The original plans for the colonization of Titanus called for the Imperial Oversight committee to arrive there two weeks before the first colonists did. That plan had fallen into the depths of a black hole the moment the timetable was advanced.
The revised plan was that the Oversight committee would follow along two weeks after the first colony ship left. The colonists would spend their first few weeks in space rather than transferring to the ground habitats on arrival. The committee would get to perform an accelerated review of the planet’s safety and everything would proceed without issue.
Fari and I were the ones who set fire to that plan.
“Vunthar’s forces are small but efficient,” I said. “They’re going to make the best use of whatever time we give them.”
“And if you’ve judged this wrong and they’re still here?” Master Raychelle asked.
“It’s not an ‘if’, we know part of Vunthar’s loyalists and dozens of other hate groups are still active here,” Fari said.
“The only thing that sets Vunthar apart is that he seems to be in the lead in terms of bringing his plans together,” I said.
“That makes him one of the most dangerous actors on the field then,” Master Opal said. “And you’re still restricted from full casting. Why do you think one of us shouldn’t handle this?”
“A lot of reasons, but the biggest is that you’re too important,” I said. “Send me and people will think it’s a minor problem. If one of you two go, the whole colony move will start looking too dangerous.”
“I thought you had reservations about Verulia?” Master Raychelle said.
“I do,” I said. “But I also think we need to get people off Hellsreach. Even once the quakes settled down, the rest of the planet is too unstable.”
“Politically and socially?” Master Raychelle said.
“And tactically,” I said. “The Empire will keep a defense force here, but you know there’s going to be someone who makes a play for taking control of it. A warlord or a corrupt Imperial or just someone greedy and stupid enough to think they can pull it off. I know we’re good at stopping that sort of thing, but people will still get hurt in the process.”
I thought of the people I’d failed to save before I managed to stop Makkis and his conspiracy from turning Hellsreach into a super weapon that could wipe out its neighbor worlds. Makkis and his group played for keeps and there were hundreds of people who’d died as a direct result of their attempts to keep me off their trail.
“This wouldn’t be a problem if Titanus wasn’t a frontier world,” Opal said.
The communications blackout that prevented us from contacting the first colony ship was the result due several factors, not the least of which being that Titanus lacked most of the modern amenities like a planetary spell web infrastructure. Until the crisis on Hellsreach was revealed, Verulia wasn’t sure it was going to do anything with the system. In the months that followed, they’d started work on the magical frameworks needed to improve communication with the Imperial core worlds, but like most frontier worlds, the going had been slow.
“There’s still two issues to consider,” Master Raychelle said. “First, we’re still trying to determine what’s happened with your anima casting.”
“If Vunthar has five hundred troops at his disposal, I’m not going to stop him with anima casting,” I said. “I just need to be a messenger who knows to look for. Between Verulia security and the Imperial troops the auditors brought along, there should be plenty of casters to lock Vunthar and his forces down.”
Master Opal and Raychelle shared a laugh at that and I looked at them suspiciously.
“Remind her she said that later,” Opal said to Raychelle.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“What Master Opal is saying is that you’ll never have ‘plenty of casters’.” Raychelle said. “You can expect you’ll either have far too few or far too many. We don’t live the sort of lives where we have just as much as we want of any resource.”
“Though we often have as much as we truly need,” Opal said.
“Then it sounds like I’ll be fine there,” I said. It felt like they were teasing me, mostly because they were. Which was their right as experienced Guardians, but it was still annoying.
“There’s also the second issue to consider,” Master Raychelle said. “You’re still my apprentice. That means you’re supposed to go where I go and learn from what I do.”
“There will be a lot to learn from the situation here on Exxion III,” Master Opal said. “But in this instance there are other factors to consider as well.”
“You’re thinking that most apprentices are younger than Mel aren’t you?” Master Raychelle said.
“Yes, but also that she’s shown good judgment so far,” Master Opal said. “And that while she is your apprentice, she doesn’t have to be under your direction at all times.”
“Are you suggesting that I provide her a task and then entrust someone else with returning her to us safely?” Master Raychelle asked.
“Yes,” Master Opal said. “If only we could find someone who’s familiar with the peculiar challenges of keeping Mel safe from herself.”
“Is that my cue to join the discussion?” Master Hanq said as he walked into the small conference room that we had commandeered.
I was out of my chair and hugging him around his broad neck before he had the chance to get another word out.
Then it occurred to me what his presence meant.
“Wait a minute,” I said, backing away from him and turning an accusing eye on Raychelle and Opal. “You knew! You knew I was going to ask to do this and you sent for him days ago!”
“She is as quick as your reports say she is,” Master Opal said.
“Let’s just say that after you chased Makkis down through opposition that would give a full Guardian pause, we were concerned you might become somewhat fixated on Major Vunthror as well,” Master Raychelle said.
“Not that you’re wrong to be. As you say, he is in a particularly dangerous position,” Master Opal said.
“And, to be fair, I was in this sector already,” Master Hanq said. “You can thank Guardian Clearborn and her companion for that.”
“Yael sent you here?” I asked.
“Yeah,” he said. “I saw her and Zyla about two weeks ago.”
“What were they doing?” I asked.
“Fate crafting up a storm,” Maste Hanq said. “Zyla was placed high enough in the Khan’s power structure that she had access to a lot of information on other Warlords who remained active outside the boundaries of the Empire. They’re trying to use that and their combined Aetherial casting power to stay ahead of some calamities that have been brewing for a while.”
“They’ve been meeting with some success from Yael’s last message to me,” Master Opal said. “The two of them negotiated an amnesty with one of the more amiable ex-Warlords and shut down scheme to dehydrate a water planet that was being spearheaded by a less amiable one.”
“Dehydrate a water planet?” I asked. I knew the rest of the galaxy had its own problems, but in the face of what I’d been involved with on Hellsreach it was easy to forget that we weren’t the only ones dealing with serious issues every day.
“It was a revenge thing,” Hanq said. “The Oulani were instrumental in taking Warlord Graize out of power. He couldn’t reconquer the system, so he tried to genocide the Oulani homeworld. Guardian Clearborn prevented that from happened and Zyla put an end to Graize.”
“Was it necessary that she kill him?” Opal asked, frowning in concern.
“She thought it was,” Hanq said. “Yael wasn’t as certain, but she was able to provide evidence that it was at least lawful.”
“Zyla’s not planning on becoming a Crystal Guardian is she?” Raychelle asked, as though confirming an earlier suspicion.
“I don’t think so,” Hanq said. “She and Yael seem to work well together.”
“And the Crystal Guardians are spread thin enough that we’d ask them to handle separate missions,” Opal said. “Do you think my former apprentice is having a positive influence on her?”
“I didn’t know Zyla before they met, but judging from the dinners we’ve had together, I’d say that’s a safe assumption to make,” Hanq said. “Zyla’s very protective of your former apprentice. I think that may have been where Graize tripped up. I gather he made some very specific threats and that…didn’t turn out so well for him.”
“How did you wind up having dinner with them?” I asked.
“Didn’t I tell you? Part of my amnesty was the allowance to join the Imperial Navy,” he said.
“I knew that part, but I thought you were commanding a fleet of ships?” I said.
“That’s technically true, but the fleet I run are all fast courier ships. They’re mine to command when the Empire wages a fleet action but under normal circumstances, the captains act independently and just submit reports to me.”
My brain almost let that slip by, but at the last second I caught the importance of what he’d said and put two and two together.
“You have a courier ship? How fast can you run the jump route to Titanus?” I said, feeling my pulse quicken and my heart pound out its beats like a hammer on an anvil.
“With a clear lane, we’ll make it there before two days the Colony ship arrives,” he said.
I felt my skin growing warm with delight. And then disturbingly warm.
In my happiness, I’d let a surge of physical anima flow through me. The flames reacted to that and I felt cold grip my chest once more as the thought of what flames hot enough to slag metal would do to a spaceship the size of the one we were on.
I couldn’t let that happen and, fortunately, I’d learned from the disaster in the colony ship’s engine room and from my..from Echo. This time I didn’t let the vicious cycle of danger and Void anima cocooning pull me under. The darkness in me was mine. My tool. My weapon.
Grasping the cold in my chest and calling up the darkness that always lay a hair’s breadth beneath my surface, I formed it into a blade in my mind and sliced away at the flames from the inside. The fire blaze hotter inside me, so I slice deeper into it. It wasn’t a pleasant feeling but I wasn’t going to fall apart. Not again. The fire seemed to sense that and I felt it retreat before I reached its core. Bits of it remained behind and I snuffed those one by one until all the anima inside me felt properly settled. The whole exchange took only a couple of seconds and by the time I finished letting a slow breath out my skin was back to normal, the icy sense of danger was gone and I felt much more under control.
“Well that was interesting,” I said.
The others were looking at me with a concern in their eyes that said they’d all caught on to what was happening within me.
“Are you ok Mel?” Fari asked.
“Yeah, I think I am,” I said. “And I don’t think I’m going crazy.”
“What happened just now?” Master Raychelle asked.
“I got the fire under control,” I said.
“How?” she asked.
“Basically? I stabbed it in the face,” I said.
Master Raychelle regard me with a look that said I would be explaining things in much greater detail before she was satisfied.
Later, I thought. I could talk to her or Fari about Void anima but it was tough to explain to other people. I didn’t actually have a separate entity living within me, but sometimes that was the most useful metaphor to explain how I did what I did with Void anima.
“Why didn’t I ever adopt you?” Master Hanq asked, looking inordinately pleased.
Despite the fact that I was (technically) an adult, there was something touching about that. Hanq had been the closest thing I’d had to a father for well over a decade. I’d imagined him adopting me a lot, but somehow the Sisters had always felt like my replacement family. They were harsh sometimes, and often stern, but, when I thought back, never cruel. Well most of them. Well, not the ones I liked anyways.
“You could barely handle me for four hours a day,” I said. “I’d have broken you if you tried to deal with me the other twenty hours too.”
“Darius is going to riot if you try to leave him behind again,” Fari said.
“And who would Darius be?” Hanq asked.
Master Raychelle spared me from having to define my relationship with Darius to Master Hanq.
“A young gentleman who’s been of great assistance to Mel,” she said. “He’s been named the Common Council’s Liaison on Security Affairs hasn’t he? I expected having him along on the mission will fall within his remit.”
“With Admiral Okoro and Darius, that’s two strong casters,” Fair said. “Would you like a third?”
“Always!” I said, guessing that she was referring to herself.
“The Oversight committee isn’t scheduled to leave for the Titanus inspection for over another week,” Master Raychelle said. “I don’t think Mel and Master Okoro can delay that long.”
“I agree,” Fari said. “But as the Imperial Overseer I believe I’m empowered to change our schedule and staffing to meet unforeseen demands.”
“You intend to give yourself permission to leave early?” Master Opal asked.
“No. I intend to advance the committee’s timetable to match the accelerated colonization process,” Fari said. “It will be disruptive to the efforts here, but Major Vunthor’s actions highlight that Verulia Industries’ accelerated colonization plan has serious security holes in it.”
“The Ambassador will need to review your proposed plan, but I’m curious to hear it first,” Master Opal said.
“That won’t be possible,” Fari said. “He’s already reviewing it. In short though, I plan to take three of the analysts with me. We’ll backfill their positions here will two additional personnel who have a clear public record. The rest of the work log, I’ve already handled.”
“You move quickly.” Master Raychelle said.
“I don’t need to sleep, so I can get a lot done each day,” Fari said.
“It seems like you have the situation well in hand then,” Master Opal said.
Master Raychelle and I felt the brush of Aetherial magic flit through the room at the same time. Both of us were out of seats and shrouding everyone present in Void anima shields instantly but we were still too late.
The attack hadn’t been aimed at us. We were just receiving news of it.
The two of us reached out to grab the thread of fate casting that was taunting us but it disintegrated on its too quickly. All I got was a single image from it.
One of the three colony ships that launched on the first day. It’s gray hull lit by the weird lights of warp space. The massive engines that fed its warp generator exploding in a multi-chromatic burst of pyrotechnics.
We’d lost one of them.
One of the first three.
Vunthor was that far ahead of us.
Worse, there wouldn’t be a clear warp lane for Master Hanq’s ship to transit through. Our chance to arrive at Titanus before Vunthor was gone. I looked at Master Raychelle and saw that something else had vanished too.
Vunthor had raised the stakes and proven that he was a serious threat. Raychelle wasn’t going to send an apprentice into that. She’d handle it herself and she’d go with overwhelming force. It was the smart play, the one that would protect the maximum number of lives.
Just not the ones on the other two ships.
I’d wanted to save them. To save Cadrus and Nenya and Kallak and even Eirda, but I’d been too slow.