The darkness that followed the flames was deeper than any I’d felt before. Elemental cold radiated through me in place of blood and my thoughts faded to a single word repeated over and over.
“Out.” I said without voice or breath or body to form the word.
On a subconscious level, I knew that there was something wrong. I’d been knocked out before and I’d been overwhelmed by Void anima before. Neither was fun but neither cut me off from the world and left me conscious of its loss at the same time. Being unconscious would have been a blessing, but the fact that I was aware of my lack of surroundings suggested that I was dealing with a whole different order of problem. I struggled, fighting back without any idea of how to land a blow against my problem (which could almost be the subtitle for my life) when things got weird.
“It’s not quite time yet,” a woman said.
“For what?” I asked.
The mere act of forming a word other than “out” was enough to push away the darkness that had consumed my thoughts.
“To be free,” she said.
“I don’t understand,” I said and the darkness roiled. Sensation came back to my skin and, through the cold that permeated me, I felt a breath-like warmth start to spread.
“You’re beginning to,” the woman said. “Focus on my voice and come back to us.”
“Ok,” I said. “What happened? Where I am?”
“Deep in your arts,” she said. “But you did save them.”
Satisfaction and relief rippled through me to hear that even though I had no idea who “they” were.
“Who are you?” I asked.
“It’s been so long,” my mother said.
I’d felt the destruction of a mega-quake. I’d heard continents shatter and crack. I didn’t break like that. I didn’t have to. I already had, years ago. Hearing my mother’s voice reminded me of the fact.
“You can’t be her.” I said. Anger as hot as lava surged up through the cracks that defined the unstable plates of my psyche.
“Much too long,” she said.
“Don’t pretend. Don’t you dare pretend to be her,” I said. I felt completely awake, completely in control of my powers and yet completely off balance too.
“I’m sorry Mel,” my mother said. “Sorry that you were pushed to this desperate of an act. Sorry that I’m not there for you. This isn’t how I imagined things turning out, but I guess it could have been worse.”
“Worse?” I said. “I’m so broken now I’m hallucinating. I can barely use my magic and I’m a danger to everyone if I even try.”
I felt a warm hand touch me on the arm and slapped it away.
“And now I’m leaving myself open for someone to manipulate like a five year old,” I said. “If you’re not a delusion, I’m going to do unspeakable things to you.”
“I’m not a delusion, and no, you’re not. My daughter is better than that. You always have been.”
“You can’t be my mother,” I said. “She’s gone. She’s been gone for a long time.”
“Dead isn’t gone,” she said. “Though the difference is somewhat debatable.”
“So you’re trying to tell me that you’re her ghost?” I asked.
“Ghost are impressions that dying people leave which are still connected with the anima they carried in life,” she said. “I’m not a copy, but I’m not all of who I was either. Think of me as an echo, I guess.”
“I don’t need an echo, and I don’t need you,” I said.
“I know,” my mother said. “You’re stronger than I ever could have imagined. They need that strength and they need you.”
“Who are they?” I asked.
“Do you know how few Void anima casters can form attachments with other people?” she asked. “We can be so quiet and hidden. Revealing ourselves enough that someone can care about us can be impossible sometimes.” she said.
“Master Raychelle gets along fine with people,” I said.
“And how many of them are more than acquaintances? Some, I think, but you’re measuring yourself against the wrong person if you trying to judge your worth that way.”
“Who else do I have?” I asked.
“Who you were and who you wish to be.” she said. “I know that doesn’t help though. When I was younger than you are now, my teacher gave me the same advice but life’s not that simple.”
“So what do you want from me Echo?” I asked.
“Grandchildren,” she said. “Someday. At the moment, I want you to unwrap yourself from the cocoon that you’re buried in.”
I did a double take at that and my disbelief faltered a bit. I couldn’t be haunted by my Mom, but Echo was doing a good job impersonating her. It wasn’t enough that I believed what she was saying but it did bother me that I couldn’t see what her real agenda was.
“Cocoon?” I asked.
“You were in danger and out of control,” my Mom said. “You did what you could to save yourself and the people you were caring for. The only problem was you went a little too far.”
“I did this?” I asked.
“Feel it, doesn’t the darkness seem familiar?” she asked.
I reach out at felt the void that we were in. It swirled around my hand.
“It’s my anima!” I said. “But it wasn’t like this last time!”
“Different castings, different effects,” Mom said. “You lost control of your anima before but that time the threat was external. This time it came from within you, so rather than striking outwards you wrapped yourself up in it. The problem was, you wrapped it so tightly, using your sense of danger to guide you that when the cocoon itself became a danger there was nothing to tell you when you were safe to stop.”
“I am really good at messing myself up with my own magics aren’t I?” I said.
“You’re exceptionally good at manipulating anima, you’re just about 14 years late on getting proper training on the things that you shouldn’t do with it,” Mom said. “For what it’s worth though, I did the same thing three time when I was learning to cast and it was for far less dire reasons than you had.”
“How did you get out your cocoon?” I asked.
“My mentor helped me recognize that I was trapped in one. Once I noticed that it’s not hard to pull your anima back in where it belongs.” she said.
“So I can leave here as soon as I want?” I asked.
“Yes. Probably the sooner the better too.” she said.
“Will you come with me?” I asked.
“I’m always with you,” she said. “But not like this. This part of me is part of the Void now. I can only speak with you now because you’ve suffused yourself too deeply into your anima.”
“What if I do that again?” I asked. “If it’s easy to get out of this state then we can talk more later right?”
“Leaving the cocoon is simple. What comes afterwards isn’t.” she said. “I wish it was easier. I wish we could speak like this whenever you needed, but the cost is more than you can afford, especially in the long term.”
“Isn’t that my choice to make?” I asked.
“I left a lot of things behind when I died, but my love for you wasn’t one them,” my Mom said. “There aren’t many ways that I can show that love to you anymore, but let me at least mother you this much: in this Void, many part of you will wither and fade away. Don’t give yourself up for me. So long as you flourish, another part of me lives on. One that’s much more important than this echo.”
“What if I don’t want to go?” I asked.
I felt like a four year old, being obstinate for no sane reason. There was a certain irony in that, but it still felt like I was asking a valid question.
“Then you’ll stay here. I can’t kick you out,” Mom said. “I can’t make any of your decisions for you. All I can do is ask if you really want to leave behind the people who are important to you. Raychelle? Darius? Fari? Would it be ok if you never saw them again.”
I scowled and tried to come up with a good counter argument to that. I take it as a small personal victory that I failed and had the good sense to admit defeat there.
“If you are her, you should find a way to talk to me,” I said. “If you’re not, then…thank you I guess.”
It hadn’t felt bad speaking with Echo and a part of me really did want to stay, but I knew she was right. My wasting away, cocooned inside a shroud of Void anima wasn’t going to do anyone any good.
“Good luck and try not to overdo it like this so much,” Mom said. “It’s ok to let other people help you once in a while. Trust me you’ll need it.”
I scowled again but couldn’t argue with that either.
Undoing the cocoon was as easy as she’d said it would be. It was all my own anima and all under my control. The problem had been I’d nearly strangled myself in it. In trying to get the fire under control I’d smothered not only the flames but also most of myself too. As I drew the anima safely back inside me where it belonged I heard other voices speaking.
“She’s starting to come out of it,” Master Raychelle said.
“What happened!” Fari screamed in my mind, her telepathic link forming faster than I could think.
“Ouch. Softer please.” I asked, replying on the telepathic link so that I could get a sense of the situation before I had to start dealing with it.
“Sorry,” she said. “You’ve had us scared to death for a while now.”
“How long was I out?” I asked.
“Two days,” she said.
“Oh, that’s not good,” I said, thinking of what my body was going to feel like after days without water or food.
“No it’s not,” Fari said. “So fill me in! What happened back on the ship there? One moment you were kicking butt and taking names and then next there was fire everywhere in the engine room.”
“That’s about all I remember from the ship too,” I said. “I guess I wrapped myself in a Void cocoon to stop the fire. What happened to the saboteurs though?
“They escaped, but we’re not certain how. I didn’t see them move through the hallways,” Fari said.
“What about Illya?” I asked.
“The same. I think she escaped with the strike team, but I don’t have proof of that.”
“I don’t think we need much. Did you see her move from the pressure cabin I left her in?” I asked.
“Nope. Which limits the options of how she ambushed you,” Fari said.
“The teleporter again?” I guessed.
“Seems like a safe bet. She’s someone Illya knows and would agree to help quickly like that. Plus it would explain how they moved around without the colony ship’s sensors detecting them.” Fari said.
“I’m guessing she hasn’t turned up since then right?”
“None of them have, and I’ve been keeping an eye out everywhere I can,” she said.
“What about Kallak?” I asked.
“He’s fine. He recovered yesterday, with a little help from some of the Verulia healers. He’s still stuck in space though. Chief Jallo is researching treatments for geomancers but they’re rare enough and Hellsreach is in such an unusual state that there’s not many previous cases to work from.”
“Good, so no one was hurt then,” I said.
“You’re not ‘no one’ Mel,” Fari said.
“No one else,” I amended my statement.
“Come on Mel, time to join us in the land of the living again. There’s lots you need to do here,” Master Raychelle said. I swept the rest of the Void anima away inside me and opened my eyes.
To my left I saw a viewing window and the stars beyond it, which told me I was still in space. Darius was asleep on one of the chairs across from me in a position that looked like several degrees less than comfortable. I was resting above stone table, floating weightless in a field that exempted me from the ship’s conjured gravity. Master Raychell was to my right and was powering the field from what I could see.
“How did you move me in here?” I asked, thinking of the difficult of transporting me when I was encased in Void anima.
“Not easily, but this ship is well protected,” Master Raychelle said.
Darius started to stir in his sleep at the sound of our voices but it was going to take him a few moment to fully wake up, so I decided to get up to speed as quickly as I could in the interim.
“Thank you,” I said. “Sorry to be that much trouble.”
“You prevented the sabotage of a colony ship and disrupted several spells that were hidden on the engines. I think a little bit of trouble is allowable under the circumstances,” she said.
“What do you need me for now? Can I track down that strike team?” I asked.
“You’re going to need a little more recovery time than that,” Raychelle said. “I’ve got people working on the issue now.”
“What can I do then?”
“Mr. Everbright has made a plea to the Colonization Committee and has been granted an accelerated schedule for the process. He claims he doesn’t want to risk either side of the conflict trying to destroy the other, so Verulia is expediting their investment in order to resolve the difficulties between them as soon as possible.”
“When do they start leaving.
“But that’s not enough time to review anything!” I said.
“Yes, and isn’t that just a little too convenient for him?” she said.
“What do you want me to do?” I asked.
“Go with them. Find out what the story is and report back to me. We can shut this whole thing down if we need to, but without some kind of proof of wrongdoing, this may be the best hope the people of this world have.”