I didn’t need to see the burning building to taste the ashes of defeat that billowed from it.
“When did they torch Mulwin’s apartment?” I asked Fari.
“The first report came in an hour ago.” she said.
“An hour ago? But that was before Mulwin tried to assassinate me?” I said.
“I know. I can’t believe its a coincidence though.” she said.
“It’s not.” I said, uncertainty growing into dread the more I thought about the chain of events. “It’s a contingency plan. He wanted to make sure there were no clues left in case we escaped the assassination attempt.”
“That seems extreme.” Fari said. “And how would he know we wouldn’t get the information we need by reading the assassin’s minds?”
“He killed an entire prison and ordered Mulwin to rocket strike her own base. I don’t think ordering that a building be burned to the ground would bother him.” I said. “It’s a good point about the mind reading though. Why go to the trouble of cleaning up physical evidence unless he knows I’m rubbish at mental anima spells?”
“I don’t think he ‘knows’ anything like that. We intercepted his scrying spell and tracked it back to him. As far as he knows you’re as good with mental anima as I am.” Fari said.
“Could he have given Mulwin and the other assassin a spell to shield their minds?” I asked.
“Yes, but any shield can be broken with enough time and skill.” she said. “There is one way he could be sure we wouldn’t be able to extract the information from their minds though.”
“Kill them?” I guessed. It was the classic fate of an assassin in the spy novels I’d read as a kid.
“That would work too, but if we assume these were valuable assets, he might have cast a shield on them that could be monitored by someone else.” she said.
“So there weren’t two assassins, there were three?” I said.
“Maybe.” Fari said.
We couldn’t prove that, but it fit with what a careful planner would do. One assassin for direct contact with the target. That was their best chance at a verifiable kill. Another assassin for contact at range with overwhelming firepower in case the target fought back. The second assassin had less chance for a verified kill, and the attempt was more obvious, but she would have been a lot harder to escape from if I hadn’t been able to turn invisible. In the case where neither of the assassins succeeded the plan fell back to their handler who had no contact with the target at all. His only job was to report on the mission and trigger a kill switch on the assassins if it was required.
“Were you able to find out who the first assassin was?” I asked Fari.
“Yes. Sergeant Frassile Norlen. He and Mulwin transferred to the base together six months ago.” she said.
“The location of the Peace Conference hadn’t been chosen then.” I said. That suggested they were assets that Red Robes had in place for general use.
“You think that Red Robes has agents spread throughout the Hellsreach Common Council’s forces?” Fari asked.
“His organization has had twenty years to entrench themselves. They should have people everywhere by now.” I said. The words twisted a knot in my gut. My foes were prepared and they had the home turf advantage. I had a mountain of power to call on but I had no way of knowing who I needed to hit with it.
My flight faltered as my concentration lapsed. Rather than risk crashing into the forest below, I settled down onto the branches of a tall tree. In the distance the lights of Zawalla City flickered. They should have been comforting but in my imagination, the tiny fires burned away the trail of clues I’d hoped to follow back to Red Robes and his organization.
“Where do we go from here?” I asked. My brain wanted to race in a hundred directions but I forced myself to breath and drink in the quiet and stillness around me. Insects chirped and night birds warbled in a way I, as a city girl, had only heard in Holo-vids.
I listened to the unfamiliar voices and breathed in the perfume of a forest different from any I’d ever seen. A sense of the alien essence of the landscape crept into my pores and I shivered.
I was on a different world. I was alone, except for Fari. People had tried to kill me and would try again as soon as they found me.
And I was ok with that.
Ok with being lost. Ok with being far away from Belstarius, where I’d been raised. Ok with being in danger.
I was tipsy from the swigs of power Fari had given to me, but I knew something deeper was at work too. The stolen power made me feel giddy and invincible when I touched it. This was different. I felt calm down in the center of my being. I felt alive. I felt happy.
I’d been worried that I would become a monster and that worry was still there. Feeling happy after the death and violence that I’d witnessed seemed inhuman. The night air twirled around me, bringing back into the moment, and I accepted that sense of inhumanity too. Maybe I wasn’t human. Maybe I didn’t need to be. My best friend was a girl I’d known for two months whose body was an ancient enchanted gemstone. She’d been a part of killing billions of people and she was one of the kindest people I’d ever met.
Maybe I was a monster because the deaths of strangers didn’t fill me with pain and despair. Maybe I was a monster because I looked forward to a dance with Red Robes and his group that was sure to end in violence. Or maybe I was just a regular girl.
Red Robes wanted to kill me, but he respected me, maybe even feared me. I stood at the center of a world spanning plot, caught in machinations that incredible and terrifying people had spent decades putting together and they were afraid their meticulous plans were going to break before I did.
Growing up I’d felt unwanted and unworthy. Like most of the kids at the orphanage. I figured that was the way I would always be but here I had the chance to make a difference. To matter. Even if nobody ever knew what I did, that was worth it to me.
“Onwards I guess.” I said, letting go of the stillness and readying myself to fly once more.
“Oh I’m sorry!” said a distracted Fari, “I’ve been trying to establish a link back to Imperial HQ but it’s not there.” Fari said.
“There’s still a jamming spell on us?” I asked. Given the distance we’d traveled that would require an enormous radius on the spell, unless they have locked it onto me with Fari or I noticing.
“No, I don’t sense any resistance to my communication spell.” Fari said. “I’m not sensing the Imperial station either though.”
The Crystal Empire’s local facility was a small orbital station that held the official representative to the Exxion system and her staff. Master Raychelle and I had docked there on the way to the Peace Conference and picked up the negotiator that we were escorting. Despite the station’s small size it had state of the art defenses and a cutting edge communications array. Fari should have been able to cast a link to the station even if the crew had abandoned it.
“Could it have been destroyed?” I asked.
“That’s the level of response I’m getting from it. The only other possibility I can imagine would be if they brought all of the spell matrices down for repair at the same time.” Fari said.
“Don’t they have emergency systems in place for that?” I asked.
“Yes. That’s what’s making me think they might have been destroyed.” she said.
That wasn’t good news. In fact it was about as dire as news could get since it meant I had no back up and no means to request any.
“It’s just you and me then it looks like.” I said. “How do you feel about taking on a world together?”
“That sounds crazy.” Fari said. “Count me in.”
I laughed. If she hadn’t been born thousands of years before me, I think Fari could have been my twin.
“I hoped you’d say that.” I said. “I also hoped you’d have an idea for where we can find another trail that will lead us to Red Robes.”
“You know, I think I do. If you don’t mind experimenting with your Void anima.” she said.
“As long as I don’t have to kill anyone who doesn’t deserve it, I’m ok with that.” I said.
“I think you’re safe there. We won’t be dealing with anyone who can be killed.” Fari said. “Head towards Mulwin’s apartment building. I’ll show you the route to take. You’ll need to land outside the city and walk in to it.”
“That’s going to take hours.” I said. I didn’t know how much time there was before Red Robes finished his plan so my first impulse was to be greedy with every minute we had. Rushing in without a plan of our own though was suicide.
“I know. Its important for a few reasons though. We need the building to cool down enough that they’ll think what we’re going to do is impossible.” Fari said.
“I have a bad feeling I know why they might think your idea is impossible.” I said as I nonetheless took flight again and began winging my way to the border of the city.
“I’ll admit it’s difficult, but I think we can do it.” she said.
“Have you ever tried this thing you have in mind?” I asked.
“I never had a skilled Void anima caster to work with before, so, no.” she said.
“You remember I’ve only been working with Void anima for two months right?” I asked.
“I don’t believe that’s true, but I’ll agree that you’ve only been conscious of manipulating your Void anima for that time period.” Fari said.
“What makes you think that?” I asked.
“Have you listened to what Master Raychelle teaches you when she goes through your casting exercises?” Fari asked.
“Yeah, she’s going over the basics.” I said.
“Right. She’s going over all of the basics.” Fari said. “When Master Hanq started teaching you, did he show you all of the simple punches and kicks and blocks at once?”
“No, he spaced them out. I spent weeks learning to punch straight before he taught me anything else.” I said.
“Anima caster training is the same, but Master Raychelle didn’t start you with one simple exercise. She gave them all to you over the course of a few days.” Fari said.
“But they were simple.” I said.
“So is throwing a straight punch.” Fari said. “Do you know why she has you practicing the basic casting techniques?”
I thought about it and the parallels to Master Hanq’s lessons were obvious once I looked for them.
“Because you always practice the basics.” I said. “I thought Master Raychelle practiced with me just to make sure I did the exercises right though!”
“That was part of why she practiced with you, but she also needed to keep her own training up.” Fari said.
“I don’t understand though, how can I be that good at Void anima casting? I didn’t even know I had any Void anima until just before I met you.” I said.
“You told me that the internal aspects of casting came easy to you right? You were able to separate your different animas as soon as the idea was suggested to you.” Fari said.
“But that’s the most basic of basic techniques. Isn’t it?” I asked.
“It is, but it still takes most students years to master it. A lot of adults never get it completely down in fact. They’ll learn to separate their primary anima from everything else and then that’s the only one they need to worry about using from then on.” she said.
“I can’t understand that. It’s so simple to do, why would anyone have problems with it?” I said.
“Because they haven’t spent years working on without being aware that was what they were doing.” Fari said. “From what you told me, your Master Hanq had to adapt his own fighting techniques for you to use because you didn’t have the anima casting ability that he did.”
“That’s right. He would always say ‘ok this will work a little different for you’ and then show me something like a Lightning Bolt punch. I’d try it and I’d hit good and hard but no lightning.” I said.
“Right, he adapted the technique because you don’t have a lot of Energetic anima like he does.” Fari said. “The thing is, I don’t think he changed the technique all that much. The internals of it, the way you move force through your body, that laid the groundwork for moving anima through your body too.”
I laughed. It was wild and unrestrained since there was no one except Fari to hear me.
“You have no idea how many times he said I was holding myself back. He just meant that I was being stubborn in picking up something he was showing me, but if we only knew.” I said. “I think I was literally closing my power down by mixing all of the other magic in me into my Void anima.”
“That seemed like what must of have happened. I just wonder why you would do that?” she said.
“I think I was hiding. Something happened when I was little. When I lost my mother. I think I was hiding from that.” I said.
“Do you remember what it was?” Fari asked.
“No. I’ve only got bits and pieces from when I was that young. Quick images and sensations.” I said.
“I’ll try to be careful of those then.” Fari said.
“Why, what is this plan of yours?” I asked.
“We’re going to pool our talents and talk to the spirit that burned Mulwin’s building to the ground. Spirits don’t have any political connections and the one who burned the building down will be able to lead us to the person who summoned it.” Fari said. “Then you can convince them to tell us who we need to talk to next.”
The lights of the city grew brighter as we approached its border.If we played this right, Red Robes would never see us coming. If we played it wrong, he would, but he still wouldn’t be able to stop us.