Monthly Archives: October 2014

The Horizon of Today – Chapter 20

The vision of the colony ship’s destruction faded away after the last of the engineers died and the rear half of the ship was ripped to pieces by the unfettered explosion of the warp generator. The wreck of the ship had destabilized the local fabric of warp space so spell casting of any sort was dangerous and needed to be limited to essential uses only.

“Did you capture all that?” Master Hanq asked.

“Yes, processing the feed now,” Fari said. “I’ll have holo-crystals enchanted by the time you’re back at the ship so we can review the scene in detail.”

“Blue team, you are good for insertion,” Master Hanq said.

“We read you Captain,” the Blue team leader said over the shared telepathic link. “We are opening a secure portal to the inside of the bio-stasis area now.”

I felt a chill pass through me and shifted out of position. I wanted to call out for them to stop but the danger that I sensed was focused on me not them. The cold spiked up so fast that I didn’t even have time to call out a warning to the rest of Black team. With a slash of my hands I conjured a Void shield around myself and turned to face the lethal threat that I felt pressing on me.

The magic settled on me like plate armor with filigree of a smoke grey energy coursing over its surface. I fortified it with extra anima from my inner reserves and felt my blood start to heat up to a boil.

The attack that hit me was unlike anything I’d experienced before. It was a spear of pure Void anima. The will behind it was trying to both tear me apart and pour itself into me.

My armor blunted its main thrust but the spear point shattered into dozens of shards then pressed the attack even harder. It felt like seven pinpricks of Void anima had poked through my spell and begun siphoning my other magics away but I knew what was happening was much worse than that.

When Void animas meet, they join together in same sense that two holes join together when they bump into each other. Generally that means that two Void anima casters can’t do much to each other with direct Void attacks unless one is much more skilled than the other.

That the spear attack was hitting my other magics didn’t mean that it had punched through my defenses. It meant that the attacker had subverted control over a tiny bit of my own anima and was using it against me.

The boiling heat in my blood vanished into some dark corner of my being and was replaced by a chill that part danger sense and part mortal terror.

“Hate!” The word radiated through me so loudly that it took me a second to understand it was the being that was attacking me speaking.

“Not fond of you either,” I said out of gritted teeth as I blasted my Void anima outwards.

Black team was scattered around me, so I couldn’t really cut loose but I was able to push the spear of foreign anima away from myself far enough to get some breathing room.

“Mel! What’s wrong?” Master Hanq yelled.

“A Void anima entity is attacking her,” Fari said. “Calibrating ships weapon systems to detect and obliterate it.”

“Get out of here!” I yelled to Master Hanq and Black team. “I’ll keep it focused on me.”

“Black team, fall back to the ship,” Master Hanq said and rocketed over to float beside me.

I felt another attack a moment before it landed and managed to meet it with a fist wreathed in Void anima. That felt terrible, like I’d been speared through the hand, but I did manage to shatter the attack before it reached anything more important.

Master Hanq swept me behind him and used a technique I’d never seen him perform before. It looked at first like a jerky novice on his first day of martial practice but It was more of a short choppy dance than a martial form. Each quick, abbreviated movement created a partial shield of Physical anima and cast it off  from him. As I watched it looked like dozens of half complete simulacrums were racing away in a broad arc in front of him.

Each partial shield traveled a different distance before imploding in a burst of golden light. That gave me a clue what he was doing. A Void anima entity can absorb other forms of magic and grow stronger. Unless of course that magic is set to self-destruct while its being consumed. By casting the shields off, Master Hanq was ensuring that the attacker wasn’t able to get close to us.

At least not by moving in a conventional method. I felt a stab of cold danger sense and whirled around to intercept an attack that was aimed at Master Hanq’s back. I didn’t have his technique or skill but I had power and very little to lose. The implosion of the partial shield that I threw out produced a subsequent explosion in warp space that blew both Master Hanq and me away from the center of the colony ship’s destruction.

We recovered at the same time and went back to back to shield each other from any further attacks when Fari spoke up again.

“Hold still,” she said as a shield splitting beam lanced out from Master Hanq’s courier ship.

I heard a psychic scream and felt the cold in my chest ease down to no more than a mild chill.

“Did you neutralize it?” Master Hanq asked.

“I didn’t have a full lock on it, but the scrying web indicates it was in the region of the beam,” Fari said.

“It feels like you took care of it,” I said. “I don’t know if its dead or just moving off, but I think we’re clear of any more attacks for the moment.”

“Let’s get back to the ship,” Master Hanq said. He was nervous, which freaked me out more than a little bit. In our time together, I’d seen relatively few sides of Master Hanq. He was the wise old martial master for most of my early years. Later on he’d been the adult I could actually talk to about problems without judging me. Eventually those had sort of merged together into a general image of what I would like my father to have been.

I’d seen him angry a few times, and seen him in a fighting mood even more than that. On a few rare occasions I’d even seen him sad or wistful. ‘Nervous’ though was a new emotion.

It didn’t take me long to figure out why. The chill in my chest deepened and broadened through my body. We weren’t in immediate danger but some big was coming towards us and it was going to arrive soon.

We’d been casting spells at fighting intensity. That tended to attract attention anywhere and there were things that were probably close by due to the colony ship’s destruction that we absolutely didn’t want to attract the attention of.

“We’ve got company coming,” I said. “I don’t know what, but it’s something big.”

“The scrying web has nothing yet,” Fari said.

Master Hanq uttered a string of curses that reminded me he’d once been a bloodthirsty warlord.

“Blue team, we need to leave five minutes ago, tell me you have good news for me,” he said.

“It’s kind of a good news/bad news situation Captain,” Darius said. “The bad news is the people here are largely in stasis fields. We can’t get them out without releasing the fields and that’s going to take ten minutes each to do safely.”

“The good news had better be phenomenal then,” Master Hanq said.

“Blue leader’s talking with the Garjarack caster who’s in charge of the team that shielded everyone. They’ve got the transit route to Titanus almost completely remapped,” Darius said.

That was good news. With the destruction of the colony ship, travel along the warp space lane to Titanus was incredibly difficult. Between the explosion shredding the local anima and the turbulence it produced, not to mention the debris which was bad to hit at transluminal velocities, any transit to Titanus would either have to proceed very slowly through the affected region of warp space, or plot a new course entirely. If the survivors had a course plotted that we could use we’d have a chance of escaping the area before anything showed up.

“How long do they need?” Master Hanq asked.

There was a pause before Darius answered.

“Thirty minutes,” he said. “We’ll get that down to ten for you, but that’s the best we can do.”

“If we’re still alive in ten minutes, that will be excellent,” Master Hanq said.

“I can sense what’s coming but I have no idea what it is,” I said. “I’m guessing you have experience with the giga-beasts that prowl warp space?”

“Yes, but its not going to help here,” Master Hanq said. “Creatures that size develop all kinds of unique traits. The only common element is that a lot of them like to eat anima, and any material objects that contain it.”

“Like us,” I said.

“And our ships,” he said.

“Can we beat them?” I asked.

“Nope,” he said.

“Not personally but with the ship I mean. It has top of the line Imperial enchantments right?” I asked.

“It’s enchanted for speed, defense and close targeting work,” Master Hanq said. “We’d need something like a Crystal Star to put a dent in one of the big monsters out here.”

“There’s a Jewel for that too,” Fari said, referring to the Jewels of Endless Night.

“The nearest Crystal Star is ten systems away so unless you have one of your siblings packed in your luggage, we’re going to need to run,” Master Hanq said.

“I’ll link our warp navigation system in with the colony ship,” Fari said. “Once they’re ready we can both jump out of here.”

“Initiate docking procedure with them,” Master Hanq said. “I want material contact between the two ships for when aether-space gets rough.”

“I’ve informed Red team,” Fari said. “They’re on it.”

Master Hanq and I flew back to his ship as the various teams engaged in a whirlwind of activity. The cold in my chest was growing more solid and pressing with every passing second though.

“I don’t think we’re going to make ten minutes before the giga-beast shows up,” I said.

“Then there’s only one thing to do,” Master Hanq said and flared his anima shield.

“We fight?” I asked.

“No. You get back to the ship,” he said.

I saw a look in his eyes and felt an entirely different kind of cold pierce my heart. I’d seen that kind of look once before and the memory hit like a hammer to the face. It was the last look I’d seen in my mother’s eyes.

He was going to lure the creatures away. Buy us time by making them follow him.

“No.” I felt a rush of so much anger that it didn’t sound like my voice when I spoke. “Stand down. By my authority as a Crystal Guardian, I officially order you return to your ship Captain.”

“You’re an initiate and that’s not going to happen,” he said and started to fly off.

I flooded Physical anima through my body and boosted my reflexes to the fastest I’d ever attempted. That was enough, just barely, to let me catch hold of Hanq’s foot before he zoomed too far away from me.

“You’re not going off to die,” I said.

“This is the only way you all live,” Hanq said. “And you can’t stop me Mel.”

“Yes I can.” I said.

Then I stabbed him with a Void anima dagger.

Master Hanq was a big guy, and he had a lot more anima than even his size suggested he should, but the reality was I’d drained things a lot bigger than him.

The only trick was stopping myself before I took so much of anima away that he was permanently damaged. I pulled the dagger out as I felt his anima dwindling and tossed him at the ship’s docking port.

“Fari, catch him,” I said.

“Mel, stop! This is stupid,” she said. “Let me lure them away with the ship. No one has to die here.”

“No one’s going to die,” I said. “I can lure the beast away and then come back to you under a Void cloak. Hanq can’t do that.”

“You can’t return if they eat you Mel!” she said.

“Trust me, I’m not going to let that happen,” I said. “I will come back to you.”

With that I channeled my anima into the flight pack and boosted as far away from the ship as I could.

I was about ten seconds out when I caught fire again. The difference this time was that the flames had a voice.

“No! You’re going to kill us!” the flames said.

I screamed at hearing a purely alien voice originate inside me and my flight faltered into a graceless tumble.

At the same time of course the intensity of the cold in my chest shot up to an agonizing level.

So I was burning on the outside and freezing to death on the inside and the giga-beast hadn’t even shown up yet!

“What are you?” I asked, frantically trying to smother the flames that enveloped me.

“I don’t know, but you’re going to kill us!” the flames said.

“I’m not going to kill us!” I said.

“I can sense what you do,” the flame said. “Why are you moving us towards that thing?”

“I have to protect the ship. We need it to escape this thing!” I said.

“I don’t understand,” the flame said. “I don’t see anything around us. I just feel something bad.”

That was the moment the giga-beast chose to rise from whatever aetherial dimension it called home and manifest in warp space.

The good news was that it wasn’t as big as the tallest mountain I’d ever seen.

The bad news was that it wasn’t alone.


The Horizon of Today – Chapter 19

One of the first things Master Raychelle had taught me when I joined the Crystal Guardians was the spell to convert my anima shield into an environmental barrier. We spent so much time traveling from planet to planet that running into a disaster in space was almost a certainty. Being able to survive sudden exposure to vacuum was a great skill but it was the kind of thing that you needed a hefty amount of physical anima to pull off.

Normal space travelers relied instead on either non-magical or lightly enchanted space suits which were bulky and uncomfortable to move around in but beat the heck out of trying to breath the stellar void.

Since, as Crystal Guardians, we expected to run into more than our fair share of exceptional circumstances, the battle robes that I wore also carried an environmental shield enchantment on them. That was to cover me for the cases where I either didn’t have the Physical anima to spare or I wasn’t conscious enough to use it.

Despite those precautions though, I still climbed into a combat-grade space suit before we walked out into warp space.

“The engines are gone but there’s all kinds of chop in the sub-aether,” Master Hanq said. “Probably a result of the explosion, so we’ll need to be careful. There’s no telling how much energy the engines dumped into the skein here, or when it’s going to burst out.”

In regular space, explosions behave in reasonably predictable ways. Warp space isn’t quite as friendly as that. Rather than happening all at once, an explosion in warp space can be vented into other dimensions or sent along unpredictable time trajectories so that the force returns somewhere or somewhen else (or both).

The most dangerous aspect of a warp space disaster wasn’t the variable explosions though. It was the kind of things that explosions like that could wake up.

The sapient races of Crystal Empire vary in physiology a fair amount but there are some common elements. Not so much with the things that live in warp space or the strange dimensions that lie beside or beyond it. From creatures that can think and plan and yet have no mind to be affected by Mental anima to beasts so large they blur the distinction between “monster” and “moon”.

It wasn’t often that you ran into things like that, but I wasn’t about to object to having an extra layer of protection on in case we did.

“We’ll need to be careful with our flight packs,” Darius said. “Too much power to them and they may draw out some of the anima that sunk into subspace.”

“We can’t take too long though,” I said. “There’s zero chance the people who are left over there are in good shape.”

“First rule of a rescue operation,” Master Hanq said. “You can’t rescue anyone if you’re dead. We’re going to take this slow and steady. No surprises, no heroics.”

“I’m patched into your central scrying system,” Fari said. “I’ll do my best to make sure the surprises are kept to a minimum.”

“Good,” Master Hanq said. “Now divide up into your teams. Darius, you’re on Blue team with Lt. Hewsgrove. Blue team has the bio-stasis field generator point. We need to be sure we can breech it to get to the people inside without causing a cascade failure and exposing them all to warp space.”

Darius and the other four members of Blue team from Master Hanq’s staff nodded in understanding. They were the first in and would have had the most dangerous job except that they got to avoid the space where the engines had detonated.

“Mel, you’re on Black team with me,” Master Hanq said. “We’re going to find out what happened.”

Which meant we were going to the site of the warp generator core breech. That was dangerous for purely environmental reasons, but in this case there was extra cause for concern.

We knew that a bio-stasis field had been erected around part of the remains of the colony ship. That suggested that some of the people onboard had survived the explosion. The problem was, humans and Garjarack aren’t the only things in warp space that can cast a bio-stasis field. For some of the less pleasant transdimensional species that was how they hunted their prey, or stored their food.

Before Blue team could open a doorway into the bio-stasis field, we needed to make sure whether we were walking into a someone’s larder or shooting gallery.

Master Hanq gave orders to Gold team (the medics, who would come in last) and Red team (the reserves, who wouldn’t come in at all – if 3 teams couldn’t handle whatever was out there, Red team’s job would be to get back and report on what we’d found).

Blue team had the longest flight so Darius and the others went out first.

“Be careful out there,” he said on our private link.

“I’m always careful,” I said.

“Someone else’s version of careful please!” he asked.

“I’ll come back to you if you come back to me,” I said. “How’s that sound?”

“Like a promise I intend to hold you too,” he said.

We didn’t time for chatting after that. Blue team was soaring toward the last habitation module as Master Hanq led Black team out into the weird expanse of warp space.

Where normal space is a black and empty void, warp space writhes with light and gives the not-entirely-illusionary sense that there are shapes and masses passing all around you.

I fed Physical anima into the flight pack and braced myself for the burning onslaught that I’d felt whenever I cast spells recently. The wings unfurled from my back and caught the currents of anima that whipped and twisted around us but there wasn’t even the hint of heat to accompany them.

I was surprised by that but not unhappy with it. In fact, I was kind of giddy to learn that stabbing the flames that had tried to overwhelm me had been the right idea after all. The depths of warp space were a lot harder to navigate than the skies of Hellsreach had been though, so my delight was tempered by the need to focus on staying in control.

Master Hanq was in front of the rest of Black team, heading for a cloud of aurora that was surrounded by a cloud of debris that had once been the colony ship’s engines. He made the flight look easy which was aggravating. I knew he’d been stuck on a planet for most of the last twenty years. Even if he’d been a warp space surfer in his younger days (which no sane people did, but there were lots and lots of crazy people in the galaxy) he should have been horribly out of practice after his time away from it.

Unless, I reasoned, it was less a matter of skillful flying and more knowing how to read the currents of anima that surrounded us. I had to fight through them like a battering ram, but watching him fly I saw that the flourishes he was putting on his flight might have some practical applications.

He looked back a minute later to see me trying with only moderate success to follow the path that he was flying along.

“Pick a single thread as your guide,” he said and gestured ahead of himself.

I flicked a layer of Void anima over my vision and caught sight of a million ghostly filaments  of anima surging around us. One bright purple one ran just over Master Hanq though and as I watched he swooped around it’s length allowing it to guide him through the maelstrom.

In his wake the purple thread frayed though, which was why following the same path as he did hadn’t worked out as well for me.

Fortunately there was more than one thread leading towards the spot we needed to reach, so I picked a pale blue one to follow and found my flight grow remarkably less turbulent. The cost for that however was a longer flight path than I’d originally intended to follow. By the time I arrived rest of Black team was already there and setting up shop.

“Ramses, give us a sign when you’re ready to begin the past viewing spell,” Master Hanq said. “Everyone else, form a perimeter. I’m the high side of the sphere, everyone else be 90 degrees from me and from each other with Ramses in the middle. Even if this wasn’t the work of a warp space creature, the explosion may have attracted scavengers.”

We’d already discussed the plan while we were prepping for the rescue operations so no one voice any questions. We simply got into position and waited.

My imagination conjured forth all sorts of horrible terrors that might materialize out of the empty space around us but all that actually happened was that time passed.

Blue team called in to report that they’d reached the bio-stasis field, and then called in again to report that they could safely open a portal inside it.

That left it to Black Team to determine if being able to “safely open a portal” was the same as being able to open a portal to a safe area.

“Ready with Past Viewing spell,” Ramses reported a few minutes after that.

“Fari, can you link in the scrying suite? I want a full scan and recording of what we see,” Master Hanq said.

“Link established, recording has begun,” Fari reported.

“Play the image as an overlay for the whole team,” Master Hanq said. “I want as many eyes on this as possible.”

“Overlay crafted, ready when you are,” Fari said.

Ramses released the spell and it looked as though time was flowing backwards in a ghostly form. I could still see the bright emptiness around us, but superimposed over that was the image of the colony ship. I watched as it rapidly came back together to form a solid whole and then reversed direction away from us.

In the vacuum of regular space anything that’s accelerated will continue in the direction of travel until it encounters something like a planet or a star. Warp space was empty as well, but different physical laws applied. When the colony ship exploded it had slowed to a stop relative to its point of entry due to resistance from a variety of forces. Similarly, the exploded bits of the ship hadn’t sailed off into an ever expanding cloud of debris but had hung, cast apart, where they came to “rest” after the force of the explosion was spent or diverted elsewhere.

Viewing the ships destruction in reverse gave me a sense of how rapidly the event had occurred. What was strange was that for as fast as it was, it still seemed more prolonged than it should have been.

“Coming up on forward time progression,” Ramses said.

“We should be in the engine room now, shift the focus to engine room when the explosion occurred,” Master Hanq said.

With a lurch, the vision shifted into the colony ship and we were in a room that I found quite familiar.

The ship that Verulia Industries used to transport the Common Council colonists was of an identical design as the one Gan Everbright had brought the Garjarack family and I to. The engine room had the same layout as the one that I’d fought in and ultimately melted to slag.

In the vision there was less crazy girl spewing fire and more technicians working on the assigned jobs.

That is until one of the colonists came in.

I wanted to scream and stop him the moment I saw the man walk in the door. I could see the look in his eyes that said he’d entered that room with a lifetime of hate behind him.

One of the engineers had the chance to ask the colonist “What are you doing? You’re not allowed to be here!” before the colonist shot him with a hunting caster.

The other engineers were shocked by that for a moment and that was all the time the colonist needed.

Without saying a word, the man plunged into the central warp transit node. I saw Void anima stab out from the man and shatter the control crystals. A wave of physical anima followed and the warp spell folded in on itself.

The explosion of the field should have destroyed the ship instantly, but one thing prevented that – one of the engineer’s dove into the destroyed transit node and bridged the main relay with his body.

He didn’t last five seconds before the anima burned him to ash, but he bought the other engineers the time to throw up an improvised shield around the entire warp assembly.

“Engineering, report. We’re reading a massive flux in propulsion,” the colony ship’s Captain said over the comm system.

“Catastrophic failure. We’re holding it back. Get everyone off the ship!” the chief engineer called out through gritted teeth as he and the other engineers poured everything they had into containing the explosion.

“How long can you hold it?” the Captain asked.

“Not long enough!” the Chief Engineer said.

I watched the explosion eat away at the shield like no explosion in regular space every could. The energy was looping through time, weaker for it but burning longer than it ever could have on its own.

The clatter of a red alarm sounded moments before the first of the engineers faltered and allowed a hole to open in the shield. The plasma stream that burst out vaporized him and a large section of the hull behind him.

“Chief, teleport out of here,” one of the engineer’s called out.”We’re not going to make it,”

“No we’re not, but we’ve got to buy them time,” the Chief said.

In the end they bought they colonists another twenty seconds. One by one they dropped and were consumed by the unbridled energies of the engine but in those twenty seconds they’d bought the lives of whoever was protected in the bio-stasis chamber.

We watched as the last of them fell and the ship blew apart in the fireworks display that I’d seen in the vision when I touched the fate casting.

There hadn’t been any monsters from warp space on board the ship. The only monster had been a purely human one. Just like the heroes who’d given their lives to mitigate the damage he’d done.

The Horizon of Today – Chapter 18

Flying a spaceship takes practice and training. There’s less need for finesse than with an airship, but far greater need for efficiency. Even the biggest spaceships still need their engineers to provide the base spark of anima for propulsion and to keep the inconsistent spell engines in line. It takes a special talent and a lot of time to become really good at it. Flying through warp space on the other hand took only one thing; pure insanity.

“It all comes down to numbers,” Master Hanq said as he finished explaining what the engineers would have to do to get us to the site of the colony ship wreckage in warp space.

We were on the bridge of his command ship, which turned out to be more luxuriously laid out than I’d expected. I hadn’t been on many spaceships yet, but I’d been a fan of them when I was younger. Most ran towards the utilitarian end of the spectrum, especially warcrafts like Hanqs. Plain steel bulkheads and simple scrying pools, unadorned crystal resonators; those were the kind of things I expected to see on a military space ship.

Master Hanq’s command ship, by contrast, boasted smooth wood fixtures which pulsed with inner veins of light. From the wood, decorative plants grew and flowered, providing both color and a soothing fresh scent to the command deck. Hanq’s captain’s chair was cushioned and solid and looked like a cross between a comfy recliner and a throne. Given that it was placed towards the back of the bridge and was elevated about a foot above the rest of the positions, I guessed that the throne-elements of its motif weren’t unintentional. Some parts of being a Warlord are apparently harder to leave behind than others.

From the bronze and gold trim that accentuated the other bridge stations though, it didn’t look like Hanq was placing himself too high above his crew. If anything, I suspected that the display of wealth and power was meant for visitors. With the Crystal Empire in its current state, it had more use for negotiators than strike forces, but things were still shaky enough twenty years into the Empresses reign that reminding people that the Imperial mandate to play nicely together was more than just a suggestion was valuable too.

“I’ve learned my numbers,” I said, thinking back to the mathematics lessons the Sisters had inflicted on us and how I’d never understood why people whined so much about it. Numbers are simple, it’s people you have to work at figuring out. “But I’m used to two and two equaling four, not two and two equaling berry flavored pudding.”

“We’ll need to have Guardian Blackbriar sign you up for a course in Esoteric Calculus when we get back,” he said.

“I don’t recommend it,” Fari said. “About six months into studying any of the Esoteric Maths, you lose all sense of what numbers mean. That’s basically where the real studying begins. Then you keep going until one plus one makes sense again. Usually you’re old and grey by the time that happens though.”

“Fortunately, you don’t need to go that far to be a good engineer,” Hanq said. “And most of them like berry flavored pudding.”

“I think I’ll leave the engineering to the folks who are good at it then,” I said.

“And thus does the teacher impart wisdom to the student,” Master Hanq said.

“I thought your job was to show me to hit people better?” I said.

“No, my job is to keep you in one piece,” he said. “Making sure you know how to hit people is only one part of that. From what Guardian Blackbriar described to me, I’m beginning to wonder if I didn’t go a little too far on that side of your training at the expense of the other parts.”

“Did you notice that I am still in one piece, more or less?” I said. “I don’t think my training’s let me down yet. I just needed more of it.”

“Oh, I agree,” he said. “For example, training in when its ok to let things go.”

I frowned at him. I’d been thinking we were talking about how I hadn’t been trained in even the basics of anima casting like everyone else I knew. Apparently he had a more current issue on his mind,

“I can’t let go of mistakes I’ve made if there’s still a chance I can fix them,” I said.

“Not being perfect isn’t a mistake,” Hanq said. “We all have our limits. We can exceed them sometimes, but there’s usually a price to pay for it.”

“There’s a price to pay for not exceeding them too,” I said.

“And that’s why we learn to cheat,” he said. “You have to understand Mel, the kind of people you’re going to be dealing with are always going to be playing games that they’re set up to win. It’ll always be an uphill battle to fight them. They’ll make it so that unless you sacrifice as much as possible, you don’t even get to play.”

“So you’re saying the right move is not to play at all?” I asked.

“No, you don’t have to forfeit,” he said. “You just have to find another game.”

I’d been debating with him by reflex but I stopped and let his words sink in. He was trying to get me to think, and as usual, it worked. I wasn’t sure what I was missing but I felt a great hole in my plans somewhere.

I’d been focused on Vunthor so closely, I knew the larger picture of what was going on was escaping me.

“Do you think we’ll find any clues to the game that’s being played at the wreckage?” I asked.

We were cruising through warp space towards the last known point of the destroyed colony ship. Master Raychelle had agreed to allow me to accompany the forensic team as show of support for the Hellsreach Common Council. She and Opal were taking the issue seriously, but as I’d expected, they had to deal with the immediate threats that remained in the Exxion system first.

“I’ll be honest with you Mel,” Hanq said. “I think the best that we can hope for it to find the ghosts of the passengers and put them to rest. Accidents in warp space don’t usually leave much evidence behind. Even the ghosts, if we can find them, aren’t likely to be…complete.”

His pause in describing the condition of the ghosts led my imagination to all kinds of unpleasant places.

“Do you think they’ll be dangerous?” I asked. “The ghosts I mean.”

“I don’t know that there’ll be enough of them left for that,” he said. “But we should be careful anyways. I’ll take a security team in first, then we’ll send for the forensic wizards to check the area out.”

“I want to go with your security team,” I said.

“I believe we were just discussing how it’s my job to keep you in one piece?” he said.

“I have some special skills when it comes to working with ghosts,” I said.

“And you’re still on restricted casting as per your healer’s orders, so you’re not allowed to use those skills,” he said.

“I’ve got that problem under control,” I said. “And anyways, if we find some monster-ghost there what are the odds that I’ll be safe in the ship compared to surrounded by a security detail?”

“Better than the odds that I’ll get any peace if I try to keep you away from this I suppose,” he said. “Ok, you can come along, but only because I’ll be able to keep an eye on you directly.”

“Thank you, Captain,” I said. “I should go see how Darius is doing with the forensic team. He was briefing them on the details that the Common Council wanted them to explore.”

“We should reach the site in about an hour. I’ll page you then,” Master Hanq said.

I nodded and turned to go, Fari falling into step beside me.

“What happened with the plan you’d put together to send an inspection team to Titanus?” I asked as we got into the elevator that ran down from the bridge. It was furnished with the same rich and natural trimming as the bridge was though it was small enough that only a handful of people could ride in it at the same time. Better for repelling boarding parties I guessed.

“The Ambassador liked it, but it was put on hold until the colonization issue is sorted out,” she said.

“Is there still discussion that it might go ahead?” I asked.

“Exxion II and IV are pushing for it,” she said. “They’re both viewing the return of the forces that are “deployed” on Hellsreach as a disaster for their economies.”

“That’s right, most of the regular forces are on lifetime deployments aren’t they?” I asked.

“Some of the officer grades too,” Fari said.

“So now that they represent the legacy of a war effort rather than the active tools to wage one, the home planets want nothing to do with them because it would be too hard to find another job for everyone?” I said. “That’s disgusting.”

“That seems to be the general sentiment,” Fari said. “There are protests on both of the homeworlds calling for new areas to be opened up for the returning troops, so not everyone is onboard with shutting the troops out, but the “resettlement” bills that are under discussion are pretty ugly on both sides.”

“They’re trying to encourage the Hellsreach forces to take the offer to move to Titanus,” I said.

“Yeah,” she said. “The net result of that though is that groups like Major Vunthor’s are gaining members like crazy.”

“Brilliant,” I said. “They’re taking people who have every reason to hate each other and want to part ways forever and telling them that there’s no escape.”

“The Ambassador is somewhat stuck too,” Fari said. “He has the right to demand that the homeworlds take back their forces, but if that happens by Imperial mandate then the backlash against the returning soldiers will be even worse.”

“And again I find myself wishing I could hit someone,” I said.

“I think Raychelle and Opal are putting together a list to that effect,” Fari said.

“A personalized ‘Punch the Stupid Out of Them’ list? For me? That would be just about the best birthday present ever!” I said.

“You already had your birthday,” Fari said.

“I accept belated presents too, or really early ones,” I said. “I’m guessing what you meant though is that they’re putting together a list of the primary leaders of the “Let’s Ignore The Peace Treaty” teams so that they can deal with them all at once rather than taking them down one by one.”

“That’s the game plan,” she said. “Some have backgrounds where we might be able to negotiate them over to a more reasonable stance.”

“And then you’ve got the one’s like Vunthor who are too filled with hate to listen to anything except the voice in their head that’s screaming for blood.” I guessed.

“Unfortunately he’s not alone. And it’s not just the humans either. There are at least three groups operating on the Garjarack side that don’t seem to be interested in leaving anyone else alive – human or Gars who are ‘human sympathizers’ or Gar who might be human-sympathizers.”

“Am I wrong to want to pursue Vunthor then?” I asked her.

“No,” she said. “Your point about abandoning the other two ships is a good one, but it may not be realistic.”

“I can do more good focusing my efforts here you think?” I asked.

“Maybe? I mean it looks like that, and it looks like trying to stop Vunthor is a lost cause at this point, but if you think you can catch him, I’m behind you,” she said.

“You’ve got other responsibilities too now though,” I said.

“I’m responsible for overseeing the Colonization efforts,” she said. “That means taking care of all the colonists, and I have to chose where the important spots to direct my attention are. Vunthor will be able to poison Titanus politically, militarily and literally if he’s not stopped. The only problem is, I don’t know how to stop him.”

“But you think I do?” I asked.

“I think stopping Vunthor is a lost cause, but I thought I was a lost cause too and you saved me,” Fari said. “So, yes, if you chose to go after him, I’m going with you.”

“Thank you,” I said, feeling a little overwhelmed by her show of confidence in me. I was used to barreling ahead against crazy odds, but I rarely did so out of the belief that I could actually win. Having someone who really believed in me and wasn’t afraid to say so felt good in a way that was hard to describe.

We arrived at the planning room just as Darius and the forensics team were finishing up their meeting. I nodded in greeting to a few of the forensic casters who I was familiar with in passing from general Imperial personnel meetings that I’d attended over the last few months. As they filed out, Darius collected his forms and gave me a weary smile.

“Have you slept? Ever?” I asked. “You’re starting to look a little rough around the edges there.”

“Busy night getting ready for this trip,” he said. “We had to put it all together as fast as possible before the debris drifts too far apart or disintegrates or phase shifts back into plain space. I’ll be fine.”

“Captain Hanq says we’ve got about an hour until we reach the site,” I said. “Maybe you can catch a quick nap?”

“That’s an excellent idea,” Darius said. “I’m just afraid if I close my eyes I’m going to sleep for a week though.”

“I’ll watch over you,” I said. “No bad dreams and no oversleeping.”

“That sounds wonderful!” he said.

So of course that’s when Master Hanq had to call us.

“Mel, Fari, Darius,” he said on a private telepathic link. “Come to the bridge immediately. There’s been a new development. Long range scrying indicates that a portion of the colony ship is intact and has an bio-suspension field active.”

The three of us looked at each and understanding passed around our circle instantly.

This wasn’t a forensic investigation anymore. This was a rescue operation and given the attack that caused it, it was a rescue operation that we needed to keep very quiet about.

The Horizon of Today – Chapter 17

We received the official report of the loss of the colony ship carrying the Common Council citizens an hour after Master Raychelle and I felt the brush of Fate that showed us its destruction.

“The colonization project is going to be halted,” Master Opal said.

“Everbright won’t be happy with that,” I said.

“He’ll be less happy with the investigation Verulia Industries is going to come under,” Master Raychelle said. “He sold the idea of the accelerated schedule with the promise that a smaller time window would let Verulia’s security forces focus their efforts more effectively. The first flight was supposed to the safest one.”

“What do you think happened?” I asked. I was angry at all sorts of things and wanted a good excuse to punch someone’s face into applesauce.

“It’s too early to jump to conclusions,” Raychelle said. “We’ll need to send a ship into warp space to investigate the site.”

“They’re not going to find that this was an accident, are they?” I asked.

“We don’t know what they’re going to find,” she said. “For now, we’ll focus our efforts on finding the pieces of Vunthor’s organization that are still on Hellsreach. It’s entirely possible that Vunthor himself is still here.”

I knew she was right, the plan she described was a smart one, but in my gut I couldn’t help feeling that she was terribly wrong too. I hadn’t been sidelined, but searching for Vunthor on Hellsreach still seemed like a step down from pursuing him across the galaxy.

Something troubled me about it too. Like there was a little voice in the back of my head that was sure he wasn’t still on Hellsreach, but I couldn’t place why I was so certain of that.

“I should go talk to Darius,” I said. “The Common Council is going to have questions and they might need our resources to get the answers they need.”

I stood to leave and Master Raychelle stood with me. She walked to the door of the room we were using before touching my arm to signal me to stop.

“This wasn’t your fault Mel,” she said, watching me carefully.

“Vunthor was the one responsible, and the people working with him.” I said. I’m sure it sounded like I was agreeing with her.

“Remember that,” she said. “There are going to be a lot of angry people, and they’re going to be looking for anyone they can pin the blame on for this.”

“You think they’ll blame us?” I asked.

“It’s the flipside to our reputations,” she said. “We can do more, so people expect us to be able to do everything. That’s never going to be the case though. We can make things better than they would be without us, but people will still get hurt. We can’t save everyone. Not all the time.”

“We can try though right?” I asked.

“To a certain extent,” she said. “But we have to remember that we’re worth saving too.”

I nodded. I understood what she was saying, and the message underneath it. I shouldn’t let myself shoulder too much of the blame or allow other people to put it on me, but knowing something and doing it are two separate things.

“I should talk to Darius,” I said, trying to get out before I had to make any promises that I wasn’t likely to keep.

“Let him know that Opal and I are both on this,” she said.

I nodded again and hurried down the hallway to the transfer hangar.

“I don’t see how this happened,” Fari said, appearing beside me as I jogged down the hallway. “I’ve got the inspection reports up and the Common Council ship was swept three times for any sign of sabotage, including immediately before launch.”

“What’s the story with the inspectors,” I asked. “Could any of them be on Vunthor’s team?”

“Not likely. They were all Imperial, and they’re all accounted for,” Fari said. “Security is already bringing them in for a debriefing.”

“What about the passengers on the colony ship? Could one of Vunthor’s followers have made it on to the wrong ship?” I asked.

“It’s possible but we were screening for that,” Fari said.

“Whoever it was, we should have caught them,” I said.

“I know,” Fari said.

I hadn’t noticed the pain in her voice until then. I’d been unconscious for two days and was blaming myself for not being there when I was needed. She’d spent that same time working to prevent this and things had still slipped by her. I stopped jogging and paused to consider that for a second.

“What Raychelle said to me, applies to you too,” I said.

“I know.” she said. She sounded like she was having the same trouble believing it as I was though.

I could have argued the point, I didn’t like seeing her feeling bad, especially when it wasn’t warranted. Instead though I decided to be honest.

“I hate getting beat,” I said.

“Me too,” she said.

“We’re going to get Vunthor,” I said.

“Will we?” she asked. “If he’s this far ahead of us, I don’t see why he’d stay around at Titanus.”

“You’re thinking he’s going to take over the colony ship and fly them somewhere else?” I asked.

“They’re out in frontier space. It would be all but impossible to follow them if they just went further on and knew how to obscure the trail they left behind.”

“So he takes off for a few years, builds up his forces and waits for Verulia’s security to grow lax?” It was a feasible plan, but only if enough of the other colonists were onboard with it.

“Or he finds a partner out there, one of the old Warlords, and makes his return even sooner,” she said.

“That would be close to the worst case scenario,” I said. “Verulia’s on the hook for providing security as part of their contract, so there won’t be any Imperial troops there a few years from now. With a Warlord behind him, Vunthor could stage an assault and wipe out all of the Garjarack’s on Titanus before anyone could mobilize to stop him.”

“Maybe Master Raychelle’s right though, maybe he hasn’t left the planet,” she said. “We had all of the checkpoint personnel looking for him specifically.”

“If he’s here, we’ll find him,” I said.

“And the others like him?” Fari asked.

I started to say that we’d get them too but I stopped myself.

“He’s only the first of many isn’t he?” I said. “Do we even have an estimate for how parties on each side didn’t want the war to end? Or how many are still fighting it?”

“The last poll had support for continuing the war at 42% for the humans offworlders and 44% for the Garjarack. The Common Council citizens ran lower but there were still about a third of them who want to see the other two sides kill each off entirely.”

“Maybe it would be simpler to just let them,” I said. “Let the mega-quakes get rid of them all and Verulia can have the planet fair and square.”

“Simpler, but that’s not an option is it?” Fari said.

“No,” I said and sighed. Nothing was ever simple or easy. “There’s the other half to two-thirds of the population to consider and even the war callers aren’t necessarily all bad.”

“So what are we going to do?” Fari asked.

“I don’t know,” I said. “Find Vunthor I guess. We’ve got to start somewhere and I think today puts him at the top of the list.”

“You don’t think he’s here do you?” she asked.

“That’s true, but I don’t know why,” I said.

“Let’s talk to Darius then,” she said.

“You think he’ll know the answer?” I asked.

“No, but I think if we can get your mind off it, and if you’re not thinking about it, your subconscious may be able to put the pieces together for you,” she said.

As it turned out, Fari was right, but not for the reasons we could have anticipated.

“There’s an emergency session of the Council going on now,” Darius said when we touched down in Zawalla City again. “They’re considering a resolution that will make it illegal to transfer property to Verulia Industries or any of its subsidiaries.”

“They don’t want another colony ship to be destroyed,” Fari said.

“It’s more than that,” Darius said. “They don’t want the citizens leaving their sphere of influence. I should have seen this coming.”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“You proved that the Council has as much rot in it as the other two factions,” he said. “I think this disaster may have been another ‘homegrown’ one.”

“What?” I asked. “How is that possible?”

“How can it be anyone else?” he asked. “The ship was searched top to bottom. They looked for everything that Major Vunthor’s group tried to do the Garjarack colony ship and the inspectors found nothing. It had to be an inside job.”

“But why?” I asked and before he could answer a flood of possible reasons poured into my brain. “Wait, the new cities, they’re not going to be organized the same way as the existing Council cities are they?”

“No. So a lot of the Council member’s constituencies are going to be jumbled up. There will have to be new voting regions drawn and put in place,” he said.

“And there are some people who won’t be elected again if their districts aren’t preserved,” I finished his thought. Power. One of the more common reasons for sapients being horrible to each other. “Who’s in favor of the resolution?”

“Most of the Council,” he said.

“Your Dads too?” I asked.

“Yeah,” he said. “They don’t trust Verulia. I think that’s what’s driving a lot of the votes.”

“Are either of them in danger of losing their seats if the move to Titanus happens?” I asked.

“No one knows,” he said. “The new districting plan hasn’t been drawn up yet and Verulia hasn’t committed to a specific placement for the colonists yet.”

I sat down and started massaging my temples.

“I really need someone to hit,” I said. “This counter-planning and figuring out schemes is driving me nuts.”

“I know what you mean,” Darius said. “I volunteered for the Scout Corp because I wanted to make a difference. It was dangerous as hell and I’m an idiot for thinking this but now that I’m away from it, I kind of miss being a Scout. It was so much simpler.”

I lifted my head up to respond to him and froze. Words didn’t work for me for a moment and then the idea that my subconscious had been screaming at me finally broke through. I looked up at Darius with wonder and joy in my eyes.

“You’re brilliant,” I told him.

I was almost bouncing out of my seat as the pieces fell into place.

“Because I want to go back to being a Scout?” he asked.

“No,” I said, shaking my head and waving the idea away. “Not that. Vunthor! He did leave! He’s on the human ship!”

“You put something together, didn’t you?” Fari asked.

“Yes! It was his record, the one that I shared with Illya!” I said. “He never left the battle lines. Ever. He always led from the front. He specifically turned down any promotion that would land him a desk job or keep him out of combat. It was in his psyche profile. He didn’t delegate. Not the dangerous stuff. He has to be up there and in charge in person.”

“How would he have gotten an agent on board the Council colony ship?” Darius asked.

“I don’t know.” I said.

“And how did he get onto the Exxion IV forces colony ship?” Fari asked.

“Don’t know that either, but he’s definitely up there.” I said.

“So what are we going to do about that?” Darius asked.

“We’re going to go after him,” I said.

“Master Raychelle won’t allow you to,” Fari said.

“If she didn’t want me going into danger, then she shouldn’t have agreed to my becoming a Crystal Guardian,” I said. “This is what I do. It’s what I’m good for. Reviewing reports and coordinating security forces isn’t in my toolset. Smacking the hell out of people is though.”

“You’re good at more than that Mel,” Fari said.

“And you shouldn’t throw yourself into danger that easily.” Darius said.

“This isn’t about me. It’s about the human and Garjarack ships,” I said. “The smart move is to clean things up here so that no more problems arise and then deal with Vunthor’s forces in a permanent and overwhelming manner. You know that’s the option that Raychelle will pursue.”

“That’s probably true,” Fari said. “If you know it’s the right call why aren’t you willing to work with her on it?”

“It’s the smart call, it’s not the right one,” I said.

“You’re worried about Kallak’s family aren’t you?” Darius asked.

“Them and all the rest of the Gar,” I said. “And the human colonists. Without Vunthor in the picture there’s a chance they could start healing the wounds the war put on them. If he’s there to continue the battle though, both sides are going to get drawn up in it again.”

“Verulia’s security forces will be there to stop them though,” Fari said.

“Like they did this time?” I asked.

I looked at both of them and saw the concern they each had. I was more important to them than people they’d barely or never met. The same was true in reverse, except I knew we had the chance to remain safe, and no one on those ships did. I knew if I did nothing that some or all of them would die and I knew that giving up on them now would push me just a little closer to the emptiness I carried inside. I’d grow colder by degrees until what Echo had said would be true – I’d be alone because I just wouldn’t be able to care anymore.

“I can’t let those people die,” I said. “Raychelle has to look at the big picture. She doesn’t have someone higher up that she can count on to handle that. And she can’t ask me to handle something like this because it would be unfair to place that kind of burden on me, to ask someone who doesn’t have the training needed to handle a job this big.”

Fari and Darius both nodded in agreement.

“But this is my life. I have to live with the choice I make and the consequences it has,” I said.

“Even if they kick you out of the Guardians for it?” Fari asked.

“Yeah,” I said. “Even if it means that.”


The Horizon of Today – Chapter 16

The original plans for the colonization of Titanus called for the Imperial Oversight committee to arrive there two weeks before the first colonists did. That plan had fallen into the depths of a black hole the moment the timetable was advanced.

The revised plan was that the Oversight committee would follow along two weeks after the first colony ship left. The colonists would spend their first few weeks in space rather than transferring to the ground habitats on arrival. The committee would get to perform an accelerated review of the planet’s safety and everything would proceed without issue.

Fari and I were the ones who set fire to that plan.

“Vunthar’s forces are small but efficient,” I said. “They’re going to make the best use of whatever time we give them.”

“And if you’ve judged this wrong and they’re still here?” Master Raychelle asked.

“It’s not an ‘if’, we know part of Vunthar’s loyalists and dozens of other hate groups are still active here,” Fari said.

“The only thing that sets Vunthar apart is that he seems to be in the lead in terms of bringing his plans together,” I said.

“That makes him one of the most dangerous actors on the field then,” Master Opal said. “And you’re still restricted from full casting. Why do you think one of us shouldn’t handle this?”

“A lot of reasons, but the biggest is that you’re too important,” I said. “Send me and people will think it’s a minor problem. If one of you two go, the whole colony move will start looking too dangerous.”

“I thought you had reservations about Verulia?” Master Raychelle said.

“I do,” I said. “But I also think we need to get people off Hellsreach. Even once the quakes settled down, the rest of the planet is too unstable.”

“Politically and socially?” Master Raychelle said.

“And tactically,” I said. “The Empire will keep a defense force here, but you know there’s going to be someone who makes a play for taking control of it. A warlord or a corrupt Imperial or just someone greedy and stupid enough to think they can pull it off. I know we’re good at stopping that sort of thing, but people will still get hurt in the process.”

I thought of the people I’d failed to save before I managed to stop Makkis and his conspiracy from turning Hellsreach into a super weapon that could wipe out its neighbor worlds. Makkis and his group played for keeps and there were hundreds of people who’d died as a direct result of their attempts to keep me off their trail.

“This wouldn’t be a problem if Titanus wasn’t a frontier world,” Opal said.

The communications blackout that prevented us from contacting the first colony ship was the result due several factors, not the least of which being that Titanus lacked most of the modern amenities like a planetary spell web infrastructure. Until the crisis on Hellsreach was revealed, Verulia wasn’t sure it was going to do anything with the system. In the months that followed, they’d started work on the magical frameworks needed to improve communication with the Imperial core worlds, but like most frontier worlds, the going had been slow.

“There’s still two issues to consider,” Master Raychelle said. “First, we’re still trying to determine what’s happened with your anima casting.”

“If Vunthar has five hundred troops at his disposal, I’m not going to stop him with anima casting,” I said. “I just need to be a messenger who knows to look for. Between Verulia security and the Imperial troops the auditors brought along, there should be plenty of casters to lock Vunthar and his forces down.”

Master Opal and Raychelle shared a laugh at that and I looked at them suspiciously.

“Remind her she said that later,” Opal said to Raychelle.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“What Master Opal is saying is that you’ll never have ‘plenty of casters’.” Raychelle said. “You can expect you’ll either have far too few or far too many. We don’t live the sort of lives where we have just as much as we want of any resource.”

“Though we often have as much as we truly need,” Opal said.

“Then it sounds like I’ll be fine there,” I said. It felt like they were teasing me, mostly because they were. Which was their right as experienced Guardians, but it was still annoying.

“There’s also the second issue to consider,” Master Raychelle said. “You’re still my apprentice. That means you’re supposed to go where I go and learn from what I do.”

“There will be a lot to learn from the situation here on Exxion III,” Master Opal said. “But in this instance there are other factors to consider as well.”

“You’re thinking that most apprentices are younger than Mel aren’t you?” Master Raychelle said.

“Yes, but also that she’s shown good judgment so far,” Master Opal said. “And that while she is your apprentice, she doesn’t have to be under your direction at all times.”

“Are you suggesting that I provide her a task and then entrust someone else with returning her to us safely?” Master Raychelle asked.

“Yes,” Master Opal said. “If only we could find someone who’s familiar with the peculiar challenges of keeping Mel safe from herself.”

“Is that my cue to join the discussion?” Master Hanq said as he walked into the small conference room that we had commandeered.

I was out of my chair and hugging him around his broad neck before he had the chance to get another word out.

Then it occurred to me what his presence meant.

“Wait a minute,” I said, backing away from him and turning an accusing eye on Raychelle and Opal. “You knew! You knew I was going to ask to do this and you sent for him days ago!”

“She is as quick as your reports say she is,” Master Opal said.

“Let’s just say that after you chased Makkis down through opposition that would give a full Guardian pause, we were concerned you might become somewhat fixated on Major Vunthror as well,” Master Raychelle said.

“Not that you’re wrong to be. As you say, he is in a particularly dangerous position,” Master Opal said.

“And, to be fair, I was in this sector already,” Master Hanq said. “You can thank Guardian Clearborn and her companion for that.”

“Yael sent you here?” I asked.

“Yeah,” he said. “I saw her and Zyla about two weeks ago.”

“What were they doing?” I asked.

“Fate crafting up a storm,” Maste Hanq said. “Zyla was placed high enough in the Khan’s power structure that she had access to a lot of information on other Warlords who remained active outside the boundaries of the Empire. They’re trying to use that and their combined Aetherial casting power to stay ahead of some calamities that have been brewing for a while.”

“They’ve been meeting with some success from Yael’s last message to me,” Master Opal said. “The two of them negotiated an amnesty with one of the more amiable ex-Warlords and shut down scheme to dehydrate a water planet that was being spearheaded by a less amiable one.”

“Dehydrate a water planet?” I asked. I knew the rest of the galaxy had its own problems, but in the face of what I’d been involved with on Hellsreach it was easy to forget that we weren’t the only ones dealing with serious issues every day.

“It was a revenge thing,” Hanq said. “The Oulani were instrumental in taking Warlord Graize out of power. He couldn’t reconquer the system, so he tried to genocide the Oulani homeworld. Guardian Clearborn prevented that from happened and Zyla put an end to Graize.”

“Was it necessary that she kill him?” Opal asked, frowning in concern.

“She thought it was,” Hanq said. “Yael wasn’t as certain, but she was able to provide evidence that it was at least lawful.”

“Zyla’s not planning on becoming a Crystal Guardian is she?” Raychelle asked, as though confirming an earlier suspicion.

“I don’t think so,” Hanq said. “She and Yael seem to work well together.”

“And the Crystal Guardians are spread thin enough that we’d ask them to handle separate missions,” Opal said. “Do you think my former apprentice is having a positive influence on her?”

“I didn’t know Zyla before they met, but judging from the dinners we’ve had together, I’d say that’s a safe assumption to make,” Hanq said. “Zyla’s very protective of your former apprentice. I think that may have been where Graize tripped up. I gather he made some very specific threats and that…didn’t turn out so well for him.”

“How did you wind up having dinner with them?” I asked.

“Didn’t I tell you? Part of my amnesty was the allowance to join the Imperial Navy,” he said.

“I knew that part, but I thought you were commanding a fleet of ships?” I said.

“That’s technically true, but the fleet I run are all fast courier ships. They’re mine to command when the Empire wages a fleet action but under normal circumstances, the captains act independently and just submit reports to me.”

My brain almost let that slip by, but at the last second I caught the importance of what he’d said and put two and two together.

“You have a courier ship? How fast can you run the jump route to Titanus?” I said, feeling my pulse quicken and my heart pound out its beats like a hammer on an anvil.

“With a clear lane, we’ll make it there before two days the Colony ship arrives,” he said.

I felt my skin growing warm with delight. And then disturbingly warm.

In my happiness, I’d let a surge of physical anima flow through me. The flames reacted to that and I felt cold grip my chest once more as the thought of what flames hot enough to slag metal would do to a spaceship the size of the one we were on.

I couldn’t let that happen and, fortunately, I’d learned from the disaster in the colony ship’s engine room and from my..from Echo. This time I didn’t let the vicious cycle of danger and Void anima cocooning pull me under. The darkness in me was mine. My tool. My weapon.

Grasping the cold in my chest and calling up  the darkness that always lay a hair’s breadth beneath my surface, I formed it into a blade in my mind and sliced away at the flames from the inside. The fire blaze hotter inside me, so I slice deeper into it. It wasn’t a pleasant feeling but I wasn’t going to fall apart. Not again. The fire seemed to sense that and I felt it retreat before I reached its core. Bits of it remained behind and I snuffed those one by one until all the anima inside me felt properly settled. The whole exchange took only a couple of seconds and by the time I finished letting a slow breath out my skin was back to normal, the icy sense of danger was gone and I felt much more under control.

“Well that was interesting,” I said.

The others were looking at me with a concern in their eyes that said they’d all caught on to what was happening within me.

“Are you ok Mel?” Fari asked.

“Yeah, I think I am,” I said. “And I don’t think I’m going crazy.”

“What happened just now?” Master Raychelle asked.

“I got the fire under control,” I said.

“How?” she asked.

“Basically? I stabbed it in the face,” I said.

Master Raychelle regard me with a look that said I would be explaining things in much greater detail before she was satisfied.

Later, I thought. I could talk to her or Fari about Void anima but it was tough to explain to other people. I didn’t actually have a separate entity living within me, but sometimes that was the most useful metaphor to explain how I did what I did with Void anima.

“Why didn’t I ever adopt you?” Master Hanq asked, looking inordinately pleased.

Despite the fact that I was (technically) an adult, there was something touching about that. Hanq had been the closest thing I’d had to a father for well over a decade. I’d imagined him adopting me a lot, but somehow the Sisters had always felt like my replacement family. They were harsh sometimes, and often stern, but, when I thought back, never cruel. Well most of them. Well, not the ones I liked anyways.

“You could barely handle me for four hours a day,” I said. “I’d have broken you if you tried to deal with me the other twenty hours too.”

“Darius is going to riot if you try to leave him behind again,” Fari said.

“And who would Darius be?” Hanq asked.

Master Raychelle spared me from having to define my relationship with Darius to Master Hanq.

“A young gentleman who’s been of great assistance to Mel,” she said. “He’s been named the Common Council’s Liaison on Security Affairs hasn’t he? I expected having him along on the mission will fall within his remit.”

“With Admiral Okoro and Darius, that’s two strong casters,” Fair said. “Would you like a third?”

“Always!” I said, guessing that she was referring to herself.

“The Oversight committee isn’t scheduled to leave for the Titanus inspection for over another week,” Master Raychelle said. “I don’t think Mel and Master Okoro can delay that long.”

“I agree,” Fari said. “But as the Imperial Overseer I believe I’m empowered to change our schedule and staffing to meet unforeseen demands.”

“You intend to give yourself permission to leave early?” Master Opal asked.

“No. I intend to advance the committee’s timetable to match the accelerated colonization process,” Fari said. “It will be disruptive to the efforts here, but Major Vunthor’s actions highlight that Verulia Industries’ accelerated colonization plan has serious security holes in it.”

“The Ambassador will need to review your proposed plan, but I’m curious to hear it first,” Master Opal said.

“That won’t be possible,” Fari said. “He’s already reviewing it. In short though, I plan to take three of the analysts with me. We’ll backfill their positions here will two additional personnel who have a clear public record. The rest of the work log, I’ve already handled.”

“You move quickly.” Master Raychelle said.

“I don’t need to sleep, so I can get a lot done each day,” Fari said.

“It seems like you have the situation well in hand then,” Master Opal said.

Master Raychelle and I felt the brush of Aetherial magic flit through the room at the same time. Both of us were out of seats and shrouding everyone present in Void anima shields instantly but we were still too late.

The attack hadn’t been aimed at us. We were just receiving news of it.

The two of us reached out  to grab the thread of fate casting that was taunting us but it disintegrated on its too quickly. All I got was a single image from it.

One of the three colony ships that launched on the first day. It’s gray hull lit by the weird lights of warp space. The massive engines that fed its warp generator exploding in a multi-chromatic burst of pyrotechnics.

We’d lost one of them.

One of the first three.

Vunthor was that far ahead of us.

Worse, there wouldn’t be a clear warp lane for Master Hanq’s ship to transit through. Our chance to arrive at Titanus before Vunthor was gone. I looked at Master Raychelle and saw that something else had vanished too.

Vunthor had raised the stakes and proven that he was a serious threat. Raychelle wasn’t going to send an apprentice into that. She’d handle it herself and she’d go with overwhelming force. It was the smart play, the one that would protect the maximum number of lives.

Just not the ones on the other two ships.

I’d wanted to save them. To save Cadrus and Nenya and Kallak and even Eirda, but I’d been too slow.

The Horizon of Today – Chapter 15

For all of Hellsreach’s problems, I had to admit it was beautiful from far away. From the edge of space the only thing visible of the people who inhabited the troubled planet was the light they sent into black expanse that surrounded them.

“Can I give you a refill?” Darius asked. He was holding a fresh brewed pitcher of tea and from the aroma wafting through our small command ship, I hazarded a guess that he’d also popped another batch of sweetfruit cookies into the oven.

“Mmm, I know four cups should be enough but I can’t see ever getting tired of this,” I said.

“The galley’s well stocked,” he said. “I don’t think we’ll run out any time soon.”

“Oh, yeah, the tea’s nice too,” I said and let a mischievous smile play across my face.

Even with the steady infusion of tea, I was so tired I was feeling giddy. Echo – I couldn’t call her my Mom – had been right about the cost of spending time in a Void cocoon. It had taken me nearly a full day of rest to recover the strength I’d burned away with that trick. The good news though was that my healers had investigated me thoroughly and concluded that I hadn’t done any permanent damage to my anima reserves and that I was recovered to the state I’d been in before we arrived at Hellsreach.

The bad news was no one had any idea why or how I’d managed to slag the engine room of the Verulia colony ship, so I was still on restricted spell casting.

Apart from my continued lack of magical development though a lot had changed.

Fari was officially Imperial Overseer for the Colonization project. Opal and Raychelle hadn’t been able to make her a Crystal Guardian (that took a more thorough review and a board of at least five existing Guardians). Confirming her Imperial citizenship had been a breeze however and from there the Imperial Ambassador was able to appoint her to the Overseer role directly.

As I’d expected she took to it several hundred times better than I would have. In theory the actual work was being done by auditors from the ambassador’s staff, but Fari dove into it and within twelve hours had them caught up from the backlog they were crushed under by the advancement of the departure timeline. The best part though was that she seemed genuinely happy.

Since I’d met her on Belstarius, we’d been close, but apart from me I hadn’t seen her develop many other friendships. We’d talked about it and that was just who she was in part. From what she could remember, she’d always been someone who formed a few close friendships rather than many lighter ones.

In the auditors, it looked like she’d found a few other kindred spirits though, which wasn’t too surprising. Fari was a genius with Mental anima. We could talk about a lot of things, but I didn’t have the talent or understanding to follow the details of the more esoteric things she could do. Imperial auditors on the other hand are selected specifically for their intelligence. Even the ones who weren’t wizard class casters of Mental anima were so frighteningly good at dealing with data and information that it might as well have been magic.

Her success as Imperial Overseer didn’t entirely get me off the hook though. Any endeavor as large as relocating a planet’s entire population had lots of oversight positions that needed to be filled. My lack of training and spell casting capacity was an issue for some of them, but there were left plenty of roles where what was needed was simply someone trustworthy and, somehow, I still qualified as that.

“We got another set of dispatches in from the Council,” Darius said. “Unless you need a hand, I’m going to see if there’s anything in there that will interfere with the latest list of cargo restrictions that Verulia posted.”

“Go ahead, I’m down to a dozen personnel files to review before I get to dive into the real fun stuff,” I said.

“The open arrest files?” he guessed.

“Yep. All the criminals that no one knows where to find, and no one wants on the colony ships.”

Verulia Industries had a team dedicated to preventing known war criminals from using the colony transfer as a method of escaping to a new world. With the insane rush the accerlated schedule put everyone under though, Master Raychelle had asked me to act as an “unofficial” Overseer for the Verulia security efforts.

“How many are there?” Darius asked.

“Tens of thousands,” I said. “But the auditors have narrowed the list down to a little over a hundred who are likely to still be alive and could pass through the screening systems without being recognized.”

“A hundred ghosts,” Darius said. “They give you the bestest jobs don’t they?”

“I’d rather deal with literal ghosts to be honest. At least I can take a punch at them.”

“Based on past experience, I’d like to wager some money that you’ll be taking a punch at these ghosts before too long too.” he said.

“Oh, I’ll take that bet!” I said. “Either way I win!”

“I should bet you a kiss then.” Darius said. “That way both of us win.”

I tugged on his shirt and he dutifully bent down so that I could caress his lips with my own.

“I don’t know how you managed to pull Liason duty for the Common Council but I am so glad you’re here with me,” I said.

“There are certain perks that come from having two parents on the Common Council,” he said.

“Have I mentioned I love your Dads?” I said.

“They’re kind of fond of you too,” he said. “Which reminds me, when you’re feeling up to it they’d like to have an official private dinner with you.”

Darius and I had gone to dinner with his Dads a few times already. Normally they were casual affairs. Neither Hector nor Osgood were big on ceremony or formal ranks. Our conversations also tended to focus more on the mundane elements of our lives rather than anything we dealt with in our official roles as Crystal Guardian or Common Councilmember.

Not that our lives outside our official roles were all that mundane. Darius had plenty of stories from growing up on Hellsreach but it was Hector and Osgood who I was really amazed by.

They’d met as rival politicians, both having been elected to the Common Council the same year. Hector had been in the party that favored developing a native military force that would be sufficiently armed to drive the non-native factions off the world. Osgood had been the most outspoken member of the party that favored an appeal for off world support.

Things had changed between them the year Darius was born. Hellsreach had been officially inducted into the Crystal Empire two years prior, but Imperial support was slow to arrive. Some of the worst fighting in the history of Hellsreach raged in the interim as all the sides tried to secure their position before Empire locked things down.

Darius’ mother was killed when fighting broke through Mapston, the former capital for the Human and Garjarack natives of Hellsreach. It was Osgood who rescued the infant Darius and kept him safe in the destroyed city through the long siege that followed. Osgood had thought that Hector had been killed as well and initially planned to protect and raise Darius as a tribute to the opponent whom he respected and admired.

Little by little though, Osgood began to feel the loss of his old rival and, seemingly too late, discovered that his feelings ran a lot deeper for Hector than he’d imagined.

Their reunion should have been been a happy occasion but life’s never quite that simple. The phrase “and I’ve still got the bolt caster scars to prove it” factored into that part of the tale more than once. In the end though, after events that make Hector cringe when he remembers them, they sorted through the misunderstandings and wound up together, happily, for the last sixteen years.

Wheedling out additional details from them was a fun game to play, especially since they often deflected the story in tales about Darius’ childhood that were delightful to listen to!

None of that was likely to be on the agenda for an “official private dinner”. If Hector and Osgood had requested that, it meant they needed to speak to me as members of the Hellsreach Common Council to a representative of the Crystal Empire. Nothing we said would be binding, but it was a chance to speak under the protection of a privacy screen, and I knew they wouldn’t invoke that unless they’d discovered something they weren’t free to act on themselves.

“Dinner would be wonderful,” I said. “When were they thinking of having it?”

“Tomorrow,” Darius said, “At our place.”

‘Our place’ in this context was Darius’ home. Having lost one spouse to violence, Hector had invested a frankly unreasonable sum of money to ensure that his home wouldn’t allow such an invasion again. It wasn’t the most secure facility on the planet, but that was largely because Hellsreach was a war world built by hyper-advanced aliens. Short of ancient artifact-level wards, their house was about as well defended as you could get and still be on Hellsreach.

I was about to agree to the dinner date when I flipped open the next personnel file on the colonist that traveled with the first wave of settlers the day before.

“We have a problem,” I said, double checking the file to make sure it was tagged correctly.

“What did you find?” Darius asked.

“The first colony ships that left, they held humans right?” I asked.

“Yeah, they took the townsfolk from Polsgard,” Darius said. “It was one of the human towns that got destroyed in the mega-quake. There wasn’t any housing for the people and all their stuff was destroyed, so there wasn’t much to be transported aside from the people themselves.”

“And Verulia security was responsible for cross checking that everyone who got on board the ship was a Polsgard resident right?” I asked.

“Actually we had an Imperial team and a couple of teams from the Council’s military working with them,” Darius said.

“Would any of them have been briefed on the latest additions to the Wanted list?” I asked.

“All of them should have been,” he said. “Who do you think they missed.”

I passed him the personnel file.

“Illya lived there,” I said. “What has me worried is that the ship departed with 509 colonists ‘confirmed by witness’. Meaning someone with proper ID confirmed to security that the other person was a resident.”

“So  you think Illya found someone to lie for her so that she could escape on the colony ship? That would explain why Fari wasn’t able to find her.”

“Titanus is far away, but she won’t be in a better position there. In fact we could almost find her more easily on Titanus than here on Hellsreach,so why go?” I asked.

“Verulia security should be keeping a close eye on the colonists that were only partially confirmed,” Darius said. “There shouldn’t be much that she can do there to get away any further.”

“They should be, but they’re rushing. Gan said they accelerated the timetable to bring a swift end to the in-fighting that remained but that doesn’t add up. By moving this fast Verulia has left open huge holes in its security net.”

“You think they’re under some other kind of pressure?” Darius asked.

“Yeah, spending things up wasn’t a trivial choice to make. It’s got to be costing Verulia a large portion of the profits they plan to make from their research here,” I said.

“Unless they plan to profit off more than what they showed you,” Darius said.

“That would make sense but I’ll need to track it down later,” I said. “For now there’s a more significant problem to handle.”

“How much damage do you think Illya can do on Titanus?” Darius asked.

“By herself, not much, but there were 509 colonists that were ‘verified by witness’. I think we have to assume that she’s not at all alone there.” I said.

“That’s not good,” Darius said.

“It gets worse,” I said. “The colony ship made it to the stellar warp gate twelve hours ago. We can’t contact them until they’ve landed on Titanus, which means Illya and her crew will have almost a month to prepare for us.”

“And we can’t stop the colony ships from leaving because we have no proof that they’re on board.”

“So we’re going to be walking into a trap, laid by highly trained and experienced professionals who have a fanatical hatred for the people we’re trying to protect,” I said.

“That sounds like fun. Shall I book us on the next ship out?” Darius asked.

The Horizon of Today – Chapter 14

The darkness that followed the flames was deeper than any I’d felt before. Elemental cold radiated through me in place of blood and my thoughts faded to a single word repeated over and over.

“Out.” I said without voice or breath or body to form the word.

On a subconscious level, I knew that there was something wrong. I’d been knocked out before and I’d been overwhelmed by Void anima before. Neither was fun but neither cut me off from the world and left me conscious of its loss at the same time. Being unconscious would have been a blessing, but the fact that I was aware of my lack of surroundings suggested that I was dealing with a whole different order of problem. I struggled, fighting back without any idea of how to land a blow against my problem (which could almost be the subtitle for my life) when things got weird.

“It’s not quite time yet,” a woman said.

“For what?” I asked.

The mere act of forming a word other than “out” was enough to push away the darkness that had consumed my thoughts.

“To be free,” she said.

“I don’t understand,” I said and the darkness roiled. Sensation came back to my skin and, through the cold that permeated me, I felt a breath-like warmth start to spread.

“You’re beginning to,” the woman said. “Focus on my voice and come back to us.”

“Ok,” I said. “What happened? Where I am?”

“Deep in your arts,” she said. “But you did save them.”

Satisfaction and relief rippled through me to hear that even though I had no idea who “they” were.

“Who are you?” I asked.

“It’s been so long,” my mother said.

I’d felt the destruction of a mega-quake. I’d heard continents shatter and crack. I didn’t break like that. I didn’t have to. I already had, years ago. Hearing my mother’s voice reminded me of the fact.

“You can’t be her.” I said. Anger as hot as lava surged up through the cracks that defined the unstable plates of my psyche.

“Much too long,” she said.

“Don’t pretend. Don’t you dare pretend to be her,” I said. I felt completely awake, completely in control of my powers and yet completely off balance too.

“I’m sorry Mel,” my mother said. “Sorry that you were pushed to this desperate of an act. Sorry that I’m not there for you. This isn’t how I imagined things turning out, but I guess it could have been worse.”

“Worse?” I said. “I’m so broken now I’m hallucinating. I can barely use my magic and I’m a danger to everyone if I even try.”

I felt a warm hand touch me on the arm and slapped it away.

“And now I’m leaving myself open for someone to manipulate like a five year old,” I said. “If you’re not a delusion, I’m going to do unspeakable things to you.”

“I’m not a delusion, and no, you’re not. My daughter is better than that. You always have been.”

“You can’t be my mother,” I said. “She’s gone. She’s been gone for a long time.”

“Dead isn’t gone,” she said. “Though the difference is somewhat debatable.”

“So you’re trying to tell me that you’re her ghost?” I asked.

“Ghost are impressions that dying people leave which are still connected with the anima they carried in life,” she said. “I’m not a copy, but I’m not all of who I was either. Think of me as an echo, I guess.”

“I don’t need an echo, and I don’t need you,” I said.

“I know,” my mother said. “You’re stronger than I ever could have imagined. They need that strength and they need you.”

“Who are they?” I asked.

“Do you know how few Void anima casters can form attachments with other people?” she asked. “We can be so quiet and hidden. Revealing ourselves enough that someone can care about us can be impossible sometimes.” she said.

“Master Raychelle gets along fine with people,” I said.

“And how many of them are more than acquaintances? Some, I think, but you’re measuring yourself against the wrong person if you trying to judge your worth that way.”

“Who else do I have?” I asked.

“Who you were and who you wish to be.” she said. “I know that doesn’t help though. When I was younger than you are now, my teacher gave me the same advice but life’s not that simple.”

“So what do you want from me Echo?” I asked.

“Grandchildren,” she said. “Someday. At the moment, I want you to unwrap yourself from the cocoon that you’re buried in.”

I did a double take at that and my disbelief faltered a bit. I couldn’t be haunted by my Mom, but Echo was doing a good job impersonating her. It wasn’t enough that I believed what she was saying but it did bother me that I couldn’t see what her real agenda was.

“Cocoon?” I asked.

“You were in danger and out of control,” my Mom said. “You did what you could to save yourself and the people you were caring for. The only problem was you went a little too far.”

“I did this?” I asked.

“Feel it, doesn’t the darkness seem familiar?” she asked.

I reach out at felt the void that we were in. It swirled around my hand.

“It’s my anima!” I said. “But it wasn’t like this last time!”

“Different castings, different effects,” Mom said. “You lost control of your anima before but that time the threat was external. This time it came from within you, so rather than striking outwards you wrapped yourself up in it. The problem was, you wrapped it so tightly, using your sense of danger to guide you that when the cocoon itself became a danger there was nothing to tell you when you were safe to stop.”

“I am really good at messing myself up with my own magics aren’t I?” I said.

“You’re exceptionally good at manipulating anima, you’re just about 14 years late on getting proper training on the things that you shouldn’t do with it,” Mom said. “For what it’s worth though, I did the same thing three time when I was learning to cast and it was for far less dire reasons than you had.”

“How did you get out your cocoon?” I asked.

“My mentor helped me recognize that I was trapped in one. Once I noticed that it’s not hard to pull your anima back in where it belongs.” she said.

“So I can leave here as soon as I want?” I asked.

“Yes. Probably the sooner the better too.” she said.

“Will you come with me?” I asked.

“I’m always with you,” she said. “But not like this. This part of me is part of the Void now. I can only speak with you now because you’ve suffused yourself too deeply into your anima.”

“What if I do that again?” I asked. “If it’s easy to get out of this state then we can talk more later right?”

“Leaving the cocoon is simple. What comes afterwards isn’t.” she said. “I wish it was easier. I wish we could speak like this whenever you needed, but the cost is more than you can afford, especially in the long term.”

“Isn’t that my choice to make?” I asked.

“I left a lot of things behind when I died, but my love for you wasn’t one them,” my Mom said. “There aren’t many ways that I can show that love to you anymore, but let me at least mother you this much: in this Void, many part of you will wither and fade away. Don’t give yourself up for me. So long as you flourish, another part of me lives on. One that’s much more important than this echo.”

“What if I don’t want to go?” I asked.

I felt like a four year old, being obstinate for no sane reason. There was a certain irony in that, but it still felt like I was asking a valid question.

“Then you’ll stay here. I can’t kick you out,” Mom said. “I can’t make any of your decisions for you. All I can do is ask if you really want to leave behind the people who are important to you. Raychelle? Darius? Fari? Would it be ok if you never saw them again.”

I scowled and tried to come up with a good counter argument to that. I take it as a small personal victory that I failed and had the good sense to admit defeat there.

“If you are her, you should find a way to talk to me,” I said. “If you’re not, then…thank you I guess.”

It hadn’t felt bad speaking with Echo and a part of me really did want to stay, but I knew she was right. My wasting away, cocooned inside a shroud of Void anima wasn’t going to do anyone any good.

“Good luck and try not to overdo it like this so much,” Mom said. “It’s ok to let other people help you once in a while. Trust me you’ll need it.”

I scowled again but couldn’t argue with that either.

Undoing the cocoon was as easy as she’d said it would be. It was all my own anima and all under my control. The problem had been I’d nearly strangled myself in it. In trying to get the fire under control I’d smothered not only the flames but also most of myself too. As I drew the anima safely back inside me where it belonged I heard other voices speaking.

“She’s starting to come out of it,” Master Raychelle said.

“What happened!” Fari screamed in my mind, her telepathic link forming faster than I could think.

“Ouch. Softer please.” I asked, replying on the telepathic link so that I could get a sense of the situation before I had to start dealing with it.

“Sorry,” she said. “You’ve had us scared to death for a while now.”

“How long was I out?” I asked.

“Two days,” she said.

“Oh, that’s not good,” I said, thinking of what my body was going to feel like after days without water or food.

“No it’s not,” Fari said. “So fill me in! What happened back on the ship there? One moment you were kicking butt and taking names and then next there was fire everywhere in the engine room.”

“That’s about all I remember from the ship too,” I said. “I guess I wrapped myself in a Void cocoon to stop the fire. What happened to the saboteurs though?

“They escaped, but we’re not certain how. I didn’t see them move through the hallways,” Fari said.

“What about Illya?” I asked.

“The same. I think she escaped with the strike team, but I don’t have proof of that.”

“I don’t think we need much. Did you see her move from the pressure cabin I left her in?” I asked.

“Nope. Which limits the options of how she ambushed you,” Fari said.

“The teleporter again?” I guessed.

“Seems like a safe bet. She’s someone Illya knows and would agree to help quickly like that. Plus it would explain how they moved around without the colony ship’s sensors detecting them.” Fari said.

“I’m guessing she hasn’t turned up since then right?”

“None of them have, and I’ve been keeping an eye out everywhere I can,” she said.

“What about Kallak?” I asked.

“He’s fine. He recovered yesterday, with a little help from some of the Verulia healers. He’s still stuck in space though. Chief Jallo is researching treatments for geomancers but they’re rare enough and Hellsreach is in such an unusual state that there’s not many previous cases to work from.”

“Good, so no one was hurt then,” I said.

“You’re not ‘no one’ Mel,” Fari said.

“No one else,” I amended my statement.

“Come on Mel, time to join us in the land of the living again. There’s lots you need to do here,” Master Raychelle said. I swept the rest of the Void anima away inside me and opened my eyes.

To my left I saw a viewing window and the stars beyond it, which told me I was still in space. Darius was asleep on one of the chairs across from me in a position that looked like several degrees less than comfortable. I was resting above stone table, floating weightless in a field that exempted me from the ship’s conjured gravity. Master Raychell was to my right and was powering the field from what I could see.

“How did you move me in here?” I asked, thinking of the difficult of transporting me when I was encased in Void anima.

“Not easily, but this ship is well protected,” Master Raychelle said.

Darius started to stir in his sleep at the sound of our voices but it was going to take him a few moment to fully wake up, so I decided to get up to speed as quickly as I could in the interim.

“Thank you,” I said. “Sorry to be that much trouble.”

“You prevented the sabotage of a colony ship and disrupted several spells that were hidden on the engines. I think a little bit of trouble is allowable under the circumstances,” she said.

“What do you need me for now? Can I track down that strike team?” I asked.

“You’re going to need a little more recovery time than that,” Raychelle said. “I’ve got people working on the issue now.”

“What can I do then?”

“Mr. Everbright has made a plea to the Colonization Committee and has been granted an accelerated schedule for the process. He claims he doesn’t want to risk either side of the conflict trying to destroy the other, so Verulia is expediting their investment in order to resolve the difficulties between them as soon as possible.”

“When do they start leaving.


“But that’s not enough time to review anything!” I said.

“Yes, and isn’t that just a little too convenient for him?” she said.

“What do you want me to do?” I asked.

“Go with them. Find out what the story is and report back to me. We can shut this whole thing down if we need to, but without some kind of proof of wrongdoing, this may be the best hope the people of this world have.”

The Horizon of Today – Chapter 13

The unexpected visitors on the Verulia colony ship could be there for any number of reasons. They might even have a valid right to be in possession of an Imperial transport. The the colony ship’s spellweb didn’t know where they were though so I had to bet we weren’t going to have a cordial exchange of pleasantries when I found them.

“Imperial Flight control, do you have a tracking link on an Imperial shuttle in this vicinity?” I asked via a private telepathic channel.

“Checking now,” Clar, the flight controller, said.

To my left, Gan was describing the various features of the colony ships. The people of Hellsreach would call the ship’s home for a month during the voyage and then another month once they made landfall on Titanus. Illya asked some sharp questions about the logistics of the operation and, to his credit, Gan had answers ready for most of them. I was a little disturbed though by how often his response was a variation of “Verulia’s local personnel will be coordinating that”. It wasn’t like they could relocate a planet full of people and expect them to sort of their new living arrangements on their own, but I got the sense that Verulia Industries was going to be very much in control of the colonists new lives. What incentive they would have to relinquish that control was unclear.

“No tracking link on any Imperial transports in your immediate vicinity Guardian. Do you have visual on one?” Clar asked.

“Yes. It’s a Red Sand model,” I said. I’d studied weird things as a kid. Crystal Empire warships and transports had been a craze for a few months and even half a decade later I remember a lot of the ship types that I’d been into. The Red Sands were a standard troops transport model. Fully enclosed, with light armor, a decent flight engine and room for a squad of twelve. There were a few famous ships that were conversions off the basic frame, but the one attached to Gan’s ship looked like one of the stock ships that we had in service for the last several months on Hellsreach.

“We have a report of a stolen transport, Red Sands model,” Clar said.

“Where was it’s last known position?” I asked.

“The Laris Central Processing Base,” Clar said.

I groaned. The Laris Central Processing Base was one of the larger human controlled military centers in the southern hemisphere of Hellsreach. There were dozens of transport ships there and tens of thousands of people who had access to them. The list of potential culprits was too large to determine who was waiting for us or what their goals were.

“Thank you Flight Control. I’ll see about retrieving our errant craft.”

Dealing with the thieves was going to involve a some serious risks. No one else on the transport with me had signed up for that sort of thing but I suspected some would feel like they were required to “help me out”. In Cadrus’ case that would be out of gratitude, but in Gan’s it would be to protect his investment. Whatever their reasons, I didn’t want to expose any of the people with me to that kind of danger.

Gan was talking with Cadrus while the seals between our transport and the colony ship were established and tested. I waited till he paused to take a breath (which took an annoyingly long time) and cut into the conversation.

“I want to go on ahead and talk to the inspection team before anyone disembarks,” I said. “If they’ve found the place safe enough then we can transfer Kallak over. If not then we’ll head back to the Imperial station while the issues are corrected.”

It was a valid cover story and I was pretty sure no one in the group was running a truth detection spell. Eirda looked at me suspiciously but then that was the way she looked at everyone so I was pretty sure she hadn’t picked up on my subterfuge.

The automatic checks on the seals finished and the passage between the two ships opened in time to punctuate my words. I stepped through without waiting for anyone to object to my plan and found Illya tailing after me.

“I’m supposed to stay with you right?” she asked.

I didn’t have anything to worry about in terms of her escaping custody from the transport shuttle, but I could see the nervousness in her eyes. She couldn’t stay with the Garjarack family.

“Right,” I said and proceeded inwards. I wasn’t exactly happy to have her with me, but some part of my brain wasn’t displeased with the notion of having a combat medic along when I might get banged up.

Not that she’d be able to heal me easily, given my relationship with Void anima and what it did to receiving spells from others. I’d been working on that while I convalesced but I still got less than a tenth of the energy from a healing spell as restorative anima. It kind of sucked but it was still better than nothing in dire cases.

“We’re not going to find the inspection team,” I said when the portals between the two ships closed again. I didn’t want to scare her but it definitely wouldn’t have been fair to lead her into a situation where violence was likely without prior warning.

“What do you mean?” she asked.

“The Imperial shuttle that is docked here was stolen,” I told her. “I don’t know what the thieves are up to but I’m not thinking they’re going to be super happy to see me.”

“Why not wait for support?”

“Best case scenario, they’re peaceful but desperate and just need someone who will listen and help them out. Worst case, they intend to escape after destroying the colony ship and our transport if we don’t stop them first. Either way, Imperial support’s not going to get here in time.”

“Do you know what you’re facing? Are you sure you can handle them?” Illya asked.

“We’re in one of the auxiliary docking chambers,” I said. “That door leads to a pressure cabin. Head in there and you’ll be safe ok?”

“You want me to stay behind?” she asked.

“I want you to stay safe,” I said.

“What about you though?”

“I’m going to head to the engine room. Once I’ve dealt with the thieves, I’ll come back and collect you and the others.”

“And if you don’t come back?”

“I’ve come back from a lot worse that this,” I said.

That didn’t convince her, but I couldn’t blame her. Taking on an unknown number of unknown adversaries was the hallmark of a bad plan. I felt the remnants of the Fate weaving tugging at me and recognized this as the “stupid moment” I was being led to.

Even without magical coercion helping them, plans that are put in motion have a tendency to continue barreling on until someone gets in their way. With my spell casting limited and too many unknown’s to count lined up before me, I was perfectly situated to be crushed beneath whatever avalanche someone had setup.

Of course that all assumed I wasn’t more powerful than the avalanche.

Illya either saw the gleam of insanity in my eye, or decided that fighting me on this point wasn’t going to lead anywhere she wanted to go. Whichever was the case, she nodded to me and headed over to the pressure cabin.

“Fari, would you be so kind as the warn me if I’m doing anything stupid here?” I asked.

“Ok. Warning, you’re doing something stupid,” she said. “You’re under no orders to keep Verulia Industries property safe. Let them blow up the colony ship if they want. No one’s in it now. The safest move is to get back in the shuttle and wait for a squad of Imperial soldiers to arrive as back up.”

“They’ll get away if I do that,” I said.

“We can track their shuttle,” she said.

“Like it was tracked on its flight here?” I asked.

“That’s a fair point. Allow me to counter it with this though; I’ll be paying attention to it if it tries to leave.”

“Can you tell if they teleport off the ship before it lands?” I asked.

“Maybe,” she said. “I can probably detect a departure, if they’re not careful to disguise it, but I probably won’t be able to determine their arrival spot. I’d rather they get away though than lose you.”

“I appreciate the sentiment but you know I can’t take that risk. There’s Fate magic involved here. If they get away something unpleasant is going to happen, and it’ll be hard to see it coming.”

“So what’s your plan?” Fari asked.

“I’m guessing you’ve already hacked the colony ship’s spellweb right?” I asked.

“With the security they had on it, I’m not sure I can even justify calling it hacking,” she said.

“Can you make out the spells the thieves have in place to cloak their presence?” I asked.

“No. They’re actually pretty good. The local scrying nodes all show the ship empty and running automated tasks,” she said.

“Exxion IV covert ops personnel?” I asked.

“Very likely. Could be Gar military too, but the odds favor the humans given where the shuttle was stolen from.”

“Excellent. I don’t need to hold back then,” I said.

“I can’t locate them for you,” Fari said. “And the colony ship doesn’t have any internal defenses. Anti-boarding is going to be handled by Verulia security once the ships are underway.”

“All I need is for you to work the environmental controls,” I said as I wrapped a strip of cloth around my eyes.

With the blindfold on I couldn’t see anything. Not in the normal spectrum of light. That meant Fari was free to douse the lights throughout the ship and then strobe them at blinding intensity in random patterns.

She couldn’t detect the thieves, but she was able to project an overlay on my vision of the ship’s interior. Wandering around a wireframe version of the ship’s corridors was a little strange but I was able to make good time to the engine room. I figured the thieves either wanted to steal the colony ship or sabotage it. Stealing the ship would lead them to the control room but that was trivial to deal with. Fari had the systems locked down and I could call up an Imperial Cruiser to take them into custody long before they jumped out of the system. Sabotage was more problematic,  The engine room was where they had the best chance of doing the most damage there so I headed there to catch them in the middle of whatever they had in mind.

As it turned, out the sabotage guess was the correct one. I found the first two covert-ops guys guarding the door into the engine room. Bolt were holding fully charged bolt casters. I’d switched to Void anima vision on the way, so the men and the guns stood out against the dark corridor as radiant beacons of light.

Between the darkness and blinding lights plus random air horn blasts over the ship’s communication system, they never saw me coming. Ten steps from the corner of the hallway, seven punches and two kicks and they were sprawled on the ground while I was barely breathing hard.

I rolled through the doorway into the engine room and dodged the another attack. The two outside the door had a third as backup.

“Hostile! My position!” he shouted.

I spun and caught him with a flying elbow to the face that mashed his head into the wall. The impact knocked the sense out of him and the guard went limp as a soggy noodle.

That was the good new. The bad news was that I felt my arm burn where I struck him. I paused as I understood what that meant. He’d had a shield up. My Void anima had instinctively ripped it away. I felt my hands and feet burning too and realized that I’d done the same thing to the two guards in the hall.

Subconscious casting, especially with Void anima, was something I did fairly often. From what Master Raychelle said, I’d probably drilled on it from a young age. Like just after I started walking. When I’d lost my mother, I’d repressed a whole lot of things, including my powers. I’d hidden inside my Void anima, all the while unconsciously practicing how to to suppress the other magics that I was developing. Most people who use Void anima on themselves manage to die horrible and brief deaths. It’s seriously dangerous stuff. Yet I’d coexisted with it for well over a decade.

Given the kind of control I had with Void anima to do exist with it for so long, I couldn’t understand where the burning was coming from. It wasn’t Energetic anima. I didn’t have a ton of that, and I could have controlled it better if I did. The obvious answer was that it was psychosomatic, lingering trauma from my fight on the volcano but it felt terribly real. And I’d seen real smoke come up from my hand. I could be hallucinating too but I didn’t think I was that far gone.

Fari’s flashing lights bought me a second to get out of the line of fire of the rest of the soldiers. They couldn’t cast their light amplification spells for nighttime work and even heat sensing spells didn’t do them much good in the warm confines of the engine room. They all had plenty of anima though, so I was able to see them with no problems whatsoever.

I watched as one cast a Mental anima spell, to locate me by detecting my thoughts.

“That one’s clever,” I said to Fari. “Care to punish him for it?”

“Certainly”, she said with glee.

I watched the energy of the spell bend to report my position as being behind the next storage chamber over. Clever boy signalled his compatriots to circle around the containers and catch me in the crossfire. They did succeed in setting up a crossfire but, unfortunately for them, I wasn’t the one in the middle of it.

The soldier’s confusion over almost shooting one of their own gave me the opportunity to dispatch another one, but I could feel the cost of fighting beginning to add up.

My breath was hot. It felt like the fire had climbed inside my lungs. It was a unique experience. I couldn’t see any flames on me, but heat on my skin had moved past discomfort and onto pain. Not agonizing pain, but enough that I needed it to stop. Balanced against that was the need to put down the rest of the covert ops before they killed me.

“Ready anima blades,” their leader said. “Spread out and engage the hostile in melee.”

It shouldn’t have surprised me that they were armed with anima blades. I think I’d just really really hoped that they might have forgotten to bring their death swords along on the evil covert mission they were running.

“Better idea, throw your weapons down and surrender and I won’t make you eat them.” I had Fari pipe my words over the engine room’s comm speakers so they couldn’t identify where I was hiding.

“Who are you?” the leader asked.

“Guardian Mel Watersward of the Crystal Empire,” I said. “This is the only offer I’m going to make. Disarm and surrender now. You will be treated fairly and given a proper trial before an Imperial court.”

“One of the Guardians?” the leader said. “You are a human are you not Watersward?”

“Surrender now,” I said. “I have only disabled your personnel so far. Any further aggressive action on your part will be met with increased force.”

“You have no place here Watersward. Leave now and you won’t be part of the reckoning that’s coming.”

One of the other soldiers crept around the corner of warp gate capacitor I was hiding behind. He had his anima blade held warily in front of him and his reflexes were hyper-enhanced with Physical anima.

So I drained all of that delicious magic and planted his face into the floor hard enough to knock him out completely. I knew he’d need medical attention – you don’t KO someone without doing sigificant damage, but I had a medic and a doctor on call back where my transport was docked, so I wasn’t too worried for his long term safety.

The soldier’s anima blade (and then head) hitting the deckplate was enough to bring two more of his teammates scurrying to my position. The blaring horns had covered the noise of the engagement but the squad was tracking each other’s vital signs from what I could see by the spell links between them.

I moved to tackle one and drag us both behind cover from the other one, but I wasn’t able to drain his reflexes before he got a snap kick off into my chest. That knocked me back into his partner, who I all but devoured. The kick had hurt but the lingering pain was more from the burning of erecting my own shield than the damage the soldier had done.

I was shaking from the pain, but at the same time I felt stronger than I had in months. Between the two soldiers and the anima blade that I’d partially drained I was carrying around a lot of force. With it channeled into my strength and speed I knew I could end the fight within the next three heartbeats.

That’s when Illya shot me in the head with a force bolt.

It was a great shot. Plenty of power to get through my shield but with a rippling effect so that the blow wouldn’t splatter my head across the deck. It was as potent a non-lethal shot as she could have put together.

Unfortunately for her, I felt it coming.

Through the burning in my body, I felt the cold talons of danger grip my chest. Instinct as much as anything else got my Void anima circle up in time. I absorbed Illya’s attack completely and took no damage at all from it.

No physical damage anyways The extra energy and spell casting pushed me over the edge.

Fire, literal flames, exploded from my body and I screamed. It wasn’t a scream of pain though. It was rage. Pure inhuman rage.

I tried to hold myself back but, around me, metal started to melt into slag as the whole world blurred into a brilliant orange haze.

The Horizon of Today – Chapter 12

Rising up beyond the borders of Hellsreach was more peaceful than I’d imagined it would be. The Verulia Industries flyer ascended with a gentle but constant acceleration the whole way into orbit but what really seemed to calm things down was the way Kallak’s condition improved as we passed beyond the edges of the breathable atmosphere.

“He’s retaining anima!” Chief Jallo called out as the stars came out around us and the sky faded to a vast and sheltering black. We were in one of the least hospitable climates possible, but the Garjarack family breathed a collective sigh of relief and even Illya seemed to relax.

“He will be ok?” Eirda asked.

“He’s improving. He had a lot taken out of him though. He’s going to need plenty of rest and time to recover.” Jallo said.

“Can we take him home now?” Eirda asked. “He’ll rest better there.”

“No, Illya was right. He can’t go back, not until he’s fully recovered,” Jallo said. “He’s so weak he probably wouldn’t survive another incident like that.”

“He shouldn’t go back at all,” Illya said. Stern Garjarack faces turned in her direction and she added, “At least not until the planet settles down. If another quake happens near him, he’ll suffer the same effects as he did this time. He’d be safer on another world.”

Eirda drew in a breath to speak but Gan managed to cut in before she had a chance.

“As it turns out, that’s not only an option, but one I think you’ll be happy to embrace.”

“Why would leave our home?” Nenya asked, sliding closer to her mother.

“To live in a better one,” Gan said. “My company is going to be buying all of the land on Hellsreach and providing you with a home on Titanus.”

He made a mistake there but he was in full sales pitch mode, so I opted to let him go. I wanted to see how he tried to sell his idea and how the people here reacted to it.

“Titanus is a freshly opened colony world. Verulia Industries, the company that I work for, is establishing several development centers there. You’ll be able to live and work with the people that you’ve known or strike out to settle new territory as it is opened up! No more strife, no more warfare, just safe, comfortable living on a virgin planet. It’s the fresh start that everyone here needs.”

Gan gave his speech with the fluidity of a practiced salesman. It always puzzled me that someone would choose to sound like that. I suppose it was persuasive to some people but for me it always raised giant warning flags. I could see a similar wariness settling over Cadrus and Eirda, as well as the other elder Garjarack. Even Nenya didn’t seem to be taken in by Gan’s spiel. Part of that was probably because the delivery was too slick but a larger issue came down to the speaker.

Gan thought of himself as separate from the humans of Hellsreach. Like me, he looked different from the human races that were common on Exxion, but in the eyes of the Garjarack’s one human was (to some extent) the same as any other. I’d saved their lives a few times and even with that I was pretty sure Eirda’s trust only extended as far as she could see me.

“All of the people of Hellsreach will be moving to Titanus?” Cadrus asked.

“All of the ones who choose to take our generous offer!” Gan said.

“Gar and Humans both?” Eirda asked.

“Yes,” Gan said. “But don’t worry, the cities we’re setting up will be on separate continents and will be overseen by Verulia security. There will be no war on Titanus.”

“And we can go there as long as we sell you our home?” Nenya asked. Some forms of body language are easier to read that others. Suspicion, anger, and distrust all push the speaker towards a more combative stance. That doesn’t always tell you much though. In Eirda’s case, watching her stance didn’t help because she always looked ready to rip someone’s head off. Nenya was more open than her mother however so when she crouched and coiled in on herself it got my attention. She wasn’t going to tear into Gan but she wasn’t happy with him either.

“You’ll find that the home’s we’re offering on Titanus will exceed the value of the homes you have here,” Gan said. “We’ve made sure to stock them with all the amenities that galactic society can offer too, customized to meet your needs. I believe the Garjarack homes come with sectional living areas to make them easy to expand for extended families, for example.”

“And if we don’t own anything here? What will we get then?” Eirda asked.

Gan let a moment of confusion sweep across his face. He glanced at me, and then back at the Eirda and then over at Kallak before understanding bloomed.

I fought back the urge to laugh at his expense. He’d assumed that the Eirda’s family were among the wealthy and important Gar who chose to live on Hellsreach. The one’s who’d built businesses here to either profit from the war, or profit from the resources in the areas that were safetly under their military’s control. It wasn’t a terrible assumption to make either. After all they had one of the three Crystal Guardians on the planet looking after them and for some reason merited express service to save the life of their child.

Gan did a remarkable job at hiding his disappointed when he put things together and saw that it had been compassion not greed that had motivated me to act on their behalf.

“If you aren’t a property owner, then there is still room for you on Titanus!” Gan said, rallying as best he could. “The New Colony Settlers Program which the Crystal Empire has instituted covers all residents of Hellsreach as part of the contract. There will be Verulia supplied housing both within the cities and in the outlying agricultural areas.”

“What kind of housing?” Nenya asked.

“Brand new, freshly constructed apartments and homesteads. The homesteads are at a premium, so we’ll be using a lottery system to determine which families they are allocated to first,” Gan said.

Gan’s sales pitch was refined enough that he was able to go on for a while longer, singing the praises of Titanus and the new opportunities there. As he blathered on, I watched not only the Garjaracks but Illya as well.

She was easier to read. She forced her face into a mask of disinterest, but I could see she was hanging on every word Gan said and thinking what his message meant for the people above Salmon Falls.

By the time Gan finished speaking, Kallak was beginning to regain consciousness. Chief Jallo let the family speak with him for a few minutes and then shooed them all away so that Kallak could sleep and regain his strength naturally.

That, in turn, led to the discussion of Kallak’s immediate need to be away from Hellsreach until he recovered. I offered to find a berth for him on the Imperial Station but Gan countered that with an offer to put the whole family up on the first of the Garjarack colonist transport ships. He claimed it was to give them a chance to evaluate the amenities that Verulia Industries had to offer, but I saw at least two other plans in motion there as well.

First, it was an action designed to appeal to me. I’d made the family important and Gan was showing that he was willing to treat them as such to get on my good side. Second though, the family themselves were a valuable resource. Verulia Industries probably didn’t have any Garjarack employees whom they could use as spokesmen for their plan. Even if they did, those Gar would be on an outer circle of association with the Gar on Hellsreach. In a society as conscious of degrees of relationship as the Gars were, having someone on an inside circle who would speak favorably of you was invaluable.

In the end Gan was able to convince Eirda that his offer gave them the best chance of seeing Kallak restored safely, and that was all it took to decide things for the family. I wasn’t sure he’d be earning their endorsement any time soon, but he had a foundation to start working from at least.

We logged an amended flight plan with the Imperial Station and I brought Fari and Darius up to speed on how things were going while we accelerated to the high orbit that the Verulia Industries colony ship was parked in.

“I’m going to do a bit of digging on Verulia,” Fari said after I filled her in on what had happened. “Everbright’s only message so far has been about the property exchange but there has to be a lot more going on there.”

“You’re wondering about the businesses and the publicly owned spaces?” I asked.

“That and a lot of other things. Hellsreach is a mess but its a complicated mess,” Fari said. “You can’t just pluck everyone up and drop them into a new planet and expect it to all work out.”

“Agreed. I’m nervous about how he keeps referencing things like Verulia Industries security providing law enforcement for the new colonies,” I said.

“Right, that leads to the bigger question of who’s going to be in charge. Is Verulia going to dissolve the Hellsreach Common Council? Who’s going to own the utilities and the infrastructure on Titanus? Where will supplies come from for the first few years while the colonies are establishing themselves? What contingencies are there for Verulia going out of business?”

“All good questions,” I said. “Which makes me realize something.”

“That you’re glad I’ve got your back on this?” Fari asked.

“Always.” I said. “But something more than that too.”

“That’s it’s kind of weird that Raychelle and Opal are dumping this on you rather than taking care of it themselves?” Fari guessed.

“No, I think that’s a sign of trust,” I said. “They’ll get to review the findings and recommendations of the Imperial Overseer before the final contracts are signed and certified.”

“What are you thinking then?”

“That I shouldn’t be the one in the Overseer role.”

“Why? Who else could do as good a job with it?” Fari asked.

“You,” I told her.

It’s rare that I get to surprise Fari. She’s smart enough that she sees all my best tricks coming and can turn them back on me before I get a chance to spring them. The one area where she has a blind spot though is herself and how amazing she is.

“But, I’m not a Crystal Guardian.” she said.

“Yeah, that’s something we should have taken care of a while ago,” I said.

“No one would accept me as a Guardian!” she protested.

“I do,” I said. “You’ve been as much a Guardian as I have, for as long as I have.”

“Yeah, but you’re my friend.”

“Doesn’t matter,” I said. “I’ll let the facts speak for me. Without you I couldn’t have defeated the Karr Khan. You were the one who saved Hellsreach. All I did was act as an annoying distraction. Today, I managed to help one family and one small town. You and Opal saved thousands or millions of people by defusing the second mega-quake.”

“All of that is stuff I did with other people though,” Fari said.

“Which is why I think we need to recognize you for the person you are,” I said. “Let’s face it, you’re much better suited to oversee a complex project than I am. I know its kind of a scary prospect, and I’m not suggesting I’d toss this at you and flee to another star system. I just believe that this is something you can do. Probably better than anyone else here.”

“It seems like a huge step,” Fari said.

“It is,” I said. “And I don’t want to push it on you if you don’t feel ready for it, or if you’re not interested in becoming a Crystal Guardian at all. I think you’d make an amazing one, but there’s literally an entire galaxy out there with different choices to chose from.”

“Wow, I should probably think about that for a bit,” she said.

“That’s never a bad idea,” I said. “I can stay on as Overseer until you decide, however long that takes, if I can count on your support in the interim that is.”

“Always,” she said.

I felt the ship drift into contact with its destination as Gan’s voice came over the communication system.

“We’ve arrived at the Garjarack Colony ship. Prepare to disembark.”

On a private channel, Gan sent an additional message to me.

“I’m glad to see you’ve begun the inspection process already!” he said telepathically.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“There’s an Imperial shuttle docked with the transport ship,” he said, “They have an inspection request logged into our spell web. Technically you’re a little early. We haven’t finished certifying the ship for travel worthiness, but I’m sure that won’t be a problem. We keep our ships in excellent condition at all times.”

I could hear both the sales pitch and the prepared excuse for any shortcomings that the inspection found in his words. There was only one little problem.

I hadn’t ordered any inspection of the Colony ship and those weren’t official Imperial inspectors who were waiting on board for us.