Monthly Archives: December 2014

The Compass of Eternity – Chapter 2

We left Halli and the corruption there behind us the moment the Imperial dreadnaught that  Hanq had called for arrived. Fari gave them a compressed memory dump with the names, dates and verifying records for each of the false trials the Magistrate had presided over during her tenure. I guessed there’d be around a dozen or so Imperial High Court judges who were going to be very busy in the months to come, not to mention a similar number of private penitentiary companies that were going to be greeted with the news that they were no longer in business and several thousand people who would be tasting freedom again for the first time in far too long.

For as tempting as it was to stay and make sure that was all sorted out properly though, I felt a surge of eager anticipation when the Horizon Breaker jumped through the portal to warp space.

“Your danger sense acting up yet?” Darius asked as we scrubbed down to get the grime from Halli out of our skin.

“Yeah,” I said as I scoured his back with a rough washcloth under the hot water. “It went off as soon as Fari told us about Yael’s letter.”

“What’s she like?” Darius asked, stepping out of the spray of water and letting me get underneath.

“Yael?” I asked. “The last time I saw her, we fought off a warlord armada together. She was only an apprentice then and there was only one person I saw who lasted more than three seconds in a fight with her.”


“I wish. If we’d fought she’d would have splattered me across a disturbingly wide area,” I said. “No, it was one of our enemies, a girl named Zyla.”

“Is this the same Zyla who’s been partnered up with her since then?” Darius asked, rubbing me down with some industrial strength detoxifying soap.

“The same, although I believe Yael is technically Zyla’s parole officer,” I said.

“How long of a parole period is it?”

“Just a year before she could apply for a review,” I said. “Xyla was instrumental in helping us stop her father and she worked pretty hard after that to make amends for the things she did too.”

“So why is she still on parole?” Darius asked.

“She gone review yet,” I said. “Last I heard, Zyla had a few gray marks on her record for how she handled some of the situations she and Yael had been in and she wasn’t willing to stand in front of the parole review board until they were cleaned up.”

Darius followed me out of the shower and passed me a towel so that we could dry off. I felt the tingle of a small spell on it and gave him a quick kiss. With his talent at manipulating Energetic anima, it was a trivial effort to enchant a towel to be warm and fluffy. Trivial but still appreciated.

“That makes sense,” he said. “But it sounds like you think there’s more going on there?”

“I don’t know. I haven’t kept in touch with them that well, I’m just wondering if it’s a question of Zyla holding herself to an unrealistic standard or if Yael’s been encouraging that brand of craziness in her.”

“Yael’s a Guardian isn’t she?” he asked as he pulled on his pants.

“Yeah, but she’s probably the tightest wound Guardian I’ve ever met,” I said, pulling on a fresh set of my combat robes. In theory I was safe onboard the ship, but I like to be protected by both theory and heavy duty environmental spells whenever possible.

“So wound up that she’s likely to make mistakes?” he asked.

“No, just the reverse,” I said. “She and Zyla are both ridiculously skilled with Aetherial anima. Watching the two of them fight was like watching master gamesmen at work. It was all plans with plans and maneuvers that come out of nowhere and should never work but somehow turn out in their favor anyways.”

“Could the two of them have had a falling out?” he asked.

“Maybe?” I said. “That would explain why they’re both out of contact but if Yael had seen that coming she’d have left more information in her message.”

I leaned in to bury my face in his hair and drew in a nice long breath. It was a little weird, I’ll admit, but I loved the smell of his hair. When I held the embrace a few seconds too long he put his hands over the arms I wrapped around his chest and hugged them until I relaxed and let go.

“You’re going to be careful on this one right?” he said. Despite the phrasing and tone of voice he used, it was a request not a question.

“As much as I can be,” I said.

“And you’re going to come back to me?”

“Always,” I said. We both knew it was a statement of intent more than a promise. The Horizon Breaker had been very successful in the two years we’d been a part of its crew but  even so we’d lost people, and come close to losing each other a few times too. In fights like the one on Halli, I still had a tendency to show off and not take things seriously, but that was a situation where we were dealing with an opposition so far below our weight class that we would have been in more danger from excessive worry than from anything they could do to us.

In this case, I had no idea what kind of opposition we were up against, but excessive worry didn’t seem like it would be an issue.

Once we were dressed, we joined Hanq, Fari and the other team leads in the Captain’s briefing room.

“We’re going to be arriving at the planet Abyz in sixteen hours,” Captain Hanq said. “Officially our reason for visiting is to convey a diplomatic parcel to the Imperial Ambassador there. The parcel is part of the yearly budget discussions and contains an offer from the Empire to assist Abyz’s efforts to renew and revitalize it’s main orbital station.”

I winced. We were going in undercover. That was good in the sense that I’d get to be in the vanguard but bad in the sense that we’d have to be restrained and tactful in how we looked for answers. I’d been trained in a lot of things, but restraint and tact were areas I was still working on.

“Our true purpose will be to ascertain the whereabouts and status of these two Imperial personnel,” Hanq said and called up holo-vid representations of Yael and Zyla in the center of our conference table. The scrying bowls in front of each of us changed and a book appeared which listed the vital information for each of our missing persons.

I watched the other team leads take in the relevant details and saw more than a few force themselves to hide their surprise. Rescuing a Crystal Guardian wasn’t an everyday mission and everyone at the table had been with the crew long enough to know how tough the “non-standard” missions we took on could be. One-by-one I saw them glance over at me and I could only shrug and try to look like I had a handle on things in response.

“We’re going to be very limited in our investigation though,” Fari said, taking over the briefing as Captain Hanq often had her do. “Abyz has tight restrictions on immigration and tourism. Apart from the primary spaceport and a half dozen resorts, off-worlders are barred from the rest of the planet.”

“What about Imperial inspectors?” I asked. Worlds that tried to bar Imperial inspectors tended to be worlds where the corruption was obvious enough to be visible from space, but a few of them were paranoid for other reasons.

“Inspectors have full access, but it takes a month to ‘acclimate’ them to the planet,” Fari said.

“Toxins in the air?” Tym, the other Black Team leader asked. “Is this another cesspit like Halli?”

“No, supposedly its beautiful there,” Fari said. “Very safe too. The whole planet is bound up in fate magics.”

There was a round of collective cursing from everyone at the table.

Aetherial anima dealt with many different immaterial qualities of reality. My danger sense, for example, drew on my Aetherial magic stores. Precognition spells, illusion casting and all sort of other unique and interesting effects could be created with Aetherial anima but the most basic use for it was fate binding.

In theory a fate spell simply altered a number of random events so that a given overall effect the caster desired occurred. Rather than shooting a lightning bolt at someone like an Energetic anima caster could, a fate binding might cause an electrical power line to fray and land on the caster’s enemy. Or they might get caught in a particularly bad thunderstorm and struck naturally. Or a hovercar from the Lightning Fast Delivery company might run them over.

Fate magic was, generally, imprecise which made it lousy for achieving very specific ends but excellent for encouraging broad trends, or executing attacks that were incredibly hard to see coming. As a Void caster I had some level of protection against it since I could devour any anima that touched me, but that wouldn’t necessarily help when a Lighting Fast Delivery hovercar was barreling down on me.

“From Guardian Clearborn’s note we know that they were investigating an anomaly in the Fate bindings themselves,” Hanq said. “She indicated the need for care due to the possibility for a cascade failure in the spell matrix and advised us to restrict our investigation to ensuring that a planetary crisis hasn’t been triggered.”

“How much damage are we looking at if there is a cascade failure of the fate bindings?” I asked.

“Abyz bills itself as a ‘Paradise Planet’,” Fari said. “And they can support that claim largely thanks to the fate bindings. Check out their crime and accidents statistics.”

I looked at the scrying pool in front me as the personnel reports on Yael and Zyla changed to a datasheet on Abyz.

“Did they forget to fill in their numbers here?” I asked.

“Nope,” Fari said. “The Imperial Ambassador’s seal is on these. They’ve had no accidents and no violent crimes since their induction into the Empire.”

“That’s not possible is it?” Darius asked. “What would you power that many Fate spells with?”

“According to the Queen’s senior staff, the ley lines on Abyz are naturally unbalanced towards conversion to Aetherial anima and are exceptionally suited to fate spells,” Fari said.

“And has anyone ever confirmed that?” I asked.

“The fate spells were in place before Abyz joined the Empire,” Fari said. “The few efforts that were made to probe them resulted in partial collapses and so the research was called off.”

“That’s why Guardian Clearborn advised us to avoid tampering with the binding spells,” Hanq said. “Abyz is home to over six hundred million people, and another sixty million tourists. The fate bindings are their primary safety net. If they fail, we’ll be looking at a backlash that could kill all of them.”

“What are our mission parameters then?” I asked.

“Our primary goal is to preserve the lives of the people on Abyz,” Hanq said. “Guardian Clearborn was concerned that if they went missing it might be due to an event severe enough to trigger a cascade failure. We need to make sure that’s not the case and have a contingency plan in place in case it is.”

“And if everyone there is happy and healthy?” I asked.

“Our secondary mission is to locate and assist Guardian Clearborn and her assistant,” Hanq said.

“What about catching the bad guys?” I asked.

“We don’t know that there are any bad guys here,” Hanq said. “Its entirely possible there was a natural disruption in Abyz’s ley lines that caught Guardian Clearborn’s attentions. It’s also entirely possible that her failure to stay in contact is due to perfectly normal difficulties encountered in pursuit of the case.”

He waited a moment to make sure that the official message had been conveyed, before continuing.

“We are not idiots however, so we’re going to assume that there are bad guys at work here until we have proof otherwise,” he said. “Guardian Watersward, please assemble a team for deep infiltration.”

I looked at my former mentor and smiled. I’d already been thinking of that exact idea, but I was pretty sure he wasn’t going to be a fan of the team I had in mind.


The Compass of Eternity – Chapter 1

The problem with following the rules, is that they can lead you to all kinds of places you don’t want to go. I pondered that as I waited my turn for sentencing. It was an annoying thought to chew on but at least it was better than chewing on the stench that wafted off the slime cauldrons which lined every office and corridor of the headquarters of the Supreme Magistrate of Halli.

Halli was a minor little backwater on one of the many edges of the Crystal Empire. If it had been just two star systems further from the core it would have been outside the jurisdiction of the Crystal Guardians and therefore not my problem to deal with. As one of the Crystal Empress’s sworn defenders though, I was duty bound to investigate all claims against any planetary government that involved the violation of the Imperial Rights granted to all of the citizens of the Empire.

In practice that usually involved showing up, telling the offending party or parties to knock it off and dragging one or two of the principal culprits back for trial before an Imperial Court. It wasn’t a smooth or stress free life that I led by any stretch of the imagination but it was interesting and rewarding in its own ways.

Standing in the sentencing line that lead to the Magistrate’s theater left me questioning those rewards though. On the positive side, I had power and privilege and loved ones who’d been with me for years. On the other hand there was the stench of Magistrate’s hall coupled with the fact that no matter how much I wanted to, I was not allowed to call down an orbital strike and obliterate the facility and everyone inside it.

“Prisoner ‘Mel Watersward’, step forward and receive sentencing,” the bailiff said.

I smirked. The Magistrate was about two minutes away from giving me all the evidence I needed and if I was really lucky she’d push the issue just a little farther than that.

The bailiff pulled me forward onto the rusty steel scaffolding that ran across the room to the platform that was suspended over the bubbling vats which packed the lower levels of the Halli Central Justice building. The catwalk swayed as we walked and with the lack of railings I was pretty sure more than a few defendants wound up in the slime smelting pots below before charges were even read against them.

Halli had once been the haven of a Warlord named Ney. It was the stinky jewel in his crown for two reasons; first, it was home to a rare form of goo that held destructive enchantments extremely well. Weapons fabricated with Halli-slime were more damaging than standard military gear by a noticeable margin. The slime was self-renewing too, in fact it was hard to come to Halli and not wind up splattered with the disgusting stuff at some point or other. It was pretty much everywhere.

For Warlord Ney’s purposes though the prime benefit of Halli was that it lay off the standard trade routes so most of the work done there was invisible to his rivals. The warlords he fought with knew he had a hidden base to work from but were never able to locate it, at least not before one of my predecessors found Halli and brought down Ney’s reign entirely.

Once Halli was accepted into the Crystal Empire, a new government was put in place, one that answered to the people of Halli and agreed to abide by the Imperial rules of conduct towards its citizens and neighbors.  That practice worked better in some place and worse in others, with Halli being one of the “worse” places.

In Halli’s case, the Empire had simply failed to provide the oversight needed. Over twenty years ago, in the wake of the Galactic War, there’d been a million systems that joined together to form the new Empire. The Crystal Empress and the Prime Crystal Guardians had been at the spearhead of that and while they were inhumanely powerful, even they had limits in terms of how many problems they could deal with at once.

People often make the mistake of thinking the Crystal Empire formed during the few months of galactic scale warfare where the Empress swept the old Warlords outside of the star systems that make up the Empire. That was just the beginning though. Even two decades later, the Crystal Empire is still being built from the remains of the violent and lawless era that preceded it.

It’s not a perfect Empire, but it wasn’t meant to be. Perfection is something we work towards, not something we are. Usually that means striving to be better and looking for ways to improve what we do and who we are. With situations like Halli though, it’s more a matter of deciding if there’s anything left worth salvaging or if we should just burn it all to the ground and start over.

I was ruminating on that as the bailiff and I arrived at the central platform for my “sentencing”. The Magistrate was sitting above us on a separate platform. To her left and right a dozen bodyguards lounged in various states of inebriation. None of them were too drunk to fight, but it also wasn’t likely that any of them would have to thanks to the anti-armor turrets that were trained on the defendant’s platform.

If the guards decided to shoot me, I’d be facing about a dozen bolt casters that could punch holes in steel plates. If the turrets opened up, the platform I was standing on and everyone within about fifteen feet of it would be reduced to a fine mist unless they had personal shields that were stronger that starship armor.

I noticed the bailiff was quick to leave me alone on the platform.

The wimp.

“This one looks like she’ll fetch some coin,” the Magistrate said. “What are the charges against her?”

“Conspiracy to commit murder, conspiracy to incite rebellion and falsifying official documentation,” the bailiff read for a safe distance away from me.

“Ah, good a Class 1 felon,” the Magistrate said. “Any signs of mental deviations?”

“No,” the bailiff said. “The arrest was clean. No resistance and no delusional claims.”

“Good,” the Magistrate said. “The Zera Asylum is behind on their payments, better that we keep them out of the bidding on a good catch like this. What about witnesses, where’s our case against the convict?”

“I’m still here Magistrate!” the same witness the prosecution had called in the last three cases said.

“Do you have enough authorizations left this month Gurge?” the Magistrate asked.

“This will tap me out,” he said, “But I think it’s worth it.”

“You’re probably right,” the Magistrate said. “Enter your account.”

I saw Gurge type a code into a holodisk before beginning his testimony. Witnesses in trials on Halli couldn’t be paid for their testimony, but they could be reimbursed for the time away from work. Apparently many such witnesses worked on ludicrously profitable short term jobs right around the time of their testimony. Authorizations for such jobs were at a premium though since there was only so much demand for witness testimony to go around.

You’d think that would breed for a better class of witness. One capable of recounting their testimony in a compelling and convincing manner. Sadly with Gurge that wasn’t exactly the case.

“I was approached by that woman there,” he began and pointed at me. “to overthrow the Halli government and kill the senior government officials in the process. She said she was a member of the Devil’s Brigade and that she could use a strong guy like me when the time came.”

Gurge continued to spin an elaborate tale about the offer I made him and the incredible resources I had at my disposal. By the time his tale was done I was kind of wishing I was the person he described. I mean she had a fleet of cloaked warships at her disposal and was going to take over Halli and the whole empire if she wasn’t stopped!

Sadly, the reality of our meeting was a lot less exciting that that. It went kind of like this (our scene begins in a rundown spacer’s bar on Halli named “Mun’s”):

“Man, aren’t the import tariffs here a pain?” Gurge, aka the random guy sitting next to me, asked without any other lead-in.

“Eh, what are you gonna do?” I replied.

“I heard some folks might try to get the bums in charge kicked out,” Gurge said.

“More power to ‘em,” I said.

“Want to go back to my place?” he asked.

“Nope.” I said.

“You’re under arrest for sedition,” a uniformed guard said about fifteen minutes later. “Please state your name and planet of citizenship.”

“She said her name was Naru and she’s from Yedo,” Gurge said from behind the guard, making up both a name and a home planet that had nothing to do with me. I’m not sure “Yedo” is even a real place.

I went along quietly from there because the whole reason I’d been hanging out in the dive where I found Gurge was so that someone would arrest me. I hadn’t expected it would be as easy as “be in the wrong spot and look like a foreigner” but I’d decided to see how literal our informant was being.

Since there was still the outside possibility that the arrest was a result of Gurge’s trumped up charges and delusions, I stayed the night in the local jail cell and listened to the tales of the rest of the people who were there with me.

The other prisoners were all as new to Halli as I was, but the guards were more than willing to let us know what we’d gotten ourselves into.

It turned out that even slime has its limitations and thanks to the demand for it, the Halli slime colony had been over-harvested. They tried raising prices to make up for the dwindling supply but there were other alternatives so the buyers went elsewhere.

That’s apparently when the Magistrate decided that if they couldn’t sell slime, they’d become slime and start selling people instead. The Crystal Empress has this little rule about slavery being illegal though – to the point where active slave traders are on the short list of targets that I’m allowed “unrestricted judicial authority” in dealing with. That’s not exactly the same as saying I can kill them on sight, I still wind up before a review board if I do, but that’s one of the easier conversations to have with an Imperial judge.

The Supreme Magistrate of Halli found a clever loophole around that prohibition though. She never sold anyone into slavery. She just transferred convicted criminals to penitentiaries owned by private companies and received a “processing fee” to cover the transference costs. The private companies then put the convicted felons to productive use for the duration of their incarceration.

The difference between that arrangement and slavery was a slim one at best and was made completely irrelevant when the “felons” were falsely accused and convicted.

“The evidence is clear,” the Magistrate said. “We sentence the defendant to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. Next case.”

“Oh, you’re not done with me yet,” I said.

“Guards, remove the convict and bring the next case in,” the Magistrate said.

“Do you need to see anymore of this?” I asked. The question wasn’t directed at the Magistrate. It was meant for my commanding officer, and childhood mentor, Captain Hanq Okoro of the Crystal Empress’s ship the Horizon Breaker, formerly “Master Hanq” when he was teaching me to fight and before that “Warlord Okoro” when he ruled a couple of star systems and fought against the Empress in the Galactic War.

Whenever I think of how strange my path through life has been, I just turn and look at my old teacher and see that it could be so much weirder.

“Oh, I saw enough of this place about five minutes after you landed,” Hanq said. “Fari, do we have recordings of the other trials that came before Mel’s too?”

“Of course sir,” Fari replied. Knowing my best friend, I was pretty sure she’d not only recorded the trials over the telepathic link that she established for me, but at this point had also raided every spell web and ship’s memory cluster on the planet.

“Shall I bring them in then?” I asked.

“Who are you talking to?” the Magistrate asked.

“Hush,” I told her. “I’ll get to you in a second.”

“I will not be spoken to like that!” the Magistrate said. “Guards, get her out of here.”

The bodyguards on the platform with the Magistrate stirred but it was the regular guards that jumped at their leader’s words.

“I’ve got warrants ready for basically everyone in that building with you except for the convicts,” Hanq said. “Take them all down.”

“No fair, she has a headstart!” Darius said. “Give us thirty seconds to get ithere at least!”

I loved Darius. We’d been together for the better part of two years and had somehow avoided driving each other completely insane. Technically his talents lay in working with mental and energetic magics but as far as I was concerned it was his abilities to understand me and put up with my particular brand of craziness that were his real magic powers.

Which wasn’t to say that we weren’t a little nuts in our own way. I was part of “Black Team”, basically the infiltration wing of Captain Hanq’s crew. Darius was part of “Blue Team”, basically the engineering and enchanting wing of the crew. Both teams had combat roles in a lot of the missions that we engaged in, so there was a bit of a running competition between the two groups, to the point where, though I loved him dearly, there was no chance in hell I was going to hold off on starting with the arrests and let the Blues catch up with us.

The first two guards reached the platform I was on and pulled out standard issue stun sticks. A talented caster could replicate the effects of one easily enough, but the stun sticks made it much easier to invoke so that even relatively weak and untrained troops could take down superior foes.

That of course assumed that they could hit their foes in the first place.

I was kind to them. No broken bones, no torn ligaments, just gentle holds and a simple spell to rob them of the energy that they needed to stay conscious. I couldn’t afford to hold back like that against serious opposition, but the armed forces of Halli seemed to be composed of swaggering idiots and poorly trained cannon fodder.

“Just so you know,” I said, “you are all under arrest.”

“Who are you to arrest us?” the Magistrate asked. I saw anger, fear and confusion warring on her face. I also saw her bodyguards getting up as their interest was peaked.

“I am Guardian Mel Watersward, of the Crystal Empire,” I said. “I accuse you of high crimes against the citizens of the Empire you have sworn to protect. Come along peacefully and you will be treated honorably.”

I’m not sure anyone on Halli had reference points for either “peaceful” or “honorable” but I had to make the offer anyways.

“A Crystal Guardian?” the Magistrate asked. “And you’re going to arrest all of us?”

“Technically I’ve already arrested you,” I said. “The only question now is whether I’ll need to use force to bring you into custody.”

“You’re one girl,” the Magistrate said. “Even if you are one of the Crystal Guardians, I have a planet full of troops at my disposal and the Empire is very far away. You’ve made a grave mistake coming here, one that I don’t think we can let you walk away from. Kill her.”

I heard the rotary motors of the anti-armor turrets that were pointed at me spin to life. In response, I raised a shield that was, as it turns out, significantly stronger than starship armor. That meant the sustained barrage accomplished nothing except to charge me up with the energy I leeched from away from it.

“You poor dear,” I said to the Magistrate. “You got two things wrong. First I’m not alone.”

Two of the other squads from Black team emerged from the shadows when I nodded my head.

“And second,” I waited a moment and heard the series of explosions I was expecting. “Your troops have no vehicles or equipment to fight with. In case you’re wondering, that means your reign here is over. The Empire’s going to shut Halli down completely, put you in a nice Imperial run facility, spring all the people you “convicted” and then arrest everyone that you’ve ever done business with.”

That didn’t go over too well with the Magistrate or her bodyguards. With the regular forces added in that put the odds at three-to-one against us. Sadly, that meant the next few minutes were disappointing ones for pretty much everyone.

The Halli forces were disappointed when they woke up (later) and found that despite numerical superiority they hadn’t stood a ghost of chance against us.

Black team was disappointed because there just weren’t enough targets to go around. We kept poaching each others arrests to the point where it got almost comical and people were escaping because we were “helping” each other with the arrests too strenuously.

Blue team was the most disappointed of all though. By the time they arrived there were so few targets left to capture that Black team’s victory was already assured.

“You could have saved at least a few for us,” Darius complained when he arrived.

“We did!” I said. “There were like four or maybe even five that got away!”

“Bah! You caught seven of them yourself!” he said.

“Well, they kind of…fell onto my fists repeatedly,” I said.

“Oh yeah, please try that one at the Captain’s debriefing,” Darius said. “I really want to see you sell that to him.”

“We may be skipping the debriefing,” Fari said. “We just got a communique from Guardian Clearborn.”

“Yael sent a message?” I asked. “What’s up?”

“It was an automated note,” Fari said. “It was scheduled to send in case she went missing or someone killed her.”

“We’re going to treat this as a Guardian down scenario,” Hanq said. “I want everyone back on the Horizon Breaker asap. I’ve got an Imperial dreadnaught inbound. It’ll be here in four hours. They’ll take over this situation and I want us to ready to move then.”

Four hours was pretty quick, but I had to wonder if was even possible for us to move fast enough now. Crystal Guardians, particularly fully trained ones like Yael as hard to stop much less take down. In Yael’s case she had a special advantage too. Zyla. The daughter of an immensely powerful warlord and a Guardian-class caster in her own right. Between the two of them, they should have been able to handle almost any threat that came up.

That hadn’t been the case and given that Yael had a note setup to cover their disappearance, they’d known how bad it would be even when they first went into whatever mess they discovered.

I looked out to the stars that awaited us and felt a chill run through me. Whatever else was true, I knew this wasn’t going to be easy.


The Horizon of Today – Chapter 35 (Epilogue)

Darius and I watched the sun set behind the shattered mountain top to the west of the Joint Encampment. With the chaos and bustle of setting up a new colony, neither of us had been able to scrounge up a free minute in weeks. That didn’t look likely to change until the Imperial enchanters arrived to create the high speed warp corridor that would bring in proper supplies and personnel to support the colony. Rather than letting us burn ourselves out completely though, Fari pulled a few tricks and cleared an entire evening of free time for us.

“Is it strange that this place feels like home already?” Darius asked. He was sitting against a tree and I was cuddled up beside him, our blanket and dinner spread out before us. The night was warm but a cool breeze was wafting over the top of the ridge, and from the valley below us the scents of thousands of cooking fires and ovens mixed into a heady and mouth watering aroma.

“Not at all with how much work you’ve been doing to give people places to live,” I said.

“They’re going to need it,” he said. “We got lucky that this area of Titanus was entering summer. Six months from now this place with be elbow deep in snow.”

“Eh, worst case we’d just fly them to the other side of the planet,” I said.

“Yeah, you saw how that suggestion when over the last time it was brought up at a Council meeting,” he said.

“Funny how one little life-and-death struggle can make people think a patch of land’s got some inherent value,” I said.

“One little life and death struggle plus a bunch of falsified records from Verulia coming to light,” he said.

It came as a surprise to no one that Verulia’s inspection reports of Titanus had left out a few crucial details. The Life Crystals would have been pretty easy to hide, but I couldn’t imagine why they thought we wouldn’t notice the native kilo-fauna species. To be fair, the proposed city settlements were outside of the grazing lands of Titanus’s native answer to the deca-beasts we’d brought to it.

Dubbed “Collosi”, the native monsters were fifteen foot tall, quadrupedal walls of muscle, teeth and ornery attitude. They looked something like an oversized rhinoceros with a few dozen extra spikes and a maw of teeth meant for rending through steel plate to get at the yummy morsels inside (or at least that’s the assumption the first colonists to encounter them made based on their observed behavior).

The farm lands that Verulia had planted to support the Human, Council, and Garjarack cities were expansive, well stocked and, unfortunately, attractive to the Collosi. That meant that none of the three developed sites were actually viable as locations for colonial development.

After all the colonists had been through I couldn’t fault them for staying together for safety in numbers. Our problem was dealing with the fact that those numbers were in the hundreds of thousands and would continue to grow as more ships arrived.

With the transwarp beasts taken care, we’d been able to dispatch a message beacon to Hellsreach to inform them of our situation. Two months later we’d gotten the answer back that more colony ships were being outfitted.

Master Raychelle had accompanied the response ship and brought enough supplies in tow to allow the Joint Encampment to flourish into a true city. Every day a new building was erected through the combined efforts of the craftsman, human and Garjarack, who were well practiced fast fabrication of sturdy dwellings. A lifetime of repairing infrastructure in the wake of massive battle damage served the new colonists well as they carved a spot for themselves on their new home world.

“I notice you’re using ‘they’re’ rather than ‘we’re’?” I asked Darius.

He paused before answering and started to run his fingers lightly over my head. He let the tips of his nails drag with just enough force to make my scalp tingle. It was an incredibly relaxing sensation and I decided that even if was a sign he was struggling with something he wanted to tell me, for that moment, I really wasn’t going to worry about it.

“This place feels like home, but I don’t think I’m going to stay here,” he said.

I let him keep playing with my hair for a bit longer before saying anything. I didn’t want to avoid the topic of conversation, I just wanted to draw out the lovely head massage as long as I could.

“Feeling the call to head back to Hellsreach?” I asked. I wasn’t thrilled with the idea of him returning to a world that was both a super weapon and actively hostile to human habitation, but I could understand how much he had invested in it.

“No, I think Hellsreach is in good hands with Opal and her crew,” he said. “It hasn’t been a place anyone should call home for a long time now.”

I wanted to turn and look him in the eyes, but that would have meant giving up on the head massage and that was a sacrifice I wasn’t prepared to make.

“You have plans,” I said. “Are they one’s I’m going to object to?”

“I don’t know,” he said. “I guess it depends how you feel about me?”

“These sound like interesting plans,” I said with a smile and turned so I could get a glance at him without giving him an excuse to stop.

“We’ve been kind of dating for a few months, right?” he asked.

“Almost half a year now,” I agreed.

“So this is going to sound extra stupid then,” he said. “But I can live with that better than I can live with not knowing; do you like me?”

I turned to face him completely, scooting up so that we were face to face.

In the dim light of day’s end, he was as beautiful as any man I’d ever seen, but I didn’t notice that anymore. I’d looked into his eyes often enough and seen the curve of his cheekbones and the strength of his chin so many times that his features blended together into a single image that represented so much more than flesh and blood could show.

“Do I like you?” I asked and settled back into a kneeling sit to put a little distance between us. “You’ve seen me at my worst and my weakest. You’ve been there for me when I needed someone to lean on and made me laugh when I was feeling miserable. I get to be someone with you that I haven’t let myself be with anyone else, ever.”

I leaned forward and ran my hands up his chest to cradle the sides of his head.

“I feel a lot more than like for you,” I said and pulled us together for a long slow kiss.

I didn’t rush the kiss, but I did pull away after a minute or so since I didn’t want to totally lose the thread of conversation.

“The question is, what does that have to do with your plans?” I asked after we parted. My mind was curious to hear the answer even if it had to shout down other parts of me that had very different ideas for how we should be spending a rare evening together.

“Captain Okoro has offered me a position on his crew,” Darius said. “He’s looking to expand Blue Team and I guess I impressed him with the work I’ve been helping them with.”

“That would be because you’re very impressive,” I said. “Master Hanq’s good at spotting talent. And good at developing it.”

“Or he’s just had great students,” Darius said.

“Not likely,” I said. “You should have scene how badly I sucked when I started out.”

“Weren’t you about six years old then?” he asked.

“Yeah, but I was wretched even for a six year old,” I said.

“You know I’m going to ask him about that, don’t you?” he asked.

“I’m sure he will lie kindly for me,” I said.

“Have you met Captain Okoro?” he asked.

“Ok, you have a point,” I said. “But why were you worried about how I felt? Did you want my blessing to work for him?”

“No,” he protested. “I just wasn’t sure what your plans were and if you wanted me to, you know, tag along like that?”

“Why in the name of all the stars in the sky would I not want you to ‘tag along’?” I asked.

“Well, I know you’re not staying here,” he said. “You can’t as a Crystal Guardian right?”

“That’s true, but you didn’t think I was just going to leave you did you?” I asked. I had to kick myself as I said those words given that I’d never actually told him what my plans were.

Communication. It’s the simplest thing in the word and yet basically impossible to get right. Even in the face of the planet-size object lesson of the humans and the Garjarack coming together thanks to being able to speak to one another, I’d still missed the point that I kind of needed to tell the guy I cared about what I was planning to do once our work pulled us apart.

“I…I wasn’t sure what options you had,” he said. “Crystal Guardians aren’t supposed to get involved with people are they? I mean not long term, right?”

I laughed. It was mean, the poor boy was so nervous but he was also being deeply silly so I couldn’t help myself.

“We’re supposed to be impartial, not uninvolved,” I said. “That just means that we’re expected to reveal any conflict of interests when we take a mission and look for options to avoid even the appearance of being unduly influenced by one side or another in a diplomatic situation.”

Thoughts started percolating through Darius’ face and I saw a smile cracking its way out through his confusion.

“The Crystal Empress would have to be insane to say her Guardians were forbidden from loving people,” I said. “She’d be left with a bunch of crazy, repressed people and maybe a few naturally unromantic types who’d be stuck managing all the insanity.”

“So you’re not supposed to be repressed or unromantic then?” he asked and slid an arm around my waist.

“Did you think I was ‘cheating’ on my job this whole time?” I asked pushing him away lightly.

“No,” he said. “I just thought it wouldn’t count if you broke it off when you left…and gods does that sound stupid now that I saw it out loud.”

I laughed again and smothered him in another kiss.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I should have told you all of this a lot sooner. I was never thinking we’d just break it off when I had to leave.”

“What were you thinking then?” he asked.

“I was figuring I’d finagle things so that I’d just happen to have missions within a system or two of Hellsreach for the next few years and then rack up some hellacious charges on fast courier ships on the Empresses tab so that I could visit on weekends and unexpected week nights,” I said. “Once I’m done with my training period, I’ll be free to go looking for trouble wherever I want and can recruit whatever crew I need, which I was kind of hoping you’d join me for.”

“Ok, so now I feel really dumb,” he said.

“Don’t,” I said. “It’s my fault for not mentioning it. We’ve been so busy lately and it looks like we’ve got months of work left here so it fell to the back of my mind. That the only excuse I can offer.”

“No excuse necessary,” he said and pulled me in for a kiss for a change. “So you really like me then?”

I let my hand trace down his chest and then back up to glide over his neck and circle his ear.

“You have your agreeable points,” I said, not even attempting to hide my mischievous grin.



By the time the next wave of colonists arrived we had the housing situation pretty well worked out. Two of the cities had been reclaimed and the Collosi harnessed as beasts of burden for the new settlers.

Master Raychelle and Master Opal had managed to calm things down on Hellsreach pretty well in my absence. Treaties had been worked out with Exxion II and IV to allow some of the Hellreach citizens to return to their original homeworlds, which took some of the worst tension off the population there. There was also a faction of people who decided to stay and became part of a global archeology effort under master Opal’s direction, which further reduced the efforts needed to relocate people. The majority of the populace though chose to emigrate to Titanus and make a fresh start of things, especially once word got back of how rich the land was there and the kind of effort the Empire was putting into making the colony world a viable place to live.

Verulia Industries played no part in that process of course. They’d been stripped of all their rights to Titanus and were under severe investigation and asset seizure for the charges of corruption they faced and the violations of their contractual obligations.

Gan Everbright vanished behind a web of Verulia legal defenses the moment they got a ship out to Titanus. I’m not sure if that worked out better or worse for him though. On the one hand they managed to protect him from direct Imperial trial in the short term, but on the other hand I’m not sure if their displeasure meant that he had a “long term” to look forward to.

My trial went pretty much how I expected it would. I was cleared of most of the criminal charges with the exceptions being assaulting a fellow officer (for stabbing Master Hanq) and a Failure to Preserve Life charge (for letting Vunthor die). The latter charge was one that only the Imperial courts had an interest in and the verdict there was “Allowed” which was somewhere between innocence and guilt. Basically the court agreed that my actions were reasonable, but also acknowledged that there was a chance I could have saved him. I wasn’t fined or penalized for it but it was listed as part of my official record as a Guardian.

When the Empress and her advisors were setting up the code of conduct for her Guardians, they acknowledged that there would be times when we couldn’t get it right, or do things perfectly. A Crystal Guardian is expected to go above and beyond though so we’re evaluated on more than just a case-by-case basis. Patterns of behavior are important too and if I got too many “Allowed” entries on my record that alone would be enough to warrant a deeper review of my actions.

The assault charge, was in some sense the more serious matter though. I was flat out guilty of that one and the court knew it almost immediately. The punishment however was tailored to the crime: sessions with a counselor (which I was required to do anyways for all the rest of the craziness I was involved with) to bring up, evaluate and work on strategies for dealing with the emotions that prompted me to attack Master Hanq rather than travel with him.

On top of that I was transferred from my apprenticeship under Master Raychelle to work as part of Hanq’s crew. That was his idea and his suggestion to the court, which they decided on after consulting with me, Master Raychelle and with the counselor that I was working with.

Master Raychelle continued on as my anima instructor for the next few months while we all worked on the infrastructure and peacekeeping for Titanus. That gave me plenty of time to learn more about Void casting and the other remedial anima skills that I hadn’t picked up on as a kid.

Master Raychelle wound up leaving about two weeks before we did to deal with a planetary government that was cutting off Imperial access to its people. There were reports leaking out that there was a whole class of citizens which the group in power didn’t want to admit to existing so that they could continue to deny them the basic rights guaranteed by the Imperial Charter. From the documents I read it didn’t seem like there was much question what was occurring and I didn’t suspect it would take Master Raychelle long to deal with it, but I knew it was still likely to be a while before I saw her again. A Crystal Guardian’s life is one where crises aren’t exactly hard to come by or spaced out all that much.

On a related note, Fari surprised me a bit by formally declaring that she was not going to petition to be named as a Crystal Guardian herself. After she wrapped up her official work as Imperial Overseer of the Titanus colony, she turned her authority over to the local government that was in place (as the colonial treaty called for) and went to work for them in a purely advisory capacity.

When I asked her about it, her explanation was simple.

“If I become a Guardian too then we won’t be able to work together,” she said. “As long as you don’t mind me tagging along, I’d like to see what kind of trouble we can get into next.”

“Since it seems I don’t tell the people I care about how I feel clearly enough, let me say that I would love that and that I will never mind you ‘tagging along’, ever,” I told her.

Master Hanq wound up putting together a fairly terrifying crew on top of the three of us. He also got a new Courier ship assigned for our use and I couldn’t help but notice when it arrived that it was packing a lot more armor and weapons than the last one.

“Thinking to go toe-to-toe with a giga-beast again?” I asked him.

“Let’s just say I’m learning from past mistakes,” he said.

Given that we were intentionally going to be looking for trouble, I found the new ship design rather comforting.

On our last day on Titanus before we left for the stars, I got to meet with the new Titanus Council government. Darius’ fathers, Hector as Osgood had relocated by that point and had taken on the burden of reclaiming the last pre-developed city for the rest of the incoming colonists to use. The Titanus Council had agreed to schedule the next election cycle for the following year, after the final round of colonists were settled on the planet. Hector and Osgood were acting as part of the interim government while the Hellsreach Council colonists were transferred, though both of them were talking about getting out of the politics business once the move was over.

Eirda wasn’t able to attend our departure party because she was busy with official business as one of the head speakers of the Council but Cadrus and Nenya were there to say goodbye. Where Hector and Osgood were talking about stepping down from their posts, Nenya was eager to fill their shoes, a position her mother supported and her father seemed to greet with a more “restrained” level of joy.

We left them all with contact links so that if trouble came looking for them again they’d have someone to call on. From what we had accomplished over the course of the last year though I didn’t think we’d hear from them too soon either. Anything that came looking for trouble on Titanus was going to wish it had looked somewhere else in a big hurry.

The real surprise for our departure however was a face I hadn’t expected to see.

Illya was waiting for us when we boarded the shuttle to the Horizon Breaker (Hanq’s new ship).

“Going our way?” I asked her as we settled in to the travel couches.

“Yeah,” she said, smiling like a school kid with a secret.

“I can’t help but notice you’re wearing the new uniform for Gold Team?” Darius said.

“Yeah,” she said, her smile widening.

The tumblers fell into place in my head.

“Captain Hanq spoke at your trial too didn’t he?” I asked.

“Yes I did,” Hanq said.

“You are such a pirate,” I said. “Your whole crew is felons and ne’er-do-wells!”

“Hey!” Darius protested, “I wasn’t convicted of anything I’ll have you know!”

“Just give it time,” I told him. “We’ll corrupt you yet.”

With delightful thoughts of exactly how I could corrupt my boyfriend, I looked out the shuttle window and watched Titanus fall away beneath us.

Everywhere I looked there were signs of new construction, new life, and new growth. We were leaving behind a world full of promise for an uncertain sky, but all the promises I needed were right there in the shuttle with me and that was all that mattered.


The Horizon of Today – Chapter 34

The nearest soldier of Vunthor’s forces stepped towards me and I just about passed out in front of him. It wasn’t accurate to say I was running on empty after the fight inside the Void storm only because running was completely out of the question.

“If you can’t run, then you’ve gotta fight,” Master Hanq had told me once or twice, and while it sounded like good advice at the time, I wasn’t sure it applied when I was too weak to take my hands off my waist.

I guess I can break his fist by hitting it with my face several times,” I thought and prepared to give that plan my best effort when I noticed that more of the soldiers were coming towards me. That would have been terrifying but their expressions said “confused and bewildered” not “angry and out to kill me”.

“What happened to the Major?” the nearest one asked.

“He’s still in there,” I said, pointing to the slowly dwindling Void storm behind me. “Or what’s left of him is anyways.”

“Did you kill him?” another soldier asked.

“No, but last I saw he was doing a good job of killing himself.”

“Dammit, that’s not fair,” the first soldier complained.

“They were never going to bring him to trial,” Illya said. “This is all the justice that we can get.”

I scanned the faces of the soldiers around me. There were too few of them I noticed, only a couple dozen. Roughly half had fled the cavern during my fight with Vunthor. Probably as soon as I cut off the drain that he had on them. The ones who remained seemed like they were following Illya’s lead.

“You told them what he was doing to your people?” I asked her. “That he was the one behind the first attack on Salmon Falls?”

“And other places. I asked him about his other operations, and they all had the same story.” Illya said.

“We didn’t know,” one of the soldiers said.

“If that’s true, it will make a difference at your trial,” I said.

“Trial? But we’re the victims here!” the soldier said. “He was stealing the life right out of us.”

“I wasn’t kidding when I said you were under arrest,” I told the soldiers, hoping as I spoke that they couldn’t see how bad off I was. “But you’ll be tried in an Imperial court, by a jury that’s actually impartial and will actually listen to your side of the story too.”

“You can’t do that!” a soldier said.

“Oh, don’t worry, you’ll have company. Everyone involved in this will be up before a judicial review,” I said. “You can even come to my trial if you like and testify against me.”

“What?” Illya asked. “Why would you be on trial? What have you done wrong?”

“Nothing, according to me,” I said. “The court will want to review all of the facts before agreeing with that assessment though.”

“And you’re ok with that?” Illya asked.

“It’s kind of annoying, but I’ve been through one already a few months back,” I said. “The judges are good at getting at the truth, like supernaturally good at it, and once they’re done, I’ll have a clear name. Assuming that I’m right about not having done anything wrong.”

“What if you’re not?” a soldier asked.

“The Empire’s more about rehabilitation and restoration than revenge,” I said. “You all stayed around here. That will be a mark in your favor. If you’re willing to help out and proactively make up for what you’ve done, that will help too.”

“What’s to stop us from running now?” a soldier asked.

“Almost nothing,” I said. “As in there’s almost nothing out there except for giant monsters from beyond outer space. If you want to get lost in the wilderness and eaten by the local mega-fauna, then go right ahead. The rest of your friends will be enjoying hot showers and three meals a day while you play the nomadic survivalist who’s on the run from Imperial forces for the rest of your life.”

The Void storm spun to a halt and sputtered out as I spoke. Behind me I heard a thump and glanced back to see Vunthor’s withered corpse shattered on the ground.

“For however short a time that might be,” I added.

What came next is a bit of a blur for me. I remember the soldiers moving off in small groups to talk about their options. I remember Illya staying by my side and helping me out with a few healing spells which wound up cutting my recovering time down immensely.

That’s the part that sticks with me the most about the period after my final battle against Vunthor-Higgs. The quiet moments of talking with Illya. Her soft spoken apologies as she tended to my pain wracked body. The simple plans that she made for a future that had the spectre of a trial and possible incarceration looming over it.

We weren’t in a great position, either of us, but things were going to get better.

The funny thing about that was that while we were slumped against the corner of a wall in a cavern inside a mountain, there was still an army of transwarp monsters rampaging around the planet surface. I should have been concerned about that but I was so unbearably tired that the thought of being eaten or stepped on seemed more like a welcome relief than anything I could muster the energy to be afraid of.

I still had a little adrenaline left though. I discovered that when the top of the mountain was ripped off, exposing the cavern we were in to the bare sky above.

The sound of that much stone moving that close to me is something I never want to experience again in my life. On the positive side though, with the top of the mountain gone,Illya and I had a fantastic view of of the glowing Crystal Titan that stood taller than the mountain itself and was taking on the last giga-beast and its army of deca-beasts.

I must have blinked fifty times as I watched the Crystal Titan stride into battle like a warship given a human form and the scale of a god. When it struck the giga-beast the planet itself echoed like a gong. I’d thought Vunthor and I were throwing around an absurd amount of power but the Crystal Titan dwarfed all previous measures that I knew how to calibrate against.

My brain fuzzed out at the sheer scale of the conflict and it took minutes or hours or some unreal amount of time for me to process what I was seeing.

“They’re inside the crystals,” Illya said, pointing weakly at the Titan.

And she was right. The Titan wasn’t one giant crystal but rather an amalgamation of millions of crystals. Inside the larger crystals that made up the Titan’s vast body there were people. Humans. Garjarack. The Verulia crew. All of the people who’d come to Titanus. All protected by the Life Crystals, all fighting to protect the Life Crystals in turn. Millions of voices, elemental and physical people together, all striving as one towards a common goal. In the center of its forehead there was one special gem too. A brilliant blue one that glowed with the light of a newborn star. I didn’t need to distract her with a mental request to know Fari’s handiwork when I saw it. It was too beautiful to ever mistake for coming from anyone else.

In retrospect, I’m a little disappointed to have missed out on the brawl, even feeling as bad as I did. In part that’s because it was an event that defined the founding of the colony on Titanus, but mostly I regret missing the fight because both Darius and Fari got to tease me mercilessly about it afterwards.

In the end, I did get to help, but only after the Crystal Titan had laid such an epic smackdown on the transwarp beasts that there were going to be songs written about it for generations to come.

The fight was amazing both for its scale and its duration. The Crystal Titan was overwhelming powerful as it focused the energy of about 200,000 colonists and a million Life Crystals into a cohesive whole. Despite that advantage though, the transwarp beasts were difficult to put down permanently. They could simply regenerate from more damage that was even vaguely reasonable. In time the struggle turned from a battle, to a pest control operation. The transwarp beasts were easy to put down for the count but each time the count was up so were they and the Crystal Titan needed to stomp on them again.

Watching the fight, I finally worked out how Higgs had been controlling the beasts. It wasn’t a direct mind control thing. They were just very simple creatures and easy to manipulate. As animavores they headed towards whatever source of magic they could find and consumed it. Higgs, or the hate-thing Higgs had left behind, basically blinded them with a gossamer-thin veil of Void anima and then opened a pinhole for them to see out of.

From the transwarp beasts’ point of view it must have looked like all the food in existence disappeared with only a single spark left for them to pursue. Once Higgs was “disposed of”, the beasts had been faced with the Crystal Titan. I’m not sure if they rejoiced at that for the size of the meal it offered or if they were smart enough to be afraid of biting off more than they could chew. It was hard to tell because it wasn’t like the humans or the Garjarack were inclined to give beasts a chance to run away and regroup.

The few that did escape were the ones who confirmed my theory. Rather than hiding or circling around for a tactical advantage, they simply plodded over to the nearest source of anima they could find.

Or at least they tried to. As it turned out the only people who weren’t inside the Crystal Titan were the injured who had been left at the human colony ship’s crash sight. About a thousand deca-beasts were far enough away from the Crystal Titan that the lure of the humans at the crash sight drew them in instead.

The shared intelligence network that Fari and the other mental anima casters setup in the Titan was more than observant enough to notice that little problem before it could become a tragedy though.

Giant magi-mechs often need appropriate weapons to fight with. Forehead lasers and chest cannons are common but blazing anima blades are far and away the most potent option in their arsenal. What I hadn’t known before that fight was that blazing anima blades could also serve as thrown weapons.

A thousand deca-beasts is a lot of targets to take out, but when you can also telekinetically guide your blazing sword at ranges of several hundred miles away it doesn’t take all that long to scythe an army of hundreds down to the few dozen that were bright enough to flee from the glowing blade of doom the size of a skyscraper.

Once I figured out Higgs technique, I was able to join in the mop up operations, with a little support from Illya. The few other Void casters that were among the colonists joined me after I showed them what to do and together we led the giga-beast and all of the surviving deca-beasts to the nearest remaining portal to warp space.

Despite the fact that they’d kind of killed me once, I almost felt bad the giant terrors. The Crystal Titan had used the giga-beast as a therapy pillow to punch out some of anger and fear that the colonists had spent their entire lives dealing with. It wasn’t a magical cure for the rifts that divided them but as shared experiences went it wasn’t half bad either. Well, not half bad for the colonists, the giga-beast was looking in disturbingly poor shape as we flew it out of the atmosphere and to the portal.

By the time the Void caster brigade got back to the planet, the Life Crystals had separated back to their individual gems and released the people inside them. Humans and Garjarack who’d been meant to live thousands of miles apart were clustered in giant, army sized coalitions, all gathered in one place.

Master Hanq and the rest of the Imperial forces were there too, as was Verulia security, but they were so vastly outnumbered that their ability to keep the peace was effectively non-existent.

What kept the “Joint Encampment” (as it came to be called) peaceful was something much stronger than the Imperial edict Master Hanq, and Fari, and I carried. There was peace between the humans and the Garjarack because the people chose it.

That sounds stupidly simple, but like with a lot of things in life, that’s really all it took.

To be fair though, there were things that helped support that choice, not the least of which being that the Life Crystals helped maintain the mental communication web that everyone shared in the Crystal Titan. Being able to talk to one another, directly and immediately made a huge difference. With that in place the colonists were able to setup their own oversight committees with equal representation on both sides. They were the ones who handled security and who came up with the plans for how to salvage the colony ship remnants and form a viable city. The home they built on Titanus wasn’t one that we made for them or that was bought in exchange for the rights they’d held on Hellsreach. It was one they created by themselves and for themselves.

There were problems too of course, you can’t possibly have that many people in one place and not have problems, but they were ones that the people of the Encampment met together.

I, as usual it seemed, wasn’t too involved in that. Illya’s work helped heal me tremendously, but that meant I had a couple weeks of gentle healing to do rather than months of painful therapy. Given my track record as a Crystal Guardian so far that felt like an incredible achievement to me.

“I’m so torn,” Darius said as I was checked out of the field hospital that had been setup. “On the one hand, I’m glad you’re mended and I’m thinking we should celebrate your recovery.”

“And on the other we’re wondering if we should start the clock for your next extended hospital stay,” Fari said.

“Hey, I’m getting better!” I said. “Plus there’s no reason we can’t do both.”

I smiled at both of them and took off before they could drag me back to the medical bed.

“You want to tackle her while I find a doctor I can bribe into falsifying a medical report to get her grounded for another month?” Fari asked.

“I’d be delighted to!” Darius said and raced after me.

The Horizon of Today – Chapter 33

Falling into the Void wasn’t a strictly accurate term for what Vunthor, Higgs and I did. Our bodies didn’t actually go anywhere. From Illya’s and the other soldier’s points of view we were simply surrounded by a cloud of Void anima that went from pitch black to some steadily darker hue as it leeched light and heat and life from the cavern around us.

At the heart of the dark cloud, Vunthor-Higgs and I were locked in a deadly embrace and so drowned in Void anima that neither of us could sense anything except the will of the other. The soldiers, the cavern, even our own bodies were left far behind.

Vunthor-Higgs tried to overwhelm me at first. It was the feral, aggressive instinct of a killer. I wasn’t a person to them and with the damage I’d inflicted I wasn’t even an animal. Animals you could still feel something for. You could still try to control them or direct them to be useful. I wasn’t an animal, I was a danger. I’d moved into the same spot they’d put the Garjarack in. No argument, no gesture of goodwill, no reasoned action at all would change how they saw me. I was the thing they hated most in the world, and they had to destroy me.

And I was fine with that.

They poured out Void anima like a dam burst in them and I did the same. Void anima is deadly. It drains the energy and life from everything and everyone it touches. With one exception. Void casters are immune to it. If we weren’t we’d be dead the first time we tried to cast a spell. That “immunity” has limits though since it’s not that Void anima can’t hurt us its that we shape and manipulate it instinctively.

When Hellsreach attacked me with Void anima spikes, the sheer volume, intensity, and speed of the attack overwhelmed my ability to move the Void anima away from my other energies. Even two casters like Vunthor and Higgs didn’t have that much raw magic to work with though so they couldn’t recreate the same effect without mechanical aid.

Or rather they couldn’t recreate it unless I helped them too. Even at our best I was pretty sure we wouldn’t come close to the firepower of a planetary super weapon but we didn’t have to. All we needed to do was to create a field of Void anima so dense and powerful that it overwhelmed our ability to fend it off.

Higgs would survive, for whatever value of “survive” was appropriate to apply to the scattered bits of him that hung on, but Vunthor would wither and die. Without him, Higgs was have no conduit out of the void and would be a powerless non-issue for the colonists unless one of them had Void casting abilities too. Vunthor’s troops were already starting to fracture based on Illya’s actions so they wouldn’t be a problem either I hoped.

I had no idea what would happen with the giga- and deca-beasts but at least with Vunthor out of the picture they wouldn’t be used tactically. If my friends were really lucky they might even just go back to their home realm on their own.

The downside to all this is that I was going to wind up just as dead as Vunthor was, unless I managed to outlast him when it came to holding off the effects of Void anima over-exposure. I didn’t think I had great odds of doing that but terrible odds are still better than no chance whatsoever.

As the Void anima thickened around us, Vunthor-Higgs figured out what I was doing. The magics didn’t have a texture or a feel but my mind insisted on interpreting the fog we were locked in as though it were the thickest tar imaginable. I couldn’t breath and moving was barely possible but that worked in my favor.

It meant Vunthor-Higgs couldn’t flee.

They tried to. Once they saw that I had no intention of letting up, Vunthor panicked and tried to struggle out of my grip using all the strength he could conjure up.

The idiot.

He had more years of experience than I did, but I had more formal training with Void anima thanks to Master Raychelle. Even though it was just a few months and some of it was purely theoretical because I was restricted from casting, I understood what we were doing far better than either of my opponents.

In struggling to break free, Vunthor was expending Physical anima. He had an enormous amount of it stored up, but even that was nothing compared to the hunger of the void around us. Every erg of strength that he expended drained away instantly leaving him weaker but no further away from me than he was.

Wit both of us casting our full power into it, this wasn’t a trap that we could escape (or probably survive). That’s why Void casters don’t fight like this. It was just Vunthor’s bad luck that he’d pushed me far enough to where it was my only option.

I felt him struggled harder to escape and had to suppress a laugh. He was cut-off from his soldiers, and yet he was still wasting his vast reserves of magic on a frothing fit.

I’d beaten him! I knew it!

Then I felt my fingers start to freeze.

It was useless listening to my danger sense. It had been screaming at the top of its metaphorical lungs since I left Darius and Fari. The freezing in my hands wasn’t a product of that though. The Void anima around us had grown dense enough that I couldn’t ward it off anymore. What I felt as cold wasn’t a chill. It was death slowly claiming me.

I pushed back against it. I couldn’t fall until Vunthor-Higgs ran out of power. I had to take them down.

“No matter the cost?” Echo asked me.

I wasn’t breathing but somehow my breath caught in my throat anyways.

“Mom?” I asked before I could stop myself.

“Yes, my little one,” she said.

“What are you doing here?” I asked.

“I’m always here,” she said. “The question is what are you doing here? This is no place for you, not for a long time to come at least.”

“I think I’m kind of dying,” I said.

“Why?” she asked.

“I was in a fight and I lost,” I said. I couldn’t cry here either, but somehow I still felt warm and wet tears running down my face.

“It looks to me like you’re still fighting,” she said.

“Yeah, for as long as I can,” I said.

“Why? Why fight? Why die?” she asked.

“Because I can’t let Vunthor go. He has to die before he hurts anyone else,” I said.

“Killing him isn’t going to keep him from hurting people,” she said. “I can see one person who will be hurt very badly if you continue on, and I know there are many other people who be hurt if she dies here.”

I thought about the promise I’d made to Fari and Darius and my heart cracked in two. I couldn’t imagine them finding my withered corpse and yet I also couldn’t bear the thought of seeing Vunthor get his hands on them.

“I don’t know what else I can do!” I said. Every path open to me lead to violence and death.

“Yes, you do,” Echo said. “You’re my beautiful, brilliant girl and you’re better than this.”

I choked back a sob. She was wrong. I’d never been beautiful and I felt stupid and weak more often than I could begin to count.

“Just breathe,” she said.

“I can’t,” I said.

“Yes, you can,” she said. “This isn’t a magic thing. It’s not about the Void anima around you. You can’t feel it, but you’re still surrounded by air and life. Take it in. Let it fill you up.”

I hesitated. If she was wrong, even one breath would kill me instantly. It was a horrible, terrifying risk to take. I could fall and fail completely in the process.

Vunthor would live. He would get away.

Could I let that happen?

I looked inside myself. It was ugly in there. I was so afraid and so angry. I couldn’t imagine not stopping Vunthor but that wasn’t a sign that it was right to keep fighting. That was a sign that I was blinded by all that anger and fear.

I felt another pair of tears tumble down cheeks as I chuckled at myself. I wasn’t brilliant, but maybe I could manage to be less stupid than I’d been so far.

I breathed in, forcing air into my lungs, and nothing but air. I didn’t try to inhale superhumanly fast or filter the air for harmful particles. All I did was breath in with my diaphragm and let my lungs fill up.

“I don’t have to fight him anymore do I?” I said. “I’ve already broken his connection with the soldiers.”

“You have,” Echo said. “The moment his soldier moved to protect you, his spell on them was broken. He’ll never be the leader that he was before.”

“But he’s still dangerous,” I said.

“He is,” she said. “But not for long, not at the rate he’s going.”

I looked through the void. I couldn’t see him, but I could see Vunthor’s anima. I could see him lashing out, over and over, mad to escape the trap I’d placed us in.

“He’s fighting against himself,” I said as I watched him cast out threads of every type of anima and then tear them to shreds with the Void anima that he wouldn’t let go of.

His struggles kept binding him tighter and tighter, destroying more and more of who and what he was. It was terrible for him, but it showed me something critical.

I knew how to escape the trap. I knew how I could live. All I had to do was give Vunthor my power.

So I did. Instead of attacking him with the Void anima that was under my control, I handed him the power that I had stored up. I gave it gently and freely and he consumed it without even thinking.

If he’d still been my enemy, or still been sane, I would have signed my own death warrant by doing that. Sometimes you have to fight people like Vunthor, other times though you just need to get out of their way and and let them finish destroying themselves.

The hate and rage and fear that Vunthor and Higgs felt made them fight and thrash and spin the bands that were killing them in ever tighter on themselves. They took the power I gave them and did the only thing they knew how to do with it – destroy.

And me? I walked out of the Void storm. Not by overpowering it. Not by bending it to my will. Just by letting it go. I didn’t need to destroy Vunthor. He wasn’t an world shaking menace. He was just a man. He could hurt me, but so could everyone. It was hard turning away from the threat of pain when it was presented so clearly, and I knew I would mess up dealing with it again in the future, but for that one moment I had the clarity to chose and I chose to turn away from the fear and anger I felt towards him.

“I have the best daughters ever,” my Mom said.

I felt the warmth of her smile even though I was still completely blind.

“Will you be ok?” I asked. “Higgs will still be around, won’t he?”

“Oh you just leave that little fragment to me,” she said.

A chill ran down my spine. No Void anima. No danger sense. Just a disturbing realization that I hadn’t inherited only “nice” traits from my mother.

“Will I see you again?” I asked.

“I hope you won’t need too, but when you do, I’ll be there for you,” she said. “Always.”

“Thank you,” I said. “Mom.”

And with that I stepped out of the Void storm and faced off against the army Vunthor had brought with him.

“One down, fifty to go,” I thought and let a smile of completely unfounded bravado spread across my face.


The Horizon of Today – Chapter 32

As a void caster one of the first spells I’d ever learned was the ability to hide myself. I could escape from everyone in the world and be safe from all sorts of dangers.

So, naturally, instead of that, I wasn’t walking to my doom, I was running to it. That still wasn’t quite enough though. To hell with the element of surprise, I thought, I was ready to shoot off fireworks and commission a band to trumpet my arrival. I didn’t want Vunthor to merely notice that I was coming from him. I wanted his full and undivided attention.

Since I didn’t have a brass band or fireworks on hand, I did the next best thing. He was searching for me with passive scrying spells. To help him with that I drew all my Void anima into the frozen center of my body (my danger sense was screaming all sorts of warning that I had to ignore) and let Physical anima surge through me.

A good caster can use their anima with incredible precision and efficiency. I’ve seen Master Hanq amplify his strength to the point where he can shred steel with his bare hands while not letting even a single spark of anima flare outside of his body.

I’m a mediocre caster at best still and I struggle to even approach that sort of efficiency. Or more precisely I struggle for that in most situations. Racing towards Vunthor I didn’t bother with any effort to keep my anima inside myself.

Sparks and flames crackled around me as I ran, illuminating the dark tunnels I passed down. There was a labyrinth inside the mountain, each passage doubled back and over and under itself, but I could see the strands that Vunthor left to detect my arrival and all I had to do was follow them back to him.

I ran far below the mountain and followed the path back up almost to the summit before I found him in a large, natural cavern.

I skidded to a halt as I arrived, trailing thunder and lightning in my wake. I guess I was quite the sight. Power crackled over my skin, illuminating my veins in colorful light and wreathing me in an aura of chaotic energy. My radiance was washed out though by the brilliant white light that shone from the bands of power that orbited Vunthor like planetary rings.

He stood in the center of the cavern, his right fist covered by his left hand and his eyes closed in meditation. Behind him knelt dozens of his soldiers. Their eyes were closed as well and most of their heads were bowed forward as though they were worshipping at Vunthor’s feet,

Among their numbers, at the front of the legions, I saw Illya. She had her eyes closed like the others but her face was turned towards Vunthor directly with an expression that held as much emotion as a stone.

I didn’t need to switch to Void sight to see the anima that was pouring out of the soldiers to supercharge Vunthor. It coalesced into motes and even streams of light that shimmered together to give him the appearance of wearing a vast, glowing cape.

I took the scene in, evaluated it and calculated exactly how dead I was.

The good news was that Vunthor hadn’t figured out what the Life Crystals were. The bad news was that he had better control over draining energy from people than I did. If I tried to pull power from people like he was doing, I’d wind up stealing it all from them at once. Vunthor had a more sustainable method of doing the same thing and would be able to draw more power over a longer time period than I could.

That complicated things a lot.

I hadn’t expected to be able to beat Vunthor when I raced away from Darius and Fari. He had too many resources for that to be a practical plan. With the gathering of our forces though, I didn’t need to beat him, I just needed to survive him for long enough for Master Hanq, Black Team and a hundred thousand Garjarack to join the party.

The weapons the colony ships carried were boltless anima blasters. That’s what Vunthor had stolen and, while they had the tremendous advantage of not requiring ammunition, they weren’t exactly the best weapon to use against someone who can absorb and grow more powerful from attacks that were made only of anima.

That, coupled with the fact that one of my best magical skills is casting anima shields, gave me reason to hope that I could hold out against for long enough to buy the others times to arrive.

The plan was a wonderful one until the power balance between us became too great. My anima shields are tougher than steel. With fifty people amping up his strength though, I was pretty sure Vunthor was going to tear through them like tissue paper. That left me with only one plan that felt like it had any chance of succeeding.

“How very convenient,” I said. “All of the people I’ve been looking for in one place.”

Vunthor opened his eyes and drew in the power that was orbiting around him.

I took the opportunity to do the same and focused every erg of Physical anima I could scrounge up, keying it to one specific spell.

“I’m Guardian Watersward and in case you’re wondering, you’re all under arrest.” I said. “I’d suggest that you come along quietly, but I think we all know that’s not going to happen, so please, at least put up a good fight will you?”

I cracked my knuckles and rolled my shoulders while Vunthor eyed me carefully.

“Guardian Watersward,” Vunthor said and I heard a second voice overlapping his own. Higgs had bonded with his new host more tightly than I’d expected. So they were better at Void anima combat than I was too.

That was wonderful to think about.

“You have brought us a great gift Guardian. The transwarp creatures will serve as a far more powerful army than any other we could have raised here,” Vunthor-Higgs said. “But we can’t let you live. Not after you allied yourself with the slurps.”

It took me a second to place “slurps” as one of the older epithets for the Garjarack. I noticed there was a slip in Vunthor’s voice as he said it. For just a moment it was Higgs alone speaking there, the one word carrying a century of hate passed down from generation to generation.

“I’m allied with the people of Hellsreach,” I said. “All of them.”

“Slurps ain’t people, you dumb slit!” Vunthor-Higgs said.

I had an even harder time placing “slit” as an insult. It was a reference, it turned out, both to my off-worlder status and to being a “slurp sympathizer”, but even though the specific meaning wasn’t clear, I got the gist of what he was saying well enough.

“Maybe after I take you apart we can find whatever piece is defective in you, you backstabbing, whiny, little coward!” I said.

Sometimes the sharpest knife you can stab someone with is the truth. Vunthor had survived a lot of battles and he’d lead a lot of them from the front. He was widely decorated for his bravery, but his transcripts painted a different story if you looked at them with the eyes of Void caster.

The casualties for Vunthor’s troops were routinely higher than for any of the other forces that were deployed. His commanders balanced that against the fact the he tended to succeed in his missions and continued using him in more and more dangerous operations which skewed the numbers even higher.

The soldiers who served under him and survived were reported as being extremely loyal, but many of the new recruit who were added to his troop roster claimed he was abusive and uncaring about their welfare. Unsurprisingly these were also the troops who had the worst odds of surviving his missions.

Again his superiors had a built-in excuse. Green troops exposed to highly perilous missions didn’t tend to survive long under anyone’s command. Normally they also failed the missions. In Vunthor’s case though, the missions would succeed despite costing half his soldiers or more.

It’s hard to succeed against odds that start off tough after you lose dozens of troops. Unless of course you can retain the strength of those troops and focus them all into one person. There hadn’t been any autopsies in the chaos of war, but the reports of “withered corpses” was all too familiar to leave me wondering what really happened to those troops. You could survive a lot of battles as a Void caster if you were packing a few dozen extra lives worth of anima in yourself.

After the peace declaration, Vunthor hadn’t even hesitated when it came to sacrificing his own people to further his adgenda. Why would he? That was how he’d worked for years. Other people took the risks, other people paid the price, so long as he got to kill Garjarack it was all worth it to him.

I met his eyes and let him feel the certainty that was behind my words. I knew what he was, and I knew I could prove it. He’d absorbed enough Mental anima from his followers that he could sense that.

The truth hurts and when something hurts us, humans tend to try to hurt it back.

Within the space of a millisecond, Vunthor blasted across the distance between us and swung a fist at me that had enough force behind it to shatter ten yards of granite to dust. It was a strong enough blow that my anima shield would have collapsed, followed immediately by the front of my skull and then the back.

Vunthor wasn’t playing around.

He also wasn’t playing with a full deck anymore, and he wasn’t playing on his home turf.

As a career soldier, Vunthor had been in a lot of battles. What he hadn’t been in was many fights. It’s a very different sort of struggle to attack someone directly in hand-to-hand than it is to engage an enemy troop at range with lethal hardware on both sides.

Vunthor’s technique wasn’t bad and his speed and power were completely ridiculous. What saved me was that he was so very predictable.

No one ever does a raging hyper-attack and targets your knees. With his massive strength and speed Vunthor didn’t try to crush me with a grappling maneuver. He went with the most mindless and direct attack he could and poured as much power into it as he had.

The spell I’d been holding had one effect. The moment he moved, even before I could perceive it, all of my energy went to moving a single step to the side and redirecting the force of his blow which I knew was going to be aimed at my head.

I was much slower than he was, but I had far less distance to cover. I was far weaker than he was but I didn’t have to overcome him strength, just redirect it. He slammed a fist into the wall behind me and for a second the explosion of dust made it impossible to see what had happened.

That was the second I broke his leg.

I’d stepped one pace to the right. It took no thought and almost no time to lash out with a kick that caught the top of his kneecap and shattered the bones and tendons from the side of his leg down to his ankle.

I spun to do the same thing to his throat, but discovered how fast he was and that my window of opportunity wasn’t long enough.

His attack wasn’t the strongest I’d ever felt. It didn’t reduce me to a squishy pulp like the giga-beast attack had for example. Still hurt like hell though. And it knocked me halfway across the room.

I landed on my left arm and skidded to a halt before rolling to my feet. I could barely breath and I was seeing stars, but I was alive so from my point of view I was definitely winning.

I watched, unsurprised as Vunthor splinted his shattered leg with anima. He was swimming in so much magical power that no injury I inflicted on him short of outright disintegration was likely to stop him.

Slowing him down was another matter though. Even with magical pain suppression and bone reinforcement, it’s not pleasant to walk on a leg that’s as badly destroyed as what I’d done to Vunthor. He was still absurdly superhuman but some dark corner of his mind knew that wasn’t going last and that he was going to have to pay for any further abuse he subjected his body too.

So he went back to talking.

“You Imperials disgust me,” Vunthor-Higgs said. “You come in here and think you know everything. Think everyone here are good guys who just need a big Imperial hug to get along. You know nothing of how we’ve suffered. You know nothing about the kind of monsters the slurps are.”

I cast a glance over at Vunthor’s troops. The anima stream coming off them had wavered after his big burst of power. They were paying the price for his capabilities and it didn’t look like they all had enough anima left to do it easily.

“I know the kind of monster you are,” I said. “A small minded, revenge obsessed psycho, who’ll use anyone and anything to keep fighting a war that should have ended decades ago.”

“There’s nothing psycho about fighting the slurps,” he said. “If you studied our history, you’d see that. They’re subhuman, a bunch of pack animals that need to be put down before their violent tendencies kill every one of us.”

“The only one I see here with violent tendencies is you,” I said as I started to move back towards cavern wall. “The rest of the colonists were ready for peace.”

“The slurps don’t understand peace!” Vunthor screamed. “You think they’re people but they’re not. They’re subhumans. They’re animals and we’re not going to let even one of them foul this world with their filth.”

“You would do anything to make that true wouldn’t you?” I asked.

“Yes!” he shouted and started to stalk towards me.

“You’d murder hundreds of thousands of Garjarack?” I asked, turning to face Vunthor’s troops. I saw some of them were swaying. Ilya was one of the few that wasn’t moving at all, but her face was crunched up tight in a rictus of inner pain.

“Yes!” he said. “I’d exterminate millions of them!

“You’d take any risk, pay any cost, just to put them in the ground?” I asked.

“Yes!” he said. “We owe that to all the people who fell fighting them!”

“Any cost? Anything at all?”

“Yes! Anything to be rid of those damn slurps!”

I let those words linger for a second. They were spoken in a voice somewhere between Vunthor’s natural one and Higg’s inhuman screeches. There was no chance the soldier’s who’d followed the Major and pledged their loyalty could miss the fact that the man who was draining their life force away had become something other than the person they thought they were following to the far end of space.

He hit me again.

I didn’t see the attack coming, or have time to react to it. The good news is that his injury slowed him enough that, instead of splattering me into a fine mist, the force of the blow only left me as a bloody mess sitting weakly against edge of the cavern.

I swallowed and fought back the pain that was threatening to pull me into unconsciousness. However messed up my body was, it didn’t hurt half as bad as knowing that I’d failed.

I thought I could predict Vunthor well enough to know when he would attack. I thought I could press his buttons in just the right pattern to keep him dancing until help showed up. That looked like it was going to be the last mistake I would ever make.

In one hit he’d done enough damage to ensure that I couldn’t avoid the rest of his attacks. From here he’d be able to ease off on draining his soldiers. He wouldn’t need so much of their strength to beat me until I was just a smear on the rocks and the dirt.

“Is that why you sacrificed the people at Salmon Falls?” I asked. “Is that why you eat the lives of the men and women put under your command?”

He paused and I forced myself to stand, splinting my broken bones with anima, just like he’d done with his leg.

I had one spell left and one real hope.

I looked at Ilya. Her eyes were open at last and tears were streaming down her face.

“You never cared about any humans except the family that you lost,” I said in a low voice. “All that’s ever mattered to you is revenge, you lying, hypocritical, murderer.”

I flinched against the blow that I knew was coming. I hadn’t stopped Vunthor but I’d driven a wedge into the group psyche of the people who supported him. It wasn’t a win but it might be enough to set up a win for one of my friends.

When the blow landed it was loud. Ridiculously, incredibly loud, and it didn’t hurt.

Because it hadn’t hit me.

Between Vunthor and I, a wall of golden light flickered, the remnant of a shattered and crumbling shield.

It took me a second to work out why I wasn’t dead and then I saw Illya, struggling to stand.

She’d saved me.

“You killed them,” she said, “To keep us fighting, you killed them.”

It was a question and a plea for a denial that crumbled like her shield spell into the acceptance of a betrayal so profound Illya didn’t sound like she would survive it.

I saw the look in Vunthor’s as he turned to face her.

She hadn’t betrayed him. She’d tried to give him a chance to answer my charges. To convince her and the rest that he wasn’t the monster I made him out to be.

The truth though was that he was even worse than she imagined.

He reached out with his Void anima to tear the life from her completely and I released my spell.

Like before, everything I had went into pure speed. This time instead of avoiding him I reached out and focused only on making contact with him.

My fingers grasped his wrist as he released his Void anima at Illya. I pulled the attack so that it went wide and twisted his arm to throw him off balance so that he lost all his leverage.

Then I punched him as hard as I possibly could right in the face.

I felt his nose shatter under my fist and his skull fracture behind it.

I won’t lie, it felt glorious! If I was going to die, I’d do so with a nice big smile on my face after that.

The chance I was going to die was a pretty large one too sadly. One punch wasn’t going to take Vunthor and Higgs out, no matter how much damage it did.

To really stop them, I had only one tool left.

Summoning all of my anima I dragged both of us down into the Void.

Vunthor and Higgs were both more experienced with Void casting than I was, but sometimes it’s not a matter of technique. Sometimes it’s just a matter of how far you’re willing to go win.

The Horizon of Today – Chapter 31

Titanus felt like it was falling apart around me so I did the only thing I could. I stopped moving forward, I paused for a moment, and I let myself breath.

I took two slows breaths, in and out, letting the wild surge of my thoughts settle into a less turbulent sea of ideas.

“Eirda, do you have anyone who can fly the colony ship?”, I asked.

“Yes, I was a heavy transport operator,” she said. “My coworkers and I can work out how to pilot this barge.”

“The Verulia crew wants to help too,” Fair said. “They have Everbright locked up in his quarters. Apparently he wasn’t a popular boss.”

“They’re probably not fond of the idea of being eaten by the giga-beast either,” Darius said.

“Good,” I said. “Eirda, if you feel you can trust them, then work with the colony ship’s crew. If not, have your people handle it themselves. Whatever you do though get the ship up to full speed and buy as much time as you can.”

“Unlock our warp generators so that we can jump out of the system,” Eirda said.

“The giga-beast will be able to follow you,” Fari said. “And if it returns to warp space, it will start regaining its former power even faster.”

“That’s fine,” I said. “Unlock the generators for them. I want all options at their disposal.”

“Thank you Guardian,” Eirda said. I didn’t miss the note of surprise in her voice. Garjarack have different body language and reactions than human’s but most sentients have a few common reactions, one of which being a brief pause in their speech when they get what they want without having to fight for it.

“If the crew can ensorcell another generator as a Ghost Bomb, you may want to ask them to so that you can slow the giga-beast down with it,” I said. “That’ll leave you with another ten thousand deca-beasts which’ll make things worse in the long run but unless we deal with this problem soon we’re not going to have a long run anyways.”

“I hate to bring this up but does anyone else notice that the Life Crystals are vibrating?” Darius asked.

I’d been distracted by the communication link and the problem at hand so much that I hadn’t noticed the change in the lighting around us until Darius mentioned it.

“Mel, what’s happening there?” Hanq asked.

“I have no idea,” I said. “Stay safe for a few minutes ok? I think we’ve got a new complication to worry about.”

Colonel Beva uttered a string of curses. I was tempted to echo her sentiments but given how the crystals looked I opted not to say anything that could be mistaken for provocation.

“Flames, can you understand what they’re saying?” I asked.

“They’re upset that you’re here,” they said.

“Us specifically or non-elementals in general?” I asked.

“They’re not making that distinction,” Flames said.

“We’d better enlighten them then,” Darius said.

“Working on it,” Fari said. “Flames, I’m going to add you to the mental link and route our communication through you as our translator.”

“Is it going to hurt?” they asked.

“No, but it might make you feel a little dizzy,” Fari said.

“What’s dizzy?” Flames asked.

“Not painful, just weird,” I said.

“Ok,” Flames said, sounding like I do when I’m nervous and determined not show it.

“I’m going to have to drop the long range links to focus on this,” Fari said. “Colonel, Captain, Eirda standby, we’ll be back shortly.”

“Stay alive.” I told them. I couldn’t command the impossible from them, but that wasn’t going to stop me from trying.

I felt the long range telepathic link fall away and be replaced with a hundred local threads.

“Solid ones, world breakers, leave us alone!”

The elementals in the Life Crystals spoke in a chorus that sounded like one part harmonious song to three parts psychotic riot.

“Why do they sound like Mel?” Darius asked.

I looked at my boyfriend and felt the urge to smack him.

“They don’t sound like me!”

“They’re speaking through Flames, and Flames absorbed their language skills from Mel’s mental anima,” Fari said. “Sorry Mel, they do kinda sound like you.”

I frowned, but pushed my indignation aside. It was definitely not the time to get caught up in trivial issues, no matter how wrong my two closest friends were.

“We are not the world breakers,” I said. “The world breakers are our enemy too.”

I was speaking under the assumption that the world breaker’s had to be the giga-beasts. Aside from the fact that they’d destroyed a mountain already, they were the only force on the planet that I knew of that was on a growth curve capable of living up to that name.

“You are alien,” the elementals said.

“Yes,” I said. “But we will not hurt you. We want remove the world breakers from this planet.”

“Why?” they asked.

“Because the world breakers want to destroy us too,” I said.

“You are small. Only a tiny spark. You cannot stop the world breakers. You cannot help us. They have shattered the homes of millions. They will shatter ours soon.”

I thought about that. Elementals could live outside Life Crystals, Flames was living in my flight pack and had lived inside me before that. These elementals were used to the protection afforded them by the Life Crystals though. Losing the crystals would be like a starship crew losing it’s starship. It was survivable (in a space suit), but the outside environment was terrifyingly hostile.

“Maybe we can help there?” I said. “Can I touch one of your homes?”

“What are you going to do?” they asked.

“Show you something we solid types can do that could help you,” I said.

“Continue,” they said and, blast Fari and Darius, I heard that same echo of nervousness suppressed by determination in their voice that I’d heard in Flames and my own.

There were so many crystals around us that I was able to pick one more or less at random. It was a little weird to watch the light within them fade out as I reached towards them, like the spirits were backing away from me. One of the crystals didn’t dim though, either because that elemental was braver than the others or because they didn’t think they could escape.

I laid my hand gently on that one and fed it with a trickle of Physical anima, reinforcing its natural structural strength and layering onto it a protective shield to make it as resilient as enchanted steel.

“What have you done?” the elementals asked.

“Protected your home,” I said. “Even if the mountain is crushed to rubble, this crystal will survive,” I said.

“That’s not possible,” they said.

“I can prove it,” I said and picked up a rock the size of my head from the floor.

“No don’t!” they said but I knew they had to experience it before they could believe me so I amped my strength up with more of my Physical anima and swung the rock as hard as I could.

The scream of from the elemental inside the enchanted crystal was silenced by the sound of the rock I was holding being smashed to dust. The crystal I aimed at was driven about a foot into the small crater I punched into the wall but, the elemental’s home was in perfect shape, just as I’d expected.

What followed that display was several minutes of confused babbling by the spirits until they came to a shared consensus.

“You must do that for all of us!” they said.

“How many of them are there?” I asked Fari.

“In this mountain?” she said. “Almost a million. Around the world we’re talking about a few billion.”

“I’m not going to be able to handle all of that alone,” I said. “But I think I’ve got an idea!”

“Oh yeah, you’d mentioned that earlier,” Darius said.

“My earlier idea was terrible,” I said.

“What was it?” he asked.

“To use the elementals to draw the monsters back here,” I said. “We don’t need the monsters to come here though. What we need are the people.”

“Who?” Darius asked.

“Everyone,” I said. “Bring everyone here. If the elementals will help us, we have enough power to make a crystal shield that can stand up to even the big giga-beasts I think.”

I looked at Fari for confirmation. I was working on intuitive calculations, but she had the real numbers.

“That might work,” she said. “The crystals are a natural focus for anima. Our shields will be a hundred times stronger than they would be without support and the elementals could help sustain and reinforce them.”

“Yes!” the elementals said. “Bring more people who can save our homes!”

“I’m getting the others back online,” Fari said.

“Can you handle that?” I asked.

“Sure,” she said. “Not problem at all.”

I filed away her tone of voice and expression for reference with a note of “this what Fari looks like when she’s lying to me”.

“Do you have good news for us?” Colonel Beva asked. “Or are we dead?”

“Good news but no promises on the dead part,” I said. “We’ve got a new ally. That’s the good news. Want to hear the bad news?”

“Sure, how can my day possibly get worse?” Colonel Beva said.

“I need you to get to my current position before the giga-beast that’s heading towards us,” I said.

“That’s impossible,” Colonel Beva said. “We have people who cannot be moved, and there’s a horde of monsters in between us.”

“Yep,” I said. “I need you to bring them along too.”

“No offense Guardian, but any plan we can’t execute is idiotic,” Colonel Beva said. “We need real ideas here.”

“This is as real as it gets Colonel,” I said. “We have a chance at fighting these things, but I need you all here. You’re going to take everyone who’s combat capable – by which I mean they’re still able to walk – and you’re going to get them here.”

“What about the rest of my people?” she asked.

“I’ve tangled with these monsters already,” I said. “They’re very easy to lead astray. If you come here they’ll follow your combat team. If not, they’re going to annihilate you.”

“This is a terrible plan,” she said.

“Yep,” I said.

“But I don’t have another one,” Colonel Beva said. The telepathic link didn’t carry her sigh, but it didn’t need to. Everyone on the line knew how she felt. “We’ll bring you five thousands monsters and as many of us as can survive the trip as possible.”

“That’s not going work for us Mel,” Hanq said. “We’re too far away to make it to you in time.”

“Find a way,” I said. “You’ve got pieces of starship all around you, and a still functional colony module. Ask the Council team we rescued. They’re brilliant, I’m sure they’ll have an idea you can use.”

“Let’s hope so,” he said. “Otherwise we get to try one of my terrible ideas.”

Master Hanq was not only stronger than I was but smarter too. I’d figured out over the years that a lot of those “smarts” were the product of hard won experience and that I was steadily gaining on him as I grew up. That didn’t change the fact that he still had a huge lead on me though. If he had a “terrible idea” then I was quite certain I didn’t want to see what the fallout of it would look like.

“We’ve turned the colony ship around,” Eirda said. “We have maximum power going to the engines but with only four generators we’re not going to make it to your position before the giga-beast does.”

“Four?” I asked, “Didn’t you have five before?”

“We did,” Eirda replied. “Now we have four. Also, there are ten thousand deca-beasts pursuing us.”

“That was quick work on the Ghost Bomb!” I said.

“I will pass along your compliment to the Verulia crew,” Eirda said. “Presuming we survive long enough for me to see them again.”

“We need to start waking up the rest of the crystals in the mountain,” Fari said.

“Can you two handle that?” I asked.

“Yes,” Fari said.

“You’re going to distract Vunthor, aren’t you?” Darius asked.

“I have too,” I said. “If he figures out what the Life Crystals are, or what we’re doing then he’ll drain them and kill us all before we can even begin to get this plan together.”

“Are you coming back?” he asked.

“Of course she is,” Fari said. “The question is how many pieces is she going to be in.”

“Just one,” I said. “I promise. Vunthor’s caused enough pain. I’m not going to let him hurt anyone else, not to the colonists and definitely not you two.”

They both hugged me, before I turned to look down the tunnel that lead into the mountain.

“Can you find him?” Fari asked.

I searched in the Void for a thread of connection to Vunthor or Higgs. There were hundreds of them waiting for me. They weren’t hiding at all.

“That’s not going to be a problem,” I said and dashed into the lightless depths towards the demons that couldn’t run from me any longer..


The Horizon of Today – Chapter 30

I wish I had the kind of luck where problems only appeared one at a time. Instead I was blessed with the “opportunity” to resolve at least a half dozen impossible issues and I was gifted with something less than an hour to manage those miracles in.

“Remind me to ask for a raise when this is all over,” I said.

“You get paid?” Darius asked me. His smile hid his concern as long as I didn’t look too closely at it.

Fari rolled her eyes at both of us.

“I’ve got Colonel Beva on the line again,” she said.

“Please tell me you have a plan Guardian,” Colonel Beva said.

“I do,” I said. I wasn’t lying, but I did hope she wouldn’t press me on it. I hadn’t claimed it was a good plan. “I’ll need you to hold out for as long as you can though.”

“I don’t know how much I can promise there,” Colonel Beva said. “Overseer Fari has been giving me the data she scanned from the Deca-beasts that are inbound. We don’t have many people who can fight one of those things, much less five thousand of them.”

“I know. This is well beyond any of our worst case scenarios,” I said. “We’re moving towards their controller now.”

“How long will you need?” Colonel Beva asked.

“Depends on how hard he tries to hide from us,” I said.

“If he’s smart he’ll hide until the Deca-beasts have finished us off and then call them back to kill you.” she said.

“He’s not that kind of smart,” I said. “If he was, he wouldn’t have sent them away in the first place.”

“Maybe he doesn’t need to be,” Colonel Beva said. “Can you get through Vunthor’s regular forces to take out the controller?”

“Yes,” I said. “But we’re going to need time.”

“You’ve got until the Deca-beasts reach us,” she said. “Then people are going to start dying. Fast.”

“Can we get any of Captain Hanq’s forces there in time?” Darius asked.

“I’ll get him on the line too,” Fari said.

A moment later the voice of my childhood mentor joined the telepathic call.

“Mel, where have you gotten off too?” he asked.

“We’re on Vunthor’s doorstep,” I said. “Was kind of expecting more of a party to be waiting for us here, but it looks like this will be a smaller, more private engagement.”

“All the party guests are headed our direction,” Colonel Beva said.

“So I see,” Hanq said. “Fari’s giving me the synopsis now. This doesn’t look good.”

“Do you have the portal sealed?” I asked.

“Yes, the rest of the giga-beasts are sealed away in warp space,” he said. “Black team is nearly spent though.”

“What about Red, Blue and Gold teams?” I asked. “Can they hold out against the horde that’s headed towards the Council colony module?”

“The crew of a Courier ship isn’t selected or geared for heavy combat missions like this,” he said.

“Yeah, but you selected and geared them,” I said. “Can they hold out?”

“For a while,” he said. “We won’t make it till Imperial support gets here though.”

“Imperial support is here,” I said.

“Mel, you can’t do this. It’s suicide,” Hanq said. “Vunthor has a small army backing him up.”

“Would you go after him if you were here?” I asked.

He was silent for a long moment.

“Have some faith Captain,” I said. “I’m not throwing my life away, and I’m not the little girl you started training a decade ago.”

“I know that,” he said. “Guardian Watersward.”

I felt a little glow of pride at his recognition of me.

“I’m getting another call,” Fari said. “Everbright wants to reconnect with us.”

“Put him on,” I said.

“Guardian Watersward, Overseer Fari, I am filing an official objection,” Everbright said. “I demand that you release the spell locks you’ve placed on our colony ship and vacate the region you are in to a minimum safe distance of fifty miles.”

“Mr Everbright, you are in no position to demand anything,” I said.

“This is a planetary crisis,” Everbright said. “Imperial Oversight is suspended. You are in violation of the charter agreement which governs Titanus. I will have you tried in the High Celestial Court if you impeded our efforts to reclaim the planet and save the people on the surface.”

“You arrogant, brainless…” Colonel Beva didn’t get to finish her rant before Fari cut in.

“Verulia Industries no longer owns Titanus.” Fari said.

The call went quiet following her declaration.

“I’ve reviewed the original charter and the colony contract,” she said. “Under the articles agreed upon there, it is the Imperial Overseer’s prerogative, in times of planetary crisis, to conduct an investigation and determine if Verulia Industries has been deficient in its responsibilities in any criminal manner. If so, the ownership and development contract of Titanus is subject to Imperial seizure and redistribution.”

“That’s ridiculous,” Everbright said. “There’s been no investigation. Those take months.”

“I think you’ll find my analysis of the situation is quite detailed,” Fari said. “And I look forward to proving that to an arbiter of the High Court.”

“What does that mean? That Verulia no longer owns Titanus?” Colonel Beva asked.

“Verulia is still subject to its obligations under the Colonization contract but they have no command authority over Titanus or right to remain in the system,” Fari said.

“Can you order them to jump back to Hellsreach?” I asked.

“I can order them to jump out of the system,” Fari said. “The Colonization contract only stipulates that they must land the colonists on an Imperial chartered world, so they could go anywhere but I imagine they won’t find many worlds willing to accept one hundred thousand colonists except Hellsreach.”

“You will regret this,” Everbright said.

“What I regret is not finding these clauses before you dropped the Ghost Bombs,” Fari said as Everbright snapped off the connection again. It seemed like it was his favorite thing to do.

“We’re coming up on the main cavern entrance now,” I said. “We might lose our connection if Vunthor is shielding the caves.”

“I don’t know if he’s doing that but there is something weird up here,” Darius said.

We’d been hiking to get to the cave, where “hiking” meant making anima assisted leaps to cross wide sections of the mountains between Vunthor’s lair and our landing position. Flying would have been faster but would have given away the element of surprise that we needed. An invisibility spell would have been nice too, but with Higgs on Vunthor’s side the chance that they could detect the spell was too high for me to risk one.

So instead we hopped over the mountain, one precarious jump at a time. Darius was in the lead, since he traversed the path already, which meant he was the first to see what awaited us around the initial bend in the tunnel that lead down to into the mountain.

I followed him in and was dazzled for a moment. It wasn’t bright in the tunnel, we were deep enough in that most of the natural light from the entrance was cut-off, but the sight that awaited us was breathtaking nonetheless.

Along the walls and ceilings, at irregular intervals, there were crystals in every hue and shade that twinkled and gleamed with living light. The fanciest churches back on Belstarius were less impressive or well decorated than the simple tunnel we were in.

“This can’t be natural,” Darius said.

I felt my flight pack grow warm and heard the fire spirit within it shift around.

“Oh wow,” Flames said. “There’s a lot of people here.”

“People?” I asked. I flipped my vision over to Void sight and looked around. Aside from the anima that Darius, Fari, Flames and I carried I couldn’t see anything special. The crystals looked like they were lit with purely natural light.

“Flames is speaking of the spirits in the crystals,” Fari said. “This is what Everbright was trying to keep us away from. It’s probably why Verulia went into this deal in the first place.”

“What have you found?” Hanq asked.

“Life crystals,” Fari said. “Fully charged, sapient life crystals.”

“I’m not familiar with those, why would Verulia want them?” Colonel Beva said.

“They’re a protected resource within the Empire,” Fari said. “The crystals form natural homes for spirits, elementals usually, and protect them from changes in the anima flows of a planet. Each of the ones we see here is the home to a sapient entity.”

“Why would Everbright have wanted them?” Colonel Beva asked. “And why would he try to hide it so hard?”

“In a lot of places outside the Empire, Life Crystals are treated as the best source for fuel and power that’s available,” Fari said. “It’s fairly simple to enchant the crystal into a cage for elementals and then tap them like you would any other anima battery.”

“What does that do to the elementals?” I asked, already knowing what the answer would be.

“The same thing converting a human to fuel does,” Fari said.

“I see why they’re illegal in the Empire,” Darius said.

“And that’s why Verulia needed a cover for their operation right?” I asked.

“Yes, Verulia couldn’t move the Life Crystals off the planet in mass quantities without attracting a lot of Imperial attention,” Fari said. “Unless of course they had some other reason to be sending hauling ships out to the far end of space.”

“Like for supply runs for a new colony world,” Darius said.

“How much trouble will Verulia be in when we bring this before an Imperial court?” I asked.

“If we can build a solid enough case, we could take every asset Verulia has in penalty payments five times over for even conspiring on this scale,” Fari said.

“That’s all fine for payback on Everbright, but we have more immediate problems,” Colonel Beva said. “Can these Life Crystals do anything to save us from the Deca-beasts?”

“We can’t use them as a power source without killing the elementals inside,” Fari said.

“I’ll do whatever it takes to keep my people alive,” Colonel Beva said.

“We aren’t going to trade one species for another,” Hanq said.

I thought about that. It would be gross and unfair of us to sacrifice a helpless native population to save ourselves, but I couldn’t say it wasn’t tempting. I’d survived a lot of encounters by absorbing more strength than my opponents could deal with. If Vunthor didn’t know about the motherload of anima that he was sitting on then I could smash him and Higgs like the fist of an angry god if I drained a mountain full of elementals. Or, if Vunthor was aware of the power that surrounded him, we’d be facing the power of an angry god and I wouldn’t stand a chance of fighting him unless I was similarly boosted up.

I looked at Darius and Fari. The weak part of me argued that I couldn’t protect them if I didn’t have the power stored in the crystals. My hand twitched towards the nearest one before I caught myself.

I’d done some questionable things, but there were lines I discovered I wasn’t willing to cross yet. Believing in my own strength was tough, especially after I’d lost the last several fights I’d been in, but believing in the people close to me? That was easy.

With the lure of phenomenal, transhuman power off the table my mind spun outwards searching for other alternatives and in about three seconds had a new plan put together.

“We don’t have to use them as batteries,” I said, breathless with the excitement of a new idea.

“What are you thinking?” Darius asked. He knew the look I had in my eye. He was familiar with the hospital stays that usually followed it.

“Hold that thought,” Fari said. “We have another call from the Garjarack colony ship.”

“Everbright again?” I asked, annoyed at the interruption.

“No, Eirda,” Fari said.

“Eirda?” I asked, taking a moment to place the name as the mother of the Garjarack family I’d met and Cadrus’ wife. The one who seemed to hate me and all humans with a cold, unyielding passion. “What does she want?”

“The situation has changed on the colony ship,” Fari said. “I’ll let them explain.”

“Guardian, we have assumed control of the ship,” Eirda said.

I thought back to the conversation I’d had with Cadrus. Had I instructed them to overthrow the Verulia personnel? I wasn’t unhappy they had, but I was pretty sure I hadn’t actually voiced that thought.

“We have another problem though,” Eirda said. “One of the giga-beasts is ascending from the planet and is on an intercept course with us.”

“Fari, how fast can the colony ship jump out of the system?” I asked.

She had already called up a dozen analysis circles and in less than heartbeat had an answer for me.

“With only five warp generators? Not fast enough to escape the giga-beast. It’s acceleration is increasing and I’m pretty sure it will be able to follow them into warp space.”

I looked at Darius and Fari. There was no way the three of us were going to be able to save all three of the groups that were under attack. Even the brilliant plan I had in mind wasn’t going to cover it.