Monthly Archives: May 2014

The Winds of Yesterday – Chapter 8

People think a lot of strange things about martial training. I’ve heard guys claim that because they practice so hard they’re immune to pain for example. My old teacher, Master Hanq, was never the “gentle and lenient” sort, so I had plenty of chances to learn what pain was like. That did precisely nothing to keep the slashes and stabs the bone stealer had inflicted on me from hurting.

That hadn’t been the point of Master Hanq’s lessons though. What I’d learned from him was that pain didn’t mean you got to lay down and quit. There was a time and a place to quit, but “lost in a subterranean prison that was filled with magical monsters who wanted to eat your spine” was not one of them.

“If Lt. Mara and the rest are ok, then we need to make for the communicator.” Darius said. He was running his hand over a tracking gem on his gauntlet but it wasn’t activating. I’d seen that type of gem before. It was used by explorers as a distress beacon in case they ran into trouble and needed to broadcast a simple message across long distances. Given that the telepathy spell between Master Raychelle and I was blocked, I wasn’t surprised to see that Darius’s communication gear was jammed too.

“What part of ‘captured by a giant bone monster and webbed to a teleportation circle’ says ‘they’re ok’ to you?” I asked him.

“The part where the giant bone monster didn’t kill them like she said they normally would.” He gestured to Fari and looked to her for confirmation of his claim. She started to object to that but I beat her to the punch.

“I don’t think ‘being used as bait’ counts as ‘ok’.” I said.

“Yeah, fine. I’m sure they’re pretty miserable but I also know Lt. Mara would want me to complete the mission, rather than run into a trap and get killed.” he said. He gave up on the beacon gem and checked his anima blade. It was still functional which, under the circumstances, I was ok with.

“Do you seriously think the communications room isn’t one giant trap too?” I asked him. I was starting to get a picture of what we were up against and I didn’t like the details my mind was filling in.

“We don’t know what’s happening there.” he said. “But we do know that’s where we can contact reinforcements.”

“That sounds like a good way to get more people killed.” I said. Reinforcements were such a tempting idea, and tempting ideas give me pause. Calling for help is a basic, instinctive reaction to being lost, with monsters all around you, but I knew it couldn’t be the right course of action. Not against a smart foe who was a step ahead of us still.

“The Council can send in more than one squad. These bone stealers are bad but we’ll be able to clean them out once the regular troops are here.” Darius said.

I got up and stretched my shoulders to feel out the damage I’d taken in the fall. It wasn’t that terrible, mostly because I’d had stolen anima to burn to heal it quickly.

“I won’t argue on how well your troops can take these things out. Ultimately it doesn’t matter though. Whoever did this, whoever’s been attacking Master Raychelle and I, they’ve gone to an awful lot of trouble and been pretty damn well prepared for things so far. Do you think this is where it ends? That this is all they could manage? If they can’t stop the message from getting out in the first place, then it’s a fair bet that they’ll have something ready for the kind of troops that the Council would throw at a problem like this.”

Darius got to his feet as I spoke. He didn’t have a supply of stolen anima to patch himself up with, but I’d manage to shield him from the worst of the fall, so we were in about the same shape.

“You’re saying they’ve predicted all of this?” he asked. He stretched the same way I had, and for the same reason from what I could see.

“Not predicted, just prepared for.” I said. “If they could predict what we were going to do they wouldn’t have been this sloppy.”

“If they’re as powerful as that, why would being sloppy matter?” Darius asked.

“Look where they’re actions have got them. They have us trapped in here, but they haven’t managed to kill either Master Raychelle or me. All they’ve done is give us evidence that there’s someone behind the scenes with a lot of power and influence.” I said. It was evidence that we would have turned up eventually, but if they’d played things with more subtlety it could have taken a while.

“Enough to keep us stuck down here forever I guess.” Darius said. He was looking around the room we’d landed in. There were plenty of exits, but none of them looked particularly inviting.

“Nope. They can’t keep us trapped that long and they know it. Think about what their strategy is. They kidnapped Lt. Mara’s squad. Why do that?” I asked.

“To use as bargaining chips.” Fari said. She’d been listening to us but I’d seen that she’d been half distracted too. “The squad‘s all webbed in now and it sounds like the bone stealer has settled in to wait for its ambush.”

“What do you mean bargaining chips?” Darius asked.

“Bad description maybe.” Fari said. “The effect of having your friends alive and in peril at the exit is that we can’t even approach the teleport circle without risking their lives. It’s an implicit bargain that they live as long as we stay away from them.”

“Not just us.” I said. “They’re strapped to the teleportation circle, so anyone who forces an override on it from the outside and teleports in will be killing them too. It’s a way to slow us down.”

“Why slow you down? Why not just kill you?” Darius asked.

“Slowing us down buys them time. It boxes us in too so that they can take a more focused shot at us. As for killing us directly, well, they tried that already. The artillery strike on our airship sort of said ‘I’d like you to stop breathing now please’ in definitive terms.” I said. “Crystal Guardians don’t die that easy though. Heck they didn’t even manage to kill me, and I’ve only had about two months of training so far.”

“Two months of training with the Guardians?” Darius asked.

“Two months of training as an anima caster.” I said.

“How is that possible? Didn’t you go to school?” he asked. It was kind of freakish that I was such a neophyte at anima casting. Most kids tested out to have some kind of talent and then had specific courses to learn to develop it throughout their school years. I’d missed all of that in one sense – with my low test scores, I hadn’t ever been formally trained in any of the anima disciplines. At least not until two months ago.

As it turned out I did have some facility with casting anima spells though, thanks to the martial training that Master Hanq had given me. He’d never actually said that he was showing me the basics of spell casting. He’d shown me how to fight, and in doing so had taught me about how power moves through the body. He’d also helped me develop the discipline to focus my mind. That was still a work-in-progress in some ways but the techniques that I did have were tremendously useful with the spells that Master Raychelle was trying to teach me.

“It’s a long story.” I said. “If we get out of here alive, buy me a dinner and I might bore you with it.”

“Mel, there’s something else you should know.” Fari said. “I can’t detect the bone stealers but there are other living minds here. They’re cloaked, which is why it took me this long to find them, but they’re definitely there.”

“Prisoners?” I asked.

“And guards.” she said.

“Where are they?” I asked.

“Scattered all over. The ones where I can piggyback on their senses seem to be tied up like Lt. Mara’s team are.”

“How many of them look like they’re in good ambush locations?” I asked. I felt like I was caught in a net and was only seeing it revealed in bits and pieces.

“All of them.” Fari said.

“Do they each have their own bone stealer guarding them?” I asked.

“Not exactly. Some of them have two.” she said. I tried to imagine fighting two creatures like the one that had attacked us in the stairwell. My imagination rose to the morbid challenge and offered a variety of grisly options on what the results might be.

“How many of these things are there?” I asked.

“At least thirty.” Fari said.

“I ask again, with that much power at their disposal, why didn’t they just kill you?” Darius said.

“To be honest, I’m not sure thirty is enough to get the job done.” I said.

“You said you just started learning how to cast anima spells two months ago. I’ve been practicing for the last twelve years and I couldn’t scratch that thing.” Darius said. From the anger in his voice, I could tell he was embarrassed by that failure, so I opted not to mention that I’d torn a path completely through the beast.

“I’ve got a few tricks you don’t.” I told him. “And Master Raychelle has been practicing her skills for over sixty years now. She’s the one they’re scared of.”

“That doesn’t make sense.” Darius said. “I know the rep the Crystal Guardians have but even if she’s powerful, she’s still just one woman. She can’t win a fight with an entire planet.”

I laughed.

“That’s probably what they’re thinking too. ‘If we just hit her hard enough we can stop her, send in the monsters!’ For reference, that’s a catastrophically bad plan. It tends to make people like her cranky more than anything else. Surprisingly, I think the people we’re dealing with know that though.” I said.

“Why do you say that?” Fari asked.

“They’re not here.” I said. “If they thought the bone stealers could kill us, they would have come with their conjured beasts. They stayed away though, and that tells me they’re afraid of us. Or afraid of Master Raychelle at least.”

“She’s not here from what I can see, so how does that help us?” Darius asked.

“It’s actually excellent for us. It means they’re underestimating me and pretty much ignoring you.” I said.

“I’ve heard plans that begins with those kinds of thoughts.” Darius said. He had a look that said he’d be a lot happier if I was handcuffed again. Preferably behind bars somewhere. Ideally on a planet that he’d never heard of and was never going to visit. I inspired that look in a lot of people for some reason.

“You seem to have lived through all of them.” I pointed out.

“You want to go rescue Lt. Mara and the squad.” he said.

“How did you guess?” I asked, letting a wolf’s smile crack across my face.

“You said earlier that your boss told you to protect us.” Darius did not echo my smile. He frowned instead. Almost glowered really.

“You were listening. And you remembered. I’m impressed.” I said.

“Do you have a plan?” he asked. “And is it by any chance ‘wait for the mentor who has more than two months of experience to come along and fix things’?”

“Yes, in fact, I do. And no, we can’t wait for Master Raychelle for this.” I said.

“Why? If she’s so powerful, why can’t she deal with this. We barely survived meeting that thing and, from what I can tell, that was only because it had better things to do than to mess with us.”

“You need to check your memory. It grabbed the whole squad, but it ran away from me. I admit I’m new at this, but trust me, I can deal with that monster. That’s what Master Raychelle asked me to do, and so that’s what she’s planning on. We’ve got to rescue them so that she’ll be open to play the long game and be ready to deal with whoever’s actually behind this.” I told him.

“Where would we even begin?” Darius asked.

“I’ve accessed the central control network for the facility.” Fari said. “I have the schematics for the whole place available now. There’s five different routes that will take us back to your squad.”

“Wait, you spliced your way into the control spells that run the facility? From here?” Darius asked.

“Yes. It’s a nice system, but it’s pretty simple to interface to with a little mental anima.” she said. Darius looked at her in amazement and then closed his eyes. A moment later his head rocked back like he’d been hit by an uppercut.

“Ouch. That was a stupid idea.” he said, blinking his eyes.

“What did you try to do?” I asked.

“I told you mental anima casting was one of my strengths. I tried to interface with the control spells on the facility.” he said.

“What happened?” I asked.

“These are the most powerfully guarded control spells I’ve ever seen. You can’t be telling the truth.” Darius said, turning to Fari.

“Mel’s trained for two months. Raychelle has trained for sixty years. I’ve trained for millenia. These systems are amusing, but they’re far from the most powerful that I’ve ever seen.” Fari said.

“I did mention that she’s older than she looks didn’t I?” I asked him.

“Right.” he said, still looking uncertain, “So what’s the plan? How do we rescue them?”

The Winds of Yesterday – Chapter 7

Sometimes it is extremely useful to have wings. Like, for example, when a building is collapsing on you.

With the bone stealer out of sight through the door above us, I couldn’t see what had happened to the hostages it had taken, and with the ceiling plummeting at us like a river of boulders I wasn’t in a position to go find out either.

I’d like to say that I reacted calmly and thought my way clear of the situation. I’d like to but unfortunately there was a witness who could testify otherwise.

Darius was falling with me and the expression on his face was a mirror of the shock I felt. I had one advantage though. This was the second time I’d been pitched into free fall in less than half a day. Given how well the first time went that didn’t do much to make me feel better though.

What did make me feel better was that I was still wearing the flight pack that Master Raychelle had given me before we left on our insane mission, and it had been able to recharge since the last time I used it. The stairwell wasn’t quite wide enough for me to fully extend the wings and I didn’t actually want to slow my fall (since that would have let the collapsing ceiling catch up to us), but I was able to direct my fall and latch on to Darius.

“Ahhh!” he screamed in my ear. I didn’t blame him in the slightest. I barely had time to look down and see how high up we were before the ground was an arm’s length away.

I flared the wings out and pulled us into an agonizingly sharp turn through the door at the bottom of the stairwell. It had been smashed open and widened by the bone stealer that had crashed through it . The anima wings clipped the remains of the doorframe and shattered on it, sending the two of us tumbling across the long room.

We lay there, dazed and tangled up, against the far wall for what felt like an hour but was probably closer to a handful of seconds.

“Are you ok? That didn’t look fun.” Fari said, appearing beside me again.

“Ah! Who the hell is that?” Darius yelled, and scrambled away from both Fari and I.

That was an unexpected reaction for a variety of reasons, especially one in particular

“You can see me?” Fari asked.

“Of course I can see you! You’re glowing like a search light!” Darius said.

“Oh, I’m sorry. Give me one second.” Fari said. Her ghostly form went a lot more ghostly to my eyes, the brilliant blue light fading away to a pale white glow. That seemed to help Darius regain his composure.

“I’ll ask again, who might you be, Miss Ghost?”

“She’s not a ghost.” I told him. “She’s my friend.”

“My name is Fari.” she said.

“A pleasure to meet you, Miss Fari. Now would either of you be able to tell me what’s going on here and what that thing was?”

“It was a bone stealer, right?” I asked Fari.

“Yes, but it was something more too.” she said.

“Why was it so big?” Darius asked.

“It wasn’t.” Fari said. “Or maybe it would be better to say that they can get a lot larger than that, if they have the resources to draw on.”

“That’s wonderful. What did it do with my squad?”

“Yeah, you said it shouldn’t have been able to web them up like it did. What did you mean?” I asked.

“Just that. That’s not a power that bone stealer’s have. A true sapient species like a human or a Garjarak can learn to shape their anima in a wide variety of different ways. Bone stealer’s can’t. The ways they can use anima are pre-built into them. And they can’t learn. There’s really no ‘them’ in there at all. It’s almost better to think of them as machines, like a golem, but with a more specific focus.” Fari said.

“So then how did they do it?” I asked.

“I don’t think they did. I think someone else was using that bone stealer. Casting spells through it.” Fair said.

“Why? Or how? Or I guess both.” Darius said.

“Why do I think that? Because those threads the bone stealer wrapped Lt. Mara and the others in were phantasmal conjurings. It’s same kind of magic that’s used to summon the bone stealers themselves. They’re not capable of casting that kind of spell, or almost any kind of spell in fact.” Fari said.

“What about the ‘how’? I thought this place was cut-off from outside casters?” I asked.

“It seemed to be. When you were in the suppression room, I couldn’t manifest like this. I’m having to put extra force into the effect even here in fact.” Fari said.

“And that’s why he can see you now?” I asked.

“Maybe.” she said.

“Are you very gifted in Mental castings?” she asked Darius.

“Yeah. Sort of. It’s my second best discipline. Is that why I’m about to see you?” he asked.

“Probably. I hadn’t realized you were that gifted, or that I’d need to put out as much anima as I am to manifest here. You’d missed me before so I thought it would be safe to appear again. You must have been able to pick up on my appearance casting this time because you were so close to it.” she said.

“So close to it?” Darius asked.

“Yeah, you two were practically wrapped around each other.” Fari said.

Darius and I both looked at each other and then looked away. I hadn’t thought of it due to the imminent fear of dying but I had basically hugged him tight and wrapped myself around him. That shouldn’t have been particularly embarrassing. I’d done the same to plenty of people. It was just that with most of them I’d been wrestling them into unconsciousness at the time. Darius, I was finally noticing, was kind of cute when there wasn’t a glowing anima blade between us.

Under the circumstances, though that was not at all where my thoughts needed to be going.

So of course that’s exactly where they went.

Because my brain hates me.

“So, you’ve been here all along? Are you a Crystal Guardian too?” Darius asked. He had a bit of a blush too I thought, but I only glanced at him so it might have been wishful thinking.

“No, I just like tagging along with Mel.” Fari said.

“Right into deep dark prisons filled with monsters.” I said, looking around at the room we’d landed in. It was basically a triple width hallway. The wall that we’d crashed in to was on the far end of the room from the door that we’d flown out of. There were doors to the left and right all along the corridor with heaps of ruined equipment in front of each of them.

“I’ve spent a lot of times in places like this.” Fari said.

Darius titled his head and examined her more closely.

“She’s older that she looks.” I told him.

“A lot older.” Fari confirmed.

Darius started to question that but apparently thought the better of it and put his hand down.

“We can’t go back for Lt. Mara and the others.” I said, pointing at the stairwell door. It was filled with the debris that had crashed down from above.

“We don’t even know if they’re still alive.” Darius said.

“They are. I can hear what’s going on around them.” Fari said.

“How?” Darius asked.

“You’re still linked in to their senses?” I asked.

“Most of them. Lt. Mara and Sgt. Bancryths have some training in mind shielding. I didn’t try to include them because I think they would have noticed.” Fari said.

“What are you talking about?” Darius asked.

“Fari linked into the squad’s eyes and ears to act as an early warning system in case something went wrong.” I said.

“The only problem was when something did go wrong, it went wrong too fast and nearby for me to be of much help.” she said.

“If you know that they’re alive, that’s plenty of help.” Darius said.

“Yeah, but they shouldn’t be. Bone stealers don’t take hostages like that.” Fari said.

“That’s more support for the idea that there’s someone directly controlling them.” I said.

“What are we up against here?” Darius asked.

“More ‘who are we up against’?” I said. “This has to be someone local.”

“That’s ridiculous. I know you aren’t happy with us for arresting you but, like I explained, we had a good reason. We don’t want the Empire to force a peace accord down our throats. If you do we’ll wind up stuck with the off worlders here permanently. And, if it comes to that, they’ll start murdering us rather than each other. That, however, doesn’t mean that we’d wipe out our own prison facility. We’re not monsters and we’re not stupid. We just want to live our damn lives!” Darius said. He grew more heated and passionate with each word. That was bad because it brought out the bullheadedness in me.

I felt the urge to smack him upside his cute little head rising with my anger but, as Master Raychelle had suggested, I gave him ten seconds to stop being an idiot before I hauled off and hit him.

“I think what Mel means is that whoever is behind this had to know of this place, and know enough about it to be able to get a summoned creature like a bone stealer into it.” Fari said. She looked at me and smiled. With her mental anima skills, she knew exactly what I was thinking, and what I was holding myself back from doing.

“It could still be an offworlder.” Darius insisted, though Fari’s points had taken some of the heat out of his words.

“By your definition, it could be.” I said with forced calm. “But the point is its someone or a group of someones who have been here awhile and have connections and ties that are keeping them ahead of us.”

“The question we need to figure out is: what are they trying to gain here?” Fari said.

“I think there are some questions we need to work out sooner than that though.” I said. “Like how we’re going to get out of here.”

“Maybe check in with Master Raychelle?” Fari suggested.

I shook my head and wondered if I’d landed on it harder than I’d thought. Calling her should have been the first thing that I did.

“Master Raychelle! Are you still there?” I asked on the telepathic link.

Once again there was no reply though. This time however I felt like there was something in between us. Some blockage that was preventing the call from going through.

“I can’t reach her again.” I said. I tried to hide the sense of dread that provoked. Anything, or anyone that could cut me off from Master Raychelle like that, could probably do all kinds of unpleasant things too. Master Raychelle could probably survive it. She had enough experience that I felt safe in assuming that she could survive more or less anything that got thrown at her on this planet. I think she felt the same way about me, and if so was basing that on what I’d managed to do to get into the Crystal Guardians. The problem was that I wasn’t the one who’d done most of the work. At the end it had been me, two real Crystal Guardians, two people trained to about the same level as a Crystal Guardian and around ten million other people all pitching in together. On my own I just tended to get kind of beat up.

“Miss Fari, what is the bone stealer doing with my squad?” Darius asked.

“I’m only catching glimpses of it, but it’s brought them back the entrance portal and I think it’s webbing them in place over it.” she said.

“Why would it do that?” Darius wondered.

“It’s setting a trap.” I said. “The entrance is the one place it could be programmed to know that we’d have to head to eventually.”

“What’s the point of a trap there though?” Darius asked.

“It depends what it wants. If its placing them over the teleport circle though, I would guess it doesn’t want us to leave.” I said.


The Winds of Yesterday – Chapter 6

Stairways make for a lousy place to fight. The bone stealer didn’t seem to mind though. It came at us less like a pouncing predator and more like a thunderous wave. The stairs and railways didn’t give it a moment’s pause. It flowed over and around them, detaching and reattaching bones to its central mass so fluidly it might as well have been a jet of water.

I watched it surge upwards and saw Lt. Mara’s troops start to react. It didn’t take an Aetherial spell to know that they were doomed though. The bone stealer out massed them ten-to-one and could move freely in the stairway. They, on the other hand, barely had room to dodge without falling into the empty shaft the stairs spiraled around. Worse, the stairs had been damaged by the beast’s earlier passage down them. It wasn’t going to take much damage before they fell apart and dropped us all a few hundred feet to a messy and painful end.

I glanced at Darius to see if Lt. Mara’s team had any aces they’d been holding back for an enemy like this. The tight fear that gripped his face confirmed what I’d guessed. They had grit, they had training and they had a ton of courage. What they didn’t have were weapons that were worth a damn against a creature like this.

Well, except for one.

Master Raychelle had entrusted them to me, because she thought I had the strength to protect them. It was true that since gaining access to my powers, I’d become stronger than I’d ever been, but I suspected that I projected an illusion of being more competent than I actually was.  If so, I hoped that Master Raychelle hadn’t been taken in by it because in the dark pit of my gut I had the feeling that no one else was going to be able to stand against the monstrous centipede-like thing that was barreling up the shaft at us.

“You should start running now.” I told Darius and shoved him back up the stairs.

Then I leapt over the railing and plummeted down at the rising monster.

In retrospect, it wasn’t one of my best plans ever. To be fair though, I had less than three seconds to come up with it and “hit things” is kind of what I’ve trained myself to do for the majority of my life.

I’d expected to land on a solid mass of bone and be able to start inflicting damage from there. Somehow it hadn’t occurred to me that if the bone stealer could flow around the stairway like water, it’d be able to do the same to me.

It tried to grab me with a talon made of braided spines as I fell towards it. I responded by immolating myself in Void anima. The talon smashed into me and I felt the bone stealer’s raw power meet my own. My Physical anima saved me from the worst of the hit while the Void anima around me slurped down the magics that held the bone stealer together.

Usually that was a fairly deadly combination in a fight, but the bone stealer’s anima was as hard to effect as Master Raychelle had warned that it would be. I was able to draw the magics out of the bones that made direct contact with me, but not instantly. What was a bigger problem was that each of the stolen bones seemed to have its own store of anima. Draining one gave me a jolt of power but it didn’t slow down the rest of the creature.

With the physical power that I consumed, I felt echoes of the creature’s mind. Anger and a lust to destroy ran up my back and slammed into the base of my brain. That wasn’t going to be good for the bone stealer, but on some level I was aware that it wasn’t going to be good for me either. Not if I let it take control of me anyways.

Not that the bone stealer was eager to have me drain any more of its power either though. When it felt that I was stealing its magics away, it lashed out at me from every direction it could. It didn’t try to crush me, in fact it limited the contact it had with me to the fastest of slashes and thrusts that it could manage. Basically trying to inflict the most damage with the least opportunity for me to tear its anima away.

The attacks were bad enough, but the bone stealer’s reluctance to stay in contact with me had a more serious ramification. Without it trying to crush me, I didn’t have anything holding me up, and so I started falling once again.  I tried to grab onto it, but the bones twirled away from me as fast as I reached for them.

I was distracted from the peril of my fall when I heard Lt. Mara bark an order and bolt caster blasts exploded in every direction around me. I got clipped by a few of them and between that and the sheer impact force of the bones flying around I was knocked head over heels and lost all track of direction for a split second.

The blasts didn’t destroy the bone stealer. They didn’t even slow it down much. They did redirect the monster’s attention though, which bought me the opportunity to grab hold of one of the thing’s ribs. I felt numerous stab wounds on my arms and legs in the wake of the blast as well as a nasty gash across my cheek. It hadn’t been the blasts that had damaged me though. The creatures attacks had been so fast that they’d gotten partially through my anima shield.

That’s where the power I’d stolen saved me.

I burned it off to heal myself as I swung to another of the bone stealer’s ribs. The first rib dropped away, drained of power, but I was already swinging my way to the next one down. Working like that, I managed to navigate my way through the bone stealer and leap onto the remains of the stairs on the far side of the stairwell. I’d fallen several floors in process, which put me below the monster and out of reach of the people above me. I felt my blood run cold at the thought that there was nothing standing between them and the conjured death beast.

“I’ve seen these things before.” Fari said, appearing beside me.

“When?” I asked her.

“When the makers of the Jewels of Endless Night forged me into the Ravager. These creatures, and others like them, were the kind of threat they intended to use me against.” she said. “Originally I was meant as a defensive weapon. A way to reclaim planets that had been overrun by out-of-control life forms like this.”

“Any ideas how to stop this one?” I asked as I started leaping up the stairs in pursuit of the bone stealer.

“In the past my answer would have been ‘unleash a planet scouring wave of death on them’.” she said.

“Not an option any more.” I said. The bone stealer had ripped the railing off the next flight of stairs and bent them downwards at a sharp angle. Instead of running on them, I burned a bit more of the energy I’d stolen and leapt the distance to the next intact section.

“And I’m still happy about that.” Fari said, flying along beside me. “Especially since I think there’s something I can do about this thing with the powers I have now.”

“I’m open to suggestions.” I said as I dodged a spear-like bone the monster had fired at me.

“I can sense the proto-mind that’s controlling this creature. It’s not intelligent, it’s just a collection of Mental anima with some pre-set rules.” Fari said.

“And this is a good thing right?” I asked. I vaulted over a crumbled railing and managed to catch up to the tail end of the bone stealer. I was running late though. The front end was already tearing into Lt. Mara’s squad.

“I think I can override those rules and take control of it. I’ll need you to touch my jewel to its main body though.” she said. I looked up at the swirling mass of bones above me in time to dodge another two bone spikes. Getting past the beast was not going to be easy. Getting inside it was going to be even worse.

Then Sergeant Bancryths fell over the railing from a floor above me.

He was too far away for me to reach out and grab so I did the only thing I could. I jumped back into the bone stealer’s clutches again. Unlike the first time however, I wasn’t able to sheath myself in Void anima for this leap. For as useful as the Void anima was in protecting me from the bone stealer’s attacks, it wasn’t going to do anything pleasant to the poor wounded Sergeant if I grabbed him and drained all of his anima out in the process.

I felt dozens of slashes and cuts tear into me as I flew through the maelstrom of moving bones. Most of them were deflected by the physical anima shield that I was able to call up. Some got through but not enough to stop me from reaching the falling Garjarack Sergeant. What prevented that was when the bone stealer caught him and spun a web of glittering silver anima around him.

I landed on the side of the stairwell that Lt. Mara and her team were on, but a floor underneath their position. That gave me a great view to watch as the rest of them were plucked off the stairs and wrapped in silver anima thread too.

“That’s not something they normally do. That’s not something they can do.” Fari said.

“Where’s its central body?” I yelled over the fighting screams of Lt. Mara’s squad.

“There!” Fari said, pointing at a round circle of compressed bone that hung above us on the same level as Lt. Mara’s team.

I leapt directly at the creature’s body, channeling my own physical anima into a short burst of strength so that I could soar upwards at it. The problem with leaping though is that you don’t have any leverage or maneuverability while you’re in the air. The bone stealer capitalized on that by smacking me with two of it’s hundred or so claws.

The blows sent me crashing back to the stairs I’d leapt from, which promptly gave way under my weight. I plummeted to the stairs on the level below and collapsed those as well. That process might have continued until I hit the ground level if there hadn’t been an undamaged rung in the wall that I was able to grab onto.

Lt. Mara’s squad was still fighting even as the bone stealer wrapped them up. Bolt casters and other anima spells were exploding furiously above me while I looked around to find a path back up to the fight before it was too late.

The last person the bone stealer grabbed was Darius. He’d run back far enough to have a good field of fire on the creature, but not far enough to be out of its range. I saw him slash the thread that was binding him. He’d switched his bolt caster to anima blade mode, but it wasn’t enough to keep up with the threads the creature was conjuring.

“Why isn’t it killing them?” Fari asked. “Bone stealers always kill their prey and extract the bones immediately. It’s why they’re so dangerous.”

“I don’t know, but whatever it’s doing is probably going to be a lot worse than death if we don’t stop it!” I said.

I looked around again, but came up short once more. There was no easy way back to the level the bone stealer was on. I let the anger I’d felt earlier flood down to my arms and channeled my physical anima to follow it. If there wasn’t a way back up to the creature, then I was going to have to make one.

With anima enhanced strength, I slammed my left fist into the stairwell’s wall. My punch sank my arm halfway to my elbow. I reach up higher and punched a handhold in with my right arm. As fast I could, I alternated my punches and climbed up the wall like an extremely destructive spider.

By the time I got to the top, the bone stealer had Lt. Mara, Sgt. Bancryths, Krysa and the others fully cocooned. It was finishing up Darius who had switched to breathing gouts of brilliant blue fire at the beast. I could feel the heat from across the stairwell, but neither the silver threads nor the bones that made up the creature were prone to combustion.

Sensing that I’d returned the bone stealer swiped at me with its claws again. I didn’t have the anima shield to protect me but what I had in its place was the speed and strength to catch the claw in mid-swing. The bone stealer reacted instinctively to that and tried to pull the claw free of my grasp. It couldn’t break my grip but it pulled with more force than I had weight so I came flying along for the ride.

I drained the claw after catching onto the arm that was holding Darius and the claw tumbled away. I was just reaching for the threads that bound Darius when the silver light that was playing along them went out like a candle.

The bone stealer had severed the thread itself.

In fact, it had severed both of the arms that had been holding Darius.

As we plummeted into the pit of the stairwell, I watched the bone stealer slither up to the door on the top level and pour through it. In one incredibly fast and fluid motion it took it’s captives through the door and slashed at the ceiling of the stairwell, sending tons of metal and stone raining down towards us.

The Winds of Yesterday – Chapter 5

The most annoying thing about Master Raychelle vanishing on me wasn’t that she’d left me alone, in chains, with a group of soldier who wanted to lock me up. It wasn’t even that she’d left all of us in a prison that had been overrun by freakish magical horrors. No, the most annoying thing about her disappearance was how everyone looked at me like I was supposed to be able to explain where she went.

“Prisoner is loose.” Lt. Mara called out, bringing the squad back to order.

“No visual.” several of the soldiers reported.

“Alright, where is she?” Lt. Mara asked me.

“As an offhand guess? Looking for survivors. You know, like she said she was going to. Twice.” I said.

“It’s not a good time to be a wiseass.” Lt. Mara warned me.

“Yeah, and it’s never a good time to be a dumb one.” I said, staring back and meeting her glare with one of my own.

Leaders tend to dislike people challenging their authority, especially in times of stress. I knew that but I still couldn’t resist needling them.

“At this moment I am forced to assume that the conditions here are the result of a scheme enacted by your mentor. Can you give me a reason I should not proceed under that assumption.” Lt. Mara said.

“Nope.” I said.

“Just like that? You’re not denying it at all?” she asked.

“There’s no point in denying it. I know she didn’t but as far as you’re concerned you have no idea what her capabilities or motivations are. Doesn’t matter what I say, if you’ve already made up your mind.” I said.

“Actually, she hasn’t made up her mind yet. Not completely.” Master Raychelle said to me telepathically.

“I thought you said this spell was compromised by some mentalist.” I asked her, replying on the psychic link that she’d forged to me at the start of this mess.

“It is, but the prison is shielded, so our eavesdropper won’t be able to listen in.” she said. “I need you to stay with the soldiers. Help them reach the commander’s office safely. I will join you there or at the teleport circle depending on what I find.”

“What are you looking for?” I asked.

“Not what. Who.” she said. “Whoever summoned the Bone Stealers wasn’t targeting us, not directly.”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“The Bone Stealers are nasty but they wouldn’t have been able to kill me alone, much less the two of us and a squad of armed soldiers. So therefor, they weren’t summoned here to kill us. They were meant to silence someone before we could speak to them.” Master Raychelle said.

“Who?” I asked.

“General Kep Vex, I believe. Also known as the Bloody Tide.” she said.

I’d never heard of the guy, but it wasn’t that surprising. Up until a few days ago, I’d never head of the Exxion system either.

“Sounds like a nice guy.” I said.

“He’s a traitor to both the humans and Garjaracks and a war criminal. The Hellsreach Council has had him incarcerated for thirty years, since well before the time when the system joined the Crystal Empire.” she said.

“You think he knows something from the bad old days? Something someone is willing to go to this much trouble to keep us from finding out about?” I asked.

“I didn’t until we got here, now I’m fairly sure.” she said.

“And the chance that he’s still alive?” I asked.

“Minimal. Bone Stealers are thorough and he’s not young anymore.”

“I thought you said age brought experience?” I said. Master Raychelle was old enough to be my grandmother and then some. Despite that I was under no delusions how a fight between us would go, even without anima casting. Just on pure skill, she could beat me like a rag doll if we ever got into a serious fight.

“Not all experiences are good ones.” she replied.

“So why look for him?” I asked.

“There is a chance he’s still alive, or that others are. Whatever their crimes, the people here don’t deserve to be recycled into monster parts. If I’m too late for General Vex, I may still be able to find notes or a memoir of his.” she said.

“So while you’re off doing something useful, I get to baby sit the soldiers who think I’m going to stab them in the back any second?” I asked.

“Why do you think I took an apprentice?” she asked in return.

“Tell your master ‘hello’ for us.” Lt. Mara said.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“You were distracted just now. I know what it looks like when someone’s holding a psychic conversation.” Lt. Mara said. “And while you’re telling her ‘hello’, tell her that I’m going to have to shoot her on general principle if we run into each other again.”

“She says you won’t have to worry about seeing her again, if she doesn’t want you too.” I said. Master Raychelle might not like me putting words in her mouth. And it probably wasn’t a great idea to encourage paranoia in the nice Lieutenant with the deadly weapons either. Despite all that it was still kind of fun to push her buttons.

“Wonderful. And what are you going to be doing?” she asked. I was willing to bet that she wouldn’t have been particularly upset if I disappeared too.

“I’ve been ordered to help keep you safe.” I said.

“That’s going to be a neat trick with those shackles on.” she said.

“Yeah, I’m not going to lie. They are not making the job any easier.”

“Let me see what I can do about that.” she said as she walked behind me. For a brief, foolish, moment I hoped that she was willing to be reasonable. Nobody is ever reasonable though. There’s something about sapient thought that seems to preclude it.

I felt the additional pair of manacles click in place on my wrists and reminded myself that this was the price I paid for taunting someone who already had me locked up.

“Worth it.” I muttered under my breath.

“Let’s move out.” Lt. Mara commanded her squad, ignoring me if she’d even heard me at all. I wound up in second-to-last place again, with Darius watching our backs.

The prison had the same kind of mish-mash appearance as the soldiers I was with. It wasn’t a new facility and over the years had needed quite a few repairs. The patchwork of fixes should that some of the repairmen had a better work ethic than the others did. That was unfortunate because the original hallways and offices looked like they would have been pretty spartan, and therefore difficult for ambushers find hiding spots. With the cobbled together fixes though, and the general clutter that builds up in an old facility, there were so many good hiding spots that I gave up on looking for incoming foes. Instead I shifted my shoulder to feel the jewel that I was wearing move. That helped me focus on it more clearly.

“Fari, can you sense these Bone Stealers?” I asked silently.

“Not directly.  Their minds are well shielded.” she replied.

“What kind of indirect options do you have?” I asked.

“I could eavesdrop on the soldiers you’re with. Use them as active listening posts and combine what they’re hearing and seeing into a composite of where we are. That’ll let me spot the Bone Stealers farther out if they try to charge us. If we blunder into them then there’s not much I can do.” she said.

“Sounds like the best plan we have available.” I said and let her get to work. I had a sort of danger sense that would warn me of trouble as well, but I was hesitant to rely on that. I could feel it humming along my nerves already due to the general peril I was in. Whether it would be able to pick up on the summoned creatures was something I expected I would have to learn the hard way.

We got to the first stairway down before we saw the next sign of the Bone Stealers. The walls of the stairway were cracked outwards and the stairs themselves looked like they’d been flattened by some colossal force.

“Huh.” I said, trying to imagine how the damage had happened.

“See something you recognize?” Lt. Mara asked.

“No, just putting the pieces together.” I said.

“What pieces?” she asked.

“That one Bone Stealer than you folks killed? It was bugging me. A single critter that size couldn’t have been a serious threat to this prison. I mean you did good work taking it down, but the guards here probably could have managed the same thing, just with more casualties. So why is everyone dead?” I asked.

“Because it’s not a single creature, if we’re to believe your mentor.” she said.

“Even a bunch of them like the one you fought wouldn’t be able to get through the prison’s security though.” I said, pointing at the thickness of the stairway’s door frame and the locking mechanism that once held it shut. “For something like this you’d need a much bigger critter.”

“Or ones that can combine.” Darius said.

“What do you mean?” Lt. Mara asked him.

“They assemble themselves out of bones right? From the way this stairway looks, I’d say something really big came down it.” Darius said.

“Yeah, a lot bigger than any one person’s bones would account for.” I said.

“That’s going to be a problem then.” Lt. Mara said.

“Only if it finds us.” I said.

“On this sort of mission, you have to assume that scenario will occur.” Lt. Mara said.

“This sort of mission?” I asked.

“Are we fate bound sir?” Darius asked Lt. Mara.

“Too many wild coincidences. I think we have to be.” Lt. Mara said.

“Someone’s casting Aetherial spells at us?” I said. “You really need to let me go then.”

“You are our prisoner still. Don’t worry, this isn’t the first time we’ve had to fight our way through a fate binding. We’ll be ok.” Lt Mara said.

“We’ll all be ok.” she added, looking around at the rest of her squad. They didn’t seem like they entirely believed her assertion however. My guess was their experience had taught them otherwise.

“You don’t understand.” I started to say, but Lt. Mara cut me off.

“No, you don’t understand. If we are fate bound, and whenever you need to ask that question, you can be pretty sure the answer is yes, but if we are fate bound that means that chance is going to roll against us at almost every possible opportunity. We cannot afford to take risks, any risks, until we’re clear of this battle field, and you are a risk.” she said.

“What you have to risk with me is your trust. I can break the fate binding on you. I can even make it so we can get to the commander’s office safely.” I said.

“You’re an Aetherial caster? You can’t be that good of a one or you wouldn’t be trapped her with us.” Lt. Mara said.

“I’m not an Aetherial caster at all. I’m something a lot worse, but I can protect you.” I said.

“No deal. It’s too big of a risk.” Lt. Mara said.

“Everything is a risk here. You can’t let paranoia make you take the wrong one.” I said.

“You’re right. I have to go with what I know rationally. That means I don’t have the luxury of believing wild claims that would happen to be very convenient at the moment. Even if you can do what you say, you could use those abilities to vanish like your mentor did. That might be all someone’s waiting for to send the hordes in on us.”

“You fixed up my ankle and my arm, also I’ve been ordered to protect you, so it’s a safe bet that I won’t run away.” I said.

“There’s no such thing as a ‘safe bet’. Any time you gamble you can lose.” Lt. Mara said. “I won’t gamble with the lives of my squad like that.”

She turned and walked to the front of the squad to lead us down the damaged stair to the commander’s level.

“You should keep these on for show.” Darius whispered and I felt the manacles unlock from my arms.

“What are you doing?” I whispered back.

“Being an idiot.” he whispered.

“Why?” I asked.

“Stupidity doesn’t need a reason. It’s a natural human trait.” he said.

“So is self delusion. They usually go together. You’ve got a plan, and you know it’s a bad one. That says you’re not stupid, just desperate.” I said.

“You know there’s a fate binding here. I know there’s a fate binding here. The Lieutenant does too.  I’ve seen what they can do and let me say that any fate binding that starts with ‘summon monsters to kill everyone’ is one that I’d really rather have the Crystal Guardian on our side for, thank you very much.”

“I appreciate the vote of confidence.” I said.

“Well, now that it can come back to bite me, I’m guessing we won’t encounter any of the beasts and I’ll get court martialed once they see I disobeyed orders.” Darius said.

“Trust me, the odds on that are really low.” I said.

Just as the roaring started from the stairwell landing far below us.

“See. No worries.”

The Winds of Yesterday – Chapter 4

The Sisters who’d raised me had been big on trying to impress us that a life of crime and delinquency would wind us up in a hellhole for the rest of time. It was hard to get closer to what they’d described than the prison I’d let myself be led into.

They’d said we’d be surrounded by fire and brimstone, that we’d be trapped in the dark and cut off from the light of day, that we’d be beyond the reach of even the slightest hope of rescue. When it comes to making your prison inescapable, the Sisters had the right idea it turned out.

The makers of the Deep Run Containment Facility had started by creating an enormous building and warded it against every kind of escape magic they could think of. Then they buried it a thousand miles under the planet’s surface so that it was surrounded by magma. There was only one way in or out and using it required that you know the pass spell to activate the teleport device that would transport you back to the surface. It was the kind of place that people built when they were serious about not letting their prisoners escape. When we arrived I saw that there was one significant problem with the design though.

“It seems something got in here before we could.” Master Raychelle said.

The entranceway was covered in sigils. I’d seen a room like it before. It suppressed a caster’s access to their anima and made casting spells virtually impossible unless you had the required unlocking charm.  The sigils were difficult to remove or destroy and didn’t mind in the slightest being covered in blood. Or other less pleasant things.

“Form up.” Sgt. Bancryths called out. The strike team that had captured us unsheathed their bolt casters and took positions in a rough circle around the teleportation arrival disk.  On the upside only half of them were pointing their weapons at Master Raychelle and I.

“Deep Run Command what is your situation?” Lt. Mara called into a comm-crystal. Silence reigned for a nerve wracking moment before Master Raychelle spoke.

“They’re all dead.”

“Deep Run Command what is your situation.” Lt. Mara repeated. She scowled at Master Raychelle apparently not processing the carnage that surrounded us.

The blood and viscera that was splattered around the entranceway looked like the result of a bomb going off. The single door that led out of the room had been shredded in a way that was undeniably the result of something with claws.

I couldn’t think of anything that could tear through spell reinforced steel like it was putty but it was a big galaxy so I wasn’t too surprised. To be fair, there wasn’t a lot of room for surprise in my brain with disgust and fear fighting over who was going to make me sick first.

I’d faced off against one of the biggest, most powerful monsters in the galaxy and destroyed him. That should have made facing other monsters easier but somehow it didn’t. That might have been because I knew I couldn’t repeat the trick that I’d used to kill the Karr Khan. There weren’t cosmic class artifacts laying all over the place after all. It might also have been because killing the Karr Khan had cost me a lot. Even more than two months later I still felt the burn from channeling that much power. It got better week by week but I knew I wasn’t back up to my full strength despite being more powerful than I had been in the seventeen years leading up to learning about my abilities.

“I’ve seen this sort of thing before. Someone released a bone stealer in here.” Master Raychelle said.

“What’s a bone stealer?” I asked.

“A conjured entity. Resistant to magic and most forms of physical damage. It propagates by slaying creatures with a skeletal structure and using their bones to build copies of itself. Summoning one is illegal in the Empire and was in most of the Warlord domains as well. Its too easy for them to get out of hand.” she said.

“How do you know one is here?” Lt. Mara asked.

“I don’t know for sure, but look around you. There’s blood but there are no bodies. That’s not because the guards here survived, no one loses as much blood as we see around us and lives. It’s because something else found a use for their bodies.” Master Raychelle said.

“Why? Who would do this? And why aren’t you surprised by it?” Lt. Mara asked.

“Why? Because they wanted to kill us I imagine. Who would do such a thing? I don’t know yet. I hoped by coming here I would be able to find a clue to their identity. And as for why I am not surprised, why should I be, this is the third time today that someone has tried to kill me. I expect the trend will continue.”

“Are we staying or leaving Lieutenant?” Bancryths asked.

“Leaving.” Lt. Mara said.

“I doubt it.” Master Raychelle said.

“What?” Lt. Mara asked.

“I doubt that anyone who went to the trouble of casting a spell forbidden across the galaxy is going to allow us to escape its effects so easily.” Master Raychelle said. “I’m sure they scrambled the pass spell for exiting too.”

“We’ll see.” Lt. Mara said and held out her hand to the pale column of light that radiated off the teleportation disk. She concentrated for a moment but nothing happened.

“We’re trapped in here forever now aren’t we?” Darius asked.

“Certainly not. I wouldn’t have let you take us in here if I thought any plan our mysterious malefactor could put in place so quickly would work.” Master Raychelle said.

“Ok then share. You know all about what’s going on here. What was your plan?” Lt. Mara asked.

“Apprentice Watersward, we are currently without our magics, trapped with no ready means of escape and likely to attract the attention of creatures that it will be difficult to fight. What should be our first step?” Master Raychelle asked, looking at me.

“We need to expand our options. Probably by moving out of this room to regain our casting capabilities. Personally I’d vote for getting out of the shackles these folks have bound us with too.” I said.

“Good. And then?”

“Then we gather information. This place looks like a perfect trap but nothing’s perfect. You seem to know something about it so I’d consult with you first. If you don’t know a way out then Lt. Mara might, or failing that, exploration might turn something up.” I said.

“And the bone stealers?”

“Avoid them, unless there are still people alive in here.”

“What would that change?” she asked.

“A lot of things. They might be alive because they found a weakness in the monsters, or because they’re controlling the bone stealers. They might need our help or we might need theirs.” I said.

“And that is my plan Lieutenant. Locate any survivors, and use what I know of this facility to get us all out of here.” Master Raychelle said.

“How do you know anything about this facility? The Empire’s auditors have never been here.” Lt. Mara said.

“It’s a standard design. I’ve seen similar facilities on other worlds.” Master Raychelle said.

“And that’s how you planned to break out of here?” Lt. Mara said.

“I didn’t plan that we would stay here forever, but I wasn’t sure how we would be leaving once I had the information I needed.” Master Raychelle said. “If I might point out however, this is not the best time for an interrogation.”

“I have a facility that is probably full of dead people and you have answers. Before I march my troops in there I want to know what we’re dealing with.” Lt. Mara said. “And that includes what the real story is with you two. You’re not peace negotiators or bodyguards are you?”

“We are Guardians, not bodyguards.” Master Raychelle said. “Our remit is to defend the people of the Crystal Empire. All of them. And on that note I never said you would be marching your troops into the facility. There’s been enough death here already.”

“Then what do you think we’re going to do?” Lt. Mara asked.

“I think you’re going to keep your troops here, where you have a defensible position and choke point so that you’re not overwhelmed. I think you are also going to extend my apprentice and I a measure of trust and allow us to handle the monsters in the facility.”

“Trusting offworlders was what got this planet into trouble in the first place so, no, I don’t think I’m going to do that.” Lt. Mara said.

“Then what will you do?” Master Raychelle asked.

“With the teleporter’s pass spell scrambled this facility will be on complete lockdown. There is no way out from the inside but there is a communication crystal in the commander’s office. We’re going to proceed there and contact our surface forces. They can unlock the teleporter and extract us.”

I had to admit it didn’t sound like a bad plan. Except for the part where it was probably going to get her whole team killed.

“Lieutenant, I have a scan on something moving at the far end of the hallway behind the door. It’s not human or Gar.” Krysa, one of the Garjarack soldiers said.

“Is it heading our way?” Mara asked.

“Nope. Looks like it’s taking up an ambush position.” Krysa said.

“How smart are these things?” Mara asked.

“About as smart as a hunting cat.” Master Raychelle said.

“I don’t understand how they got in here. This room is supposed prevent any outside magic from getting into the facility.” Darius said.

“The magic was used in conjuring them. Their own powers are bent and twisted within themselves. They’re limited in how they can use anima, but they’re hard to effect with it as a result, and nearly impossible to suppress. That’s true of most conjured creatures.” Master Raychelle said.

“Do they have any weak points?” Lt. Mara asked.

“They’re fast and strong but they’re still only made of bone. Breaking the bones doesn’t destroy them but it will slow them down. Reduce the bones to dust though and the animating spirit will lose it’s hold on the material realm.” Master Raychelle explained.

“How are we set for force runes?” Lt. Mara asked.

“They’re back on the ship. Can’t bring explosive ordinance into a secure facility like this.” Bancryths said. Lt. Mara winced at that.

“Then we do this hard way.” She sighed.

The team changed their formation, staggering themselves so that only one person was moving at a time and the rest had a clear line of fire down the hall. We exited the anima suppressing room with the kind of care and precision I’d only read about in books. Part of me, I’ll admit, was kind of excited by it. That was the part that thought we might not be eaten by monsters in the next five minutes.

The lights in the facility had failed, so Lt. Mara cast a series illumination orbs the size of my fist down the corridor to see what lay ahead. That helped the soldiers but didn’t do much for me since they put Master Raychelle and I at the back of the group. Darius was stuck taking up the rear and keeping us under guard.

With the soldiers in front of me, I didn’t see the bone stealer spring forward towards an illusion that Lt. Mara had cast, but I did hear it. The clickety clack of a pile of bones rambling against each other as it struck was unnerving. Worse though was hearing its otherworldly hissing when it discovered that it had been lured out of hiding by false prey.

The soldiers didn’t need to be told what to do in the face of an enemy like that. Every bolt caster except the one that Darius was holding blasted to life. The hail of deadly fire the squad launched down the hallways connected explosively with the bone stealer, but not explosively enough to reduce it to dust.

The creature managed to dodge a few of the shots and recover at blinding speed from the rest. It was on Krysa before any of us could blink. The lizard woman had been anticipating that though I guessed (probably because she was at the front of the group) and managed to hold off the snapping tangle of teeth and shattered bones that made up the creature’s maw.

I struggled to escape the shackles I was in to help the woman, but her fellow soldiers had her covered. Bancryths and another soldier dragged the bone stealer off Krysa and pinned it to the floor, while Lt. Mara and two other soldiers stepped up and blasted the thing at point blank range.

The creature’s otherworldly hissing became an otherworldly scream as the soldiers refused to let up on their barrage. A dozen second later, they’d fire what seemed like a thousand shots into the monster and, as instructed, reduced its central mass to dust, at which point the rest of the bones collapsed into an inert pile.

“Excellent work Lieutenant. Be aware that they don’t usually hunt alone like that though.” Master Raychelle said.

“That doesn’t change the mission.” Lt. Mara said.

“No. It doesn’t.” Master Raychelle agreed. “There are survivors to search for still.”

“If we find any on the way to the commander’s office we’ll deal with them then. From what you described, I don’t think there’s going to be anyone left alive here though and I’m not risking my troops’ lives to confirm that.” Lt. Mara said.

“I never said you’d be searching for them.” Master Raychelle said.

And then she vanished.

The Winds of Yesterday – Chapter 3

Part of me was delighted to see Master Raychelle show up. With her as back up, neither Darius nor the other seven soldiers that had shown up were going to be a problem. Another part of me was kind of annoyed though.

“What happened to you?” I asked over the telepathic link that she’d setup for us.

“It’s not secure. There’s a very talented mentalist on this world somewhere and they’ve tapped into my spell. Let it go the next time you’re injured, please. I’d rather they not be aware that I survived just yet.” Master Raychelle said out loud.

“What?” Darius asked.

“She wasn’t talking to you.” I said as I watched the other soldiers approach. They were well armed but from the conflicting styles of their weapons and armor they didn’t look like a cohesive unit the way most military groups do. What they lacked in appearance they made up for in organization though. Master Raychelle had just begun teaching me about how proper military units functioned and from what I could see these soldiers were way ahead of me on that subject.

The seven of them split into three subteams as they approached us. Two teams stopped early and took up positions behind the available cover. The other team advanced with one of the members stepping forward while the other two members spread out to flank us at short range.

“Perhaps she’ll talk to me then.” the leader of the group said. “Lieutenant Mara Nox of the Hellsreach High Patrol, Third Squadron. You are the Imperial aliens correct?”

Mara looked to be as human as I was, but I saw that Darius’ words were true. Half of Mara’s soldiers were the lizard-like Garjaracks.

“We are Imperial envoys. Do you intend to impede us?” Master Raychelle asked.

“I believe you could say that. You are hereby under arrest, by my authority as a representative of the Hellsreach’s Common Council. I order you to stand down and surrender any weapons you are carrying.” Lt. Mara said.

“On what charges are you arresting us?” Master Raychelle asked. I was primed for a fight to start but the amused tone in Master Raychelle’s voice made me pause. She wasn’t a blood thirsty woman from what I’d seen of her so far, so I couldn’t imagine that she was amused by the idea of beating on a team of eight well armed soldiers. We could both slip away under the cover of an invisibility spell, but against a prepared group even that would be difficult. Void anima could make us invisible and absorb anima attacks but if they started detonating the trees around us we’d be shredded by the shrapnel before we got a hundred feet away.

“Illegal immigration.” Lt. Mara said.

“Our clearance documents were processed two days ago.” Master Raychelle said. “If you are actually concerned about that.”

Despite the fact that we were the ones who had multiple weapons trained on them, I got the sense that Master Raychelle was baiting Lt. Mara. It was as if each question Master Raychelle asked was a test. Lt. Mara apparently hadn’t given a failing answer yet but I suspected things would become violent in a hurry if she did.

“They were processed by the Imperial appointed Joint Exxion Congress. The Joint Congress does not have the authority to approve customs passage to Hellsreach however.” Lt. Mara said.

“And we are just learning of this now? Was this communicated to the Congress?” Master Raychelle asked.

“Official notice has been served to the Joint Congress monthly.” Lt. Mara said.

“But not to the Imperial ambassador?” Master Raychelle asked, meaning “what kind of bogus surprise move is this?”

“The Hellsreach Common Council has been given no direct access to the Imperial ambassador. All communications are handled through the Joint Congress.” Lt. Mara said, meaning “if it’s a surprise to you, its your own damn Imperial fault.”

“And what are the penalties for illegal immigration?” Master Raychelle asked.

“You will be held at a containment center until a trial can be arranged. Depending on the arbiter’s evaluation, you will either be deported and returned to space or your case will be transferred to a full immigration review panel.” Lt. Mara said.

“And if we chose to simply leave now?” Master Raychelle asked.

“I cannot allow you to do that. Part of your trial will be to determine if you were part of any conspiracies against the people of Hellsreach.” Lt. Mara said.

“And if we were?”

“Then you will be turned over to Hellsreach Security and Intel for interrogation.” Lt. Mara said.

“What will happen if we do not choose to comply with your orders?” Master Raychelle asked. She was relaxed. It was easy to mistake that for being passive. No one in the clearing was making that error though.

In some ways it’s nice to be part of a galactically famous organization. The Crystal Guardians have a terrifying reputation for getting things done. Individually, they’re assumed by most people to be among the most powerful anima casters in the galaxy. The myth goes that the Crystal Empress hand selects each one and then bestows on them the blessing of her unfettered power.

It’s a nice myth, but when I was selected it was by an acting Crystal Guardian and her apprentice. Master Opal, one of the Sapphire Guardians, sponsored me before a panel of seven judges, not all of whom were Guardians themselves.  I sat through two days of “hearings” which involved nothing more than chatting with the judges while we lounged in comfy chairs, ate some great food and they went over my record.

To be fair, they had all kinds of mental anima spells in place to prevent me from lying and our “casual conversations” covered a lot of topics that would have been difficult to answer if I’d had anything to hide. In the end they’d come to the consensus that they were satisfied that I’d make an acceptable candidate and turned me over to Master Raychelle for training and a full evaluation.

At no time did I get a super power up from the Crystal Empress though. Or from anyone for that matter. The closest I’d come to that was the bits of gear that Master Raychelle had me bring along for the mission. Anyone with enough coin or credit could have duplicated that sort of a power-up though. Like, say, with the armor and heavy bolt casters that the soldiers around us were carrying.

“If you choose not to surrender then we will be required to incapacitate you. Should you resist then we will be bring you down using whatever force is necessary up to and including lethal measures.” Lt. Mara said. “I will instruct you again. Stand down and drop any weapons you are carrying.”

I had to give them credit. For a unit that was relying on a mish-mash of supplies, they managed to appear perfectly professional in all other ways. I didn’t see fear or excitement in their eyes. However they felt about the job they were being asked to perform, they’d put those feelings aside. That wouldn’t make getting shot by them any less painful, but it was a change of pace from the out of control thugs and psychos I was used to dealing with.

I could almost believe that we’d be able to talk our way out of this, given how reasonable they seemed. Almost. Looking at Lt. Mara’s expression though I saw a resolve that was annoyingly familiar. She had a duty to perform and she was committed to it. I’d choked out the last person who’d been overly committed to doing her duty, but given the presence of Lt. Mara’s backup, I didn’t think that was going to be an option in this case. At least not until Master Raychelle took them all out, which if I wasn’t mistaken was going to take all of ten seconds or so.

Of course, as usual, I was mistaken.

“Very well. We surrender then.” Master Raychelle said.

She might as well have clubbed me over the head with a metal pipe.

“What?” I blurted out before I could stop myself. I also swung around to face her before I could stop myself and almost fell on my butt as my injured ankle gave out. I hadn’t been focusing on the physical anima brace I’d put together for it and I’d forgotten how much it hurt to walk on.

Darius caught me as I toppled backwards, dropping his sword to do so. Tactically that was a stupid move. He’d not only disarmed himself, he’d placed himself as a shield for me to hide behind and become a potential hostage if I was willing to show them what I could do.

“I don’t think this prisoner can walk sir.” Darius said to Lt. Mara as he helped me back to my feet. “She was injured when the 4X’s shot her down.”

“The 4X’s?” I asked.

“The garrison forces from Exxion IV, the human offworlders, I believe.” Master Raychelle said.

“That’s correct.” Lt. Mara said as she stepped closer. She stayed out of arm’s reach and inspected my lower leg. I saw the sparkle of physical anima dance across her eyes as she did. It caught me by surprise since the only other physical anima caster I’d met who knew spells like that had been trained as a Healer.

“It’s not bad, but I won’t ask you to walk on it unaided.” Lt. Mara said. “Bancryths, bring an aid kit here.”

One of the soldiers in the rear nodded and returned to the ship they’d arrived in.

“Please sit down and place your hands behind your backs.” Lt. Mara said.

I looked at Master Raychelle for either confirmation that she was ok with this or for a sign that she’d gone insane and I was going to have to strike out on my own. She met my gaze and gave me a tiny, confident smile. The kind that gently scolded me for not trusting that she was playing a longer game than I was aware of.

Darius helped me sit down while Lt. Mara placed a pair of restraints on Master Raychelle’s wrists. She waited until her subordinate had brought up the aid kit and treated my leg and arm before she bound my hands though. That meant having my arms locked behind me wasn’t agonizing, just uncomfortable.

Once we were secured, Mara and her troops lead us to the transport and placed us in special holding cells in the back of it. Master Raychelle went into one, while I was loaded into a separate compartment.

“Darius, you’re with the apprentice you caught. Bancryths and Selimon, you’re with the master.” Lt. Mara said, directing her troops into the holding cells as well. I watched as Darius climbed into the seat opposite the one I was shackled to. He touched a glyph on his side of the compartment and a clear wall shimmered into existence between us.

“I probably don’t need this.” he said, indicating the security wall, “But it is standard procedure.”

“If I didn’t know better, I’d say you were still scared of us.” I said. Lt. Mara had closed the cell door, locking us both in for the duration.

“Let’s just say we have some idea what you Guardians are capable of.” Darius said.

“That’s why we rate a personal overseer?” I asked. I would have been miffed that I only rated one guard where Master Raychelle got two, but I had to admit that she was at least twice as dangerous as I was, if not more so.

“For now. Once you’re at the containment center, they’ll do their own evaluation of you.” Darius said.

“Containment center? I thought you’d called it a prison camp.” I said.

“It is what it is.” he replied with a shrug.

“So who else do you put there?” I asked him.

“Technically? Criminals. We’re not just the Common Council’s army, we’re also their law enforcers.” Darius said.

“On a world where there are two enemy armies committing crimes though, I’m guessing you don’t find many people that you can arrest like us right?” I asked.

“Not so much. Our arrests tend to leave craters, and that’s when we can find someone in a position that we can afford to strike at. Most of the ones that we catch and put into “containment centers” are smaller operators. Saboteurs, assassins, gang leaders. Plus we’ve got the regular criminals to deal with. Just because the offworlders are in an almost constant state of warfare doesn’t mean the natives are don’t kill each other once in a while too.“ Darius said.

“You know, I was ready to punch your head off back there. If you’d lead with this kind of a story, I might not have come an inch away from doing it.” I said.

“Is that supposed to make me think you’re not still an inch away from punching my head off?” Darius asked.

“Sure, I’d say you’ve got at least two inches now, maybe three.” I said.

He grinned and shook his head.

“Listen. When you break out, try not to mess things up too much. I know some of the guards who work at the containment center. They’re good people and they follow the rules.”

“What makes you think we’re going to break out?” I asked.

“We had you turn over your weapons and you weren’t carrying any.” he said.

“We were on our way to a peace conference.” I said.

“Yes. Where you were going to act as guards for the negotiators.” he said.

“So?” I asked.

“So the only guards who don’t have weapons are the ones who don’t need them.” he said.

He wasn’t wrong about that. Master Raychelle had us leave behind anima blades and bolt casters to “project the proper image”. I was lousy with a bolt caster and still working on learning how to fight with an anima blade so that didn’t bother me. Mostly because, like Darius said, I was plenty dangerous enough without those kind of tools.

“If you think we’re just going to breakout, why stick us in the prison camp in the first place?” I asked.

“Blind optimism? I don’t know. I’m presuming the people in charge have some idea what they’re doing.” Darius said.

I chuckled. Being the one taking orders wasn’t easy no matter whose side you were on it seemed.

The transport landed and Darius withdrew the clear wall between us. He helped me out of the cell and marched me behind Master Raychelle as Lt. Mara’s troops lead us to a giant metal door in the side of a mountain.

“For the duration of your arrest you will housed here, in the Deep Run Containment Facility.” Lt. Mara said to us and then added to her troops, “Let’s get them checked in.”

We stepped onto a plate in front of the steel door and I felt a teleportation effect catch me and drag me under the earth, miles down, to an obsidian cube that was wrapped in spells and floating deep in the planet’s inner mantle.

That was how I wound up in prison on the first mission I ever undertook as part of the Crystal Guardians.

The Winds of Yesterday – Chapter 2

I’m not a fan of people who try to intimidate me. I’m also not a fan of anima blades. The guy who was holding me at sword point did have one thing going for him though; with a broken arm and a sprained ankle I wasn’t in the mood to pick a fight unless I absolutely had to.

“From those robes, I’m going to guess you’re an Imperial.” the guy said. The distance he’d picked told me he was a skilled fighter. He was holding the energized blade far enough away that I couldn’t swat it aside and close enough that he could skewer me with it before I could blink.

“And yet you’re still holding a sword on me. You want to explain that?” I asked him. Within the Crystal Empire, I thought it was reasonable to expect a warmer greeting from the locals than a sword to the face.

“You came here to force us to disarm right?” he said. I shifted my weight onto my bad ankle and back off it. My captor kept the blade trained on me, following my center of gravity. Dodging a thrust was going to be a difficult to impossible task, especially with one of my arms partially out of commission too.

“I came here as part of a peace conference.” I said. I tried to step slowly to the side. He responded with a small but clear twitch of his sword. He didn’t mind me shifting around in place but if I tried to reposition us, he was going to stab me on general principle.

“Right. Well, we’d rather not be peaceful just yet.” he said.

“Then I imagine we’re going to have some problems.” I said.

“It seemed like that to me too.” he said.

“So how is this going to go down?” I asked. I watched the anima blade but was focusing on his shoulders and hips. That’s where the attack would begin. I’d been hoping I could hold him off with conversation until my physical anima could get around to regenerating my injuries but it didn’t sound like was going to be an option.

“I’m guessing that you’re going to try to disarm me and I’ll have stab you a few dozen times to make sure you’re not going to pull any crazy Imperial tricks. It’s messy and neither of us will be happy with it, but you’ve got a look in your eyes that tells me you’re nowhere near surrendering yet.”

I could see the tension singing along his nerves. The sword remained steady except at the very tip. He wouldn’t hesitate if it came to a fight, but some part of him dearly didn’t want it to.

“Or, and I know this is insane, we can skip the whole ‘deadly violence’ thing and you can prove me wrong. You could, in this crazy world I’m picturing, come along quietly and save us both a lot of trouble.” he said.

“Do you want me to distract him?” Fari asked me telepathically. Her ghostly blue form was a projection. She often only bothered to share it with me, but she was fully capable of appearing before other people as well.

“Not yet. I don’t have anywhere to run yet, so it wouldn’t do much good.” I thought back to her. I tested my ankle again. I was flooding it with physical anima but it barely felt any better at all.

“And where would I be ‘coming along’ to exactly?” I asked.

“A prison camp.” he said. I saw him flinch as the words came out. I think he expected me to react violently to the idea. He wasn’t wrong, he was just off on the timing. I was definitely going to react violently to prison camp but I’d do so at a time when it would help me avoid it or escape it.

“Doesn’t sound all that appealing.” I told him. I tested my weight on my ankle again. Patience isn’t one of my virtues. The results weren’t promising. I could try to muscle through the pain, but it was going to slow me down. With my best defense against an armed opponent being mobility, that was a problem.

“Yeah, can’t say I blame you there. Not a real friendly crew you’d be thrown in with. You’re an Imperial though. They won’t let you stay there long.” he said.

“You’ll ransom me back to the Empire?” I asked.

“Me? No. My superiors? Sure. Probably get some kind of concessions, maybe even hold off the peace conference for a few months.” he said.

“For a guy who’s against peace, you’re seem oddly willing to talk now.” I pointed out.

“That would be because you’re listening to me. Also I’m trying to buy time for my reinforcements to arrive.” he said.

“Fari, could you setup a scan for incoming sentients and warn me when they’re less than five minutes from getting here?” I asked my ghostly friend telepathically.

“Done. Try not to move my jewel too much or it’ll break the spell.” she said. If I was going to escape, I’d need a least a few minutes to take Mr. Chatty down and find a place to hide. I wasn’t sure that five minutes would be enough but I wanted as much time to pull out information about what was going on from my captor as I could get.

“Leaving aside your hypothetical reinforcements, what did you mean about me listening? Since when doesn’t the Crystal Empire listen to its citizens? I thought this place was all sweetness and light?” I said.

I’d grown up with an admittedly skewed version of the Crystal Empire from living outside its borders. Belstarius, my homeworld, hadn’t been poor, but the stories that flowed out of the Crystal Empire made it seem like we were nothing more than a bleak little backwater that was rapidly being left behind by the wondrous new era of peace and prosperity that the Crystal Empress had brought to the galaxy.

In joining up with the Crystal Guardians, I’d been concerned that I’d either never seen the inside of the Empire or that I’d be monumentally bored if I did. I could almost hear my old teacher Master Hanq laughing at me from across the light years between us.

“Never complain about being bored girl. Fate gets cranky with people that tempt it like that.” he’d told me one day when I was being a brat.

“Maybe in other parts of the Empire but not so much here. Humans and Gar have been fighting this war on and off for over a century. The Empire put a stop to that but they left the wrong people in charge.” my captor said.

“So you want to keep killing people until the folks you like are running things?” I asked.

“One way or the other, there’s going to be killing.” he said.

“Because talking is so hard? Or is there something in the water here that makes you Mr. Kill Happy?” I asked.

“It’s Darius. Mr Kill Happy is on the other side.” he corrected me.

“The Garjaracks? They’re the kill happy ones? I thought both sides invited us here to work out an accord?” I said.

“It’s not that simple.” Darius said.

“Let me guess. There’s ‘honor’ involved? Or you need to get revenge? Or you’re just straight up crazy and think some ancient spirit demands that you kill everyone who doesn’t do what it says?” I asked.

I’d read up a little on the Exxion at Master Raychelle’s insistence. It had three settled worlds and two major species. The humans were your garden variety galactic stock. No bloodborn spell mods, no selectively bred lineages. Just regular people, albeit ones who had been fighting a war for over a century.

The Garjarack were bipedal, humanoids with scaled skin in various shades of green, brown and black. They weren’t “descended from Lizards” any more than humans were “descended from monkeys” but the pictures that I’d seen made it easy to understand why humans hadn’t hit it off with them on first sight.

The active fighting between them had been put to a halt by the Crystal Empire as a price for the whole system joining the Empire and repeating the benefits of interstellar trade. It had been twenty years since either Exxion II or Exxion IV had launched a ship against the other.

Exxion III, Hellsreach, was a different story though. There wasn’t an “official” war on Hellsreach but, from what I’d read, there were insurgent groups who fought back and forth over control of the world. It was a poorly kept secret that the insurgents acted as proxies for the Human and Garkarack forces, but as long as the fighting stayed contained on Exxion III, the Crystal Empire was forced to view it as an “internal matter”, unrelated to either of the other planets in the system.

“Yeah, a hundred years of warfare is just people being stupid or petty.” Darius said, anger kindling in his voice.

“You shot down our air skimmer, shot me out of the sky, maybe killed my mentor and the negotiator who came here to help you work through your problems. Tell me that’s not the textbook definition of stupid and petty.” I said, my own anger rising to match his.

“We have incoming people, Mel.” Fari said telepathically. “About seven of them, all in one ship. They’ll be here in just under five minutes.”

“You really don’t get it do you?” Darius asked. “We’re not the ones who shot down your skimmer.  We’re not even the ones who shot you down.”

“Yeah, fine, so the Garjaracks did it. And you want to keep killing them and they want to keep killing you and so we should just let you have at it, right?” I said. I rammed more physical anima into my ankle and tested it again. I couldn’t fix it but I could deaden the pain and provide some reinforcement to ease the load on the tendons. Not optimal, but it was as good as I was going to get. I applied a similar hack of a spell to my arm and started coiling my anima up for the fight that I knew was coming.

“No!” Darius growled in frustration. “This isn’t about the Humans versus the Garjarack. That’s not the problem here. That’s not our fight.”

“Then what the hell are you fighting about?” I was ready to box his head in to see if I could knock some answers out of it.

“I’m with the Garjaracks! And the humans! We’re the natives of Hellsreach. The people we’re fighting? They’re the offworlders! They want this world for their people, but they don’t want us!” Darius yelled. In his anger he’d lowered his anima blade and was punctuating his sentences by waving his free hand around.

It was the perfect chance to deck him. One clean hit, a quick grab of his wrist and a tiny jolt of Void anima would be all it would take. I’d have him disarmed and unconscious in seconds. The only problem was that I’d gotten too caught up in the argument to think of that.

“That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard! The Empire insists that each world have its own representatives. Our coming here should have been the best possible thing for you, but instead you’re going to throw me in a prison camp so you can try to kill two other world’s worth of people?” I wasn’t screaming, I had just raised my voice a bit louder than normal.

“That’s not what we’re doing at all!” Darius said and then forcibly restrained himself. When he continued he was quieter but no less angry. “Listen, both Exxion II and IV have garrisons here. If peace is declared, they will simply change tactics and move the fighting underground. That means that rather than killing each other, they’ll ‘spread their efforts more broadly to remove the support infrastructure that the other side has’. That’s their strategic doctrine. It was taught in schools for years by both sides. Wipe out the populace and the military loses everything. No resources, no replenishment troops, no reason for existing.”

He was pacing back and forth as he spoke, barely even paying attention to me anymore. If I’d started the argument to gain a tactical advantage I would have completely won it with the way he was acting. Unfortunately, his words were a more effective weapon than his sword.

“We have to destroy those garrisons. We have to force both sides back off the planet, or some of my best friends, Human and Gar, are going to die in really horrible ways.” Darius said.

“Putting me in a prison camp is not going to help that.” I told him.

“The Empire has already proven that it can’t handle things at this level. They deal with systems and planets. They don’t have time for the ‘little details’ like this.” Darius said.

“You’re right.” a new voice said. “The Empress doesn’t have the bandwidth to deal with details at that level. That’s why her Guardians exist. We’re here to make sure no one is forgotten, and no one falls through the cracks.”

I turned away from Darius, completely ignoring his anima blade, to see Master Raychelle shake off the veil of invisibility she’d been wearing. At the same time, on the opposite side of the clearing, I heard the ship that Fari had warned me about settle to the ground and the soldiers within begin to get out.

The Winds of Yesterday – Chapter 1

I was falling. Above me there was fire and smoke. The air skimmer I’d been on was tearing itself apart in the wake of the blast that had detonated its engine. The moment its reserve spell tanks emptied it would join me in plummeting towards the snow swept valley below. This was, needless to say, not exactly the reception we’d been expecting on our way to the peace conference.

It took me a second to shake off the disorientation of the blast and come to grips with the fact that I was in free fall. Another blast exploded a dozen yards away from me and I felt the force of it ripple over the anima shield I’d called up to protect myself. My shield was pretty good, but I wasn’t sure that “pretty good” would be enough to shrug off a direct artillery hit. I turned my fall into a dive to pick up speed and reflected on the “benefits” of taking an air skimmer to the peace conference.

In theory, flying in a high altitude craft like an air skimmer meant that you were too high for most attacks to reach you. In practice though, if an attack did manage to connect, you just wound up with more time on the way down to reflect on the choices you’d made that put you in such a rotten situation.

For some people that was probably horrifying, but in my case, I couldn’t find any decisions that I regretted making.

After growing up essentially powerless in a society where everybody had some level of magical aptitude, I’d leapt at the chance to develop the powers that I’d hidden from myself. That meant joining up as one of the Guardians who served the Crystal Empress and her empire, something I’d been all too happy to do after meeting a few of them. They’d made me an apprentice and assigned me to one of the few available mentors who had experience with Void anime, the type of magic that I primarily used.

Raychelle Blackbriar had been a Guardian since the Crystal Empresses’ rise to power.  Master Raychelle had given the Crystal Empire twenty years of service, but she’d been an anima caster far longer than that. Over her long career, she’d developed a fairly “hands on” approach to training new casters. That was what had led to our mission on Exxion III, or as the locals called it: Hellsreach.

It was supposed to have been a simple job. Tag along with an Imperial negotiator and ensure their safety during a peace conference. It shouldn’t have involved much danger since the two sides of the dispute, the Garjaraks from Exxion II and the Humans from Exxion IV, were supposed to be under a cease fire. Apparently someone had failed to let them know that though.

Below me, the snow covered hills were strewn with the wreckage of all kinds of destroyed craft, both air and land. Black smoke stained the snow that had fallen the night before.  Given the destruction I knew there’d be splashes of red to accent the black but, from as high up as I was, telling the living apart from the dead was beyond me.

Before I could worry about that however, there was the slight problem of the fact that I’d reached terminal velocity and there weren’t any handy air skimmers nearby to catch me. The last time I’d been in a situation like this, I’d improvised a landing system out of series of personal shields. It had worked. Mostly. This time though I had an advantage. This time I was working for the Crystal Empire and that meant, for once in my life, I had the gear I needed!

Or at least the gear I needed to help me survive the fall. Surviving the artillery fire was another matter entirely, and that wasn’t the only thing I had to worry about. The Garjaracks and the Humans both had squadrons of short range air speeders buzzing around the valley. They hadn’t been there when we’d been on our approach to the peace conference so I guessed they’d been scrambled in response to the first shot being fired. That had led to all of the artillery opening up as well, which in turn made it impossible for me to figure out who’d started the shooting.

“Master Raychelle!” I called out on the telepathic link that she’d setup for us. My skills with mental anima were minimal, it just didn’t make as much sense to me as physical and void magic did. Fortunately though, I didn’t need to be able to cast a telepathy spell to be able to use the one that Master Raychelle had set up for us.

Unfortunately, being able to use a telepathy spell didn’t do me any good when the other end of the link was silent.

I’d been unconcerned about the fall, up to the point where I noticed that. I knew I could land safely. If the attack on our ship had incapacitated my mentor, or killed her, that safety was going to be short lived though. I was a good fighter, but I had no illusions about being able to take on two armies and win.

I flared my anima shield and rolled out of the path of an airspeeder that was on a strafing run against one of the Human artillery emplacements. The pilot didn’t see me or didn’t care that I was there.

That changed in a hurry when I unfurled my anima wings.

Over fifteen feet from tip to tip and composed of brilliant scarlet light, the wings were projections of my physical anima channeled through a flight rig that Master Raychelle had given me. Flight with physical anima was difficult and dangerous but, at least for a limited time, the flight rig could handle maintaining the spell for me.

The spell cast by the rig did more than provide lift though. It gave me an instinctive sense of how to move in the air. That saved my life almost instantly. The power the anima wings threw off lit up the battlefield and drew attacks towards me like a flame attracting moths. I barely had them deployed before I was swirling through the air, doing barrel rolls and loops of all kinds to avoid the attacks that were coming from both sides of the conflict.

Despite the fact that I had better maneuverability than the airships or the artillery bolts, I very quickly saw that I had to get out of the sky. Dodging is a great defensive strategy but against multiple foes it becomes increasingly more difficult. The longer I stayed in the air, the more the airspeeders began to focus on me. At first there was only one on my tail. Then another started hemming me in from the left side. One of their enemies began firing at them but the shots were so wild that they had as good a chance of hitting me as the ones from the people who were intentionally trying to get me in their sights.

I swooped into the central valley below the aerial conflict and discovered why it was a no-man’s land between the two forces. Nearly every visible surface had attack runes or sigils carved into them. I could outmaneuver the airspeeders but the explosions that went off as I tried to race for cover on the ground proved a bit more challenging to avoid.

I put on a burst of speed as the first explosion slammed me sideway. That shot me past the second and third explosions but the flight rig caught a piece shrapnel from one of them. In the space of about three seconds I turned from a graceful, darting eagle to a misshapen, barely controlled brick. It was only by virtue of the momentum I’d built up and the raw power that I flooded into the flight pack that I was able to crest the ridge of the valley and escape the endless booby traps it contained.

That’s when one of the airspeeders shot me down.

The bolt casters on an airspeeder are significantly more powerful than the ones which soldiers carry. They’re intended to take down shielded ground transports with sustained barrages. Firing one at a human scale target is an exercise in overkill. Most of the time.

In my case I had a trump card. Void anima, the principal kind of magic I can manipulate has a unique relationship with other magics. It eats them. I knew the shot was coming before it landed and flared my Void anima outwards to absorb it. That saved me from being turned into a fine red mist but also drained all of the energy from the flight rig.

I just had time to retract my Void anima and throw up an anima shield before I slammed into the ground and bounced into a tree.

The airspeeder that had shot me down came roaring over the edge of the valley and launched a pair of lightning bombs at me before making a hard 180 degree turn.

I had to give them points for thoroughness. Or I would have if I’d hadn’t been knocked breathless when I hit the tree. As it was, I’d only called up a fraction of my Void anima before the lightning bombs hit. That was enough to keep me from being burned to a crisp the way the trees around me were but the electricity that did make it through wasn’t very fun to deal with.

The worst part was, I didn’t pass out. I don’t know if having access to physical anima made me tougher, or if I was getting used to a level of bodily damage that would have been appalling previously or if I just had rotten luck. Whatever the cause was though, I had the joy of picking myself up from the base of the tree I’d crashed in and hobbling out of burning forest on legs that felt like they were made of fluff.

I was in enough overall pain that it wasn’t until I reached a fast running stream that I noticed I’d sprained an ankle and fractured my left arm.

“Master Raychelle?” I called out again. The telepathic link was still there as far as I could tell but I didn’t have the sense that there was anyone listening on the other end. I didn’t know how to read that. I wanted to believe she was still alive, but I could imagine that the spell was just continuing with the power that she’d invested into it and it dissipate once that charge ran out.

“Are you ok?” a translucent blue figure asked.

“I’ve been better.” I said, putting my hand on the clear jewel that I wore on a necklace.

Fari wasn’t a ghost, despite looking like one. She was a full persona, captured and re-embodied into a jewel of immense power. Or it had been a jewel of immense power. The Ravager, the world killing Jewel of Endless Night, had been stripped of its power by me, my friends and about ten million ghosts. What had been left behind was Fari and the gem that acted as her body and home. I carried the it for her, but she was the one who owned jewel, and control of herself.

From what Master Raychelle had said, giving her the jewel had been a fairly dangerous thing. She could have become anything once she was placed in charge of her own constraint mechanisms. We were “lucky” that she’d turned out to be who she’d appeared to be.

I didn’t share Master Raychelle’s view. I figured Fari still could “become anything”, just like any of the rest of us. If she turned into a monster, my first thought wasn’t going to be to shatter the Jewel, it was going to be to ask her why and see if I agreed with her. I’d been called a monster myself and it wasn’t entirely inaccurate.

“Is there anyone who can help? Can I get a message to them?” Fari asked.

In siphoning away the Jewel of Endless Night’s power, I’d taken from her the ability to slaughter entire worlds. That power hadn’t been hers to begin with though. It had been the magic of a star, bound into eternal service. That didn’t mean Fari was powerless however. She’d always had her own power. It’s why she’d been chosen to be the Jewel’s mind in the first place.

I was terrible with mental magics. Fari on the other hand was excellent with them. She had some odd limits due to the spells that tied her to the jewel but sending a psychic message was well within her capabilities.

The problem was I had no idea who I could call on.

Master Raychelle and I were supposed to be able to handle protecting the peace negotiations alone. There weren’t any other Crystal Guardians within the solar system. I could have tried to reach one of the contacts we had in the system but there was a problem with that.

“I’d love to call for help, but I have no idea who we can trust here.” I said.

“Well, probably not me.” a man said.

I turned to find a human male of about my age standing behind me. He was dressed in a bedraggled military uniform and he was pointing a fully charged anima sword at me.

The Seas of Tomorrow – Chapter 31

Defeating a nigh-immortal foe should have made things easier, or at least safer, but of course that wasn’t the sort of life I’d been given. Channeling the power of the Jewel of Endless Night left me feeling like I’d been burned to ash myself. Without the Jewel’s anima to support me I fell to my knees on the stage and then dropped to my hands for support.

Beside me I saw Yael collapse and remembered the gut wound she’d taken from the Khan. Zyla caught her before she could hit the deck and gently lowered the apprentice Guardian to floor. With practiced ease, Zyla ripped Yael’s shirt open and laid her hands on the wound beneath. The healing spell was sloppier than Taisen’s were. I could feel the anima spilling out from under Zyla’s hands as she forced it to reinforce Yael’s battered body. The slight boost I got from that spillover was gratefully received and left me confident that Yael would survive her injuries. At least long enough for something else to kill us.

On my other side, Opal helped ease Akell down as well. The boy commander was unconscious too, though I was pretty sure he hadn’t taken any damage beyond what I’d inflicted on him and the Jewel had healed that almost as fast as I’d caused it. A glance at Opal told me that she’d had a hand in returning Akell to an unconscious state. Despite the fact that he’d helped us, that was probably for the best. It hadn’t been out of love for us that he’d aided us in destroying the Khan after all.

I drew in a few breaths to center myself and glanced up to see the translucent blue form of Fari crouched down, inspecting me.

“What did you do?” she asked, searching my face for something I couldn’t guess at.

“Destroyed the Khan.” I replied.

“It’s gone though. All the power. How did you get rid of it?” she asked.

“Sent it all at him. We let the ghosts carry it away.” I said. I still felt burned inside and out but as long as I didn’t have to move I could feel a trickle of strength returning to me.

“It’s gone?” she asked, there was a quaver in her voice that made me look up again. Her expression was flickering between dozens of emotions.

“Yeah. I couldn’t hold on to that much anima. None of us could. I’m sorry. It was the only way to beat him.” I said.

Fari’s reply was to leap on me and wrap her arms around my shoulders and neck. I was going to break out of the hold until I heard her sobbing. They were great, big, wracking sobs of unrestrained emotion.

“Thank you. Thank you.” she said, over and over.

I sat back so that my knees and feet were still on the ground and pulled Fari into a consoling hug. She was aeons old, but in that moment she didn’t seem all that different from any of the little kids at the orphanage.

Our moment was cut short by the ship bucking and pitching again.

“Healer Taisen, what’s happening?” Opal called out.

“The good news is that we’re free of the catch web they trapped us with. The bad news is that they’re shooting at us again.” Taisen said.

“Can you outrun them?” Opal asked.

“He cannot.” Weri, the First Circle Scion of the Karr Khan, said, cutting into the ship’s communicators. “All Karr forces, open fire at the fleeing yacht. Capture orders are officially rescinded. Blow them out of the sky.”

“This is bad.” Zyla said. “If the Khan came here in person then he brought hundreds of ships with him. This yacht cannot withstand that level of opposition.”

“Don’t worry about offering to surrender, we are not accepting anything except your complete destruction.” Weri said.

“That’s good to hear Karr commander.” a familiar voice said.

“Who is this?” Weri said.

“This is Captain Hanq Okoro, in command of the war frigate Steelheart.” Master Hanq said over the ship-to-ship communications link.

“The what now?” I asked.

“Took him long enough.” Opal grumbled.

There was a pause on the ship-to-ship line before Weri spoke again.

“Warlord Okoro. We have records of your career. You’re supposed to be dead.”

“You should just assume I’m a ghost then.” Master Hanq said.

“And why would we do that? We have you on our scans. That ship at least is real, if terribly antiquated.” Weri said.

“Because ghosts don’t offer surrender terms either.” Master Hanq said.

“You want to destroy the Crystal Guardians too?” Weri said.

“Not at all. I want to destroy you, and if you harm them I won’t be required to offer you the option to stand down.”

On some level, I knew that Master Hanq didn’t actually want them to destroy us, but the eagerness in his voice was scary to hear regardless.

“That’s a wonderful bit of bravado there Warlord Okoro but one ship is not going to stand against our fleet.” Weri said.

“I know. If you’ve looked at my records, you should really consider what that means.” Master Hanq said.

“I’ve got a ship transferring through the warp portal.” Taisen called out.

“Ah, good my friends made it to the party.” Master Hanq said.

“This is absurd. Karr forces, destroy all three enemy vessels.” Weri said. “No broken down fleet of retired warlord pretenders is worth our time.”

“You’re wrong about several things Karr commander.” Master Hanq said.

“And what would those be?” Weri asked.

“First, there are more than three of us here.” Master Hanq said.

“Detecting multiple launches from the planet’s surface, are those your friends Master Okoro?” Taisen asked.

“Some of them.” he agree. “Second, if you scan these ships you’ll see they’re not antiquated, they’re artifacts.”

I heard Zyla’s breath catch at that.

“What does that mean?” I asked her.

“It means they’re not antiquated, they’re ancient, and ships only get to be ancient if they’re powerful. Extremely powerful.” Zyla said.

“And third, I’ve made some new friends since my Warlord days.” Master Hanq said.

“Ship emerging from the warp portal.” Taisen said. “Wait a minute though. These scans can’t be right. It’s not a ship. It’s a moon.”

“Technically, we call them Crystal Stars.” Opal said.


There wasn’t much of a fight after that. The Karr forces were caught between the anvil of Master Hanq’s revived warlord ships and the hammer of one of the Crystal Empresses Battle Moons. The forces were so mismatched the outcome of the conflict wasn’t in doubt in anyone’s mind. The Karr tried to stage a fighting retreat, but it quickly became a panicked route which turned into an abject surrender.

Despite the bloody tone he took at the beginning of his conversation with Weri, Master Hanq was more than willing to manage the unconditional surrender of the Karr fleet that had assaulted Belstarius.

As it turned out, the rest of their fleet, or at least the part which had been left behind to guard the other end of the warp portal hadn’t been so reasonable and had been reduced to space dust by the Crystal Star.

Taisen was able to keep our yacht together through the battle, and Zyla and Opal were able to make sure Yael pulled through as well. Once I was sure that was being handled I opted for the sanest course of action I could imagine; I passed out into a deep, dark sleep.

“You did well.” my mother said in my dreams.

I knew she was only a dream, but it still felt wonderful to see her. I hadn’t dreamed of her in I-didn’t-know-how-many years. I hadn’t even thought of her in fact. I’d shut everything away so that I wouldn’t have to remember losing her.

When I woke up my eyes were wet and Master Hanq was sitting beside me.

“Nice to see you back in the living world.” he said.

“Nice to see you too.” I told him. I dried my eyes on my sleeve and found that I was laying in a freakishly soft bed with sheets that smelled like they had been laundered in heaven. “Cut it a bit close though didn’t you?”

“Closer than I would have liked. Didn’t know I was going to need to call in the cavalry though.” he said.

“We’re on the Crystal Star now aren’t we?” I asked. The elegance of the decor was a dead giveaway that we weren’t on a Warlord ship or Master Hanq’s house on Belstarius.

“That we are.” he agreed.

“How did you get them here?” I asked.

“I still had a communications gem they left with me after we discussed my retirement. The Guardian I spoke with then left it as a standing offer to enlist with them. With Opal’s name and passcodes, I was able to get them to mobilize in time.” he said.

“You enlisted too though, didn’t you?” I asked.

“It helped convince them of the gravity of the situation.” he said.

“Thank you.” I said.

“You’re welcome, but, to be honest, it wasn’t just for you kiddo. Now that my prize pupil is all grown up, I think I’m free to get back in the game. I’ve been sitting on the sidelines too long.” Master Hanq said shaking his head.

“What happened wasn’t your fault.” I said.

“I know that, but I know I can do a lot more than I have been to make sure things like that don’t happen again.” he said. “And anyways it’s a chance to see some old friends again.”

“So you’re going to ship out with them?” I asked.

“Once I’ve taken care of things here.” he said.

“That’s going to be kind of weird.” I said.

“Have you given any thought to what you’re going to do next?” he asked.

“Not really. I figured I’d be fertilizer or worse by this point.” I said.

“You could join up too.” he suggested.

“I’m kind of damaged goods aren’t I?” I said. I reached out for my anima and found that it had recovered. A tiny bit. That was still more than I’d ever had before, so I wasn’t too unhappy but after channeling the might of a star I couldn’t help but feel kind of small and insignificant.

“We all are.” Yael said as she limped into my room. Zyla was with her, but Yael was leaning on a crutch for support.

“Thank you. Both of you.” I said. It was an understatement to say I owed them my life.

“We owe you our thanks.” Opal said, entering the room behind them.

“Would that thanks extend to taking her in?” Master Hanq asked.

“If she wanted to join our ranks, I believe Miss Watersward would make an exceptional Guardian.” Opal said. “That’s not something she needs to make up her mind about now though.”

“Thank you.” I said. My heart felt funny at the thought. Good things like that weren’t supposed to happen to me, at least not as far I’d experienced.

“Where’s Healer Taisen by the way?” I asked, since he was the only one of our little crew who was absent.

“Already off on another assignment.” Yael said. “There are still forces loyal to the Karr Khan out there. Shutting down their attempts to organization now will save us a lot of trouble later.”

“And Akell?” I asked.

“My brother is in a mental care ward. The mind healers believe he may recover some day, but its too early to say for sure.” Zyla said.

“He helped us too though, didn’t he?” I asked.

“Parts of him did. His hatred for my father. His talent with Energetic anima.” Zyla said.

“And his pride, and his hopes for what could have been.” Opal said. “It was hasty work putting him back together temporarily but there was more than hatred which drove your brother.”

“At the end maybe. Not in his life from what I saw.” Zyla said.

“Even with mind anima, we never see everything that makes up another person. There are always hidden sides to them. Darknesses that even they themselves are unaware of.” Opal said.

There’d been a lot of darkness in my life, both recently and long term, but some of it was starting to fall away.

“We should let her rest.” Opal said.

“Yeah, I could use some food.” Master Hanq said as he rose from the chair beside my bed. Like the gallant gentleman that I’d never seen him be, he offered his arm to Opal who took it with a smile.

“You’re wrong about a lot of things, but you were right when it counted.” Zyla said before making her exit. I wasn’t sure exactly what she was referring to but I chose to take that as a compliment anyways. Yael followed her out, but not before casting me a smile and a small salute. It was good that I was laying down already. The two of them being nice to me might have knocked me over otherwise.

Once they were gone, Fari appeared, sitting at the foot of my bed.

“Hi.” she said, shyly.

I looked down at my hand. The Jewel of Endless Night wasn’t there.

“Hello there. Where’s your jewel?” I asked. She pointed to my chest and I reached under the soft white shirt someone had dressed me in and found a clear gem that sparkled with blue and silver light on a chain around my neck.

“Is this the Jewel of Endless Night?” I asked her.

“Not any more.” Fari said happily.

“But you’re still tied to it?” I asked.

“Yes. And to you. You’re still my master.” Fari said.

“Why?” I asked.

“I have to serve whoever has claimed the Jewel.” she said.

“Ok. Do me a favor would you? Close your eyes and hold out your hands.” I said. She did as I asked but looked confused. I smiled and took the chain off from around my neck.

With slow care, I cupped Fari’s hands in mine. They felt warm and more solid than her translucent body appeared to be.

“This is yours.” I told her and pulled my hands away, leaving the clear gem and the chain in hers.

Her expression when she opened her eyes was priceless. Pure, unadulterated astonishment.

“You should never belong to anyone else but yourself.” I told her.

I’d made the mistake of sitting up to hand Fari the gem. That meant when she tackle hugged me I got slammed back into the bed. She didn’t hold me down for long though. After squeezing me so tight that I thought my ribs were going to turn to dust, she rocketed around the room like a firework and then shot out into the hall giggling like the over excited little girl that she was.

I watched her leave and smiled.

My Void anima was resting within me. I couldn’t see my future. No one could. It was dark and unknown, at least until I got there. But I could get there. I had to. Like it or not, the current of time pulled me onwards and made my life change and sometimes those changes weren’t such a bad thing.