In a sense we’re all chased by our ghosts. Normally our ghosts aren’t backed up by creatures best measured on a geographic scale though.
The trip through warp space was calculated to take a little under four weeks, my recovery took just a little over three and the next attack from Higgs Purmin, the colonist who’d destroyed the warp generator and then become a Void echo, came just ten minutes before we were exited back into regular space. In a sense, everything worked out well. Except for the part where Master Hanq’s ship got destroyed.
The four weeks the transit took presented a number of challenges prior to the destruction of the ship though. I was more or less out of it for the first few days so the logistics of repairing the ship were worked out while I was in a restorative sleep. In addition to the damage that it suffered in escaping the giga-beasts, there were a whole series of general repairs needed to stabilize the hasty link that was made between the colony ship module and the courier ship’s lower hull.
Darius filled me in on the problems and near catastrophes that had occurred there as Blue team put their limited resources to work on the problem. Apparently the stresses of warp travel were tearing the two ships apart and they’d had to resort to something called “Explosion-welding” in order to join them solidly enough to survive to trip together.
“Explosion-welding” is every bit as exciting as the name suggests from what he described. Especially the part where the first explosive weld ripped the fabric of warp space and allowed a horde of bat-winged eyeballs to assault the ship. To their credit, Blue team had anticipated an issue like that might occur and it only took an hour long battle through the two ships to get things back under control.
Then they’d had to do the other twelve welds.
That was only the first of many such “adventures” so it was fair to say the crew had been busy while I was lounging in a magically induced slumber to regain my strength. More than a few of them were jokingly jealous of me until I began doing my physical therapy.
My therapy after the incident at the volcano was very different from my recovery this time. Then I’d been magically burned out but physically fine within a few days. This was the reverse. The worst part wasn’t that I’d died, (it’s not really death when they bring you back in under a minute), the worst part was all the broken bones and organ damage.
Bones can be knit magically and organs supplemented with the effects of spells but magical cures can be magically reversed. The only way to really be “healthy” again was to provide the body with the energy and nutrition it needed and then work it so that the natural restorative processes would bring things back into their proper form.
That means doing simple things like walking, light weightlifting and basic anima exercises. My first session was in the ship’s gym with Master Hanq overseeing the exercise regime. That’s all it took, just that one session, and none of the crew was jealous of me anymore.
The story that went around, according to Fari, was that Master Hanq was having his revenge on me for sucker punching him when we were fleeing the giga-beasts. There was even a betting pool on whether he was going to work me to death, literally, in the guise of “trying to help me get better”.
When I found out about that I made sure to have Fari get me a stake in it.
What the crew didn’t get was that for as brutal and scream inducingly hard as the training was, I’d been training under Master Hanq for years. To them, he looked fierce and wrathful. They saw the toll the training took on me and could only imagine the misery I was pushing myself through. In actuality, it was even less fun than I was letting on, but the truth was that Master Hanq and I had trained a lot harder than that in past.
Every time he screamed at me to give him fifty more pushups, I heard the voice of someone who would have been screaming for five hundred more but knew I needed to be handled gently for a while.
And what really mattered was that I could do the fifty. At the end of each of the training sessions, I was exhausted and spent. My body had been worked till I was weak as a kitten. The next day though I was stronger. Each day, a little closer to where I’d been.
The strange thing for me was noticing after my recovery was “complete” that we were training harder than I could remember us ever training on Belstarius.
“Don’t take this the wrong way,” I said, “Because I am dead tired, but I could swear we did two double routines back to back there and I feel ok.”
“That’s good,” Master Hanq said. “I’ll take us up to three tomorrow then.”
“I thought you said I was supposed to be careful about overdoing it?” I asked.
“We are being careful,” he said.
“You’re not in on that dead pool too are you?” I asked.
He smiled at me and mopped his bald head with a towel.
“Now would I ever bet against my best student?” he asked.
“Would that be before or after she shanked you?” I asked.
“I will admit to being, let’s call it annoyed, at that,” he said. His smile faded a few degrees before he spoke again. “I understand why you did it though.”
“I still feel bad about it,” I said. “In hindsight it was kind of stupid.”
“It was,” he said. “When I woke up I was going to have you arrested and confined to the brig for the trip.”
“I wouldn’t have blamed you,” I said. “What changed your mind.”
“Gold team ran you into the recovery room,” he said. “Or what was left of you.”
“Was I that bad?” I asked.
“You were worse,” he said. “I’ve seen you come crawling to me after you got in some mean scrapes. I’ve seen my soldiers busted up and broken in about every way you can imagine. So when I say what happened to you was ugly understand that I know what ugly looks like and I’m still having nightmares about it.”
“I’m sorry,” I said. “You shouldn’t have had to see that.”
“Probably good that I did,” he said. “Made me realize what you were trying to protect me from.”
“I didn’t have a lot of time to think, but yeah, I knew something horrific was going to happen to you and I couldn’t allow that.”
“You weren’t the only one thinking like that.” he said. “I’ve fought things like this before. Horrific describes it perfectly.”
“How did you win then?” I asked.
“I didn’t,” he said. “We got lucky and ran into a bigger monster that ate the one that was attacking us.”
“So you really didn’t plan to survive luring them away from us?” I asked.
“Let’s just say it wasn’t my first priority.”
“Are you still mad at me?” I asked.
“A little bit,” he said. “I’d still like to throw you in the brig, but something tells me you wouldn’t stay safe even there. Not to mention the revolt I’d have among my crew.”
“I thought they hated me for getting to slack off while they worked?”
“Well, sure, we all hate you for that,” he said. “But some of them are under the impression that you took a giga-beast punch to the face for them, so that’s buying you a little credit.”
“They’ve got a dead pool going on me!” I said.
“Gambling on ship is disallowed per regulations,” he said. “But if any was occurring I’m sure only the Captain would be betting against you.”
I did a double take.
“You’re betting you can kill me?” I said.
“No, no,” he said. “Betting is against regulations. Giving the crew an off-the-books bonus for unintended hazardous duty though? Well the regulations have considerably less to say on that subject.”
“So you setup a bet you knew you were going to lose, just to pay them some more?” I asked.
“Have you ever thought about my old dojo?” he asked.
“Yeah, it was comfy,” I said.
“The word you’re looking for is ‘small’,” he said.
“I guess. It seemed the right size for you though.”
“It was, but does that seem like the place a Warlord would live?”
“Now that you mention it, no,” I said. “Is this where you tell me you weren’t really a Warlord?”
“No, this where I tell you that I wasn’t really poor. I never have been, maybe that’s why money’s not that critical to me,” he said. “Part of the reason I picked the identity I had on Belstarius was to stay inconspicuous.”
“You were hiding from the Empire right?”
“And a bunch of other people I knew,” he said. “But there’s a lot of places to hide and a lot of people to hide as. I picked the life I did, because it let me be who I wanted to be.”
“You wanted to be my teacher?” I asked.
“As it turns out, yes,” he said. “There was more to it than that but I liked that life. I still do in fact.”
“So then why sign up for all this?” I asked, pointing vaguely around at the ship and the crew that it held.
“The Kahn,” he said. “Living the life I wanted meant one less person was out there stopping guys like him.”
“Would you go back to Belstarius if you could?” I asked. It was something I’d pondered a few times in the past months, but each time my answer had been the same.
“Nope, this is where I’m needed, so this is where I want to be,” he said, taking the words right out of my mouth.
“Captain, we’re coming up on the first possible exit portal,” Fari said on the ship’s comm system so that it would be properly recorded.
“Well maybe not precisely here,” he said. “Grab a shower and get your kit together. The second portal is only six hours away, I’ll want all the teams ready for whatever’s waiting for us out there.”
In total there were nine exit portals that we’d calculated within the Titanus system. The first was within the atmosphere of Titan itself and the second and following were outside its atmosphere at varying distances from the planet’s surface.
We’d laid all kinds of plans for how we would handle our arrival, with the major adjustments swinging around what Major Vunthor had managed to accomplish with the two days head start that he had on us.
The other issue was the giga-beasts. We caught scryings early on that showed them following us but over the last two weeks they’d faded back and dropped off of our viewing spells entirely.
That either meant that they were stalking us or that our Wraith Higgs had faded enough that he’d lost his influence over them and they’d submerged back into the own realms again.
At Master Hanq’s suggestion, I’d avoided using Void anima for anything. Keeping those magics bound within myself meant that Higgs should have had less to connect to me with, and if I was his new anchor that would be the closest we could come to starving him out of existence.
Or at least that was the theory. What we really needed was someone like Master Raychelle or even Zyla who had formal training in Void anima casting. Since they were a dimension away from us though, I was the local expert and we all knew that meant we were in trouble.
What we hadn’t expected was that trouble would manifest the moment it looked like it would be possible for us to escape warp space.
I should have learned my lesson from the giga-beasts on how predators react to prey escaping but after weeks of peace I wasn’t expecting Higgs to lash out with a direct assault the moment we got within range of opening the first gate. We weren’t planning to use that portal, but of course Higgs wasn’t aware of the fact.
Fortunately when his attack came it was simple and weaker than the one he’d thrown a month previous. Once again he lashed out with a spear of Void anima, but this time it hit my shield to a very different effect.
I felt the thrust coming and braced for it, listening to the cold that swept through me for a sense of the strength, timing and scope of the attack.
Intuition more than reason told me that the assault was aimed only at me. I gambled on that and cast my protections within myself as snares to tear the power of the attack away from him.
In a move that surprised no one more than it surprised me, that strategy actually worked!
I felt the spear as it approached and tried to bite into me. It was a part of Higgs, or the echo that remained of him. I caught it with my own anima on the way in, stepped away from the thrust, then twisted and broken the power off from him, sheering it clean with a pure effort of will to gain control of it.
Higg’s Wraith screamed as I fractured it and I felt its hate come alive once more. This time I knew a little more about where it was coming from though.
We’d put together from the colony ships records that Higgs had been a prejudiced bigot for most of his life. He’d been raised that way and had intended to raise a family to follow in his footsteps, except he’d been a failure as a suitor. With no family and few friends, our guess was that he’d fallen in with Vunthor’s forces as their man on the inside. There was mail he’d received from military contacts but the contents had passed review as being purely mundane. Pre-scripted phrases however could be whatever the conspirators needed them to be and the likelihood that Higgs was actually interested in “baking up a warm dinner for his close friends” was pretty low in light of his subsequent actions.
With all that was left of him being madness and hatred I couldn’t ask what his motivations were, and, unfortunately, I couldn’t expect him to give up the attack until he completely destroyed.
As fast as I broke pieces off of him, he launched fresh attacks. Through wave after wave, I wound up surrounding myself more and more with Void anima and sending my mind deeper into the emptiness to find the core of what was holding him together.
I was just about sure I’d reached it when the giga-beasts attacked.
I’d been so focused on Higgs that I hadn’t felt their impending arrival. I cast myself away, binding the Wraith in shield after shield formed from his own power turned against him. By the time I was back to my senses though, the ship was in pieces.
To the credit of all of the people on board, most especially Red team, the fact that the pieces were still mostly intact could only be attributed to extreme and heroic competence in the face of insurmountable odds.
“We have to take the first portal!” Fari called out.
“We’ll crash then!” Master Hanq said.
“We might walk away from a crash,” Fari said, “We’re not going to survive them eating us!”
I saw Master Hanq, or rather Captain Hanq, wrestle with the decision for a long half second.
“Ok, do it!” he said. “Get us out of here!”
The passage through the portal was accompanied by screaming.
Screaming winds as the atmosphere grasped us, screaming metal as it tore apart in the sky and the screams of the giga-beasts who were definitely not about to give up their prey.