Chapter 5:

The Retention System

EXIT POINT: Homeworld

From the outside, the edge of the trap wasn’t even visible. Kas could see Agneza and the others furiously working - attacking the wrong spot again - and Lazlo where he lay unmoving. The scene within the Blud’s Delusion seemed almost peaceful, almost comedic.

The scene outside was anything but. Four higher tier co-workers lay incapacitated, either injured or dead or in hibernation like Lazlo. The remaining five each faced a single fighting construct alone, and they weren’t winning. That they hadn’t already been pushed back into the trap field was due only to the constructs’ high focus on upper mobility and stability, rather than locomotion. They could fight peerlessly, predict attacks from the slightest twitch, but only stepped forward with awkward hesitation.

Still, slow and sure, they were closing in. The trap behind Kas would only continue to grow until they found a way to disable it entirely. It was absorbing the ambient mana, sucking in the discharge from the fight, and Kas didn’t want to be anywhere close to it. He’d barely escaped the first time.

Which reminded him of his purpose. He had to get rid of the constructs so the rest of the team could focus on taking out the trap. Unfortunately, getting his hand on one of the fighters proved far more difficult than he’d hoped. These five constructs were spread in a semi-circle, their purpose to prevent anyone escaping. Kas couldn’t slip past them, and he couldn’t attack them head on without being stabbed, decapitated, or otherwise torn limb from limb in very little time.

Well, he’d succeeded the first time without dignity. Why not try it again?

He dropped to the ground and shimmied forward, reaching out for the nearest construct’s clumsy legs. It stepped forward at just the right moment, crushing his forearm beneath its too-heavy form. Had it been the other arm, it could have taken the storage interface - and his hopes - with it. Kas gasped in pain, but retained just enough presence of mind to shove the construct into pocket storage before it could take another step and crush his head. Bad idea. Bad idea. Kas shivered.

As the shock wore off, the pain of his shattered forearm and the sudden emptiness of having spent so much mana again without recovery threatened to black out his vision. Kas was glad he already lay on the ground, or he knew he’d have fallen.

For a long, long moment he lay there, teeth gritted to hold in a scream, fumbling with his good hand for a patch. But while the patches could prevent him bleeding out, they’d do nothing for the broken bones. He’d need a proper healer, and sooner rather than later if he was to recover fully.

He poured three more patches over his arm until the numbing agents took enough of the edge off that he could think somewhat coherently again, then reluctantly crushed another recharge to bring his mana reserves back up.

Two down, four to go. He couldn’t stop. He recognised the other teams’ suppliers downed on the floor. Even if he could share the secret, no one else had a pocket storage of sufficient size. The Silverheart grappled up ahead holding off two constructs simultaneously, drawing their attention while other members of the crew swooped in from the sides with hexes and jabs. But with no fleshy weak points to target, the most they could manage were dents and scratches. A few enchanters frantically cast forcefields, only for spelled limbs to slice through them like a child’s first shaky attempt at warding.

At least now there was a gap in the constructs’ defences. He held his injured arm to his chest and ran out into the hall behind them.

He knew his body would protest its overstrain the moment he stopped. When he got home tonight, if he got home tonight, everything would fall apart. He’d probably have days of convalescence from today’s overexertions. Already the strain of using so much mana was burning at his core, a tingly warning accompanied by a heightening of his mental state. When he crashed, he’d crash hard. But he couldn’t let that hold him back.

He dove for the next construct, already absorbing another recharge to replace the power required to move something so large and complicated into the pocket storage. He’d never stored so many large items in quick succession before.

Kas swayed unsteadily on one knee. Three down. Three more…

They still needed a way to take out the trap. It wouldn’t do any good to clear the area if half the team remained trapped.

Thinking about it made him even dizzier so he put it off for now. Focus on the current objective.

With half the constructs gone, that freed up two of the surviving team members to help hold the line against the remaining three. Kas would have an easier time of getting through, at least. They’d recognised what he was doing and started working together to create openings for him. He was grateful; at this point he wasn’t sure he was capable of much more than staggering over and shoving them into storage.

Which he did. Anticlimactically amid the frenetic clang and clatter of weapons and hiss and crackle of magic, Kas deposited each of the remaining constructs into pocket storage.

Silence fell, and he struggled to stay on his feet.

“What happened?” demanded an unfamiliar fighter, well-armoured and, from the looks of it, close to exhaustion.

“Blud’s Delusion,” Kas said, gesturing back at it. He shook his head. “Someone figured out how to make it actually viable.”

The numb pulse of his arm reminded him that he was badly hurt. But he couldn’t leave now, not in the middle of a job. Not when half the team was still trapped in an illusion.

The nameless mercenary cursed. “You’re sure?”

“Self-repairing. Mutable. It adapted to surgers and can absorb them now. It came close to overwriting my relay link.”

The man cursed again, more vehemently. “Alright, anyone have any ideas for how to get them out?”

“It’s permeable to physical objects,” Kas said. “If we use a long enough pole, we should be able to guide them out.”

“Or through,” suggested one of the enchanters, a woman with white hair like Kas’. She gestured around at the carnage. “They put a lot of effort into guarding those stairs. Whatever we’re after, there’s a good bet it's on the other side of that trap.”

Kas exhaled slowly. He was the only supply member remaining up and capable. “I’ll go. I know how insidious the trap is. I can help the others get out and go grab the target, whatever it is. But you need to guide me in the right direction. It’s incredibly difficult to break out of.”

“Anyone have a spear?” the Silverheart asked. She had one, which appeared from what was probably a custom pocket storage of her own.

Kas checked his own storage. Alas, spears hadn’t been on the inventory list. He had a bundle of javelins, shorter and less sturdy, but perhaps they could be tied together somehow.

“I have a spear.” One of the injured suppliers tapped their interface with a pained wince, offering up the implement in question as it materialised in their palm.

The Silverheart compared the two, then checked the radius of the growing delusion trap. “They’ll work. Go.”

She held the two spears out, one on either side of Kas' body. He grabbed one, but flinched when he tried to reach for the other. For a moment he’d almost forgotten his injury. He tucked the other under his arm, trying to keep it from jostling the shattered forearm too badly. It was probably stupid, but they couldn’t re-authorise equipment while in the field. Kas was the only one who could do this, and with Elurium’s reputation on the line they had to have something to show for such an otherwise unmitigated disaster of a job gone terribly wrong.

She began walking forward, and he let the tug on the spear hafts guide him. He stepped into the trap and came to a stop, the feeling of holding something vanishing immediately. He gripped his hand tighter and kept his upper arm pressed tightly to his side, fighting the foreign certainty in his mind. He kept holding and stepped forward blindly, not trying to choose his own direction.

“Kas! What’s happening out there?”

He glanced at Agneza, who now knelt defensively, her mana levels unreadably low. The other would-be crackers sat around as well, hunkered behind whatever protections they could raise, in a small circle facing out. They’d done everything they could and it hadn’t been enough.

“I took care of the constructs,” Kas reported. “Half the team is down. We think the target is on the other side of the trap. I’m going to retrieve it, then come back to get you guys out.”

He almost raised a hand to pat the invisible spear, but remembering how easily the trap had twisted his perception he held on. If he let go of the blank air that he knew was the spear, he’d never find it again and wander helplessly forever. Or at least until the facility’s owners came to see what they’d caught.

That thought made him uncomfortable to a whole new extreme. The sort of people who could build working constructs to imitate a person or actually solve Blud’s Delusion would have plenty of creative uses for a captured thief.

He tried to convince himself he was jumping to conclusions and everything would be fine, but then realised he hadn’t taken another step in many grains.

Step forward, step sideways, step in whichever direction... Did it even matter?

Then he was out again, the delusion warping as he passed through to the stairs beyond, gripping tightly to the shaft of the spears, so tightly his fingers ached and his arm trembled. Exhaling with relief, he dropped the spears and cautiously activated his mana sight. The tangled maze of protections that had seemed so close while inside the trap still hovered just out of reach, around the corner in the room beyond.

The stairs were cramped and narrow, as though they’d been crammed into a space not intended for the purpose, like a closet. He reached the upper floor and a locked and warded door, but compared to the insane protections downstairs this would be simple to deal with. He selected a mana blade and fumbled at the ward, his overexertion making him clumsy and slow. He really should have both hands for this, but kept the broken one tight to his chest. He would manage.

Fortunately, this was Kas' element. This was what he’d trained himself to do for uncountable years, what he’d practised day in and day out. Exhausted, drained, wounded; he still retained his skill. A quick jerk of the mana blade here, a tap of the SpellComb there, a surger at just the right time, and the lock dissipated. Three more, but none so complicated or impossible as he might have expected. High quality, certainly, but not ‘unheard-of new technology’ level.

Finally, Kas opened the door to see what lay beyond.

It was… disappointing. A cramped cabinet, not even large enough to stand in, with three shelves. One contained the control sphere for the door’s locks and traps, the bottom held a few bottles of expensive slivovitz, and in the middle rested a single cubic box. Its defences were far higher than those on the door, experimental and sophisticated beyond anything Kas had seen, but fortunately a trapped box was portable in a way a trapped door wasn’t.

He placed a hand on the box and put the whole thing into pocket storage. The team could sort it out later in the safety of their home office.

The box vanished into storage, his hand falling through the space it had occupied. He had just enough time to glimpse something brilliantly golden left behind where the box had been, not enough time to pull his hand away before coming in contact with it.

Kas leapt back, his forearm burning. Golden light traced the edges of the pocket storage, bisected it, wrapped around his arm from his elbow to his wrist. Words burned themselves into his inner eye.

[Bond initiated. . . success! User registered: Kasimir Yadmic.]

[Retention system active. Current retention: none.]

[Exit point detected! Scanning. . .]

Kas felt it pulling mana from his body, leeching it into itself, and frantically pressed a recharge against the glowing lines on his arm before it drew too much from him. That seemed to satisfy the unknown system and the strain on his inner reserves slackened.

[Difficulty: Basic. Further detail unavailable. Please continue to explore the area.]

[Exit point detected! Difficulty: Regional. Objective: Overthrow the corrupt hierarchy and bring greater equality to Zha Doya.]

[Exit point detected! Difficulty: Global. Further detail unavailable. Please continue to explore the area.]

[Update queued.]

Kas felt suddenly unwell. Was this something to do with the alleged rebellion? If it had backers as high up as this, then maybe it should be treated as a serious threat. He had to tell someone.

But first, he had to get himself and his team out safely. Lazlo was supposed to be their exit man, but he was in no position to do anything at the moment.

Kas hurried back down the cramped stairs, ducking to avoid hitting his head. The two spears rested where he’d left them. He tucked one under his arm, grabbed the other in his good hand, and edged back into the trap for what he hoped to be the last time.

Getting the others out sounded simple, but proved to be a much more difficult task. Keenly aware of the fact that enemy reinforcements could arrive at any moment, Kas chafed at the delay as they painstakingly guided each of the captured team members out. Lazlo was the easiest, since he couldn’t try to fight back against being pushed outside.

Finally they managed to extract the whole team from the trap and the tension of certain doom began to recede. Kas passed around the last of his recharges to the depleted safecrackers, while five of the stronger members each picked up one of the fallen. Patches were hastily distributed and poured over wounds, then the whole group made for the exit.