“This is all you found”? The General Secretary didn’t seem that impressed with the battered, old sword lying before him.
“Yes sir”, Haldron answered. He sat in the same seat as the day before. The Chief Officer was sitting beside him, and doing everything he could to keep his anger at the young man opposite from being too obvious.
“And there was no sign of the artefact”?
Haldron gave the only answer he could. “No sir”. The General Secretary eyed him angrily. He couldn’t help but feel something else was up.
“This tells us everything we need to know”, Tolov said. “The Trassani are behind this, and now they have the artefact”.
“How were they able to enter the city undetected”?
“It seems they dug their way into the cavern”, Haldron explained, hoping to calm both men before one dived over the desk onto the other. “The mines are largely undefended, making it easy for them to tunnel in and avoid detection”.
The General Secretary only seemed to get angrier. “Why are they undefended”? Having to ask such a question only showed how unsuitable he was for his job.
The Chief Officer mirrored his frustration. “The Guardians are spread thin. We barely have the numbers to patrol the main tunnels, never mind every single mining tunnel running into the city as well”.
“Also, Trassani raids are becoming more frequent and more intense”, Haldron added. “We’re losing guardians faster than we can recruit them, and our recruitment numbers are the lowest they’ve ever been”.
“You’ve got automata haven’t you? Use them”.
“Most of our automata have been damaged or destroyed by the Trassani”, Haldron said “And we lack the resources to build new ones or even repair most of the damaged ones. We barely have enough to even maintain the rovers”.
The General Secretary rocked his head. “It sounds like you’re saying the Guardians are no longer capable of defending the city”. He shot the Chief Officer a venomous glare. Haldron felt a jolt of anger as he listened to the stupid man blame the Guardians for something that was down to his own corruption and ineptitude.
“Well perhaps if we were provided with a sufficient allocation of resources that wouldn’t be the case”, Tolov growled, fists clenching beneath the desk.
“You better than most should know we’re being suffocated under the weight of the Imperium”, The General Secretary argued back. “Not just the Guardians, everyone. There are no more resources to give. We’re giving most of it to those bastards”. Every ounce of ore mined and fuel extracted, most of it went to the Imperium with little left for the Ebol to get by.
Tolov smirked, bitterness radiating. “And where does the rest of it go, General Secretary? I think we all know the answer to that”. It was no secret that the city government was withholding the resources meant for their citizens and public services for themselves, like the governments of every other city across the Ebol continent.
“There’s a more pressing matter to discuss here”, Haldron interrupted before the meeting spiralled out of control. “I saw the artefact with my own eyes. I can speak for its power. Now that power is in the hands of the Trassani. If they discover its secrets who can say what kind of destruction they could unleash upon us”?
“I doubt the Trassani possess the mental capacity to unravel what is quite clearly a highly advanced piece of technology”, answered the General Secretary with his usual condescension.
Now Haldron was finding it hard to keep his anger in check. “With respect sir, the Trassani are smarter than you give them credit for. I’ve been fighting them all my life. I know what they’re capable of. We shouldn’t take any chances, especially now”.
The General Secretary looked to be considering everything he’d heard, then sighed. “What do you propose we do about this”?
“The only thing we can do. We need to recover the artefact from the Trassani before they unlock its power”.
“And who do you suggest we send after it? As you and the Chief Officer here have pointed out, the Guardians already seem to have their hands full with defending the city as it is”.
“I will”, Haldron said before Tolov could open his mouth. “Me and my squad. We’ll find the artefact and bring it back, and if possible we’ll take out the band responsible for this”.
Tolov didn’t look happy about that in the least. “I think we should discuss this further before we decide who would be best suited for this”. He didn’t want him to go; Haldron expected as much.
The General Secretary sat back and smirked “What’s there to discuss? It’s no secret, even to me, that Antulen here is one of the finest and most capable guardians the City Defence Force has ever seen. I’m hard pressed to think of another living guardian up to the task”.
The Chief Officer looked more frustrated than ever. “With respect, Sir…” Haldron tried to sound as diplomatic as possible. “No one else besides me, Benellen and Rowtenat have seen this thing up close. We know its power and we know what to expect from it. If you send anyone else, someone who doesn’t know what they’re dealing with, you may well be sending them to their deaths”.
The Chief Officer made a sound that seemed like the beginning of a counterargument, then went quiet again. “Yes”, he said, reluctantly. “Antulen is one of the most capable guardians we have and one of the only people with any idea of what we’re dealing with. There is no one I would trust more with this task”. He was completely against the idea; that much was obvious. More likely he’d simply come to the conclusion that arguing with the General Secretary was an exercise in futility.
The General Secretary smiled. “Then it’s settled. Antulen, you and your men will recover the artefact from the Trassani. I trust they are as capable as yourself”?
“Absolutely sir”. He would entrust his life to no one else.
“Excellent. Then you will leave as soon as you are ready. Now, if there’s nothing else, that will be all”
Haldron got up, took the sword from the desk and placed it in the leather satchel he’d brought it in. It wouldn’t be very good to be seen walking around the Citadel with a bloodstained sword in hand. The Chief Officer remained where he sat.
“Is there something else you would like to say, Chief Officer”? The General Secretary almost seemed to be daring him to say what was on his mind.
The tension was like a fog. “No”, the Chief Officer replied. He and Haldron then left the office, the cloud of unease following.
“This is not the answer”, Tolov said as they neared the staircase at the end of the corridor. “There is no solace to be had in vengeance”.
“The artefact is my only concern”.
Tolov grabbed Haldron by the arm and spun him around. “You will do me the courtesy of not lying to my face. I saw the markings on that sword. I know who they belong to. Do you take me for a fool”?
“Of course not”, Haldron replied, not used to such aggression from the Chief Officer.
His superior looked at him as if it were the General Secretary staring back. “You think killing Searyuhb is going to bring them back”?
“He can’t be allowed to live. As long as he breathes more will die”.
“And there will always be guardians to stop him. You’re in no condition to be going out there on some revenge mission”.
“I told you I would protect this city for as long as I live”.
“This isn’t what guardians do. We do not allow personal grudges to guide our actions. We do what is best for our city and its people, not ourselves”.
“Everyone in this city is in danger as long as he’s out there. You saw the damage he did last time. His people came back here for a reason. They could have been scouting, preparing for another attack. And now he’s got the artefact. Who knows what kind of power he could possess if he learns its secrets”?
“That doesn’t mean you have to go. We know he’s up to something. We can bolster our defences while we’ve still got the chance. Prepare ourselves for whatever he’s got up his sleeve”.
“You know we don’t have the manpower for that. We barely drove him off last time. It’s been two years and we’re still reeling from it. Who knows how much larger his horde might have grown since then? If they attack again now we are finished. And there’s still the matter of the artefact”.
“The Guardians can handle it, Haldron”.
“Me and my men are the only ones who saw it. You weren’t there. You didn’t see it. You didn’t feel the way it… looks into you”.
The Chief Officer looked at him like he was crazy. “You are in no condition to be going out there. You will die”.
“I’m already dead. I died with them”.
“And what about your men? Will you lead them to their deaths for your own retribution”?
“If that’s what’s necessary. They’re guardians, they swore to lay down their lives for their city”.
Tolov shook his head, slowly. “Don’t do this, Haldron”.
“I have to. There’s nothing left for me here. They took it all from me. This is my only purpose now, and there’s nothing you or anyone else can say to stop me from fulfilling it”.
Haldron headed for the staircase. “The officers won’t let you do this, Haldron”, the Chief Officer called after him. “They will stop you”.
“They can try”.
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