Falling asleep immediately after a fight leaves you with a good chance of not waking up again for a variety of reasons. My first thought after opening my eyes therefor was a little cheer of gratitude that luck had been on my side.
The I remembered where I was. Abyz didn’t believe in luck. Here everything was governed by the fate casting and no one was allowed to die to violence or accident.
For that matter no one was supposed to be able to commit violence against another either, but Shadow Lady had done a pretty thorough job of pounding me into mulch. It seemed weird to argue for the beating being unfair when I’d at least received the benefit of not dying, but given how things had gone I wasn’t in a generous or reasonable mood.
At least not until I noticed that I was resting on a very comfy bed, in a pleasantly dark room. If I’d been captured, it was by the nicest jailers in the known universe. In fact, if the bad guys were offering rooms like this, with soft downy blankets and gentle warming spells hugging me lightly, I’d have to consider asking them for an job application form. I mean my bunk on the Horizon Breaker was nice, but even in the dim light I could see that the room was far beyond nice and well into opulent.
Of course it was lacking in the “cuddly young man” and “translucent best friend” departments, which made it significantly less appealing than my bed on the Horizon Breaker, but I was content for the moment with it. I figured if I had fallen into someone’s clutches they’d be along soon enough to gloat and make me an offer I’d have to seriously consider if I wanted to refuse.
I rolled over gently onto my back and slowly pulled myself up in a sitting position. Something seemed oddly wrong with that, but the smell of fresh coffee waiting beside the bed drove all other thoughts out of my mind until I drained a long sip.
The flavor of the coffee was exquisite. Nice and strong, but with with a complex mix of components that worked together rather than one overwhelming bolt of bitterness that some brews hit you with. There was also a light sparkle of magic on the lip of the cup that had kept it at the proper temperature for me. I drank the magic in too and it was delicious. Feeling the anima coursing through my system left me warmer than coffee itself did. Part of that warmth though was probably because I recognized the enchantment, having woken up to it most mornings for the last two years.
“You look like you’re feeling a little better,” Darius said, pushing the door to the room open and letting in a few rays of early morning sunshine.
“Can’t talk,” I said. “Enjoying heavenly coffee.”
“We have breakfast waiting for you too when you’re ready,” he said.
“I love you,” I said. “Seriously, I will make babies with you right now.”
“It’s good to see a patient fully recovered so quickly,” Ilya said, following Darius into the staggeringly large bedroom.
I finally noticed what seemed wrong. My body wasn’t a shattered mass of pain. There were remnants of healing spells still working on me, but sometime while I’d slept I’d received the kind of top quality medical care that only psychotically overtrained medics could provide.
“I love you too,” I told Ilya. “Babies for you as well.”
“Aww, I almost feel like I’m missing out here,” Fari said, joining the other two in her ghostly blue form.
“You get double babies, with a side order of cute pets,” I told her. “Seriously though, where are we, and, not that I’m ungrateful, but why are you here?”
“Sorry, kind of my fault,” Fari said.
“She put a medic alert spell on you,” Darius said. “So when your vital signs went haywire we knew you were in trouble.”
“It was just a variant of the signalling spell I gave you,” Fari said. “I figured if you were conscious and still hidden, the alert effect wouldn’t escape your cloaking spell and if it did, well, then you probably needed us.”
“I was right about the double babies,” I said. “How did you get here though?”
“Grabbed a shuttle and flew here as soon as we could,” Darius said.
“We got lucky,” Fari added. “I didn’t even need to scramble their schedules. There was one waiting when we got to the shuttleport.”
“That probably wasn’t luck,” I said.
“Yes, the planet’s fate magic, we thought of that,” Ilya said. “But that was even more reason for us to go. If the global fate weave was pulling us to you then we were probably your best hope of surviving whatever situation you fell into.”
“Isn’t it going to look suspicious that you traveled here though?” I asked.
“A little, but we improvised a cover story,” Darius said.
“You two had a vicious verbal battle,” Fari said.
“I think Black team has been corrupting our good Tactical Chief,” Darius said. “You should have heard the things she made come out of your mouth.”
“Actually you probably will need to hear it, just in case anyone questions you on it,” Fari said.
“A little later I think,” I said. “So how did a big fight cover coming here?”
“You stormed off after saying you wanted nothing to do with him,” Fari said. “Ran right to the shuttle port to get away.”
“I managed to hop on the shuttle at the last moment and then tearfully declared my undying love for you in front of all the passengers,” Darius said.
“It was very moving,” Ilya said. “But the tears were a bit much.”
“One of his concessions was to take you to see the sights in Honji,” Fari said. “You’re more cultural than he is, since you’re more obviously a galactic.”
“Hence the reason we’re staying here now rather than Raddox,” Darius said.
“And the reason we’re staying at such a nice hotel,” Fari said.
“How did you find me though?” I asked.
“We got here fast enough that you hadn’t been discovered, so I was able to home in on the location I sensed the medical alert originate from.” Fari said.
“She showed me where to go and I carried you back here after doing some basic first aid,” Darius said.
“I hate to think what you looked like if what I worked on was after a round of first aid spells,” Ilya said.
She was one of our company medics, so I knew she’d seen worse but I didn’t envy her that knowledge. My awareness of my injuries amounted to little more than “Oww, that hurts”. She got to see exactly what had happened thanks to her diagnosis spells and that couldn’t have been pretty at all.
“So what army beat you to hell like that?” Darius asked.
“No army, just one woman,” I said.
“That’s not good,” Fari said.
“Oh, it’s worse than that,” I said and proceeded to tell them what I’d discovered about Yael and Zyla’s disappearance, including the trail that led out to the office park.
“So you think Yael left that trail for you to follow and this shadow lady just happened to be waiting for you at the end of it?” Ilya asked.
“No, I think the trail was meant to lead me to the shadow lady,” I said. “We’re so covered in Aetherial anima here that I can’t tell for sure if there’s any from Yael or Zyla clinging to me, but I’d bet next months paycheck that’s the case.”
“You did part with Yael on good terms right?” Darius asked.
“Yeah, she’s even sent some letters, so I think she keeps an eye on my career,” I said.
“So she wanted you to know there were other Void casters here then,” Darius said. “And give you a chance to evaluate how good they are.”
“I think she gave me another clue too now that you mention it,” I said.
“She’s letting you know that there’s Void casters on both sides of whatever conflict is going on here,” Fari said.
“How do you get that?” Ilya asked.
“I came out of the fight with a lot of information,” I said. “The shadow lady called for support, so she’s part of an official agency of some kind. She’s damn skilled and she’s used to fighting.”
“I believe you’ve just described both yourself and Guardian Blackbriar, not to mention five or six casters on Titanus and my evil former boss.” Ilya said.
“Actually, your evil former boss is a good example of this,” I said. “He was a Void caster but I beat him because he wasn’t used to fighting other Void casters. The shadow lady I fought knew exactly how to fight other Void casters though – quick bursts of anima only, no shield spells and you maintain a constant void sheath so that your opponent can’t drain your life energy out.”
“It sounds like she was ready and waiting for Mel too,” Fari said. “If all the other Void casters on the planet were on her side then she wouldn’t have been looking for someone approaching the investigation site under an invisibility veil.”
“Speaking of invisibility, how did you folks get me back here?” I asked.
“You’re not the only one who can manage an invisibility spell you know,” Darius said.
“Technically with Energetic anima it’s more of a camouflage field than true invisibility,” Fari said. “But yeah, our good Blue team leader valiantly snuck you back to us leaving no one the wiser.”
“Our Tactical Chief is omitting that she left a wide area mental distortion field over the site too so that any postcognition spells will be disrupted.” Darius said with a tip of his head in Fari’s direction.
“For spur of the moment work, that’s very impressive,” I said.
“We had a lot of motivation,” Fari said.
“Now we need to turn that motivation towards finding Yael and Zyla,” Darius said.
“I’ve got an idea there,” I said. “I think the shadow lady was more than a warning from Yael, I think she was clue.”
“It’s very likely that whatever organization she’s a part of either has Yael or knows who does,” Fari said.
“She was covered in shadows though right?” Ilya asked. “How do we find her or the organization she works for?”
“We start with the people who are working for her,” I said.
“You want to raid the central police bureau?” Darius asked.
“Well, ‘want to’ is a strong sort of phrasing,” I said. “Let’s say I think we’ll find some useful information there, and that I’m pretty sure I can manage to stealth in and out if I go at the right time.”
“That sounds insanely dangerous,” Ilya said. “Doing it surreptitiously at least. Can’t you walk in there as an official Imperial agent and demand their cooperation?”
“In theory, yes,” I said. “But given that two other official Imperial agents came here and are missing-in-action, I’m inclined to think that there’s a significant and dangerous fraction of the local power structure who isn’t that impressed by Imperial credentials.”
“The Imperial ambassador here hasn’t issued an official call for help either,” Darius said. “So there’s no telling how extensive the corruption is.”
“Captain Hanq is working that angle for us,” I said. “If we run out of leads to follow, we can break cover and check back in with him. Until then though, it’s going to be safest to assume that we don’t have any friends on Abyz, except, maybe, the two who are missing.”
“Maybe?” Ilya asked.
“We don’t know for sure why they’re missing,” Fari said. “It’s unlikely that they’ve turned against the Empire but it’s not impossible.”
“I think I liked it when the enemy was always a scaly lizard,” Ilya said.
“Except that was never true,” I said, thinking of the Garjarack families I knew. I’d been put off by their lizard-like appearance at first, but after working with them for over half a year to found the new colonies on Titanus I found it impossible to see them as anything other than regular people.
“Don’t remind me,” Ilya said with a rueful smile. She’d changed a lot since her days as an interstellar terrorist, but I knew she still carried a lot of guilt over the things she’d done. Working with us was a little about making amends and a little about running away from the people she hurt. I knew she’d go back there eventually, but there was a still a lot of healing she needed to do first.
“So how do we break into the central police bureau?” Darius asked.
“We could let Mel wander in there alone, without immediate backup again,” Fari said. “Or, and I know this is a crazy idea, there is an official charity ball being held in the Grand Hall there tonight.”
“You already have tickets for the four of us don’t you?” I asked.
“No,” Fari said. “Just for the three of you. If I’m going to pose as you while you sneak off under an invisibility cloak, we can’t show up together.”
“How will we get my doppleganger in though?” I asked
“I can change it to look like me,” Ilya said. “When you arrive, Fari will speak for me. When you need to disappear, Fari can walk outside, meet me and we can walk back in with the doppleganger looking like you.”
“That seems elaborate and complicated,” I said. “I could just sneak in in the first place right?”
“You could,” Fari said. “But this buys us two benefits. First, you can scope the location out before you begin your infiltration, and second it gives me a chance to speak to people twice without them realizing it. I think I may be able to root out a little of what’s going on here in the different answers the people give to a Galactic like you compared to someone who could pass for a local like Ilya.”
“That make sense. Why do I have the feeling that you three had this all planned out before I woke up?” I asked.
“Because you’re naturally brilliant,” Darius said and gave me a kiss on the forehead.
“Also, we had a lot of time to kill while you healed, so this is just one of about forty plans we had waiting for when you woke up,” Fari said.
“What’s the next stage of your plan then?” I asked. “After breakfast and a shower that is.”
“Our luggage is being sent over from Raddox but you don’t actually own any formal clothes anymore,” Darius said. “So, the first order of business is to fix that.”
I grinned. A shopping trip sounded delightful and doing it in the line of duty meant I got to expense everything I bought!
Somewhere, on a planet many star systems away, an Imperial Accountant heard my terrible laugh and began to weep for the Empire’s bottom line.