I was falling. Above me there was fire and smoke. The air skimmer I’d been on was tearing itself apart in the wake of the blast that had detonated its engine. The moment its reserve spell tanks emptied it would join me in plummeting towards the snow swept valley below. This was, needless to say, not exactly the reception we’d been expecting on our way to the peace conference.
It took me a second to shake off the disorientation of the blast and come to grips with the fact that I was in free fall. Another blast exploded a dozen yards away from me and I felt the force of it ripple over the anima shield I’d called up to protect myself. My shield was pretty good, but I wasn’t sure that “pretty good” would be enough to shrug off a direct artillery hit. I turned my fall into a dive to pick up speed and reflected on the “benefits” of taking an air skimmer to the peace conference.
In theory, flying in a high altitude craft like an air skimmer meant that you were too high for most attacks to reach you. In practice though, if an attack did manage to connect, you just wound up with more time on the way down to reflect on the choices you’d made that put you in such a rotten situation.
For some people that was probably horrifying, but in my case, I couldn’t find any decisions that I regretted making.
After growing up essentially powerless in a society where everybody had some level of magical aptitude, I’d leapt at the chance to develop the powers that I’d hidden from myself. That meant joining up as one of the Guardians who served the Crystal Empress and her empire, something I’d been all too happy to do after meeting a few of them. They’d made me an apprentice and assigned me to one of the few available mentors who had experience with Void anime, the type of magic that I primarily used.
Raychelle Blackbriar had been a Guardian since the Crystal Empresses’ rise to power. Master Raychelle had given the Crystal Empire twenty years of service, but she’d been an anima caster far longer than that. Over her long career, she’d developed a fairly “hands on” approach to training new casters. That was what had led to our mission on Exxion III, or as the locals called it: Hellsreach.
It was supposed to have been a simple job. Tag along with an Imperial negotiator and ensure their safety during a peace conference. It shouldn’t have involved much danger since the two sides of the dispute, the Garjaraks from Exxion II and the Humans from Exxion IV, were supposed to be under a cease fire. Apparently someone had failed to let them know that though.
Below me, the snow covered hills were strewn with the wreckage of all kinds of destroyed craft, both air and land. Black smoke stained the snow that had fallen the night before. Given the destruction I knew there’d be splashes of red to accent the black but, from as high up as I was, telling the living apart from the dead was beyond me.
Before I could worry about that however, there was the slight problem of the fact that I’d reached terminal velocity and there weren’t any handy air skimmers nearby to catch me. The last time I’d been in a situation like this, I’d improvised a landing system out of series of personal shields. It had worked. Mostly. This time though I had an advantage. This time I was working for the Crystal Empire and that meant, for once in my life, I had the gear I needed!
Or at least the gear I needed to help me survive the fall. Surviving the artillery fire was another matter entirely, and that wasn’t the only thing I had to worry about. The Garjaracks and the Humans both had squadrons of short range air speeders buzzing around the valley. They hadn’t been there when we’d been on our approach to the peace conference so I guessed they’d been scrambled in response to the first shot being fired. That had led to all of the artillery opening up as well, which in turn made it impossible for me to figure out who’d started the shooting.
“Master Raychelle!” I called out on the telepathic link that she’d setup for us. My skills with mental anima were minimal, it just didn’t make as much sense to me as physical and void magic did. Fortunately though, I didn’t need to be able to cast a telepathy spell to be able to use the one that Master Raychelle had set up for us.
Unfortunately, being able to use a telepathy spell didn’t do me any good when the other end of the link was silent.
I’d been unconcerned about the fall, up to the point where I noticed that. I knew I could land safely. If the attack on our ship had incapacitated my mentor, or killed her, that safety was going to be short lived though. I was a good fighter, but I had no illusions about being able to take on two armies and win.
I flared my anima shield and rolled out of the path of an airspeeder that was on a strafing run against one of the Human artillery emplacements. The pilot didn’t see me or didn’t care that I was there.
That changed in a hurry when I unfurled my anima wings.
Over fifteen feet from tip to tip and composed of brilliant scarlet light, the wings were projections of my physical anima channeled through a flight rig that Master Raychelle had given me. Flight with physical anima was difficult and dangerous but, at least for a limited time, the flight rig could handle maintaining the spell for me.
The spell cast by the rig did more than provide lift though. It gave me an instinctive sense of how to move in the air. That saved my life almost instantly. The power the anima wings threw off lit up the battlefield and drew attacks towards me like a flame attracting moths. I barely had them deployed before I was swirling through the air, doing barrel rolls and loops of all kinds to avoid the attacks that were coming from both sides of the conflict.
Despite the fact that I had better maneuverability than the airships or the artillery bolts, I very quickly saw that I had to get out of the sky. Dodging is a great defensive strategy but against multiple foes it becomes increasingly more difficult. The longer I stayed in the air, the more the airspeeders began to focus on me. At first there was only one on my tail. Then another started hemming me in from the left side. One of their enemies began firing at them but the shots were so wild that they had as good a chance of hitting me as the ones from the people who were intentionally trying to get me in their sights.
I swooped into the central valley below the aerial conflict and discovered why it was a no-man’s land between the two forces. Nearly every visible surface had attack runes or sigils carved into them. I could outmaneuver the airspeeders but the explosions that went off as I tried to race for cover on the ground proved a bit more challenging to avoid.
I put on a burst of speed as the first explosion slammed me sideway. That shot me past the second and third explosions but the flight rig caught a piece shrapnel from one of them. In the space of about three seconds I turned from a graceful, darting eagle to a misshapen, barely controlled brick. It was only by virtue of the momentum I’d built up and the raw power that I flooded into the flight pack that I was able to crest the ridge of the valley and escape the endless booby traps it contained.
That’s when one of the airspeeders shot me down.
The bolt casters on an airspeeder are significantly more powerful than the ones which soldiers carry. They’re intended to take down shielded ground transports with sustained barrages. Firing one at a human scale target is an exercise in overkill. Most of the time.
In my case I had a trump card. Void anima, the principal kind of magic I can manipulate has a unique relationship with other magics. It eats them. I knew the shot was coming before it landed and flared my Void anima outwards to absorb it. That saved me from being turned into a fine red mist but also drained all of the energy from the flight rig.
I just had time to retract my Void anima and throw up an anima shield before I slammed into the ground and bounced into a tree.
The airspeeder that had shot me down came roaring over the edge of the valley and launched a pair of lightning bombs at me before making a hard 180 degree turn.
I had to give them points for thoroughness. Or I would have if I’d hadn’t been knocked breathless when I hit the tree. As it was, I’d only called up a fraction of my Void anima before the lightning bombs hit. That was enough to keep me from being burned to a crisp the way the trees around me were but the electricity that did make it through wasn’t very fun to deal with.
The worst part was, I didn’t pass out. I don’t know if having access to physical anima made me tougher, or if I was getting used to a level of bodily damage that would have been appalling previously or if I just had rotten luck. Whatever the cause was though, I had the joy of picking myself up from the base of the tree I’d crashed in and hobbling out of burning forest on legs that felt like they were made of fluff.
I was in enough overall pain that it wasn’t until I reached a fast running stream that I noticed I’d sprained an ankle and fractured my left arm.
“Master Raychelle?” I called out again. The telepathic link was still there as far as I could tell but I didn’t have the sense that there was anyone listening on the other end. I didn’t know how to read that. I wanted to believe she was still alive, but I could imagine that the spell was just continuing with the power that she’d invested into it and it dissipate once that charge ran out.
“Are you ok?” a translucent blue figure asked.
“I’ve been better.” I said, putting my hand on the clear jewel that I wore on a necklace.
Fari wasn’t a ghost, despite looking like one. She was a full persona, captured and re-embodied into a jewel of immense power. Or it had been a jewel of immense power. The Ravager, the world killing Jewel of Endless Night, had been stripped of its power by me, my friends and about ten million ghosts. What had been left behind was Fari and the gem that acted as her body and home. I carried the it for her, but she was the one who owned jewel, and control of herself.
From what Master Raychelle had said, giving her the jewel had been a fairly dangerous thing. She could have become anything once she was placed in charge of her own constraint mechanisms. We were “lucky” that she’d turned out to be who she’d appeared to be.
I didn’t share Master Raychelle’s view. I figured Fari still could “become anything”, just like any of the rest of us. If she turned into a monster, my first thought wasn’t going to be to shatter the Jewel, it was going to be to ask her why and see if I agreed with her. I’d been called a monster myself and it wasn’t entirely inaccurate.
“Is there anyone who can help? Can I get a message to them?” Fari asked.
In siphoning away the Jewel of Endless Night’s power, I’d taken from her the ability to slaughter entire worlds. That power hadn’t been hers to begin with though. It had been the magic of a star, bound into eternal service. That didn’t mean Fari was powerless however. She’d always had her own power. It’s why she’d been chosen to be the Jewel’s mind in the first place.
I was terrible with mental magics. Fari on the other hand was excellent with them. She had some odd limits due to the spells that tied her to the jewel but sending a psychic message was well within her capabilities.
The problem was I had no idea who I could call on.
Master Raychelle and I were supposed to be able to handle protecting the peace negotiations alone. There weren’t any other Crystal Guardians within the solar system. I could have tried to reach one of the contacts we had in the system but there was a problem with that.
“I’d love to call for help, but I have no idea who we can trust here.” I said.
“Well, probably not me.” a man said.
I turned to find a human male of about my age standing behind me. He was dressed in a bedraggled military uniform and he was pointing a fully charged anima sword at me.