Helt: Ascendant Echelon

The Temple of the Great Lion

Sain

As soon as we arrived in Seid I was pulled underneath the city. When my eyes adjusted to the darkness I saw that Elysia and the rest of my group were nowhere to be found. But I immediately noticed Brace’s labored breathing somewhere to my left. I moved over to him and found his entire torso bisected by a massive laceration that had been partially healed. It was a miracle he hadn’t been eviscerated. Still, from the slight gurgle I heard in each breath I suspected that there was still blood in his lungs. I placed my bag under his neck to ease his breathing and then went to work on his chest. I twisted the old shirt I’d kept since the encounter with the bladebiter into a long trauma pad and laid it across the wound. Most of the bleeding had stopped—whoever had worked on him already had definitely known what they were doing—but the thin layer of new flesh was brittle and cracking in places, and from the massive bruising extending out from the wound I concluded that several ribs as well as the sternum and one clavicle were fractured.

I used my length of rope to bind everything up, and then I put my hands against his barrel chest and began to let the healing energy pulse through me and into him. The raw flesh began stitching together more completely, and its normal color slowly returned. After just a few minutes, Brace’s breathing steadied and he regained consciousness. Before I could try to stop him he sat up and said he was ready to go. I was amazed at his resilience. I discarded the trauma pad—the wound now looked several weeks old, but it will definitely leave a scar worthy of legend—and returned my rope to my bag.

We moved out of the dark cell-like room into a narrow stone corridor. After several minutes of searching, we found Adrianna, Seth, and Auric. A little while later, we found everyone else and made our way to the entrance of the temple. The corridors tried my patience, and I felt wholly useless: a profound change from my earlier experiences in Cierre. My suggestions didn’t carry much weight, so I contented myself to following along quietly.

Eventually, we reached a round room lined with mirrors. Everyone was passing from one to another in no apparent system. I extracted myself from the disorder and, after trying a few unsuccessful ideas of my own, sat on the floor and cleared my mind. The puzzle’s answer was in front of me, I knew I just had to open my eyes to it. I stayed immobile for several minutes with my eyes closed, and when I finally opened them I noticed something different. Unlike the evenly spaced stone blocks of the rest of the complex, the paving stones here were joined in a seemingly random assortment. Convergence lines spider-webbed this way and that.

I stood slowly, following the direction of one of the lines. Unlike the others, it led in an unbroken course from the entry mirror (which the others had wisely marked with an arrow) to a mirror on the other side of the room. The rest of the group was still trying different theories, so I went myself and followed the line through the opposing mirror.

It worked. I found myself outside once again in a square balcony extending around the circumference of the next room, blocked off from it by thick glass. The glass was, unfortunately, unbreakable. My frustration grew as the rest of the group appeared within the lower room and I had no way of helping. Auric and Runt appeared along the balcony with me. That’s when I heard the demons. “Stay here,” I told Runt, “And call for me if they get the doors open. I’m going to hold off the demons.” Finally, I could be really useful.

I descended the staircase that led into the main hallway we’d started in. After a few moments, the monstrous creatures rounded the corner and spotted me. I drew Shadowsong’s blade and held it loosely at my side. The demons in the hallway visibly shuddered at the sight of it, and I allowed a smile to play across my lips. Eventually, their fear of their master must have prompted them to action, and they charged. I stepped forward and began the work of death among them.

* * *

When the group got the door open, we must have all been pulled inside separately. I found myself in a magnificent cathedral-sized hall. Tapestries woven with golden thread and adorned with precious gems and dragonstones lined the walls, as did decorative statuettes of gold, silver, and pure white marble. These, too, were inset with dragonstones of every color. Dominating the hall was a colossal statue of a golden dragon. Somehow, despite being stationary, the dragon had to be alive. It watched me pensively, its eyes peering straight through me. I cleaned Shadowsong’s blade of demon blood and sheathed it, and then I stepped through the entrance.

I immediately felt the profound reverence of the place. All was still and silent. Every corner of the hall seemed to emanate its own pure white light. As I walked past the head of the great dragon, I saw the tall golden throne upon which sat the White Lady. I took a few steps forward and then dropped to one knee. “Milady, Teonas,” I said, head bowed.

“Rise, Sain Shabreguard,” she said with a gentle smile. “You’ve earned the right to stand in my presence, Guardian.”

I thanked her, and stood. She asked of my plans, and I explained that I intended to make my way to aid in the defense of Rhunion from Dresden’s army. To this venture she gave her blessing. She then counseled me with me and answered my questions. The nature of our conversation should not be shared at this time, but to aid me in my long-term quest she assigned The Keeper, Addramalechion. “You quest for many of the same things as did Rethan Lightbringer,” said Teonas, her eyes closed and her face thoughtful. “And if you continue in your course you will be forced to make many of the difficult decisions he did, Shabreguard. Think long before making them. Consider those you love. Some…may not be able to come with you. Some may. But you will have to fight for it. Some of the actions you propose are beyond even me. Be wise.”

With that, the white lady stood, her dress flowing around her, and turned away. She took one step and faded into white glow of the great hall. Addramalechion appeared beside me and suggested that we commence in our first lesson.

* * *

I exited the temple through a long narrow tunnel. Unlike those that we’d gone through to reach the temple, this one was straight and clean. The tunnel finally terminated at a small hatch over my head, which I lifted and climbed out of.

I found myself on the grassy shore of a small stream. To my left was a white gazebo, and inside was a young Altarin girl who seemed to be gazing sadly into the water. I knew that I still had to be close to Seid, so I was very surprised to see anyone around. I walked closer to her, hoping to find out who she was, but I was distracted by a sudden dull hum.

I recognized the sound as that of zenem being activated. I looked to find the source just as a rift opened up behind the gazebo and two uniformed men stepped out. They didn’t seem to notice me, and were training their pistols on the girl in the gazebo. I acted by sending a broad sheet of ice that struck them both across the chest. Their shots went wild, burying themselves in the wood of the gazebo, and both men were knocked cold. Unfortunately, one had been holding a knockout grenade in his other hand, and before I had time to react it struck the ground and went off. The sound was deafening and the flash burned my vision white. I sunk to my knees, and the white glare quickly darkened to still and silent black.

* * *

The first thing I felt was cold. And then I felt a total absence of any magical energy. Consciousness returned slowly. After a few minutes I realized I was lying on a rough stone floor. The stone and the air felt damp and smelled briny. I knew Seid was nowhere close to the coast, and I felt the sinking realization that I’d been taken through the portal to whatever was on the other side. I listened for a few more moments and heard nothing except the shallow breathing of someone close by. The Altarin? I opened my eyes and saw stout iron bars in front of me. The bars were buried directly into the stone floor of what seemed to be a coastal cave, and it looked like they had been very recently placed. It was immediately obvious that there was no door to the cell: whoever had captured us had made this prison especially for us, and they had no intention of releasing us.

I moved my head and saw the Altarin lying against the cave wall in an adjacent cell. After getting to my feet I realized I was only wearing a pair of cotton shorts. My other gear was nowhere to be seen. The Altarin was similarly clothed. My movements caused her to stir and then look at me with bleary eyes.

“What are you doing?” she asked.

“Finding a way out. What’s your name?”

“Who…who are you?”

“I asked you first,” I said offhand, searching around the cell for any clues to our location or other useful information. It quickly became obvious that the walls were frequently submerged: we were in a tidal cave.

She looked at me quizzically and rubbed her head. “No…you didn’t.”

I glanced over to her and smiled. “My name is, Sain.” I continued to look around. “And you are?” I found a number of small jagged rocks that I hoped might prove useful.

“Um. Well, don’t laugh. My mother wanted a son.”

“I really don’t think it will bother me. I once knew an Altarin princess who called herself Blake.”

She frowned, and then must have decided not to ask. “I’m Cor’Alterra. My friends call me Coral. I know, I know. So Altarin, right?”

“I think it’s an excellent name. Cor’Alterra. Soldier…of the Sea? Or…”

She looked shocked. “How do you—”

We were interrupted by footsteps. The occasional splash told me that there was either standing water (unlikely given the slope of the passage) or the tide was coming in. I stepped up to the bars to await the arrival of our keeper.

The man that appeared was of stocky build, and he wore the bored, irritated expression of someone who couldn’t decide what to eat next. But most notable was his uniform, which bore the acronym UFID: United Forces Infantry Division. I was in my time, but something was very wrong. This behavior violated every regulation on prisoners of war that had ever been drilled into me as a cadet.

“So you’re awake are you?” He was sneering at Coral. “Rebel trash. You’ll fetch a good reward. And just so you know, they said nothing about you being alive.” So they were bounty hunters, then. Probably contracted by the division and granted uniforms to permit free movement through U.F. controlled space. But this still didn’t add up to equal the United Forces I had served six long years in. “And you,” said the man. “Who the hell are you?”

I ignored him and moved towards the bars. “Who hired you?”

“Heh. Aren’t you curious. Who hired us is our business. And so are you, as it turns out. So answer the question!” For a moment it looked as if he would strike at me with the short club he carried, but something must have changed his mind. Pity, I thought.

“You’re violating four statutes of the United Forces wartime policy, not to mention five more from the general protocol. Who is your C.O.?”

The man hesitated for a moment, but his sneer quickly returned. “You’re fooling yourself if you think the U.F. is on your side. And God knows how you even know about the U.F., considering that uncivilized scab of a continent we pulled you from. Unless…”

I gripped the bars and the man backed away a few steps before he could finish his thought. “Listen to me, maggot. Go fetch your commanding officer.”

The man finally drew his gun and stepped forward. Now, just another step…

“I think you’re forgetting what side of the bars you’re on. Lucky for you I’ve got the good manners to let the tide kill you instead of shooting you myself!”

A feminine laugh echoed through the cave from further down the passage. “Your manners would disgust a slug, Jeralt Grenbaugh.” A young woman stepped into view and looked at me. “Hmm. The shorts were a good choice.”

The man turned on her. “Look, you.”

“Leave, Jeralt!” Her shout seemed to pulse through the air. Jeralt holstered his weapon with a grimace and left the cave. “Now, where were we,” said the woman. “You wanted to see me?”

“You’re the C.O.?”

“Well, I am as far as I’m concerned. I’m the Syker,” she said with a grin. “These morons wouldn’t dare screw with me. And neither should you, Mister…?”

“Sain. And you are?”

“Courtney! See how good it is to be polite?”

“I don’t believe for a minute that you’re a syker, Courtney.”

She looked offended. “Oh? And why not?”

“You have a name, for one. And a gender. I’ve dealt with sykers before, and believe me, Courtney, be glad you’re not one.”

“And the fact that I’m preventing you from doing any magic? How does that factor into your experience, Sain…last name? And why is it that you’re so different? Why can’t I see inside your head?” I didn’t reply. “Shame,” Courtney said. “You really do look good in those shorts.” With that, she turned and left. “Watch out for the fishies,” she said in a singsong voice as the sound of her splashing footsteps faded.

I turned to Coral. “Do you know what’s going on?”

She looked at me curiously before responding. “The UF is cracking down on any kind of resistance. They’ve decided that a free populace is too likely to create new groups like the Directive. Everything in UF space is under martial law for an indefinite amount of time. The regulations you talked about haven’t been adhered to in eight years. Since the end of the war with the Directive. Who are you?”

“Sain Fletcher. I’ve…been away for a while.”

“You ARE him! I thought I recognized you from the old pictures.” Coral stood up now and walked to the edge of the cell. “Commander Sain Fletcher. So that’s where you went. The U.F. changed after the war. And the Brotherhood of Ercedia is just a myth now. We rebels are the only ones trying to fix things now. I’m a bomb-maker. I was trying to escape the bounty hunters when I got pulled into a zenem rift. They’ve been running tests.”

“How long were you in the old age?”

“Few weeks. I ran from everyone I saw.”

“Oooh. Pretty.”

I jerked around to find the source of the voice, though I knew exactly whose it was. “Carl!” He was squeezing out of a crack in the cave wall. “How’d you get here?”

“Your…Backpack! I found rootbeer.”

I chuckled. “I was saving that for you.”

“It was….delicious. Mmmmmm.” He screwed up his face….and nothing happened. He looked up at me. “You came, too??”

“….No?”

The little man licked his finger and held it in the air. “Magic’s being damped.” His face grew serious. “Left my post. I’ve left my post.” He began to pull on his beard.

I knelt down. “Yeah. And we’re gonna get out. Do you have anything in your pockets?” Carl’s face lit up and he dug his hands into his pockets up to his elbows.

“Candy,” said Carl, placing it in my hand. “Bubblegum…more candy…mmm…a nickel…”

“Good, good.”

He smiled. “Five more nickels,” he said, dropping them in my hands. “Toothpick…paperclip….paper…this?” he handed me what looked like a small stick of magnesium and shrugged. “Wire…..lint!!! Aaaaand, this.” Finally he handed me what looked to be a capacitor from a small terminal or similar device.”

I immediately began thinking. Nickels, paper, candy wrappers, and the salt water now swirling around my feet equaled battery. Battery and wire meant a way to charge the capacitor. Capacitor plus wire and paper clip would make a micro arc welder. After cutting the bars, the arc welder plus magnesium shavings equaled flash bang. I smiled and went to work.

More and more water began swishing into the cave, and soon small many-fanged fishes were swimming around the water, coming closer and closer. I waited until one swam close to where I was working, and then smashed it with my fist. I leaned as far as I could out of the bars and threw the crushed fish towards the mouth of the cave. Immediately, all the other fish swarmed back to the mouth of the cave. It would buy some more valuable time.

As I busied myself, I noticed the rust lining the ends of the bars, and my mind began racing again. Iron oxide plus magnesium? Thermite. I could use the sticky candy as a binder to hold the thermite against the bar, and then ignite it with the arc welder. “Brilliant, Carl. Have some candy.” After I finished the arc welder I demonstrated its used and handed it to Coral. “Got it? Wrap this gum around your fingers so you don’t get shocked.”

“What…? Um. Okay.” She went to work, and electric sparks began to eat at the base of one of the bars between the cells. I busied myself with the thermite. Soon the bars, which were only set loosely in the stone, were eroded enough to kick free. I armed myself with a six foot length of iron.

At this moment I heard another “Oooooh,” from behind me. I looked back to see Carl smiling. “Barrier gone,” he said. He then scrunched up his face and disappeared with a Poof!

I raised my hand and summoned fire, allowing it to swirl around my fingers. “Let’s go.”

* * *

When we reached the top of the cliff-side staircase, I heard the voices of three men above the edge. I knew that despite the restoration of my magical ability I was still poorly armed and unprotected. Carefully, I placed the remainder of the magnesium shavings on the ledge, covered my eyes, and ignited the magnesium with the capacitor. The resultant flash produced cries of alarm from above, and I charged up the last few stairs. The three bounty hunters and the syker were around a small camp fire. The first man, Jeralt was unfortunate enough to have his back to me.

I brought the long iron bar crashing into the side of his head and he was thrown away and to my right. Coral tackled one of the other guards. Courtney was the first to recover, just as I was swinging the bar at the other man. For a split second, as my concentration was elsewhere, the syker overtook my mind. But instead of causing me to drop the bar and surrender, she made me impale the man. As soon as she’d gotten in, she was forced out, and she recoiled. Then a shot rang out.

The other soldier had managed to draw his gun and shot Coral through the stomach. With a shout the Altarin extended her arm blades and thrust them into the man’s throat. The man gurgled, and Coral rolled off of him, clutching her stomach.

I looked at Courtney, who raised her hands in submission, and then rushed over to Coral. There was no exit wound. I knew I couldn’t just seal the wound with the bullet still inside. “Let me,” said Courtney, moving over.

I held up a hand. “If you hurt her—”

“I know, I know. Geez.” She cupped her hands over the wound then slowly raised them. The bullet lifted away from the wound; she grabbed it, and threw it aside. “There. Do your thing.”

I laid my hands on Coral’s stomach and began to do as I had with Brace only hours before. Again, the wound closed and her condition stabilized.

It was then that a rift opened to my right and I heard a familiar voice. “Let’s go.” Shadowsong had stepped out of the rift and was looking around. “Where’s my sword?”

I pointed at Courtney, who again put up her hands.

“Get your stuff. I’ll clean up.”

Courtney retrieved my clothes and gear. “So you leaving again,” said Coral. “Things’ll just stay the same.”

“I will come back. I’ll set these things right.”

“Then if I don’t see you, I’ll tell my kids and grandkids to wait for you.”

I smiled. “Good luck.”

“So I’m coming with you, right?” asked Courtney.

“No,” said Shadowsong. “You aren’t.”

Courtney frowned. I stepped through the rift.

* * *

Jessi was waiting on the other side. “Finally. You’re back. Carl had to tell us where you were. Who’s she?” I looked behind me and I saw Courtney on the ground behind me. As I watched she sat up and said ‘Hahah!!’. She was immediately lifted in the air and immobilized by Jessi.

“She must have jumped through.”

“Great. I guess I’ll deal with this. I’ll send you back to your team and then get you all to Rhunion. Then what should I do?”

“We need to restore the spiritual centers of Helt. Here, look.” I showed her the ancient map of Helt given to me by the Keeper. “These need to be awakened. That way we can get the land fighting for us. Do you need a copy of this?”

“I’ll remember,” replied Jessi. “I’ll get on that. Now let’s get you to Rhunion.”

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