The funny thing about finding myself in freefall surrounded by the ruins of the vessel I’d been flying in a moment earlier was how familiar it felt. First there was the moment of abject panic as the room I was in was torn to pieces and the only thing below me was the open skies of Titanus.
The sinking feeling of dread you get in your stomach when something bad happens is entirely different when the rest of your body is plummeting with you. I’ve had some very good teachers though. With the best of them was plummeting beside me, I was able to rally and spur myself out of my panicked stupor.
“The passengers! We need to save the ones who don’t have flight packs on!”
Master Hanq and I shouted the exact same words to each other over the telepathic link that Fari setup for us. A moment later she had links established to the rest of the crew as well as an overlay projected so we could see where everyone was.
That’s when the wings started to appear.
Throughout the sky, brilliant beacons of anima unfurled from the backs of the crew. Over a hundred of them converged on the colony ship module which, by some act of unbelievable good luck, was still intact. Together they took over for the missing engines and boosted it out of its dive.
“Find a safe spot to set the colonists down!” Master Hanq ordered and the flyers began angling away from us towards a wide, clear area on the ground far below.
My own wings had turned my fall into a gentle glide but it still felt like I’d failed to learn something from the last time this happened. I’m not sure what the lesson would have been. “Don’t travel in flying ships” maybe? I probably couldn’t manage that but it still seemed like I should be able to avoid predicaments like this one a little better than I had so far.
“At least this time no one’s shooting at you,” Fari said, referring to my less than pleasant arrival on Hellsreach.
“Give it time,” I said.
“A little problem here,” Darius said. “The weapon’s room is still intact. It was tossed up, but its falling back down now,”
I looked around to see where he was and discovered that, of course, he was speaking from inside the weapon’s room. Which was plummeting like the large metal brick that it was. I caught a glimpse of it just in time to see wrecked metal box go screaming past me towards the very solid planet below.
“Raise your shields,” Master Hanq said to Darius and the others trapped inside the room as he dove after it.
I followed him and three of the members of Black team joined us.
“Lift it,” Hanq commanded.
“It’s too heavy for us to fly with,” Tym, the Black team lead, said.
“Noted. Lift,” Hanq said and so we did.
With four of us applying an upwards thrust to the weapon’s room we managed to slow its fall greatly but given the contents inside it we were still going to impact Titanus with enough velocity to produce some beautiful fireworks that no one in their right mind would want to be anywhere near.
On a standard flyer, extricating the people trapped inside an intact part of the ship would have been a piece of cake. Flyers are made with light materials for fairly obvious reasons. Working together, Tym, the other Black team members, and I could have flown the room around with ease if it was part of a civilian ship. Combat rated Courier spacecraft are built to a rather different sort of specification though. Not only are they more heavily armored, they also have failsafes that send them into lockdown mode in the event of catastrophic damage to the rest of the ship. Given the general unfriendliness of space as an environment that works out as well as can be expected on most occasions.
Someday I’ll be in a situation that a manufacturer has planned for, but that was not the case as we plummeted towards the surface of Titanus. Fortunately Master Hanq had an answer ready.
He ripped the weapon’s room in half.
I might have mentioned at some point that Master Hanq is kind of good with Physical anima? If I’m really amped up, I can wreck buildings. Also I love sparring with Master Hanq. My desire to fight him for real however? That’s pretty much non-existent.
Darius and the other members of Blue team that were trapped in the weapon’s room with him were ready for Master Hanq’s move. A half dozen new pairs of wings flared into existence the moment Hanq created an opening for them. In good order, Blue team piled out of the destroyed armory and took to the air carrying armfuls of supplies.
I felt a warm blush tingle down to my fingers when I saw Darius was ok, but less than a breath later the all too familiar, and unwelcome, cold of danger seized my chest again.
“The portal’s opening!” Fari broadcast to everyone on the link.
The cold I was feeling became all encompassing. The giga-beasts had pursued us through warp space, but they’d done so mostly by tracking us from their own dimension. To breach the barriers and arrive in regular space should have been impossible. The physics of regular space were antithetical to creatures like that. They would never willing follow us that far.
Unless someone was still calling them.
“Catch me!” I said and trusted that someone would.
Closing my eyes, I drew my power inwards and plunged my mind into the Void.
Higgs was there waiting for me.
I’d torn huge pieces of him clean off and crossed to another dimension but even that hadn’t been enough to break the link that anchored him to me.
“Hate,” he said.
“I’m going to beat that tune out of you,” I said and and slammed my power into his.
Void anima makes a terrible weapon against other void casters. On the one hand, it’s terrible because it’s not particularly effective unless there’s a great difference in skill between the two casters. On a deeper level though it’s terrible because the only thing that controls Void anima is the psyche of the caster. In a magical battle, it’s easy to shield your psyche and even simpler to hide it away. Vodi anima is extremely good at that. If neither caster is interested in protecting themselves though? That’s when things can get ugly.
Touching Higgs’ psyche was a new experience. I’d never gone after someone on that primal of a level before. If I could burn the memory of doing so out with lye, fire or coarse grit sandpaper I’d have my brain in my hands in a minute.
Whatever the man had once been, all that remained behind as an echo in the Void was the raw malice that consumed him and ultimately ended his life. His skill as a caster was all tied up in that hatred, so it had survived his death and given him the incredible, unfettered potency he’d displayed so far.
I saw a lot of things when our psyches met. I saw how diminished he was. And how limited. His rage was twisted and turned inward. It devoured him as much as it hurt those he directed it at.
Higgs should have been a devastating caster, but he never learned to do the things that even an inexperienced Void user like I could. He couldn’t because his power came from his pain and he was unaware of the role he played in his own suffering. He’d never tried to do more because Void anima had been nothing more than a tool to lash out at the world with. He was so broken that looking within himself for the cause of his problems was impossible.
Without the rest of his humanity to hold him back, Higgs had grown stronger in some senses. His attacks were more potent. He could draw in titanic monsters like the giga-beasts. Virtually nothing could hurt him or stop him.
Despite all that though, he was withering. Everything within him, all that was left of him, came from the hurt and rage and weakness he’d felt while he was alive. As an echo in the Void, there was nothing new for him to draw on, so all that rage had nothing but itself to feed on.
If I hadn’t come along he would have railed against the survivors of the colony ship’s destruction but none of them were Void casters so he had no path to reach them. I could shield myself with Void anima but like called to like. Higgs could feel my presence just like I could feel his. I’d given him something new to hate and somewhere else to direct the destructive urges that were tearing him apart.
That may sound like a sad tale of woe, like I understood him and could forgive him and make everything better. Maybe that’s what I should have done, but I’m not that sort of person. Touching Higgs psyche showed me every disgusting, vile thing he’d ever done or desired. He wasn’t a wounded little bird, he was the kid who wounded the bird in the first place. He hurt but that was because he hurt other people first. He didn’t want to be healed. He wanted make people, especially Garjarack’s, suffer.
In the memories that remained, I saw him gleefully stomping on a clutch of Garjarack eggs. It was the brightest, happiest moment of his life and if he wasn’t already dead I would have killed him for it on the spot.
Since I couldn’t do that, I settled for ripping what was left of him to bits.
He was unfettered and that made him “stronger” than me, but also very predictable. I teased him by tossing out the memory of a Garjarack which sent him screaming forward. His attack was clumsy left him wide open to even deeper manipulation.
In the Void, Higgs didn’t have a visible appearance. Everything is darkness there. That didn’t stop my imagination from assigning an image to him though. I “saw” him as an exposed brain, with green sludge pumping in place of blood. Where his face should have been there was only a mass of thorn covered whips and sphincters shooting bile.
If that sounds utterly repulsive then I’ve given you the proper insight into what encountering someone that hateful was like.
His attack on the false Garjarack left him open and, disgusting as it was, I didn’t waste any time in plunging my power into the center of the brain-mass to disrupt him on a fundamental level.
It was horrible, wretched work to tear apart what I found there but it satisfied my primal need to destroy the loathsome entity Higgs had become.
Unfortunately, it was also a mistake.
To my credit, the attack did disrupt Higgs. He shrieked as I twisted and shattered the core that was holding him together. In an instant our fight went from a desperate struggle for survival to one where I stood alone as the victor.
The problem was my victory only lasted for the space of a single breath.
“Hate.” I heard him say as he fled.
I’d felt anger flare within me and through my connection to him watched as he grew stronger. Rage built on the anger and fed him further before I got myself under control. I’m not an idiot. I could see what was happening.
In the wake of the fight I felt cold. Not from danger (though that was present too). I’d hit Higgs with my best, most risky gambit and I’d failed to stop him. I understood from that the impossibility of the situation I found myself in.
He was an echo, there wasn’t anything he depended on for survival. No heart. No brain. No weak spots at all. Only one thing that bound him together still, his hate, and I could punch that out of existence.
“I can’t beat him,” I said as I came out of the Void trance I’d cast myself into.
“That’s ok,” Darius said. He was holding me in his arms and had a scintillating shield of blue energy cast around us to provide safety and warmth.
“Yeah, we’ve got bigger problems to worry about,” Fari said, appearing in the shield beside us.
Below us, the crashing steps of three giga-beasts shook Titanus to its core.
I’d been so tied up in fighting Higgs that I’d missed their arrival.
“Where’s Captain Hanq?” I asked.
“He’s taken Black team to close the portal before any more of them arrive,” Darius said.
That wasn’t news I wanted to hear. A task like that was insanely dangerous and would take more anima than it was safe for anyone to cast.
Worst of all, even if they succeeded it would do nothing to stop the giga-beasts that had already arrived. The monsters had claimed the surface and there wasn’t a force we had at our disposal that could challenge that claim.
We’d lost the planet before we even set foot on it.