I unfurled my wings and cast a physical shield around myself. I was ready, as much as I could be, for the battle against Major Vunthor. My mind was focused, my heart was clear and my skin was on fire.
That last bit was something of a problem.
“Ahh, what the hell!” I screamed as I flew away from Darius so I wouldn’t burn him.
“I’m sorry!” the voice from the flames said. “You fed me, so I thought you wanted me to come out again!”
During my recovery I had Darius, and several other medics, check me over for any sign of spirit possession. I knew I wasn’t just hearing voices when I’d fled from the giga-beasts in warp space. The flames had boosted my flight speed far beyond what I could achieve on my own and had managed to continue it even after the acceleration knocked me unconscious.
Despite test after test though, they’d come up with nothing.
“Where have you been?” I asked aloud. Darius looked at me like I’d gone nuts, which was a reasonable theory under the circumstances.
“She’s talking to an elemental,” Fari said, conjuring an analysis circle to inspect me through.
“In the new home you gave me,” the flames said. They sounded so chipper it was hard to stay angry with them. My skin wasn’t roasting either, which helped too.
“New home?” I asked and then figured it out. “My flight pack! You moved into the storage matrix in the flight pack when you overcharged it?”
“It looks like that’s the case,” Fari said.
“Explains why we couldn’t find any trace of a foreign spirit inside you,” Darius said.
“How did all this happen?” I asked. “And can we make the burning stop happening? I kind of need to be able to cast freely now.”
“Well, the elemental’s anima signature matches the background anima signature for Hellsreach, so it’s a safe bet you picked them up there,” Fari said.
“Picked them up?” I asked. “How, why, when?”
“Why don’t we ask them?” Darius said.
“I don’t know,” the fire elemental said. “I don’t remember much before Mel started feeding me.”
“How am I feeding you?” I asked.
“You throw anima out sometimes,” they said. “It’s delicious, it makes me grow.”
“This making any sense to you?” I asked Fari who was scrutinizing the information the analysis circle showed her.
“Yes, I think it does,” she said. “Can I try something?”
If it was anyone else, I would have asked if it was going to hurt, but I had enough trust in Fari that if what she had in mind hurt it was because it needed to.
“Sure,” I said and braced for a jolt of burning pain that never came. Instead I felt her lightly brush across the surface of my thoughts with a filament of Mental anima. The sensation was a little strange. The closest I can come to describing it is how the quality of sounds change as you focus in on them or try to listen past distractions.
She spent about two minutes gently touching on the various ideas that were percolating through my mind before I felt the Mental anima withdraw.
“Well, the good news is I think I know how to stop the burning,” Fari said.
“And the bad news is?” I asked. Because there’s always bad news.
“You’ll need to give up your flight pack until we can find a better home for our new friend here,” she said.
“Details please?” I asked.
“Remember when Makkis turned Hellsreach’s anti-personnel weapons on you?” Fari asked. “Remember how you survived that?”
“Yeah, I pulled anima from the volcano we were fighting on so that the Void Lances couldn’t drain me dry,” I said.
“Do you know how much anima you pulled from the volcano?” she asked.
“A lot?” I guessed.
“Sure, we’ll go with ‘a lot’. For reference it was enough that the volcano’s no longer active. In fact the entire magma channel is solid stone now,” Fari said. “What’s important though is that you drew in more than anima.”
“I drew in an elemental too?” I asked.
“Oh, not just one. Hundreds, maybe thousands.” she said. “Almost all of which returned to Hellreach’s native anima stream.”
“And our friend is one that didn’t?”, I asked.
“The only one from what I can tell,” Fari said. “The elementals weren’t particularly sentient when you drew them in. The sentient ones had the sense to run for the core when you went all blackhole on their energy.”
“So what happened with me?” Flames asked.
“The anima that Mel pulled in tore her up inside,” Fari said. “You got caught in one of the tears in her mind. When the clerics healed her, they induced a restful slumber and missed that you were there. So you were sealed in by the healing enchantments that were meant to keep Mel’s anima from bleeding out.”
“Why didn’t the elemental leave once the enchantments were removed?” I asked.
“I didn’t know where to go,” Flames said. “I felt like I was home already.”
“Inside my head?” I asked.
“They absorbed little bits of spare mental anima that you cast out,” Fari said. “And your Void anima kept them hidden and safe. For a fledgling elemental, there wasn’t a better on Hellsreach to ‘grow up’.”
“So why did they burn me whenever I tried to cast spells?” I asked.
“That seems to be accidental,” Fari said. “They followed the currents of any non-Void spell that you cast and grew from the energy you put into the spell. The burning was a side effect of that.”
“I’m really sorry,” Flames said. “I didn’t know how to talk to you, or that you didn’t like what I was doing.”
I resisted the urge to hit myself in the head.
I’d probably been fully healed a while ago, but the feedback from Flames’ presence threw off my spell casting tests. I promised myself that in the future I was going to share every detail of my condition I could think of with my clerics.
It was better to avoid the need for a cleric in the first place, of course, but I was pretty sure that wasn’t going to be an option given my line of work.
“I can handle the flying for both of us,” Darius said.
“I have no objection to that at all,” I told him. It was rather easy to pick between baking my skin off or cuddling up with the cutest guy I knew. Easy, so long as I didn’t let myself think about the lethal situation I was letting Darius expose himself to. Those thoughts led to madness, so I clobbered them down as best I could and forced myself to think of the job at hand.
“Can I help?” Flames asked.
“Probably not,” I said. “I find burning to a crisp throws me off my game.”
“Technically you weren’t actually burning by the way,” Fari said. “In theory I could edit the sensations out for you so you could fly and cast at the same time, but I’d rather not do any sensory blocking spells on you. Those leave you open to all sorts of nasty attacks.”
“Can’t Flames just choose not burn me?” I asked.
“It’s close to an autonomic reaction for them,” Fari said. “Given time they could learn to control it but the giga-beasts will flatten Titanus to a pancake long before then.”
“Do I need to remove the flight pack?” I asked.
“No,” Fari said. “So long as the wings aren’t deployed, there aren’t any active anima links between the pack and you.”
“What about moving them over to your Jewel?” I asked, remembering how Fari had absorbed the Bone Stealers and other spirits when we were fighting Makkis.
“It’s possible but it would be dangerous for them,” Fari said. “The energy reservoirs in the Jewel separate different types of anima for individual storage areas. A big spirit can retain the links to their power across the distances involved, but small ones like Flames can lose all the coherence they’ve developed with their Mental anima.”
“That sounds bad,” Flames said. “Can we not do that.”
“Mel wouldn’t ask you to risk it,” Fari said.
She was right.
But it still would have been nice to have my wings back.
Instead I fluttered over to where Darius was floating and dropped into his waiting arms.
“That leaves the question of where, exactly, we’re planning to go?” Darius asked.
“Vunthor’s going to be able to hide really well,” Fari said. “Even leaving aside the fact that he’s probably holed up in a cave system that will resist scrying spells, he’s a Void caster. If he has an invisibility cloak cast over his forces it’s going to take a while to narrow down where they could be.”
“Not for me,” I said. “If I can find Higgs, I’m pretty sure Vunthor will be in the same place.”
“If Higgs has gotten a boost from Vunthor won’t that be really dangerous?” Darius asked.
“Yeah, for everyone in range of him.” I said.
“If this is the part where you tell us that you have to face him alone to keep us safe, please remember how well it worked out when Makkis split us up.” Fari said.
“We beat a hundred year old conspiracy against an entrenched genius-level caster,” I said. “I’d say it worked out fine.”
“If you want to spend another two months in recovery, we can save time and I can drop you from here,” Darius suggested with a smile that made it very clear he was not going to be left behind. Fari was wearing the same smile.
“Are you really sure,” I asked them both. “Vunthor was smart and powerful before Higgs hooked up with him. He’s probably a literal monster at this point.”
“All the more reason we’re going to be there with you,” Darius said.
“We may not be able to fight Vunthor himself,” Fari said. “His Void casting will make that dangerous, but don’t forget, he has a small army with them.”
“So you’re saying that there’ll be so many faces to punch that I shouldn’t be greedy and keep them all to myself?” I said.
“Scouting out enemy warrens and marking their leaders is, quite specifically, my regular job description,” Darius said.
“And I am legally responsible, in part, for the safety of all the law-abiding colonists on Titanus.” Fari said.
I wanted to protest, but that was my mindless stubborn streak rearing it’s ugly head up. I drew in a slow breath and asked myself how I really felt about the support Fari and Darius were offering me.
It felt weird. I wasn’t used to people having my back. The thought sent a twinge of longing through me. I couldn’t lose people who would support me like that. They were more precious than even my anima casting.
At the same time though, the thought of pushing them away was abhorrent too. In part I wanted them close to me always, but in part, if I was honest with myself, I was more than a little scared.
I had limits. The volcano showed me that, the giga-beasts showed me that, Higgs showed me that. I didn’t want to die (again) and I didn’t want to be crippled. Master Hanq had taught me that it’s ok to run away rather than be hurt. The best method to win a lot of fights was to not get in them in the first place. The problem is there are some fights you can’t run from.
There were people who only had me for protection. People that Vunthor’s hate was going to destroy unless I stood against him. So I had to fight.
And I couldn’t do that without Fari or Darius.
I thought about how I’d feel if the situation was reversed. If there was a battle that only Fari could fight and she wouldn’t let me help her.
It would tear me apart.
I couldn’t do that to her and I couldn’t do that to Darius.
I’d been wrong to stab Hanq. I should have flown with him and we could have fought the giga-beasts together. I couldn’t take that back, but I could learn from it. I could listen to Echo’s words and let people help me even when that was very hard to do.
“You’re both insane,” I said.
“We have to have something in common with you,” Fari said.
Darius just gave me a quick peck on the forehead to show that he agreed with both Fari and I.
“Let me see if I can find Vunthor then,” I said.
“We should land first,” Darius said.
“Yeah, if you start sprouting Void spikes that could go badly if we’re this high up,” Fari said.
We touched down the remains of the mountain that the giga-beasts had plowed through. In the distance they were plodding on relentlessly.
I settled down into crossed leg seated position and tried to clear my mind.
“If this goes badly, then head back to Captain Hanq,” I said. “You’ll need to put together a new strategy and it should probably involve getting as many people out of the system as fast as possible.”
“It’s not going to go badly,” Fari said.
“History suggests that’s a bad bet, but I’ll be careful,” I said.
I sank into a Void trance and felt the presence of the giga-beasts like a giant pounding drum. Barely audible over the drum was the familiar chanted rhythm of “Hate! Hate! Hate!” sung with new vigor.
I listened intently, scanning to find the source of the chant and felt a cold hand reach back for me.
“You must be the Crystal Guardian my new angel has shown me visions of,” Major Vunthor said across the emptiness that separated us. “The Empire has made a terrible mistake in choosing who they sided with. They need to be educated like all the others now and you’re going to be my first lesson to them.”
Through the Void I felt his power gather and surge outwards to strike against me.