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.