Category Archives: Winds of Yesterday

Chapters of the “Winds of Yesterday” novel.

The Winds of Yesterday – Chapter 22

The time for waiting was done. There was a fire burning in my veins and I saw the thread that lead back to its source. With a wave of my hand, I dropped the Void anima barrier that obscured us and unfurled wings of fire. In the dim illumination of a too-early morning, the light I cast outshone the oncoming dawn. From the ashes of the destroyed building, I rose leaving a trail of flames behind me and sonic boom to herald my coming.

“This isn’t a good idea.” Fari said. I heard the concern in her voice and dismissed it.

“We have to act now.” I told her. “Before the summoner can call up any more reinforcements.”

It took tremendous power to call forth a fire elemental the likes of the one I’d consumed. By all rights, the summoner should have been exhausted by the effort, but I was fighting against people who had decades to plan. I couldn’t bank on them running out of resources. I’d gained an advantage, one they couldn’t have planned for, and I needed to capitalize on that as fast as possible.

The fire elemental’s sense of where its previous summoner was led me to the center of Zawalla City. At the speed I was traveling, I covered the miles in seconds, ascending high into the sky in the process.

“That’s the Common Council building!” Fari said as we caught sight of our destination. A thrill of expectation ran down my spine as I spun over and dove towards the gleaming building below me.

“Looks like they’re in session.” I said, noticing the lights and activity around the structure.

The Council’s headquarters was a large circular building, a dozen stories tall with two rectangular wings stretching to the east and west. Despite being  owned by the least powerful of the three governmental forces on Hellsreach, the Council building managed to look imposing. The polished white stone with its gold inlays that the building was built from was part of that. The rest of Zwalla was no worse than my home town but my home town wasn’t exactly a shining beacon of galactic prosperity. The Council Building, by contrast, could have stood proud on one of the Empire’s core worlds. The gleaming white and gold said that someone had not only invested a lot of money in Hellsreach’s native government, but continued that investment by paying for the upkeep of the facility.

The Council’s wealth wasn’t the only thing imposing about their headquarters though. The platoons of armored soldiers around it were not for show or ceremony. They were all carrying fully functional weapons and they had plenty of practice in using them.

Even with the power I was infused with, the idea of assaulting the central HQ of the Common Council seemed foolish. They were expecting trouble, maybe because they were always expecting trouble due to the strife on the planet or maybe because the last day had seen catastrophe after catastrophe piling up. Either way, I would receive the wrong sort of “warm welcome” if I tried to crash through their defenses.

The smart move was to land and talk with them calmly. Given the chance, people will on rare occasions chose to be reasonable. It would have been so nice if that was an option for me.

“If the summoner’s in there, he’s either on the Council or close to someone who is.” Fari warned me.

“I know. That’s why I’ve got to make this quick.” I said. Assaulting the Council was such a bad idea that I felt sure Red Robes hadn’t accounted for it.

The summoner was on the top floor of the Council building, ten stories up, inside the rotunda that crowned the building. From my vantage in the clouds, I dropped towards him, folding the flame wings around me as a shield. That saved me from the volley of blast bolts the platoon of defenders shot at me.  The first few volleys were inaccurate but the soldiers fired in sustained bursts that tracked me as I spiraled down.

The bolts found their mark at the same time as I crashed through the defensive field that surrounded the governmental compound. The barrier should have been unbreachable but I had more than the fire elemental’s strength to draw on. When I reached out for it, Fari gave me some of the stolen power I’d taken from the bone stealers. That plus the fire elemental’s might plus my own Void anima punched a hole straight through a shield that could have held off a score of Ghost Duster bombs.

That kind of power is fatiguing to use and my supply of it was only “huge” not “infinite”. I started to notice the limits of it as my flame wings absorbed more of the blaster bolts. I wasn’t in danger of running out of energy immediately but I couldn’t withstand that kind of damage forever either.

It didn’t help that the Hellsreach forces were good shots and braver than I would have been in their position. They had a job to do and they put their all into doing it, which made surviving their attacks more taxing that it would have been against a greener recruits. I admired their determination and dedication to their job, it was just inconvenient that their job happened to involve killing me at the moment.

I flared my wings out to arrest my fall before the ground did the work of killing me for them and covered myself in Void armor.

“I need to convince them to stop shooting me.” I told Fari.

“Don’t kill any of them.” she said, more out of concern for me than for the soldiers, I think.

I agreed with her, or at least most of me did. I was able to absorb the majority of the blaster bolts’ energy, but enough was leaking through my armor and the protection offered by the wings that it was getting unpleasant. I’ve never run naked through a hive of angry bees but it was easy to imagine what that would feel like after standing up to the fire the Hellsreach defenders were laying down on me.  Most of me didn’t want to kill the defenders for that but there was a part of me that was in the mood for vengeance.

Plus some of them were almost certainly working with Red Robes.

So they deserved to burn.

Tongues of fire flared in my hands, eager to turn everyone who was hurting me into ash.

I shut down that line of thinking as fast as it cropped up and clenched the tongues of fire away for good measure. The fire elemental wasn’t dead. I hadn’t even beaten it. Not fully. In absorbing its power, I’d absorbed its essence as well. It wanted things to burn, and I wanted to burn Red Robes for the things he’d done. As long as we were in agreement, the fire elemental didn’t feel the need to fight with me. Holding it back from burning the troops felt unnatural though. Our goals diverged on that subject and the elemental was willing to fight me over it.

That was fine though. I was willing to fight back.

We landed on the roof of the Head Quarters, beside one of the heavy bolt caster guns, melting it to slag in the process. The ground troops lost their line of fire as we touched down which made things somewhat easier. The other heavy bolt casters continued firing on me though and those stung like hell.

I’m terrible at manipulating Energetic anima, but when you’ve got as much available as I had thanks to the elemental, throwing steel melting fireballs is easy. Too easy. I tried to hold back on the force I put into each fireball but the elemental slammed through my resistance.

In three seconds, the three nearest heavy bolt caster batteries were in flames. Their crews were alive from what I could tell, but some of them were going to need medical attention. Thanks to their fellows they were going to receive it. I was happy about that, but less happy that there were enough of the defenders left that they could manage the medical care needed for the wounded and still keep shooting at me.

“We need to get out of here.” I said to Fari. “The summoner is about forty feet below us, over there.”

I pointed to a spot underneath the center of the rotunda.

“That’s the central meeting room. The Council members were called in for a special session before dawn this morning.” Fari said. She’d accessed the Council’s spell web and was pulling information from it as fast as she could for me.

“They’re all in there?” I asked.

“Yes. As well as reporters and special witnesses.” she said. “I’m trying to put together a list of who that is and how they’re connected but their spellweb is well guarded.”

“Keep working on it. I can guarantee we can get the summoner but if they have allegiances the other Council members don’t know about we might not be able to catch their whole group.” I said.

“You’re assuming the whole Council isn’t in on this.” Fari said.

“I am, and I know that’s dangerous, but if they were all in on it, I don’t think Red Robes would be working so hard to get rid of us and hide any information that could lead back to him.” I said.

“You’ll need to hurry, they’re starting to evacuate the Council members.” Fari said.

I needed an entrance into the Council chamber, but all of the existing ones were guarded which meant I’d have to burn my way through a squad of soldiers to use them. That left one good option that I could see; make my own entrance.

I summoned up a fireball that was too bright to look at and hurled it at the center of rotunda’s dome. Before I had the chance to follow it through and descend on the people below in all of my dark and fiery glory, I found myself dodging the thrusts and slashes of an anima blade.

The soldier who attacked me hadn’t wasted any time with orders to surrender or offers of mercy. Her first strike had been kill and she’d followed it up instantly with slashes meant to disable me.

As bad as fighting her was though, my situation got even worse with the arrival of the rest of her squad. None of them were young and none were old. They were in that perfect range where they’d had time to accumulate plenty of experience without age slowing them down or dulling their reflexes.

On any other day, or under any other circumstances, they would have shredded me to ribbons. The Council couldn’t have asked for better defenders.

Unless they asked for me as I was in that moment.

Fari handed me more power before I even asked for it. With Physical and Mental anima surging through me like lightning, I watched time slow to a crawl. The soldiers were still moving but there was an exaggerated slowness to their actions. It was as though this were a normal sparring match that we were running at half speed.

Even with that, I got sliced up fighting them. Anima blades are murderously hard to parry bare handed and there were six of them on one of me. I twisted and dodged, weaving around their blows and disarming them as fast as I could, but they pressed their attacks so strongly and coordinated so well that there was no escape from some of the blows.

In the end I settled for tripping the soldier who had first attacked me and using her fall to cover my escape as I took flight and dove into the hole I’d made in the rotunda.

Beneath me, I saw at least fifty people. Some were guards who started to bring their bolt casters to bear on me as I dropped into the chamber and looked around for the summoner.

The geometry of the room wasn’t what I would have preferred for a fight. If the defenders opened fire within the room people were going to get hurt, me among that number.

I didn’t trust my control with using fireballs to disarm them, so I hung in the air, suspended on wings of flame, the dark anima of the Void swirling around me. I hoped that might intimidate them but I knew it was a gamble. At the very least though,  if they were aiming up they would only be shooting the ceiling when I dodged out of the way.

I scanned the crowd of people, letting the fire elemental’s essence lead me to the person who had summoned him. The Council members were shrinking back from me, slowly since I was still amped up on the power Fari had give me, and the difference between guilt and fear were difficult to make out. I didn’t need the summoner to admit his guilt though. The fire elemental would know him no matter how he might try to hide.

I caught sight of him standing behind one of the older council members and his aura flared into brilliance. The fire elemental recognized the one that we needed to burn.

It took everything I had to hold the elemental back at that point. I needed the summoner to talk before he fried. The elemental didn’t care about that. His only desire was to be let loose. There was fuel to burn here and lives to take.

My wings flared out greedily and licked the white stone of the rotunda’s dome blackening it to pitch. The guards that were protecting the summoner wouldn’t be able to stand in my way. I could sweep them aside and turn the Council to ash to make sure I got all of the conspirators.

I shook my head at those thoughts, forcing the elemental back under my control. No one was going to burn until I said so. Certainly not the guards who were only doing their duty.

I looked over their ranks and saw that some of the witnesses who had been called in for the sessions were gathering up their weapons and joining the uniformed guards in defending the Council members.

The whole population was psychotic. From the heavy set elderly woman in the robes of an academic to the newsman who was putting down his pen and holo-tablet to draw his personal bolt caster. They were all nuts.

Even Darius, who was standing with two of the Council members and was looking up at me with the same look of utter shock and amazement that I felt on seeing him.

The Winds of Yesterday – Chapter 21

The fire elemental arrived, as many fires do, with a single spark. He didn’t want to appear before Fari and I, but we didn’t allow him to make that choice. It was a cruel summoning, there wasn’t much fuel to burn in the charred remains of the destroyed apartment building. That didn’t stop the spark from growing though.

In response to our summons, the fire elemental poured its essence into the material world and a column of flame danced before us and swelled towards the brightening sky above.

I took my Void anima in hand again. Fari had her connection to the spirit, I didn’t need to pull it in any more. Instead I cast a circle of protection and obscurement outwards.

I could have cast the circle around us to protect Fari and I from the elemental’s wrath, but that would have severed Fari’s control of it and left the monster free to consume the nearby buildings as well. That’s why I made sure to cast the circle wide enough to encompass the whole building. That trapped us inside with the elemental and him inside with us.

“You’ve done everything wrong, Dark One.” the elemental said. From a column of fire it shaped itself into the form of a broad shouldered man composed of flames. It was tall, seven feet at least, and growing an inch every few seconds.

“You’re here.” I said, pointing out that we hadn’t done everything wrong.

“I am. Soon, you won’t be.” he said.

“We hold a binding over you.” Fari said, appearing beside me.

“It will not last long.” the elemental said. “And you cannot compel me far with it.”

“That doesn’t matter, you are under our command until the binding is fulfilled.” Fari said.

“Decide what you wish then.” he said. “I will not stay my vengeance from you though. Whatever you desire, you will have it and then you will burn.”

“You seriously want to talk about vengeance?” I asked.

“You dragged me here. Your hands are steeped in sin against me.” he said.

“Hundreds of people lived in this building. They’re ashes now.” I said. I couldn’t feel their ghosts. Whatever anima they’d possessed had moved on, or returned to the source, or whatever happened with the anima of the departed under natural circumstances.

“You all should be ashes.” the elemental said.

“We dragged you here. You should consider that there are other things we can do to you.” I said. It hadn’t been the elementals fault that it killed everyone in the building, a human or a Gar summoner was responsible for that, but I’d seen the way it had reached towards the building across the street. It had enjoyed destroying the people here and it would enjoy destroying anyone else it could. We could stop it, according to Fari’s theory anyways, but I doubted we could manage that without destroying a large part of it.

“That changes nothing. I will burn you.” he said. He swelled larger and I heard a hungry glee in his voice. I thought back to the vision. He hadn’t been coerced into killing everyone in the building. He’d done it gladly. The summoner hadn’t bent the elemental to his will, he’d merely released it and let the fire burned where it wanted to.

If it had been another elemental, one that chose to embody the flame that illuminates or the flame that warms, they might have moved through the building as a natural fire would have. The building still would have been destroyed, Mulwin’s belongings rendered safe from prying eyes, but the inhabitants would have had time to escape.

This monster wasn’t that sort of elemental though. He was the fire that destroyed. I heard his laugh and in it was the echo of  laughter I’d heard too often growing up on the streets. It was a sadist’s laugh. It gloried in the power and freedom of cruelty.

“You will answer our question.” Fari said.

“And then I’m going to extinguish you.” I told him.

“Foolish words. My heart is stronger than this world’s. I answered your call, but I am not yours to shape or bind.” he said.

I gestured with my left hand and called rune covered chains of Void anima up from the circle that flowed beneath us. The dark energies wrapped around the elemental’s arms and legs. They cut into the mass of its chest and ensnared its throat.

Where the Void anima touched the elemental’s flames, the fires dimmed and sputtered. Elementals can’t feel agony, but tearing away at its essence seemed like a decent substitute when it came to making my point.

“You will burn.” The elemental’s voice crackled with contained rage. “Ask your question and burn.”

“Who sent you to do this?” Fari asked, gesturing at the ruins around us.

“A mortal.” the elemental said, smug satisfaction radiating from him brighter than the flames that made him up.

“Not good enough.” I said and tightened the chains.

“And now, you burn.” the elemental said.

He tore through the Void anima chains, letting them rip huge gouts of flame out of him as they

cut through his arms and legs and chest. The chains around his neck held him for a moment before he pushed forward and they sliced off his head. When one head fell away, another roared forth to take its place.

He was fifteen feet tall and advancing when Fari stepped in front of me.

“Answer the question!” she commanded, the blue of her ghostly form blazing with fire of its own.

The fire elemental rocked back at her words and tried to press forward. It looked like a hurricane wind was set against it.

“We do not care for mortal names.” The elemental grunted as it spoke the words. “His face was hidden by the bones of slain mortals and in his hands he held the keys to the slain world. Your power is as nothing to his little mortal.”

“Though his face and name were hidden, you know him still.” Fari said. “Take us to him!”

The hurricane winds died away and the elemental stood up to a newly towering height.

“One command alone. That is all you may compel from me.” the elemental said, his voice bright with madness and glee. He surged forward and I managed to push Fari behind me and raise a personal shield just as he struck.

The shield shattered under his blow and I felt searing heat wash over me and hurl me backwards. I was lucky. I hit part of the ruined wall and tumbled cleanly through it.

The elemental roared in crazed delight and exploded towards me. I cast another shield, this one matching my rage against his. Fari wasn’t vulnerable to material injuries but a pure anima attack could affect her. I had too few friends in my life, there was no way in blazing hell I was going to let a monster like the fire elemental take one away from me.

The elemental crushed down on my shield, bringing a physical force to bear that was at odds with the flames that made up its body. In return, I lashed out with whips of Void anima that flayed power from the elemental with every hit.

For as fast as I damaged the monster though, new flames rushed in to replace the power that was lost. That was fine with me. The more power it had, the more I got to consume.

The elemental saw what was happening as my shield grew stronger instead of weaker from his continued attacks. If there’s one thing fire is good at though, it’s attacking from all directions at once. I’d been distracted by the pounding force it unleashed on the shield it erected and only noticed the wall beside me collapsing at the last second.

It was too late to dodge the wall, so I channeled some of the power I’d stolen from the fire elemental into a backhanded slam against the bricks that were about to squish me. The stolen anima was mostly Energetic anima, which I wasn’t familiar with using. As a result, my casting came out less like a spell and more like an uncontrolled explosion.

On the plus side, the wall that was falling at me shattered in two with a ten foot section around where I hit vanishing into a cloud of dust particles. The down side was that the explosion tossed me face first through the opposite wall.

I don’t know how I landed, except that it wasn’t in any shape or form, the way Master Hanq had taught me to land from a bad fall. I shook my head to clear the ringing from my thoughts and tried to get up and put my shield back in place.

I was too slow.

Fire isn’t pretty. It looks pretty from a distance, but up close its horrible. From a distance it’s warm and bright and safe. Up close though it is pain. Pure, unspeakable pain.

I felt a flash of that agony and heard Fari scream too before I was pulled out of my body. I thought I was dead, but then memories surged through me. I knew I was alive, but my thoughts were too distant from the world to interfere with what came next. I was hurt, dying, but not dead. I’d been hurt like that before. It didn’t leave me capable of rational thought. I just knew that I didn’t want to die and my body and instincts took over from there.

Void anima washed over me and solidified into a suit of armor. It pulled at my other animas, draining me, while at the same time feeding power to repair my body. Thought was gone, but rage remained. I wasn’t out of control though. I was still me. I wanted to live. I wanted my friend to be ok.

And I wanted that elemental to die.

Claws of void anima covered my hands. They were grotesque. I loved them.

The elemental was larger now. Twenty feet? Twenty five? It looked delicious.

With a growl, I leapt up to a beam on the second floor and launched myself off it at the elemental’s throat. The elemental blasted me with fire as I fell towards it and I became a black star wreathed in red and orange light. The hard Void anima armor that I wore smiled and I plunged my claws into the elemental’s chest.

Like a dog digging to find its most beloved bone, I slashed away at the flames of the elemental in a blur. Power coursed through me as I did so. Rich, pure energy, from the elemental’s heart.

I’d been tipsy on the power I’d taken from the bone stealers. That had been a rich blend of animas that carried the echoes of the dead. This was something quite different. This power was untainted. Where the dead wished for vengeance and peace and the continuation of the thousand things they’d left undone, this power wished for only one thing.

It wanted to burn.

There were so many enemies, the power said. All the mortals. The slayers of the world.

They all needed to burn.

I’d been drunk before, but this was more than that. This was madness. Joyful, blissful madness. To have a clear and unfettered purpose. To smite those who stood against me. No doubts, no fears, no holding back.

I looked up to find myself standing on the ground, the darkening remnants of the fire elemental splayed open before me. I’d ridden its faltering body to the ground. In my hands, the elemental’s heart pulsed. It was nothing more than a gout of fire. The last vestige of an ancient power.

No doubts. No fears. No holding back. I crushed the flames and drank them in, feeling the last surge of power flood through me.

My body was fine. Better than fine. It sang with power. I was still on fire, still burning, but the flames held no pain. Not for me. All their pain was being saved for the people who stood against me. I pictured a pyre of their corpses, pictured the whole world burning as a beacon in the night.

It was beautiful.

I’m not good with mental anima. I can managed a little with each form of anima but that certainly wasn’t enough to fight off the influence of the ancient spirit I’d absorbed.

That’s where Fari saved me. Again.

Her touch was like a falling into a cool pond on a blistering day.

My Void armor faded away and I sagged down against the nearest wall. I was exhausted but my thoughts were clear.

“I wanted to burn the world.” I told her.

“He wanted to. You just want to burn a select portion of it.” she said, sitting down beside me.

“I don’t think I can do this again.” I told her. “I not sure I can even stand for that matter.”

“I’m sorry. I didn’t know he’d be that strong.” she said. “Let me pull him out of you and store him with the other anima.”

“We can’t.” I said. “He’s giving me the answer we wanted. I know where his summoner is.”

“It’s a trap.” Fari said. “He wants you in a situation where you’ll call on his power. It’ll give him another chance to overwhelm you.”

“He doesn’t want to overwhelm me. He just wants to burn people.” I said. I focused on the power I had stored from the elemental and called it forth into my hand.

He was the flame that destroyed. I knew some people who needed to be destroyed. I wasn’t entirely myself in that moment, but there was no disagreement in me about what was going to happen next.

The Winds of Yesterday – Chapter 20

It’s one thing to hear that an apartment building burned to the ground. That’s the usual way a bad fire is described. Standing before the ashes of Mulwin’s apartment though I saw just what it took to make that description a reality.

Fari’s post-cognition spell used the echoes of power that remained in the building’s ashes to call forth a vision of its destruction. Across the four lane road, I saw the pile of black rubble spin back up into the sky and resume its shape as a block-wide home for hundreds of people.

The fire that consumed it didn’t start gradually. Whatever elemental was summoned into the building was too big for the structure to contain. Its flames burst out from every window as the interior rooms became fuel for the beast.

The suppression spells triggered the instant the fire began, but that meant they were an instant too late to save the inhabitants. Even with their support structure crumbling beneath them, the protective spells tried to fight the elemental. That saved the surrounding buildings. It bought time for the Zawalla fire brigade to arrive and contain the ancillary damage caused by the massive fire. What the spells did not do though was banish the fire elemental itself.

Lost in the grip of Fari’s spell, I gazed up at the towering monster of flame that raged in the confines of the crumbling apartments and tried to imagine how the fire brigade had managed to smother the blaze. The scene played out further, following their arrival, and I saw their efforts fail with every spell they cast. The elemental was too much for them.

The last of the suppression spells failed and the flame monster surged outwards, consuming the outer walls of the apartments. It turned its titanic maw towards the apartment building behind me and I saw it loom over my head, crossing the street and blotting out the sky in a curtain of greedy fire.

And then it was gone.

Banished by its summoner.

All that was left were ashes, dust and the choking scents of smoke and loss.

Fari’s spell faded and the past fell away from my eyes. The smell of the flames remained though.

“On the bright side, I think there’s enough echoes left that I’ll be able to setup a good link to the fire elemental.” Fari said. She didn’t sound any more pleased with the prospect than I was.

“So we get to ask that thing one question and then we have to fight it or it will run amuck?” I asked.

“Yes.” Fari confirmed.

“Do you think we can do this?” I asked.

“Yes.” she said, though she didn’t sound quite as certain about that.

I breathed in the heavy odor of char and weighed the risks. The fire elemental’s destructive power was undeniable. If we failed, hundreds of people would pay the price. If we didn’t try though Red Robes would finish his work and put his plans into effect. He had murdered hundreds in the last few hours and the war he promoted had claimed a thousand times as many victims as that. The numbers made for a compelling case but I couldn’t balance out lives by looking only at how many of them were on each side of an equation.

If I was going to risk the lives of the people around me, I had to ask myself a lot of questions. Could I keep them safe? What would I be willing to sacrifice to protect them? Was there a better way?

It’s amazing how often people forget to ask that last question. In this case though, if there was a better way I couldn’t see it and Fari, who was a lot smarter than I was, couldn’t see it either. That didn’t mean one wasn’t there, just that both of us had failed to find it in the time we had available. I thought about it that way to force myself to stay open to the possibility of a different approach while accepting that the path I’d chosen was the best I could do.

I knew I might not be able to keep the people around us safe, but the only way to get to Red Robes was to take a gamble and at least this one put the primary exposure to danger on me. I’d sacrifice my safety before I sacrificed any one else’s. If I failed, it wouldn’t help the people of Zawalla that I burned up first, but at least our plan ensured I would fight for them as hard as I could.

“Tell me what I need to do.” I said.

“We’ll need to start at the center of the building, where the fire elemental was first called.” Fari said.

Sneaking past the cordon lines the fire brigade left up wasn’t difficult. The excitement of the fire had fallen away a few hours after the elemental was banished. It was dark and late and people wanted to get back to sleep. Even in the face of a tragedy like this, life went on.

“You’ll be the one calling the elemental back.” Fari said. “I need you to pull in the threads of Energetic anima that remain from it.”

“I’m guessing I can’t just flood the area with Void anima though right?” I said.

“Yeah, you’ll need to be gentle, like you’re pulling on a spider’s web. We’re trying to draw the elemental back by threads that are barely connected to it anymore.” Fari said.

“Might as well get started then before it shakes them off.” I said.

I breathed out slowly to push my fear and doubt away. The cloak of invisibility around me dropped away as I did. I needed all of my concentration for the task at hand. Maintaining an extra spell on top of that would guarantee failure.

Fari talked of the remaining slivers of the elemental as threads, so I focused my mind on that image. I reached out with my Void anima and tried to shape it into thin tendrils that could wrap around the bits of fading Energetic anima and bring it back to me without destroying it. It was hard. My usual spell casting mode was to throw out buckets of Void anima and patch up any holes in the spell with buckets more of the stuff. This felt more like sewing, a skill the Sisters of Waters Grace had tried to teach me many times at the orphanage without the barest hint of success on any occasion.

I found the first strand of the elemental anima in a still hot bit of melt that had melted in the fire. Pulling the anima out of the metal was easy. Too easy. I felt Fari try to help me ease back on the force I exerted but it was too late. The anima snapped loose from the metal and vanished into the Void before I could pull it into myself.

“I know we’re in a hurry, but we can’t rush this part of it.” Fari said.

“Right. Slower then.” I said and gritted my teeth. Moving slowly can be harder than moving fast. I pictured the exercises Master Hanq made me do at “1/10th speed”. An hour of that would leave me sore for days early on.

I sent my Void anima out, moving it with exaggerated slowness as I sought out another spark.

“You’re still a little too quick.” Fari said.

Moving the Void anima slower felt like it was going to be impossible. It was like pushing me off a building and asking me to fall at half the normal rate. After a minute of attempting to control my Void anima at that speed I was shaking with fatigue and all I had to show for my efforts were three more broken strands of Energetic anima.

“You’re getting there.” Fari said. Her mental voice was quiet and hopeful. Based on the results I saw, I was sure her words were meant more as an encouragement than as a reflection of reality.

I pulled my Void anima in and relaxed for a moment, trying to catch my breath and recenter my casting efforts. In the east I saw the sky beginning to brighten with the approach of day. It had taken a while to walk to Mulwin’s apartment from the edge of the city but even with that dawn seemed to be approaching too quickly.

“What’s going to happen if we’re still working on this when the sun rises?” I asked.

“Don’t worry about that. For now, just focus on pulling in those anima threads.” Fari said.

Even the basic lessons in spell casting I received let me translate that; if the sun rose it was going to be even harder to pull in the threads. Since what we were doing was already impossible enough that Red Robes wasn’t planning for it, I didn’t like our chances if I took any longer to work out how to do what Fari needed.

My instincts told me that what I needed to do was to try it my own way. If I flooded the area with Void anima I could reach out to all of the remaining threads at once and pull in the strongest of them that remained. That would solve the problem in one quick swoop and play to my strengths rather than my weaknesses.

Needless to say, my instincts are stupid sometimes, which is why I don’t listen to them if I have half a choice in the matter.

It would feel good to let loose, but I knew all I would accomplish would be to scour the building clean of any trace of the elemental that destroyed it. As miserable as it was, sometimes the only way to get a job done is to do it the hard way.

With a calm inhalation, I gathered my Void anima inside myself. On the exhalation I let it suffuse me. From a silent, cold, sphere in the center of my chest, I pushed it to flow outwards to the limit of my skin.

The threads of anima I needed to find were far away from me and the arrival of the new day was unnaturally close but I put both of those facts out of my mind. I was all there was and I was empty, I was the Void.

Memories from times long gone struggled to fight to the surface of my mind. Cries and screams and fire and loss. It wasn’t the time to see those though, so I focused on the silence at the center of my being instead. I had no memories, I had no senses. I wasn’t a Crystal Guardian, I wasn’t an orphan, I wasn’t Mel. I simply was.

Around me, there was anima of every variety. All of the world was magic when you looked at it from the Void. Every piece of matter was an endless miracle, every erg of energy was the promise of impossible change and every passing thought a fragment of godlike awareness.

I didn’t move, because I couldn’t move. I was the Void, I was absence and emptiness and the space between things.

I was the Void, but I was not alone.

Fari’s touch passed through me like a whisper, the most gentle of impulses, reminding me that I could breathe and so I did.

Inhale and I felt myself, felt the edge of my Void anima where it played along my skin.

Exhale and I grew larger, spreading outwards with my breath to cover a tiny fraction more of the world.

Inhale and exhale, grounding myself and growing. It was slow work, much more so than what I had tried before, but the pressure of the clock was lost to me. I couldn’t sense time passing, or the impending arrival of the sun’s light, except in the flow of world’s anima as it streamed around me.

When I encountered the first of the elemental’s stray anima, I knew what it was. It was too pure, the heat caught in the ruins of a cooking pot had a life to it that the warmth of the rest of the ruins lacked.

I didn’t try to pull that strand in. I just kept breathing and reaching out. Inch by inch, strand by strand, I found the connection that Fari needed to work with. Each bit lay where it had fallen, but within me, they were twined into a gossamer cord reaching beyond the world to the elemental plane from which they came.

To the cord, I felt Fari add her magic and her will. Bolstered by her strength, it changed. What once was gossamer grew stronger than steel, the cord becoming a mighty leash that we pulled on together.

The fire elemental was not used to such summons. There was a proper way to call a being as vast as he. The ritual required calling out the name that flattered him, it required feeding him with expensive incense and rare fuels. And it required the promise of blood and flesh that he would be given to burn.

We offered none of those things. We didn’t entreat the elemental. We didn’t seek to placate him or gift him with payments for his service. We dragged him to us in protest and torment. Our voices demanded his attention and compelled his presence before us.

When he arrived, there was no binding circle to hold him. No protective spell carefully calibrated to contain his wrath. There was only Fari and I to stand before a being who was ancient when the planet we stood on was formed.

It wasn’t going to be a fair fight at all.

The Winds of Yesterday – Chapter 19

Zawalla City was in “uncontested territory”. That meant the land it sat on held no tactical significance for either side in the conflict over Hellsreach. That was the theory anyway. In practice any city with infrastructure greater than a lean-to could be tactically useful if one side or the other controlled it. Zawalla had the advantage that it’s isolation made transporting troops and supplies through it costly enough that both the Gar and Human forces had better options where they could focus their military might.

Those “better options” included regions of land where natural ley lines were more prevalent. In the equatorial regions that the Gar and Humans fought over, the ley lines were as dense as the thickest jungle. That allowed the troops to reshape the land and fly their transports through the air with much less anima expenditure. Spell casters who knew what they were doing and ran low on personal energy could recharge their anima faster by drawing on the plentiful energy that flowed around them. That technique could lead to other sorts of issues if it was over used, which was why Master Raychelle hadn’t taught  me much about it yet. She’d filled me in on the basics though when she explained the basic points of the conflict on Hellsreach.

The basic points should have been enough to see me through the assignment so I hadn’t asked for a more in-depth course in Hellsreach history. I’d assumed that the only thing I needed to worry about was the safety of Pallas Arachnegen, our negotiator, while she worked out the details of the peace agreement. Looking back, I had to shake my head at my optimism.

“I don’t think you could have guessed that any of this would happen.” Fari said when I shared my self-recriminations with her.

“Maybe not, but I had to know something would go wrong.” I said.

“If it helps, I checked on other diplomatic missions the Crystal Guardians have undertaken and this is in the top 3% of ones that have encountered problems.” Fari said.

“Does that make me an A+ trouble maker?” I asked.

“I think Red Robes would grade you that way.” she said.

“I bet he’d want to throw a few demerits on my report card too.” I said. “If Master Raychelle brought me here to learn, then I’ve destroyed a lot of school property so far.”

“Don’t worry, I’m sure we’ll get to destroy some more!” Fari said.

“Just so long as we leave the school standing. I think I might flunk out if I break the planet on them.” I said.

“Yeah, I would advise against doing that.” Fari said. Her tone was light and humorous but there was an undercurrent to it that reflected a millenia of memories of planetary destruction. I could have apologized for the joke but I didn’t think that was what she needed. I would never blame her for what others had done with the Jewel of Endless Night when she was a part of it. None of it had been her choice or her fault. That didn’t mean it hadn’t hurt her, but I could see she wanted to put that hurt behind her so I chose to believe that she already had. It’s weird but acting like something is a certain way can often be one of the first steps to make it become true.

“How close are we to Mulwin’s apartment building?” I asked.

“It’s still a few miles away. From the dispatch messages I’m picking up, they just cleared the street around it for traffic again.” Fari said.

I sniffed and the heavy aroma of smoke stung my nostrils. I hoped we were closer but even running at a steady jog, I couldn’t cross distances a fraction as fast as I could with the flight pack. That played into Fari’s plan but it meant I had to spend a lot more time outside and exposed than I would have preferred.

I didn’t mind being out, alone, in a “bad part” of the city after dark. I’d learned how to stay out of sight and avoid trouble years ago and with the power Fari carried for me I could make trouble regret ever running into us if it came to that. Zawalla City disturbed me in another way though. It reminded me of home.

The spot where I landed was the back side of an abandoned restaurant. It was covered in scrub grass and weeds that engulfed the long, one story building. The lights of the city petered out towards its periphery but there was enough illumination to see that no one had cared for the place in at least a decade or more. Even the road that ran past it showed signs of disuse.

It was the emptiness of Zawalla’s abandoned outskirts that called back images of my hometown and the lifeless grey that covered it the last time I walked its streets. The deeper into Zawalla we walked though the more signs of life I saw. Zawalla’s geography was different from my hometown’s too. I forced myself to focus on that in order to drag my mind away from thoughts that led nowhere pleasant.

Zawalla rested in a wide, bowl-like depression in the low hills that grew in height until they shot up into the sheer cliffs of Hellsreach’s Great Northern Necklace. The Northern Necklace was a range of mountains that ringed the world and encircled the top of the temperate latitudes. There was a similar chain of mountains in the south. Travel to the arctic regions was possible but the added difficulty imposed by the mountains meant that the population of the north and south polar areas was sparse even in the most seasonable weather periods.

Despite its relative remoteness though, Zawalla City had a population that was larger that any of the cities on my homeworld. As I flew within range of it, Fari tapped into the city’s municipal spell matrix and mined the local knowledge web for information quicker than I could follow her. That let her answer the questions I thought to ask as fast as I could come up with them.

“Why is this place so big?” I asked her.

“It’s been outside the conflict areas where the Garjarack and Human forces have fought for the last two decades. With the Common Council’s forces in place to the south to defend it, Zawalla City is one of the safer spots to live for people not involved in the conflict.” she said.

“Makes sense that Mulwin would take an apartment here.” I said. “How much do you think will be left of her building?”

“Almost nothing.” Fari said. “The dispatch reports I can hear have declared it a total loss.”

“That fits with what we’ve seen. Red Robes hasn’t held back on anything he’s done so far.” I said.

“I’m counting on that.” Fari said. “ If he wanted to make sure Mulwin’s apartment couldn’t be searched, burning it was the best option. A regular fire might not have consumed the building fast enough though. That’s why I’m sure he would have used a fire elemental to stoke the blaze.”

“And you think that we can contact that elemental?” I’d never heard of someone conjuring the same spirit as another caster, which suggested it was either an advanced technique or a crazy idea that Fari had come up with on her own. Either way, I wanted to see if we could manage to do it.

“I think so.” she said. “What I’ll need you to do is simple. Or simple to describe anyways.”

“Easy in theory, difficult in practice? That sounds like every lesson Master Hanq ever taught me.” I said.

“I think you should be able to be able to handle your part of the spell. It will take careful control of your Void anima but you’re talented with that. It’s my portion of the spell I’m worried about.” she said.

“Why? I’m guessing you’re handling the mental anima part of the spell right?” I asked.

“Yes. I’m used to being able to expend as much power as I want though. For this I’m going to need to match the summoner’s mental state based on the traces of mental anima that remain in the environment. The tricky part is I can’t used any more magic than they did or I might fry your mind.”

“I think I see why people don’t do this often.” I said. “For what it’s worth though, if this has that kind of risk associated with it, I feel better about our chances of succeeding.”

“Why?” Fari asked.

“I think any scheme that’s going to work for us has to be one that puts us outside the realm that Red Robes can plan for. He’s not all powerful, so there have to be some possibilities that are too extreme and unlikely to be worth spending resources on. This feels like one of them.” I said.

“There is one other thing you should know about this idea.” Fari said. “If we succeed, the elemental will be summoned but it will be aware of the release word that freed it from the previous binding. Since we have to construct the same spell to summon it, that means it will know how to escape the binding we put on it.”

“Can you add another binding spell to the summons?” I asked.

“Not without risking that it will call a different elemental.” she said.

“So what do we do about an out of control elemental?” I asked.

“I’ll be able to compel a single answer out of it. Once we have that, you’ll need to dispel it.” she said.

“That’s not as easy as just saying ‘go away’ is it?” I asked.

“No. The only way I know to dispel an uncontrolled elemental is to destroy the body it creates for itself.” she said.

“Sounds like this will be fun then.” I said.

“Did I mention that their bodies can melt steel with a touch?” she said.

“Sounds like it will be a lot of fun.” I said.

“If you want to back out, I won’t be offended. I know this isn’t the kind of thing we should be try on our own. Not in a crowded city like this.” Fari said.

“If we were fooling around and trying this for fun, I would agree with you. As it is, I think you’ve found the best option that we have available to us.” I said.

“What if I screw it up though?” Fari asked.

“You won’t. You’re crazy good at anima casting. Millennia of experience remember? I know you can manage it.” I said.

“Thank you.” she said. She was beside me in her blue ghost form, so I got to see her shoulders relax as the tension she’d held in them drained away.

“We might as well get started then. We’re almost there.” she added as I turned the corner out of an alley and emerged onto a street that was brightly lit despite the deep dark of the night above us.

“Go ahead.” I told her and opened my mind to the spell she began to cast.

According to Master Raychelle I have a decent amount of mental anima. I feel like it’s a tiny drop compared to my Void and Physical animas though. Mostly that’s because those were the first two animas I worked with and my martial training helped me develop my body and give me an awareness of it that I don’t have with my mind. I guess if I’d been a better student in school I might have more natural talent with mental spells but instead I feel clumsy and out of control when I try to cast them. Even with my other animas, I feel like most of the time I get by with brute force. Void anima is simple to use and Physical anima isn’t much more complex. If there’s a problem, I hit it. If that doesn’t work I yell and hit it harder.

Fari is the polar opposite of me. Her casting is graceful in a way mine will probably never be. She makes the most complex weavings look simple and the simplest weavings into pure art.

I felt the spell she cast spread out from the center of my mind like a gossamer veil. Rather than obscuring my vision though it joined our perspectives together. Telepathy spells are beyond me, but they’re easy enough to explain. They allow you to talk in private and at a distance. This spell was that effect taken a light year further.

We saw the same things, we felt the same things and as I moved my anima around I felt her hands helping me shape and direct where it went.

From what Master Raychelle had explained, group casting is difficult because the participants can fall out of synch with each other and ruin the effect at any time. That wasn’t an issue for us. With Fari’s joining spell in effect, we were two people moving together as one. It was weird and thrilling and solemn all at the same time.

Without her needing to tell me, I moved all of my Void anima except for a tiny spark out to the invisibility spell that shrouded us from detection. In response she cast a detection spell to locate the echoes of the spirit that had destroyed the burned apartment building.

We had both assumed that the echoes would be faint and difficult to find given the time that had passed since the fire elemental had been banished.

We were wrong.

Through the lens of the post-cognition spell, we saw the after-image of the elemental burning bright as the sun and as tall as the building it had destroyed.

The Winds of Yesterday – Chapter 18

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.

The Winds of Yesterday – Chapter 17

Buildings falling over and explosions bursting in the night have a remarkable capacity for attracting attention at a military base. Less than a minute after the woman with the rocket launcher opened fire, everyone on the base was awake. With a precision born from years of real experience, they scrambled to their battle stations. Some of them manned the defense emplacements and scanned the skies for any signs of an inbound hostile force. Others organized into fire brigades to suppress the flames that engulfed the fallen building. Neither of those groups worried me. The ones I had to watch out for were the ones who split into kill squads and spread across the base searching for the rocket wielder.

I wasn’t their target but, under the circumstances, if they stumbled on an escaped prisoner they’d be more likely to shoot first and ask questions never. I could have tried to disguise myself, but I was still shackled. Even in a uniform at night someone would notice the chains dangling from my wrists and ankles. I had other options than disguise though.

I kept the Void anima cloak furled around me and crept towards the building Fari pointed out as the place my gear and her jewel were stored. The anima cloak hide me from sight and sound, but I had to be careful, even people who couldn’t see or hear me could still trip over me.

Retrieving our belongings took longer than I would have preferred. Every minute without another rocket attack was another minute that Heladran Mulwin, the rocket shooter, could use to escape. If she got to her home before we did, she would gut the place, or burn it to the ground, and find a bolt hole where she could hide. I didn’t know the time frame for Red Robes’ plan but I couldn’t risk that he would finish it before I found him and the only way I saw to find him was through Heladran.

I got through most of the base without incident but the security room where Fari’s Jewel was looked impossible to enter unseen. I had to pass through three sets of guarded doors and the guards were on high alert. The trick to that sort of situation is to let someone else open the doors for you. That took an extra few minutes of waiting but, eventually, an army major came to the first security door. I “drafted” him, following closely enough through the door that it was able to close at its regular speed after he was waved through it.

I trusted my Void anima, but it was hard not to be terrified when I was surrounded by armed and armored soldiers. If my invisibility faded, or if any of them could perceive Void anima, I was doomed to go down in a hail of blaster bolt fire.

Several nerve wracking minutes latter I left the building the same way I had entered it. None of the guards had seen me and none of the automated systems had detected me. I figured that gave me a few minutes at most before they discovered I’d been there. I could hide myself, but hiding the fact that I’d reclaimed my items wasn’t something I had the spell casting talent to manage. Not yet anyways.

“Why did you take one of their anima blades?” Fari asked. She knew my skill, or the lack thereof, with anima blades.

“I need to get out of these chains.” I told her.

“I can block the location tracking spell on them.” she said.

I winced. Of course the shackles had a tracking spell on them. That meant I had even less time than I’d thought.

“Do you need to be near them to maintain the block?” I asked.

“I can cast a nullifying spell but it will wear off over time.” she said.

“How long will it last?” I asked.

“A few hours.” she said.

“That should be plenty of time.” I said. “If we’re here a couple of hours from now, we’re going to want them to find us.”

“Ok. Be careful where you cut the shackles though. If you break one of the tracking seals, it will register on their scanners.” Fari said.

“Wouldn’t that be easier than the blocking spell though?” I asked.

“I have a displacement spell on the tracking seal now. If the seal’s broken, that spell will fail too and they’ll get an accurate reading on our position.” Fari said.

“I see. Thanks for the warning.” I said.

“What’s your plan to get out of here?” Fari asked as I got to work on cutting through the thickest part of the shackles.

“I’ve got my wings back.” I said, tapping the harness that I had wrapped around my chest. “Heladran would have to steal a transport shuttle to outfly these.”

We both paused and listened.

“You were waiting for the sound of a transport shuttle taking off weren’t you?” Fari asked.

“We ran into a fate binding in the prison. If there was another one active that would have been a perfect moment for it to twist things.” I said.

“So are we free of that sort of interference then?” she asked.

“I doubt it. So many people here scheme for so many different ends that any Aetherial caster worth their anima will favor subtle castings. The one in the prison was kind of blatant but they had less time to throw it together. From here they’re going to be more in their comfort zone unless we can knock them out of it.”

“Thoughts on that?” she asked.

“Stay alive and stay free.” I said. “As plans go ‘get captured and let them try to kill you’ is kind of stupid.”

“You had me.” Fari said.

“Yeah. That’s what kept it from being a suicidal plan.” I said. “Sooner or later though, Red Robes or someone in his organization will work out that you’re supporting me.”

“Maybe not. I’m somewhat unique.” Fari said.

“Yeah, but even if they can’t figure out who and what you are, they’ll start taking into account what you can do.” I said.

“Good thing I haven’t shown them all my tricks yet.”

“I’m willing to bet we haven’t seen all of theirs either.” I said as I cut the last of the shackles loose.

Escaping from the base wasn’t difficult. It hadn’t been designed as a prison. Most of the defensive positions were situated to prevent people from getting into the base. There hadn’t been much planning in their defenses for keeping people in, and being able to sneak out under a cloak of invisibility made it just that much easier.

I took to the air about a mile away from the base. After the wounds I’d taken to my ankle and leg I wasn’t sure running that far would be a good idea but the energy I’d liberated from the bone stealer had been able to repair me and clear away the fatigue of the day. I leapt from the ground and soared over the top of the nearest tree before unfurling the anima wings from my flight pack. Around them and myself I wrapped a thin layer of Void anima to keep us hidden. It took a lot of energy to maintain both spells and I braced for a wave of exhaustion to crash over me. Instead, I felt exhilaration rush through me. I had a much deeper well to draw on than usual. Between the unfamiliar sensation of flying and the rapture of the power that Fari held for me, my breath caught in my throat.

There were a lot of ways I could have escaped the base, or captured the assassin. I had so much power to spare. Too much. I thought back to the last person I’d known who’d harvest the anima from a mass slaughter. He’d smashed through a mountain of lethal traps, stolen Fari from her resting place and beaten me like I was a rag doll. He’d had the power to stand against a full Crystal Guardian and to kill everyone else who was in his path. All it had cost him was the core of his mind.

I wasn’t the same as Akell. He’d taken the power of people that he’d been responsible for killing. Fari hadn’t been there to protect his mind from the ravages of the ghosts’ memories. He’d mainlined all of power he taken where I was smart enough to use it only as I needed it.

Or at least I thought I was smart enough.

He’d thought he could handle it too though.

“Don’t let me use the bone stealer’s power.” I asked Fari. “Not unless I need it.”

“You haven’t been using it all that much yet.” she said.

“I know. I don’t think I should. It’s too tempting.” I told her as we soared, wings outstretched and caressing the tops of the trees.

“I don’t think you have much to worry about there. You’re handling it well, and I can hold a lot more than this if you need. The Jewel hasn’t lost any of its storage capacity.” she said.

That meant that I could kill the entire planet and not come close to filling up a fraction of a percent of the Jewel’s anima space. It had held a star’s worth of power and no matter how great a caster was, we’re all insignificant on that scale.

“I don’t think it’s good for me to focus on that.” I told her. “I don’t want to start seeing people as walking batteries that I can kill to get a quick boost of power.”

“You didn’t kill those people.” Fari said.

“I didn’t save them either.” I said. “I know I didn’t have a chance to, but I’m still stronger because they died.”

“You’re worried the power itself will be tainted by that?” Fari asked. “Or that you will be?”

“No. I don’t feel like I’m evil. And there’s a ton of good reasons to keep their power and use it to fix things as much as I can.” I said.

“What are you worried about then?” Fari asked.

“It feels so good.” I said. “I feel like I should be grossed out by even the thought of using power from dead people, but all I feel is strong and confident and safe.”

“I know.” she said. Fari didn’t talk about the time before she met me much. Bound into the control system for a planet killing super weapon, she’d been part of wars on a scale that I couldn’t comprehend.

“Power feels wonderful.” she said. “And it feels terrible. And you never want to touch it again and you don’t want it to stop. And it can break you.”

“You survived though.” I said, switching from thinking about my issues to helping her deal with hers.

“I wasn’t given a choice. The spells that bind me to the Jewel won’t let me go. I fell apart so many times I lost count.” she said.

“How did you bring yourself back together?” I asked.

“I didn’t. Time did. Somewhat. I’m not the same girl that I was. Or maybe I’m just the essential parts of her with the rest stripped away. I’m sorry, I know that’s not helpful.” she said.

“Maybe it is.” I said. “I don’t want to turn into a monster, but I know that I kind of am already.”

“No. You’re not!” Fari said. I was surprised by the fire in her voice but I bulled ahead with my point.

“I can hurt people in ways they can barely imagine. And I’m willing to do it if I think its for the right cause. Point me in the wrong direction and terrible things will happen.” I said.

“You don’t know what terrible things are.” Fari said. It was just a whisper on our mental link.

“Maybe not, but I know you saw them. They tore you apart but they didn’t make you into something you weren’t. They didn’t make you into a monster and that gives me hope.” I said.

“Why?” Fari asked.

“Because if part of me is a monster that means part of me isn’t and if I can keep both parts, then I think I can live with myself.” I said.

“What if it turns out that I am more of a monster than you know?” Fari asked.

“I’d hope you are!” I said. “Everyone needs at least some monster in them and you’ve been too wonderful so far.”

“I could hurt you though.” she said.

“What do you mean ‘could’? Of course you’ll hurt me. I’ll hurt you too. Master Hanq hurt me all the time. It’s what people do. What’s important is what you do afterwards. That’s what proves that you’re friends.” I said. I figured that lesson out ages ago when it came to picking sparring partners. Through a lot of bad choices, I’d learned to spot the people you could trust in the ring. You’d beat each other bloody but they’d help you up off the mat when the round was done. Then there were the jerks that would cheat like crazy and kick you in the face after the final bell rang.

“I’m not used to hurting people like that.” Fari said.

“That’s because you’re not as much of a monster as I am.” I said.

“I’ve killed whole planets.” she said.

“You never had a choice about killing someone. I have and all ten thousand of him are dead now.” I said.

“I was there. You didn’t have a lot of choice in that.” Fari said.

“Maybe not. We’ll see how it goes with Red Robes I guess.” I said.

Somehow asserting my monstrousness had helped. The temptation and exhilaration of the stolen anima was still there but I felt like I knew my bad side better. If I didn’t want to become a life stealing murderer I wasn’t going to be forced into it by some secret dark urges. I might screw up, I might even make some horrifying mistakes given what I was capable of doing, but they’d be my screw ups, my horrors and it’d be up to me to make amends or not as I decided.

“We might have a problem with that.” Fari said.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“I’m intercepting official communications. There’s a fire at Mulwin’s apartment. Someone got there before us.”

The Winds of Yesterday – Chapter 16

I was asleep when the assassin entered my room. Sound asleep. I had to be. The monitoring spells my jailers had cast on me gave the assassin the perfect tool to determine when to strike.

In a military brig, asleep, and chained to a cot. Its not a great way to begin a fight. I did have certain advantages though, the biggest one being that I wasn’t alone.

“Wake. Now.” Fari commanded and dropped a spark of the stolen anima she held for me into my mind. The anima had been taken from the wardens and inmates of the Deep Run Facility. It carried their feelings as well as their power. A single drop of it was enough to launch me back to full wakefulness in less than in a second. Fari dumped images into my mind, warning me of the danger I faced, while the feelings of the dead sent a river of fear running down my spine and filled my lungs with the fires of their rage.

The assassin slid in through the door as I sat upright. He carried a small case with toxic contents inside and wore the standard uniform of Hellsreach’s local army.

The quiet one, I thought. The one sent to kill me without raising a fuss. That confirmed my guess that Red Robes wasn’t in direct control of the Hellsreach military. He had agents in place (and was probably an agent of a higher power himself) but he couldn’t order the army to kill me. That would have been the most expedient and reliable method of getting rid of me. That he didn’t opted for it was a good sign that I’d found one of limits of his power.

The choice to wait till I was asleep and the guards were changing shifts revealed a limit of Red Robe’s power but it didn’t mean the assassin was acting alone. Even if Red Robes could only act through hidden agents, I was sure Mr. Stealthy would have backup nearby. Backup that would be a whole lot louder in case the quiet approach didn’t work out.

The assassin saw that I was awake just in time for me to place where he was in the dimly lit room. Our eyes met and I felt my lips pull back in a hungry grin. There was a single moment, the tiniest fraction of a heartbeat where we both knew that the game had changed. In the holo-vids, we would have nodded to each other, or performed some other form of symbolic salute. This was a serious fight though and in serious fights its the one who resorts to violence first and hardest who has the advantage.

“Gotcha.” I said.

He broke the moment by reaching for his dagger. I broke it by hitting him with the cot.

It wasn’t much of a cot, just a few pieces of wood nailed together. The downside to that was that it didn’t have much heft as a weapon. The upside was that I was able to shatter it to pieces when I clobbered him with it.

The problem with chaining someone to a piece of furniture is that if they can break the furniture in question (which, admittedly most people can’t) you’ve effectively given then a set of chain whips to use as weapons. Again, this isn’t a problem with most people. Chains aren’t easy to fight with. Master Hanq had taught me how to work with a lot of improvised weapons though.

The assassin recovered from the wood shattering blow I’d hit him with and came at me with his knife. I parried the strike by catching the blade of the knife in one of the links of chain. I twisted, hoping to bind his arm, but he let go and stabbed at me with another blade.

I pivoted to the side and avoided the blow. He drew back and stabbed again but I caught his wrist before he could puncture me.

We struggled to the right and then back to the left. Each of us wanted the other off balance. In his case, he thought he could overpower me through sheer force. That would have worked poorly for him if I hadn’t needed to keep him alive. As it was, I couldn’t drain the magic out of him without risking that I’d kill him in the process and I needed him to be able to answer questions on who had sent him. I knew Red Robes hadn’t sent him in person, but any link in the chain that lead back to him would be a step forward for me.

I couldn’t drain the assassin, and out muscling him would tip my hand to Red Robes  in other ways, so I chose to break my attacker’s leg instead.

He was so focused on forcing the dagger into my neck that he failed to pay attention when I shifted my weight back and then forward into a snap kick that caught him on the inner side of his knee.

Joints are tougher than they appear, but if you hit them hard enough they fail in all kinds of unpleasant ways.

The assassin tumbled to the ground with a muffled shriek of pain. The fight wasn’t out of him yet though. I saw electricity crackle between the fingertips of his free hand. I spun and smashed his hand with my chains. Bones shattered but not before he’d gathered enough power to jolt me so hard I thought my skeleton was going to glow.

The electricity sent me flying back into the wall of my cell. I hit it so hard I cracked the stone. Only the shield I’d thrown up at the last second saved me from being splattered like a bug. As it was, the shield faded less than a second after I cast it, the energy in it spent protecting me from the impact and the worst of the lightning attack.

The assassin didn’t give me a chance to recover. Lightning flew from his ruined hand and locked my muscles rigid.

If he could have kept me like that, I would have been in trouble but throwing energy attacks takes a lot of power and with an injured hand his control was sloppy and unfocused. I endured the attack, siphoning off the worst of it and using the excess energy to repair the damage I was taking.

It wasn’t the best strategy in the world, but I felt like I needed to start feeding Red Robes misinformation about my capabilities. I needed him to make mistakes that I could exploit and sometimes you have to manufacture those.

The lightning attack faded away and I saw the assassin rise to his feet. Around his broken leg ran visible band of Physical anima that were acting as both a cast and a spare limb.

I let him take a step forward and then whipped one of my chains around his good leg. He’d raised an anima shield for protection so the chain didn’t injure him but it did distract him just as I’d hoped.

The moment he glanced down at his good knee to verify that it was still okay, I shot forward and upwards, driving an uppercut into the base of his jaw.

Anima shields are great at preventing or reducing damage. They had limits though, based on the strength of the caster. They also had limits in the face of Void anima. With my unarmed attacks I was able to channel a sheath of Void anima around my first. That let me tear through most anima shields like they weren’t there. That’s what happened with the assassin’s shield. Then my fist and the Physical anima behind it impacted his jaw and knocked him up into the ceiling of the room.

He hit the ground with a wordless thud.

I went to reach down and check that he was unconscious when the sensation danger plunged through me like an ice knife.

It wasn’t from the assassin though. It was from his partner.

I could tell from the scale of the cold that whatever the partner’s attack was I had to get out of the cell I was in. The door was open, but that would only lead me deeper into the building.

In the last moment I had available, I opted for another route. Picking up the assassin’s body, I leapt at the wall and hit it with a stone shattering blow.

The assassin and I tumbled out of the third floor of the building the army had put me in. We’d fallen no more than five feet when the level we were on exploded.

I hit the ground and rolled but lost the assassin in the process. He would up in a tangled heap about five paces away from me on the green grass of the parade ground where we’d landed.

I saw another attack, a rocket blasting forward on a tail of fire. It slammed into the building and destroyed the floor below where I’d been held. I was in motion, racing towards the source of the rocket fire when a third attack blasted into the floor above the one I’d been on and the building let loose and collapsed with a roar.

I still wasn’t used to using my anima for anything but fighting or sneaking around, but my need to catch the rocket shooter was strong enough that I found myself leaping onto the nearest rooftop instinctively.

The shooter, unlike the assassin, was dressed in a full set of heavy armor. He’d been the one Red Robes had contacted as the assassin’s backup. The one that Red Robes trusted to make the call for when to blow their cover and take me out using any means at all. Red Robes trusted the shooter and that meant I had to capture him.

Or her.

As I landed on the rooftop, I got my first good look at the rocket shooter.  She was tall, my height, and solidly built. I’d trained for speed, power and endurance. It’s a tough combination since each works against the others to some extent. The shooter had picked a simpler path. She’d focused on power.

The rocket cannon she carried was one that she fueled herself. The enchanted heavy armor helped with that but I was still impressed.

I was more impressed when she disappeared entirely on me. Impressed and puzzled. It seemed odd that someone who was willing and capable of destroying a building wouldn’t be committed enough to see the fight through to its end.

That’s when my danger sense flared again.

I dove off the roof of the building I was on and wrapped myself in a cloak of darkness as I fell. A second later the top of the building I’d been standing on exploded in flames.

She hadn’t fled, she’d just moved to a better firing location.

Her blast had given away where she’d moved to, but I was sure she was still in motion. I raced for the spot anyways, hoping to catch sight of her.

Climbing a building was easier than it had been before I could use my Physical anima. I’d always been strong, but when your body weight is a small fraction of the weight you can lift, you can move in some incredible ways.

All that did me no good whatsoever though. The building the shoot had been fired from was empty when I reached the top. I looked around and couldn’t find her, but I knew how to make her reappear.

All I had to do was drop my invisibility and let her take a shot at me. From what I could see though, she was able to move as quickly as I could and if we played hide-and-seek-rocket-tag for too many rounds, she’d inevitably win one of them. Not to mention the damage the base would sustain in the process.

I needed her though. I needed to know where to look for Red Robes next.

I was desperate enough to try dropping my invisibility when Fari spoke up and saved me from making a terrible mistake.

“I’ve found out who she is.” my friend said on our mental link.

“How?” I asked. She’d been wearing full armor. I hadn’t gotten a look at her face or any other identifying characteristics.  Or so I thought.

“Base records. She has to be one of the soldiers stationed here right?” Fari said. “I cross referenced the female soldiers who are here and matched that to the height and weight data you saw. That only left three candidates who it could be and two of them are asleep in the barracks. Or they were until about a minute ago. Also, there is a suit of enchanted heavy armor that is not officially checked out but is missing from storage. It’s synced to one, Heladran Mulwin, also known as the last remaining candidate.”

“Can we follow her?” I asked.

“We don’t have to.” Fari said. “She’s a reserve soldier. She was called up as part of the ‘extra security’ for the peace conference. Most of her belongings are back at her home though, which was also listed in her personnel file.”

“So if we can beat her back there…” I said, relishing the idea as the gears started to spin in my head.

“Then we may be walking into a trap.” Fari warned me. “These records could have been tampered with before I got to them.”

“That sounds perfect!” I said and began to scheme terrible schemes.

The Winds of Yesterday – Chapter 15

I woke up locked in a holding cell. Shackles bound my hands and feet to a wooden cot. No blanket covered me and no pillow supported my head. It wasn’t exactly the way I’d planned for things to go but I could say that about most of my life.

“Good, it looks like you’re awake.” a man in heavy combat armor said. He sat on a chair beside the cot. Beside him stood another soldier. Both of them wore the same insignia that Darius had, which meant they were with the Hellsreach Common Council forces that I’d “allowed” to arrest me.

I’d planned to turn myself over to them peacefully. Given the kind of danger a skilled anima caster represents though I couldn’t blame them for leading with stun spells and asking questions later. That was what stun spells were designed for after all.

“Please state your name, rank and affiliated organization.” the man said. His words were as crisp as his haircut but there wasn’t a fire of urgency behind them. I was a prisoner. He’d dealt with plenty of prisoners. If I was exceptional those exceptions would be dealt with by someone above his pay grade and it wouldn’t be his problem to deal with it.

I looked at him, and the soldier next to him and the guards on the other side of the prison bars. The three of them who weren’t speaking were armed and had their weapons in hand. I might not be special in their eyes but they could tell that I was dangerous.

“Are these guys who they appear to be?” I asked Fari on the mental link she’d kept open.

“Yes. They’re with Darius’ faction. They brought you in and had a cleric look you over before releasing the sleep spell.” she said.

“Where’s your amulet at?” I asked.

“They brought me to the armory. It seems to be a well defended spot. I’m in a vault on the basement level in a building across the compound from where they have you.” she said.

“What happened to Darius?” I asked.

“They stunned him too. Once they identified him as one of theirs they woke him up and began debriefing him.” she said.

“What about Lt. Mara and the rest of  her squad.” I asked.

“They’re in a quarantine tent near the base’s hospital.” she said.

“Were they able to wake the squad up? Did they even try?” I asked.

“Yes and yes. Lt. Mara is being debriefed now too.” Fari said.

“That part worked at least then” I said.

“I repeat.” the man said. “Please state your name, rank and affiliated organization.”

“Mel Watersward. Crystal Guardian, Initiate Class. Ambassador for Her Imperial Majesty the Crystal Empress.” I said. It felt strange giving that kind of answer. Like the titles were a form of armor that I wore.

“Well Miss Watersward…” the man began to say before I cut him off.

“Guardian Watersward. The official form of address is ‘Guardian’, even for Initiates. You should review your diplomatic protocols Major Nive.”

Fari had filled me in on his name and it was fun to see his eyebrows shoot up when he heard that I knew more about him than I should.

“You make an extraordinary claim Miss Watersward.” he said. He didn’t let his anger or surprise show in his voice, but rejecting my proper title was as good as a slap in the face. The hand and foot shackles weren’t winning him any diplomatic points either though so I let it slide.

“I did what you asked. I stated my name, rank and affiliation. Now that you know those, Major Nive, you are required to release me.” I felt a rush in making demands like that and knowing that I was right to do so. A part of me was terrified at the situation though. Strapped to a cot and surrounded by unfriendly guys with weapons? I’d spent a good portion of my life fighting to avoid being in that position or any position like it. The old me that lingered in the back of my mind screamed out in rage and fear at my failure to stay free. She was drowned out though by an ocean of confidence. I could take everyone in the room and anyone else they could throw at me.

Under normal circumstances that kind of thinking would have been pure insanity, but I was so drunk on power that in this case it might have been an accurate assessment of the situation.

The troops who’d apprehended us had found only Darius and I waiting for them in the clearing. They’d been right to be concerned at the threat they were facing but they’d underestimated me anyways. I’d absorbed the power from the giant bone stealer before they arrived. That had freed Fari of the need to keep control of it and allowed me to finish healing the injuries I’d sustained. It had also left me with so much anima at my disposal that I’d had to shunt most of it off to Fari to hold onto for me.

Even with the stolen anima well out of reach, I could feel it waiting at the other end of mental link Fari had setup. That well of strength was comforting but what I could do with it scared me.

The first time I’d fought with anima, my power had overwhelmed me. I’d been badly injured and I’d thought my Void anima had taken on a life of its own. Controlling me and making me kill. In hindsight, I could see that I’d been lost in the rush of the power and the shock of a mortal injury. I’d come back to myself, but in a sense I’d never left myself either. It had been my own power not anything external that had pushed me over the edge. The anima that Fari held for me was drawn from dozens of people who’d been murdered in the Deep Run Facility. With the spells ensnaring the power to their killers broken, their ghosts would be able to rest peacefully but the power itself still carried a heavy and intoxicating weight to it. Fari could shield my mind from some of the external influence the anima could exert but she couldn’t change the parts of me that might react to it in an improper manner.

“I’m afraid that before we can release you, we will have to verify your identity through official channels and document your activities since arriving on the surface of the planet.” Major Nive said.

“You could have verified my identity with a simple Clairvoyant spell to contact the Imperial embassy. Why are you still holding me?” I asked.

It was a pointless question. I knew why they had me locked down – I represented a change that no one on Darius’ side wanted to happen. Major Nive could have been working for Red Robe’s faction too, but I had to guess against that.

Red Robe’s wanted me dead. If he or his agents had me unconscious and chained down then they’d do their best to make sure I never woke up.

“We’ve had intermittent communication delays, so we are sending the information by a reliable courier.” Nive said.

“And how long will the courier take?” I asked.

“That depends on how long the Imperial Embassy keeps her waiting.” he said. “The last shuttle to the orbital stations has already left for the day, so you will be detained here until tomorrow at the earliest.”

“Under what charges?” I asked.

“Mass Homicide. Also Forbidden Summoning, Destruction of Governmental Property and Littering.” Major Nive said.

“Littering?” I asked.

“Yes, your companion indicated that you were at fault for the charnel pile of bones where you were discovered.” he said.

“What’s the fine for littering?” I asked.

“Community service and a fine.” Nive responded.

“And for Mass Homicide?”

“Death, or incarceration in the Deep Run Containment facility.” he said.

“I can see a problem you’re going to have with that.” I said.

“Yes. We are aware of the status of the Deep Run facility.” he said.

“That would be the Destruction of Governmental Property charge then I take it?” I asked.

“You’re a bright girl Miss Watersward. You should put that intelligence to work and figure out that cooperating with us is the only chance you have at this juncture.” Niva said.

“Are you under the impression that I would be here at all if I wasn’t cooperating with you?” I asked.

“I imagine you want me to think that.” he said. “The problem is you can’t trade on the Guardian’s reputation with me. I’ve served with them. I know the kind of things they can do. They’re talented but they’re only people. If I shoot you now, we both know you’ll be dead, the same as anyone else.”

Depending on what he short me with, that could be horribly true or laughably wrong. I didn’t see the need to point out either case to him though.

“So you’re asking me to sit here, quietly, like a good little prisoner, while you sort of what your going to do with me?” I asked.

“No. I’m telling you that you’re going to sit there quietly, like a good little prisoner while my chain of command sorts out what we’re going to do about you. That’s going to happen one way or the other. The option I’m giving you is whether you want to remain conscious, or whether you’d prefer we stun you again and leave you asleep for the next several days?”

I smiled at him. I meant it to be reassuring. Or at least I think I did. From his reaction and the reaction of the guards with him, I think it wound up looking more predatory than I’d intended.

The last time they’d stunned me, I’d known there was danger coming and suppressed by natural reactions. I hadn’t wanted to scare them and for that thought I’d eaten a stun bolt that would have left me with a splitting headache if I hadn’t had anima to spare to wash away the pain. Since I was paying attention to my defenses this time I was eager to have them shoot me again.

‘More power’, a greedy voice inside me said, as though absorbing a few stun bolts would be noticeable compared to the anima that Fari was holding onto for me.

I stomped that voice down and forced my face into a neutral position. The didn’t settle the guards down but Major Nive was able to continue on in a professional manner.

“Normally you would be given legal counsel to speak to about this. Since we have no staff on the premises qualified to handle a case like yours, I am also to instruct you that anything you say or do from this point forward is admissible as evidence in the case against you.” Nives said.

“That sounds familiar.” I said. Even though my homeworld had been outside the borders of the Crystal Empire, it had adopted a lot of the Empire’s conventions, including its legal system. The concept of “anything you tell us, we will use to punish you” came up in a ton of the holo-vids that I’d seen, usually right before the watch commander tricked the suspect into opening his mouth and confessing to everything.

“Good. The next food period is in four hours. Arrangements will be made to provide you with a meal at that time.” Nives said and rose from his chair to leave.

Unlike in the holo-vids, he had no interest in coercing a confession from me because he didn’t care if I was guilty or not. He just wanted to buy time for his superiors to capitalize on having an apprentice Guardian as a hostage.

I wasn’t opposed to that idea in theory. Despite how they’d treated me, I still viewed the Hellsreach natives as the underdogs in the battle for their planet. I could have done without the whole “imprisoned in chains” thing, but even that was something I had to grudgingly admit made sense. They couldn’t afford a fancy anima suppression room and without that they had to be careful with any experienced anima caster they captured. The heavy armor they wore let them fight leagues above their own natural process but full scale anima battle was always expensive, even when everyone survived it.

If this had been a normal situation therefore I might have done what the Major said and waited for the official channels to sort out the mess. I knew I was in the right and I knew that my side had the power to ensure a reasonable outcome prevailed.

But this wasn’t a normal situation. Red Robes had a plan in motion that he had killed hundreds of people to safeguard. He taken on not just two Crystal Guardians but the inevitable might of the Empire that would follow us. Whatever he was working on was big to be worth attracting attention on a galactic scale.

That didn’t leave me with the luxury of letting things sort themselves out. Fortunately it also didn’t leave Red Robes with the luxury of leaving me alive. He had to make a move, which meant in some small way, he was predictable.

It was the middle of the night when guard shift changed over. That’s when the assassin’s came for me.

The Winds of Yesterday – Chapter 14

I wasn’t supposed to hunt down the guy who’d dropped a city killing bomb on me. I’d been instructed to protect the group of people who were currently laying on the ground in front of me. That was my mission and they had wound up in a slumber induced by a magical poison. It seemed crazy to think I could hunt down the man in the red robes. With an arm and a leg out of commission, I didn’t look like I had the ability to protect myself, much less keep them safe and bring a mass murderer to justice.

In theory I didn’t need to worry about any of that. I was an apprentice Guardian. No one would blame me if I retreated. I was probably right that Master Raychelle was alive and active. If so, I could find a safe place to hide and wait till she sorted everything out. That would be the smart move. The responsible move. But it wouldn’t have been my move.

For as much as I believed that Master Raychelle was alive, I’d seen Crystal Guardians in action. I’d seen them beaten. I knew that they weren’t all powerful or even powerful enough sometimes. The truth was, I couldn’t be certain that Master Raychelle was alive and if she was, that she was in any position to fix things.

“If they’re sending in group troops, we need to get out of here.” Darius said.

“We’ll need to work out a way to transport your squad.” I said. If we left them behind, the best case result would be that they’d be used as hostages against us. Our adversary was brutal enough that they were more likely to be killed outright. One less set of witnesses to provide anyone with clues as to what happened in the Deep Run Containment facility.

“I can help with that.” Fari said. She moved the thirty foot long body of bones she controlled over to the sleeping soldiers and picked them up with gentle care.

“It seems disrespectful to be using the bones of the slaughtered like that.” Darius said, looking away from the bone stealer.

“None of the ghosts were in the transport chamber, so I don’t think they know what’s happening with their former physical parts.” Fari said.

“I don’t think they’ll mind us using what’s left of their bodies to bring down the people responsible for their murder.” I said.

“That’s probably true.” he said. He lapsed into a silence that spoke volumes about how much our recent experiences had upset him. He wasn’t going to show any of that of course. Not any more than I was. I think neither of us wanted to be the one to look like “the weak one” first.

“Do you need a lift?” Fari asked me.

“No. I can manage.” I said and tried to stand. I’d been healing my injuries as fast as my Physical anima would allow but I wasn’t particularly talented at that sort of thing so I managed to make it all of two steps before my leg gave out and I pitched into Fari’s side.

Fari caught me as I fell and lifted me gently onto a bone saddle she’d constructed on the back of the monster. She was quick and graceful enough to make it look like we’d practiced that move. Darius wasn’t fooled though.

“You should have let me apply the medical kit to those wounds.” he said.

“It would wind up drained dry like the one that Sergreant Bancryths used to fix my ankle.” I said.

“It’s more important that you be mobile than we have a working medkit.” Darius said.

“You’re assuming that neither of us will get hurt in the near future. Recent history doesn’t support you there.” I said. “Give me a little more time and I’ll be fine.”

I wasn’t sure if that was true, but I knew I had to make it happen somehow. I’d planned to drain the energy from the bone stealer’s that Fari controlled but since we needed them for transportation that wasn’t an option. I’d have a similar opportunity if Red Robes sent ground troops against us but I wasn’t sure I would take that either. It was one thing to steal the magic of a summoned creature. It was another to steal the life of person. If push came to shove it was an option, but I was haunted enough as it was, I didn’t need to add any new ghosts to my catalog.

“Where should we go?” Fari asked.

“Which side has the nearest air base to here?” I asked Darius as he climbed up onto the bone stealer’s back behind me.

“There’s a Gar base west, about twenty miles from here.” he said.

“What about the local forces? Do you have anything closer than that.” I asked.

“Yes, but we don’t have Ghost Duster bombs.” he said.

“Let’s head there anyways. I’m willing to bet that the Gar and the human forces aren’t packing them either.” I said. There were other defenses against the city killing bombs than the Void anima shield I’d cast. Military forces would have those defenses in place whether or not their opponents were using Ghost Duster bombs, which meant the primary use for such devices were against undefended civilian targets.

“We’re not going to find our culprit there.” Darius said.

“I know that.” I said.

Red Robes had been working in a luxurious room far from any front line battle field. It was a permanent room, given the in-built casting circle, and the way the bookshelves had been stocked suggested that it was part of a private residence. They were too messy to have been for ornamental display. That kind of room could have been located anywhere on the planet but there was one spot that seemed more likely than any other; White Reef, the planet’s capital and largest city.

As guesses went, it wasn’t a bad starting place. White Reef was distant but not out of spell casting range. Anyone interested in local power would gravitate towards it since White Reef was officially neutral ground between the Gar and the human forces. The Hellsreach Common Council was headquartered there. Most of the trading companies from outside the Exxion system who had set up shop to do business were there too.

The peace conference had been set to take place outside of White Reef as a show of commitment to the process. The story we’d been given was that the peace conference was on the active border between the Gar and Human controlled areas because both sides wished to affirm their willingness to abide by the decisions the negotiators reached. In practice it had made us easier targets to blow out of the sky and muddied the waters as to who was responsible.

“Your base will have the best medical care that we can get for Lieutenant Mara and the others though.” I said. Darius could only see my back, so I didn’t think he would be able to read my expression and catch the lie of omission in what I’d said.

“Having them come to us would be a lot faster.” he said.

“Not an option as long as our communication spells are jammed.” I said. “I’m not sure it would be safe for the rescue party either. Red Robes is still ahead in this game. If he wants us isolated out here, I’d have to imagine that he’s got pieces left to play to insure that.”

“Then how are we going to get out here? We can’t jump at every shadow we see.” Darius said.

“Jump at? No. Jump into? Fari, are you still linked into my senses?” I asked.

“Yes. Do you need me to disconnect?” she asked.

“No, stay linked in please. You’ll need it to see where we’re going.” I said and cloaked us in Void anima again.

Darius flailed forward and grabbed my shoulders. I felt electricity tingle down my arms and legs. Being hit, punched and even stabbed were familiar experiences but being touched felt alien and I shivered in response.

“A little warning of that would be appreciated.” he said, pulling his hands away.

“Sorry.” I said. “Let’s get moving.”

Fari set the bone stealer into motion and I had to grab onto an exposed rib with my good arm to keep from falling out of the saddle. On any other sort of beast that wouldn’t have been enough. My leg was partially mended but the jostling and shocks of a horseback ride would have left me in agony and reopened the wound. Under Fari’s control, the giant bone stealer didn’t move like a horse though. It didn’t bounce and I felt no impacts. Instead, it flowed like water across the land, a hundred legs cushioning each step as it raced forward into the new boundary of the forest that marked the edge of the Ghost Duster bombs area of effect.

“Asking if you’re keeping me in the dark about anything would be kind of foolish at the moment wouldn’t it?” Darius said.

“You can trust that I’m clever enough to figure out what you mean.” I told him.

“I can trust you?” he asked.

“Well, between the two of us, I’m not the one who arrested the other at the point of an anima blade and then called in a squad of backup.” I said.

“You’re saying I should have called in two squads right?” he said. His tone made me smile. Both of us were trying to cope with what we’d seen and what we knew lay before us. Humor helped.

“I’m saying you should have called them all in. We could have gotten done with this sooner rather than later that way.” I said.

“Then I’d have missed this lovely ride in the wherever we are.” he said.

“Better enjoy it while you can then. Fari’s making good time.” I said. I kind of hoped he’d put his hands on my shoulders again. Or at least my good one. It wasn’t the time or the place for that, so I held off on suggesting it openly. Later though, if there was a later and if we hadn’t been forced to kill each other, I told myself I’d see about making my intentions clearer to Darius.

“I do think you should give up on the peace process.” he said without preamble. “We’re not at a point where that’s going to help anyone.”

“I know.” I said. “There’s a lot more going on here than what we thought there was. That doesn’t mean we’re going to give up though.”

“You can’t just come in and fix things. It’s not that simple.” Darius said.

“I know that too. And Master Raychelle does too. We’re not here to fix things though. We’re here to make sure that you, all of you, fix things.” I said.

“But no one wants things fixed. Not with the way they are now.” he said.

“The multiple murder attempts kind of drove that point home.” I said.

“That’s not us though. You know that right?” Darius asked. It sounded like he wanted to convince himself as much as me.

“I believe it’s not you.” I said, reaching back and resting my hand on his. “I also know that the people we’re fighting against, the one’s who have profited off this conflict, they’re clever enough to hide themselves somewhere that no one has noticed or been able to do anything about for twenty years. They could be in your organization just as easily as they could be in the off worlders armies and you wouldn’t know.”

“We’re the ones who are suffering in this conflict though.” he said, and again it sounded like he was wanted to convince himself as much as he was trying to argue with me.

He sighed and continued.

“But you have a point. Even on our side, there are people who are doing ok. People on the Council.” he said. The last bit was quieter. It hurt him to say it, but I couldn’t tell why.

“That’s why we’re here.” I said. “We can’t fix your problems, but we can make sure that the people who don’t have a voice are given one. You’ve said no one here wants peace, but that doesn’t fit with the people I’ve known.”

“Humans? Gars? I used to live in a big city. We had all kinds of species who lived there.” I said. “I was in one of the ‘bad sections’, so we had more non-humans than average. The thing was though, there weren’t ‘bad people’ living there. Most of them didn’t want anything more than to just get on with their lives and not be bothered. All it took was a few idiots, a few people of a few different species to decide they hated each other, and everyone thought the same was true for the rest of us.”

“I don’t know that’s something you can fight though.” Darius said.

“I don’t know that it’s something you can afford not to fight.” I said.

“I can see why the Crystal Guardians recruited you.” Darius said.

“Ah, it wasn’t for that. I think they were afraid what I’d do if they left me alone.” I said. It was a joke, but I meant every word of it. I had an image of what a Crystal Guardian should be and it wasn’t me. Or it wasn’t me yet. If they’d left me to make my own way in the galaxy, I think I could have gotten by, but I would have fumbled around a lot more and I’d seen what happened when I lost control of my powers.

“Don’t look now, but I think your Master kind of left you alone here didn’t she?” Darius asked.

“Am I talking to myself now?” I asked.

“I thought I could trust you to know what I mean?” he said.

“I do. I’m just rejecting your definition of alone.” I said.

“We’re less alone than you might think.” Fari said.

“How close are we to the Hellsreach forces camp?” I asked.

“About two hundred yards.” Fari said.

“One of the local patrols has found us?” Darius asked.

“Not yet.” Fari said.

“What are you going to do?” Darius asked me.

“Drop the invisibility shield and let them arrest me again.” I told him.

“I don’t know if that’s a good idea.” he said. “Let me take the squad in. You and Fari can stay free that way.”

It was a solid plan. A good idea. Unfortunately it wasn’t the idea I had in mind.

“Do you trust me?” I asked.

“You’ve saved me from monsters at least three times so far.” he said.

“Good.” I said and dispelled the cloak of invisibility we were hidden under.

The Winds of Yesterday – Chapter 13

I was back in my home town. For just the briefest of seconds, I was back in the sprawling metropolis I’d grown up in and everyone was dead. I was alone with the empty buildings and the grey all around me. I knew that it wasn’t true, but for a second it was so real.

My own scream brought me back to Hellsreach. Back to Fari and Darius. I wasn’t alone.

But the world was grey again.

Around us, an intricate lacework of Void anima crackled and flared, the last energies of the bomb that had been detonated above us dwindling away as they rained down on the shield that I’d raised. Beyond the shield, the mountain was grey and the trees were gone. The only color left in the area was on the small patch of ground that was covered by my shield. I’d saved us but I couldn’t stop trembling.

“What just happened.” Darius whispered.

“Ghost Duster bomb. Class 8.” Fari said. “Someone dropped one on us.”

“That’s…” Darius stopped. He looked as overwhelmed as I felt.

“Why are we still alive?” He was staring straight ahead, taking in the wide expanse of empty grey where a forest had once stood. I saw his breathing was shallow and that he was blinking more than he should have been. Funny that I could notice that about him when I had no idea if I was breathing at all.

“She saved us.” Fari said. I wasn’t sure Fari had been in any danger. She wasn’t vulnerable to the same sort of things people with flesh-and-blood bodies were.

That was comforting to think about. Her living on. My friend surviving.

“You’re still hurt!” Darius shouted. I heard the panic in his voice. Felt him lift me up. It was a nice gesture. Not a smart one though. It hurt like hell to move with the wounds I had, but I liked the warmth of his hand on my neck anyways.

“Careful. I don’t want to hurt you.” I told him. My Void anima’s not evil, but it is dangerous. Strands of it were running out from me into the shield that protected us. I could feel his anima through them. The life running through his veins. The dazzling blue energy of his mind. And power. So much power. Touching him was like touching a lightning bolt.

Or that might have just been me.

I wasn’t in the best of shape. I knew that. Didn’t mean I could just pull myself together though.

So I let him tend to me.

After he ran his hand along my back to make sure the bone stealer hadn’t punctured the whole way through me, he lay my head down and elevated my feet. I’d stopped the worst of the bleeding myself, with a basic anima spell, but the wounds were still pretty raw.

“I’m going to cast a few simple healing spells on you.” he said.

“No. Don’t.” I told him and caught his hand before he could lay it on the wound on my shoulder.

“It’s okay. I know what I’m doing. I’m not a cleric, but everyone in the Scout Corp learns basic aid spells.” he explained.

“No. You’ll get hurt. I’m dangerous to cast spells on.” I said.

“What happens?” he asked, not pulling his hand away, but not trying to ignore me either.

“The same way I drained the energy from the bomb blast, I drain the energy from most spells that are cast on me. If you tried to cast a giving spell on me like that, I’d probably suck most of your life out before you could pull back.” I told him.

“Is that something the Crystal Guardians did to you?” he asked.

“No. I did this to myself. A long time ago.” I said.

“But touching you is ok?” he asked, looking at where his other hand was supporting my neck.

“For some people.” I said with a smile. It took only until the last word spilled out of my mouth before I figured out what I was saying.

My complexion wasn’t quite the rich ebony that Master Hanq’s was, but it was dark enough to hide the blush that burned across my checks. Or at least I found myself desperately wishing that it was.

“That’s good.” Darius said with an answering smile. His skin was lighter than mine, but I thought I saw the hint of a blush on his face. It could easily have been my imagination though.

“I’ll be ok. I just need some time.” I told him.

“We should have plenty of that. It’s a long walk to the nearest city from here.” he said.

“We may not be that lucky.” Fari said.

“Someone saw my shield?” I guessed.

“There’s a good chance. Whoever threw the Ghost Duster at us will want confirmation that we died. He almost certainly knows that we didn’t.” Fari said.

“Then he’ll try again. And this time he’ll be more serious about it.” I said.

“It sounds like you know who it was that bombed us?” Darius asked.

“We met someone who was spying on us. Fari was able to tap into the Memory Eye spell and let us see who was casting it.” I said.

“Who was it? What did he look like?” Darius asked.

“I don’t know who it was. He was wearing a bone mask and red robes. Does that ring any bells?” I asked.

“Bone mask and red robes? And casting mental anima spells? No, not really. Could you tell how old he was? Or anything about him?”

“He wasn’t stooped over with age and he didn’t have the body proportions of a kid. Also, he was human, not Garjarack.” I said.

“Well that limits it down to 20% of the population or so.” Darius said.

“He got a very good look at you two though.” Fari said.

“What about my squad?” Darius asked.

“Probably them too. The Memory Eye was right above us. If he didn’t think to check what they looked like he’ll be able to call it back later and go over the images that it captured, right?” I said.

“Yeah.” Darius said. “This is bad. We can’t move them and I don’t know what they were dosed or enchanted with. I can’t wake them from the sleep they’re in.”

I sat up. The shoulder wound was still blindingly painful, but I’d managed to fix up my leg to the point where it was merely crippling.

“He’s going to send ground forces next. It’s the only way he can be absolutely sure we’re dead.” I said.

“You don’t think he’s going to cut his losses at this point?” Darius asked.

“That’s not an option. He thinks he can send a message to the Empire, teach them not to interfere with what’s happening here. If he leaves me alive then it’s going to be a race.” I said.

“He’s got another plan, one that’s close to fruition. That’s why he’s fighting so hard.” Darius guessed.

“Yeah. The fate binding that you felt? There were probably more than one.” I said.

“The bomber’s group and their opposition must be pretty closely matched. The conflict here has gone on for decades now.” Darius said.

“Yeah, that seems kind of unlikely doesn’t it?” I said.

“Why? People can hate each other for a long time. That’s galactic history everywhere you look.” Darius said.

“Except you don’t hate each other. This isn’t an interspecies war. This is two global powers fighting over the fate of a third, weaker, power. People fight wars all the time but they eventually win or lose them too.” I said.

“The problem is the wins and losses don’t count. If one side scores a victory and takes some land from the other, the loser’s homeworld hasn’t lost anything they care about. It’s just a game to them.” Darius said. I could see his frustration. He was arguing for something that he’d heard all his life. It was an established fact for him, one that he hated, but one that stretched so far back in time that changing it had been proven impossible.

Except I was pretty sure he was wrong.

“You’ve probably had enough to eat most of your life haven’t you?” I asked him, changing tactics.

“Yeah. I was lucky. My adopted family is…” he paused, considering his words, “We’re pretty fortunate in what we have.”

Adopted. I’d given up on that dream over a decade ago. The thought of a family who picked you out? Who took you in because they wanted you? I’d prayed and prayed for that for about a year before it finally sunk in that I’d never be that lucky. An old and tiny voice in the back of my head was grumbling in jealousy that things had worked out better for Darius. There was another one beside it that was happy for him though. I let them two of them fight it out while I got back to the argument I was making.

“I’m glad. Try this thought out though. You’re willing to believe people are stupid enough to fight a war without end. You’re willing to buy that they’re uncaring enough to destroy their own people who disagree with them and have chosen to live together in multi-species communities. My question is; why are you assuming that greed is any less of a motivation than either of those?” I asked.

He drew in a breath and his brow furrowed as he chewed on the idea.

“Greed’s in there too, but at this point the fighting has gone on for so long that it’s just a part of what they do.” Darius said.

“I’ll accept that. What I’m having a hard time with is that they’ve had a century of practice at killing each other and they’re still terrible at it.” I said. “If either the Gar or the humans were really serious about winning this fight, they could wipe the other out. At least the ones here on Hellsreach. The bone stealers are proof of that. If they’re not serious about killing each other though, then pure greed would have motivated someone one on one of the sides to arrange a peace so that they could stop wasting money on paying the troops and supplying them with weapons and food.”

“Maybe. Maybe if this wasn’t where they trained their troops.” Darius said. “Constant war means they always have veteran troops available. Spell casters who don’t get distracted by the battles around them. Infantry that can resist spells and press on through horrible conditions. Even their officers are sent here to learn what works and what doesn’t because this place is just a game to them!”

“Then I repeat: why aren’t they getting any better at it?”

“Both sides know the other. One gets better, the other learns from them. That’s how it works.” Darius said.

“You may both be correct.” Fari said.

I’d forgotten that she was listening in as well. Kind of a scary thing given that she was still inhabiting a body composed of thirty feet worth of stolen bones.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“Assume that what Darius knows of the conflict here is correct, but assume that there are also those who have found ways to profit from the situation that exists. They may not have been in control of things from the beginning. They may have simply moved into a power vacuum that was waiting to be filled.” Fari said. “If we had access to a full historical record of this world, I could look for the influence of someone like that appearing over time.”

I started to respond to that, but I noticed that Darius was looking thoughtful. I can’t read minds but he wasn’t try to hide his thoughts or keep them from showing on his face. Something in what Fari had said had struck a chord in him.

“That might be hard to find.” he said at last.

“Because anyone who’s been in power for a while will have blurred the evidence pointing back to them?” I guessed.

“Maybe that, but there was a time when the nature of the conflict shifted.”Darius said. “It was twenty years ago. Right after the Crystal Empire annexed the Exxion system. People had expected that would end all of the fighting. It sort of did too. The interplanetary fighting stopped, but the war for Hellsreach rolled on.”

“You think that’s when the our bomber and their opposition grabbed power?” I guessed.

“If you’re right about them, that would be the time window that would work.” he said.

“That would also explain why the war continued despite the peace enforced by the Crystal Empire.” Fari said.

“So why wouldn’t the Empire have done something about that?” I wondered.

“Maybe they were too busy?” Fari said.

“Or maybe they didn’t care either?” Darius suggested.

“If they didn’t care, they wouldn’t have bothered annexing the Exxion system in the first place.” I said. ”And if they had enough time to shutdown the Gar and human space fleets, it wouldn’t have taken much more effort to finish the job and shutdown their planetary forces as well. That was the usual way they did things from what I’ve read.”

“Was there a period of peace, right after the annexation?” Fari asked.

“A year or so. It gave people a false sense of hope.” Darius said.

“Or it gave our bomber time to divert the Empire’s attention and keep it diverted.” I said.

“If they had a scheme or spells in place to keep the Empire away, why would you be here?” Darius asked.

I thought about that and a sinking feeling dragged my gut down. It wasn’t fear, or disgust, it was certainty that I was right and that things were probably even worse than I was imagining them to be.

“The Empire’s recruited some new fate casters of their own. I know a couple of them. One of them is ruthless, deadly and impossible to convince that she’s wrong. The other one’s the daughter of an insane Warlord who tried to kill me.” I said.

“The Warlord tried to kill you or she did?” Darius asked.

“Both.” I answered.

“You’ve had an interesting couple of months I take it.” he said. “What makes you think they’re involved though?”

“The last I heard they were training in this cluster of systems too. I don’t know where Master Raychelle got her orders from but I’m willing to bet if either Yael or Zyla caught wind of a fate casting designed to hide a planet from the Empire they’d throw the nearest thing they could at it.” I said.

“The nearest thing being you?” Darius asked.

“I have kind of a special relationship with fate bindings. I more or less eat them. They know that too. Unless I miss my guess, they’ll be the ones to follow along if I fail this mission.” I said.

“They’d be walking into the same kind of trap that you did though right?” Darius asked.

“Yeah, except the bomber would know at least two ways that could kill a Crystal Guardian for sure in that case.” I said.

“I don’t think there’s another Deep Run facility with a teleporter he could blow up.” Darius said.

“Oh, I’m not presuming that Master Raychelle is dead yet. Remember when I said it would be a race if the bomber didn’t kill me? I didn’t mean a race between me and him. I meant a race between Master Raychelle and I to see who got to him first.”