too, because there was no way it could be true. Things like that didn't happen to Cassius. It would be far too much like the daydreams he had as he sat and listened to music in his room. He'd given up on life handing him anything like that long ago. Childish dreams, nothing more.
But the wrench in his hand still shone with a warm, pure light. He whispered, "Arralux," and it flared brighter. He looked up. "Is that what this is? This wrench glowing, being able to see when you made the doors light up – that means I'm a light mage?"
Suroxano nodded. "Exactly, my friend. Now, you're a good deal older than the typical beginner, but you'll be a worthwhile addition to the Mages' College in Eoxan-zortha, if you so choose. Light mages are valuable in the darkness of space."
Cassius blurted out the first thing that came to mind – he was far beyond completely lost. "I'm not old by any stretch of the mind!"
Ulami explained, "The average beginner is less than ten years old."
Cassius looked around again – the expressions on the faces of his crewmates were mingled awe and bemusement. He asked, "Do you believe this?"
Trinian shrugged. "Well, it's like Zaraq said. You turned the wrench into a flashlight. Looked magic to me."
Suroxano patted his shoulder. "You'll never be Chief Mage – you don't have that much power, or it wouldn't have slept for so long. But you'll be capable – certainly capable enough for what Eoxan-zortha needs you for now."
Around Cassius, they started discussing logistics. Cassius vaguely noted that Ulami was staying here to finish the spell and Xianna would return with them to the city. Then the Draik passed her hands over his wrench, and whispered the word to him that would trigger her spell. He was to use it when the main wave of shadows attacked, and it would allow the fighters to focus on the pirates.
But most of his mind was focused on the incredible revelation. He had magic! Magic! Something of the power of Kreludor's spaceward side – something in the iridan and the lights of Eoxan-zortha had wakened something within him that he hadn't even known was there. He was a little proud of himself – after Jory and Trinian had revealed their hidden depths, he finally had something that was his own. He had a way that he could help in the battle to come! For once, Cassius wasn't going to be the expendable one!
Then Bea whacked him in the shoulder. "Come on, magic man. We're heading back to the surface and starlight and some shadows for Jory to fight since we didn't run into any on the way here."
Ulami said, "I've felt the shifting in space – Jalitha prepares to move."
Jory laughed. "She can come! We'll be ready for her. Steelclaw's waiting!"
Trinian said, "Find me a pair of glasses, Jory, and I'll be right next to you." Bea polished her blaster, Yaxal adjusted his helmet, and Zaraq stroked his fireworks. Zep and Kyrival drew their swords, the two mages held their wands, and Xianna Moonstone pulled a long knife from the folds of her robe.
And Cassius held his iridan wrench high in the air as a beacon. "Back to the surface – we're needed!"
He was needed. For once in his life, he was really, truly needed.
To be continued...