Starblaze and Blasterfire: Part Eleven
As far as Cassius could tell, even as the tunnel narrowed, there had been no significant turn-offs. He had a feeling in his gut that the prisoners would be down deep, far from the starlight, far from hope, where Jalitha's power was strongest.
But as he kept walking, he realized that there was more than just what he was feeling. He could sense the power below, the strength that was antithetical to his own. Not to mention a good deal stronger. The iridan wrench gripped tightly in his hand almost seemed to tremble.
Now the cave's bluish light began to turn greenish, making the inside look sickly – the stalagmites and stalactites looked like the insides of some gigantic mouth. The floor was slick, and while he'd gotten a new jumpsuit, he hadn't wanted to break in new boots, and the treads on his old ones were worn down to almost nothing. He cursed himself for not accepting the new shoes when they were offered – sore feet would be nothing compared to tripping, sliding, and collapsing into a heap in front of Jalitha. He went from stalagmite to stalagmite, half-climbing as the tunnel grew steeper. He reached a fork – one path went up, the other went down. He knew without a doubt that he had to keep going down.
There were other branches, now, but still the right path was always down. How deep was he?
Then he felt a draft. There was a bigger room up ahead. He was close – he could feel the darkness lurking beyond. His stomach was so far beyond twisted that he hardly even felt nervous. What was he going to do? What could he do?
He peered around the corner of the tunnel into the wide cavern.
The far wall was lined with bars – the cells with the prisoners were down here. He could see all the men and women in the uniforms of Eoxan-zortha, either looking out or sitting back. They had no way of noticing that the one-man rescue mission was already here.
But there were more important things to worry about. In the middle of the room was a giant crystal set in a stand, black and writhing with dark lightning. Every few seconds, another shadow formed above it and was set loose, flying up to the surface in an unending parade of reinforcements. Cassius was aghast. She'd figured out how to create them?
And then, on a side wall, Bea slumped, pulling herself to her feet as a Royal Xweetok stood over her.
That was Jalitha? She was a petite, slender woman, lavender fur immaculately groomed. He could see that she was wearing sleek silken robes, and that her dark hair was streaked with purple and blue. He couldn't see her face, but he had a feeling that she would be pretty. He knew the stories. This type of sorceress always was.
Then there was a crack of magic, and Bea fell onto her back. Jalitha hissed, "I really had hoped that you'd learn."
Bea replied, face steely, "I have an idea, Miss Mumbo-Jumbo. Give me my blaster back. Let's see how high-and-mighty you are when we're on equal footing." Cassius was amazed. Here she was, flat on the floor, looking strangely fragile without her armor, and she was still able to talk back?
He had to wait. He wanted to rush out there and get Jalitha away from her now, but there would be a better time. If he waited until Bea had angered her enough, she could make a mistake out of haste. That could work...
Then, with a blast of magic, Jalitha lifted Bea up into the air. The Ixi hung there, helpless, as the sorceress said, "I wouldn't bring up blasters if I were you, Beatrice. I ought to feed you to a space fungus for that."
Bea asked, "How'd you even survive that, by the way?"
The sorceress walked back to the crystal and laid her hand on it. "This lovely thing. As long as my power is kept safe in it, I am indestructible. Undefeatable. Especially by silly mortals with blasters." She continued, "You're alone, Beatrice. Completely alone. No one is coming to rescue you. Who would care enough? I've seen your mind, Beatrice. You've never let anyone close enough to you that they could care. You're on your own. So you might as well go ahead and tell me everything that you've noticed about Eoxan-zortha's defenses. How did Ulami trigger that spell? She wasn't in the city. If you tell me, I could even be persuaded to let you live."
All the Zorthan soldiers were watching now, eyes wide and fearful.
Then, from her position in the air, Bea gave her characteristic snort. "You really think I'm going to fall for that bunch of garbage?"
Then Jalitha screeched, and Bea was flung across the room and into the opposite wall, sliding down in a heap. She moaned, and Cassius shrank back as Jalitha stalked across the room.
She did have fine features, but her eyes – her eyes! Black as midnight, black as iron, black as death. The sorceress hissed, "You're alone. Alone, you pathetic little mercenary. So you ought to tame your tongue before I silence you permanently."
Bea said weakly, "No, I'm not." She added, "They'll come for me. I know they will. Cassius will make sure of it."
In that dark cavern with shadows overhead, Cassius felt a warm glow, warm as a hearth fire on the Day of Giving. She trusted him! She believed in him! She knew that they'd come, and they had – he hadn't let her down!
Jalitha snorted. "The imbecilic janitor? Oh, don't make me laugh. What could he do? Dump Fuzzle repellent on me?"
Cassius couldn't have made up a better cue himself. He stepped out into the cave, blaster in one hand and iridan wrench in the other. "Get away from her. Now."
Jalitha's eyes narrowed, but Bea's lit up. "Cassius!"
The sorceress leaned on her twisted metal staff. "Ah, now this makes sense. A light mage, with just enough strength and little enough wit to allow himself to be part of Ulami's plans. And, of course, the sheer stupidity to walk straight up to me without the might to back himself up."
Cassius had an idea. He didn't know if it would work, but it was the best thing he could think of, remembering the strength of iridan and the opposition of light and darkness. He held up his wrench. "Arralux!"
The shadows shied away, but Jalitha only laughed. "Oh, frightening. You're even weaker than I thought! How many spells do you know? Five? Ten?"
He'd heard worse mocking. "Two. But they're the ones I need."
She saw what he was going to do an instant before he did it, but without nearly enough time to stop him. He turned and hurled the iridan into the crystal with all of his might.
It exploded with a flash of light and a shattering of glass. Cassius threw up his hands to protect his face from the remnants of the crystal flying through the air. And above it all was Jalitha's scream of rage and horror. Cassius fell to his knees, ready for Jalitha to blast him into oblivion.
Then all was silent.
Cassius opened his eyes again and looked around.
The shards of crystal lay all over the ground, glowing faintly, with a twisted lump of metal in the middle that was all that remained of the iridan wrench. The soldiers were blinking from inside their prison, trying to get the light out of their eyes.
And the only sign of Jalitha was the metal staff lying in front of Bea.
Cassius ran to her, helping her sit up. "Bea!"
She smiled at him. "I knew you'd come."
He told her, "Everyone else is outside. They were fighting shadows – I don't know whether breaking the crystal and getting rid of Jalitha would have destroyed them or not."
She said softly, "Cassius, I ought to tell you something."
He looked at her legs – it looked to him like the left one was broken. "I'll need to help you get out of here. What is it?"
She said, "I never got in any trouble with any authorities. I was never kicked out of my house. I ran away, looking for adventure. The green glades of Faerieland – they don't seem so wondrous when you've grown up there. I thought I'd find glory. But when I only found a different sort of drudgery – how could I go back? How could I admit to my parents that I was wrong? How could I risk them not forgiving me?"
Cassius realized that the other prisoners were standing behind him. They must have gotten themselves out, but he wasn't really interested in how at the moment. He told Bea, "Well, now that you're a hero of Eoxan-zortha, perhaps you'll be able to go home and look your parents in the eye."
Then he helped her up, letting her put an arm around his shoulders so she wouldn't have to put weight on her bad leg. "Come on – let's get up to the starlight."
Cassius, Bea, and the other prisoners were grabbed and hugged the moment they exited the cave – Trinian, Zaraq, Jory, Yaxal, and even Suroxano all hugged Cassius. Suroxano said, "You're a hero, son. You've saved us all."
Cassius asked, "How'd you get rid of the shadows and the pirates?" There wasn't a ship or a patch of darkness to be seen.
"I arrived just in time."
The deep, rich voice shocked Cassius into looking up. There, red eyes kind, jumpsuit twinkling, floated Lady Mira. He disentangled himself from the others and bowed quickly. "Milady!"
He looked up again just in time to see her shake her head. "No, Cassius. You do not need to bow to me. You are the one who found Jalitha and defeated her."
Bea commented – Jory was holding her up – "Kind of a silly thing to do, tying all her strength into that crystal."
Lady Mira sighed. "The descent into evil is often marked by folly. She was a student of Jennumara – a scholar of shadow creatures and darkness. I do believe that another such student caused some harm with shadows on the planet's surface in the past. I shall have to tell Fyora to handle her before her pupils cause more harm." She began to fade into the starlight. "Give Ulami and Xianna my best wishes – I will make sure that the pirates are scattered over space and prevented from organizing again. I will watch over you..."
She was gone.
The soldiers were all heading back to the ships or making other arrangements to prepare for the flight back to Eoxan-zortha – the six crewmembers of the Aurora stood overlooking the bowl valley with Suroxano. The fire mage asked, "So, now that you know a little more about who you really are, what are you going to do?"
Trinian said, "Well, the first thing I'm doing is radioing the shipping company and telling them they can have the Aurora back if they want to scrape it off the surface of Kreludor, but contract or no contract, I'm never doing another run for them. The Zorthan trading fleet needs some commanders, and Marzai said he'd see about getting me an interview with one of the bosses."
Yaxal said, "The Zorthan Air Force has asked me to be a pilot. I'm going to accept."
Jory added, "Zep wants me to help train some young men he wants to follow in the footsteps of the old wandering warriors. And whenever we get the chance, we're going to sit in front of a fire, drink coffee, and reminisce like the old men we are."
Zaraq said, "I'm going to get some more fireworks. Shame to use 'em all up like that."
Cassius asked, "Any long-term plans?"
"Figure out times when I can shoot them off without Trinian yelling at me." Cassius couldn't help but smile. As long as the Grundo got a space to tinker and some explosives, he'd be happy – and he was certain that he'd soon have more supplies than he ever dreamed that he'd possess.
Bea shrugged. "I'm going to need to heal up my leg first. Then – I don't know – find some sort of job or other. After I shot Jalitha's ship down, I'll probably be able to find someone willing to hire me for something that'll pay better and be more fun than guarding ships. Then I may take you up on that suggestion of yours, Cassius." She tried to sound casual, but her eyes shone – she had as much hope for the future as the rest of them did.
Cassius said, "I'm going to ask Ulami for lessons. Become a real mage."
Suroxano commented, "Well, you've already fulfilled a prophecy. Becoming a mage shouldn't be much more of a challenge for you."
Cassius looked at him askance. "What?"
"The prophecy! About the one who would defeat Jalitha! Don't you remember it at all? Everyone thought it referred to Princess Moonstone. But it was you! It was you the whole time, Cassius."
Cassius looked down at his hands, amazed, remembering the odd little piece of poetry. It had slipped his mind these last few days. Cutting through the endless night, shattering the void itself, throwing darkness aside... That was what he'd done, wasn't it? Breaking that crystal?
Bea commented, "You can start a business. Plumbing and prophecy fulfillment. Sure to be a success."
He laughed. "We can all do whatever we want now, can't we?"
They all laughed along with him. When Zaraq started to rub his hands together Trinian said quickly, "Well, Zaraq can only do what he wants at proper times and places under adequate supervision."
And at the woeful look on the orange Grundo's face, they all had to laugh again.