Monthly Archives: January 2015

The Compass of Eternity – Chapter 11

Sailing into the dark and welcoming sky, I knew we were safe from capture. Between Darius disabling the only two agents who could reasonably pursue us, and the cloak I cast to cover our retreat, there weren’t many options for Queen Metai’s forces prevent our escape. Despite that, I had to count the night as a total disaster.

“They’ve apprehended Illya already, haven’t they?” I asked, casting a glance back at the Grand Hall which was surrounded by a crowd of slack jawed but happy looking spectators.

“Yep, the whole carriage pool was locked down as soon as the first explosions went off,” Fari said.

“Do you still have a fix on her location?” I asked.

“For now,” she said. “If Agent Riverstone or any of the other Void casters they have on the Queen’s staff cloaks her though, the link will break.”

“Can they track the link back to us?” I asked.

“I have the link reporting to a secure node on the city’s spell web. They won’t be able to track it back any farther than that,” Fari said.

“That gives us another lead then,” I said. Specifically a lead that was incredibly unlikely to lead us to where Yael and Zyla were being held, and one that put one of my teammates in far more danger than they should be exposed too.

We discussed a number of scenarios before heading to the gala and “one of us gets captured by the local authorities” was one of them. We agreed on the strategy of allowing that to play out rather than enacting an immediate rescue, but I still found it hard to stomach. Illya was my responsibility. And my friend. If I couldn’t find a better plan than one that required sacrificing my friends then I needed to look for another line of work.

“We have a much bigger problem,” Fari said. “One of my ‘siblings’ is here. The Dominator.”

For as much as I thought of Fari as a regular girl, she had a few unique qualities, one of which being that where my psyche was housed in a body of flesh and blood, hers was housed in an ancient artifact. It was a unique ancient artifact but others of the same class had been forged over the vast millennia that people had sailed the stars. Together they were referred to as ‘The Jewels of Endless Night’.

When Fari’s jewel had been fully powered, it was capable of unleashing attacks that could scour an entire planet clean of life. The other Jewels of Endless Night had different functions but all of them were potent on the same scale.

Galactic society was largely spared from the ravages of their power because the Jewels bore several additional enchantments (layered on them over the years) which scattered them, hid them and defended them from would-be relic hunters. Despite that, they still turned up from time to time for one simple reason; the Jewels didn’t like to sit idle. The enchantments might bury them for centuries but the whole time the Jewels were working to return to hand of someone who would use them.

“The Dominator was the source of that psychic pressure we felt?” Darius asked.

“Yeah, I recognize her touch,” Fari said. “We worked together more than a few times.”

I tried to picture someone wielding the planet-killing Ravager that Fari had once been and the Dominator at the same time. With those alone, you could forge an empire that would span as many star systems as you cared to conquer.

“It gets worse then,” Darius said. “I saw Captain Okoro among the crowd. I don’t know what angle he was working there, but he was definitely hit by the Dominator’s memory erasure wave.”

I held a scream in. Hanq Okoro was more than my captain. He was mentor, and the closest thing I had to a father. Only long experience with how skillful he was kept me from asking Darius to turn around so that I could take the Queen apart with my bare hands. He would be ok. For the Queen’s sake, the fate weave had better guarantee that he would be ok.

“How did you two withstand it?” I asked, trying to take my mind off what was happening to Captain Hanq.

“I’d like to say it’s because I’m an awesome caster but the truth is I have built-in mental wards that exceed the design specs for any artifact ever created.” Fari said. “The people who originally created the Ravager were pretty keen that no one else ever be able to turn it against them.”

“Three cheers for keeping safety engineering in mind when designing a planet killing super weapon,” I said. “It’s nice to see that people have pretty much always been crazy like that.”

“It’s nice but I’d kind of like to go toe-to-toe with her too,” Fari said. “I mean she’s got millennia old hyper-sorcery backing her up, when else I am going to get a chance to flex my muscles against something like that?”

“I’m ok with ‘never’,” I said. “Never works just fine for me. How about you though?” I looked up at Darius who was still carrying us both as we quietly sped through the sky.

“Fari shielded me,” he said. “I mean, I’m good with mind magics but no way in hell am I going up against something that powerful if I don’t have to.”

“I already had a psychic link setup with him,” Fari said. “I just had to be in touch range to extend my wards to cover him.”

“Thank you both,” I said. “Without you, I’d be getting my teeth kicked in at this point.”

“How much do you think is compromised?” Darius asked.

“Depends on what the Dominator is capable of,” I said. “Can it do a deep read of Illya’s mind?”

“Easily,” Fari said. “But it may take them a little while to determine that she’s the one they need to target with it.”

“If it’s the Queen’s personal artifact, they may not use it for general police work like this either,” Darius said.

“Possibly. They seem to have a homegrown threat that’s focusing their attention away from us, maybe,” I said.

“What happened inside the Void bubble?” Fari asked.

“There were multiple combatants. Bo saved me from two of them, but the ring leader escaped, by teleportation I think,” I said.

“The scary agent saved you?” Darius asked.

“Broadly speaking,” I said. “You could say I charged in and created opportunities which she then exploited.”

“And then she tried to stab you?” Darius asked.

“Yeah, not fatally though,” I said. “She was trying to capture me, just like she was at that office building.”

“You could tell it was the same woman by fighting her?” Darius asked.

“That was part of it, but how she interacted with me spoke volumes too,” I said. “She knew what I was capable of and how capable I was. Otherwise she wouldn’t have let me charge head first into a Void anima field filled with enemies. Plus there’s the process of elimination. I mean how many combat trained, tourist, Void anima users was she likely to run across this week?”

“You are unique and wonderful,” Darius said and hugged me closer.

“Not unique enough,” I said. “This planet seems to have a surplus of Void casters on it.”

“It might be a natural reaction to the Dominator’s presence. If the fate weave isn’t a fan of the Jewel then it would reach out for the type of people who could stand against extreme mental magics,” Fari said.

“Given how powerful the Dominator is, I’m surprised the Queen used it in a situation like that,” I said.

“She had to know there was a chance you would escape,” Fari said.

“And since they caught you following Yael’s trail, they’d know you have an Imperial connection,” Darius said. “In fact if they’ve got Yael, they’ve got to assume that another Guardian will be coming after her and you fit that bill perfectly.”

“So the Queen wasn’t concerned about a Crystal Guardian discovering that she has a horrifically illegal artifact in her possession?” I said. “Anyone else thinking we should call in a Crystal Star now to flash burn the planet’s surface and save everyone a lot of trouble?”

“Is it going to surprise you that communications with the Horizon Breaker are down?” Fari asked.

“No,” I said, deflating at the news.

We’d made good our escape from the Gala, but we’d lost our crew and our passage off planet in the process. Despite the breathtaking altitude we were flying at, things were not looking up for my little team.

“Hmm, that’s interesting,” Fari said. “Someone just broke into our hotel room.”

“The police backtracked us that quickly?” I asked, wondering how they managed it and whether day could get any better.

“I don’t think so,” Fari said. “Our burglars teleported into the room. The police wouldn’t need to do that.”

I felt Darius shift course and send us streaking downwards towards the hotel.

“Burglars sound like our kind of people at the moment,” he said. “What do you say we have a chat with them?”

“It’s like you read my mind!” I said. “We’re not going to have a lot of time though, the Queen’s agents will figure out where we were staying and I’m not too keen to tussle with Bo again tonight.”

“That’s a little worrisome,” Darius said.

“Yeah, you don’t usually run from fights. How good is she?” Fari asked.

“Good enough that I’d be worried for my job if she applied to the Guardians,” I said. “That’s not why I don’t want to fight her again though.”

“You’re concerned she’ll slow us down long enough for the Queen to get serious with the Dominator?” Fari asked.

“Yeah. Or call in reinforcements,” I said. “I can handle fighting another Void caster, but a whole squad of them backed up by a cosmic super weapon is not my idea of a fun evening. Not when we’re looking for missing friends anyways.”

“So how do you want to handle our burglars then?” Darius asked.

I thought about that. If they were friendly then going in with a surprise attack would start our relationship off on the wrong footing. If they were hostile though doing anything but launching a surprise attack would give them time to teleport out and harass us at a later date when we didn’t have a specially warded room setup to fight them in.

“Non-lethal takedowns,” I said. “We can apologize later if we need to.”

“That’s three of us on how many of them?” Darius asked Fari.

“Two of you actually. This body I’m in went inert when Illya cut her link to it. I’m only detecting three of them in our suite though so you two shouldn’t have much trouble.”

“Dibs on any Void casters!” I said.

“Can you get us all in through the wall with a Shadow Step?” Darius asked.

“We’ll need to land on the balcony, but yeah, that shouldn’t be a problem,” I said.

“You can leave me behind for the fight,” Fari said. “I can manage the wards from outside.”

“I’m guessing you don’t have active defenses set in there right?”

“I was afraid they would arouse suspicion.” she said.

“They probably would have,” I said. “Can you give us an overlay of where our three targets are at though?”

“Yep, with structural highlights for the building too in case they run,” Fari said.

“Are any of them cloaked?” I asked.

“All three are visible currently. They’re searching our stuff too, not laying in ambush,” she said.

“That’s promising, but I still don’t think we can risk trusting them out of the gate,” I said.

“Agreed,” Darius said. “Let’s make this quick.”

And so we did.

With our approach shrouded by a veil of invisibility and our attack originating from outside the building, the three burglars didn’t have much warning before we struck. Darius managed to take down two of the three by means of a low grade shock spell that zapped them into unconsciousness. My target took a little longer to knock down and was going to wake up with a less-than-pleasant headache but like the other two was more or less undamaged.

That’s when we learned that there weren’t three targets in our apartment.

There were five.

As I gently laid my target, a tall, light-skinned man, onto one of our puffy reclining chairs I saw two women emerge from beneath the cloak of invisibility they’d worn the whole time they were in the room. I charged up my reflexes but pulled myself up short before I could launch an attack.

“Zyla?” I asked. “What are you doing here?”


The Compass of Eternity – Chapter 10

The worst moment in a fight is the instant that you know you’re going to get get your head handed to you. The worst sort of fights are the ones where that moment comes right as fight begins.

It wasn’t hard to see that Bo was going to win. She was armed, I wasn’t. I can fight armed people without using a weapon myself, but that’s because I’m totally willing to cheat. Spells are an unreasonably powerful weapon and my training means that even without magic I’m never lacking in options for disabling, injuring or killing people.

Bo’s training was as good as mine though and she had the same spells I did, at least as far it mattered in a fight like the one we were about to have.

With our skills and capabilities being equal, the long, razor sharp, hunk of steel in her hands was more than enough to be the deciding factor in our battle.

So I didn’t fight her.

Not like she thought I would anyways.

She expected me to go for a weapon myself (which would have been the smart move) or flee from her (which would have been the smarter move), so, when I sparked a flash of anima through my nerves to give myself a jolt of hyperspeed, she matched me.

Before I could launch an attack of my own, Bo’s sword speared out in a straight, blinding lunge.

There was a table behind me. There were chairs I could have retreated over or used as a weapon.

I didn’t.

When Bo stabbed at me I slipped an inch to the side, letting the sword run along the fabric of my armored formal gown. That would have cost me the use of my left leg if I was paranoid about wearing combat clothing at all times.

Before either of us had time to process that was happening though I stepped into her lunge and pressed myself body-to-body against her.

Being in that close limited my attack options, but foreheads can make a terrible mess of noses if you’re tall enough. I was, but Bo was good enough to see it coming. With her free hand she blocked my head strike.

Neither of us could risk a burst of strength to overpower the other, but I was able to drain the enchantments out of my gown to act as an extra reserve of strength to draw on. That was more or less my plan in getting them in the first place, but I was careful not to destroy the enchantments in the process. I can cast great shields, but there are plenty of situations where being passively damage resistant is handy. Also, I don’t have many nice gowns, so it seemed a shame to let this one get wrecked if I didn’t need too.

“You are assaulting an agent of the Queen,” Bo said as we struggled against each other. “By my appointed royal authority, I order you to stand down, and remove your shields.”

“No,” I said. “Not while there’s a wizard-class mind spell blanketing this area.”

We continued to struggle for a long pair of seconds, seeking either a safe escape or opening to attack.

“The Pacifism Spell is sealing the breach in the fate weave,” Bo said. “Stand down and submit to its effects.”

“Sorry,” I said. “I’m not allowed to do that.”

“Who are you?” she asked.

“Someone who knows that area mind control spells are explicitly forbidden by Imperial charter except in cases of imminent danger to sapient life.” I said.

Technically, I was legally obligated to resist mental control spells even in those situations. Crystal Guardians are chosen for a number of reasons, but common to all of us is skill in one or more magical disciplines that’s an order of magnitude or more better than standard casters. I barely qualified with my mastery of Physical anima casting, since I had strength but not experience or versatility yet. My Void casting skills though were what really put me in the same league as the other Guardians, and that was mostly due to how rare they were.

In short, I was dangerous, and would only grow more so as I gained experience. Losing control of that power could be a disaster for a lot more people than just me, and there were plenty of people inside and outside the Empire who would be happy to see the “right” kind of planetary disasters take place.  That’s why the Crystal Empress had a policy on people of my skill level and higher ]falling under outside control; she frowned on it. Over two decades ago, she also frowned on the Galactic Warlords who were painting the stars red with blood and you can see how that worked out for them in their near total eradication from the galaxy.

In my case, my Void casting abilities complicated the issue too. If I allowed a mind control spell to affect me, I would be held responsible for anything that I was forced to do while under its control. The same wasn’t true for someone like Darius who might resist the spell but be overwhelmed by it. That wasn’t his choice, and he was a victim in that scenario. I had the option to simply shut the spell effect off for myself though and that made it my responsibility to remain in control of what I was doing.

“Don’t think the fate weave will protect you,” Bo said. “I’m empowered to inflict whatever injuries are necessary to force you to comply. Even lethal ones.”

“That sounds familiar,” I said, thinking of my own legal privileges.

Bo dropped her sword and tried to sweep me into a throw. I let her toss me, but twisted to land on my feet, hoping to put her on the ground. She countered by spinning as well and we both landed with our arms still locked together.

Which meant our struggle become a foot battle.

I’m ok with kicks, maybe even a little better than I am with punches, but fighting against Bo was like fighting against a six legged woman. My poor legs took a brutal pounding but I managed to protect the all important knee and ankle joints.

Bo didn’t make it out of the exchange uninjured either. Close quarters fighting isn’t the kind of thing you do without getting all kinds of bruises that are hard to explain where they came from later.

“Where did you learn to fight like this?” I asked after I managed to wrap my left leg behind her right one and restrict our movements even further.

“I had a good teacher,” she said. “Where are you from?”

“No idea,” I said. “Orphaned too young to know.”

“That’s sounds familiar,” she said.

“Call off the Pacifism Spell and we can work this out,” I said.

“Not my call,” she said. “That’s the Queen’s decision.”

“Then your Queen is violating Imperial law,” I said.

“The Queen protects the people of Abyz,” she said. “She’s not for someone like you to pass judgment on.”

“You might be surprised about that.” I said.

As a Crystal Guardian I didn’t outrank a Queen, but there were a few narrow circumstances where I was allowed to pass judgment on one. There were also a much broader range of circumstances where I could sic an Imperial Auditor on one, but I was rarely in a mood to be that cruel. I could beat people to a pulp, but an Imperial Auditor could retroactively ruin their whole life if the situation warranted it.

“You’re allies are being arrested now,” Bo said. “If not for yourself, then stand down for their sakes.”

“You’re threatening my friends?” I asked.

“I am empowered to do whatever it takes to control this situation,” she repeated.

I looked around us to find Darius or Fari and saw instead the effect the mind control spell had on the attendees. They were standing up and staring vacantly ahead. Each of them had a dopey, pleased smile on their faces which suggested the Pacifism Spell was implanting happy memories in their mind.

That was terrifying given what I knew of Mental anima casting. Altering even one person’s memories was extremely difficult. Mass memory alteration required more power than any one caster should be able to possess. Even Fari, whose limits were a lot broader than a regular caster, didn’t have that level of mental magic to draw on.

“If you hurt them, I will burn you Queen to the ground.” That would be a highly questionable abuse of power. There was even a good chance that doing something like that would get me kicked out of the Crystal Guardians and into an ultra-secure prison. If Queen Metai seriously hurt the people close to me though, I wouldn’t hesitate for even an instant in making good on that threat.

“You won’t be hurt, if you comply,” Bo said. “We have no need to hurt you.”

She managed to pivot her weight enough to throw me again and this time I wasn’t able to get my feet under me before I landed. My head hit the granite floor and only a purely internal bit of anima casting let me retain consciousness.

Laying on the ground gave me leverage I hadn’t had a moment earlier and I used it to reverse the grip I had on Bo’s arms and drive the farther apart. Foreheads can make a mess of noses and, unfortunately, in that position she had a better shot at my face than I had at hers.

My vision went black for a split second and came back to stars. I was able to twist out of the path of her second headbutt though she still smacked the side of my head pretty good.

The impact stunned her a little too, which let me shift my weight and displace her center of gravity. She was better at strikes, but grappling was my speciality. Before she knew what was happening, I’d spun around her and put her right arm into a submission hold. She could struggle all she wanted to from there but her options were extremely limited, where mine included “break arm”, “break arm in multiple places”, “cause arm agonizing pain” and several even less pleasant choices.

“That’s enough,” I said. “Don’t make me wreck you, it takes forever to fix the kind of damage I can do from here.”

She stopped struggling, but I saw a smirk of victory spread across her face. I followed the line of her gaze to see her junior agent standing about a body length away from us with Fari and Darius by her side.

They were both looking up with dopey, happy smiles on their faces.

“Do what you want to me,” Bo said. “You’ve lost.”

I sagged. She was right. Even if I took Darius and Fari out of the equation, Bo’s junior agent could join the fight and simply kick me into unconsciousness while Bo kept me grappled.

“You are making a mistake,” I said and grudgingly released my hold on her.

She rotated her arm to soothe out the strain I put on it and we both got back to our feet. The sword she carried into the battle lay between us, but I let her pick it up without trying anything. Fari wasn’t in danger from physical damage to the doppelganger’s body but it wasn’t worth the risk to Darius.

“Drop your shields,” Bo said, raising the blade to point at me again. Her meaning was clear. If I didn’t drop the willingly she’d injure me so badly that I’d lose consciousness and they’d drop on their own.

I readied myself for what I was pretty certain was going to be an impossible fight. Bo was within arms reach of her partner, which meant I could possibly hit the two of them at once, but in reality I knew that when I tried, the other agent would block my strike and Bo would would put me down hard and fast.

I cleared my mind anyways and imagined the move working out right.

I had one shot to make it happen. I had to be perfect.

I gathered all of my energy for one insane burst and then…

Watched as Darius lit the two agents up like a thunderbolt.

Void anima is awesome at devouring magic. Darius has worked with me for over two years though, which means he’s learned all kinds of tricks for dealing with Void casters. Like using his immense skill with Energetic anima to summon natural electricity and letting it conduct in a purely non-magical fashion along the length of a sword blade.

“We need to leave right now,” Fari said, stepping in close enough to me that Darius was able to grab us both.

“On it,” he said and instant later we were blasting out of Grand Hall through the shattered windows like a rocket.

The Compass of Eternity – Chapter 9

Running into a fight with an enemy right beside you is, under most conditions, a pretty terrible idea. Under the current circumstances though, it was the best option I could think of for a number of reasons, not the least of which being that I was working from an information deficit and of all the people I could risk in order to learn the things I needed to know, I was by far the happiest with risking myself.

There was also the slight issue that I was potentially one of the few people who could survive the combat arena that was being spread throughout the Grand Hall. Void anima is nasty stuff, it’s essentially a toxic form of magic in that living tissue exposed to it tends to get dead in a hurry. It also consumes other forms of magic voraciously, including fate magic.

The fate weave on Abyz was unthinkably powerful but on a local scale it was possible to snap the bonds it laid on you, if you were sufficiently shielded in Void anima. That’s how managed to fight against the woman who attacked me on the roof of the office building without the fate weave say “No” to the violence we inflicted on each other. It was also how the people attacking the gala were able to assault the security and ruin the “Happily Ever After” field the Queen was (theoretically) projecting.

“Stay in sight of me,” the senior agent said. It was a reasonable request. Unless I missed my guess, she was the same woman that I’d fought with earlier, so she had every reason to be wary that I was associated with the attackers.

For my part, I wasn’t sure whether the attackers or the agent or both or neither were in the right and, regardless of that, which of them might be responsible for the disappearance of Yael and Zyla. Whatever was going on though, people were being injured and possibly killed and that wasn’t something I was going to sit on the sidelines and watch.

“Who are these people?” I asked as we plowed into a wall of Void anima.

For most other casters that would have been a problem. Both the agent and I were encased in our own Void shields though so neither of us so much as slowed.

“The woman you’re with is named Bo Riverstone,” Fari said, shooting me the information on our telepathic link before the Void anima swallowed me up. “She’s a member of the Queen’s personnel retinue. I’ll scour the spell webs to see what else I can find out about her.”

“Thanks!” I shot back before the wall of anima cut us off.

On the other side of the wall there was more darkness, which wasn’t surprising, but it wasn’t a field of pure Void anima either, which kind of was unexpected.

If the attackers wants to kill a lot of people, a wide area Void anima field would have been a great weapon to use. In fact on Abyz it might have been the only thing that could get the job done. Instead of that though they’d gone for a sheltering dome of Void anima to prevent anyone from reaching them and then had filled the dome with a simple darkness spell (and the smoke they’d initially deployed).

That suggested one of two possibilities. Either they weren’t here to kill people, or they weren’t strong enough casters to overcome the full power of the fate weave. The screams that brought Bo and I running into the fray suggested it was more likely to be the latter option, but I reminded myself that I needed to keep an open mind still.

Not that having an open mind saved me from the attack that came out of nowhere. Fortunately, keeping my ears open did. Thanks to that purely mundane form of situational awareness, I heard someone step up behind me an instant before they tried to bash my head in with a very hefty spiked club.

Void anima shields are awesome at protecting you from magical attacks. Purely physical damage is another matter entirely though. Normally, I have wizard-class Physical shields to deal with that sort of thing but the mix of Void anima that was being thrown around made those impractical. It was exactly the kind of extremely aggravating situation that I usually delighted in inflicting on others, and I saw why it produced the rage that it usually did.

I had one last advantage to call on though. Though I wouldn’t have believe it at the time, spending over a decade with no ability to cast magic had been a good thing in some ways. The primary benefit at the moment was that it forced me to learn to fight without without relying on magic. I’d spent years on the streets of my homeworld and had gotten pretty good at fighting without spells to sustain me. Over the last two years with Captain Hanq had ensured that even as I mastered  my spell casting skills, my mundane martial talents hadn’t atrophied either.

Putting all that together, plus being alert for trouble, meant I managed to dodge the few inches necessary so that I got clipped by the blunt part of the spiked club instead of one of the sharp and fatal bits at its end. The blow was still hard enough to send my sprawling over a table though and left me seeing stars because heavy metal clubs are no joke to get hit by.

With the thick smoke, I could barely see the person who attacked me until he was swinging the next blow at me. I was slow from the effects of the first blow, so I rolled backwards off the table to buy myself distance and time to recover.

Bruiser McClub-To-The-Head, or whatever his name was, came right over the table at me though, determined not to allow me the two seconds I needed to get back on my feet and ruin his day. For his trouble, he took a chair to the front of the kneecaps, which Bo wielded like she’d special ordered it from a melee weapon supply catalogue.

He crashed onto the table, shattering it beneath his weight and rolled off into the smoke as I leapt back to my feet.

“Thank you,” I said.

“That one wasn’t a Void caster,” Bo said. “We need to find their leader.”

“The screams sounded like they came from police recruits,” I said and started running over the tables to get there.

In my Void sight, I saw the people at the tables suffused with sparks of light which matched the anima they carried. That I was still seeing colored sparks dancing in them told me the attendees were still alive. Corpses have residual anima in them, but it’s a very distinct look from what a living body possesses. From their body postures though, it looked like the people in the affected area had all been rendered unconscious. Probably by something in the smoke that I wasn’t breathing in.

A stab of danger hit me and I dove to the floor to escape the attack. As I rolled beneath a table, a microburst of staccato explosions rang out.

“They’re using bullet throwers?” I asked, anger mixing with genuine fear. I couldn’t see Bo’s expressions, we were just shadows to each other again, but given how sharply she looked over at me, she was more than a little surprised that I knew what those were.

Most modern military weapons use an anima-enchantment system that launches conjured bolts backed by enough force to punch through a typical caster’s shields in a single hit. Because the bolt casters are enchanted to provide most of the magic needed for the attack they are reliable and cheap to use once they’re created.

A weapon that hurls physical projectiles, by comparison, is more likely to break, or jam and suffers the glaring problem that it can run out of ammo. By any measure a bolt caster is a superior weapon to a bullet thrower. Any measure except one.

If you’re planning to hunt a Void caster, purely physical weapons are the perfect tool to shred their defenses with. Whoever was attacking the gala had brought weapons intended to kill me and people like me.

I wanted to be mad about that, but if I had to fight someone like Bo, I’d want to make sure I had the upper hand too. That didn’t make the prospect of being shot more palatable, just more understandable.

“I’ll distract them,” I said. “Find out if the new recruits are alive and if they need help.”

I didn’t wait for her to agree with my plan. We didn’t have the time, and her actions would be enlightening no matter what she chose to do.

I tried to emerge from underneath the table, only to have a pair of shots shatter stone chips off the floor in front of me. With the darkness spell and the smoke that seemed like a difficult trick to pull off until it occurred to me that whoever was responsible for the darkness spell would be able to see through it with Void sight the same as I could. Add a True Seeing spell to that and they’d be able to see through the smoke too.

All they would need from there would be enough Mental anima to form a mindlink like I regularly had Fari do and they’d be able to coordinate the entire force that they brought.

On the bright side if they were using spells that didn’t rely on Void anima, then I could too.

I sprinted out from under the table and another four shots rang out.  Each of them hit me dead on, and each of them bounced off the Physical anima shield I had in place.

I let the shield drop the moment the last bullet hit to ensure its energies weren’t stolen from me. I’d had more than enough of being beaten to a pulp with my own power already and I had my danger sense to warn me when I needed to recast the shield.

Maneuvering while blind is less than fun, but it was yet another skill that Captain Hanq drilled into my head despite my whiny, teenage protests.

Sound and touch are you friends when you can’t see, and utilizing them efficiently makes all the difference when someone’s trying to kill you. The bullet thrower was loud enough that I couldn’t echo locate anything else in the room aside from it, but with brief caresses to guide me, I was able to tumble and slide across the remaining tables and skid onto the open terrain of the central parade aisle.

I burned a quick spike of Physical anima the instant I landed there and launched myself at the shooter’s position. I was fast enough that they only got off one shot, and that bounced off a hastily conjured Physical shield.  It wasn’t until I closed to within about ten feet of them though that I was able to make out three figures, all covered in shadows, waiting for me with weapons drawn.

I got in one anima assisted strike before they were aware that I’d reached them and used it to hit the two figures who were in front of the gun wielder. They went flying in opposite direction, propelled more by the carefully chosen angle of my attack than any superhuman strength. That left me briefly alone with their leader.

She didn’t waste any time with banter or threats. She simply emptied the bullet thrower’s ammo bin into me. My shield held but keeping it up against the onslaught put me totally on the defensive.

Bo once again appeared to “rescue me”, though this time she did it with a razor sharp length of steel in her hand.

Unlike Mr. Club-to-the-Head, the gun wielder sensed Bo’s approach and vanished before she could land a killing blow.

The moment the gun wielder vanished, the Void dome that sealed us in popped like a soap bubble. I expected to feel Fari’s mental link re-establish itself, but someone very different began to press on my mind.

It felt ancient and alien and indescribably compelling.

I wrapped my mind in an extra layer of Void anima, cutting off all outside contact. I had no interest in being taken over, even temporarily, by an alien intelligence.

“I can’t let you leave here,” Bo said, our two shadowed forms standing no more than an sword’s length apart.

“What’s with the mental assault,” I said.

“Turn off your defenses and I will explain,” she said.

“That’s not going to happen,” I said. “Explain now, while my mind is still clear, or we’re going to talk this out the hard way.”

The stab of cold that signaled an attack was all the response I needed.

It was going to be the hard way.


The Compass of Eternity – Chapter 8

One of the tricks to a successful infiltration is not to admit that you’re caught even when you clearly are. Confidence and simply looking like you belong where you are can cover a wide variety of tells that you’re an intruder. Generally I use invisibility to cover the rest but, when the people looking to capture you are seated directly to your left and directly across from you, disappearing into thin air can look somewhat suspicious.

“So do you get motion sick too?” Darius asked the women as he took his seat and completed our little dining table foursome.

“Motion sick?” the senior agent asked. Technically the two women were probably here posing as a couple, but their body language did not say “romantic evening” at all.

I saw alertness in both their eyes and a deference from the younger woman towards the older one that could have been shyness except for how she examined me when our eyes met.

A shy person will often look away when presented with direct eye contact. The younger agent didn’t flinch from my gaze though. She looked me up and down, blinked in exactly the manner I do when I’m taking a quick peek with magical vision, looked me in the eyes again and then glanced away only when I failed to present any aggressive signals.

That took all of three seconds. Time enough for someone trained in evaluation to do a quick scan and get a reasonable sense of the person they were evaluating, at least in terms of whether they were a threat.

A paranoid or anxious person might have done the same thing, but the young agent’s gaze had been clear on another point too. Whether or not I intended to threaten them, she wasn’t afraid. I knew that feeling. I also knew the broken bones that came with that kind of arrogance. I was lucky enough to enjoy the services of some galaxy-class healers though so I hadn’t yet learned my lesson about treating everyone as a potentially serious threat.

Plus, to be honest, it was kind of fun to dismiss big aggressive guys as not worth my time. It inevitably annoyed the hell out of them and the brawls that followed were usually short and extremely one-sided. As someone who’d been threatened by big aggressive guys everyday when I was growing up, I still got a kind of childish glee from feeding them their own front teeth.

Neither of the women seated across from Darius or I seemed like people I would be feeding anything to though.

“A lack of motion sickness is one of the benefits of these tables. We can eat while staying nicely on the ground,” Darius said.

“They’ll also offer a better view of the new recruits,” the senior agent said.

“Isn’t that why the flying tables will be flying though?” I asked. “To see things better?”

“What most people want to see is Her Royal Majesty,” the senior agent said. “So the table’s flight path is set accordingly.”

“You sound very familiar with how this is arranged, you must be locals?” I asked. Questions were safer than statements since questions could never be lies. Without any anima spells on them, I knew the agents couldn’t personally be under the effects of a true seeing spell, but I also knew that Royal Security wouldn’t be working an event like this without support. The agents at our table might not know immediately if I lied, but when they reviewed the logs of the evening I’m sure our conversation would have all sorts of annotations on it.

That didn’t mean that I couldn’t lie of course. Regular people lie all the time. I just had to be careful and clever with the lies I told.

“I take it you’re tourists then?” the senior agent asked, playing the same game I was.

“Fari, want to come pretend to be me for a while?” I asked on our telepathic link. I could be careful and clever with my words but I could also be impatient and I was pretty sure that if I gave into the urge to punch either of the agents in the face and make a break for it, we’d be swarmed by enough of the Royal Security Forces that they’d need a mop and a bucket to take me into custody.

“What’s up?” Fari asked.

“We’re sitting with a pair of women who I’m pretty sure work for Her Royalness,” I said.

“Have they started interrogating you yet?” she asked.

“They just started,” I said. “But Darius is deflecting it with small talk.”

“Good,” she said. “I’ll see if I can set something up with Ilya then. We’ll need to be careful not to raise their suspicions though.”

“That’s going to be tricky,” I said. “They’re going to think to ask why the fate weave sat them next to us sooner or later.”

“Well sure, tricky is why they send us in isn’t it?” Fari asked. In her own way, my best friend has just as much hubris as I do, which is probably one of the reasons I love her so much.

“We’re here on business travel,” Darius said. “But we’re kind of making it a well deserved vacation too.”

“You have good timing,” the senior agent said. “The Review only comes once per year.”

“Is that why there are so many guards here?” I asked, gesturing to the men and women in the beautiful and pointless armor. “I thought Abyz was the safest planet in known space?”

“It is,” the younger agent said.

“Safety comes at a cost though,” the senior agent said. “The more mundane precautions we take the less we risk overconsuming the natural Aetherial magics that provide us with our little piece of paradise.”

“That sounds reasonable,” Darius said. “Is that a problem with large natural disasters though? My home planet was subject to megaquakes a few years ago and after seeing them, its hard to imagine any amount of Aetherial magic keeping everyone safe.”

“We don’t have a problem with such things on Abyz,” the senior agent said. “We have plenty of resources for our needs today, but as good stewards, we try to make sure they’re preserved for the next generation as well.”

“That sounds very enlightened,” I said.

“We try to set a standard for galactic society,” the senior agent said.

“How did a philosophy focused on consequences arise on a planet where people don’t need to fear the results of their actions?” I asked.

“We didn’t always have the weave to fall back on,” the younger agent said.

“Yes, it’s a modern invention,” the senior agent said. “Just under a century old. Our society developed its traditions and values in a much less forgiving age.”

“And you’ve managed to retain those values across several generations of prosperity?” Darius said. “That’s an impressive achievement on its own.”

Impressive wasn’t the word I would have chosen for it. More like “unnatural” or “constricted”. Cultures change and grow over time. It’s the reason that despite millennia of violence and bloodshed across the stars during the era of the Galactic Warlords, we’re starting to see real progress across the million worlds of the Crystal Empire in just over twenty years of peace.

The Crystal Empress united the galaxy as much as she conquered it. The popular narrative paints an image of the Empresses as an unstoppable force sweeping aside the legions of warlords who stood against her. As Captain Hanq is evidence of though, many of those Warlords simply joined her cause, and hundreds of thousands of other worlds joined the Crystal Empire out of the belief that they’d benefit economically from the transaction.

Abyz had been one of those world. A “quiet convert” where no fighting had been required to bring it into the fold. Partly that was because the Queen of Abyz signed the treaty as a direct act of royal will. No debates had been necessary, or requested, or allowed.

In exchange for joining the Empire, the Queen was required to restructure her advisory council into a parliament that provided representation to all of the people of Abyz. A check like that on royal authority didn’t go over well on most planets but the Queen had pledged her firm belief in it at the time.

The cynic in me noted that the Empire had fought a brief war in a neighboring star system and broadcast the whole thing for everyone in a three jump range to see. Daimos, the neighboring system to Abyz, was the strongest military power in the immediate region. The Imperial forces had allowed Daimos the opportunity for a sneak attack, and had pre-published their entire battle plan. Despite those advantages, Daimos was utterly disarmed, without casualties on either side, in under an hour. I was pretty sure that had an impact on the Queen of Abyz’s thoughts on resisting Imperial rule.

“We’re an ancient civilization,” the senior agent said. “The fate weave is just one benefit that we gain from that. A stable society is another.”

“Is that why tourists can only stay here for so long?” I asked. “They would make things unstable?”

“There’s no danger of that,” the senior agent said. “As you see with the new police recruits, we can keep things well under control.”

“Do you ever have tourists go missing here?” I asked. “I’m guessing there’s got to be a temptation to stay longer since everything is so nice?”

I tried to be clever with that question since I needed information on what had happened to Yael and Zyla. My explanation would show up as a lie to any truth seer since I didn’t, in truth, believe there would be many people who would risk permanent expulsion when leaving and returning on a new entry visa was relatively straight forward. It was the kind of lie that someone might use to cover up their own curiosity about staying longer themselves though so I thought it might be safe.

And, of course, I was wrong.

“No one goes missing here,” the younger agent said and looked me in the eyes. I could almost see the wheels starting to turn in her head as the questions about who I really was rose to her awareness.

Her senior partner, perhaps due to greater experience was a step ahead of her though.

“Interesting that you bring that up though,” the senior agent said. “We had a disruption just yesterday and we’re still looking for the person responsible.”

“A disruption?” I asked.

“Yes,” the senior agent said. “While they can’t harm us, there are those who seek to cause chaos anyways. They’ll engineer elaborate jokes like replacing all of the whipped cream on the desserts with shaving lather or replacing the evening’s music with an illusion of donkey’s braying.”

“We’re trying to find someone like that,” the junior agent said.

“Who would do something like that?” I asked, thinking that it seemed like a pretty childish manner of protest.

“Misguided off-worlders perhaps,” the senior agent said. “One’s who might have fallen in with the wrong crowd and been misinformed as to the penalties for such acts here.”

“That sounds like you take stuff like more seriously than other places do?” I asked.

“We do,” the senior agent said. “But we’re more interested in who is ultimately responsible for those sort of acts. If the other people involved cooperate, their sentences are usually very minor.”

I thought back to Halli and the scam they had worked out to sell convicts into virtual slavery. Would that count as “minor” in the eyes of the agents here? It seemed an unlikely prospect for explaining Yael and Zyla’s absence if only because I would expect them to be able to break out of a jail in less time than it took for someone to put them into it.

“I can’t imagine anyone wasting their vacation on silly pranks like that,” Darius said.

“Some of the ‘pranks’ can be more serious than others,” the senior agent said.

“Are we actually safe here then?” I asked, wondering how they would chose to lie to me.

“Of course,” the senior agent said. “Just because someone has decided to try to disrupt things, doesn’t mean they can succeed.”

“We have all plenty of guards covering every corner of the building,” the younger agent said. “And the Central Authority building was planned with security in mind. It’s the perfect venue for tonight’s Review.”

I’ve made the mistake of saying things like that myself. It’s called tempting fate and as soon as the words were out of her mouth I saw the younger agent become aware of the roll that fate had bound her to play.

I wasn’t in any danger from the explosions that triggered right on her final syllable so the slow ache of cold that gathered in my chest felt odd.

The rest of the guests, barring my fellow crewmates, reacted poorly to all of the glass on the lower floors blowing outwards from the room. The explosions that caused the shattering glass also left the air filled with a noxious, though non-lethal, smoke that I had to cast a quick Physical spell to avoid breathing in. From the coughing and wheezing that I heard all around me, I guessed that most people didn’t have the same survival training that I’d been given.

The next round of explosions triggered the same sort of panic and screaming, but this time they came with a more definite stab of danger.

“Protect the guests!” both the senior agent and I said at the same time.

I turned to look at her and saw that she’d done the same thing I had. Both of us were covered in Void anima shields, and she looked a lot more familiar as a result.

In the smoke I heard voices calling out other orders. Then I heard the screams.

Whoever set off the bombs wasn’t any more restricted by the fate weave’s prescription against violence than I was.

“You are under arrest,” the senior agent said.

“Trust me, you don’t have the authority,” I said. “There’s people being hurt right now. We stop that, then we work out what’s going on here.”

I saw her hesitate for a moment but another scream decided the issue and with a nod from her, we plunged into the smoky center of the room to face whatever it was that fate hadn’t had in store for us.


The Compass of Eternity – Chapter 7

We arrived at the Honji Royal Review and Charity Gala late enough to be stuck in crowds. Wall to wall people from dozens of different worlds and twice as many species were massed in front of the Central Authority Building waiting for their chance to storm the doors and enter the Grand Hall where the “event of a lifetime” awaited them.

While the advertising for charity events can be a bit overblown, this particular occassion had a decent chance of living up to its billing. Normally the fate weave that permeated Abyz was focused solely on preventing injury and violence. As a “royal” event though, the Review and Charity Gala enjoyed the privilege of an enhanced version of the weave. The presence of Her Royal Highness meant that fate would go above and beyond “keeping you safe”. People thought of it as the fate weave giving you a “Happily Ever After” but that was out of reach even for the weapons grade magic Abyz was drenched in. What fate would actually do is conspire to “bring you together with someone special” at the ball. For some reason a lot of people thought of that as being a good thing.

Most royal events were for open only to select members of the Queen supporters, but each season there was at least one event to which the public could purchase tickets. When I asked Fari how much she’d paid for the three tickets we had, the price she quoted made me gulp.

My formal attire was an expensive luxury, especially with the “extra durability” enchantments that were woven into each piece. On a planet where everyone was protected from harm every hour of the day, the need for armored gowns was pretty much non-existent. I was able to find a shop that could manage to craft one on short notice only because the wealthy people who lived on Abyz occasionally had to travel off-world and were ten times more paranoid about such flights than the usual interstellar traveller.

The dependable thing about shops that specializes in providing rare clothes for desperate clients on short notice is that they don’t really have fixed prices for their ensembles. Usually they don’t even specify what the pricing is. If you care to ask, you’re probably not rich enough to afford it.

Despite that, my ticket to the gala was still more than the cost of my entire outfit by an order of magnitude.

“We should make sure we have our pictures taken,” Darius said as he took my arm. For a crowd of the ultra-wealthy, they were behaving not unlike drunken sports fans so becoming separated was a real possibility unless we clung to each other.

“Only if we can send them to your Dads,” I said.

Darius had an odd fascination with seeing me dressed up, while at the same time thinking that every formal suit he wore looked terrible. The crazy thing was, as far as I could tell, every suit he ever dressed in made him look smolderingly hot.

Granted I’m biased, but we don’t get to that many formal balls and it takes more than all my fingers and toes to count the number of times someone has tried to “cut in” and steal a dance with him. I joked that someday I would need to get into a knock-down, drag-out brawl just to fend off his overly eager admirers, except I wasn’t entirely sure I was joking about that.

For my own part, I never felt that comfortable in gowns or dresses but, when the mood struck me, they could be fun to wear for a bit. A formal gown is like a costume for me. It’s not who I am, or even who I want to be, but it’s still nice to pretend (and blend in) some times.

“They would love to have more pictures of you,” Darius said, and steered us a couple of steps forward as the crowd filtered into the Grand Hall.

“They’re very kind,” I said. I got along with Darius’ dads, Hector and Osgood, very well with despite having virtually nothing in common with them. They’re politicians with years of service on a world that had been beset by warfare for longer than any of us had been alive. I’m an orphan, street rat who managed to get recruited into one of the most prestigious peace-keeping groups in the galaxy. We literally come from different worlds, but despite that we agree on a shocking number of things.

Like how wonderful Darius looks in formal wear.

“They’ll be happy to have pictures of me, but you’re the one they miss,” I said.

“I send them a letter every week!” he said.

“Somehow I’m thinking that’s not quite the same as having you at home.” I said and guided us into an opening in the crowd that got us a whole three feet closer to the door.

“I wasn’t at home much before though,” he said. “I was in the field three weeks out of every four as a scout.”

“Yeah, but they still felt like they knew what was happening with you,” I said.

“I suppose they did see the troop distribution reports each day in the Council meetings,” he said.

“Right, so they knew when you were safe, and if you’re team was heading into danger they knew to worry extra hard.” I said.

“Not that extra worrying does much good,” he said.

“It gave them a sense of being in control,” I said. “Even knowing that it was crazy, they said it still helped them.”

“It’s hard to accept that my parents are that crazy, but I guess the evidence kind of supports it,” he said and guided us into one of the entry channels that led to the Grand Hall.

“People will do a lot to feel in control of their lives.” I got my ticket ready for inspection as we finally got close to the ticket takers.

“This from the girl who’s dressed in a blast proof gossamer gown,” Fari said over our telepathic link.

She was strolling around in our doppleganger body, looking like Ilya’s identical twin. Ilya, meanwhile. was waiting in the chauffer area after dropping us off. In an hour she was going to step into the back of the rented carriage we’d arrived in. Twenty minutes later Fari and I would join her in the carriage and once we finished dressing, they would emerge together with the doppleganger configured to look like me. I would exit at the same time, but I would be cloaked by an invisibility spell and wearing my proper battle attire (since Fari would be wearing my dress and Ilya would be wearing the one Fari was currently robed in).

The logistics of getting changed in the back of a carriage were a little tricky but it offered us the best chance of passing undetected since Fari and I could veil our subterfuge pretty easily as long as we out of direct sight of anyone.

That gave me about an hour to scope out the crowd and determine the sort of security that was in place for the event. In a sense, I was courting disaster with that approach. With the Queen attending the event, security was extremely heavy all around the building. In practice though that almost made it easier.

An event like the seasonal appearance by the Queen wasn’t put together in an afternoon. There had been heightened security on the Grand Hall for weeks leading up to the event and for the last three days the place had been in a constant state of high alert. The arrival of the Queen had intensified that but it had also focused it. The entrances were watched, and the Grand Hall teemed with armored security troops. They were almost all focused on the Queen herself though.

Two hundred guards and I had to laugh when I saw them. Their armor was beautiful and ornate and practically worthless. The police of Abyz still have all sorts of criminal matters to attend too, from burglary to fraud to arson and vandalism. Abyz even had a standing space navy, since the fate weave didn’t reach much beyond its atmosphere. What the planet was lacking though was any sort of domestic force that dealt with violence among or directly against its people.

On other planets, that would have been one of the prime roles of any governmental security force, but yhe security on the Grand Hall wasn’t in place to safeguard the Queen’s life. They were there to preserve her dignity at all costs. Anyone who tried to harm the Queen would find the most ridiculous of events occurring to foiling their plans thanks to the fate weave. Magic is finicky though. Dropping a paint balloon on the royal brow might be unpleasant but, as it posed no danger to the royal health, the fate weave would remain blissfully ignore it.

The current Queen enjoyed a fair amount of  popular support, but no one, not even the Crystal Empress, is beloved by everyone. With regicide being off the table on Abyz, the opposition was limited to attacks that were little more than pranks, though from what I’d read it wasn’t a good idea to underestimate how nasty a non-lethal prank could be.

It also wasn’t good to overestimate the effectiveness of the fate weave. Abyz billed itself as a paradise world thanks to the safety provided by the magic that surrounded it. From what I could see, there were a lot of wealthy people, locals and off-worlders, who bought into that. The Queen however was not one of them.

Evidence to that fact came from the presence of a second, less obvious set of guardians. These weren’t garbed in beautiful and ridiculous armor. They wore simple servant uniforms which Void sight showed me were devoid of enchantments. Not even a simple “Stay Clean” cantrip.

“There’s a whole lot of wait staff here who are primed and ready to fight Void anima casters,” I said on our telepathic link.

“Is that going to be a problem?” Darius asked, also silently.

“Only if they catch me,” I said. “And only for them in that case.”

“I just put your organs back in place,” Ilya said. “Could you please try to keep them there?”

“I always try,” I said.

We reached the ticket takers at last and were waved through without delay. It’s always nice when you can use legitimate credentials in situations like that, though if Fari had been forced to counterfeit us a set of tickets the results probably would have been  the same.

“We’re in,” Darius said.

“Same here,” Fari said. “How’s the drain on the animation spell Ilya?”

“Not bad yet,” our medic said. “I’m resting in the carriage now, so I can manage it for as long as you need. If you get into a fight though, or have to wander farther away, I reserve the right to change my answer.”

Inside the Grand Hall was a space that more than lived up to its name. The Central Authority Building was a sixty story tall skyscraper. The bottom twenty floors though were dedicated to the Grand Hall and it’s support offices.

I flicked my vision over to Void sight briefly to see the rich latticework of Physical spells that made the hall possible. In place of proper walls, the Grand Hall was built on graceful, curving swirls of a colored glass filigree. During the day, the hall was flooded with natural light, but at night it truly came alive. Thousands of tiny lights rested in the air above us with thousands more casting light into the vast room from outside.

I’ve traveled in space and seen nebula from afar. I’ve been inside several of them too, but the Grand Hall captured the essence of being surrounded by brilliant points of light that stretch into the vastness of the universe far better than any natural phenomena ever could. If there was a spot for finding your Happily Ever After, it was easy to imagine why people might mistake this for being it.

I looked over at Darius and then searched for Fari in the crowds. Surprisingly, I saw that Captain Hanq was in attendence as well, which meant some of the rest of the Horizon Breaker’s crew was probably here too.  Without any prompting, Darius chose that moment to hold my arm a little closer and I felt a warm blush radiate through me. If I had a Happily Ever After waiting for me, something told me I didn’t need Abyz’s fate magic to find it.

“I think the tables will be lifting off soon for the Review,” Darius said. “We should probably stake out our seats sooner than later.”

To complete the illusion of being adrift amidst the stars, some of the dining tables (meant for the more adventurous of the gala’s attendees) were enchanted to float  about the room as the parade of new police cadets made their journey to the Queen’s throne for their formal presentation to her.

The idea appealed to me, but since floating in mid-air would make it hard to wander around and inspect the facility, we had to make sure that we got seats which would remain boringly anchored to the ground.

As I expected those weren’t the first ones to fill up and we were able to find a nice little table with four seats that was towards the edge of the gathering space. I was about to suggest that Fari head over and join us when I heard someone step up behind me.

“Are these taken?” a tall woman with skin a few shades darker than mine asked, referring to the two open seats. Another woman, who looked to be a few years younger, stood beside her watching me as well.

“Not yet,” Darius said and stepped to the side to allow the two women easier access to the chairs.

“Thank you,” the tall woman said and moved to take the seat that was opposite from me, while her companion took the seat to my left.

Out of reflex, I flicked my vision over to Void sight for a second to check them out as they sat down.

There were no enchantments on them. Not on their expertly coiffed hair. Not on their radiant and lovely gowns. Not even on the sparkling jewelry they wore. If we were in a low class bar on Halli I wouldn’t have been surprised. This venue however was packed with people who had so much money it wasn’t anything more than a cute number to them. All of the attendees were enchanted in some fashion.

Except apparently for the Queen’s special line of defense.

The Gala was reputed to connect you with someone special. I hadn’t considered that might mean I’d be connected with exactly the people I was looking for.

The Compass of Eternity – Chapter 6

Falling asleep immediately after a fight leaves you with a good chance of not waking up again for a variety of reasons. My first thought after opening my eyes therefor was a little cheer of gratitude that luck had been on my side.

The I remembered where I was. Abyz didn’t believe in luck. Here everything was governed by the fate casting and no one was allowed to die to violence or accident.

For that matter no one was supposed to be able to commit violence against another either, but Shadow Lady had done a pretty thorough job of pounding me into mulch. It seemed weird to argue for the beating being unfair when I’d at least received the benefit of not dying, but given how things had gone I wasn’t in a generous or reasonable mood.

At least not until I noticed that I was resting on a very comfy bed, in a pleasantly dark room. If I’d been captured, it was by the nicest jailers in the known universe. In fact, if the bad guys were offering rooms like this, with soft downy blankets and gentle warming spells hugging me lightly, I’d have to consider asking them for an job application form. I mean my bunk on the Horizon Breaker was nice, but even in the dim light I could see that the room was far beyond nice and well into opulent.

Of course it was lacking in the “cuddly young man” and “translucent best friend” departments, which made it significantly less appealing than my bed on the Horizon Breaker, but I was content for the moment with it. I figured if I had fallen into someone’s clutches they’d be along soon enough to gloat and make me an offer I’d have to seriously consider if I wanted to refuse.

I rolled over gently onto my back and slowly pulled myself up in a sitting position. Something seemed oddly wrong with that, but the smell of fresh coffee waiting beside the bed drove all other thoughts out of my mind until I drained a long sip.

The flavor of the coffee was exquisite. Nice and strong, but with with a complex mix of components that worked together rather than one overwhelming bolt of bitterness that some brews hit you with. There was also a light sparkle of magic on the lip of the cup that had kept it at the proper temperature for me. I drank the magic in too and it was delicious. Feeling the anima coursing through my system left me warmer than coffee itself did. Part of that warmth though was probably because I recognized the enchantment, having woken up to it most mornings for the last two years.

“You look like you’re feeling a little better,” Darius said, pushing the door to the room open and letting in a few rays of early morning sunshine.

“Can’t talk,” I said. “Enjoying heavenly coffee.”

“We have breakfast waiting for you too when you’re ready,” he said.

“I love you,” I said. “Seriously, I will make babies with you right now.”

“It’s good to see a patient fully recovered so quickly,” Ilya said, following Darius into the staggeringly large bedroom.

I finally noticed what seemed wrong. My body wasn’t a shattered mass of pain. There were remnants of healing spells still working on me, but sometime while I’d slept I’d received the kind of top quality medical care that only psychotically overtrained medics could provide.

“I love you too,” I told Ilya. “Babies for you as well.”

“Aww, I almost feel like I’m missing out here,” Fari said, joining the other two in her ghostly blue form.

“You get double babies, with a side order of cute pets,” I told her. “Seriously though, where are we, and, not that I’m ungrateful, but why are you here?”

“Sorry, kind of my fault,” Fari said.

“She put a medic alert spell on you,” Darius said. “So when your vital signs went haywire we knew you were in trouble.”

“It was just a variant of the signalling spell I gave you,” Fari said. “I figured if you were conscious and still hidden, the alert effect wouldn’t escape your cloaking spell and if it did, well, then you probably needed us.”

“I was right about the double babies,” I said. “How did you get here though?”

“Grabbed a shuttle and flew here as soon as we could,” Darius said.

“We got lucky,” Fari added. “I didn’t even need to scramble their schedules. There was one waiting when we got to the shuttleport.”

“That probably wasn’t luck,” I said.

“Yes, the planet’s fate magic, we thought of that,” Ilya said. “But that was even more reason for us to go. If the global fate weave was pulling us to you then we were probably your best hope of surviving whatever situation you fell into.”

“Isn’t it going to look suspicious that you traveled here though?” I asked.

“A little, but we improvised a cover story,” Darius said.

“You two had a vicious verbal battle,” Fari said.

“I think Black team has been corrupting our good Tactical Chief,” Darius said. “You should have heard the things she made come out of your mouth.”

“Actually you probably will need to hear it, just in case anyone questions you on it,” Fari said.

“A little later I think,” I said. “So how did a big fight cover coming here?”

“You stormed off after saying you wanted nothing to do with him,” Fari said. “Ran right to the shuttle port to get away.”

“I managed to hop on the shuttle at the last moment and then tearfully declared my undying love for you in front of all the passengers,” Darius said.

“It was very moving,” Ilya said. “But the tears were a bit much.”

“One of his concessions was to take you to see the sights in Honji,” Fari said. “You’re more cultural than he is, since you’re more obviously a galactic.”

“Hence the reason we’re staying here now rather than Raddox,” Darius said.

“And the reason we’re staying at such a nice hotel,” Fari said.

“How did you find me though?” I asked.

“We got here fast enough that you hadn’t been discovered, so I was able to home in on the location I sensed the medical alert originate from.” Fari said.

“She showed me where to go and I carried you back here after doing some basic first aid,” Darius said.

“I hate to think what you looked like if what I worked on was after a round of first aid spells,” Ilya said.

She was one of our company medics, so I knew she’d seen worse but I didn’t envy her that knowledge. My awareness of my injuries amounted to little more than “Oww, that hurts”. She got to see exactly what had happened thanks to her diagnosis spells and that couldn’t have been pretty at all.

“So what army beat you to hell like that?” Darius asked.

“No army, just one woman,” I said.

“That’s not good,” Fari said.

“Oh, it’s worse than that,” I said and proceeded to tell them what I’d discovered about Yael and Zyla’s disappearance, including the trail that led out to the office park.

“So you think Yael left that trail for you to follow and this shadow lady just happened to be waiting for you at the end of it?” Ilya asked.

“No, I think the trail was meant to lead me to the shadow lady,” I said. “We’re so covered in Aetherial anima here that I can’t tell for sure if there’s any from Yael or Zyla clinging to me, but I’d bet next months paycheck that’s the case.”

“You did part with Yael on good terms right?” Darius asked.

“Yeah, she’s even sent some letters, so I think she keeps an eye on my career,” I said.

“So she wanted you to know there were other Void casters here then,” Darius said. “And give you a chance to evaluate how good they are.”

“I think she gave me another clue too now that you mention it,” I said.

“She’s letting you know that there’s Void casters on both sides of whatever conflict is going on here,” Fari said.

“How do you get that?” Ilya asked.

“I came out of the fight with a lot of information,” I said. “The shadow lady called for support, so she’s part of an official agency of some kind. She’s damn skilled and she’s used to fighting.”

“I believe you’ve just described both yourself and Guardian Blackbriar, not to mention five or six casters on Titanus and my evil former boss.” Ilya said.

“Actually, your evil former boss is a good example of this,” I said. “He was a Void caster but I beat him because he wasn’t used to fighting other Void casters. The shadow lady I fought knew exactly how to fight other Void casters though – quick bursts of anima only, no shield spells and you maintain a constant void sheath so that your opponent can’t drain your life energy out.”

“It sounds like she was ready and waiting for Mel too,” Fari said. “If all the other Void casters on the planet were on her side then she wouldn’t have been looking for someone approaching the investigation site under an invisibility veil.”

“Speaking of invisibility, how did you folks get me back here?” I asked.

“You’re not the only one who can manage an invisibility spell you know,” Darius said.

“Technically with Energetic anima it’s more of a camouflage field than true invisibility,” Fari said. “But yeah, our good Blue team leader valiantly snuck you back to us leaving no one the wiser.”

“Our Tactical Chief is omitting that she left a wide area mental distortion field over the site too so that any postcognition spells will be disrupted.” Darius said with a tip of his head in Fari’s direction.

“For spur of the moment work, that’s very impressive,” I said.

“We had a lot of motivation,” Fari said.

“Now we need to turn that motivation towards finding Yael and Zyla,” Darius said.

“I’ve got an idea there,” I said. “I think the shadow lady was more than a warning from Yael, I think she was clue.”

“It’s very likely that whatever organization she’s a part of either has Yael or knows who does,” Fari said.

“She was covered in shadows though right?” Ilya asked. “How do we find her or the organization she works for?”

“We start with the people who are working for her,” I said.

“You want to raid the central police bureau?” Darius asked.

“Well, ‘want to’ is a strong sort of phrasing,” I said. “Let’s say I think we’ll find some useful information there, and that I’m pretty sure I can manage to stealth in and out if I go at the right time.”

“That sounds insanely dangerous,” Ilya said. “Doing it surreptitiously at least. Can’t you walk in there as an official Imperial agent and demand their cooperation?”

“In theory, yes,” I said. “But given that two other official Imperial agents came here and are missing-in-action, I’m inclined to think that there’s a significant and dangerous fraction of the local power structure who isn’t that impressed by Imperial credentials.”

“The Imperial ambassador here hasn’t issued an official call for help either,” Darius said. “So there’s no telling how extensive the corruption is.”

“Captain Hanq is working that angle for us,” I said. “If we run out of leads to follow, we can break cover and check back in with him. Until then though, it’s going to be safest to assume that we don’t have any friends on Abyz, except, maybe, the two who are missing.”

“Maybe?” Ilya asked.

“We don’t know for sure why they’re missing,” Fari said. “It’s unlikely that they’ve turned against the Empire but it’s not impossible.”

“I think I liked it when the enemy was always a scaly lizard,” Ilya said.

“Except that was never true,” I said, thinking of the Garjarack families I knew. I’d been put off by their lizard-like appearance at first, but after working with them for over half a year to found the new colonies on Titanus I found it impossible to see them as anything other than regular people.

“Don’t remind me,” Ilya said with a rueful smile. She’d changed a lot since her days as an interstellar terrorist, but I knew she still carried a lot of guilt over the things she’d done. Working with us was a little about making amends and a little about running away from the people she hurt. I knew she’d go back there eventually, but there was a still a lot of healing she needed to do first.

“So how do we break into the central police bureau?” Darius asked.

“We could let Mel wander in there alone, without immediate backup again,” Fari said. “Or, and I know this is a crazy idea, there is an official charity ball being held in the Grand Hall there tonight.”

“You already have tickets for the four of us don’t you?” I asked.

“No,” Fari said. “Just for the three of you. If I’m going to pose as you while you sneak off under an invisibility cloak, we can’t show up together.”

“How will we get my doppleganger in though?” I asked

“I can change it to look like me,” Ilya said. “When you arrive, Fari will speak for me. When you need to disappear, Fari can walk outside, meet me and we can walk back in with the doppleganger looking like you.”

“That seems elaborate and complicated,” I said. “I could just sneak in in the first place right?”

“You could,” Fari said. “But this buys us two benefits. First, you can scope the location out before you begin your infiltration, and second it gives me a chance to speak to people twice without them realizing it. I think I may be able to root out a little of what’s going on here in the different answers the people give to a Galactic like you compared to someone who could pass for a local like Ilya.”

“That make sense. Why do I have the feeling that you three had this all planned out before I woke up?” I asked.

“Because you’re naturally brilliant,” Darius said and gave me a kiss on the forehead.

“Also, we had a lot of time to kill while you healed, so this is just one of about forty plans we had waiting for when you woke up,” Fari said.

“What’s the next stage of your plan then?” I asked. “After breakfast and a shower that is.”

“Our luggage is being sent over from Raddox but you don’t actually own any formal clothes anymore,” Darius said. “So, the first order of business is to fix that.”

I grinned. A shopping trip sounded delightful and doing it in the line of duty meant I got to expense everything I bought!

Somewhere, on a planet many star systems away, an Imperial Accountant heard my terrible laugh and began to weep for the Empire’s bottom line.


The Compass of Eternity – Chapter 5

It’s one thing to attack a foe from ambush. Void anima casters are exceedingly good at that and its one of the many reasons for people who know what we can do to be afraid of us. The woman who climbed onto the roof with me didn’t try for a surprise attack though, despite the invisibility spell that was wrapped around her like a blanket.

That wasn’t a good sign.

Based on the kinds of situations I hurl myself into, it’s an easily demonstrable claim that I have an exaggerated idea of my own capabilities. Even with that, I’ll start a fight from ambush ten times out of ten if I have any choice in the matter. My opponent didn’t share that philosophy which meant she was either a masochist or dangerously talented.

Or both. I really shouldn’t confine people to labels I suppose.

We circled each other, gauging form and stance and measure of control over the anima we displayed. I was tempted to taunt her and try to throw her off guard but I bit my words back. Void anima cloaked my form preventing her from getting a clear picture of what I looked like, the same as I couldn’t see her as anything more than a three dimensional shadow. The effect didn’t extend to our voices though. I could hide my voice, but then she wouldn’t hear it at all, which would defeat the purpose of speaking. Also, anything I said that wasn’t hidden could be retrieved by investigatory spells and my true voice extracted from it. My opponent however was under no such restriction.

“You should let go of that veil,” she said. “You’re not going to like it if I have to beat you out of it.”

I ignored her. Or tried to. Playing head game with my adversaries was the best part of most fights. It was also the one tool I had against people with superior skill, power or training.

“Maybe you need a lesson though,” she said. “Who taught you how to move? You walk like a clumsy duckling.”

Insult my form, insult my teacher and probe to see if my ego was fragile enough to respond to petty snipes. I had to give her credit, it wasn’t a bad line of patter. I could let it roll off me, but that would tell her almost as much as if I responded to it aggressively.

Part of me wanted to play her game and beat her at it. I could go berserk and make it seem like I was much more of a novice than I was. It’s always handy to have your foe underestimate you in a fight after all. The problem with that approach though was that I was certain neither of us was going to end the fight in a single blow and in any extended exchange she was going to see me demonstrate a level of skill well beyond what a novice could manage.

So I slid one foot forward, rolled my shoulders and beckoned her to come at me.

“Oh? You’re not going to run away?” she said. “Well that will make this convenient. And brief.”

She then flawlessly cast a spell to gain a burst of enhanced speed. One ultra-short flash of Physical anima, followed a tiny fraction of a second later by a hyper-speed rush and an uppercut that would have knocked my head into next week if it connected.

Great technique for an opening blow, but the real mark of her skill was the follow-up right cross to my nose. She knew better than to assume her haymaker would lay me out and she pressed her advantage as hard as she could without opening herself up to my counter attacks.

If I tried to play the novice against that kind of assault, she would have floored me in under a second, so I had to match her ferocity and speed with my own.

Neither of us could afford to weave any long term enhancement spells, or the other would absorb them for the magic they contained. The same trick she used to start the fight, a micro-burst of magic for instantaneous effect, was one we both leaned on heavily.

I dodged her first haymaker, and the jab towards my face, then tried to grab her arm to bind her into a hold. She responded with another micro-spell to escape my grasp and went into a series of body blows without pause or hesitation.

My grab for her arm was as much as a defensive move as an offensive one though so it served to parry the first few punches she threw. I weaved back from most of the rest but a few landed anyways. She was just that fast.

Quick rabbit punches like the ones Shadow Lady hit me with aren’t meant to take down anyone. They’re meant to create openings. If they’re unanswered, or unavoided though, they can do serious damage. Broken ribs don’t sound life threatening but if those bones are turned into inward pointing spears and used to shred lungs and other vital organs, they can ruin your day pretty thoroughly.

Fortunately for me, I had an answer ready for her attack. A half step back into a split brought me out of her effective range while my front leg snaked forward in a low kick to knock her off balance.

She hopped over my leg and twisted into a spin kick that begged me to grab her leg and smash her into the roof like a rag doll. It was a trap but I snatched at bottom of her pants anyways. It was too good an opportunity to pass up even though I knew she was better than the move suggested.

As I anticipated, the spin kick wasn’t the real attack. It camouflaged a flying sidekick that would have no power behind it at all if she hadn’t boosted it with a quick snap of anima.

I had a hand free though, which left me able to counter her. She tried to enhance the kick again with a quick burst of anima, but that was her first mistake. I had a hold on her other leg and I knew what was coming. The energy she tried to add to the kick flashed for less than an eye blink but I snagged it with a tendril of Void anima as she cast her spell. Briefly charged up with her power, I refocused the force into meeting her kick with a straight punch.

As a note, meeting a kick with a punch is usually a terrible idea. Legs are lots stronger than arms and feet are noticeably tougher than hands. One of the exceptions to that rule is when the punch is backed with a superhuman level of force and durability.

My punch slammed into her so hard that her leg buckled and the force of the hit knocked us apart by a dozen feet or so.

The shadow lady landed right on the edge of the roof and hopped on her good foot for a second. I could have pressed the attack at that point. In fact I really should have, but the chance of sending her flying completely off the roof was a little too high. I didn’t have any intention of losing the fight, but I didn’t want to kill the woman either since I had no idea who she was or who she was working for.

I needn’t have worried though. Her “injured leg act” was well played but completely fictional. With the distance between us she was able to build up a nice big anima charge and slam her fist down onto the rooftop.

It crumbled beneath her blow. The whole thing. I had a flight pack on but extending anima wings seemed like an excellent choice only if I wanted to give her something to drain for power to beat me senseless with. So I tumbled into top floor of the building with debris raining down around me.

My Void sight let me see in the dark, but a heavy bank of dust and roof particles was another matter. Actual physical objects leave me as blind as anyone else. The shadow lady had an advantage there. She saw where I fell, which was enough to aim herself right at me. The first clue I had about that was when I felt my danger sense flare.

With milliseconds to react, I dropped into a roll to escape her attack.

That worked great, except for the part where I rolled over a jagged piece of metal from the roof that stabbed through my lower calf.

I bit back my scream and started calling up the most vicious curses that two years with a crew that were little better than pirates had taught me.

Shadow Lady was good. No mercy at all. She stomped after me, trying to land a kick on my injured leg and completely cripple me.

Scrambling away from her blows sucked. It was all pain and desperation and new wounds in my hands and sides.

I had to burn a bright stream of Physical anima to close the wounds and gain the speed and strength to ward off her attacks. Against any other opponent that would have worked great. Against her it meant that I left myself wide open to feed her a big chunk of power, which she very gracefully ripped right away from me.

I’m great with magical shields. Normally that would have protected me wonderfully from her bone shattering punches. That strategy doesn’t work so well though when your opponent can consume the shields themselves and gain even more power from them.

The fight was basically over at that point.  Shadow Lady hit me so hard the world spun and I tasted blood that was definitely my own. She wasn’t trying to kill me either. I knew that because our relative strengths were incredibly mismatched in her favor and I was still alive.

The beating she lay into me wasn’t designed to be lethal. It was designed to damage me so thoroughly that I wouldn’t be able to heal myself or resist any further once she stopped. I’d had to deliver the same kind of smackdown to people who were too skilled or dangerous to capture any other way. It came as no surprise that it was exceedingly unfun to be on the receiving end of that sort of attention though.

As much as I was able to rationally applaud the shadow lady’s technique, I knew I couldn’t afford to lose this fight. Which meant I got to take the stupid risks.

Spell casting requires concentration and finesse. Neither of those are easy to come by when someone is pounding your face into pudding. Fortunately there’s an alternative to concentration and finesse; really sloppy casting backed by an inefficiently massive amount of power.

None of my spell instructors would have been happy with the Acceleration spell that I managed to pull off. It was more poorly constrained than even a six year old’s would be. I wasted a tremendous amount of Physical anima to no advantage whatsoever. The rest of the magic I spent though served its function perfectly.

For just an instant the world slowed to a crawl and I was able to act.

The first thing I did was lash out with a wave of Void anima, not at the Shadow Lady (that would have been useless) but at the splashes of my blood that were splattered around the room. I couldn’t leave them any forensic evidence that I’d been here.

Then I put some distance between Shadow Lady and I.

By diving backwards through a closed window.

That was pleasant and enjoyable experience, said no one ever.

I let myself fall about twenty feet, far enough to be out of Shadow Lady’s view and unfurled the wings from my flight pack.

I wanted to soar upwards and put the city and maybe even the whole planet far behind me while I went and licked my wounds, but instead I dropped down to about fifteen feet over street level and cast a larger invisibility cloak around myself to hide my wings too.

The open sky offered me no protection. Soaring among the buildings, I could rely on their solid, physical presence to shelter me from Shadow Lady’s Void sight.

When I’d flown about thirty blocks away, I dispelled the wings and Shadow Stepped inside a building to catch my breath.

The chill of ice in my chest that signaled danger was diminishing, which let me know I was safe to rest for a moment, but the aches of my internal wounds told me I needed to get back to Ilya as soon as possible. Thinking about the hours of travel that lay between us though I wasn’t sure I’d be able to make it that far. I tried to stand up and felt myself wobble unsteadily. The betting pool in my head that had been putting wagers on me making it miles from here adjusted it’s guesses down to yards instead.

I closed my eyes for just a second and felt weariness and blood loss carry my consciousness far away, which settled the question of how much farther I’d be able to go.


The Compass of Eternity – Chapter 4

Infiltration work is, almost by definition, full of surprises. You scouts into the places you don’t have intel on so that you can discover things before you commit your forces there. You send spies in to unearth the secrets your enemies are hiding from you. If you knew what to expect then you wouldn’t need to send in a specialist like me.

In the two years that I’d spent on the Horizon Breaker, I’d learned a lot of things. Captain Hanq had made it a priority that I learn about proper stealth, security and infiltration techniques from the best people he could connect me with. His theory was that, as with my martial studies, my magical abilities would be greatly enhanced if I had a suite of non-anima related techniques to fall back on.

Given that “Captain Okoro” was formerly “Warlord Okoro”, I expected my tutors in defeating security systems to be a bunch of outlaws and criminal scum. As it turns out though, most criminal scum don’t have the requisite knowledge or cleverness to defeat serious security systems. If they did, they would be making a lot more money than petty or violent crime can provide and would be living safer and more comfortable lives.

If you want to learn how to defeat security systems, the people you turn to are the ones who design them and the people who help test them. Those people are the really scary ones. Scary smart, scary prepared, and scary insightful, and I say that after hanging around with certified geniuses as my two best friends.

I don’t consider myself to be dumb (well, most of the time), but I was probably not the best student that I could have been while I was growing up. Learning from Captain Hanq’s friends though was the kind of schooling that touched a live wire in my brain. I don’t know if it was because my instructors were brilliant or because they had to be able to understand how people thought in order to create systems that could be used and remain secure. It might even have been because the subject matter was intensely interesting but, for whatever the reason was, I took to those classes like I’d been born to absorb the information.

Two years wasn’t a huge amount of time though. I had decades of study and work before I could consider myself a master. Coupled with my Void anima abilities though I was kind of a nightmare for most security systems to deal with.

Which isn’t to say, I didn’t run into nightmares of my own. For example; Abyz. The whole damn planet.

I turned invisible and ghosted out of the room, using a short range “Shadow Step” teleport spell I’d learned. Teleporting is difficult and risky but, by limiting it to moving from one shadow to another, the anima was constrained enough that I could manage it without too much worry. Most of the time. On this occasion though, as the spell faded away leaving me in the hallway outside the room, I discovered I was blind!

My first reaction was to cast a shield around myself. That’s pretty much my first reaction to any kind of surprise. It never (or rarely) hurts to be tougher than a battleship. When no attack materialized, I turned my attention to figuring out why a teleport spell, of all things, had blinded me.

I had a brief mental image of having left my eyes behind but it didn’t take long to discover that they were still in my head where they should be and not in pain or damaged as far as I could tell. Checking myself with a simple Physical spell I found that I wasn’t actually even blind. The problem wasn’t with my eyes but with the ley lines on Abyz.

Ley lines are pathways of natural anima that flow within a planet and through the vast darks of space. Some casters can manipulate them to produce incredible effects. I mostly tried to stay outside of the major nexuses where they met because having too much anima surging through a spell can be as bad or worse than having too little.

The problem I’d encountered was that there were even more ley lines coursing through the hotel than in the heaviest nexus I’d ever seen. Abyz wasn’t rich with magic, it was practically drowning in it.

That was a problem for me, because while I am under an invisibility spell, my own natural vision is cut off and I see through “Void sight”. It’s the one sort of magical sense that the invisibility cloak can’t block because they’re both based on Void anima.

With practice I’ve gotten to the point where I can see the physical world as a light shadow in my Void sight. Mostly what I perceive though is the presence of anima. People glow in the colors of the anima that they’re strongest in and material objects display a light echo of the Physical anima that is connected to them. I can see other animas as well. The Energetic anima of a fire burning for example or the mental energy of a spell web that’s active.

In the case of Abyz what I saw was Aetherial anima. A literally blinding amount of it. Everywhere I looked there was a solid wall of Aetherial anima surrounding me. It was the same effect as if the air itself became opaque.

“Well this sucks,” I whined and waited to see if Fari would chime in, but she’d been good and let our mental link drop.

Normally, we stayed connected during a mission so that she could coordinate everyone’s efforts but in this case any telepathic link we maintained would be a liability. While Fari was exceptionally talented with communication spells, any active link between us could possibly be detected merely by the presence of the anima that created it. It wasn’t common to scan for that kind of thing but in the high security areas I was going to be ‘visiting’ it was far from unheard of either. As bad as being detected would be for me, having the bad guys notice my rescue squad would be even worse, since Darius, Fari and Ilya couldn’t escape pursuit quite as easily as I could.

I wasn’t completely cut off from them though. I had a signal stick I could use to contact Fari in an emergency but that was more like sending up a flare that she was sure to notice rather than a direct connection to her. A flare that I could also destroy with a light brush of Void anima in case someone did manage to capture me.

With my friends safely out of the picture, I turned to solving my problem myself. Ultimately it was just an issue with my Void sight spell, so I tinkered with that a bit. Normally it’s set to show me all of the anima in line of sight. With a few quick tweaks I changed it to ignore the Aetherial anima that was around us and the world sprang back into view.

The modified spell was a little harder to maintain, but not perilously so. I was going to need a nice long bath and a head massage to ease away the fatigue of the extended spell casting I was planning to do, the little extra effort for the modified sight spell would just call for a little extra downtime.

With my sight restored, I slipped out of the hotel and off to the local shuttle station. We’d selected Raddox as our destination because it wasn’t the city that Yael and Zyla landed in. They’d started in the capital city of Honji. Since we didn’t want to step into the same trap they’d been snared by, Raddox seemed like a safer base to work from. As far as we knew though, Honji was where Yael and Zyla disappeared, so I had to head there and I had to do it quietly since that seemed the most likely spot for our foes to be watching.

I entered the shuttle with another Shadow Step spell and spent the better part of two hours holding still and silent under an invisibility veil on the passenger ship. Even a very  paranoid opponent would be hard pressed to detect my arrival since to all observation, I had landed in Raddox for a vacation and was still there.

The trip to Honji proved fruitful almost immediately when I arrived. The starport in Honji was right next to the inter-city shuttle station I arrived at. Ten minutes after I disembarked from the shuttle, I was in the records room for the starport and had the flight manifest that told me which ship Yael and Zyla arrived on. It was still docked and undergoing repairs, so I took the opportunity to check out the cabin the two of them had traveled in.

None of their belongings were present, which wasn’t a surprise, but I still got a sense of what the trip had been like for them. It was a plain cabin, not one of the “executive class” suites which the ship boasted, but also not the cramped quarters of a “worker transport bunk”. They’d been posing as low key travelers, not interested in a vacation (they’d have gone to Raddox or one of the other vacation towns if they had that in mind)  and their entrance visa had listed them as having clearance for “archaeological exploration”.

Since neither Yael or Zyla had training in archaeology, that seemed designed to give them access to the museums and colleges that thrived in Honji.

From the travel records, I was able to glean the Interstellar bank account information they had used to pay for their arrival and acclimation fees. Unlike many worlds, Abyz had specific magical requirements for anyone who planned to stay on the surface longer than two weeks. There were a variety of rituals and ceremonies the prospective long term visitor had to take part in to acclimate themselves to the fate bindings that kept Abyz safe. Yael and Zyla had opted for that, probably because they expected their investigation to take longer than two weeks, and had paid the ritual fees from a bank account tied to a private research group.

The “private research group” may not have been enough of a blind to keep them safe, but it was effective in keeping me from figuring out what they were after. Fortunately though it was another breadcrumb to follow, and it led me to another hotel. Yael had checked Zyla and herself into two separate rooms and paid for them both from the private research group’s bank account.

I ghosted into their rooms to find that both had been cleaned and then rented to other customers. A little more invisible investigation and I learned from the hotel’s register that their belongings were “Shipped Out Per Customer Request”, next to an entry that showed them checking out several days earlier than their reservation was set for. I noticed no extra fee was charged for the early checkout and the rate wasn’t adjusted to reflect the higher, short term stay value. Most importantly though, their “check out” time was after the timeout on the message that Yael had set up for us.

So someone was cleaning up the traces of them after they went missing. In a sense that was comforting to know. It meant there definitely were bad guys out there and that they were still active, or at least had been as of a little less than a day ago.

The shipping on their baggage was more difficult to follow up on. The hotel shipping department had no record of the delivery, which appeared to mean that it was shipped by special courier, as many of the more important packages were.

I double checked the gate logs at the parking garage under the hotel and discovered that less than a handful of courier trucks had come in since the disappearance.  Of them all but one came from the same shipping company with the last being a truck which the gate clerk had not recorded a company or identification number for.

I found a secluded area of one of the capital’s parks to rest in after that while I pondered my options. Holding the invisibility spell wasn’t getting any easier, but I thought I could still maintain it for a while longer. Pushing onwards didn’t seem fun, but speed was still critical and I wasn’t overextended so I decided to continue on a bit further.

On a hunch, I raided the offices of the largest local taxi service to see what their pickup and dropoff records were like for the time span when Yael and Zyla went missing.

That turned up another lead in the form of a payment from the research group’s bank account for a ride out to an industrial park. That smelled like a diversion to me, Yael wasn’t clumsy enough to leave a clue like that if she wanted to hide where she was going. Despite that,I was still curious where she would send someone who was following after them.

Unlike my missing Guardian, I couldn’t catch a taxi, so I had to get out there on my own. Another few hours of walking let me tired and drained but it turned out to be worth it. The industrial park was closed, not because we were after business hours but because there was an active police investigation underway.

I smiled and thought about how fun it would be to raid the police evidence room to see what they’d found. Yael might have sent their pursuers off on a aimless hunt, but she tended to play deeper games than that. If there was a clue to be found, this felt like the kind of place she would have left it.

I got up from my perch on a building across the street from the industrial park to head into the investigation area on the chance that they hadn’t found Yael’s hypothetical clue when a fresh pang of cold lanced through my chest.

I turned slowly, shield already in place, to find someone else cloaked in shadows, climbing over the edge of the building.

As they stood up I saw them put their wrist close to their mouth and Energetic anima flared around their hand. I braced for an attack and then saw that it was much worse. They were speaking into a communicator.

“I have a veiled intruder on the top of the Koshi building,” the shadow cloaked newcomer said. “Preparing to engage. Have the neural-inhibitors ready from when I bring them down to you.”


The Compass of Eternity – Chapter 3

It probably says something about my life that I expected the shuttle trip down to Abyz to be interrupted by explosions, falling and general mayhem. As it turned out though, we managed to land safely at the starport in Raddox, Abyz’s largest tourism-approved city, with the ship in one piece and everyone still onboard.

“You owe me a hundred gold pieces,” Fari said to Darius.

“Law of averages says I can’t win them all I guess,” Darius said.

“Wait,” I asked. “Were you two betting on whether I was going to jinx the shuttle again?”

“What do you mean ‘betting again’?” Fari asked.

“Yeah,” Darius said. “That’s a standing bet we have. Where do you think I get the money for half our dinners out?”

“I am not cursed!” I said. “And I don’t make ship’s crash.”

“Of course not,” Fari said. “It’s just a statistically unlikely streak of isolated incidents, which has clearly come to an end.”

“I’m willing to go double or nothing on her next flight,” Darius said.

“You know I was wondering why the other pilots were laughing when ‘the new guy’ got this flight,” Razawan, the shuttle’s flyer said on the private telepathic link we shared. For most of our missions we defaulted to talking on a Fari-provided and secured spell link. It made the crew of the Horizon Breaker seem a little creepy at times, since it looked like we were silently moving together, all with one mind, but looking scary often suited our needs too.

“Don’t worry Raz, she really doesn’t crash ship’s that much,” Darius said. “They mostly explode actually.”

I hit him, which wasn’t precisely fair as he wasn’t precisely wrong. I had a recurring string of bad luck with flying vessels. I’d have several different Aetherial casters check me out to ensure that I wasn’t carrying a secret curse, but it seemed like the disasters were all natural. Or at least natural for someone in my line of work. Crystal Guardians, even initiate-class ones, draw a much higher share of unfriendly attention than a normal traveler. In part that’s because if trouble doesn’t come looking for us, then trouble is making a grave mistake and we’ll find it first.

“Thanks,” Razawan said. “That makes me feel so much better.”

“Maybe you’re good luck?” Darius suggested. Feelings don’t translate over the telepathic link, but I could still tell that Raz had winced at that. There was no better method to jinx someone than to suggest they might be lucky to have around.

“Maybe we should let Raz get back to the Horizon Breaker?” I said, hoping to get him out of the inevitable bad luck blast radius.

“I’d be delighted to!” Razawan said. “I’ll keep the engines charged up for a quick evac if you need one.”

We all stood back as the aether thrusters on the shuttle lit up and propelled the craft skyward. I whispered a silent blessing to keep Razawan and the rest of the Horizon Breaker’s crew safe. It wasn’t a spell, I’m not at all talented with Aetherial anima like that, so the only force the blessing held was the weight of my good wishes. As a magical shield those wouldn’t protect them from a stiff breeze but sometimes the point of saying kind words is just to let the universe (and ourselves) hear them.

“This is going to be a nice safe mission though isn’t it?” Illya asked. “Or were you not being entirely honest with Captain Okoro?”

“I said this was going to be the safest investigation option we had,” I said. “I never claimed it was actually safe though.”

“Oh yeah, speaking of which, have you figured out how to sabotage her idea yet so she has to take us along?” Darius asked Fari.

“I’m still working on that,” my translucent friend said.

“And that should tell you something,” I said.

Technically we were on Phase 2 of our operation on Abyz. Phase 1 had ended about ten seconds after we exited the warp portal when Fari cast a long range scanning spell on Abyz which told us the planet wasn’t suffering any global catastrophes. The planetary spell web had reports of things like local sporting competitions and promotions for various tourist sites, instead of the global evacuation orders we’d been afraid we would encounter.

With ‘cataclysmic crises’ off our list of worries, we were free to turn to our second priority;  finding our missing Crystal Guardian and her partner. That’s where my team came in.

Normally I don’t get to poach Darius for a team since we have different specialities. The same was true with Illya who was part Gold team, aka our medics. Even Fari and I hadn’t been able to work together exclusively much since she was promoted to the Horizon Breaker’s Chief of Logistics and Tactics.

This mission was special though. Of the crew of the Horizon Breaker, I was the only one with skill at manipulating Void anima. That gave me an edge in infiltration missions that was hard to match. It also meant that I tended to work best alone. Turning myself invisible was easy. Hiding other people wasn’t hard either. At least for me. For them the experience was like being blinded and deafened, with even their supernatural senses being suppressed.

Darius, Fari and a few other trusted allies were willing to work with me under those conditions, but even with practice and coordination they couldn’t perform at their full potential with that kind of a limitation in place.

Which isn’t to say having a support team wasn’t useful.

Fari was the Chief of Tactics for the Horizon Breaker for a damn good reason. She was naturally brilliant, and due to her unique circumstances had a better handle on Mental anima casting than anyone I’d ever met. She was vital to the operations of the Horizon Breaker and frequently had the task of coordinating the actions of the entire crew in real time.

I’d thought I would have to argue with Hanq long and hard to get her assigned to my team, but he’s almost insisted I take her along. The Horizon Breaker would function less efficiently without her onboard but having her with me gave my team a much higher chance of success. With her help, no one was going to ensorcell themselves into eavesdropping on our telepathic conversations, and no one was going to be able to casually read our minds.

Darius wasn’t a slouch in the Mental anima department either. He had a excellent reserve of Mental anima to draw on and he was quick and clever enough to use it well. Where he really shone though was in manipulating Energetic anima.

In part I’d brought him along because I needed him for the cover story we were presenting. The shuttle that dropped us off was independently warp capable, so we arrived posing as nothing more than ordinary tourists. Darius and I were a young couple in love, just like the thousands of other young couples in love that were visiting Raddox. Given that we actually were a young couple in love who hadn’t had a vacation in far too long it wasn’t exactly a difficult role to play.

As nice as the resort we checked into was though, the real reason I wanted Darius on the team was that there was only one person on the crew who had his ability to blow things up in a hurry even when “unarmed”, and that was Captain Hanq.

The mission, as I’d conceived it, was for me to quietly investigate Yael and Zyla’s disappearance. If everything went well no one would even be aware that anyone was looking for them.

The last time “everything went well” for me was “never” though, so when things got loud and unfriendly, I wanted to be able to call on some support that could be even “louder”.

That was also why I’d insisted on bringing Ilya on the team. One of my best skills is weaving shields. There’s relatively few things that can break a protective spell that I cast. No matter how good you are though, if you go looking for a fight you have to assume that you’re going to get hurt.

I’ve trained since I was six under a variety of tutors. Master Hanq taught me how to use nothing more than my raw physical strength, dexterity and speed, unaided by magic, to take out spellcasters more than twice my size. Master Raychelle taught me how to use my Void anima to make an absolute wreck of other casters and multiple opponents at once. For the last couple of years, I worked on refining everything they taught me and adding to my store of tricks techniques from anyone who was willing to work with me (or against me, you can learn a surprising amount from the right kind of foe).

Despite that (or maybe because of it) there wasn’t a bone in my body that hadn’t been broken multiple times. Without the healing magics of people like Ilya, I’d be a gelatinous mass of goo at best or (more likely) dead several times over.

Ilya had another purpose on the mission team though beyond the seemingly inevitable need to patch my broken body back together when things went poorlya.

I needed to be able to move around without drawing any attention at all. Invisiblity is great for avoiding notice, but sometimes the most obvious clue you can give your opponents is not being where they expect you to be.

We’d registered with Abyz immigration as a group of travelers out of Hellsreach, Darius’ old home planet. It made it easy to generate the proper identification, and fairly hard for anyone on Abyz to verify that the documents were faked. They could contact Hellsreach, but it was entirely under Imperial ownership with only a small population remaining on its surface to search for ancient artifacts. Everyone else had fled the artificial “war world” for the relative safety of life anywhere else at all.

That meant Abyz customs had no reason to deny us entry, but that irregularity could be noticed by anyone who was sufficiently paranoid and hooked into the Abyz global information web. While we didn’t know that there was anyone like that on the planet, past missions suggested it was always better to plan for that eventuality. Sometimes the troublemakers are dumb as a bag of bricks, like on Halli, but people who are that stupid probably wouldn’t have been able to take down Yael.

What we needed against a smart opponent, was someone to take my place and remain visible even while I was off skulking around. Between Ilya and Fari, we had a trick to make that happen.

Fari was a genius with mental anima, so she could pretend to be me pretty easily. What she lacked was a body or the Physical anima to manipulate one. That was what Ilya’s primary role was.

As a medic, Ilya had Physical anima to spare. Take a few drops of my blood and a suitcase full of enchanted medical quick-fix gum, aka “body parts in a bottle”, and, within an hour of checking into our rooms at the resort, our bathtub was home to an exact, if lifeless, replica of me. Add Ilya’s Physical anima so that it could move around and link the body to Fari’s gem and we had enacted, officially, the creepiest plan I’d ever come up with.

It was freaky watching Fari do her disturbingly accurate impersonation of me, but it really gave me the creeps when she and Ilya released their hold on my doppleganger and it dropped onto the bed like a discarded doll.

“Ok, I know what nightmares I’m going to be having tonight,” I said, looking at the perfectly still version of myself.

“Are you really sure you want to go through with this?” Darius asked.

“We have worked under invisibility veils together before,” Fari said.

“Yeah, but this isn’t going to be a straightforward investigation,” I said. “I’m going to need to break into all kinds of places and do it really fast. We don’t know how much time, if any, Yael and Zyla have left.”

“Let it be noted that I hate this plan then,” Darius said. “And that you better come back to us, with or without Yael and Zyla.”

“I will,” I said. “But I’m not going to give up on them either. We’re critically short of Crystal Guardians as it is. We can’t afford to lose two good ones.”

“Or a great Initiate Guardian either,” Fari said.

“I’ll come back,” I said. “Just be sure to stay safe yourselves. When I call for the cavalry…well you know how that tends to go.”

“Oh, before you go, one second,” Fari said and slipped back inside my doppleganger. Ilya recast her part of the spell and my double rose back to life.

Before I could turn invisible and head out, Fari hopped off the bed and hugged me.

“I never get to do that,” she said and stepped back to give me a thumbs up.

“You all are the best,” I said and drew the three of them into a return hug, with Ilya looking a little confused by the show of affection.

Then I disappeared.

This was going to be hard enough and they didn’t need to see the tremors that shook my hands. The center of my chest had taken on the familiar chill of peril and it was deep enough and cold enough that I knew something big and terrifying was waiting for me.