I’d never met the Crystal Empress but I’d always had the impression that she was more of a cosmic force than an actual person. It had only been a little over twenty years since the battles that ended the Feuding Warlords era. Twenty years since almost half the galaxy had united under one banner and cast off a millenia of tyranny and barbarism. By the standards of the galaxy, twenty years was less than a blink, but for me it was my entire and life and then some.
“What could anyone find here that would threaten the Celestial Empress?” I asked, getting to my feet as Yael entered the room behind Opal.
“You don’t need to know that.” Yael said. She didn’t look ready to reach for her anima sword, but that didn’t mean there were any traces of friendliness on her face.
“Yael, you don’t need to treat…” Opal began to say, but Yael cut her off.
“I’m not treating her like the enemy. She hasn’t had any training in resisting mind magics. Anything she knows, Karr Khan’s forces will be able to pull out of her in an instant if she’s captured.” Yael explained.
“We already have reason to make sure she is not captured by them.” Opal said.
“You’ve told me to pay attention to the subtle premonitions I get though. I can feel so many futures where she leaves this world with them. Can we really take chances with something like this?” Yael asked.
“You are right to be cautious.” Opal sighed.
I could hear a curtain closing with that sigh. They weren’t going to say anything else. I was being cut out. Not important enough, or strong enough, or good enough, or whatever, to be worth treating like a real person.
“They’re afraid Karr Khan’s going to find one of the Jewels of Endless Night.” Master Hanq said without concern. Opal and Yael both froze in place, their eyes going wide at him revealing their secret.
“How do you know about that?” Opal asked, her voice quiet and calm and ever so dangerous.
“Hung around too many bad people for too many bad years.” Master Hanq replied.
“What are the ‘Jewels of Endless Night’?” I asked. Yael’s hand twitched towards her anima sword but I forced myself to ignore it. As long as it was sheathed, I could pretend it wasn’t there.
“Anima weapons. Left overs from the Silent Aeons.” Master Hanq said.
I wasn’t a great student, but I’d picked up the basics of galactic history. Before the Crystal Empress there was a thousand years of strife and warfare among the stars. Warlords carved out fiefdoms of planets and systems and constantly fought to expand their fragile, short lived, little empires. The more enlightened ones tried to recreate the Pan-galactic Congress that had ruled the galaxy for millennia before it fell apart, but no one before the Crystal Empress had the power, charisma and support to pull it off.
Before the era of the Pan-galactic Congress though, there had been another time of unending warfare. The Silent Aeons. The Pan-galactic Congress had brought the worlds of the galaxy together and allowed for communication and commerce between the sapients who lived under its rule.
Before that, in the Silent Aeons, there was no universal way of communicating across the stars. Races would discover one another only by chance and more often than not, one would destroy the other. There aren’t any records that can tell us how many civilizations were destroyed or how many destroyed themselves, but with how often ‘newly discovered worlds’ turn out to have all sorts of ruins hidden on them, the number is probably a pretty large one.
“They’re more than anima weapons.” Opal said. “They allow their bearer to summon powers well beyond anything an anima caster can manifest.”
“Is that why you’re here? You want to get them for the Crystal Empress before the Khan guy can lay his hands on them?” I asked.
“No. We’re here to destroy the Jewel, if there’s one hidden here.” Opal said.
“I didn’t think that was possible.” Master Hanq said.
“Why would you destroy it?” I asked. “If they’re that powerful why not use it to wipe Khan and his people out of the sky?”
“Many reasons, but primarily because the Jewels can’t be controlled. The bearer can invoke them but its the Jewels that choose how they will act. The bearer’s will becomes subsumed by the power they hold.” Opal explained.
That brought back my memories of killing the soldiers. Of being completely out of control.
“How do you stop someone like that?” I asked.
“You don’t. Once someone invokes one of the Jewels, they become nothing more than vessel for the Jewel’s will. ” Opal said.
I looked over at Yael. She was still looking at me like we were ten seconds away from getting into a knockdown brawl. Or like I’d been left as nothing more than a vessel for something else’s will. It bothered me that I couldn’t know if she was right or not.
“Why do they think one of the Jewels is here?” I asked.
“They call to each other.” Yael said. She was watching me through narrowed eyes, judging each twitch and reaction I made. I almost paid more attention to that than the implication of what she said. The meaning behind Yael’s words hit me a sec later though.
“Wait they’ve already got one of these things?” I asked.
“We believe so. It’s likely how they managed to open their own portal to travel here.” Opal said.
“That’s how powerful these things are?” I asked.
“That’s one ability of one of the Jewels. It’s called the Traveler. The same Jewel was probably responsible for the spellbombs breaching your planetary shield.” Opal said.
“That’s insane! They could wipe out any planet they wanted then!” I objected.
“The worlds that are under the Empresses protection have better shielding that you had here, but yes, they could cause considerable damage to many worlds.” Opal said.
“Why would they need another one of these things then?” I asked.
Opal and Yael both went silent. They exchanged a glance and seemed to come to a consensus but it was Master Hanq who broke the silence.
“It’s the Ravager isn’t it? Or the Assassin?” he asked.
“What are those?” I asked.
“There’s a lot of mythology around the Jewels. Some are even famous if you’re into the kind of thing. The two that I’ve heard of people searching for are the Ravager and the Assassin.” Master Hanq said.
“I’m guessing the Assassin kills people. What does the Ravager do?” I asked.
“The Assassin doesn’t just kill people. It can kill anyone, anywhere. Tell the Jewel who you want dead and they die, no matter where in the galaxy they are. Simple as that. The Ravager is for when you’re not in the mood to discriminate. It doesn’t have the Assassin’s range but it will kill everyone on a planet.” Master Hanq said. “Or at least those are the stories people tell.”
“So if they get the Assassin, they send it to kill the Empress directly, and if they get the Ravager they portal over to her homeworld and just kill her and everyone else there.” I said.
“Maybe. Except I heard the Empress bound a couple of the Jewels, so I don’t know if they’ll actually work against her.” Master Hanq.
“They’re all bound.” Yael said.
“Yes, each one is wrapped in powerful obscuring spells. Its why they can’t find each other precisely and instantly.” Opal said.
“A planet’s a big place to search. They’ve got to have a way to hone in on it right?” I asked.
“Karr Khan’s forces contain some of the most gifted Void anima casters in the galaxy.” Yael said. Just below her words, I could hear anger and fear warring with each other.
“How does that help them?” I asked.
“There are Void anima spells that can see through the anima of illusions and obscuring spells. It’s difficult, but if the Void caster has the time and focus they can eventually pierce any magically created concealment.” Opal explained.
“Why hide them at all? Why not just drop them into a star or something?” I asked.
“It’s been tried. Even the Jewels other than the Traveler can move themselves though.” Yael said.
“Can you see through the illusions then?” I asked.
“No, that’s why we need Akell.” Opal said.
“Why would he help you though?” I asked.
“As you have observed, I am a mentalist.” Opal said.
I guessed that meant that what Akell “wanted” wasn’t going to be an issue for much longer. He probably had all sorts of mental training, but given that she had as much time to work on him as she needed, I suspected Opal wasn’t going to have any difficulty with that. The prospect of seeing someone have their will ripped away from them was kind of horrible, but then Akell was the kind of horrible person that I didn’t mind seeing bad things happen to, so I found it hard to come up with the moral outrage that the Sisters would expect me to show.
I was about to ask if Akell would be able to beat the rest of the Khan’s forces to the Jewel when Taisen walked in. He had a bloody lip which he was in the process of healing.
“What happened?” I asked. I couldn’t see any way he could have gotten injured unless he’d beaten himself up for some reason.
“Your plan is in motion.” Taisen said, speaking to Opal. “But I didn’t have to fake losing the fight to Akell. The boy’s quite dangerous.”
“Does he think you’re dead?” Opal asked.
“Probably. If I hadn’t been expecting his attack, I wouldn’t have been able to regenerate the injuries he inflicted fast enough.” Taisen said.
“What happened!” I demanded.
“Our prisoner has escaped.” Opal said, a mischievous smile playing across her mouth.
“What? We’ve got to stop him! He’ll lead his people right to us!” I said.
“I don’t think so.” Master Hanq said. “But perhaps we could be filled in on the scheme you’re running here Opal?”
“It’s nothing that profound. You saw that I exchanged a memory with Akell. It was of two of his brothers. They had failed in a mission, much like Akell had. When they tried to return to Karr Khan, the Khan ordered them to be executed but promised that they would be listed as having ‘fallen in battle’. Apparently “falling in battle” is a common fate for Karr Khan’s scions. The Ruby Guardian’s who defeated them originally were able to rescue them from the execution and turn them over to the Empresses side. Given the way Karr Khan raises his scions, they were quite willing to renounce him once it was clear how he really felt about them.” Opal said.
“You did more than just show him a memory though didn’t you?” Master Hanq asked.
“I only planted an idea.” Opal said.
“Let me guess; if he comes back with the Jewel, Khan’s not going to care about him missing Mel.” Master Hanq said. “And then you placed a tracking spell on him.”
“She also predicted that if he was only partially asleep, he’d wake up, disable or kill me and then make his escape.” Taisen said.
“I apologize for asking you to play that role. How badly did he hurt you.” Opal asked.
“No permanent damage, just enough to make me regret healing his wounds earlier.” Taisen said.
“So what are we going to do? Follow him?” I asked.
Opal and Yael paused, both looking at me, but each in very different ways. I couldn’t read Opal’s expression. She looked hopeful, but I couldn’t tell for what. Yael was much easier to make out. Her scowl wasn’t ambiguous. She didn’t like me and she didn’t see any reason to hide it.
“I don’t think there should be a ‘we’.” she said, her voice firm. “You two should find somewhere to hide. You’ll be safer and we’ll be safer.”
“You seriously think I’m going to hide in a hole? After what they did to my planet? Are you crazy?” I yelled at her. For a moment I forgot about the anima sword she was wearing. I think she did too, because she backed away when I jumped to my feet.
“While I agree with you Yael,” Taise said, stepping forward to keep us apart, “I’ve had this discussion with her before and I don’t think that’s a suggestion she’s any more likely to take now than she was then.”
“If she knows what’s good for her…” Yael began, but Opal cut her off.
“Be calm my apprentice. None of us know how this is going to play out yet.” Opal said and put her hand on Yael’s shoulder to steady her. I felt a twinge seeing the gesture. The Sisters didn’t believe in any sort of bodily contact. When they needed to correct us, it wasn’t with a reassuring hand, it was with an “instruction wand”.
Scowling for a whole bunch of reasons, I relaxed and backed off too. There wasn’t any point to starting a fight with Yael. Plus if the Ruby Guard was as tough as Master Hanq made them out to be, she’d probably clean the floors with me.
“I understand what you’re facing Opal. And you as well Yael.” Master Hanq said. “This is a very sensitive mission that you’re on and you’re far from any backup.”
“And how would you know that?” Yael asked.
“There are more direct routes that you could be taking if there was another Ruby Guardian here, or nearby enough to join you soon. You’re not waiting for anyone to arrive though, which tells me you’re on your own for this one.” Master Hanq said.
“If we are, that would be all the more reason to be careful to avoid betrayal.” Opal said.
“Agreed, but we’re not going to betray you, and you know that.” Master Hanq said. They held each others gaze for a long moment and I was pretty sure I felt magic echo in the room.
I also started to feel a chill spread through my chest. It was a familiar feeling, but not a welcome one.
“We’re in danger.” I said, restraining the panic from my voice.
“I don’t…” Yael started to say. I’m pretty sure she was going to finish it with something like ‘sense anything wrong’, but her expression changed to match my own as she focused her magics outwards.
“Yes. We are.” Opal said, not taking her eyes from Master Hanq.
“You needed proof right?” Master Hanq said with a smile.
“Shall we then?” Opal asked.
“It will be a delight.” Master Hanq agreed.
I couldn’t begin to figure out what weird, private conversation they were having, but the smiles on both of their faces were similar. I didn’t know what it meant when Opal looked like that, but I’d seen Master Hanq smile that way a few times. He wore that expression when he was about to commit a whole lot of mayhem.
“Karr Khan troops are landing outside! They’ve pierced the illusion I had in place!” Yael said.