Predators, even ones the size of a mountain, have some common traits. Chief among these is a dislike for letting prey escape them.
The giga-beasts picked up the pace when the flames in me added to my speed, but with the arrival of Master Hanq’s ship they found a whole lot more motivation to close the distance.
That was helped by the fact that whoever was piloting the ship was braking its velocity like mad. Pieces of the ship peeled and tore away as it desperately tried to slow down. At first I thought they were trying to avoid crashing into me, but watching the ship barreling down on me I saw that wasn’t going to happen. Instead forward bulkhead passed right through me.
That felt like my body was a chalkboard and someone was scratching their nails across every inch of it, but before I could fully appreciate how awful the experience was, it was over.
The ship hadn’t splattered me across its hull because it was still partially out of phase with warp space. It was sufficiently immaterial that I would have drifted straight through the whole thing and out the other side except for the crash web that Fari had Red team cast to snare me.
To Red team’s credit, the crash web saved my life. It was soft and pliable with fibers that absorbed the difference in our relative velocities and distributed the impact to the point where I only fractured my wrist. As landings went it was an excellent one.
It just wasn’t one I lived to walk away from.
Giga-beasts, as it turns out, get cranky when their food tries to run away. I felt their attack coming as a paralyzing iceberg of frost that engulfed my body. To their minds, I’d been vaguely interesting when they were “chasing” me. The moment it looked like I would escape I was undergraded to “tasty”.
The Void shield I cast was the biggest, most powerful one I’d ever manifested. It flared out from me and formed a circle of hungry darkness that interposed itself between the ship and the beasts. I’ve held off city killing bombs with weaker shields than the one I cast against the giga-beasts. That didn’t mean it was even close to strong enough to save me though.
I don’t have a conscious memory of what the attack felt like. The last thing I remember was Fari’s command to “Prepare for Immediate Jump!”
What I reconstructed later was that the lead giga-beast reached out with some form of mixed Mental-Physical attack and grabbed me. There was a Void anima shield in between us, which was fortunate in that when he punched through it he lost most of the force of his attack and only a tiny tendril got through to my mind.
From the core of my psyche a million or more coiling vines of inhuman power spread outward and coalesced into Physical form. If that sounds unpleasant and potentially fatal then I’m not doing a good enough job of describing just how bad it was.
My instinct when assaulted is to lash out. In this case I lashed out with a buzzsaw of screaming Void anima blades. Normally I get worried when my reflexes involve massive displays of violence but in this particular case I am quite happy with my subconscious’s choice of reaction to being threatened. I would have been happier if said massive violence had been enough to keep my body from being shattered by the giga-beasts power but even if I’d had ten years of training under my belt I don’t think I could have managed that.
On a positive note, the ship’s engines jumped us out of there before a second blow hit and I think my shield and flurry of destruction helped free us from some of the vines that had snared us (Red team got the rest of the vines loose and deserves most of the credit for our survival since they had less warning and more to fight against.)
I, meanwhile, died.
“She’s coming around,” Master Hanq said.
I’d lost time following the attack. As one tends to do when one is dead I guess.
“What happened?” I asked, struggling to put my thoughts back together.
“You got a little hurt, so we patched you up,” Darius said. I glanced over to see him and held back a gasp. He looked as bad as I felt. Totally and utterly drained. Two of the members of Gold team, the medical casters under Hanq’s command, were resting in nearby chairs looking just as drained as Darius.
I did the calculations in my head. Three casters with no juice left and me in the only one in the room who was laying on a medical bed. That did not add up to anything good.
“How long was I gone for?” I asked.
“Thirty seconds and that was yesterday, in case you’re curious. It took us a while to get you patched up,” Master Hanq said. “It’s thanks to Fari that we were able to though, she had the medical team prepped well for the jumps.”
“Not well enough,” she said from the other side of the bed they had me laying on.
“You did fantastic.” Master Hanq said. “We all survived. Despite someone’s best efforts to the contrary.”
He scowled at me and I knew there was some real anger there, but it was mixed with relief and pride too. Those emotions echoed in me as guilt, sorrow and affection respectively.
I wanted to tell him I was sorry for stabbing him. In hindsight, it seemed like a fairly questionable move, but I couldn’t bring myself to voice the words with the others in the room. That was a conversation I wanted to have in private.
“What about the colony ship?” I asked.
“They’re safely onboard,” Master Hanq said.
“We owe them a lot,” Fari said. “The people who rescued the colonists did an amazing job. Between saving the colonists and holding out when they had no reason to hope that help would make it in time, they deserve a medal and a parade and a new pony.”
“What about the girl who planned a double Esoteric space jump?” I asked.
“That was barely me,” Fari said. “I just did some of the calculations. Without their navigation data I never could have put that together.”
“I, for one, vote we never do that again,” Darius said.
“It was worse than a normal jump I take it?” I said.
“The rest of us were jealous of the state you got to experience the jump in,” Darius said. “We’ve made Fari promise that if she does another jump like that we’ll all get to be in a similar state first.”
Fari caught my look of confusion and explained.
“They literally said ‘If you’re going to do that again, please kill us first’,” she said.
“I’m pretty sure none of us were kidding either,” Darius said. How they’d managed to resuscitate me under those circumstances seemed like a miracle in its own right. I owed several people quite a lot for my continued survival.
“Where are we now?” I asked.
“Back in regular warp space,” Master Hanq said. “We’re on the new lane to Titanus that the colonists worked out.”
“Wasn’t Hellsreach closer though?” I asked.
“That depends on the travel route you take,” Fari said. “The route we took to get to the colony ship was mono-directional for added speed. The colonists used that as a base when they came up with the new route.”
“Is there a route back or is this a one way trip?” I asked.
“There’s several route’s back,” Master Hanq said. “We had two calculated from the site of wreck but the giga-beasts arrival voided out those lanes. All the rest that we have start at Titanus.”
“Technically we could recalculate a new route to get to Hellsreach directly, but the initial path forays I did worked out to be about three times as long as just going to Titanus and returning using one of the pre-calculated trips,” Fari said.
“The giga-beasts were big but not weeks worth of travel big,” I said.
“It’s not the beasts themselves,” Fari said, “Although they are a concern. The real problem is with how their sub-aetheric realm co-joined to warp space.”
“I’m going to translate that for myself as their house is a lot bigger than they are and it’s acting as a roadblock. Is that close to right?” I asked.
“Pretty much,” Fari said. “It stinks that we have to go so far out to get around them but on the other hand if their home realm hadn’t gotten so close to ours we couldn’t have managed the double jump like we did.”
“It wasn’t an accident that they were there,” I said.
“I know,” Master Hanq said. “The explosion called them in and then we started fighting in the middle of it. That’s a recipe for disaster.”
“There’s more to it than that,” I said. “The guy we were fighting was also the one who called in the giga-beasts.”
“You saw him?” Darius asked.
“We all did,” I said. “It was the guy who threw himself into the colony ship’s warp generator.”
“I saw the footage of that,” Darius said. “It looked like the generator annihilated him on a molecular level. How did he survive it?”
“He didn’t,” I said. “I think he left behind a kind of Void anima ghost though.”
“I’ve heard of that,” Master Hanq said. “There’s a theory that any highly skilled caster can do it, the trick is that you need time to prepare and most casters who fall in battle are killed before they’re aware an attack is incoming.
I thought back to the Karr Khan. He’d been one of greatest Void anima casters in recent history. I’d beaten him with the help of a full circle of casters, the power of a world killing super weapon and the help of several million ghosts. If he’d managed to leave an echo like the colony ship’s destroyer had that would have been nightmarishly bad. Fortunately the prospect of losing a fight was one his ego kept him from ever being able to see or plan for.
“How long can something like that last?” I asked.
“Depends on the caster and how important the thing they anchor to is to them,” Master Hanq said.
For the wraith that I’d found near the explosion, I guessed that meant he wasn’t going to last very long. As one of the colonists, he didn’t have a long relationship with the ship or any of the crew on it. He was skillful though, which meant he could probably parcel out his time for long enough to be at least a minor bother still.
That thought made me wonder what he could have done if the anchor for his ghost was profoundly important to him? It was an academic question when applied to the wraith but it led me to some unsettling thoughts when I considered Echo. It had been well over ten years since I lost my mother. I tried to work out if it was possible for an echo to last that long. It seemed unlikely, but then so did most of the rest of my life.
“If we give them a wide enough berth then they’ll all vanish into the sub-Aether on their own right?” I asked, referring to the wraith and the giga-beasts.
“Twenty questions is fun, but shouldn’t we be giving Mel time to rest?” Fari asked.
“I’m ok. You folks did a great!” I said as I tried prop myself up on the bed.
That was a mistake. Darius and the other healers had managed to save my life. They’d even patched me up so that I wasn’t a broken mass of goo. What they hadn’t done was restore me completely.
It wasn’t out of spite or laziness or anything like that though. Magic can accelerate healing greatly but overuse of healing spells can leave the body broken and dependent on them. They’d saved my life, but it was going to be up to me to put it back together again.
I needed the rest, so I was inclined to let them all go, but something struck me as suspicious about the timing of Fari’s suggestion.
“Is there something still going on with our ship killing Wraith?” I asked.
Master Hanq and Fari exchanged a pained look. For a moment neither of them answered me, but then Master Hanq sighed and gave me the bad news.
“We think he’s found a new anchor,” he said.
It didn’t exactly take a genius to figure out why that would upset them both, or who the new anchor might be.
“Me?” I asked and their nods confirmed my guess. “Is he here?”
“No but we think we know where he is,” Master Hanq said.
“The giga-beasts are still pursuing us,” Fari said. “They shouldn’t be intelligent enough to do that, or interested in us now that we’re outside their sphere of influence, but someone’s driving them onwards.”
“Right towards us,” I guessed.
“And right towards Titanus,” Master Hanq said.