There weren’t many people who could claim to have once commanded a small army, much less a large one.
“You were one of the warlords who got away.” Yael said without emotion. I glanced at her and saw I was wrong. It wasn’t that she didn’t care, her voice was flat because she was exerting a tremendous amount of control over herself. I felt myself shifting into a defensive posture in response to the raw tension that was knotting her muscles into tight cords.
“I’ve been many things.” Master Hanq said. “Today I was a person who knew how to take over a combat transport and extricate an apprentice Guardian from a bind she’d placed herself in.”
“I had that situation in hand. My destiny weaving was better than hers.” Yael said, her voice still tightly controlled.
“Maybe it was. Maybe it was better than you know.” Master Hanq said. He was the mirror opposite of Yael. Where she was visibly fighting back her rage, he appeared calm and tranquil. The magic word there was “appeared”. I didn’t need Opal’s mental gifts to see how much of a lie that was. I’d known him for too long to miss the subtle signs that showed that he was even more on edge than Yael was.
On anyone else, I might have mistaken the too-relaxed posture he stood in as fear. I knew he wasn’t afraid of Yael, however talented she might be. Opal, he might have reason to fear, but under the circumstances they both seemed to be looking at each other as allies. That didn’t leave many likely explanations. I was less of a threat than Yael was and Taisen was, arguably, less of a threat than I was.
Something had him seriously concerned though.
“My magics didn’t make you who you are.” Yael said. “That’s not how they work.”
“There’s a great deal of debate on that.” Master Hanq said. I could already hear the philosophical lecture that he had lined up in his head, fortunately Opal stepped in to cut off “class time”.
“We don’t need to get into that now. There are much more pressing matters at hand.” Opal said, gesturing to the stolen transport ship.
“They won’t be able to track it here.” Master Hanq assured us.
“Your defenses look solid, but that means that we can’t use it again until Miss Watersward is recovered.” Opal said.
“That could be too long.” Yael said, turning to take me in with the same glare she’d focused on Master Hanq. If he was guilty by his own admission, then I was guilty by association.
“I might be able to help with that.” Taisen said.
“How?” Master Hanq asked.
“Metaphysically she’s fine. The strain the casting put on her looks like it was channeled through her body. That’s common among new casters, I’m sure we all remember feeling it too. I can’t work on her directly, but I can teach her a few techniques that should help her rejuvenate herself.” Taisen answered.
“I’m used to teaching her. I can handle that.” Master Hanq said.
“I need you to go over the intelligence you’ve collected here with Yael and I. We’re still tracking Akell, but that’s a fall back plan. Ideally we’d be able to locate the Jewel of Endless Night before the Khan’s forces get within a thousand miles of it.”
“It’s up to her.” Master Hanq said, not looking happy at proposed groupings.
I thought about it for a moment and decided that the kind of questions I had weren’t ones where I could expect a straight answer from Master Hanq.
“It’s fine. The sooner you compare notes, the sooner we can end this Khan guy.” I said. It was ridiculous but I wanted to follow through on my promise to Zyla. That I would kill the Khan. I knew it wasn’t sane. My world had given up on being sane though, so the only way not to go crazy was to join it.
Master Hanq shot me a look in response to my answer that I couldn’t interpret. This wasn’t the time for whatever he was thinking though, since he shook his head to clear the thought out and then turned towards the table that Opal was clearing off for them to work at.
“We’ll need quiet for this. Do you have any survival tents in this gear?” Taisen asked.
“There are some space-capable habitation modules in the grey crates behind that bench.” Master Hanq said, pointing towards one of the workstations on the other side of the grotto.
I followed Taisen thinking I’d help him set the tent up. As it turned out the “habitation modules” were bricks about the size of my hand. Taisen held two of them together and passed a small anima change into them. Faster than even my improved reflexes could follow the bricks enfolded into a sealed hemisphere that surrounded us. The walls were as thin as paper but as resilient as steel plating thanks to the enchantments that were laid on them.
“High quality gear here. I can see why he didn’t sell it.” Taisen said.
“Too good to let go?” I asked.
“In a sense. There aren’t many people who’d have access to this kind of gear. If it started showing up on a market, even one of the black ones, his enemies would be able to figure out that he was out there and unless he was very careful it wouldn’t be hard for them to discover where to look for him.” Taisen said.
“Why would you think he had enemies looking for him?”
“He was a Warlord. They always have enemies.” Taisen said.
“How is that possible? I thought your Crystal Empress wiped out all of the Warlords in the Charted Worlds.” I asked. I knew that wasn’t true, but I was curious to hear what Taisen’s take on his Empress was.
“Galactic history is a bit more complicated than that.” he replied.
“Looks like Yael is too.” I said. “Which kind of doesn’t make sense. She can’t be much older than me, so the Warlords were gone before she was even born. Did the Empress just drill the hatred of them into her head?”
Taisen chuckled at that.
“I can tell you’ve never met the Empress.” he said.
“Meaning what?” I asked. The chuckle had been annoying but I tried not to let it show.
“Meaning that she’s compassionate to a fault. The popular notion is that she lead the largest army the galaxy has ever seen and wiped out all of the Warlords she came across. I guess that plays better to people than the negotiations and diplomacy that really happened.”
“So you’re saying that there wasn’t the biggest interstellar war of all time about twenty years ago?” I asked.
“That happened too. Don’t get me wrong, a lot of Warlords didn’t want to step aside quietly. Even among the ones who understood what was coming, there were plenty who couldn’t give up the lives they’d created for themselves.” Taisen said.
“You’re not that much older than me, how much of that could you remember?” I asked.
“From personal experience? Almost nothing. But I’ve talked with some of the people who were there. The Five Guardians, some of the Warlords who turned and joined their side. Even some Warlords fought against the Crystal Empresses forces and surrendered when they were beaten.”
“So if she did such a good job, why would she miss someone like Master Hanq?”
“He went underground. Gave up his position and the life he had to hid away on the edges of the empire. The Empress didn’t miss him, she respected his wishes.” Taisen said.
“She respected a Warlord? How is that not disgusting and terrible?” I asked. I was glad the walls of the tent were blocking us from the others. I didn’t want to think about Master Hanq like that, but it was what he’d all but admitted to being.
“Not all Warlords were horrible monsters. Depending on what he did as a Warlord, she may have given him amnesty.” Taisen said.
“Or she might have just missed him.” I said.
“Yes, that’s possible too.”
“That doesn’t explain why Yael looks like she wants to rip his head off though.” I said.
“I would imagine that is something personal. She’s not a native to the empire, so I would guess that she’s had experience with the Warlords who fled outside the bounds of charted space. I think those are the ones that people get their impression of Warlords from.”
“The ones like this Karr Khan guy you mean?” I asked.
“Him and others like him. The ones who escaped to the worlds beyond Charted Space weren’t the ‘nicer’ Warlords out there. Any bad things you’ve heard of Warlords doing? They got a thousand times worse after the Warlords lost their wealth, their privilege and their position.”
“Why would guys like that care about guys like Master Hanq though? He’s no threat to them.” I asked.
“Old grudges, revenge, trying to make a name for themselves. There’s a billion reasons we do terrible things to each other, and with the stress they’re under, the Fringe Warlords aren’t the most stable of people to begin with.
“What about this Karr Khan guy?” I asked. “What’s with his clan thinking he’s immortal? Brainwashing?”
“Yes and no. From what I’ve heard, the Karr Khan keeps his people on a special palace-ship while they’re growing up so that he can test and indoctrinate them. That said however, he’s also managed to survive events that annihilated those near him. It’s unclear if any level of physical force would be sufficient to actually destroy him.” Taisen said.
“So how are we supposed to stop him?” I asked.
“By letting Opal and Yael do the work they’re trained for.”
“I thought you were an official agent of the Crystal Empress too?” I asked.
“I am, but my assignment is collecting information.”
“What about your doctor work? Was that for real?” I asked.
“Completely. The special agent thing is a lot slower and less interesting than you might think.”
“Present day excluded?” I guessed.
“Well it was pretty slow until this girl showed up in my office looking like she’d been hit by a hovertruck. A few dozen times.” Taisen said with a small grin.
“Yeah, wait, you said you didn’t heal me, so why aren’t I still beat to a pulp?” I asked.
“You fixed yourself up.” he said.
“Unconsciously, I would guess.” Taisen said. “I would also guess that was the first time you’d been hurt that badly in a fight?”
“Maybe? I don’t know. I’ve gotten into some bad jams before too.”
“This was the one that pushed you over the edge then.” he said.
“Meaning I’m crazy?”
“Meaning, you had to choose, on a subconscious level, whether you were willing to die to keep hiding what you could do.”
“I don’t get it. I never felt like I was hiding. I never wanted to pretend like I didn’t have any talent at all. Why would that happen?” I asked.
“There are a lot of possible reasons. Working out what they are isn’t important right now though. I know this is hard but the best advice I can give you is to let go of the past.” Taisen said.
“I thought you were supposed to be giving me advice on how to patch myself up?” I said.
“I have been.”
“We’ve been talking about Warlords. How is that helping me patch myself up?” I asked.
“It’s not what we’ve been talking about, it’s what we haven’t. Try to turn yourself invisible again, just for a moment ok?” Taisen said.
I did what he asked and felt a dull ache radiate down my spine. It wasn’t pleasant but it was worlds better than how I’d been feeling when we started talking.
“The key is to let it happen. Your body wants to heal. Let your anima move where it needs to. Let your body fix itself. It sounds simple but its incredibly hard to do sometimes. There’s always something that comes up, something that gets in the way taking the proper care of ourselves.” Taisen said. At the same time, I heard a knock on the habitat’s airlock.
Master Hanq, Opal and Yael were waiting for us outside.
“We have good news and bad news.” Master Hanq said.
“The good news is that we know where the Jewel is.” Opal said.
“The bad news is that Akell is going to get to it before we can get there.” Yael finished.