Category Archives: Horizon of Today

Tag for posts that are part of the novel “The Horizon of Today”

The Horizon of Today – Chapter 25

Titanus was going to die. It was the only conclusion I could come to as I watched the behemoths that had pursued us across the light years. They crashed over the surface of the planet shattering the landscape and crushing everything in their path.

“I could have stopped this,” I said. “If I could have just beaten Higgs a month ago, I could have stopped this.”

“I could have stopped it if I still had my full power,” Fari said. “That’s not worth thinking about.”

“Right,” Darius said. “What we need is a plan for what we do next.”

“The giga-beasts look like they’re oriented on something else now,” Fari said.

“They’re not chasing the colony ship anymore,” Darius said.

“They never were,” I said. “They were following Higgs, and he’s running away now.”

“Wait, so you did beat him then?” Darius said.

“No. I just diminished him a bit,” I said. “I can’t destroy him. I don’t know how.”

“Is he running away from you or running towards something else?” Fari asked.

I hadn’t thought to consider that but reaching into the connection I still had with him showed me the answer.

“He’s homing in on something else. Another anchor,” I said and felt a new wave of sickness pass through me. A new anchor meant a new source of power. I’d beaten Higgs in part because he’d only had me to draw on for strength and I’d starved him for weeks. If he found a new source to draw hate from our next battle could go very differently.

“You’re shivering,” Darius said. “Are you ok?”

“No, not really,” I admitted. “Fari’s what’s in the direction that the giga-beasts are heading?”

“Nothing in a direct path,” she said.

“Will they pass close to anything?” I asked.

“They’ll be within about five hundred miles of the primary human settlement within twenty hours,” she said.

“What about the Garjarack city?” I asked.

“They’d need to alter their course,” she said. “If they proceeded there at their current speed and change to a straight line course they’d reach that area in about three weeks.

“Can you detect any signals from the human or Garjarack colony ships?” I asked.

“Yes,” she said. “I’m getting a distress beacon from the human ship. The Garjarack ship is still in orbit.”

“Can you patch us into the distress channel?” Darius asked.

A moment later we all heard the enchanted voice of the ship’s communication system repeating the standard Galactic Distress message over and over.

Darius waved his fingertips and cast a spell that tapped into the beacon spell and quieted it. A few seconds later a new voice appeared on the channel.

“Hellsreach Rescue Vessel, this is Titanus 4-1, please confirm your identity,” Colonel Beva said. We’d never met but I’d read her file in reviewing the people being shipped to Titanus and had heard her speak on a few holo-recordings.

“Titan 4-1, this is Hellsreach Council Liason Darius Pyras. I have the Imperial Colonization Overseer and a Crystal Guardian here. We’ll send an identity imprint now,” Darius said.

“Technically, I could fake these,” Fari said on a private channel.

“Yeah, but nobody else here could manage it so you’d be giving yourself away even if you did,” I said. I saw her smile in response to that. Being awesome at mental spells was a justifiable point of pride for her. Darius being clever was stealing her thunder a bit, but under the circumstances I don’t think either of them was really bothered by it.

We each cast our magical seals of office into the communication stream and received the answering seal from Colonel Beva to confirm her identity.

“I don’t know how you folks got here so quickly but I am damn glad to hear from you,” Colonel Beva said.

“What’s your situation Colonel?” I asked, though I was willing to wager a year’s salary that I could guess.

“We’ve had a revolt,” she said. “One of the majors suborned a contingent of the colonists and forced our ship to make a crash landing on the planet.”

“Who was the leader of the mutineers?” Fari asked.

“Major Exan Vunthor,” Colonel Beva said.

I couldn’t help myself. For as terrible as the day had been, for as disgusted as I was by the fight with Higgs, I still had to crack a smile.

“I knew it!”

I limited that outburst to our private channel but my savage glee still earned me a couple of wary looks from Darius and Fari.

“Admit it,” I said, again on the private channel, “You thought I was getting a little obsessive about him.”

“Just because you’re right, doesn’t mean you’re not also crazy,” Darius said.

I looked at Fari for support but she nodded in agreement with Darius.

“Ok, that’s a fair point,” I said. “Still, I was right.”

“What’s the status of the colonists?” Fari asked on the emergency channel.

“The Verulia ship didn’t weather the landing well,” Beva said. “We suffered a 20% fatality rate on landing and 60% of the remaining colonists and Verulia staff are severely injured.”

“What’s the status of Vunthor and the other mutineers?” I asked.

“They’ve escaped from the ship and we’ve lost scrying contact with them,” Colonel Beva said. “We know the living module they were in was one of the few that wasn’t damaged in the crash, and from our inventory assessments, they made off with the majority of our weapons stockpile.”

“Have you received any contact from the Garjarack colony ship?” Darius asked.

“Yes,” Beva said. “They tried to send a relief shuttle to us yesterday, after the crash. The mutineer’s shot it down.”

“I’ve got the Garjarack colony ship on a separate channel, shall I join them in?” Fari asked.

“Yes please,” I said.

“This is Titanus Colony Ship 2-A,” Gan Everbright said.

“Mr. Everbright? I thought you were back on Hellsreach?” I said. Specifically, I knew he was supposed to be on Hellsreach. The manifest for the Garjarack ship hadn’t included any humans. Even the Verulia Industries crew for the ship was composed of Rigelluns and other local non-human races.

“After the incident in our engine room, I wanted to personally insure that the Garjarack colonists enjoyed a safe flight,” he said.

About a thousand insults and quips came to mind in relation to the “safety” that the colonists had experienced so far, but I held them back. We had more important things to do than waste time on Verulia’s failures.

“What is the status with 2-A?” I asked him.

“We are standing by as per Imperial order,” he said.

“Verulia was supposed to have security forces in place on Titanus already,” I said. “What is the status of those troops?”

“That phase of the implementation has been delayed. They are expected to arrive within two weeks though,” he said.

“That conflicts with the information Imperial Oversight received at Hellsreach,” Fari said.

“Communication delays are inevitable when dealing with new settlements like this,” Everbright said. “The security forces will be in place before the final Imperial inspection is scheduled to occur though.”

“No, they won’t.” I said. “You’re not sending enough of them.”

“Tell me that you have some good news for us,” Colonel Beva said. “Do you have an army of Imperial Marines on their way here?”

“I’m afraid not Colonel,” I said. “And I’m afraid I don’t have good news for you either.”

“What do you mean?” Everbright asked.

“We rescued a group of Council colonists who survived the explosion of the third colony ship,” I said. “But we were pursued here by trans-warp entities.”

“What kind of trans-warp entities?” Everbright asked. His voice was quiet and fluttering which suggested he had a clue about the kind of monsters that lived outside of warp space.

“Transmitting live images of them now,” Fari said.

Both Colonel Beva and Gan were mute as they watched what we were seeing live. There was a mountain in the giga-beasts path. For a minute. The giga-beasts didn’t divert their course. They just went straight through it.

“What are those?” Gan asked.

“Classification unknown,” Fari said. “But they were powerful enough to destroy an Imperial combat cruiser without resistance.”

“Where are you now?” Colonel Beva asked.

“1,400 miles south-south-west of your position,” Fari said. “The creatures seem to be heading towards a spot five hundred miles west of you, if they stay on their current course.”

After seeing them demolish a mountain, it didn’t seem like there was much that would get them to change paths and since they’d already killed me once (technically) I wasn’t eager to volunteer as “bait” again.

“Everbright, do you have any information on what they could be heading towards,” I asked.

There was a pause, as though he was checking the records on Titanus.

“No,” he said. “There’s nothing in that area that they should be interested in.”

Something about his delivery set my teeth on edge. I don’t have any magical talents for detecting lies but sometimes all you need is to listen and pay attention to notice them.

“You’re right,” Fari said on our private channel. “He’s holding something back.”

“Definitely,” Darius agreed.

“Are you sure?” I asked. “We think they’re homing in on something that has a Void anima resonance to it.”

“Definitely sure,” Everbright said with conviction. “No significant Void anima zones have been charted on Titanus.”

I’d asked the wrong question. Everbright’s certainty said I’d missed whatever he was afraid I’d ask, but with the information we possessed I wasn’t coming up with any guesses for what he was hiding from us.

“It could be Major Vunthor,” Colonel Beva said. “We know he’s moved his forces outside of our scrying range and we haven’t been scrying that far out.”

“Was Vunthor a Void caster?” Darius asked.

“His records don’t indicate any capacity for that,” Fari said.

“But Void anima casting is very easy to hide,” I said and felt a weary sickness settle over me as the pieces fell into place.

Higgs had found a new anchor. Something, or more specifically, someone who hated like he did. Someone who he could connect with and draw from. Someone he already had a connection to in fact.

I tried to confirm my suspicion by reaching into the link that existed between Higgs and I found it dwindling away to nothing. He’d given up on me. He’d abandoned the power he possessed that was tied up with my own. The only reason he would do that was if he had a new source.

It had to be Vunthor. He’d lost so much. That didn’t guarantee a capacity for manipulating Void anima but it was a trait frequently shared by Void casters. It also explained how he’d gotten on board the colony ship despite our security working day and night to prevent that.

“That could be very bad,” Gan said.

“What aren’t you telling us Gan?” I asked. It wasn’t politic to imply that the spokesman for Verulia Industries was lying to official Imperial representatives, but I was out of patience with playing games.

“If those creatures are under this Major Vunthor’s control, he will be extremely hard to dislodge from that location,” Gan said. “The survey maps show that area is the deep within a mountain range and there appear to be extensive caves and natural underground formations there.”

“So about that army of Imperial Marines?” Colonel Beva asked.

“We’re on our own,” I said. “The warp lanes between Hellsreach and Titanus are a mess from the explosion and the giga-beast’s passage. We took a shortcut to get here that no one on Hellsreach will be able to replicate and even if they could, they’ll still be a month or more behind us, unless they’re already in transit.”

“We’ll have to make plans to evacuate the planet,” Colonel Beva said. “We can transfer my people to the remaining colony ship and await an Imperial Task Force there.”

“I’m afraid I can’t authorize that Colonel,” Gan said. “In the event of hostile action between the two factions, Verulia Industries is required to maintain a quarantine between the two groups.”

“We’re not the ones who attacked the Gar ship!” Beva said.

“That doesn’t change anything, “ Gan said. “The situation on the ground is too volatile. We can’t be sure you don’t have more mutineers among your numbers. I’ve already lost two of the colony ships. I am not going to endanger the remaining one.”

“You’re not going to have any colonists here if you’d help us Everbright,” Colonel Beva said.

“The Imperials will get here eventually and clean this mess up,” Gan said. “Whether or not you’re here, Titanus will still be able to host new citizens. If I were you, I’d work out how to survive until then.”

“You had better hope we don’t Everbright,” Colonel Beva said.

“No need to make this personal Colonel,” Gan said. “This is just how the numbers fall. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have the logistics for a long term occupation of this colony ship to plan. Everbright out.”

There was a pop of silence as he exited the spell link. Our one contact off planet was closed to us.

We really were all alone here.

The Horizon of Today – Chapter 24

The funny thing about finding myself in freefall surrounded by the ruins of the vessel I’d been flying in a moment earlier was how familiar it felt. First there was the moment of abject panic as the room I was in was torn to pieces and the only thing below me was the open skies of Titanus.

The sinking feeling of dread you get in your stomach when something bad happens is entirely different when the rest of your body is plummeting with you. I’ve had some very good teachers though. With the best of them was plummeting beside me, I was able to rally and spur myself out of my panicked stupor.

“The passengers! We need to save the ones who don’t have flight packs on!”

Master Hanq and I shouted the exact same words to each other over the telepathic link that Fari setup for us. A moment later she had links established to the rest of the crew as well as an overlay projected so we could see where everyone was.

That’s when the wings started to appear.

Throughout the sky, brilliant beacons of anima unfurled from the backs of the crew. Over a hundred of them converged on the colony ship module which, by some act of unbelievable good luck, was still intact. Together they took over for the missing engines and boosted it out of its dive.

“Find a safe spot to set the colonists down!” Master Hanq ordered and the flyers began angling away from us towards a wide, clear area on the ground far below.

My own wings had turned my fall into a gentle glide but it still felt like I’d failed to learn something from the last time this happened. I’m not sure what the lesson would have been. “Don’t travel in flying ships” maybe? I probably couldn’t manage that but it still seemed like I should be able to avoid predicaments like this one a little better than I had so far.

“At least this time no one’s shooting at you,” Fari said, referring to my less than pleasant arrival on Hellsreach.

“Give it time,” I said.

“A little problem here,” Darius said. “The weapon’s room is still intact. It was tossed up, but its falling back down now,”

I looked around to see where he was and discovered that, of course, he was speaking from inside the weapon’s room. Which was plummeting like the large metal brick that it was. I caught a glimpse of it just in time to see wrecked metal box go screaming past me towards the very solid planet below.

“Raise your shields,” Master Hanq said to Darius and the others trapped inside the room as he dove after it.

I followed him and three of the members of Black team joined us.

“Lift it,” Hanq commanded.

“It’s too heavy for us to fly with,” Tym, the Black team lead, said.

“Noted. Lift,” Hanq said and so we did.

With four of us applying an upwards thrust to the weapon’s room we managed to slow its fall greatly but given the contents inside it we were still going to impact Titanus with enough velocity to produce some beautiful fireworks that no one in their right mind would want to be anywhere near.

On a standard flyer, extricating the people trapped inside an intact part of the ship would have been a piece of cake. Flyers are made with light materials for fairly obvious reasons. Working together, Tym, the other Black team members, and I could have flown the room around with ease if it was part of a civilian ship. Combat rated Courier spacecraft are built to a rather different sort of specification though. Not only are they more heavily armored, they also have failsafes that send them into lockdown mode in the event of catastrophic damage to the rest of the ship. Given the general unfriendliness of space as an environment that works out as well as can be expected on most occasions.

Someday I’ll be in a situation that a manufacturer has planned for, but that was not the case as we plummeted towards the surface of Titanus. Fortunately Master Hanq had an answer ready.

He ripped the weapon’s room in half.

I might have mentioned at some point that Master Hanq is kind of good with Physical anima? If I’m really amped up, I can wreck buildings. Also I love sparring with Master Hanq. My desire to fight him for real however? That’s pretty much non-existent.

Darius and the other members of Blue team that were trapped in the weapon’s room with him were ready for Master Hanq’s move. A half dozen new pairs of wings flared into existence the moment Hanq created an opening for them. In good order, Blue team piled out of the destroyed armory and took to the air carrying armfuls of supplies.

I felt a warm blush tingle down to my fingers when I saw Darius was ok, but less than a breath later the all too familiar, and unwelcome, cold of danger seized my chest again.

“The portal’s opening!” Fari broadcast to everyone on the link.

The cold I was feeling became all encompassing. The giga-beasts had pursued us through warp space, but they’d done so mostly by tracking us from their own dimension. To breach the barriers and arrive in regular space should have been impossible. The physics of regular space were antithetical to creatures like that. They would never willing follow us that far.

Unless someone was still calling them.

“Catch me!” I said and trusted that someone would.

Closing my eyes, I drew my power inwards and plunged my mind into the Void.

Higgs was there waiting for me.

I’d torn huge pieces of him clean off and crossed to another dimension but even that hadn’t been enough to break the link that anchored him to me.

“Hate,” he said.

“I’m going to beat that tune out of you,” I said and and slammed my power into his.

Void anima makes a terrible weapon against other void casters. On the one hand, it’s terrible because it’s not particularly effective unless there’s a great difference in skill between the two casters. On a deeper level though it’s terrible because the only thing that controls Void anima is the psyche of the caster. In a magical battle, it’s easy to shield your psyche and even simpler to hide it away. Vodi anima is extremely good at that. If neither caster is interested in protecting themselves though? That’s when things can get ugly.

Touching Higgs’ psyche was a new experience. I’d never gone after someone on that primal of a level before. If I could burn the memory of doing so out with lye, fire or coarse grit sandpaper I’d have my brain in my hands in a minute.

Whatever the man had once been, all that remained behind as an echo in the Void was the raw malice that consumed him and ultimately ended his life. His skill as a caster was all tied up in that hatred, so it had survived his death and given him the incredible, unfettered potency he’d displayed so far.

I saw a lot of things when our psyches met. I saw how diminished he was. And how limited. His rage was twisted and turned inward. It devoured him as much as it hurt those he directed it at.

Higgs should have been a devastating caster, but he never learned to do the things that even an inexperienced Void user like I could. He couldn’t because his power came from his pain and he was unaware of the role he played in his own suffering. He’d never tried to do more because Void anima had been nothing more than a tool to lash out at the world with. He was so broken that looking within himself for the cause of his problems was impossible.

Without the rest of his humanity to hold him back, Higgs had grown stronger in some senses. His attacks were more potent. He could draw in titanic monsters like the giga-beasts. Virtually nothing could hurt him or stop him.

Despite all that though, he was withering. Everything within him, all that was left of him, came from the hurt and rage and weakness he’d felt while he was alive. As an echo in the Void, there was nothing new for him to draw on, so all that rage had nothing but itself to feed on.

If I hadn’t come along he would have railed against the survivors of the colony ship’s destruction but none of them were Void casters so he had no path to reach them. I could shield myself with Void anima but like called to like. Higgs could feel my presence just like I could feel his. I’d given him something new to hate and somewhere else to direct the destructive urges that were tearing him apart.

That may sound like a sad tale of woe, like I understood him and could forgive him and make everything better. Maybe that’s what I should have done, but I’m not that sort of person. Touching Higgs psyche showed me every disgusting, vile thing he’d ever done or desired. He wasn’t a wounded little bird, he was the kid who wounded the bird in the first place. He hurt but that was because he hurt other people first. He didn’t want to be healed. He wanted make people, especially Garjarack’s, suffer.

In the memories that remained, I saw him gleefully stomping on a clutch of Garjarack eggs. It was the brightest, happiest moment of his life and if he wasn’t already dead I would have killed him for it on the spot.

Since I couldn’t do that, I settled for ripping what was left of him to bits.

He was unfettered and that made him “stronger” than me, but also very predictable. I teased him by tossing out the memory of a Garjarack which sent him screaming forward. His attack was clumsy left him wide open to even deeper manipulation.

In the Void, Higgs didn’t have a visible appearance. Everything is darkness there. That didn’t stop my imagination from assigning an image to him though. I “saw” him as an exposed brain, with green sludge pumping in place of blood. Where his face should have been there was only a mass of thorn covered whips and sphincters shooting bile.

If that sounds utterly repulsive then I’ve given you the proper insight into what encountering someone that hateful was like.

His attack on the false Garjarack left him open and, disgusting as it was, I didn’t waste any time in plunging my power into the center of the brain-mass to disrupt him on a fundamental level.

It was horrible, wretched work to tear apart what I found there but it satisfied my primal need to destroy the loathsome entity Higgs had become.

Unfortunately, it was also a mistake.

To my credit, the attack did disrupt Higgs. He shrieked as I twisted and shattered the core that was holding him together. In an instant our fight went from a desperate struggle for survival to one where I stood alone as the victor.

The problem was my victory only lasted for the space of a single breath.

“Hate.” I heard him say as he fled.

I’d felt anger flare within me and through my connection to him watched as he grew stronger. Rage built on the anger and fed him further before I got myself under control. I’m not an idiot. I could see what was happening.

In the wake of the fight I felt cold. Not from danger (though that was present too). I’d hit Higgs with my best, most risky gambit and I’d failed to stop him. I understood from that the impossibility of the situation I found myself in.

He was an echo, there wasn’t anything he depended on for survival. No heart. No brain. No weak spots at all. Only one thing that bound him together still, his hate, and I could punch that out of existence.

“I can’t beat him,” I said as I came out of the Void trance I’d cast myself into.

“That’s ok,” Darius said. He was holding me in his arms and had a scintillating shield of blue energy cast around us to provide safety and warmth.

“Yeah, we’ve got bigger problems to worry about,” Fari said, appearing in the shield beside us.

Below us, the crashing steps of three giga-beasts shook Titanus to its core.

I’d been so tied up in fighting Higgs that I’d missed their arrival.

“Where’s Captain Hanq?” I asked.

“He’s taken Black team to close the portal before any more of them arrive,” Darius said.

That wasn’t news I wanted to hear. A task like that was insanely dangerous and would take more anima than it was safe for anyone to cast.

Worst of all, even if they succeeded it would do nothing to stop the giga-beasts that had already arrived. The monsters had claimed the surface and there wasn’t a force we had at our disposal that could challenge that claim.

We’d lost the planet before we even set foot on it.


The Horizon of Today – Chapter 23

In a sense we’re all chased by our ghosts. Normally our ghosts aren’t backed up by creatures best measured on a geographic scale though.

The trip through warp space was calculated to take a little under four weeks, my recovery took just a little over three and the next attack from Higgs Purmin, the colonist who’d destroyed the warp generator and then become a Void echo, came just ten minutes before we were exited back into regular space. In a sense, everything worked out well. Except for the part where Master Hanq’s ship got destroyed.

The four weeks the transit took presented a number of challenges prior to the destruction of the ship though. I was more or less out of it for the first few days so the logistics of repairing the ship were worked out while I was in a restorative sleep. In addition to the damage that it suffered in escaping the giga-beasts, there were a whole series of general repairs needed to stabilize the hasty link that was made between the colony ship module and the courier ship’s lower hull.

Darius filled me in on the problems and near catastrophes that had occurred there as Blue team put their limited resources to work on the problem. Apparently the stresses of warp travel were tearing the two ships apart and they’d had to resort to something called “Explosion-welding” in order to join them solidly enough to survive to trip together.

“Explosion-welding” is every bit as exciting as the name suggests from what he described. Especially the part where the first explosive weld ripped the fabric of warp space and allowed a horde of bat-winged eyeballs to assault the ship. To their credit, Blue team had anticipated an issue like that might occur and it only took an hour long battle through the two ships to get things back under control.

Then they’d had to do the other twelve welds.

That was only the first of many such “adventures” so it was fair to say the crew had been busy while I was lounging in a magically induced slumber to regain my strength. More than a few of them were jokingly jealous of me until I began doing my physical therapy.

My therapy after the incident at the volcano was very different from my recovery this time. Then I’d been magically burned out but physically fine within a few days. This was the reverse. The worst part wasn’t that I’d died, (it’s not really death when they bring you back in under a minute), the worst part was all the broken bones and organ damage.

Bones can be knit magically and organs supplemented with the effects of spells but magical cures can be magically reversed. The only way to really be “healthy” again was to provide the body with the energy and nutrition it needed and then work it so that the natural restorative processes would bring things back into their proper form.

That means doing simple things like walking, light weightlifting and basic anima exercises. My first session was in the ship’s gym with Master Hanq overseeing the exercise regime. That’s all it took, just that one session, and none of the crew was jealous of me anymore.

The story that went around, according to Fari, was that Master Hanq was having his revenge on me for sucker punching him when we were fleeing the giga-beasts. There was even a betting pool on whether he was going to work me to death, literally, in the guise of “trying to help me get better”.

When I found out about that I made sure to have Fari get me a stake in it.

What the crew didn’t get was that for as brutal and scream inducingly hard as the training was, I’d been training under Master Hanq for years. To them, he looked fierce and wrathful. They saw the toll the training took on me and could only imagine the misery I was pushing myself through. In actuality, it was even less fun than I was letting on, but the truth was that Master Hanq and I had trained a lot harder than that in past.

Every time he screamed at me to give him fifty more pushups, I heard the voice of someone who would have been screaming for five hundred more but knew I needed to be handled gently for a while.

And what really mattered was that I could do the fifty. At the end of each of the training sessions, I was exhausted and spent. My body had been worked till I was weak as a kitten. The next day though I was stronger. Each day, a little closer to where I’d been.

The strange thing for me was noticing after my recovery was “complete” that we were training harder than I could remember us ever training on Belstarius.

“Don’t take this the wrong way,” I said, “Because I am dead tired, but I could swear we did two double routines back to back there and I feel ok.”

“That’s good,” Master Hanq said. “I’ll take us up to three tomorrow then.”

“I thought you said I was supposed to be careful about overdoing it?” I asked.

“We are being careful,” he said.

“You’re not in on that dead pool too are you?” I asked.

He smiled at me and mopped his bald head with a towel.

“Now would I ever bet against my best student?” he asked.

“Would that be before or after she shanked you?” I asked.

He chuckled.

“I will admit to being, let’s call it annoyed, at that,” he said. His smile faded a few degrees before he spoke again. “I understand why you did it though.”

“I still feel bad about it,” I said. “In hindsight it was kind of stupid.”

“It was,” he said. “When I woke up I was going to have you arrested and confined to the brig for the trip.”

“I wouldn’t have blamed you,” I said. “What changed your mind.”

“Gold team ran you into the recovery room,” he said. “Or what was left of you.”

“Was I that bad?” I asked.

“You were worse,” he said. “I’ve seen you come crawling to me after you got in some mean scrapes. I’ve seen my soldiers busted up and broken in about every way you can imagine. So when I say what happened to you was ugly understand that I know what ugly looks like and I’m still having nightmares about it.”

“I’m sorry,” I said. “You shouldn’t have had to see that.”

“Probably good that I did,” he said. “Made me realize what you were trying to protect me from.”

“I didn’t have a lot of time to think, but yeah, I knew something horrific was going to happen to you and I couldn’t allow that.”

“You weren’t the only one thinking like that.” he said. “I’ve fought things like this before. Horrific describes it perfectly.”

“How did you win then?” I asked.

“I didn’t,” he said. “We got lucky and ran into a bigger monster that ate the one that was attacking us.”

“So you really didn’t plan to survive luring them away from us?” I asked.

“Let’s just say it wasn’t my first priority.”

“Are you still mad at me?” I asked.

“A little bit,” he said. “I’d still like to throw you in the brig, but something tells me you wouldn’t stay safe even there. Not to mention the revolt I’d have among my crew.”

“I thought they hated me for getting to slack off while they worked?”

“Well, sure, we all hate you for that,” he said. “But some of them are under the impression that you took a giga-beast punch to the face for them, so that’s buying you a little credit.”

“They’ve got a dead pool going on me!” I said.

“Gambling on ship is disallowed per regulations,” he said. “But if any was occurring I’m sure only the Captain would be betting against you.”

I did a double take.

“You’re betting you can kill me?” I said.

“No, no,” he said. “Betting is against regulations. Giving the crew an off-the-books bonus for unintended hazardous duty though? Well the regulations have considerably less to say on that subject.”

“So you setup a bet you knew you were going to lose, just to pay them some more?” I asked.

“Have you ever thought about my old dojo?” he asked.

“Yeah, it was comfy,” I said.

“The word you’re looking for is ‘small’,” he said.

“I guess. It seemed the right size for you though.”

“It was, but does that seem like the place a Warlord would live?”

“Now that you mention it, no,” I said. “Is this where you tell me you weren’t really a Warlord?”

“No, this where I tell you that I wasn’t really poor. I never have been, maybe that’s why money’s not that critical to me,” he said. “Part of the reason I picked  the identity I had on Belstarius was to stay inconspicuous.”

“You were hiding from the Empire right?”

“And a bunch of other people I knew,” he said. “But there’s a lot of places to hide and a lot of people to hide as. I picked the life I did, because it let me be who I wanted to be.”

“You wanted to be my teacher?” I asked.

“As it turns out, yes,” he said. “There was more to it than that but I liked that life. I still do in fact.”

“So then why sign up for all this?” I asked, pointing vaguely around at the ship and the crew that it held.

“The Kahn,” he said. “Living the life I wanted meant one less person was out there stopping guys like him.”

“Would you go back to Belstarius if you could?” I asked. It was something I’d pondered a few times in the past months, but each time my answer had been the same.

“Nope, this is where I’m needed, so this is where I want to be,” he said, taking the words right out of my mouth.

“Captain, we’re coming up on the first possible exit portal,” Fari said on the ship’s comm system so that it would be properly recorded.

“Well maybe not precisely here,” he said. “Grab a shower and get your kit together. The second portal is only six hours away, I’ll want all the teams ready for whatever’s waiting for us out there.”

In total there were nine exit portals that we’d calculated within the Titanus system. The first was within the atmosphere of Titan itself and the second and following were outside its atmosphere at varying distances from the planet’s surface.

We’d laid all kinds of plans for how we would handle our arrival, with the major adjustments swinging around what Major Vunthor had managed to accomplish with the two days head start that he had on us.

The other issue was the giga-beasts. We caught scryings early on that showed them following us but over the last two weeks they’d faded back and dropped off of our viewing spells entirely.

That either meant that they were stalking us or that our Wraith Higgs had faded enough that he’d lost his influence over them and they’d submerged back into the own realms again.

At Master Hanq’s suggestion, I’d avoided using Void anima for anything. Keeping those magics bound within myself meant that Higgs should have had less to connect to me with, and if I was his new anchor that would be the closest we could come to starving him out of existence.

Or at least that was the theory. What we really needed was someone like Master Raychelle or even Zyla who had formal training in Void anima casting. Since they were a dimension away from us though, I was the local expert and we all knew that meant we were in trouble.

What we hadn’t expected was that trouble would manifest the moment it looked like it would be possible for us to escape warp space.

I should have learned my lesson from the giga-beasts on how predators react to prey escaping but after weeks of peace I wasn’t expecting Higgs to lash out with a direct assault the moment we got within range of opening the first gate. We weren’t planning to use that portal, but of course Higgs wasn’t aware of the fact.

Fortunately when his attack came it was simple and weaker than the one he’d thrown a month previous. Once again he lashed out with a spear of Void anima, but this time it hit my shield to a very different effect.

I felt the thrust coming and braced for it, listening to the cold that swept through me for a sense of the strength, timing and scope of the attack.

Intuition more than reason told me that the assault was aimed only at me. I gambled on that and cast my protections within myself as snares to tear the power of the attack away from him.

In a move that surprised no one more than it surprised me, that strategy actually worked!

I felt the spear as it approached and tried to bite into me. It was a part of Higgs, or the echo that remained of him. I caught it with my own anima on the way in, stepped away from the thrust, then twisted and broken the power off from him, sheering it clean with a pure effort of will to gain control of it.

Higg’s Wraith screamed as I fractured it and I felt its hate come alive once more. This time I knew a little more about where it was coming from though.

We’d put together from the colony ships records that Higgs had been a prejudiced bigot for most of his life. He’d been raised that way and had intended to raise a family to follow in his footsteps, except he’d been a failure as a suitor. With no family and few friends, our guess was that he’d fallen in with Vunthor’s forces as their man on the inside. There was mail he’d received from military contacts but the contents had passed review as being purely mundane. Pre-scripted phrases however could be whatever the conspirators needed them to be and the likelihood that Higgs was actually interested in “baking up a warm dinner for his close friends” was pretty low in light of his subsequent actions.

With all that was left of him being madness and hatred I couldn’t ask what his motivations were, and, unfortunately, I couldn’t expect him to give up the attack until he completely destroyed.

As fast as I broke pieces off of him, he launched fresh attacks. Through wave after wave, I wound up surrounding myself more and more with Void anima and sending my mind deeper into the emptiness to find the core of what was holding him together.

I was just about sure I’d reached it when the giga-beasts attacked.

I’d been so focused on Higgs that I hadn’t felt their impending arrival. I cast myself away, binding the Wraith in shield after shield formed from his own power turned against him. By the time I was back to my senses though, the ship was in pieces.

To the credit of all of the people on board, most especially Red team, the fact that the pieces were still mostly intact could only be attributed to extreme and heroic competence in the face of insurmountable odds.

“We have to take the first portal!” Fari called out.

“We’ll crash then!” Master Hanq said.

“We might walk away from a crash,” Fari said, “We’re not going to survive them eating us!”

I saw Master Hanq, or rather Captain Hanq, wrestle with the decision for a long half second.

“Ok, do it!” he said. “Get us out of here!”

The passage through the portal was accompanied by screaming.

Screaming winds as the atmosphere grasped us, screaming metal as it tore apart in the sky and the screams of the giga-beasts who were definitely not about to give up their prey.

The Horizon of Today – Chapter 22

Predators, even ones the size of a mountain, have some common traits. Chief among these is a dislike for letting prey escape them.

The giga-beasts picked up the pace when the flames in me added to my speed, but with the arrival of Master Hanq’s ship they found a whole lot more motivation to close the distance.

That was helped by the fact that whoever was piloting the ship was braking its velocity like mad. Pieces of the ship peeled and tore away as it desperately tried to slow down. At first I thought they were trying to avoid crashing into me, but watching the ship barreling down on me I saw that wasn’t going to happen. Instead forward bulkhead passed right through me.

That felt like my body was a chalkboard and someone was scratching their nails across every inch of it, but before I could fully appreciate how awful the experience was, it was over.

The ship hadn’t splattered me across its hull because it was still partially out of phase with warp space. It was sufficiently immaterial that I would have drifted straight through the whole thing and out the other side except for the crash web that Fari had Red team cast to snare me.

To Red team’s credit, the crash web saved my life. It was soft and pliable with fibers that absorbed the difference in our relative velocities and distributed the impact to the point where I only fractured my wrist. As landings went it was an excellent one.

It just wasn’t one I lived to walk away from.

Giga-beasts, as it turns out, get cranky when their food tries to run away. I felt their attack coming as a paralyzing iceberg of frost that engulfed my body. To their minds, I’d been vaguely interesting when they were “chasing” me. The moment it looked like I would escape I was undergraded to “tasty”.

The Void shield I cast was the biggest, most powerful one I’d ever manifested. It flared out from me and formed a circle of hungry darkness that interposed itself between the ship and the beasts. I’ve held off city killing bombs with weaker shields than the one I cast against the giga-beasts. That didn’t mean it was even close to strong enough to save me though.

I don’t have a conscious memory of what the attack felt like. The last thing I remember was Fari’s command to “Prepare for Immediate Jump!”

What I reconstructed later was that the lead giga-beast reached out with some form of mixed Mental-Physical attack and grabbed me. There was a Void anima shield in between us, which was fortunate in that when he punched through it he lost most of the force of his attack and only a tiny tendril got through to my mind.

From the core of my psyche a million or more coiling vines of inhuman power spread outward and coalesced into Physical form. If that sounds unpleasant and potentially fatal then I’m not doing a good enough job of describing just how bad it was.

My instinct when assaulted is to lash out. In this case I lashed out with a buzzsaw of screaming Void anima blades. Normally I get worried when my reflexes involve massive displays of violence but in this particular case I am quite happy with my subconscious’s choice of  reaction to being threatened. I would have been happier if said massive violence had been enough to keep my body from being shattered by the giga-beasts power but even if I’d had ten years of training under my belt I don’t think I could have managed that.

On a positive note, the ship’s engines jumped us out of there before a second blow hit and I think my shield and flurry of destruction helped free us from some of the vines that had snared us (Red team got the rest of the vines loose and deserves most of the credit for our survival since they had less warning and more to fight against.)

I, meanwhile, died.


“She’s coming around,” Master Hanq said.

I’d lost time following the attack. As one tends to do when one is dead I guess.

“What happened?” I asked, struggling to put my thoughts back together.

“You got a little hurt, so we patched you up,” Darius said. I glanced over to see him and held back a gasp. He looked as bad as I felt. Totally and utterly drained. Two of the members of Gold team, the medical casters under Hanq’s command, were resting in nearby chairs looking just as drained as Darius.

I did the calculations in my head. Three casters with no juice left and me in the only one in the room who was laying on a medical bed. That did not add up to anything good.

“How long was I gone for?” I asked.

“Thirty seconds and that was yesterday, in case you’re curious. It took us a while to get you patched up,” Master Hanq said. “It’s thanks to Fari that we were able to though, she had the medical team prepped well for the jumps.”

“Not well enough,” she said from the other side of the bed they had me laying on.

“You did fantastic.” Master Hanq said. “We all survived. Despite someone’s best efforts to the contrary.”

He scowled at me and I knew there was some real anger there, but it was mixed with relief and pride too. Those emotions echoed in me as guilt, sorrow and affection respectively.

I wanted to tell him I was sorry for stabbing him. In hindsight, it seemed like a fairly questionable move, but I couldn’t bring myself to voice the words with the others in the room. That was a conversation I wanted to have in private.

“What about the colony ship?” I asked.

“They’re safely onboard,” Master Hanq said.

“We owe them a lot,” Fari said. “The people who rescued the colonists did an amazing job. Between saving the colonists and holding out when they had no reason to hope that help would make it in time, they deserve a medal and a parade and a new pony.”

“What about the girl who planned a double Esoteric space jump?” I asked.

“That was barely me,” Fari said. “I just did some of the calculations. Without their navigation data I never could have put that together.”

“I, for one, vote we never do that again,” Darius said.

“It was worse than a normal jump I take it?” I said.

“The rest of us were jealous of the state you got to experience the jump in,” Darius said. “We’ve made Fari promise that if she does another jump like that we’ll all get to be in a similar state first.”

Fari caught my look of confusion and explained.

“They literally said ‘If you’re going to do that again, please kill us first’,” she said.

“I’m pretty sure none of us were kidding either,” Darius said. How they’d managed to resuscitate me under those circumstances seemed like a miracle in its own right. I owed several people quite a lot for my continued survival.

“Where are we now?” I asked.

“Back in regular warp space,” Master Hanq said. “We’re on the new lane to Titanus that the colonists worked out.”

“Wasn’t Hellsreach closer though?” I asked.

“That depends on the travel route you take,” Fari said. “The route we took to get to the colony ship was mono-directional for added speed. The colonists used that as a base when they came up with the new route.”

“Is there a route back or is this a one way trip?” I asked.

“There’s several route’s back,” Master Hanq said. “We had two calculated from the site of wreck but the giga-beasts arrival voided out those lanes. All the rest that we have start at Titanus.”

“Technically we could recalculate a new route to get to Hellsreach directly, but the initial path forays I did worked out to be about three times as long as just going to Titanus and returning using one of the pre-calculated trips,” Fari said.

“The giga-beasts were big but not weeks worth of travel big,” I said.

“It’s not the beasts themselves,” Fari said, “Although they are a concern. The real problem is with how their sub-aetheric realm co-joined to warp space.”

“I’m going to translate that for myself as their house is a lot bigger than they are and it’s acting as a roadblock. Is that close to right?” I asked.

“Pretty much,” Fari said. “It stinks that we have to go so far out to get around them but on the other hand if their home realm hadn’t gotten so close to ours we couldn’t have managed the double jump like we did.”

“It wasn’t an accident that they were there,” I said.

“I know,” Master Hanq said. “The explosion called them in and then we started fighting in the middle of it. That’s a recipe for disaster.”

“There’s more to it than that,” I said. “The guy we were fighting was also the one who called in the giga-beasts.”

“You saw him?” Darius asked.

“We all did,” I said. “It was the guy who threw himself into the colony ship’s warp generator.”

“I saw the footage of that,” Darius said. “It looked like the generator annihilated him on a molecular level. How did he survive it?”

“He didn’t,” I said. “I think he left behind a kind of Void anima ghost though.”

“I’ve heard of that,” Master Hanq said. “There’s a theory that any highly skilled caster can do it, the trick is that you need time to prepare and most casters who fall in battle are killed before they’re aware an attack is incoming.

I thought back to the Karr Khan. He’d been one of greatest Void anima casters in recent history. I’d beaten him with the help of a full circle of casters, the power of a world killing super weapon and the help of several million ghosts. If he’d managed to leave an echo like the colony ship’s destroyer had that would have been nightmarishly bad. Fortunately the prospect of losing a fight was one his ego kept him from ever being able to see or plan for.

“How long can something like that last?” I asked.

“Depends on the caster and how important the thing they anchor to is to them,” Master Hanq said.

For the wraith that I’d found near the explosion, I guessed that meant he wasn’t going to last very long. As one of the colonists, he didn’t have a long relationship with the ship or any of the crew on it. He was skillful though, which meant he could probably parcel out his time for long enough to be at least a minor bother still.

That thought made me wonder what he could have done if the anchor for his ghost was profoundly important to him? It was an academic question when applied to the wraith but it led me to some unsettling thoughts when I considered Echo. It had been well over ten years since I lost my mother. I tried to work out if it was possible for an echo to last that long. It seemed unlikely, but then so did most of the rest of my life.

“If we give them a wide enough berth then they’ll all vanish into the sub-Aether on their own right?” I asked, referring to the wraith and the giga-beasts.

“Twenty questions is fun, but shouldn’t we be giving Mel time to rest?” Fari asked.

“I’m ok. You folks did a great!” I said as I tried prop myself up on the bed.

That was a mistake. Darius and the other healers had managed to save my life. They’d even patched me up so that I wasn’t a broken mass of goo. What they hadn’t done was restore me completely.

It wasn’t out of spite or laziness or anything like that though. Magic can accelerate healing greatly but overuse of healing spells can leave the body broken and dependent on them. They’d saved my life, but it was going to be up to me to put it back together again.

I needed the rest, so I was inclined to let them all go, but something struck me as suspicious about the timing of Fari’s suggestion.

“Is there something still going on with our ship killing Wraith?” I asked.

Master Hanq and Fari exchanged a pained look. For a moment neither of them answered me, but then Master Hanq sighed and gave me the bad news.

“We think he’s found a new anchor,” he said.

It didn’t exactly take a genius to figure out why that would upset them both, or who the new anchor might be.

“Me?” I asked and their nods confirmed my guess. “Is he here?”

“No but we think we know where he is,” Master Hanq said.

“The giga-beasts are still pursuing us,” Fari said. “They shouldn’t be intelligent enough to do that, or interested in us now that we’re outside their sphere of influence, but someone’s driving them onwards.”

“Right towards us,” I guessed.

“And right towards Titanus,” Master Hanq said.

The Horizon of Today – Chapter 21

Watching a pack of giga-beasts phase into warp space in front of me was one of the most amazing sights in my life. I was super charged with the anima that I’d stolen from Master Hanq, stronger than I’d been at any time in the last two months and I less than a grain of sand compared to them.

The closest creature I could equate them to was a gorilla, except that their arms were too long for that and their heads too narrow and knife-like. From their backs billions of strands of fiber floated and writhed liked hungry limbs searching for food.

“I have completely screwed up,” I said aloud in the confines of my environment suit where no one could hear me.

“We’re going to die! You’ve killed us!” the voice of the flame within me screamed.

Looking at the six mountain sized monsters in front of me, I was reasonably certain the flames were correct.

But I didn’t need to let them know that.

“I’ve got them just where I want them,” I assured the flames and took all of my Physical anima and all of the strength I’d stolen from Master Hanq and slammed it into the flight pack.

My wings flared with the influx of power and burned like a star. I directed them to carry me forward and felt myself accelerate so hard that I almost blacked out despite the added resiliency the anima was providing.

I had one advantage in that I didn’t need to do any maneuvering. My flight wasn’t anything subtle or complicated. I was bait. All I needed to do was fly very fast and shed enough power to attract the giga-beasts attention. I didn’t need skill for this, I just needed raw energy and determination.

Nerves of steel would have helped too, but I was fresh out of those and terrified out of my mind.

It’s one thing to meet a superior foe with bravado and arrogance knowing that you’re going to get a beating for it. In most of those cases you’re going to get a beating anyways, but there’s always the chance that you can rattle them or make them hesitate enough that you can scrape out a partial win.

That absolutely wasn’t the case with the giga-beasts. Maybe in story told in a bar or something, but up close and in person it was impossible to deny that compared to them I was too small to even matter. I was pouring out more anima than I normally possessed on my best day and it wasn’t enough to tickle them. I was a glow worm to them and nothing more.

Part of me want to cheer when I saw the herd turn and begin to follow me. The other 99% was busy screaming at what an amazingly terrible plan I’d come up with.

“They’re following us!” the flames said. I felt my skin searing under the flames power. It was cooking me from the inside so the enviro-suit couldn’t do anything to protect me.

“I can’t get away from them if you fry me!” I said.

“I can’t help it!” the flames said.

“What are you!” I said.

“I don’t know!” the flames said. “I don’t understand any of this! I don’t know what’s happening or where I am or what is going on! I just know that we’re going to die. Those things are too big!”

I raged in aggravation and felt the fire begin to blister my skin.

The giga-beasts began to follow me faster. They looked intrigued by the burning trail I was leaving behind in warp space.

“Fari!” I called out telepathically. “Can you still hear me?”

“Yes!” she said. “You’re about thousand miles from us, but I’ve still got a lock on you.”

“Can you scan me?” I asked. “I’ve got some kind of passenger inside me.”

“From warp space?” she asked. She tried to control it but I heard horror drenching her voice. Giga-beasts weren’t the only threat in warp space. Stories of “Passenger” entities and the catastrophes they caused were common too.

“No,” I said. “This one’s been there since Hellsreach.”

“I’m sorry Mel, the aether is too jumbled and you’re too far away,” she said. “I’ve got a lock on your position but none of the other scrying spells are getting through.”

“That’s ok,” I said. “We’ll deal with it when I’m back on the ship.”

It was a lie, of sorts. Void anima or no, I didn’t really believe I was going to make it back to the ship, but I didn’t want to worry Fari. She deserved better than that.

“We’re two minutes away from Blue Team having the new flight path worked out,” she said. “You need to start heading back.”

“Are the giga-beasts far enough away that they won’t be able to catch the ships if I do?” I asked.

“No,” she said. “But we can hold them off.”

That was funny enough (or I was crazy enough) that I laughed at it.

“You really, really can’t.” I said. Behind me half of the sky was blotted out by sheer mass of the giga-beasts.

“I’m not leaving you to die here Mel,” Fari said.

“I won’t die,” I said. “Send a message back to Hellsreach. I’ll cloak and avoid these things until they move off. They can get another ship here in half a day or so and pick me up.”

“We don’t know if a Void anima cloak will throw them off your trail,” Fari said. “And it’s too dangerous to spend half a day here outside of a ship!”

She was completely right. My odds of lasting for twelve hours alone and unprotected in warp space were close enough to zero that it wasn’t worth doing the calculation.

“We have to take that risk,” I told her. “You’ve got to save the colonists and yourself.”

“I am not going to leave you,” she said.

“You have to!” I told her.

“No,” she said. “No, I don’t. Standby.”

The tone in her voice filled me with joyous terror. Joy because I knew she’d had an idea. Terror because I knew the kind of ideas I had when I sounded like that.

“New time estimate Mel,” she said a minute later. “We need you to continue on your course for another five minutes. And stay ahead of the giga-beasts by at least a hundred miles.”

“They’re gaining awfully fast,” I said, trying to work out what she had in mind.

“Fly faster then,” she said. “Whatever it takes.”

I tried to push more energy into the flight pack but I was burning through the stolen anima faster than I could naturally replenish it and it was starting to run low.

“Fly faster,” I grumbled and wished I could turn the burning pain I felt into fuel somehow.

Which of course I could.

“What are you doing?” the flame voice screamed.

“Sorry, but you’re killing me and I need extra strength,” I said.

“No! Please! Don’t make me die!” the flames begged. “I’m not killing you! I’m not doing anything! I just don’t want to die!”

Behind me the giga-beasts picked up the pace and started closing the gap between us.

I clenched my hands into claws. This was impossible. Whatever Fari was doing was going to involve taking a ridiculous risk. If I didn’t open the gap she needed, I had the strong suspicion that we’d all die horribly.

But I couldn’t drain the flame creature either.

I could hear it in their voice. It was innocent. And terrified. And helpless.

I pushed my Void anima away from the corners inside myself that I felt the flames inhabiting and sighed.

I didn’t want to die either.

“Thank you.” the flames said in a small voice.

“You’re welcome,” I said and pulled my Void anima around myself in a great dome. I felt the fear that had gripped my heart ease away. I was still flying as fast I could but I wasn’t running anymore. I knew I was doomed, despite the last stubborn urge to draw it out as long as possible, and that brought with it a fatalistic calm.

I was working on accepting my swiftly arriving end when I heard the chanting.

“Hate. Hate. Hate.”

Just that one word. Over and over. In a voice that I’d heard already.

I looked into the Void, not with my eyes but with the sense within me that could feel the dark anima moving around, and I “saw” the creature that had attacked Master Hanq and I.

No. Not the creature. The man.

He hung in the center of the engine room’s destruction, far too distant for me to see with my natural eyes. We’d fought though and we were connected by that. I could feel the force of his chanting reaching across the miles that separated us, reaching out beyond the stars and calling forth the things that were chasing me.

Our fighting had been the match that sparked the giga-beasts interests, but it was the man’s chanting that had compelled them cross the literally unthinkable gulfs between their native realms and ours looking for sustenance.

I couldn’t fathom what would motivate someone to do that, until the horrible, obvious truth of who he was occurred to me.

He wasn’t trapped near the site of the engine room because that was were the aetheric turbulence was the strongest. He was trapped there because it was where he’d died.

I thought back to the vision we’d seen of the colony ship’s destruction. The man who’d destroyed the engines had leapt into them and summoned spikes of Void anima to shattered the multiple false safe measures that kept the titanic energies of the warp generators under control.

What I was facing wasn’t a random Void monster, it was the remnants of someone who hated so thoroughly and completely that they’d been willing to destroy themselves in order to kill a group of people who’d had no part in the war between the Humans and the Garjarack on Hellsreach.

I couldn’t reason with that, and worse, I had no idea how to fight it. I couldn’t punch something made of pure Void anima, and I couldn’t drain it either. If I was incredibly skilled I might be able to bind it, but from our first encounter it was pretty clear that he was more practiced than I was.

Not that any of that was going to be a problem.

The giga-beasts weren’t looming over me any more than they had been, but that was only because they’d already filled half the sky. They had gotten closer though. A lot closer.

I considered for the last time the idea of simply draining the flames into the flight pack. It might give me a chance. I could buy my life at the cost of a terrified, confused little monster.

I could, but I never would.

“Hey, what’s this?” the flames asked.

“What?” I asked thinking that spending my last minutes answering the questions of a monster that was possessing me would at least take my mind off my impending, grisly demise.

“This thing you’ve been putting all that anima into?” the flames asked. Before I could answer I felt the burning move away from my skin and shift towards my back. “Did you just need energy for this thing?”

I blacked out for a second. The flight pack wasn’t rated for as much anima as the flames had channeled into it, and I wasn’t rated for the level of acceleration that my body endured as a result.

“Is that too much?” the flames asked.

“No!” I said. “Keep it up! Give it more!”

“Like this?” the flames said.

This time I blacked out for twenty seconds according to the enviro-suits display before it was able to compensate for the massive forces I was being subjected too.

I dropped the Void shield that was shrouding us and saw the giga-beasts reorient to begin tracking on me again. The invisibility spell had hidden me from them, but they were so enormous that they’d stayed more or less on my path just by virtue of the sheer volume of space they took up.

“Mel! I have your position fixed again. We’re coming to get you!” Fari said.

“You’re doing what?” I asked her, terrified that everything I’d gone through was going to be for nothing.

“Continue your current course and speed,” she said.

“Fari, no! Are you insane? You can’t come for me! The giga-beasts will annihilate you!” I said.

“We’re not going to be anywhere near them,” she said. “Now brace yourself, and maybe throw up a protection field or twenty. This might be a little bumpy.”

I wracked my brain for how Master Hanq’s ship with the colony ship module attached to it was possibly going to make it past the giga-beasts. I couldn’t come up with any way for that to occurred until I saw a rainbow tear the space around me to shreds.

Through the rent in the fabric of warp space, Master Hanq’s ship screamed out, sparks and fire and weird energies of every color splashing away from as though it was crash landing through a fireworks factory.

“You jumped through the giga-beast’s home dimension?” I asked, dumbfounded.

Warp space was difficult to travel through. You had to be at least partially crazy to handle the calculations involved. The esoteric dimensions weren’t crazy to travel through, they were impossible. At least in any practical sense. No one could manage that kind of information processing.

No one except for Fari apparently. My mind reeled at the thought of what she’d risked for me.

I felt like I could have been caught breathless by that forever, except there were some urgent problems that remained which dragged my attention back the situation before me. The ship was traveling faster than I was, which was good in the sense that they were able to catch up to me, but bad in the sense that getting hit by Master Hanq’s ship was going to leave me just as dead as getting eaten by the giga-beasts.

Also, it appeared to be on fire, missing some key pieces and a ghost.

Of all of those, it turned out that I was very lucky that it was ghost ship, and that a second later I was a ghost too.


The Horizon of Today – Chapter 20

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Did you neutralize it?” Master Hanq asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There was a pause before Darius answered.

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

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

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

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

“Like us,” I said.

“And our ships,” he said.

“Can we beat them?” I asked.

“Nope,” he said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We fight?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes I can.” I said.

Then I stabbed him with a Void anima dagger.

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

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

“Fari, catch him,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m not going to kill us!” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

The bad news was that it wasn’t alone.


The Horizon of Today – Chapter 19

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m always careful,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That is until one of the colonists came in.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Not long enough!” the Chief Engineer said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Horizon of Today – Chapter 18

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You already had your birthday,” Fari said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But you think I do?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That sounds wonderful!” he said.

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

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

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

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

The Horizon of Today – Chapter 17

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We can try though right?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I know,” Fari said.

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

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

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

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

“I hate getting beat,” I said.

“Me too,” she said.

“We’re going to get Vunthor,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And the others like him?” Fari asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What do you mean?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Most of the Council,” he said.

“Your Dads too?” I asked.

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

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

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

I sat down and started massaging my temples.

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

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

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

“You’re brilliant,” I told him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I don’t know.” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Like they did this time?” I asked.

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

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

Fari and Darius both nodded in agreement.

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

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

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


The Horizon of Today – Chapter 16

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Politically and socially?” Master Raychelle said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What do you mean?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then it occurred to me what his presence meant.

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

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

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

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

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

“Yael sent you here?” I asked.

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

“What were they doing?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Well that was interesting,” I said.

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

“Are you ok Mel?” Fari asked.

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

“What happened just now?” Master Raychelle asked.

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

“How?” she asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And who would Darius be?” Hanq asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You move quickly.” Master Raychelle said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

We’d lost one of them.

One of the first three.

Vunthor was that far ahead of us.

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

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

Just not the ones on the other two ships.

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