Despite no longer being there, Haldron nevertheless felt its presence, as if some trace of its power had been left behind, soaked into the metal of the walkway and the cool air. Whenever he looked to the empty space it once occupied, it still felt as if it were looking back.
The Sentinels were already hard at work when he arrived at the place he hoped never to set foot in again. About two dozen operatives were canvassing the cavern in their dark green uniforms, scanners floating around like stone bubbles and bathing the walls and walkway in their yellow light as they searched for clues of what transpired here. Haldron had no doubt; he knew from the moment he got the call from the Chief Officer, who greeted him at the entrance to the mines and accompanied him into the depths. The clanking of their boots on the metal grates was even more penetrating now, practically piercing his eardrums. The Chief Officer had surely noticed the state he was in though said nothing. The bodies had already been removed with only several patches of half-dried blood left to indicate where they once lay. They formed a ring around the spot once occupied by the object. That was a surprise. What were they all doing here? One patch caught his attention in particular, although Haldron couldn’t have said why. It looked no different from the others. According to the Chief Officer, the blood he was staring at had, in fact, belonged to none other than Krazzik Betran. Haldron was both saddened and intrigued to hear that. Despite not being great in the way of conversation, the old miner seemed like a decent man. But what was he doing here to begin with? Given his earlier thoughts on the matter, it was very strange to think that Krazzik Betran would be found anywhere near the thing. The more Haldron thought, the more questions he had. Why would he return to it? Had Krazzik and his colleagues found themselves inexplicably drawn in just as he had?
“There were eight here, all around this spot”. The Chief Officer spoke with the voice of a man who’d seen so much bloodshed and savagery in this time nothing could surprise him anymore. “A few more in the observation room”.
Haldron looked to the concrete structure built into the side of the cavern whose windows had been stained red. “Why were there so many of them”? He tried his best not to slur his words.
Tolov shrugged. “No idea. They all died the same way: multiple slash and stab wounds. Most were hacked practically limb from limb”.
That sounded familiar. “Trassani”, Haldron muttered.
“It would seem so. Fucking savages”.
Haldron watched a scanner float by with all the care of a snowflake in a gentle breeze, yellow light casting a calming sheen over the water beneath them. “They came for the artefact”.
“Why? What would they want with it”?
“You know the Trassani. They’ll steal anything that isn’t bolted down”.
“Yes, while tearing the whole city up. This was the only place they hit, like it was targeted specifically. Why would they do that”?
It was Haldron’s turn to shrug. “No idea”.
Tolov rocked his head. “For fucks sake. This is all we need. That moron; if he’d entrusted this thing to us we could have had it out of here and in the Research Sector before anything like this could have happened. Idiot”. Haldron let him continue his rant. “I’m sorry about earlier”, the Chief Officer then said, unexpectedly.
“Don’t worry about it”.
Tolov stepped forward and placed a hand on his shoulder. “I shouldn’t have brought up Everress and the children. I can’t imagine the pain you’re feeling right now. It was wrong of me to speak to you the way I did. If the tunnels are the place you feel you need to be then I trust you. I’ll speak with the other officers, see if I can get them to lay off you, for a while at least”.
“That would be much appreciated, sir. Thank you”. Haldron almost didn’t notice the Sentinel approaching them fast.
“Chief Officer, sir”, the young man said with an eagerness that suggested he had something significant to tell him.
Tolov took his hand from Haldron’s shoulder. “What have you found”?
“I think you should come and take a look, sir”.
Haldron’s head spun like a top with the rising of the grav-lift. It was all he could do not to look at the lake below as they ascended up cavern wall. There were no guard rails to stop him from plummeting to the bottom should he lose his balance.
“You’re sure it isn’t supposed to be there”? Tolov asked the Sentinel.
“There’s no struts, no tracks, or lights and no grates. It’s not even on any of the maps. We’re certain the miners didn’t drill it”.
“And it’s not a natural formation”?
“No sir. Its shape is too uniform. It has to be artificial”.
Tolov shook his head. The lift came to a halt, and then Haldron was looking down over the entire cavern. It seemed even bigger from up here. He needed a moment to steady himself, and another to keep from throwing up over the edge of the lift.
“You see this, Haldron”?
He turned to find the Chief Officer and the Sentinel staring into a dark hole in the wall. This was no mining tunnel; it was far too small for that, no more than a couple inches taller than himself and a couple times his width. It would be a tight squeeze for most Ebol but large enough for a group of Trassani to creep through and carry the artefact back with them. As soon as his eyes met the dark, Haldron felt it, just like with the object, the same pull. Something called to him, beckoned him forward. Before he even had a chance to think, he was moving toward the dark
“Be careful, Haldron”, Tolov muttered.
“Anyone got a light”? Ahead was only black.
“One moment, sir”. The Sentinel hit a button on the keypad at his wrist and one of the scanners floated up beside him. He hit another button and it glided into the opening, its white light pushing back the darkness.
Haldron followed the sphere, stepping off the platform onto rock. Passed the opening lay a tunnel far smaller than what he was used to working in. This had to be the work of the Trassani. While they usually exploited the tunnels cut by the Ebol, it was known that several bands possessed the means to drill their own. The scanner continued unabated. Haldron followed slowly, keeping his wits about to him so as not to fall prey to an ambush. The Trassani were a tricky bunch, with a reputation for striking from anywhere at any time, even in narrow spaces. Not to mention their penchant for setting brutal traps for less perceptive wanderers. Haldron scanned the illuminated rock, from the floor to the walls to the ceiling, searching for evidence to confirm what he already knew. He was surprised; he saw no sign the Trassani had ever been here. It was a favourite of theirs to leave behind grisly calling cards after a successful raid. Severed body parts, dead bodies, and symbols painted in Ebol blood were all common finds. But Haldron saw nothing. That only puzzled him further. The Trassani never missed a chance to gloat and taunt their pursuers.
The Chief Officer’s voice echoed up the tunnel. “Do you see anything”?
“No sir”. The words bounced off the walls and sent a wave of pain through Haldron’s already aching head.
Haldron wasn’t sure how much further he could go. This could go on for miles, and he was growing doubtful there was anything of interest to be found. But he couldn’t bring himself to turn back. Something was here with him, drawing him further in. He felt it calling, just like the object, whispering inside his head and willing him along. It hit him like a ton of bricks. Was this it’s doing? Did it want him to find it?
“Come back, Haldron. There’s nothing there”.
The Chief Officer’s voice seemed to break whatever force had ensnared him. Haldron was about to do what he said when something caught his eye. It was quick and subtle, but he knew he saw it, some small movement ahead. Strange; the scanner would have made a noise if something was there, but it just kept going as was normal. It wasn’t his imagination; he saw it, he knew it. Haldron squinted to where the light became dark. He saw nothing, but he felt it all the same. Something was there, and it seemed so familiar, a quick flash of brown and red, like…
The scanner’s wail shot through the tunnel and his head, so suddenly Haldron couldn’t help but nearly hit the ceiling. In barely a millisecond, he had his pistol in hand and was aiming at the dark, hand trembling as he waited for the raider to come screeching toward him, ready to blow its head off before it took his. But it never came. The scanner had gone quiet, its light now pointed to the ground. Haldron’s eyes followed, and he saw what had almost caused him to jump out of his skin. It lay a couple feet away, metal gleaming in the white intensity. He had a feeling, but it wasn’t until he got closer that he was sure, staring at the battered old sword at his feet.
“You find something”? Tolov called.
Haldron didn’t answer. He took the sword and held it to the light. It was heavier than it looked, made of dull metal that was all scratched and tarnished. The hilt was little more than a dirty rag wrapped around the end, the blade stained red by the blood of its likely many victims. Haldron recognized it immediately, noting the unusual curve of the blade. It was a Hakmata, practically the most iconic symbol of the Trassani’s violent culture before the destruction of their homeland, and about all that remained of it now. The Trassani were never known to worship much, but the Hakmata was considered sacred among their people, not only a deadly weapon but a significant status symbol for those lucky enough to own one. Usually, only the leading members of the raider bands carried them, and to lose one was a huge dishonour. The only time the owner of a Hakmata allowed themselves to be parted with their blade was if they died with it in their hand. To find one here, and with no body, was bizarre to say the least.
Haldron took a closer look, and his blood started to boil. He couldn’t have said what, but something told him this was the blade that killed Krazzik. Then he noticed something that sent his mind into a frenzy. Three black lines etched into the metal by the hilt, the middle vertical, the others diagonal, barely noticeable for the blood caked over them. He’d seen them many times before, including smeared across the walls of the room where his family died. They were a symbol, his symbol, that of the raider band led by Hukijib Searyuhb, the very same band that sacked Chintell that day. This was his work; this was his sword. He had the artefact.
“What is it”?! Tolov shouted.
Haldron had seen enough. He headed back for the opening, sword gripped tight. They had to speak with the General Secretary. He had no idea what that thing was or who made it or what it was for, but he knew its power and the thought of something so powerful in the hands of someone so dangerous was too grave to ignore. The Trassani weren’t known for their technological brilliance, but if they unlocked its secrets, who knew what they could unleash. So much made no sense to Haldron, but one thing was clear. The artefact had to be recovered, and Searyuhb needed to be eliminated.
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