PART II: FIRE AND FROST
Chapter Nine: Predicaments
A gathering was taking place aboard the Seeker. The trio had returned from the farmstead and delivered their report. But when the time came to check on Graves, they were met with a grisly scene. Now, four bodies overlooked one that lay at their feet, but absent was the man actually responsible for the beheaded Sovereign. Instead, Graves sat on the far end of the cabin, hunched over and clutching a piece of paper in his hands. Meanwhile, Asher, Fay, Rederick, and even Kesara could only offer terse stares as they bounced their gazes between the separated pieces of Blackstone.
"Not quite the result I was expecting," Rederick spoke up. Unabashed. Unwavering. With a face of stone, the scarred Imperial maintained an ordered presence even as he locked eyes with the still-scowling pureblood. "This... might be an issue."
"You're telling me," said Asher, hands on his hips. "Grated floors means he's been leaking into who knows where for who knows how long." With a sigh, the Executor nudged Blackstone's torso with his boot, slightly lifting a shoulder before setting it back down with a subtle clink.
Rubbing her brow, Fay dipped her head for more reasons than just a low ceiling. "I think the plane is the least of our worries right now."
"Indeed," said Rederick. "Regardless of whether he deserved it or not, his death could destabilize an already tense situation. We'll need to get ahead of this as soon as possible. I suggest a-"
"Wait a minute," the Templar spoke up, finally able to rend her gaze from the fallen pureblood. Whilst the others were able to maintain a relative calm, the slight tremor shown in the consul's fingers spoke of a trepidation she could not quell. "Am I the only one who's concerned that we're all standing over a corpse? At the very least, I'd think it a matter worth addressing."
"Well, I mean, he's dead," Asher bluntly stated. "Not much that can be done about it now."
Kesara's began to furrow her brow at the Sovereign's sheer nonchalance. "Maybe we could find out why he's dead?"
Asher folded his arms, silently staring at the Templar before shifting toward his distant fellow. "Hey Graves, why's he dead?"
"He attacked me," the man replied, still hunched, eyes still glued to the paper in his hand.
"Well, that solves that," said Asher.
"Not quite," Fay spoke up. "I too would like to know more about how things went down. Graves?"
"Well, I-" was all he managed to get out before being cut off.
"Wait," said Asher, lips slowly curling into a grin. "I've got an idea. Why don't we get our Templar friend to tell us what happened here? She says she can sense lingering emotions, right? Look into the past? Well, I want to make sure it wasn't just an elaborate bluff."
"Excuse me?" Kesara replied, rather taken aback. "What possible reason would I have to lie?"
Asher leaned uncomfortably close to the Templar, whispering, "this deep into enemy territory, I would understand if you felt the need to exaggerate your abilities. It's okay. No shame in being a liar."
But Kesara quickly regained her poise, closing her eyes as she drew and released a deep breath. "Might I see the weapon that did the deed? It should grant me some extra clarity."
"Yeah, about that... the cut didn't come from a sword," Graves muttered, prompting a series of cocked heads and arched brows from the others. "That was all magic."
"A telekinetic blade?" Fay spoke up, a genuine surprise on her face. "Wow. Didn't think you were capable of that kind of finesse."
"That's because I'm not. I didn't kill Blackstone. Okay, I did, but... it wasn't me."
"Not making a whole lot of sense, Graves," said Asher.
The hunched Sovereign's grip began to tighten, crinkling the piece of paper in his hands. "I can't... actually use magic."
Asher buried his face in his palm. "We've literally seen you use magic before. You're a Sovereign for Emperor's sake."
"What I mean is, I can't consciously call upon it," Graves explained. "I've got the strength, the durability, but anything beyond that... I can't even extend my aura. In these hands, my greatsword's nothing more than a hunk of metal. But sometimes, when my life is sufficiently threatened... my magic just sort of... acts on its own. I don't even have to sense the danger. Blackstone drew his weapon, and by the time I had even processed what was happening, he was already dead."
A heavy silence washed over the cabin. And one by one, each of the onlookers took a step back.
"But it's okay," Graves continued, finally lifting his gaze. Though his emotionless delivery remained, the man possessed a newfound energy as he lifted himself from the bench. Unfortunately, his reassurances meant little, the others taking another step back. Immediately, Graves flashed the piece of paper he'd been clutching, revealing the photo he'd taken with his fellows back at headquarters. "Look. I've been extra careful. If I try hard enough, I can train my magics to know who is and isn't a threat. I've been doing it every day since I joined the Executors."
"But what about before, huh?" asked Asher, suitably incensed as he swept his arm back and forth. "You let me tackle you in the Citadel, knowing full well I could have lost my head!"
"You weren't in any danger. I haven't considered you a threat since way before that," he bluntly replied.
"Hey, screw you!"
"I didn't mean it as an insult," Graves clarified.
But Asher cared little. Fueled by a mixture of anger and fear, the man clutched at his head as he paced about the cabin, muttering through gritted teeth. But just as it seemed as he was about to express a coherent thought, the Executor merely stormed out of the Seeker. And as his ramblings grew quieter and quieter, it became clear that he wasn't coming back.
While everyone stared at the open hatch, Kesara was the first to break the silence. "Should we...?"
"No, best to let him blow off some steam," Fay replied. And with a calm breath, she looked to her fellow. "Are you absolutely certain we're in no danger?"
A nod from Graves.
"Then I suppose we should proceed," said Kesara, taking a step forward. Closing her eyes once more, she held out her arms, palms to the ceiling. "Give me your hands."
This time, it was Graves' turn to hesitate. But eventually, the man complied. Shoving the wrinkled photo into his trouser pocket, the Executor offered his gloved hands, eventually making contact.
Immediately, the Templar sharply inhaled through her nose. "Oh my. You are... quite the peculiar being."
"Yeah, I get that a lot," Grave replied.
"Well, it's nice to know your demeanor is genuine," Kesara continued, slowly returning to her usual pleasant self. "I can think of quite a few Templars that would envy your stoicism."
"Can't say I'd recommend it."
"Hmm." The woman began to concentrate. And with each moment of focus, her mind became more and more attuned to the ethereal. "An image is beginning to form. Two warriors, miles apart despite standing mere feet from each other. Fire and ice. And yet, you did not melt. I sense... fascination, appreciation, annoyance..." A pause. "A touch of arousal, even? But then... dread... and finally, fury. A whirlwind of emotion, all from a single source." Kesara broke off, withdrawing her hands and opening her eyes. "I knew some Sovereigns wore their hearts on their sleeves but this Blackstone character was something else. He left... quite the imprint."
"And the renegades?" Rederick spoke up. "Anything about that?"
"I'm afraid not," said the Templar. "I can only sense echoes, not the words themselves."
"Well, she was pretty much spot on," said Graves, taking the moment to readjust his gloves. "Blackstone came aboard wanting to talk. He thought I'd be interested in the ongoing hostilities. Said there were ways to... arrange duels between us and the Templars."
"Does that mean he was in charge of things?" asked Rederick.
"I'm not sure." Graves dipped his head. "Look, I know I made a mistake. I know I should have led him on. But the moment he said something, I just... I couldn't risk it. I had to tell someone. And when I revealed my intention to do so, that... provoked a heated response."
Rederick tucked his hands behind his back, ever the stalwart Imperial. He traced his gaze along the fallen pureblood before settling on his killer. "I think I've heard enough. If Blackstone was even tangentially involved in the conflict, he more than earned his death. I'll see no charges brought upon you."
But Fay proved less assured, eyes glued to the mess in front of her. "While I don't think Graves is at fault, less death is always preferable."
"Hardly," Rederick replied, shooting the titan a sideward glance. "Blackstone was a traitor. His actions have contributed to the death of dozens, if not countless more innocents. Had Graves not acted, I would have done the deed myself."
Eyes sharpening, she met the man's stare with one of her own. "This is supposed to be an investigation, commander. And the dead can tell us only so much."
"Well, the man's apprentices remain very much alive. We'll get the answers we need out of them," Rederick declared. The Imperial approached the hatch, only to pause as his hand gripped the hull. "They'll need to be separated from the rest of the camp. I want you and Asher to bring them to the command center, by force if necessary."
"And what about me?" asked Graves, lifting his gaze.
Rederick hesitated. "Given the apprentices might resist, I'd suggest you maintain your distance for now. Now if you'll excuse me, I have some preparations to make." With that, the Imperial departed.
"Understood," Graves muttered, practically to himself. But the word did not fall on deaf ears. Fay approached her fellow, placing a gentle hand upon his shoulder. "You sure you wanna be doing that?"
"Yeah. I'm sure," she replied, maintaining contact. "Been through enough to know you wouldn't hurt a friend."
"I... appreciate the sentiment," said Graves. While he remained as stone-faced as ever, the man's spirits had definitely been raised. No slouch. Chin held high. Ready to proceed. Ready, but not quite willing. "Go on ahead. I'll catch up with you when... when I know it's safe."
"Very well." With that, the titan offered her fellow respectful nod before departing. Now, only Graves and Kesara remained.
"You are a... hard man to read," the Templar admitted, still possessing a warm countenance. "But I sense in my heart that you are a good man."
"I wouldn't be so sure about that," Graves bluntly replied. "You might see a clean slate, but I assure you it floats atop a sea of blood."
Kesara maintained her gentle smile. "And yet you choose not to sink. I cannot speak to the kind of man you were in times passed. Perhaps you did see your share of death in the war. You wouldn't be alone. But right here, right now, I see a man who's willing to do what's right."
"You sure you're not setting the bar just a little too low?" Graves asked.
The consul hesitated, smile wavering but not entirely quelled. "Both of our Orders are guilty of... great misdeeds. If I couldn't celebrate the little things, I very much doubt I could handle this line of work."
Finally, the Templar took her leave, departing the Seeker. And yet, even now Graves could not find a moment of solitude. The partition between the cabin and cockpit slowly slid into its recess, revealing the wooden dome of the manikin pilot.
"Greetings, my lord," said Ken before a lengthy pause. "Should you require my testimony in any future trial, I will gladly offer my accounting of the events that transpired here."
"You mean you heard everything that went down?" Graves asked.
"I hear everything that occurs within this vessel, my lord."
"And you're just now revealing yourself why?"
Another lengthy pause from the manikin. "With how our last guest reacted to my presence, I thought it prudent behavior."
Back inside the base, the two underlings of Lord Blackstone squirmed in their allotted tent. The temporary dwelling was practically barren, a squared-off space afforded little more than a series of cots. Cots the pair currently sat atop, tapping their feet and constantly looking toward the flap that was the tent's entrance. Brows damp with perspiration, the hours that had passed since last seeing their master began to weigh heavy upon the teenagers' shoulders. But the moment they spotted a dark silhouette outside, they immediately hopped to their feet.
"Master!" the teenagers called out in unison.
But as Asher poked his head in, the glee quickly left their faces.
"What are you doing here?" asked one.
"Where is our master?" asked the other.
"Ah, well, the former actually relates to the latter," said Asher. "You see, Blackstone's dead, and you two are wanted in the command center."
The pair's faces each began to churn, the girl's in rage, the boy's in sorrow.
"No, you're lying!" shrieked the tattooed Sovereign.
Clenching his teeth, Asher offered an exaggerated wince. "Ow. Okay. Loud. So, are you two going to make this easy? Or are we going to have to do this the hard way?"
The girl quickly retrieved the saber from under her cot, a simple blade housed in a remarkably unremarkable scabbard. A far cry from the splendorous weapon of her master. "Take another step inside, I dare you!"
But Asher refused the challenge, instead releasing a sigh as he took a step back. "Hard way it is, then."
With that, the entire tent began to shake. Before the pair could even process what was happening, each and every support was forcefully ripped out from under the dwelling by some invisible force. And it was that same force that then compelled the surrounding canvas to not only crash down upon the apprentices, but to wrap them up in a nice, compact bundle. In a matter of moments, Asher found himself standing over a wriggling cocoon, the muffled cries of the teenagers barely able to reach his ears. Meanwhile, the group's meager possessions hadn't been nudged in the slightest, the likes of cots and trunks going undisturbed by the controlled calamity. And as Asher looked over his shoulder, he was greeted with the sight of Fay calmly holding out a clenched fist.
"Sometimes I wonder why I'm even on this team," he muttered.
"We all have our talents," Fay replied. Bending over, the titan traded a telekinetic grip for a physical one, grabbing the tail-end of the wriggling bundle. And without the slightest bit of effort, she began dragging the trapped mystics across the courtyard.
But for as quick and clean as the capture was, the action couldn't help but draw a crowd. More and more Sovereigns began to emerge from their tents, only to find that the soldiers of the base had already been amassed. Spread across the courtyard, standing shoulder to shoulder, each Imperial clutched a rifle in their hands, ready to take aim at a moment's notice.
And standing before them, arms tucked behind his back, was their commander.
"Hear this," he called out. Bold. Direct. Yet just restrained enough to maintain a sense of propriety. "One of your fellows, Lord Blackstone, is dead. The man was guilty of high treason, not only through his defiance of the Emperor's will, but through his collaborative efforts with the Templar forces still in Esheron. Right now, his apprentices are being brought in for questioning. Should anyone attempt to disrupt our investigation or flee the outpost, you will face immediate execution."
There as an immediate gnashing of teeth. A clenching of fists. Anything and everything the gathered Sovereigns could do to voice their displeasure without actually speaking. And yet, none took the next step. They each stood frozen, staring daggers while their actual blades remained firmly in their sheaths. For all their combined mystical prowess, a firing line proved a powerful deterrent.
"Nice to know we have an understanding," said Rederick. With that, the man turned on his heels and walked along the row of soldiers, eyes set on the command center.
Soon, all the investigators had converged. Kesara patiently stood next to the command center's entrance, flanked by two Imperial escorts. Asher and Rederick soon joined her, while Fay dragged the two apprentices inside. All the while, Graves watched from a distance. And the moment he tried to inch closer, he was assaulted by the protests of his fellow.
"Uh-uh!" Asher shouted, pointing his finger. "You stay over there."
Graves flashed his palms and dipped his head, momentarily pausing his advance. "Look, I get it. But we're still a team. And we still have our mission."
"Yeah, don't care," Asher bluntly replied. "What's the range on your death field?"
"It's... it's not a 'death field'," Graves muttered. But Asher remained steadfast, glaring at the scarred mystic. "I don't know... ten feet?"
"Then until I say otherwise, you're not to come within eleven feet of me, understood?"
Graves continued his approach, only to pause once more when he hit the limit of his granted periphery. Glancing side to side, the man walked a more circuitous path. While Asher, Rederick, and Kesara stood to the left of the door, Graves stood by his lonesome on the right. And such a formation persisted as Fay went to work inside. There was a lot of shouting. The sounds of a scuffle. But eventually, silence.
Finally, the titan emerged no worse for wear, the girl's saber in hand. "They're ready."
"Good," said Rederick. "I'll be handling the interrogation myself."
"Ser, if I may-" Kesara began before being cut off by the commander raising his hand.
"Apologies, Master Kesara, but these proceedings will require neither a psion nor a consul. I have my own ways of extracting information."
"And what about us?" asked Fay.
"Stand guard. I do not wish to be disturbed."
"They may be young, but these two are still Sovereigns, commander," Fay replied. "You sure you don't want someone in there with you?"
"Worry not. I've dealt with mystics much stronger than them. And I mean it. No interruptions. Understood?"
The others offered a series of reticent nods. And without further delay, the patchwork Imperial stepped inside, slamming the door behind him. Meanwhile, Fay took her place by Graves' side. Tossing aside the meager saber she'd procured from Blackstone's apprentice, the titan adopted a familiar pose, crossing her arms as she leaned against the wall.
"You sure you want to be over there?" asked Asher, shooting his fellows a sideward glance.
Fay looked to the man by her side, offering a gentle smile. "No problems here, right Graves?"
But the scarred Sovereign merely kept his head dipped, as if locked in his own little world.
Asher meanwhile, offered a heavy scoff. "Of course you don't care about this. After all, you're the one who fought to have someone like Nadi join the team." The Sovereign's eyes quickly began to widen. Afterward, the man practically shoved himself off the wall. "Wait a minute. That's it! Fay I could understand, but I couldn't put together why Graves didn't put up any resistance after we found out she was crazy. It's because you can relate to her, isn't it? You both can't control yourselves. Except while she's liable to throw a punch or two, you cut people's heads off!"
"I rarely cut anything off of anyone," Graves muttered. "That was... a fluke, in all honesty."
"Oh yeah? Then what is it you usually do?"
"It's mostly defensive. Stopping projectiles. Forming barriers." Graves paused. "But as you can tell from looking at me, it's not a perfect system. It usually takes something big to trigger it. Like you cutting my hand off."
Asher wiped his palm across his face. "Don't you dare tell me you didn't even mean to set me on fire."
"Like I told you before, I had already blacked out by the point. At the end of our duel, you weren't even fighting me anymore. I was... just a vessel. One my magics worked to protect."
"Excuse me, what's this about your hand getting cut off?" Kesara spoke up, leaning past the stalwart Imperials that served as her escorts.
"Stay out of this, Templar," Asher snapped.
"Honestly, Asher, I think you're blowing this out of proportion," Fay declared. "One of the fundamentals of magic is that it's a mixture of conscious and unconscious effort. If you had to constantly control and regulate your magic, you'd run dry in a matter of minutes."
"There's a difference between relying on instinct and treating your magic like its some separate entity capable of making its own decisions!" Asher replied. "Things don't work that way."
"Actually, our Order teaches-" Kesara began before being promptly interrupted by the fuming Sovereign.
"I told you to stay out of this."
"So, you think Graves is a danger based on the off-chance he loses control?" asked Fay, maintaining a relatively level head. The same could not be said of the wrapped mystic.
"Yes!" he shouted.
Fay's lips began to curl into a grin. "Curious that you hold that belief, considering you like to walk around with a live grenade."
"That's different," Asher muttered.
"Is it? One simple pull of the pin, then boom... you and everyone next to you is finished."
"Hah. Joke's on you. It's actually a twist-activator."
"That so?" Unfolding her arms, Fay held out her right hand, two fingers extended. Then, ever so slowly, she began swiping her digits.
Asher, meanwhile, clutched at his outer robes and turned his back toward his fellow. "That's not even funny."
Fay chuckled. "Agree to disagree."