Chapter 4:

The Impossible Trap

EXIT POINT: Homeworld

At first there was too much happening for Kas to make sense of it. He ducked instinctively behind Lazlo, who stepped forward just as instinctively. One of Lazlo’s many armbands unfolded itself into a shield, and he took in the fight at a glance.

Kas took a bit longer to adjust. He’d rarely been in a conflict with more than eight or ten individuals, and it looked like half the teams had congregated here. The Silverheart’s team was here, as were several others he hadn’t met or only knew by reputation. Arrayed against them were a dozen… people? No, not quite.

What were they? Kas thought they were guards at first, but there was something off about them. An overly angled form, inhumanly smooth motions. Then Kas took in the actual fighting and his blood chilled.

Whatever they were, they were winning. The speed and flexibility of the constructs was enough to push even the veterans back. The Silverheart was losing ground, being pushed back toward the area of the Blud’s Delusion trap.

Kas remembered his AutoSlash taking over in the fight, and imagined this was what would result if you were to make an entire person guided by combat enchantments instead of just a weapon. Experimental and certainly illegal, but that did Kas and his team no good if they couldn’t survive the encounter.

Was it these constructs that they’d been sent to steal? Or perhaps the secrets of their construction?

Kas flinched as something pinged off Lazlo’s shield, close enough to Kas' cheek he felt the wind of its passage. His injured arm throbbed in painful memory and he reached up, fingers coming away red in blood.

Agneza’s relay orb pinged urgently from her pocket; chiming a missed call and drawing Kas' attention to her. She crouched by the wall, frantically tearing at the air with her tools. Kas focused mana to his vision, squinting against the glare, and saw the faintest outline of the trap they’d stumbled into. If he hadn’t been looking straight at it, he’d have missed it.

Tiny spiderweb threads spread out from the centre, an area encompassing the entire base of the stairway, halfway up it, and out into the space behind. If he took his eyes off a thread for even a moment, he had to start back at the centre to follow it.

It wasn’t destroyed. All the surge Lazlo had pumped into it had disabled it, but only temporarily. Kas could see it trying to reassert itself, flickers of energy mending itself where the threads had been torn, the edges of reality beginning to warp.

Agneza tore it apart almost as fast as it rebuilt, but he could tell she wasn’t going to be able to keep ahead of it for long.

Kas passed her a recharge and knelt beside her. “How can I help?”

She crushed the recharge capsule, barely pausing to point to the right side of the central mass of webbing. “Break that if you can.”

Kas nodded and pulled out his favourite tool, a well-worn but still functional manual SpellComb, pushing mana into it until it hummed with barely-contained power. He crushed a recharge, passed another to Agneza, then flinched as another projectile slammed into the wall beside his head.

“Help or get out of the way,” Agneza snapped.

Kas' heart pounded. He knew this might be the most important spell breaking of his life, and certainly the most important for immediate survival. He had to blink away afterimages, the haze of distant protection wards trying to overlay itself on his reality even now.

He tried to pretend he wasn’t in the heart of a deadly battle, focused on the threads in front of him and how to best dismantle them. His MajEye would have been very useful right now. He didn’t have concentration to spare on mana sight, but without it he’d be fumbling blindly. He pressed his comb’s prongs against the spot Agneza had indicated.

Feedback buzzed up his arm immediately, the trap resisting his attempt to twist it out of shape. He teased the comb back and forth in tiny motions, slipping it between the threads, then clamped it tight and yanked, severing the connection and breaking loose one tiny fraction of the trap. Even as he passed another recharge to Agneza and took another for himself, the trap began to repair itself, the thread ends growing out toward each other.

“No you don’t,” Kas growled, snatching the nearest broken end and crushing it in his tool’s grip. It twitched feebly, but couldn’t reorient itself toward its other half. He tore it away, tossing the detached thread away to the side, then attacked the next.

A pained shout impressed upon him the urgency of the moment, the temptation to stop and check on the others almost unbearable.

Agneza moved fast and relentlessly, breaking threads as fast as they reformed, moving steadily toward the core of the central mass of the trap. Meanwhile, Kas could barely handle a single thread of it. Never before had he realised exactly how wide the gap was between his current skill level and that to which he aspired.

The sounds of battle faded, the trap beginning to reassert its effect on his perception, and Kas jabbed blindly at the mass of mana threads he knew were there even though he could no longer detect them. Too slow. They’d never get out this way.

A thought struck him and he grabbed a handful of surgers from the pocket storage.

Agneza’s head snapped up. “Wait!”

He slammed them down onto the trap’s heart, and the world whited out again.

“Idiot! You think a trap sophisticated enough to adapt its illusion perfectly to what we think we’re doing isn’t going to learn from its mistakes?”

“Whaa-- how?”

It had absorbed the unstable energy from the surgers somehow, reasserting complete control over their imaginary surroundings.

Worse, it had expanded its reach. Kas, Lazlo, and Agneza weren’t the only ones in the strangely empty false room with its alluring table covered in concealment and protections. Three others who’d been pushed back toward the trap stood uncertainly, weapons ready, glancing around for enemies they could no longer see.

Kas' heart sank as he realised what he’d done.

“Don’t sit there moping, help me!” Agneza shouted. “Recharge. And get to work.” Her fingers danced in a quick hex, and faint red lines appeared hovering in the air. “Imprecise, but it’s the best I can do.”

She took the recharge then attacked the indicated area, the makeshift guide marking the spot they entered. Kas joined in, no longer trying for finesse, grabbing at the empty air and tugging until he found a spot that resisted. They were running through their recharges at a terrifying speed. Kas silently thanked Ziv for having him grab so many.

Then Lazlo uttered a startled gurgling grunt, and collapsed to his knees.

“NO! Laz!” Agneza half stood, one hand clenching into a fist, then turned away back to the trap. “Help him,” she ordered, voice breaking as she went back to work with hardly a pause. “I’ll hold it for now.”

Kas swallowed and ran to Lazlo’s side, already pulling patches from the pocket storage. They’d help seal up wounds and bolster natural healing, but one glance at Lazlo and he knew they wouldn’t be enough. He tore open the package to try anyway, but something jolted against him and his surroundings flickered to a slightly different angle. Heat spread down his arm, followed by a chill. He’d dropped the patch, its contents scattered on the too-pristine floor. Blood ran from his shoulder.

He fumbled in the pocket storage and pulled out another patch, which he tore open and poured over his shoulder. Then another for Lazlo, though he wasn’t sure how to get at whatever injury had brought him to the ground. Lazlo’s many items blocked his way.

Lazlo grunted and shook him off. “Recharge.”

Kas hesitated, but at his urgent hand flick passed him the recharge. Instead of absorbing it himself, he pressed it against a thin crystal plate at the centre of his chestplate, power flickering for a moment before it was absorbed. “More.”

Kas pulled them out, then suddenly Lazlo was further away, though Kas' surroundings didn’t seem to have changed. Something must have collided with him outside the illusion.

There wasn’t a complete separation between the deception and reality. Not entirely. Earlier, their movements hadn’t been reflected between reality and the lie. Kas wasn’t sure if it was Agneza’s continual efforts making the difference or whether the snare was changing as it tried to adapt. Damaged spells did that, sometimes. Maybe they could use it somehow - though, from the way the trap’s new hostages were exploring the surrounds and not getting smacked around, it couldn’t be as simple as a one-to-one mirror even now.

Even as he watched, one of the trio, an enchanter he’d vaguely encountered around the office by virtue of having a desk in the same general vicinity, dropped to the floor with a cry clutching her leg. The outside world could get at them, but with the exception of Agneza’s relay they couldn’t return the favour. And no one would be picking up a relay while fighting for their lives.

The two uninjured hostages had joined Agneza; maybe they had some safecracking experience. Kas sprinted over to Lazlo, raining recharges into his palms as fast he could. The infiltrator’s hands were shaking, but he continued pressing them to the crystal plate.

If he could only make an opening. With his spare hand, Kas tapped out his own relay orb and called - he didn’t want to catch any of his team off-guard at a critical moment - Jarom, his last active contact. He passed Lazlo yet another recharge and activated mana sight, turning his head so he wasn’t staring into the swarm of blinding enchantments still lingering along the far wall.

The orb lit up immediately with a clear glow. Not enough. Kas pushed more mana into his eyes, feeling them water in response. A hazy thread blurred into view, snaking towards the holes Agneza was tearing and readjusting every second or two as the encasing spell repaired itself. The signal wasn’t getting through.

A hand stopped him as he tried to feed Lazlo another recharge. “That’s enough,” the big man declared. “I’m putting myself into suspension. I’ve taken too much damage.” He tapped the breastplate softly. “This should buy me a sand. Two, if we’re lucky. Any more and the overload would kill me more surely than those things out there.”

Lazlo tapped the crystal again, which flared up in Kas’ mana sight, sending a shield-like dome over the infiltrator’s form. “It’s on you to get me out of here. But if I don’t make it -” He paused, eyes darting towards his partner still methodically working her way through the snare. “Tell ‘Neza not to blame herself. Or you, kid. We all know the risks. Now go deliver your supplies where they’re needed.”

Kas stood numbly as Lazlo stilled, then shook himself out of his stupor. The recharge almost slipped from his fingers and he crushed it in response, feeding the mana still burning through his eyes. He lined up more as he ran back to the others, noting as he did that the enormous supply was two-thirds gone.

Before he made it, one of the mercenaries jolted backwards, thrown across the room. His head lolled against his chest, unmoving. Agneza swore and froze for an instant, before immediately doubling down, expending what looked like the last of her mana in time for Kas’ next recharge. Neither of them said anything, but it was clear she was fighting a losing battle.

If they didn’t change tactics, they wouldn’t be getting out until they were dead or Maesik came back for them. Which might as well be death - if not for their bodies then certainly their careers. But probably their bodies.

Another impact glanced off his arm, something sharp and unseen. A dull ache spread through the limb a moment later. He took a patch out of pocket storage and applied it to the area, though whether it was helping his real body remained to be seen.

Pocket storage. He might have been aeons behind the high-rankers in experience, but he had one thing they didn’t - heavy duty supply. In the end, the attacking constructs were just enchanted objects, like the AutoSlash. He could see no reason why they couldn’t be transferred into the storage grid’s larger compartments. All he had to do was touch one. And at the rate their team members were dropping, all he probably had to do was stand still.

He just needed to see it coming.

“Is there a way we can get a relay signal through?” he asked the safecracker.

“Don’t know. Maybe. Recharge.”

Kas passed her one. Less than a third remaining, now.

“Maybe it doesn’t need to get out. We’re in a mental effect. If I can aim an orb on myself, then when I get hit - ” He tapped the surface of the storage interface.

A look of understanding passed over Agneza’s face. “Blud.” She closed her eyes, and when they opened again, they blazed with mana. “It’s worth a shot.” She glanced at Lazlo lying motionless on the ground and her expression firmed. “I think it’s our only shot.”

She pulled out her relay orb and held it out to Kas. “Contact yourself,” she ordered tersely when he didn’t move to take it.

Kas nodded understanding and gripped the relay, tapping in his own relay code until the call connected. He quickly accepted the full sharing, feeds from both orbs warring for dominance in his head until they found a sort of equilibrium and merged into one consistent image. It seemed… confused. At first it seemed to display the empty stairwell from the delusion. But as he pushed mana into the connection, sending the relays surging with excess power, a layer of reality struggled to superimpose itself.

Kas had wandered aimlessly in an arc away from the actual centre of the trap and stood near the stairs, furthest from any of the attacking constructs. Agneza had gotten turned around and her placeholder illusion aimed futilely at the floor where nothing of import lay; she and the others were attacking the wrong spot. Kas felt a moment’s dread at how intelligent the trap had to be to shift their attention so subtly without anyone even noticing. Probably the same intelligence that had led them to wander in small circles while imagining they were climbing the stairs.

“It’s over here,” he called, pointing. He watched his real counterpart shadow the motion. But it was off, hesitant and confused like a sleepwalker, the elbow not reaching its full extension. “It moved your guide to trick you.”

He couldn’t get a perfect view of the area, being limited to the directions the orbs pointed in. He could physically direct them around a bit, but the priority now was focusing on the two of them. Even so, signs of struggle were all around them - flashes of darting bodies ducking and weaving under deadly limbs; grunts and cries of battle ringing through the air.

The view ended at the edge of the trap’s radius, a solid white dome that blocked the signal from coming in or going out. But within that sphere, Kas could see the reality as recorded by the relay orbs transmitted directly to his mind, partly blocking out the trap’s mental haze.

One construct stood within the circle, stalking toward Lazlo. In stark contrast to its sinuous, flowing upper movements, its actual gait moved with the unsteady balance of something unused to walking. Kas realised this must be the only reason any of them were still alive; if the things were capable of running or moving adeptly on their feet, they would have decimated the team long ago. Its upper body swivelled, bladed arm coming down in a smooth arc. Kas leapt for it, one hand outstretched and the other pressed firmly against his pocket storage interface.

With every ounce of will he had, he grabbed the construct and shoved it into the larger empty storage compartment. The mana expenditure left him dazed for a moment, and he crushed a recharge immediately, though he began to feel the giddy edginess indicating he’d used and replaced too much too quickly.

He almost didn’t notice the illusion overlaying itself atop his mental view from the paired relays.

Blud’s Delusion was supposed to be a theoretical exercise in complex spellcasting, the sort of puzzle everyone tried to solve but no one ever actually created. The sheer energy required would be unimaginable, its complexity absurd.

But this was the same research centre that had attached weapon enchantments to warrior-constructs, somehow successfully bypassing the law of contradictory movement.

Whoever had created this trap was a genius.

Moving while watching himself from a relay’s third-person feed instead of trusting his own senses was harder than he’d imagined. He really did look underequipped, ill-prepared, and so young compared to the true professionals around him. The untidiness of his pure white hair did him no favours. He really should--

Kas shook away the distraction, realising too late that the illusion could nudge more than just his perceptions. He had to get out.

The main purpose of the trap was confusion and disorientation. Kas closed his eyes and ran straight at the edge of the dome. Through the relay’s vision, he watched himself swerve unconsciously to the side, adjusting his course so he’d circle back around, and marvelled at how terrifyingly effective the trap was at keeping him contained.

He grabbed two recharges and pressed one to each of his and Agneza’s relays, hoping the boosted power would hold the image steady long enough to get out. From her position on the floor the wounded enchanter stared at him, no doubt wondering why he was wasting equipment on something so eccentric.

The trap was mental, not physical, which also explained why it blocked relay communication but not the constructs. If he could overcome the impulses to remain within its boundaries, he should be able to walk right out. He had to get out so he could take care of the other constructs before they hurt anyone else. Yet every time he neared the barrier, he found he’d gotten turned around.

By now, even his mental link with the twinned relays began to fuzz around the edges. He pressed another recharge into each, but his backups numbered in the tens now, no longer the hundreds. Time and resources were both running out. The relay image continued to decay as its signal weakened, the Blud’s Delusion trying to subvert it as it subverted everything within its influence.

Kas pushed down rising panic and ran at the barrier at a full sprint. He circled the inner edge of it twice before his momentum and frustration brought him to a stop, cursing vehemently. Perhaps he was approaching this wrong. He couldn’t brute force through it. Maybe he could escape with something less conventional.

He lay down and started to roll, as if he were a small child on a park ramp. He didn’t care how undignified he looked; there was only so much course correction he could do in this state. He rolled slowly, watching the relays, keeping himself oriented exactly parallel to the outer barrier.

He saw himself start to drift to the side, but too late. He was close to the edge, closer than he’d been yet. He reached out with one hand, and watched it pass through the white barrier.

Focusing all his attention on that one hand, orienting himself around it, he inched himself slowly through and into the chaos beyond.