Ten thousand monsters. All heading towards Vunthor’s control. All able to fly faster than we could.
Watching the deca-beasts tear through the sky far below us was a more beautiful sight than it should have been. Their newly formed wings glistened with multi-hued anima waves that rolled off with every beat and lingered behind leaving contrails that painted the sky in more colors than the most brilliant sunset.
The sheer power of the creatures was incredible to behold and the roar of their passing rumbled through my bones like thunder. We were on the edge of space and they were only a few hundred feet above the ground but I still felt like they might rise up at any moment and swarm around us.
Instead though they flew onwards, ignoring our presence in favor of the siren call that Higgs was singing.
“They’re going to reach Vunthor well before we do,” Fari said.
“No preventing him from making contact with them anymore,” Darius said. He looked at me and I could see the question in his eyes. Should we scrub the mission? Fighting through Vunthor’s regular forces was a risky gamble at best. Fighting through ten thousand inhuman reinforcements was more an elaborate form of suicide than any sort of gamble.
“Are the deca-beasts space capable?” I asked Fari.
She conjured another analysis circle and observed them for a minute before responding.
“Not yet,” she said, “But they’re still growing.”
“How quickly?” I asked.
“The remaining giga-beasts will regain their flight and be space and warp capable well before these guys will,” she said. “I’d guess it will take the deca’s at least a few days before they’re reach that stage.”
“How big will they be then?” Darius asked.
“About the size of their progenitor,” she said.
So, ten thousand giga-beasts. In a few days. Unless we could stop them.
“We have to continue on,” I said. “Thanks to this there’s no option to wait for the Imperial Marines anymore.”
“We need a plan for dealing with the deca-beasts then,” Darius said.
“We’ll need intel before we can put one together,” I said. “So that’s going to be your job Mr. Professional Military Scout. Find the best path for observing what Vunthor’s doing with the deca-beasts.”
“Will you be able to keep us cloaked from them?” he asked.
“No,” I said. “In fact, I’m going to need to be far away from you. Vunthor’s cut off the link between us, but with Higgs as an ally he might be able to re-establish it. If we fly in their together, I’ll be a liability.”
“First order of business will be finding a safe place to hide you then,” he said.
“I appreciate the thought, but we can’t waste time on me,” I said.
“You wanted the professional scout? Then listen to the professional scout,” Darius said. “One of the key elements of success to any mission is having the right back up. I need you in a safe spot, so that I can be sure I have a fallback position when, not if, things go horribly awry. No fallback position, no escape, no survival. It’s as simple as that.”
“Fair enough,” I said. “But I think the nearest safe position is back on Hellsreach.”
“A ‘safer’ place to hide you then,” he said.
“I’m not opposed to that,” I said. “Fari can you coordinate with Captain Hanq and his teams? They need to know what we’re up against now.”
“Already on it,” she said. “I’ve also hacked the Garjarack colony ship’s spell web and locked down the warp portal generators. I know it’s kind of too little, too late, but I figured the last thing we needed was Everbright doubling down on his stupidity and sending more Ghost Bombs at the deca-beasts.”
“What would happen if he did?” I asked.
“From my analysis, they’d sub-divide further and their growth rate would increase exponentially,” she said. “Right now we have a planetary crisis. If those things got hit with another Ghost Bomb we’ve have an apocalypse and our only viable options would be to activate Hellsreach in full weapons mode or find a way to recharge my gem.”
“Why didn’t they know that?” Darius asked. “If they did any sort of calculations, why didn’t they account for that possibility?”
“I’m not sure,” Fari said. “It didn’t take me long to scan the giga-beast’s structure and they should have had access to the same sort of scrying spells from the colony ship.”
“Could you have predicted that the bombs would have led to this kind of explosive growth?” I asked.
“Hmm, no, not before the bombs hit them,” Fari said. “But looking at the scan results, it’s easy to see that the giga-beasts would have several methods for surviving the bombs effects. It’s just surprising that explosive reproduction was the one they managed to employ.”
“So if we assume the Verulia team isn’t completely composed of idiots, why would they have launched that attack?” I asked.
“They want the colony to fail,” Darius said. “At this point the cost of reclaiming Titanus and providing security on it has to have tipped their balance sheet into the negative. Throw a couple Ghost Bombs at the targets to prove that they can’t be easily dealt with and they can make a strong case to abandon the entire endeavor.”
“And a strong argument for why they had to abandon the other two colony ships,” Fari said.
“That sounds like how Everbright would think, but something still doesn’t fit,” I said. “Why bother with Ghost Bombing Vunthor’s crew? From what he described of the modified bombs, that might actually have worked. At least if Vunthor wasn’t ready for it.”
“I don’t know,” Darius said.
“It feels like we’re missing a piece of information still,” Fari said.
“Then let’s go find it,” I said.
Darius set me down at a point about five miles away from the cave that I’d last detected Vunthor and Higgs in. We were on the opposite side of a couple of mountain peaks from his position and I hadn’t felt any attempt to re-establish the link between us.
Watching Darius leave twisted my guts into a sour knot of bile. I knew he was smart. I knew he was good at what he did. But sometimes good and smart aren’t enough. Part of me couldn’t stand that. Just the idea of letting him go into danger, alone, seemed absurd. All sorts of rationalizations jumped to mind screaming reasons why I should go with him. I almost gave into a dozen or more of them, but stopped myself each time with the same thought.
I had to trust him. The best tool that I had to keep him safe was to believe in him. He had his own tricks for being stealthy and knew the kind of watch patterns that Vunthor’s forces would use. I told myself that If anyone on the planet could pull off this scouting mission, it was him. I told myself that and then I tried as hard as I could to believe it.
The tough thing about worry though is that it doesn’t go away. It keeps picking away at you, like an ocean eroding the land. I wanted my belief in Darius to be as strong as stone, but the sea can wear stone down into sand by its relentless hammering and worry could do the same to belief.
“I’m concerned about that teleporter Vunthor has,” Fari said. “He could have used them to make contact with the giga-beasts already.”
“Maybe he has?” I asked.
“They’re still heading this direction,” she said.
“This place is a pretty good natural fortress,” I said. “Maybe he wants them here to reinforce it?”
“Is he the kind to consolidate his forces like that?” she asked.
“Yeah, I think he is,” I said. “He commands his people by the force of his charisma and he’s obsessed with control after losing his family members like he did.”
“That’s why he came along for this mission personally, isn’t it?” Fari asked.
“I think so,” I said. “This was a huge gamble, but also a potentially huge reward, even without the giga-beasts. I don’t think he was capable of leaving it in anyone else’s hands to manage.”
“If you were a full Guardian, you’d be expected to handle this on your own wouldn’t you?” Fari asked.
“If I was a full Guardian, I don’t think the situation would have gotten as out of control as it has,” I said. “Master Raychelle could have stopped Higgs well before he called in the cosmic brute squad there, and she probably could have dealt with Vunthor already too.”
“I don’t know about that,” Fari said. “She was focusing on all of Hellsreach, but you were the one who identified Vunthor as being the worst of the dangers.”
“That was as much luck as insight,” I said. “If we hadn’t stumbled across part of his operation in Salmon Falls, I wouldn’t have been so focused on him.”
“Do you think you’re making your own luck?” she asked. “I mean you kind of stumbled on me too.”
“I don’t think I can make luck that good,” I said.
“I remember the results from the tests the Guardians ran on you,” she said. “You do have a decent amount of Aetherial anima at your disposal.”
Meaning I could be weaving a fate cast without being conscious of doing so.
“Decent but not exceptional,” I said. “Master Raychelle figures that it’s mostly bound up in the danger sense that I seem to have.”
“I remember her also commenting that your ‘danger sense’ is unusual too,” she said.
“Just in how it manifests,” I said. “Yael and Zyla have much better, clearer senses when they’re in danger because they’re both wizards at Aetherial casting.”
“But they don’t cast reflexively like you do sometimes,” she said.
“It’s not often they need to,” I said. “You’re thinking that’s important right now for some reason though aren’t you.”
“I’m thinking of a lot things at the moment,” Fari said. “But, yeah, that’s one important thread.”
“Why would it be important?” I asked.
“You can sense danger and cast reflexively in response to it,” she said. “I don’t think Vunthor can.”
“What makes you say that?” I asked.
“It’s the shape of his plans,” she said. “I’ve seen you think like him, but from what he’s done here and the records I copied of his service years, I don’t see him ever thinking like you.”
“Well, I’m not a military commander bent on species-wide genocide, so there’s bound to be a few differences,” I said.
“It’s more than that though,” she said. “You figured out he would come here, and you can even guess what motivated that. Until he got access to the giga-beasts though, he had to be thinking that no one was going to follow him from Hellsreach.”
I thought about that and saw the dots Fari was connecting.
“He had the Council colony ship destroyed to ensure no one would follow them, because that left him with a divided planet to work with. All of the humans on one side and all of the Garjarack on the other.” I said.
“Except the explosion of the colony ship would only delay pursuit if no one made him a priority,” Fari said.
“Don’t sell yourself short,” I said. “You did some pretty amazing navigation work to get us back on his trail.”
“Thanks, but a large part of that was done by the Council colonists who survived,” she said. “We wouldn’t have lived without their efforts because we were under an extreme time crunch, but given enough time anyone could have come up with the calculations for that warp path.”
“Do you think help might be on the way then?” I asked.
“If they follow standard Imperial disaster procedures, then no, I’m afraid not,” she said. “They’ll need a special mission just to ensure that the path is safe first before they send any more ships to their doom.”
“I’d grumble about that but given what’s waiting for them here, I can’t say it’s really a bad idea,” I said.
“Agreed,” Fari said. “But I don’t think that’s the important part. I think the key here is that Vunthor’s limited. By his ego, by his grief, by whatever madness is eating away at him.”
“He is making mistakes too,” I said. “I don’t think he’s fought another Void caster before, for example. If he had he never would have tried that Void attack on me.”
“Right,” she said. “That’s why I think you can beat him.”
“He’s still got Higgs on his side though, and I’ve failed to beat that monster twice now,” I said.
“He’s failed to beat you too,” she said. “Last time you drove him off. Even if that’s all you can manage again, that would still count as a win if we bring down Vunthor.”
“So you’re onboard with me fighting him?” I asked.
“I wish you didn’t need to, I wish you could be safe, but under the circumstances, I don’t think either of those is an option,” she said. “The best course I can see is to press him hard, force him to make more mistakes and do our best to survive the consequences.”
“For what it’s worth,” I said, “I wouldn’t want to try doing this without you.”
“For what it’s worth,” she said. “I feel the same.”
“I have some good news and some bad news,” Darius said as he touched down outside the mouth of the cave Fari and I were huddled in.
“What’s the bad news?” I asked.
“It looks like Vunthor’s ordered the deca-beasts to attack both the human colony ship and the remaining Council colony module,” he said. “The monsters are flying there as we speak. Oh and the giga-beasts have regained their flight and will be here in under an hour.”
“What’s the good news?” Fari asked.
“He didn’t hold any of the deca-beasts back,” Darius said. “There’s nothing between us and him.”
“It’s a trap,” Fari said.
“And an invitation,” I said. “He wants us to come to him, wants me to fight him.”
“What are you going to do?” Darius asked.
“Show him what a mistake he’s made,” I said.