Monthly Archives: June 2014

The Winds of Yesterday – Chapter 17

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How long will it last?” I asked.

“A few hours.” she said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We both paused and listened.

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

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

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

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

“Thoughts on that?” she asked.

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

“You had me.” Fari said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or at least I thought I was smart enough.

He’d thought he could handle it too though.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why?” Fari asked.

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

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

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

“I could hurt you though.” she said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What do you mean?” I asked.

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

The Winds of Yesterday – Chapter 16

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Gotcha.” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He hit the ground with a wordless thud.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or her.

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

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

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

That’s when my danger sense flared again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Can we follow her?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

The Winds of Yesterday – Chapter 15

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Where’s your amulet at?” I asked.

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

“What happened to Darius?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

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

“That part worked at least then” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Under what charges?” I asked.

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

“Littering?” I asked.

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

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

“Community service and a fine.” Nive responded.

“And for Mass Homicide?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Winds of Yesterday – Chapter 14

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Do you need a lift?” Fari asked me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Where should we go?” Fari asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I know that.” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sorry.” I said. “Let’s get moving.”

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

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

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

“I can trust you?” he asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He sighed and continued.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“About two hundred yards.” Fari said.

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

“Not yet.” Fari said.

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

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

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

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

“Do you trust me?” I asked.

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

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

The Winds of Yesterday – Chapter 13

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

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

But the world was grey again.

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

“What just happened.” Darius whispered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or that might have just been me.

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

So I let him tend to me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Someone saw my shield?” I guessed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What about my squad?” Darius asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Except I was pretty sure he was wrong.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You may both be correct.” Fari said.

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

“What do you mean?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Maybe they were too busy?” Fari said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Both.” I answered.

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

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

“The nearest thing being you?” Darius asked.

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

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

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

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

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

The Winds of Yesterday – Chapter 12

The problem with escaping from a death trap is that it means someone was trying to kill you and they still have a reason to keep trying. That was the first thought that went through my head as I struggled to get up off the ground and find out how the others were doing. The second thought that went through my head was ‘I probably needed those muscles.’ That was in reference to deep stab wounds I’d taken to the right shoulder and left leg.

I’d been hurt before, even stabbed repeatedly. That didn’t make it any easier to get by with the wounds the bone stealer had inflicted on me though. As it turned out, the blood loss made me light headed enough that the pain was only unbearable. Under the circumstances that was actually a good thing. If I was any worse off I wouldn’t have been able to stay conscious and I was pretty sure that passing out would be a death sentence.

“Fari, Darius, you still with me?” I called out.

The explosion that had dropped us back on the surface had been due the teleportation portal overloading when I smashed it. The magics in the crystals were enchanted to transport people back up to the surface. They’d been controlled by various limiting spells to prevent unauthorized people from leaving the facility, but smashing the crystals directly had been enough to release the transport spell from the restraints placed on it.

Of course it could just as easily have transported us to a million separate places, or smushed us into one very tiny one. We’d been lucky there. I wasn’t sure the same was true for anyone else in the Deep Run Containment Facility though. The amount of power stored in a teleportation crystal was tremendous. The facility was huge, well shielded and built out of solid stone. It was also buried in magma and reliant on protective spells to survive. Even assuming the blast from the exploding gate didn’t kill the people left there, it could easily have disrupted the prison’s defenses and allowed the molten rock to begin burning its way in.

“Mel! Are you ok?” I heard a grinding, inhuman voice ask. Turning my head, I saw a bone stealer twice the size of the one’s we’d fought in the prison. It was looming over me with its claws and pincers paused as though they were waiting for me to try to escape.

“Fari, that’s you in there right?” I asked. If it wasn’t I was dead. I could barely move much less fight and even at my best it would have been hard to take out something that big.

“Yeah. I can’t let these things go or they’ll spread out and look for new victims.” she said.

I breathed a big sigh of relief, then I noticed the Memory Eye floating over us.

Memory Eyes are remote sensing spells. They allowed mental anima casters to view areas hundreds of miles away. From what little I knew of them I gathered that they took a significant amount of power to sustain. That meant it wasn’t a permanent observer spell. Someone had cast it recently. Probably when the teleport disk blew up.

I looked around to see what the Eye was taking in. It had a good view of the surroundings from it’s position about fifty feet above us. Despite being on the ground, I could see most of what it could, thanks to the damage the portal had caused when it exploded. The ruins of the entrance facility lay all around us. There had been two small buildings and a guard post when we’d landed. Add to that the transport ship that Lt. Mara’s team had brought us in and you had four things that had been reduced to tiny bits of scrap by the explosion.

The iron door in the mountain that appeared to be the entrance was dented and crumpled too. Behind it I saw a lattice of glowing spell lines. It had been part of the teleportation mechanism but without the transport disk it wasn’t going to moving anyone in or out of prison any time soon.

I didn’t look too closely at the wreckage that was left of the buildings. I’d seen a few people in there when we’d first landed. I didn’t know if they were still around when the explosion went off. Given the rubble the buildings had been reduced to, I had to guess that finding the answer to that could be unpleasant.

“I can’t believe we’re still alive.” Darius said, limping over to stand near me. He shook his head to clear away the fuzziness of the nearly fatal teleportation effect.

The Eye tracked to him, and then back to Fari and I.

“That might not last.” I told him.

“We’re out of the prison now, and it sounds like Fari has control of that monster. I can call in some support for us.” he said. The Eye floated down closer to him.

“I don’t know if that’s a good idea.” I said.

“We’ve just lost one of the most secure facilities the Hellsreach Common Council has. Whether it’s a good idea or not, I have to call this in.” he said.

The Eye turned from a semi-translucent white to a deep red as Darius tapped on his comm device. I didn’t need to know exactly what it was doing to know that it couldn’t be anything good.

“No connection. We’re still being jammed.” he said. “Maybe we need to get farther from the blast site? Can you check on the Lieutenant while I see if they’re ok  I can get a link back to base?”

“Bit of a problem with that.” I said and pointed at my leg where the blood had soaked through the fabric of my pants.

“You’re hurt? Why didn’t you say something!” he said.

“I’ll be ok. I’ve stopped the bleeding with an internal anima spell. I’ll just need time to mend the wounds themselves.” I said.

“I’ll check out the squad then.” he said.

“Maybe we can help each other out.” I said to Fari as Darius went over and began inspecting his fallen comrades.

“How?” she asked.

“Can you get rid of that Memory Eye?” I asked her, glancing upwards to where it hung in the sky.

“Yes, or I can also reverse it if you like? Give us a glimpse of whoever’s spying on us.” she told me telepathically while at the same time saying “No.” outloud.

“That would be amazing.” I replied on the telepathic link.

I felt Fari’s mind touch mine directly. It was what I imagined standing on the shore of a vast sea would feel like. From that light contact, my vision and hearing were pulled out of me and along on a riptide of magic until a scene resolved itself in front of me.

Following the other end of the Memory Eye lead us to a luxurious study. The dark woods of the floor and walls shone with a deep luster in the subdued candle light that illuminated the small room. Bookshelves lined every wall and were packed with tomes and scrolls of all kinds. It was the center of the room that drew my attention though.

The casting circle in the center of the room gleamed with reflected light. In its center sat a man in long red robe, wearing a helmet of solid bone that covered his head. He couldn’t see out of the mask without some form of magic, but I took it as a given that he had that to spare.

I saw him jerk into alertness as Fari’s spell revealed his room to us. He made a few simple gestures – counterspells unless my guess was off – but they didn’t produce any effect. Seeing that, he settled back into the casting circle and began weaving a separate spell.

“Interesting. I haven’t had to face a mental caster of your caliber in some time.” Red Robes said.

“You don’t know what you’re facing.” I said, counting on Fari to project my words without opening a link that he could use against me.

“A Crystal Guardian and her apprentice. And you, I believe, are the apprentice.” Red Robes said. “Tell me, has your master abandoned you already?”

“No. She’s on her way to you now.” I said, hoping to rattle him a bit with that news.

“Is she now?” he asked.

“Don’t lie to him.” Fari said on a private channel to me. “He noticed it. He’s got a truth seeing spell going.”

“I rather believe she’s not. In fact, I think she didn’t make it out of the prison at all.” he said. “Bravo. It was low odds that she’d be taken out by anything as simple as that, but I think you might have managed it.”

“Would you like to congratulate me in person?” I asked.

“I doubt that would go well for either of us.” he said.

“Perhaps I’ll go talk to your competition then.” I said.

I saw him flinch at that, ever so slightly. I’d guessed right that he was moving surreptitiously because there was a faction that was opposing his. I wasn’t sure if that would necessarily help me but it was good info to have.

“I wish you luck finding any. There is no one standing against me.” he said.

“Its funny you think that given that I’m here.” I said, and gestured to his room.

“No one of consequence.” he said with a frown. I was starting to aggravate him. It wasn’t much yet, but aggravating arrogant jerks like Red Robes was a skill I’d spent time working on.

“You’re not really that stupid are you?” I asked. “Do you really think there aren’t going to be consequences to assaulting two Crystal Guardians when they were flying here on a mission of peace.”

“Of course there were going to be consequences. The Empress was going to lose two of her Crystal Guardians and the Imperium was going to learn not to interfere in matters that don’t concern it.” he said.

“A couple of things wrong with that. First the Empress hasn’t lost any of her Crystal Guardians and second, the Empire isn’t really in a ‘non-interference’ phase at the moment.” I said.

“There’s no need to posture. Even you believe your master is dead. Just as you know that your own fate is already sealed as well. As for the Empire, if they do not learn their lesson from your loss then the lesson will need to be repeated with the next Guardian who shows up.”

“You really think you can do this? Take on the Empire and win? All by yourself?” I asked.

“I’ve already won. You’re just too naive to understand that yet.” he said.

“But you’re still talking to me. Still stuck in that circle, afraid of what I might do to you if you leave it’s protection.” I said.

“Am I?” he asked and rose to his feet. With a confident smirk on his face he stepped out of the circle and closed the distance between us. Fari’s projection of me couldn’t move back without passing through the walls of the room and those looks like they had all sorts of spell defenses layered on them.

My mind raced to figure out what his actions could mean but it was my heart that gave me the clue I needed. I felt cold radiate out from the center of my chest. I was in danger. Immediate, serious danger.

“You weren’t hiding in there. You were playing for time.” I said.

He smirk widened.

“Cut the link.” I told Fari on our private channel.

My senses reeled, recoiling back to my body where the icy sensation had spread out to my arms and legs.

“They’ve been poisoned. Some kind of sleep venom.” Darius said, coming up to me with a medical pack. It took me a second to work out that he was talking about his squad. They all lay on the ground, but Darius had arranged them near each other and us and positioned them so they would be comfortable.

That saved their lives.

“We’re under attack.” I said and cast a circle of my own.

Where Red Robes’ circle had been specially prepared and enchanted to make his casting easier, mine was a desperate creation taken from half remembered lessons of my childhood. Master Raychelle had been planning to work with me on that but there were other skills that I’d needed to pick up first before I moved to an advanced technique like raising a protective barrier of Void anima.

I wasn’t the best at raising protective shields but I had a track record of being good enough. Despite that, when the city killing bomb fell on us, I screamed.

The Winds of Yesterday – Chapter 11

Traveling cloaked in darkness has its benefits, but sneaking past a nest of monsters can be pretty unnerving even when you’re sure they can’t see you. Fari had been able to plot us a route back to the entrance room, but none of the paths were completely clear. I’d thought about fighting our way through the bone stealers that we encountered – we were going to have to deal with them eventually after all – but the first fight had convinced me of how bad an idea that was.

My wounds were mostly healed, thanks to the magics I’d stolen from the bone stealer Darius and I had fought together. ‘Mostly’ is not, however, the same as ‘completely’. I had a decent physical anima shield. I’d also been draining the monster as we fought. Despite that it had hit me with more than a dozen stab wounds. The wounds slowed me, even mostly healed as they were. Part of that was because the bone stealer had been trying to live up to its name every time it pierced my skin. I’d spent as much energy keeping my bones in my body as I had healing myself. That made it all too easy to see how the prison had fallen. Each attack was deadly on its own but, if any of them landed, you could find yourself suddenly missing your skeleton, which most people were rather attached to.

That image was lodged in my mind as we crept up the spiraling stairway a trio of the monsters had decided to burrow into to create an ambush trap.

Unlike the stairwell we descended, where there was a wide open area in the middle of the stairs to facilitate the transport of equipment, this stairway was for human and Garjarack use only. The walls on either side of us were cut through the stone superstructure of the prison. The bone stealers had modified that slightly, digging pits into the walls where they could lie in wait for anyone foolish enough to walk into their grasp. That gave them extra room to maneuver but left us cramped for space on the single file stair.

All of the paths that lead from the detention areas to the exit had chokepoints like that. Areas where a small number of guards could keep the prisoners from escaping in the event of riot or other loss of control of the facility. What the architects hadn’t planned for was the release of a magical bio-weapon of sufficient power and speed that it would be able to overcome and kill nearly everyone in the prison before reinforcements could arrive. To be fair, I’m not sure there are a lot of good plans for “a problem we’re completely unaware of, with capabilities beyond what we can predict”

My hope was that we’d get to show the people who summoned the bone stealers what that felt like in person. To do that we had to survive and escape though.

I stopped Darius when we were at roughly the center of the bone stealer’s trap. They’d strewn more empowered bone shards on the floor as a sensor network. The Void anima I had us cloaked in prevented us from being noticed, but I couldn’t stop them from noticing if the active feed from the bone shards went dead if we stepped on one of them.

So I picked the shards up.

“Is that safe?” Darius asked over the mental link he’d established between us. The blocking spell that was preventing me from contacting Master Raychelle wasn’t able to affect the “touch range” telepathy spell that Darius had cast.

“Not at all.” I said. I’d been pretty sure that moving the shards wouldn’t alert the beasts. Master Raychelle had taught me about about a similar spell that I’d encountered and, while I couldn’t cast one like it, I had a general sense for how that sort of trap worked.

I would have left them alone entirely but seeing the shards had given me an idea. As usual for my ideas, it wasn’t a tremendously good one.

“You’re free to lie me you know.” Darius pointed out.

“Where’s the fun in that?” I asked him as I led us past the last of the ‘little’ bone stealers. At six feet long it felt strange to call it ‘little’ but compared to what lay ahead of us it was an accurate description.

“So does that mean you were telling the truth that you could handle the one that took my squad?” Darius asked.

“Time will tell.” I said. It would have been easy to play on the Crystal Guardians’ reputation and offer him easy assurances. It also would have been easy for him to point out that I wasn’t really a Crystal Guardian yet. More importantly though, I didn’t want him to be too relaxed for what was to come. I had a plan, but the key to making plans work was being aware of when (not if) they went wrong and being primed to act and adapt on the fly.

As it turned out, when we got to the entrance chamber the plan went wrong almost immediately.

“Why are there two of them here?” I hissed over the telepathic link.

One of the big bone stealers was bad enough. I had a trick in mind to deal with one of them though. Unfortunately I only had one Fari to go around which left me one short in terms of agents that could take over an active bone stealer.

I looked into the entrance room and saw that the squad was strapped to the exit portal. Still hostages. On the bright side they were living hostages since I could see the sparks and glints of living anima in them, even with the anima suppression field in effect.

That ruled out one source for the second big bone stealer. It was still a creature of horror, but I breathed out a sigh of relief anyways. The best I could do was avenge the people it had killed, but at least I still had a chance to save the ones I’d been charged with protecting.

Doing so was going to be really unpleasant though.

“Fari, can you turn off the suppression field? Or get me a copy of the pass key for it?” I asked.

“No. I checked the system earlier. The suppression field is at its lowest setting already and the authorization for the pass keys is kept off site.” she said.

“That’s what I figured they’d do. Can’t let the inmates have a chance at that kind of an advantage, especially not at the portal out of the prison.” I said.

“I’m guessing that’s going to leave it up to me then.” Darius said. “Tell me you’ve got a better plan than my walking in there and fighting my way through two of those things?”

“Better? Probably not. More likely to work? Umm, hopefully?” I said.

“Can I do anything?” Fari asked.

“Definitely. In fact you’re kind of the key to this.” I said. “I need you to crank the suppression effect all the way to the maximum. Then I need you to take over this little guy.”

I held out the core of the bone stealer that we’d fought.

“What are you going to be doing?” Fari asked.

“Helping Darius get you some spare parts to build a fighting body out of.” I said.

Darius looked at me. He was still blinded by the Void anima but he knew I could see him.

“I think I hate this plan. I think I hate it with every fiber of my being.” he said.

“I’m willing to entertain a better one.” I said.

“I am too. And for the life of me, literally, I am not coming up with one.” he said.

“Take all the time that you want.” I said. “But bear in mind that there was only one of these things here about fifteen minutes ago, so going by the current trend we’ll probably see another show up fifteen minutes from now.”

“No, with how my luck has been today, it’ll show up twenty seconds before I get the great idea that lets us beat these things without keeping turned into a chunky stew.” Darius said.

“Mmm. Chunky stew. Now I’m getting hungry.” I said.

“Should we move away from here?” Fari asked. “I’m not going to be able to access the prison’s spell web until you drop the Void anima cover from us.”

“I know, but I think we have to stay. The moment the heavy suppression kicks in, the bone stealers are going to notice. I’m guessing their response to a non-specific threat like that will be to kill a hostage, they’ve got plenty to work with, so we’re going to need to hit them as soon as you throw the switch.” I said.

“Let’s do this sooner than later then. The longer I think about it the worse it seems and the less I can think of anything better.” Darius said.

“On three then. One, two..” I dropped the veil of Void anima and sprinted into the room to make sure I had the bone stealers’ attention first.

The strength and speed that were surging through me were slammed out of me when I crossed the threshold into the suppression field. It felt like the after effect of getting violently ill, more like a surge of weakness than a return to my baseline state.

I kept just enough speed to dodge the first attack by the lead bone stealer and felt stone chips from the wall slice across my arms as it’s claw gouged a huge furrow through the rock behind me.

Then it slowed down too.

I couldn’t feel the heavier suppression kick in since my anima was locked up even on the lightest setting. The bone stealer noticed it though. Master Raychelle had said they were difficult to suppress, but she hadn’t said it was impossible.

Darius charged through the door after me. His anima blade was blazing with light, but the heaviest suppression setting apparently didn’t fully differentiate friend from foe and I watched the blade’s light dim substantially as he crossed the threshold. He still had some level of exemption from the suppression effect though since the blade didn’t wink out entirely.

That saved my life. Even slowed down, the bone stealers were still reasonably quick and they had a lot of appendages to attack with. And few vulnerable spots. And there were two of them. Both focused on me.

The second one didn’t get a chance to attack me though, despite its best efforts. Darius sliced off one claws and pitched it out into the hallway where I’d dropped both the stolen bone stealer core and Fari’s amulet.

I was able to spare a glance at the doorway and saw the claw that Darius had thrown there link up to the core. Fari couldn’t communicate with us over the telepathic link due to the suppression field but I trusted that if she said she could take control of a bone stealer then it was as good as done.

Without an anima blade of my own, I was forced into a very mobile and defensive fighting style. Also known as the way I’d had to tackle most fights I’d been in before I’d figured out how to work with anima on my own terms.

I retreated from the bone stealer that had targeted me. I stayed just inside its reach to taunt it to attack since I needed it to expose itself.

The bone stealer was all too willing to oblige on that front. It was more or less built to fight after all. It didn’t try the binding thread that it had used on the squad. The anima suppression field was too heavy for that. In fact it was so heavy that the binding thread on Darius’ squad was starting to evaporate. The thread had a material base, which was why it could survive in the suppression field at all, but not enough of one to stay solid when all of the anima holding it together was driven out.

The bone stealer slashed at me and caught its claw in the wall. It didn’t have the superhuman strength needed to tear through solid rock anymore. It also didn’t have the structural integrity to resist me kicking it to pieces. Grabbing the edge of the claw with my hands, I spun and hit it with a circular kick that shattered the arm the claw was attached to.

The bone stealer didn’t howl in pain or anger. It attacked me again. Like the spirit machine that it was.

I rolled away from the next attack and threw the claw that I’d torn off to Fari. Darius threw another bit of bone to her as well and the body she was constructing began to take shape.

It wasn’t fast enough though.

Darius took a stab wound to the leg and went down on one knee with a scream of pain.

I tried to tumble over to him but the bone stealer I was fighting blocked my path. The other bone stealer exchanged blows with Darius before scampering up and over his guard. He tried to twist to skewer it but it landed on him from behind. I yelled for him to move but I knew it was going to be too late so I pitched myself into the bone stealer in front of me, intent on breaking straight through it to get to him.

I parried and kicked and shattered a seven of the monster’s large bones, but the bone stealer got its hits in too. One stab to my shoulder took my right arm out of action and another in my left hamstring dropped me to the ground.

The bone stealers were more fragile under the suppression effect, and apparently unable to rip our skeletons out, but twenty foot long monsters were not easy to fight even when they had those handicaps.

It was Fari who saved us there. Just like I’d hoped she would.

With enough bones to create giant body of her own, she sailed into the room and landed on the bone stealer that had grappled Darius. The monster didn’t pay her any mind. From its vantage point, Kari was just another one of its own forces come to help out.

Darius and I had only thrown her a few of the bones she was using. The rest had come from the three little bone stealers we’d snuck past. The moment I’d entered the suppression effect they’d noticed their traps had been triggered. They’d also noticed their traps were nowhere near where they should have been and had raced up the stairs to discover who was tampering with pieces of themselves.

When they’d found the core of the other bone stealer with an odd crystal attached to it, they’d picked it up and tried to recreate their missing comrade. That had been my plan for facing the one big bone stealer but it had worked just as well with three of them.

Once the bone stealers made the mistake of connecting to the core Fari had taken over, they’d all become nothing more than tools in her arsenal.

The three little bone stealers had less mass than either of the big ones, but all Fari needed was enough mass to push through to the big bone stealer’s core.

The conjured horror figured out what she was doing a split second before she made contact. Its roar was unearthly. Bone stealers are creations. They don’t have true self awareness, but they’re quite capable of a response that looks and sounds like blinding rage.

That didn’t save the it from Fari’s attack though.

She slipped in and pried the monster off Darius’ bleeding form, before subsuming its bulk into the creation that she was controlling.

That’s when the next thing went wrong with my plan.

The beasts roar hadn’t stopped Fari, but it had summoned its master.

The master didn’t speak. Not to us at any rate. All I heard was chanting in a language that I couldn’t understand. I recognized the cadence and structure of the chat as ritual spell casting from the holo-plays I’d seen. The ones where someone was casting a spell to destroy a whole lot of people at once.

The bone stealer that had been attacking me leapt on the teleportation disk and tore the cover off it, exposing the enchanted crystals that lay underneath it.

I hobbled after it and managed to yank off one of it’s many legs. That didn’t nothing to get it off the teleportation disk though. I thought about trying to tackle it off the disk, but even if I could have run at it and didn’t mind stomping on Darius’ squad, I was pretty sure my mass and striking force wasn’t going to dislodge a creature as large as the bone stealer. Not with a whole lot of Physical anima to back me up.

There was only one way to get that kind of power that I could think of and without Fari to protect my mind I wasn’t sure I’d stay sane afterwards but I grabbed onto the bone stealer anyways and prepared to try draining it with the Void anima that was locked inside me.

Then the thing fell apart on its own.

“It’s transferred into the teleport grid. It’s trying to destroy the whole facility!” Fari shouted, using whatever vocal capabilities her captured bone stealers possessed to speak.

I watched the teleport crystals start to glow. It wasn’t a warm little glow. It went from bright, to blazing, to blinding.

That’s the kind of progression that ends in gigantic space-folding explosions from what I’d read so I did the only thing I could.

I hit it with a big stick.

Unsurprisingly, hitting overcharged crystals with a stick, or in this case a large femur, can provoke explosions too.

There was light without sound but no pain. My body felt too fluid to feel pain. My thoughts turned blue and gelatinous before a thump on the ground snapped me back into a human shape with my mind only slightly addled.

I blinked away the blindness of the explosion and felt strength flood back through me. I was out of the suppression field!

Looking around, I saw that we were all out of the suppression field. Darius, Fari, myself and his squad. We were all laying on the ground outside the entrance to the Deep Run Containment Facility.

In between us, I saw the scorched remains of the exterior teleport circle. It had been obliterated by the explosion. There wasn’t any way back into the prison. All contact with it had been severed.

The Winds of Yesterday – Chapter 10

Marching towards one of the bone stealers felt a whole lot better that trying to move through the prison and avoid being ambushed by one.  My brain took the sense of relief that came with being the predator rather than the prey as an excuse to find other things to worry about though.

“There’s something else that’s bothering me here.” I told Darius and Fari as we crept along, shrouded in the darkness of Void anima. “Why are people fighting over this world in the first place?”

“Hellsreach is a proxy theater. It lets the Gar and the Humans from Exxion 2 and Exxion 4 squabble without damaging any of their own resources.” Darius said.

“It’s not like its free to fight here though. Why are either of them spending the resources to make trouble at this point when the Empire won’t let them claim control of the place?” I said.

“I think we have very different views of what the Crystal Empire will and won’t allow.” Darius said.

“Maybe, but something feels weird about this.” I said.

“You mean this is different from the other prisons full of massacred people who’ve been reanimated as skeletal abominations that you’ve been in?” Darius asked.

The hallway we were walking down was isolated from the detention areas. It was a maintenance area, sealed so that only authorized staff could enter it. Authorized staff, or some with the control of the facility’s systems that Fari had. Tubes that ran along the ceiling of hall while it’s floor was composed of grates where additional emergency stores were kept. Both were a perfect spot for the bone stealers to hide in. Thanks to Fari though, I knew not to bother looking at them for possible attackers. The bone stealers weren’t above or below us, they were slithering through the gaps in the walls themselves. I couldn’t sense them, even with the magical sight my Void anima  granted me, but I could tell they were there from the holes that had been torn into the walls at irregular intervals.

“Sarcasm? That strikes you as helpful at the moment?” I asked Darius. In fact it was. His humor helped me ignore the undercurrent of dread that was playing through my mind. As first missions went, this one seemed a little on the “extremely lethal” side.

“No. Focusing on the task at hand strikes me as helpful.” Darius said.

“The task at hand is more than getting out of here. Your people don’t want peace. Master Raychelle’s not going to be leaving here until we get it. What’s bugging me is why you don’t have it already?”

“Probably because the two side in the war here hate each other and have for centuries?” Darius suggested. “I don’t think it’s really that complicated.”

“I’d agree with you if there were only two sides here. Especially if they were split down species lines like I thought they were. The problem is you.” I said.

“How am I the problem? Or my friends? We don’t want people fighting. We want them to leave.” Darius said.

“The fact that you exist proves that this isn’t a two-sided war. It’s got three sides at least, and probably four or more unless I miss my guess.” I said and stopped.

We’d come to an intersection . To our left, the corridor ran past a series of hydroponic gardens that were lit by a flickering blue light. Fari’s map suggested that one of the big bone stealers had take up residence in the control room for the garden. If we were going to be down here long, we’d have to come up with a way to deal with the monster if we wanted to have access to a food supply. While it was true I was starting to feel a bit peckish, I wasn’t anywhere near close to hungry enough to want to mess with one the big monsters. Except the one that I had too.

I took the corridor to our left and headed toward the secure door to the prisoner’s quarters that Fari had unlocked for us when she was in control of the facilities systems.

“Four sides? You’re thinking whoever conjured these monsters is a player on that scale?” Darius said.

I felt a smile creep over my face and was glad we were cloaked in darkness so he couldn’t see it. So many of the guys I’d known on Belstarius were just this side of plankton in terms of keeping up with an intelligent conversation. I hadn’t even been aware of how much I’d been expecting that I was talking to hear myself talk until Darius showed he was keeping up with me. Cute and smart. It felt like my birthday present had shown up early. Except for the part where we were probably going to throw down the moment our common enemy was out of the picture.

“They’ve got to be. They were able to take out a major facility of one of the three active factions with only a few hours notice. Imagine if instead of a prison they’d unleashed these bone stealers on one of your major cities?” I said.

“Not a pretty picture. We’d get it under control but the damage would be appalling.”

“That’s what’s making me think there’s possibly five factions at work here.” I said.

“The Garjarack fleet, the the Human fleet, us, the bone stealer boss and whoever they’re hiding from?” Darius guessed. I felt my knees wobble. I was really going to hate having to fight him.

“It’s possible those last two are members of one of the first three factions.” Fari said. “It’s not uncommon for there to be hidden powers within organizations of that scale.”

“You could be right. You probably are in fact, but I think we can still consider them their own factions. From the galactic histories that I’ve read, secret cabals rarely have the best interests of their host organizations as a top priority.” I said.

“Why is that important right now? Aren’t we supposed to be collecting the ‘bait’ you talked about?” Darius asked.

“We’re still heading for it, right Fari?” I asked.

“We’re heading for where it was. I can’t access the facility’s systems while we’re cloaked.” Fari said.

“If the facility’s sensory spells can detect these things, why can’t we?” Darius asked.

“The facility has better coverage. They have sight receptors set up almost all over the place.” Fari said. “Also its warded to prevent scrying spells apart from its own systems from working in here.”

“That’d make it harder to plan a break-in I guess.” I said.

“What will do we if the bone stealer has moved?” Darius asked.

I pressed my free hand to his chest to stop him. I’d felt a chill pass through me at his words, and I’d learned even in the short time that I’d been aware of my powers what that meant. There was danger nearby.

I looked down at where Darius would have stepped and saw a vanishingly faint glow of physical anima. It was embedded in a tiny bit of bone, one so small that Darius’ footfall would have snapped it like a twig. I’d seen a trap like that before. One poised to trigger when the anima that made it up was disrupted.

In the back of my mind, I felt a silver thread of Aetherial anima dissolve as I thwarted the fate binding’s attempt to get us killed. I tried to reach and find the source of the fate spell but the thread disintegrated faster than I could follow. That was aggravating for a number of reasons, not the least of which being that it meant the Aetherial caster had a clue that we were alive and capable of destroying their oh-so-subtle workings against us. Where the fate binder had gotten away though, the bone stealer had not.

“We’ll call it to us.” I said looking at the little enchanted bone and seeing it for the two edged sword that it was. “Are you ready?”

“Still blind, but otherwise yeah.” Darius said.

“I’m going to drop the cloak in about five seconds. Get ready to defend yourself in case the beast gets by me.” I said.

“What can I do?” Fari asked.

“Link into my senses and shout a warning if I miss anything.” I said.

I felt the warm touch of Fari’s mental anima mingle with mine, radiating up from the center of my chest where I wore her amulet to encircle my eyes and ears.

Taking a calming breath, I slammed my foot down on the trapped bone and pulled the Void anima cloak into a ball in my hands.

I thought we might have to wait for the bone stealer to appear but it defied my expectations and shot out of one of the holes in the wall like it had been launched from a bolt caster. It was one of the small ones, though in this case that meant it was only around seven feet long rather than thirty.

With the speed of my unfettered Physical anima backing me, I slid into the monster’s path and parried the bone stealer’s attack. I met its slicing talons with the ball of Void anima I’d coalesced into my left hand and ripped its power away from it.  Shattered bones and ones that fell apart as their magic failed rained off the monster. In exchange I felt power surge into me. Power and raw hate. As with it’s larger cousin, absorbing the bone stealer’s power meant absorbing some of the mental anima it carried too.

That was as dangerous as hellfire it turned out. Bone stealers aren’t complex creatures, but they are incredibly focused ones. Riding on top of the rage they were born from, they also carried the pain and fear and anger of the people they’d murdered to create their bodies. Getting carried away by that riptide of emotions was an extremely likely scenario for anyone who tried to draw out the magic that was in them. Especially anyone who was still new to spell casting and didn’t know how to safeguard herself. Fortunately, I had Fari with me.

“I’m guessing you don’t want the berserker anima bonus from this thing right?” she whispered in my mind. My reaction was going to be a wordless snarl, until I felt the sanity smothering flood of emotions wash off me, leaving only my own fear and anger and excitement behind.

“Right.” I said, as I sized up the bone stealer. I felt the spell that she wove settle on my head like a helmet. It touch on my Void anima and sluiced the tainted power into the infinite well of emptiness that the Void led to.

The bone stealer’s attack had carried it past both Darius and I. My parry had thrown it still further against the wall on the other side of the hall where it clung like an enormous, grisly spider.

It’s perch on the wall put it about five feet away from me and slightly more from Darius. I was moving pretty fast in reaction to its first attack so I was able to see the summoned beast let out a hiss as it coiled its remaining bones together for another leap. From my side I also saw the bright glow of Darius’ anima blade spring to life.

Less than a second after it landed, the bone stealer leapt at me again, exploding off the wall hard enough to shatter the rock there. I wondered at its choice of targets. I’d already wounded it, as much as a creature like that can be wounded, which should have made it wary of me. Darius was the one with the visible weapon though, and the anima blade was something which the bone stealer could have been programmed to be careful of. Seeking out the unarmed targets was a great strategy for being able to reproduce more of its kind.

As long as the unarmed target wasn’t me.

Instead of fleeing or cowering, I moved the way Master hanq had taught me to. I stepped into the attack, robbing it of power and catching the bone stealer off guard. That sounded great and it probably saved my life. It didn’t however mean I got away from the attack without injury.

Catching the bone stealer “off guard” meant that I only got about a dozen puncture wounds from it before I was able to slam it into the wall and tear its head off. Being fast and strong is great. Being skilled is wonderful too. None of those mean you’re invulnerable though.

There’s a funny thing with bone stealers that I pretty much saw coming at the start of the fight; pulling the head off a magical animated pile of bones doesn’t do a lot to slow it down. Even shattering the aforementioned head doesn’t accomplish much beside ensuring that it can’t bite you in the ankles. From what Master Raychelle had said, I had to destroy its heart to shut down a bone stealer. The problem with that was that all the parts that weren’t its heart were devoted to shredding me before I got anywhere near the thing’s one weak spot.

That’s where Darius came in.

None of my encounters with anima blades had been pleasant ones. Not until that moment. I was draining the bone stealer’s flailing limbs of power as fast as I could and using the stolen magics to repair the damage it was doing, but it was a miserable way to fight. That pain was distracting and I wasn’t sure I was going to pull it apart faster than it could tear me to ribbins.

That is until Darius slashed off half of the bone stealer’s body. He hit it with a focused swipe of his anima blade and the ribs and sharpened bone shards on its right side where sliced completely away from the monster.

That exposed the bone stealer’s core and from there the fight was over in less than a second. I ripped the core out of center of the beast and encased it in Void anima, sealing its power away. Cut off from its heart, the rest of the monster fell to the floor in front of us like a puppet whose strings had been severed.

I let the power I’d stolen flood through my body, closing up puncture wounds and slashes as best it could. I flinched at the pain that remained as the power ran dry and scowled. I hadn’t expected the little ones to be that bad.

“And now we get to tackle the big one that’s ready and waiting for us.” I said, looking at the stairs that would lead us up to what might be our final battle field.

The Winds of Yesterday – Chapter 9

I’d warned Darius that the trip back to the entry level was going to require some faith on his part. I don’t think he’d been fully prepared for what I had in mind though.

“I can’t see anything. I’m surrounded by body destroying monsters, everyone else is dead or capture and I can’t see anything.” he said telepathically. The edge of panic in his mental voice was both natural and reasonable, but I could hear him fighting to keep it under control anyways. He was brave, in the real sense of the word, where you got scared and went on anyways. The guys I’d known on Belstarius (with some exceptions) had thought being brave meant never being afraid at all. The ones that managed that weren’t brave though. They were suicidal.

“I know this is freaky, but its the safest way to get back to your squad.” I told him, also telepathically. He’d wondered why I’d had him set up a telepathic link between us when we were within whispering distance of each other. It didn’t seem like he was entirely pleased with the answer though. “I can see through this darkness just fine, and I don’t think the bone stealers will be able to see in.”

“What if you’re wrong? I’m not going to be able to fight at all like this.” he said.

“I’m not asking you to fight. You’re a part of the squad that I’m supposed to protect, the same as the others.” I told him. “But if it comes to a fight, I’ll drop the cloak. We won’t need stealth then.”

“This is crazy. I don’t even get how you’re doing this. Whatever that stuff is, it feels wrong.” he said.

“It’s Void anima.” I told him. “And it’s not wrong, its just unusual.”

“It doesn’t feel like any anima I’ve ever seen before though.” he complained.

“That’s its nature. It’s the unknowable, the empty. It’s the thing that you can’t see or touch or feel.” I said.

“How did you ever learn to cast that? It’s just so backwards from everything I’ve ever been taught.” he said.

“Someone dropped a bomb on me.” I told him.

“What kind of bomb?” he asked.

“A city killer. That’s the first time I can remember using my Void anima. It was reflexive, I shielded myself and someone I was with in a protective circle that devoured the bomb’s power before it could hurt us. Was kind of surprised I could do that, and I had no idea what Void anima was at the time. The truth is though, I think I learned to work with it long before that, back when I was a little kid.” I said.

The fragments of memory that I’d touched on months ago came back to me again. I was three or four years old and studying some really strange stuff from what I could recall. I could remember so little beyond that though. Drills. Shapes. Painting and learning symbols. I remembered who taught me them too. My mother. I had just the barest glimpses of her and every time I recalled those images wanted to scream.

For years I hadn’t thought about my parents. I’d buried the trauma of losing them under anger and then swallowed that anger to push the memories of them as far away as possible. I think I’d been ripped apart by the betrayal of their leaving me. When she wasn’t training me, Master Raychelle spent a lot of time talking about that. About how we don’t process things as they are, but rather as we see them. She was an orphan too, and the feelings she described having when she was a kid were like the echoes of my own heart from years gone by.

I’d survived something when I was little. There weren’t any records that suggested what, at least none that we’d been able to find so far. From the few memories I did retain though I knew it had been bad. Whatever it was, my mother had known what was happening and had gotten me away from it. Looking at it with the eyes of a young adult, I knew that she’d probably died saving me. That didn’t make it easier to take than being abandoned or betrayed though. If anything, it brought the anger back that I’d pushed down for most of my life.

Untangling that psychic knot wasn’t a short term project. It was one thing to know why I probably felt the way I did, why I’d connected so strongly to the Void anima I carried. It was another thing to get to the point where those particular wounds would heal.

When Master Raychelle and I had first started talking about it, I hadn’t even been sure I necessarily wanted to “heal”. I’d been afraid that the thing I’d just found that made me “special”, the one gift I seemed to have, would go away if I lost the pain that had given it to me.

She’d submerged an entire city into night in response to that. Darkness everywhere. All to show me the kind of thing I could do if I could get out of my own way.

“The pains we experience can teach us, they can motivate us and broaden our empathy, but they don’t need to define us. In overcoming our pains and in letting them go, we grow as well. As memories they can serve us, but we don’t need to cling to them as limits. Our true limitations change with time and they’re rarely what we believe them to be.” she had said.

I hoped she was right about that because I wasn’t certain that taking out the bone stealer that awaited us was going to be all that simple. In fact, I expected it to be a bit beyond me. Fortunately I wasn’t alone though.

“I’ll lead you up ok? Just give me your hand.” I told Darius.

He held out his left hand out blindly in front of himself. I took it in my right and was surprised at how warm and soft it was. My own hands were a bad measuring stick in that sense though. Working with Void anima always left me feeling chilled and years of martial workouts had left me with enough callouses that my hands felt like boiled leather most of the time.

“What about Fari? Where did she go?” Darius asked.

“I’m still here.” she answered on the mental link. I felt Darius stiffen in surprise at that. He hadn’t cast his telepathy spell to include her, but with her talents that wasn’t much of a problem if she wanted to speak to us.

“Right. Millennia of practice.” he said, regaining his composure.

In truth, I don’t think Fari actually had the equivalent of millennia of practice under her belt. She was millennia old certainly, but most of that time she’d been “asleep” while the Jewel of Endless Night that she’d been bound to had lain dormant. The times when she’d been “awake” had been brief, exciting and absolutely the sort of thing she never wished to see again.

There was no denying that she was good with manipulating mental anima, but I think she came by the talent naturally. It was probably why she’d been the one selected to as the controlling mechanism for the Jewel her consciousness had been embedded into. The transfer itself probably helped in some ways too. From what I’d seen, she was most adept at manipulating direct expressions of mental anima – essentially modifying or changing mental anima spells. Directing those spells at living minds was more difficult for her.

“I can’t access the facility’s systems while we’re cloaked, but I can point out the route back to the entranceway that had the fewest bone stealers.” Fari offered.

“Thanks. The last thing we want is to get lost in here. I have this sneaking suspicion that Master Raychelle is going to expect us to be ready to leave in a hurry once she’s done.” I said.

“What’s she doing?” Darius asked.

“Fari, you’d said there were thirty of the giant bone stealers when you first scanned the facility. How many were there just before I cloaked us?” I asked.

“Twenty six.” she said.

“Those were probably the ones that were in her path. I’m guessing she’ll have a plan to take care of the rest of the bone stealers all at once.” I said.

“If she’s capable of that, why do we need to rescue my squad ourselves?” Darius asked.

“Because we’re probably going to be a part of her plan. It’s long odds against her being able to save everyone who’s left in here. The more we can do, the more those odds will be tipped in our favor, which means the more people we’re likely to save.” I said.

“Right. That makes sense I guess. It’s just…” His mental voice trailed off as he shut that line of thinking down.

“It’s just that the Crystal Guardians look so invincible, what’s the point of having regular people pitch in?” I asked.

“Something like that.” he said with a note of guilty humor to the thought.

“It doesn’t matter how strong someone is if they’re not in the right place to use that strength.” I said. “I’ve had two teachers that I’ve respected in my life, Master Raychelle is one of them, and they both taught me variations of that. I think the reverse is true too though. What the Guardians excel at is finding people that are overlooked and putting them in positions where their strengths can be devastating. That’s basically what happened with me.”

“What did they have you do?” Darius asked.

“Kill an immortal and destroy his stellar empire.” I said. “To be fair, he really had it coming and I had a lot of help.”

“How, exactly, were you ever overlooked?” he asked.

“It’s easier than you’d guess.” I said.

“Yeah, I kinda can’t buy that.” he said. “Unless you were covered in darkness like this all the time, I’m guessing more than few somebodies noticed you.”

“Nope. Not a one. Like I said, it took a bomb going off to get me any attention.”

“He’s saying you’re pretty!” Fari sent to me on what I could sense was a private link.

It was my turn to be shocked. I didn’t think I looked bad or anything, but boys, or young men I guess, didn’t tend to flirt with me. Mostly they seemed either uninterested or somewhat terrified of me. I was tall, which didn’t help apparently, and I looked like a galactic mutt, so my skin and features hadn’t fit my homeworld’s default “beauty” standard. If I’d been soft and graceful, maybe I would have won points for “exotic” but I was honestly happier with dirt and sweat for makeup than anything else.

“We should get going.” I said. I’d practiced a lot of counter-attacks over the years. I’d even developed a decent repertoire of comebacks for the kind of jeers and put downs that street kids trash talked each other with. Flirting was weird though. I didn’t have any idea how to counter-attack that sort of a blow. Hence the evasion.

“This is path should take us back to the entrance without encountering any of the big bone stealers.” Fari said as she projected an image of the facility into my mind.

“How about the little ones? Will we run across any of those?” I asked.

“Yeah, at least one.” she said.


“Why is that perfect?” Darius asked.

“We need some bait.” I told him.


“Yeah, remember where the squad is?” I asked him.

“The main entranceway.” he said. “Oh right! That’s a suppression room!”

“Exactly. Unless you’ve got the override for it, or are a creature conjured from the abyss I guess, you can’t cast spells in there. That’s the other reason why the bone stealer was programmed to pick that spot I think. It’s about the worst possible location a Crystal Guardian could be forced to fight it.” I said.

“I’m liking this bait idea more and more.” Darius said.

“Thought you might.” I said and started leading us back up to the entrance level.