Category Archives: Journey of Life

The Journey of Life – Ch 12 – Festivals (Part 1)

Fari didn’t so much observe the fairgrounds as loom above them. Like a sapphire god, she gazed down at the little tents and attractions and found them wanting.

“This is hopeless,” she said and scattered the tiny people before her into a shower of illusory particles.

“That’s about the tenth layout you’ve tried so far isn’t it?” Mel asked from the other side of the war room.

“Eh, it’s been a few more than that,” Fari said. Roughly around a thousand iterations of the basic fairground design had flickered across the planning table. Most of them Fari was able to dismiss out of hand without any in-depth study but some had held more promise. At least until she looked at them closely enough.

“Are you running into a simulator limit?” Mel asked. “I remember having a bunch of headaches trying to set the table up for war game planning.”

“I recall that too,” Fari said, casting a smile in her friend’s direction. “That’s why I removed the direct link to the Horizon Breaker’s main cannons before I started doing any of this.”

“So no chance of just blasting the festival area off the map?” Mel asked.

“I make no promises about that,” Fari said. “But if it happens, I’ll probably have a lot harder time claiming it was accidental.”

“I’m surprised you’re having trouble with this,” Mel said. “Isn’t it basically child’s play compared to the deployments you’ve organized?”

“Yes,” Fari said. “No. It’s different. Deployments are easy, or easier, for me. There’s a set goal, and the motivations are predictable. We want to arrest people. They don’t want to be arrested.”

“Isn’t a festival kind of the same, except everyone’s goal is ‘have fun’?” Mel asked.

“The problem is everyone’s idea of what’s ‘fun’ is different,” Fari said. “I can’t predict that and it’s messing up everything I try to put together.”

“I don’t think you need to predict their fun,” Mel said. “But if you’re having this much trouble with it, I’m guessing there’s more to planning this festival than spacing out the food booths and leaving room for some public toilets right?”

“I don’t know!” Fari said and buried her head in her hands. “Maybe I’m overthinking this. Maybe this does just need a grid and some walk through diagrams.”

“If that was all it took, you wouldn’t have gone through a dozen plans trying to figure it out,” Mel said. “Something about this excited you though. What was that?”

“It seemed like fun,” Fari said. “I mean it’s a festival, it’s supposed to be all about fun isn’t it?”

“Not for the people who have to work it,” Mel said. “But come on, it was more than that. I’ve seen you get interested in things before, and there always some challenge the pulls you in. Something unusual or unexpected.”

“Well, this is supposed to be for the Empresses 25th Anniversary Gala,” Fari said.

“Yeah, but they’re doing festivals in honor of that on a lot of worlds,” Mel said.

“True, but this is the one we’ve been assigned to,” Fari said.

“I’ll grant you that,” Mel said.

“And I thought this would be a good chance to…I don’t know, connect with people,” Fari said.

“You sound like you’re worried about that?” Mel said.

“No, I’m not,” Fari said. “But, well, I do serve some pretty specific functions here.”

“Meaning you’re concerned that you’re slipping into the role of a machine rather than a person?” Mel asked.

“Not really,” Fari said. “But maybe I’m not nurturing the person part of myself enough? I mean, what we do here, our work? It feels pretty comfortable, easy, even when it’s not easy if that makes any sense.”

“I think it does,” Mel said. “And I’m probably just as guilty of it too. We stay so busy that it’s easy to let the missions become everything we do and think about.”

“Maybe that’s not even bad?” Fari said. “It could be that mission work is what I was designed for. That might be why trying to plan this festival is driving me insane.”

“I suspect that’s not the answer,” Mel said. “And I don’t think your ‘design’ matters all that much.”

“How can we know that though?” Fari asked. “I don’t even know what I am. Not completely.”

“Why don’t we try to find out?” Mel asked.

“What do you mean?” Fari asked.

“The festival is still a few months away right?” Mel asked.

“Yes, but what does that have to do with me?” Fari asked.

“It means we’ve got a few months that we can get away from mission work,” Mel said. “Or we can think of it as focusing on a new mission.”

“We can’t take months off just to deal with me going crazy though,” Fari said.

“I think you’re radically underestimating the sort of leeway I have in choosing my assignments and the companions I ‘request and require’ aid from,” Mel said.

“But there’s so much else we need to deal with,” Fari said. “There hasn’t been a week in the last eleven months that we haven’t shut down some horrible plot or dealt with some weird event that no one else could.”

“I’m well aware of that,” Mel said. “But that also mean you’ve been slaving away for eleven months without a break.”

“It’s ok,” Fari said. “I’m built for that sort of thing. I don’t need to take breaks.”

“Your body is a masterwork of spellcraft. It doesn’t tire or run out of energy. I get that,” Mel said. “But that doesn’t mean you don’t need R&R too. You’re more than your body.”

“I guess that’s the problem,” Fari said. “I don’t know if I am. I’m hitting this limit that I don’t think should be there. Not for a real person anyways.”

“First, you are a real person, and second, share,” Mel said. “What is it that you can’t do?”

Fari stepped back from the table and sighed.

“I can’t think like someone’s who’s having fun would think,” she said.

“Ok,” Mel said, more prompting Fari to continue that agreeing with her.

“Laying out the festival is more than just setting up spaces for everything. I did that in about two seconds,” Fari said. “To make it work though, you need more than that. You need to have the stalls connect to each other. You need to have spaces where the patrons can encounter the unexpected or find shelter and quiet in all the bustle.”

“And you’re having trouble thinking like a festival patron?” Mel asked.

“Yeah,” Fari said. “I can put myself into the mindset of the people we fight against. I can put myself into the mindset of our teammates. I can even put myself into the mindset of ancient people who designed crazy traps in long forgotten tombs, but I apparently can’t think like a everyday normal person who’s going out to a simple street festival.”

“And when was the last time you were actually at a street festival?” Mel asked.

“I don’t remember,” Fari said. “Maybe, back before I was a gem?”

Mel choked back a laugh.

“I’m pretty sure I see what your problem is,” she said.

“But that can’t be it,” Fari said. “I read up a ton on festival planning. From personal accounts to professional reviews. I don’t think I’m missing anything there.”

“I’m sure your research was exhaustive,” Mel said. “And I’m sure I’m getting you out of here.”

“Why? Where are we going?” Fari asked.

Mel tapped her forehead to activate the telepathic channel to the Horizon Breaker’s captain.

“Did you need the space skimmer this week?” she asked Captain Hanq without any preamble.

“Are you going to blow up my nice new skiff?” Hanq asked back, also without preamble.

“I’ll bring you back a nicer one if I do,” Mel said.

“That’s all I ask,” Hanq said.

“Excellent,” Mel said. “Oh, and I’m stealing your Chief Tactical Officer too.”

“You’re not allowed to break that one,” Hanq said.

“I promise, I’ll be very gentle with her,” Mel said.

“Fari, should I be letting her steal you?” Hanq asked.

“I don’t know sir, she hasn’t shared her crazy idea with me yet,” Fari said.

“Are you planning to let my Chief Tactical Officer in on why you’re abducting her?” Hanq asked.

“Eventually,” Mel said.

“Does this involve stopping a criminal empire, uprooting a century old conspiracy or toppling the rightful ruler of a planet?” Hanq asked.

“Nope,” Mel said. “Just a vacation.”

“A vacation?” Hanq said.

He was silent for a moment, contemplating that.

“Right, get off my ship,” he finally said. “The both of you.”

“But we have our weekly briefing tomorrow and…” Fari started to say.

“Nope. Off. Now,” Hanq said. “I know the the kind of Trouble you find when you go looking for it, and that’s when Trouble has a chance to hide. If you’re on vacation, Trouble’s not even going to see you coming and I don’t want the rest of my crew anywhere near that.”

“But..” Fari said.

“Nope.” Hanq countered. “How long of a vacation are you planning on taking?”

“A week,” Mel said.

“Make it two,” Hanq said. “And don’t worry about the skiff. I’ll put in the purchase order for the next one today.”

“Are you sure sir?” Fari asked. “We had that lead on the Phantom Count’s whereabouts that turned up this morning, and there’s the Spatial Rupture in the Hypernal system we were going to check out when things quieted down.”

“I’m having the warp crystals on the skiff charged now,” Hanq said. “It’ll be ready by the time you get to the docking bay. Oh and you are not allowed to track down either the Phantom Count or the Spatial Rupture.”

“I will need to swing by my quarters to pick up my clothes,” Mel said.

“No you won’t. Darius will be meeting you in the docking bay in five minutes with everything you need,” Hanq said.

“But what about…” Mel started to say.

“I’m posting Black Team as guards between the Tactical Room and the docking bay,” Hanq said. “Their orders are to make sure you start your vacation, or shoot you if you try go anywhere else.”

“My team wouldn’t shoot me,” Mel said.

“We’ve been trying to get you to take a vacation for the last six months,” Lt. Tym said. “We’re loading up the sleep gas pellets and will be in position in thirty seconds.”

“Sleep gas pellets! That’s cheating!” Mel said, since her Void magic abilities didn’t work particularly well against physical attacks and even with a shield spell she still needed to breathe.

“We really can’t stay?” Fari asked.

“You are always welcome here,” Hanq said. “Just not for the next month. Get out there, explore a little, take some time away from all this craziness.”

“Wait, a month now? What if something comes up?” Fari asked. “People might need us.”

“I think it he’s going keep extending our vacation until we shut up and get out of here,” Mel said.

“You should listen to Mel,” Hanq said. “She is wise beyond her years.”

“Ok, ok! We’re going!” Fari said. “Umm, where are we going?”

“It’s a big galaxy out there,” Mel said. “I think it’s time we saw some of the parts of it that don’t want to kill or enslave us.”

“That sounds like a delightful idea,” Darius said. “Will three be a crowd on this trip?”

“Please come with us!” Fari said. “My only hope of containing Mel’s insanity is if we can double team her!”

“I don’t know,” Mel said. “Can you really spare that many of us Captain?”

“I think he can,” Darius said. “Blue squad is force marching me down to the docking bay right this moment.”

“I called them too,” Hanq said. “I thought you might appreciate the company.”

“I don’t know what to say then,” Mel said.

“Tell me that you’re all going to have a good time,” Hanq said.

“I’ll make sure of that,” Mel said.

“And that you won’t get into any trouble,” Hanq said.

“Of course not,” Mel said.

“I love that thing in your voice where it sounds like you actually believe what you just said,” Hanq said.

“Ok, how about nothing we can’t handle then?” Mel asked.

“That I am willing to believe,” Hanq said. “Enjoy your month off!”

The Journey of Life – Ch 11 – Bad Habits (Part 2)

SIster Marilith gazed at the two smugglers into whose care she was entrusting the eleven young children that surrounded her.

“I’ve got to admit, we’ve never run a cargo like this before,” Zax, the smaller, smarter and less trustworthy of the pair, said.

“Not that we’re not up to it,” Willock, the more honorable of the two, said.

For Sister Marilith’s purposes, neither of her former wards were ideal for the task at hand, but should could only work with the tools she was given, not the tools she wished to possess.

“I’m am only concerned that your vessel is up to the challenge,” Sister Marilith said.

“It’ll be close quarters, some of the kids will probably need to ride in the gun turrets,” Zax said. This drew the expected grins of anticipation from the more martially inclined among the children. Zax knew how to make friends and influence people, regardless of their age. This was the trait Sister Marilith was most concerned with.

She had been raising cast-offs, orphans and foundlings for the better part of four decades, ever since she joined the Sisters of Water’s Mercy. She had felt the work to be her life’s calling, that her love of children required her to help the ones who had no else to help them. The calling was still there but the years had tempered her idealism and enthusiasm.

These children had many needs, from complex things like support, and counseling to simple necessities like food and shelter. To focus on only those would be a mistake though. Even in these early days, the children needed someone to set boundaries for them. To show them what was and was not acceptable, so that they wouldn’t run wild. That endeavor was made immeasurably more difficult with a rogue like Zax around to provide an example for getting away with all sorts of boundary breaking behavior.

“I am less concerned about your seating arrangements and more about your vessel’s capacity to cloak itself,” Sister Marilith said.

“Cloaks are illegal in this system, Sister,” Zax said. He saw the objection forming in Marilith’s eyes and rushed to add, “And also expensive, which is why we don’t have one.”

“How do you smuggle without a cloak?” Sister Marilith asked.

“You don’t need an invisibility spell to keep people from seeing things,” Zax said. “You’ve just got to get them to see what you want them to see.”

“The children are not to be seen at all,” Sister Marilith said. “If their whereabouts are known their safety will be compromised.”

As the children of a famous Warlord there were many in the local area of the galaxy who had cause to wish the children harm but the clearest danger came from their own clan. With the loss of the Karr Khan, the remaining elements of the clan needed someone to rally behind as the heir to the throne. The clan had many factions though, and no matter which child one faction chose as heir, another faction would strive to eliminate them. The factions knew this which was why several of them had decided to get a jump on the issue and eliminate all the viable heirs not directly under their control. The children had survived by taking matters into their own hands and escaping just a few steps ahead of their assassin’s arrival.

It had seemed like good luck that the Sisters had been waiting to take them in, but Sister Marilith didn’t believe in luck and had little use for Aetherial magics. She and the others had moved to intercept the children the moment they heard of the Karr Khan’s demise. People thought of the Sisters as kindly missionaries or simple caregivers. As though caregiving was ever simple, or kindness precluded seeing people as they really were.

The truth was, the Sisters routinely dealt with miscreants a dozen times more clever than most Planetary Intelligence services were forced to contend with and if they were kind, it was because they saw too clearly the sort of damage a lack of kindness produced in people.

“Relax Sister, no one’s going to be looking at these kids at all, I promise,” Zax said.

Sister Marilith wondered if perhaps she should have been kinder to the young Zax, or if the reverse was warranted. Raising children was more an art than a science and despite her best efforts, Sister Marilith wasn’t sure she’d produced all that many masterpieces.

“We’ll be discovered before we reach the ship,” Tchini said. She was one of the leaders among the children and was gifted with a talent for future sight. When she spoke the others listened, but there was always a current of mistrust as well. The girl had misused her talents in the past, Sister Marilith reasoned, and the others held that against her regardless of the present circumstances.

“Yes we will,” Zax said. “Hopefully sooner than later too. This place charges it’s docking fees by the hour.”

“So it is part of your plan to put these children in danger?” Sister Marilith asked.

“No, no, no,” Zax said. “The children are already in danger. That’s the great part of the plan. We really can’t make things worse!”

“I can think of several dozen worse situations we could be in,” Sister Marilith said.

“Sister, do you remember the time you disciplined me for stealing a parade float and driving it off the parade route so that I could impress Salle Evens?” Zax asked.

“No, I do not recall such an incident,” Sister Marilith said.

“But I bet you remember punishing me for sneaking out of parade duties to steal the answers to our mathematics mid-term don’t you?” Zax asked.

“Yes, you had a week’s latrine duty for that,” Sister Marilith said.

“The balloon ride with Salle Evens was worth it,” Zax said.

“Are you saying…” Sister Marilith started to ask.

“That I didn’t really care about my math mid-terms?” Zax said. “I believe I will allow my academic record to speak for me in that regards.”

“What he’s trying to say is that the kids will be safe with us Sister,” Willock said.

“I wonder if they shall,” Sister Marilith said, her eyes narrowing as the calculus of the dangers arrayed against her charges shifted.

A small light blinked on Zax’s left bracer and the smuggler nodded to his compatriot.

“We need to get moving now or we’re going to miss our appointment with your assassins,” Zax said.

Sister Marilith ground her fingers into her rod. It wasn’t too late to abandon this mad plan. If she’d learned anything in her years as a part of the clergy of Water’s Mercy it was that she wasn’t infallible and admitting her mistakes early saved a lot of trouble later on. All sorts of warning bells were telling her she needed to do so in this circumstance, that the children’s lives were too important to risk on the mad plans of a former student who’d clearly not amounted to more than a two-bit criminal.

As a responsible adult, it was on her to put an end to foolishness and chart a path that would see her charges safe and healthy at the end of the day.

She held her tongue though and nodded in agreement. It was difficult, far more so than taking control would have been, but she’d learned that sometimes, on admittedly rare occasions, you needed to trust that the children you’d raised could rise to meet challenges the world threw at them, no matter how difficult those challenges were.

“Ok, so, this is kind of going to be like a race,” Willock said to the children. “I’m going to assign you parters. You can only win the race if you stay together with your partner and go exactly where we say. Understand?”

The question was met with nods of agreement and one raised hand.

“What if we don’t like our partners?” one of the children asked.

“Then we’ll arrange for one of the assassins to be your partner instead,” Zax said.

There was still grumbling as Willock arranged the children into groups of two and three but since each group was sent off to follow Zax as they were formed there wasn’t time for them to try to reassemble into new formations on their own.

The mad rush of adults and children drew plenty of attention as they whipped through Naru Stations public areas. The disrupted crowds and the speed of the children’s passage did serve as a shield of sorts though. At least two assassins were forced to take pot shots from the crowd instead of the ambush posts they’d been attempting to secret themselves in. As ill-prepared as they were, the first shots went wild and their second shots never left their bolt casters. Willock was a much better shot on the run than he really had any right being, but everyone has a few skills that just come naturally to them.

The mad flight ended at the dock where Zax and Willock’s ship was waiting for them. Also waiting were a trio of Naru Station security officers looking for a fresh bribe after the original one Zax had offered on their landing proved to be counterfeit. Naturally the moment the security officers saw their quarry, they drew their own bolt casters. As did a half dozen previously unarmed people around them.

“Thank the stars you’re here! Clear a path for us!” Zax yelled to the armed people facing them and sent a pair of bolt caster blasts wildly over the heads of the assembled combatants.

From the officers’ point of view, their target was undeniably calling for aid from his associates, by whom they were outnumbered. The only logical move therefore was to reduce numerical advantage the enemy faced by switch to fully automatic fire and mowing down everyone but themselves. There were a few little creatures scampering about, but they weren’t armed so they were more cover to be shot around than targets to be aimed at.

From the assassin’s point of view, there was a local firing at them who was obviously working with station security. With their covers blown they had to eliminate all witnesses, starting with the witnesses who were capable to eliminating them back.

As all parties were primarily interested in surviving first and killing second, the barrage of bolt caster fire that exploded in the docks hit no one. Everyone was firing wildly and diving for cover and no one was in a position to stop the children from piling into the waiting crates which were being unloaded from Zax’s ship.

Sister Marilith watched as Zax keyed a command into his bracer and the dock’s loading golems activated and began lugging the crates back into the ship.

With the enemies under cover from each other, the bolt caster fire intensified and the damage to the station began to mount precariously.

This in turn brought in more security forces.

The assassins tried to concentrate fire on the boxes as they were moved, but the golems proved resistant to their caster bolts.

Sister Marilith’s heart soared at the apparent success of the plan when she saw the last of the crates the children had climbed into placed in the loading tube to the ship.

That feeling of elation lasted for ten precious seconds.

Then Zax’s ship exploded.

Outside the docking window, Sister Marilith saw the Karr Khan dreadnaught that had pursued them through multiple star systems. Its guns glowed in the aftermath of the utter destruction of Zax’s ship. They’d reduced the vessel, and the boxes it contained to a nearly invisible mist of fine particles.

The next several hours passed in a blur of disbelief.

Station security arrived in sufficient force to disperse the assassins and arrest Zax, Sister Marilith and all of the others caught in the firefight.

She was questioned, but the inquiry was perfunctory and terminated early once the proper bribe was delivered by one of her fellow Sisters.

“Where are we going to go next?” Sister Terizi asked.

Sister Marilith wasn’t sure. She’d never failed her charges as profoundly before. She was questioning her place in the order itself when a familiar voice spoke up from behind her.

“The next stop was Beta Arexus wasn’t it?” Zax asked.

Lightning shot out of Sister Marilith’s rod and pinned the man to the wall.

“You dare show your face to me?” she asked.

“This…is…”, Zax struggled to say. “Kind…of…familiar.”

“Get out of my sight,” Sister Marilith said, dropping the restraint spell.

“Well, I’d love to but you see, I’m kind of broke now and there’s the matter of services rendered,” Zax said.

“Services rendered?” Sister Marilith asked. “You’ll get not a single coin from us.”

“Aww, I thought the kids were worth more than that,” Zax said. “Ah well, I suppose I always wanted a little group of minions. Is it legal to fit them with slave collars though? They seem really mouthy.”

“The children are alive?” Sister Marilith asked.

“Uh, yeah, of course they’re alive,” Zax said. “Did you think I was going to let my ship get blown up for free?”

“I don’t understand?” Sister Marilith. “How? They were loaded onto your ship!”

“No, a bunch of boxes were loaded onto my ship,” Zax said.

“The kids were already offloaded onto our other ship,” Willock said.

“But how was that possible? I saw you both, neither of you got near the boxes,” Sister Marilith said.

“Yeah, that was a critical part of the plan,” Zax said. “It really had to look like we were pinned down, otherwise somebody might have looked a little too closely at those boxes and noticed they didn’t have bottoms.”

“But where did the children go?” Sister Marilith.

“I’ve got them,” Salle Evens said as she came up to join the group. “What, you didn’t think these two were dumb enough to work alone did you?”

“What are you doing here though?” Sister Marilith asked.

“Oh, we never split up, none of the kids from our graduating year did,” Salle said.

“Yeah, we may not have turned out quite the way you expected, but we never forgot the things you really taught us,” Zax said. “Stick together.”

“Take care of each other,” Salle said.

“And family is what you make of it,” Willock said.

The Journey of Life – Ch 10 – Bad Habits – Part 1

Naru Station shouldn’t have been a destination of any particular note. The chance for coincidental meetings should have approached zero.  It was a Class 13 space habitat, approved for short terms layovers by the standard variety of sapient species in the Crystal Empire. Its orbital position around the star Sensina Prime placed it close to the system’s natural warp points, but several newer stations had drained away most of the trans-galactic business that once flowed through Naru’s docks. In short, it was nothing special and a perfect spot to be overlooked.

In the absence of official (aka legitimate) commerce, other sorts of “entrepreneurs” had  settled in and made Naru Station their home.

“This is not the place for us,” Willock said, eyes narrowing at the grime and seedy lighting of the bar they were heading towards.

“This is exactly the place for us,” Zax said. “We’ve run five jobs in the last five months and you know what we got to show for it? Five credits between the two of us.”

“Five credits and neither of us is doing time or has a bounty on our head,” Willock said.

“That’s not good enough for me,” Zax said, not entirely thinking through his words.

“We might need to consider getting into a more legitimate line of work,” Willock said. “Galaxy’s not like it used to be. Everywhere you go you’ve got Crystal Guardians and Imperial Overseers keeping things on the straight and narrow.”

“That’s propaganda,” Zax said.

“Five jobs, five busts,” Willock said. “Hard to argue with the numbers there.”

“That wasn’t the grand and mighty Crystal Empire,” Zax said. “Each one of those failures is on us.”

“If each one’s on us then why aren’t we looking for a new line of work?” Willock asked.

“Because this is what we’re good at,” Zax said.

“Our history seems to suggest otherwise,” Willock said.

“Never look to the past for a guarantee of the future,” Zax said. “We had some bad luck and made a few dumb calls. The important thing is, we learned from those.”

“And that’s why we’re here?” Willock said.

“Exactly,” Zax said. “We kept trying to work the micro-smuggling routine with the wrong sort of people.”

“I thought we were playing it safe,” Willock said.

“We were,” Zax said. “Too safe. Every one of those idiots we hooked up with was too risk adverse go through with the whole deal.”

“So we’re looking for a better class of idiot then?” Willock asked.

“We’re looking for people who know what they want, and who aren’t afraid to do what it takes to get it,” Zax said.

“Aren’t those the kind of people the Imperials locked up first though?” Willock’s asked.

Zax shook his head and sighed.

“Do you know how big the Empire is?” he asked.

“Sure, they run the whole galaxy don’t they?” Willock said.

“Nope. Official records put it at about 68% of star systems are under Imperial rule. The rest is unclaimed or unexplored.” Zax said.

“So that’s still the ‘Million Worlds’ right?” Willock asked.

“People say a ‘Million Worlds’ because they don’t understand big numbers,” Zax said. “You look at the stars out there and with just the ones in our galaxy, you’re talking over one hundred billion systems. Do you really think the Crystal Empire is tracking down players like us when they’ve got sixty eight billion solar systems worth of problems to worry about?”

“Maybe not, but they say the Empress has some kind of crazy powers,” Willock said.

“I’m sure she does,” Zax said. “It’s ridiculous to even think she took over as much of the galaxy as she has, but as far as I can see that just means she’s got ridiculous problems that she needs to fix with all those powers.”

“What about her Guardians?” Willock asked. “They’re supposed to be everywhere, taking care of everything aren’t they?”

“Are you even listening to me?” Zax asked. “Sixty eight billion systems. How are you going to police sixty eight billion systems?”

“With a lot of cops?” Willock said.

“In twenty years?” Zax asked. “You think they found enough people to trust with that kind of power in twenty years?”

“They found some they could,” Willock said. “I heard one just took down some old Warlord named the Karr Khan last week.”

“That’s a perfect example of what I’m talking about,” Zax said. “That happened like fifteen systems away from here, but you’ve already heard about it.”

“It was kind of big news,” Willock said. “A whole city got wiped out from what they were saying.”

“And I rest my case,” Zax said.

“I don’t get what you’re saying.” Willock said.

“I’m saying that one little thing a Crystal Guardian does and a week later it’s all over the news out to a fifteen system radius with everyone talking about what a badass they were,” Zax said. “Only if they were really so powerful, why didn’t they stop the city from getting wiped out in the first place?”

“The Karr Khan guy was supposed to be pretty tough too,” Willock said.

“Maybe he was, and maybe he wasn’t, but the point is it’s all propaganda,” Zax said. “The Crystal Empire set itself up as the problem solvers of the galaxy but it’s all a smoke screen. They’re so big picture they can’t possibly deal with little guys like us.”

“I thought the whole point of coming to a broken down place like this was to hide from them?” Willock asked.

“Hide from them?” Zax said. “We could light the biggest flare you could imagine and we’d never even get them to notice us. No, we’re here because this is where you find people who are willing to take chances. People who are down on their luck and who’ve got nothing more to lose.”

“So, people like us then?” Willock said.

“We’re only passing through,” Zax said.

“Looks like that’s what everyone here is doing,” Willock said as they stepped into the bar.

Since it was located on a station, the bar was necessarily cramped for space. To help with that, the owners had taken the liberty of knocking out a few of the walls to “borrow” space from the adjacent shops after those businesses closed. Patches on the exterior walls showed that safety regulations were followed only as loose guidelines for the most part. Between the dim lighting and the thick, smoky haze that the air purification spells struggled fruitlessly to keep up with it was easy to overlook the signs of an impending hull breach, and for most of the people in the bar it was likely to happen on someone else’s shift anyways so it didn’t need to interfere with their quest to blot out their ability to form coherent thoughts.

“Is our contact here?” Willock asked.

Zax scanned around the bar, looking for any sign of the Rhidian small arms merchant they were supposed to meet.

“Not yet,” he said. “We’re early though, so that’s good.”

They took a table without looking at the bar tender. She’d get over to them when she had a free moment, but until then they didn’t owe her any credits which was fine with both Willock and Zax.

“This is one of the things we couldn’t do before. A nice face to face meeting. None of this mental projection stuff,” Zax said. “We all see each other’s faces, and we’re all on the hook to make the deal go through.”

“What if the law sees our faces too?” Willock asked. “Push comes to shove, I’d like us to be able to say we had six jobs we walked away from successfully not five and then we got sloppy and caught on the next one.”

“There’s no one here who’s going to bust us,” Zax said. “The long arm of the law doesn’t reach this far.”

A rod cracked down into the small table between them with a loud enough bang that it sounded like someone had been shot. Naturally, the rest of the bar looked at everything but Zax, Willock and their table. No one was going to see anything about what went on next if they had a choice about it.

“Mr. Hargriss and Mr. Rais?” asked the elderly woman who had slammed down the rod.

For a moment the two criminals were too stunned to process anything, but Zax, being the quicker witted of the two, managed to recognize the voice and manner of their new guest in under a second.

“Sister Marilith!” Zax whispered the name and felt a childhood of guilt reach out from the years he’d left behind and pull him back into the place he’d been when he was five.

“Good, it is you,” she said and sat down at the table beside them.

“Sister, what are you doing here?” Zax asked, trying to force his voice back to an audible level. That was better than Willock was managing. The taller of the two men had gone rigid as a board and silent as a corpse at the Sister’s arrival.

“I thought I saw you slinking in here,” Sister Marilith said. “Probably waiting to meet with some other criminal aren’t you?”

“We’re just here for a drink,” Zax said. “Sister what brings you to Naru Station? Is there going to be a Temple of Water opening up here?”

Zax’s felt like time had turned back somehow and that he was once again the little orphan boy who’d been taken in by the Sisters of Water’s Mercy.

“I’m here because I’ve got a job for you two,” she said.

“We’re not looking for work Sister,” Zax said. He knew, on some level, that it was insane to be as afraid of this woman as he was when he was nine and got caught stealing the last slice of pie out of kitchen. Somehow though that feeling had never actually left him and the fear at being caught for his wrong doing was always embodied in a scene exactly like this one.

“Tell me about what you’re doing now then boys,” Sister Marilith said.

“We’re in the transportation business,” Zax said.

“Good, you’re smugglers then, just as I thought,” Sister Marilith said.

“Smugglers? No, that’s crazy…” Zax started to say.

Sister Marilith’s rod ground into the table producing sparks and a thick crunching sound against the old metal.

“You were here to meet the Rhidian weren’t you?” she asked.

“The Rhidian?” Zax asked. Trying to play dumb had never worked for him in the past, under any circumstances, but between fear and surprise it was the only strategy Zax could come up with under the circumstances.

“Yes,” Sister Marilith said. “He won’t be coming. Sister Terizi is escorting him to Station Security.”

“Why?” Zax asked, feeling like his terror was perhaps not as misplaced as he first imagined. Rhidians were neither a small, nor a peaceful race. Zax couldn’t imagine that the arms dealer had gone along quietly or without protest, but the fact remained that he wasn’t here and Sister Marilith was.

“He was trying to unload Pledian Crystals,” she said. “Those are illegal in this system and every adjacent one as well.”

For some reason Zax couldn’t fathom, people had an issue with weapon power enhancers which drove the user into a murderous rage. From Zax’s point of view if you were going to fire a bolt caster at someone being in a murderous rage seemed like a foregone conclusion.

“What happened to the crystals?” Zax asked, a small and wholly irrational hope of completing their original transaction still flickering in his heart.

“We kept them,” Sister Marilith said.

“Oh, that’s…that’s good I suppose.”

Zax could think of no worse people in the entire galaxy to have Pledian Cyrstals and no one he would have less interest in trying to steal them from.

“Yes, it is,” Sister Marilith said. “Now since you’re out of your intended employment, you’ll listen to offer that I am extending to you.”

Zax considered trying to deny their involvement with the Pledian Crystals again, but experience finally won out and he stayed quiet, which was the one winning strategy he’d ever discovered when dealing with the Sisters.

“We have a group of children in our care,” Sister Marilith began. Nothing about that surprised Zax. The Sisters ran orphanages. Of course they had children to look after.

“They are being pursued.” she said. Which was unusual, but not entirely unbelievable. The Sister did take in all kinds of problem cases, as Zax and Willock were proof of.

“And you’re going to help them escape the remnants of the Karr Khan’s forces, who will be here in about ten minutes.”

The Journey of Life – Ch 9 – Division (Part 4)

The first sign that the ghosts around Jili and Aralas were something unusual came from the fact that they were neither translucent, nor surrounded by a cloud of ectoplasm.

“Umm, hello?” Aralas asked, looking at the crowd of apparently solid beings who were winking into existence throughout the building.

At his words, the nearest ghosts reacted like someone had popped a large paper bag unexpectedly near them. Jili saw their surprise and reached for the Void anima she’d discovered. The ghosts looked too solid to be consumed by it but Void anima was a potent weapon against a wide variety of threats.

“Who are you?” one of the ghosts asked.

“What are you?” another asked.

The ghosts were in the form of the spindly legged, bug-like inhabitants of the planet. Or former inhabitants to be precise. Sometime in the five thousands years since Jili and Aralas began their journey, the planet had been wiped clean of sapient life.

“We’re humans, we crash landed here,” Jili said. “What are you?”

“We are Dels, or we were,” one of the people said.

“Why have you come here?” another asked.

“We landed by accident,” Jili said. “There was an explosion on our ship and we managed to crash here.”

“Are there any with you who need medical attention?” another Del asked.

“No,” Jili said. The Dels were beginning to swarm around them, pressing in closer than Jili was comfortable with. She’d dealt with non-human’s before, but the Del’s physiology was sufficiently removed from basic bipedal template that she had no idea how to read their body language.

“Give them room people,” one of the Dels said. It was larger than most of the rest and its coloration was towards the more vibrant end of the spectrum. In response to its command, the rest of the Del’s moved back, expanding the radius of the ring around Jili and Aralas. They also adopted a sort of kneeling posture, which, Jili reasoned, might be how the naturally sat down.

“You speak Galactic Common?” Aralas asked, a note of surprise in his voice.

“It’s a translation spell,” one of the Dels said.

“We knew that we would need it once we were found,” another said.

“Once you were found?” Aralas asked.

“Our world is off the great trade routes,” the lead Del said. “And our people have passed. We are the Eternal Memory of the Dels, but what’s the point of remembering something if those memories can never be shared or passed along.”

“So you really are ghosts?” Jili asked.

“Of a sort,” the lead Del said.

“What does that mean?” Aralas asked.

“We didn’t die and leave behind ghosts,” one of the Dels said. “We imprinted the entirety of our consciousnesses onto an aetheric mold.”

“Uh, I have some training in Aether casting and that doesn’t make any sense to me,” Aralas said.

“To understand what we are you need to understand the tale of our people,” the lead Dels said.

“Maybe you could tell us about that then?” Jili asked. There were a lot more Dels around them than she was comfortable with, but as long, as they were talking, things didn’t look like they were going to get unpleasant, so Jili was all in favor of expanding their talking time for as long as possible. If she got lucky, some people from the ship might track them down before anything unpleasant happened. Or maybe the Dels would go away when the sun rose.

The literal buzz that erupted from the Dels at Jili’s words was frightening but, she suspected, also a good sign. They seemed excited and happy rather than angry at the prospect.

“From what contact we had with the other Galactic races, we know that we were not an old species. Nor a widely spread one,” the lead Del said. “From our own history, we gleaned that we were not a wise race either.”

“Was this your only planet?” Aralas asked.

“Yes,” the lead Del said. “We never developed the spellcraft to travel the stars ourselves, but we were visited by a few of the wide ranging galactic races.”

“What did you mean about not being a wise race?” Jili asked.

“We are gone now, all living members of our race extinct,” the lead Del said. “And the fault for that lies on no one but ourselves.”

“We believed a great ravager race was going to descend on us and take our world away,” another Del said.

“And so we built all manner of weapons and enchantments,” another added.

“But the things that we knew how to fight were each other,” the lead Del said. “And the people that we had the most reason to hate were the ones we saw every day.”

“What did you do to yourselves?” Jili asked, her fear diminishing as she was caught up in their tale.

“We found reasons to use our weapons,” the lead Del said. “There were radical ideologies to be stamped out, and ancient grievances that could never be forgiven. Imbalances of power that could only be adjusted by secret attacks and sanctions that could only be imposed by outright assaults.”

“But lots of planets go through that stage,” Aralas said.

“So we understood,” the Del leader said. “But also many planets do not survive their follies. As we did not.”

“What was the breaking point?” Jili asked. “You must have seen it coming to have time to do whatever you did to yourselves.”

“There were many breaking points,” the Del leader said. “Events that sealed our fate. Against any one of them, we could perhaps have thrown the weight of our might as a species and clawed out of a future for ourselves. By the time the Egg Eater Plague was released though we were too diminished to fight any further.”

“Someone released a plague to destroy your young?” Jili asked.

“It was only supposed to target a subsection of our population,” the lead Del said.

“It worked as designed too,” one of the other Del said. “But what it’s architects didn’t account for was that once the plague was released its victims had little reason not to modify it and release a version that targeted their enemies as well.”

“But it didn’t just target their enemies,” another Del said.

“Or more people modified it as well,” another said.

“We never discovered what the truth was,” the leader said. “And in the end it didn’t matter. There were too few of us and we’d lost too much of our knowledge and too much of our industry to repair the damage that was done. In the end all that mattered was that our eggs were destroyed and any new ones would be as well.”

“What did you do?” Jili asked.

“We became as we are now,” the leader said.

“You need to tell them more than that!” one of the Dels said.

“Let me,” another said.

“As you will Cicil,” the leader said.

“What you see before you, what we are, is not quite a ghost, and not quite a living being.” Cicil said. “A ghost is a fleeting imprint, the remnants of a life engraved on anima. We are closer to a living spell, bound by our wills and formed in the image of our progenitors.”

“So, why did you appear only after the sun went down?” Aralas asked.

“A restriction of the spell,” Cicil said. “By night the planet’s anima is quieter and it is easier for us to form these bodies.”

“How long ago did you become like this?” Jili asked.

“We don’t know,” the leader said.

“We are eternal but, as a result, limited in many aspects,” Cicil said. “We remember our lost lives because we ingrained those memories into the the anima that makes us up. We have only a small amount of anima beyond that to hold new memories and so anything beyond a week is difficult to remember and anything beyond a month is impossible for us to retain.”

“We remember who we were, who our people were, but we can never really change,” the leader said. “Anything new we discover, anything we learn, it’s all forgotten before long.”

“Why do this then?” Aralas asked.

“Because it was the only chance we had to endure, the only chance anyone would ever know about us,” Cicil said.

“We could carry your stories out to the galaxy,” Aralas offered.

“That is all we ask,” the leader said.

“But you won’t remember we did that,” Jili said. “Once we leave you’ll forget that you gave your stories to us and you’ll be back to waiting for someone to tell them too!”

“Yes,” the leader said.

“We can’t do that then,” Jili said. “There’s got to be some better option here.”

“We do not suffer in our existence,” Cicil said.

“Is that really true?” Jili asked. “You recorded yourselves at the end of your civilization as an act of desperation.”

“Yes, we know, every moment, that our world is lost and we are forgotten,” Cicil said. “But we’ve accepted that.”

“That’s not…not entirely true,” one of the Dels said.

“What do you mean?” Cicil asked.

“I thought I was ok with this, but to be honest, part of me wasn’t sure we would ever be found, or that the creatures that found us wouldn’t be monsters of some sort,” the Del said.

“You’ve existed all this time, worrying about that?” Cicil asked.

The other Del twitched in a gesture that seemed to be the equivalent of a nod.

“And the rest of you?” Cicil asked. “Are there others who are built with that same kind of fear?”

Many others twitched in the same nodding gesture.

“We were always a foolish species Cicil,” the leader said.

“It’s not right to leave you here like this then,” Jili said.

“Um, we can’t really stay though? Can we?” Aralas asked.

“We would not object,” the leader said. “Our hope was always to see our world repopulated and full of life.”

“There’s a problem with that though,” Jili said.

“The biosphere here is poisonous to us,” Aralas said.

“Why would that be a problem?” Cicil asked.

“Did that not translate properly?” Jili asked. “Do you have a word for poison in your language?”

“Of course,” Cicil said. “We developed a vast array of toxins to defend our world with and then an even vaster array to wipe ourselves out.”

“And you don’t see why it would be a problem for us to try to live on a toxic world?” Jili asked.

“Do your people not know how to convert biospheres to suit your needs?” Cicil asked.

“Convert biospheres?” Aralas asked. “As in change the entire planet?”

“Or selected parts of it,” Cicil said.

“Not like that,” Aralas said.

“Actually that’s true for us,”Jili said. “But I heard the Crystal Navy folks talking about terraforming a lifeless world for us. There’s a lot of those to chose from but it was still going to take years for one to be ready.”

“Years?” Cicil asked. “Well, ok, I suppose if you’re starting from a lifeless husk it would be more difficult. Very little anima to work with that and jump starting the process would take a lot of work, but our world isn’t like that.”

“Do you mean we could change this world to be suitable for human habitation?” Jili asked.

“We could change this city by tomorrow,” Cicil said. “The rest of the world would take a little more time.”

“And you would want people like us to move in here?” Jili asked. “To live where you lived? To use these buildings and the artifacts you left behind?”

“If there is anything we could trade to convince you to do that, you have only to name your price,” the leader said.

“You know, I think we might be able to work something out,” Jili said.

Jili looked at Aralas and imagined the million humans in orbit above them, the millions of humans with no where to go who’d been promised the chance of a new life on a new world. She imagined them living with the Dels rather than destroying them as the Nophilans had intended. The future rose before her in the picture of a new world, full again with life and carrying on the legacy of a people long past but whose knowledge and spirits lived on.

Despite the Void anima she carried, Jili didn’t feel empty at all anymore.


The Journey of Life – Ch 8 – Divisions (Part 3)

Ghosts are formed, in most cases, from trauma. For the Nophilans who crashed their warp space flyer into a star, the trauma has been mercifully brief. A moment of panic as the readings showed a deviation from their projected course and then a rending flash as the shadow of gravity the star projected into warp space ripped the subatomic particles of the ship apart. Even the best stasis fields on the Nophilan ship hadn’t been able to resist destruction on so fundamental a scale.

To their credit though, those stasis fields did partially survive the plunge through the star. They were little more than scattered shreds of anima when they exited the far side of the star, but they retained the signature of their original caster as they hurtled aimlessly through warp space for millennia. It was to these scraps of anima that the ghosts of the Nophilans clung and waited for some connection to regular space to emerge.

A connection like their sleeping warrior-victims being reawakened.

The  prime mercy granted to ghosts is that they fade over time. That’s true when they’re not bound up in the remnants of a magical spell designed to preserve and hold things together forever if need be. That the Nophilan ghosts were trapped and in torment did nothing to make the one before her seem less threatening to Jili though.

All Jili saw when she caught site of the manifested Nophilan ghost was death. It reached out to her with arms that were impossibly long and made of deadly Void anima. The ghosts was a by-product of a living being. It wasn’t alive  and so it didn’t “need” anything. But it still had cravings and, with the Void anima it hung onto, it had the capacity to satisfy those cravings.

It could draw in the anima of living beings to add to its own. It could become more complete at the cost of the life energy of the people it consumed. It could devour any sort of energy thrown at it and grow stronger and more terrible.

Except against Jili, it couldn’t.

The ghost reached out to drain her dry and she pushed its arms away, bending them without ever making contact with the deadly anima they contained.

Jili was barely conscious of what she was doing. In her mind all that mattered was survival. For herself, for the boy the ghost had been about to eat, and for the rest of the people on the habitation module.

It helped that she was already in motion. The ghost was an inhuman nightmare come to life. It was bigger than she was, it was, in a very real sense, death incarnate and yet she charged it anyways, slipping around it’s grasp because she willed its arms to miss her.

On instinct, she slid underneath a horde of tentacles the ghost exhaled from its mouth. The closer she came, the more it transformed, gaining limbs and mouths and all sorts of unreal appendages. She’d captured the monster’s complete attention and it was doing everything it could to capture her in return.

That was bad for Jili but it left the boy free from the ghost’s attacks which proved to be critical to both of their survivals. Jili sped towards the boy like an arrow in flight, drawing on her talents with Mental anima casting to predict the ghost’s moves and slip around them. Her spells worked up until she was five feet away from the boy and the ghost ripped part of the floor out from in front of her.

Jili tumbled and went down as her foot caught the edge of the ruined floor. Her reflexes were enhanced enough that she was able to turn the tumble in a roll but smashing into the corridor wall killed the momentum that she had. She managed to come up into a kneeling posture right beside the boy, but the impact rattled her enough that only the shield the boy cast diverted the scythe hooked claw the ghost tried to impale her with.

With a scream of frustrated hunger, the ghost rained down what felt like a million arms on her but none of the smoke-like limbs connected. All were held at bay by a circle of equally dark force that emanated from Jili’s hand.

Try though it might, the ghost couldn’t get through the Void shield Jili cast.

So it blew up the hallway around them.

Neither Jili, nor Aralas, the young boy, were familiar with the modern space shielding spells. In five thousand years people had tinkered with the comfort and functionality and energy cost of environmental shielding spells. Even with the advances though such spells were usually enchanted into a space traveler’s gear as the anima costs were quite high.

Without access to those spells, Jili and Aralas had only the older style options to work with and those hurt.

Both of them responded to the sudden expulsion into airless void the same way; shields on themselves and then shields on each other. Neither could maintain the shield long, but in disaster situations buying time was occasionally all that you could manage and (on very fortunate occasions) all you needed to do.

The cloud of debris that had once been walls and deck plating told Jili that they needed more than time though. The Nophilan ghost was an ancient remnant of a powerful spell caster. Despite that power, it fought like the simple creature of hunger and rage that it was, which meant it wasn’t going to let them drift until someone rescued them.

“It faded back into warp space, but it’s still targetting us!” Aralas said.

“How do you know?” Jili asked.

“I’m an Aether caster,” Aralas said.

“Can you tell when it’s going to attack next,” Jili asked. The strain of the shield spell was already becoming overwhelming.

“No,” Aralas said. “Wait, yes, now!”

The Nophilan ghost’s passage out of warp space was as unnatural as every other aspect of it. Space split and a weird, non-illuminating light gleamed around the edges of the ghost as it poured into regular space and tried to surround them.

The added pressure of the ghost’s attack popped both sets of shields like the fragile bubbles they were. Empty space didn’t transmit the monster’s scream of triumph but the surge of Mental anima it released did.

Desperate and flailing for life, Jili cast out for anything she could find.

The ghost dove onto the two of them, maddened and ravenous for the feast.

It was never able to regret that decision.

Jili ate it too quickly.

It was the most unnatural act she’d ever performed and yet it was so simple and ingrained as well.

She was in dire need of power. The ghost was nothing but power held together by the imprint of a long forgotten will.

Jili hadn’t been a Void caster before the thousands of years drifting in space, but she was undeniably one afterwards and some things just come naturally to people who work with that sort of magic.

With the anima stolen from the ghost, Jili rewove the shield spell and drew the air and heat they needed to survive back in close to Aralas and herself.

“It’s gone?” the boy asked.

“I think it is,” Jili said, blinking in surprise at her own deed.

“What did you do?” Aralas asked.

“I don’t know exactly,” Jili said. “But I don’t think it’s coming back.”

“I don’t think we are either,” Aralas said and pointed to the habitation ship that was rapidly drifting away from them.

“The explosion!” Jili said. “It knocked us away from the ship!”

“That’s not the worst of it,” Aralas said and pointed in the other direction.

The direction where the planet was.

“I’m terrible with Energetic anima and I can’t teleport at all,” Aralas said. “Can you do anything?”

“Maybe,” Jili said. “I can’t fly us anywhere, or teleport, but I think I have enough anima to reinforce the shield so we can survive the landing.”

“But the whole planet is poisonous to us!” Aralas said.

“That’s if we try to eat something,” Jili said. “Space is deadly a lot quicker than that.”

“So we’re just going to crash land?” Aralas said.

“Yeah, I think so,” Jili said. “We’ve been putting it off for five thousand years right? Might as well see what kind of fun we can have with it.”

Something inside her was oddly excited by the idea. Not the crash landing part of it. That she expected to be bumpy, hot, and unfun. After walking around for a week feeling as hollow as a ghost though, Jili felt something stirring inside her at last. Crashing on the planet was a problem, but it was a problem that it felt right for her to be solving.

“If we don’t make it, I just wanted to say thank you,” Aralas said. “I think I’d rather die like this than be eaten by a ghost.”

“You’re not going to die,” Jili said.

“You sound as sure of that as the guy who strapped me into the stasis pod was when he said that we’d get here without a hitch,” Aralas said.

“Yeah, except there’s one big difference between us,” Jili said.

“What?” Aralas asked.

“I don’t suck at math,” she said.

Aralas smiled and then clung to her as their shield bubble hit thick enough atmosphere that turbulence started to toss them around.

Jili’s claim was only partially meant as a joke. She wasn’t a warp space navigator, no one from her time could have passed one of the Crystal Empire’s navigator tests, but she was able to calculate a re-entry vector that offered them the best chance of landing safely.

Guiding the shield bubble onto that re-entry vector was noticeably more difficult than plotting its course and Jili spent all of the stolen anima from the ghost and a fair chunk of her own to make it happen. As a credit to her efforts, both she and Aralas survived the landing, though neither was technically able to “walk away from it” for several hours.

When they did eventually regain consciousness, they discovered that in fleeing from a ghost, they’d managed to land in a necropolis. Empty streets and empty buildings with no signs of destruction other than the ravages of time.

“Where is everyone?” Aralas asked.

“No one’s here, or someone would have bothered us before we woke up,” Jili said.

“How long were were out?” Aralas asked.

“An hour or so, I think,” Jili said.

“Do you think the Navy guys will come looking for us?” Aralas asked.

“I don’t know,” Jili said. “I hope so, cause we’re going to starve if they don’t, but I don’t even know if they think we’re still alive,”

“I guess we probably shouldn’t be, should we?” Aralas asked.

“Fought a Void powered ghost, survived an explosion into space and then an unpowered crashing landing?” Jili said. “Come on we didn’t win a trip to a brand new colony world just to get killed by something minor like that.”

“Well if you start feeling peckish, just know that I’m very tasteless,” Aralas said. “Skin and bones and gristle, not much nutritional value at all either.”

“Don’t worry, I’ll only go for the meaty bits. Heart, organs, that sort of thing,” Jili said.

The grim humor brought a disgruntled grin onto Aralas’s face.

“It’s going to be dark soon though and that’s more of a priority for us,” Jili said. “I’ve got less than embers left of anima after that drop and just because there’s no one out in the day doesn’t mean this place is safe at night.

“Think the predators here will find us tasty?” Aralas asked. “I mean we should be as poisonous to them as they are to us right?”

“I don’t think it necessarily works like that,” Jili said. “And there’s the problem that even if they don’t want to eat us, they may still not be happy that we’re in their territory.”

“Maybe we can find shelter in one of these buildings?” Aralas said.

“Shelter or one of their lairs,” Jili said. “But that is our best bet.

Picking one that looked like it had weathered the silent years better than the ones around it, Jili peered inside to confirm that it was empty.

It looked habitable enough to spend a night in right up until the moment when the sun finished setting.

That’s when all of the ghosts came out.

In the ship Jili had been faced with one ghost and had barely survived the encounter. Gazing around the building as night fell she saw that this time they were surrounded by hundreds of ghosts.

Fortunately for her and Aralas though, these ghosts were rather different.

The Journey of Life – Ch 7 – Divisions (Part 2)

Waking from cold sleep bore more resemblance to returning from the dead than it did to regaining consciousness from any kind of natural sleep. Jili’s eye didn’t open when the stasis spell fell away, but that was because they’d never been closed. For five millennia, she’d looked out at the same dark covering of her cold sleep tube and yet had never seen, never experienced a moment of it.

“I don’t think the spell worked,” she said, surprised at the quick flicker from light to darkness and back to light, as she’d experienced it.

“Luckily for you, it did,” said an unfamiliar human in unfamiliar space armor.

“I don’t get it, where are we? Who are you? How did you get here?” Jili asked.

“Ok, in order; we are onboard your transport ship in orbit over Mileene III, I am Lt. Tym Ovarch of the Imperial Crystal Navy Fast Response ship Horizon Breaker and I got here by boarding your ship before it could crash land into Mileene III,” the man in space armor said.

“Why?” Jili’s thoughts felt like they were leaves being scattered by a hurricane.

“There’s a lot we need to bring you up to speed on,” Tym said. “But probably the most important thing is that your trip took longer than expected. A lot longer.”

“We were supposed to be on an accelerated path,” Jili said. “Thirty years for the whole trip. How far off are we? Under fifty still?”

“Fifty centuries,” Tym said. “I’m sorry, I know that has to be a shock, but a lot of the other things I have to say will make a lot more sense if you know that.”

“Fifty centuries?” Jill said.

She wondered if she should scream, or at least be upset at the idea. She looked inside and couldn’t find any fuel for those emotions though. If she was being honest with herself, she wasn’t sure she could see much of anything when she looked inside herself.

“Yes,” Tym said. “If you have any skill at Chrono-casting, you can verify it on your own or I can give you a galactic history lesson, but the short form is; you went into an enchanted slumber somewhere around five thousand years ago and the galaxy you’re waking up into is a radically different one from the galaxy you knew.”

“We were going to settle a new world,” Jili said. “We competed for the chance to be part of the expedition.”

“Physical contests?” Tym asked. “Feats of stamina and strength? Maybe a little fighting thrown in there?”

“Yes,” Jili said. “The competition was widely advertised. It drew people from all over the planet.”

“You were scammed. Even that long ago, physical prowess isn’t what it took to settle a new world,” Tym said. “You need environmental engineers and agricultural specialists. You need healers and resources extraction specialists and administrators. You need people too, but just being athletic doesn’t cover it, unless you want the colonists to starve out within six months or so.”

“You’re saying the competition was a trick?” Jili asked.

“Unfortunately, yeah,” Tym said. “You all are a million winners who were, according to the ship’s automated piloting logs, set to crash into Mileene III with enough force to vaporize one of the planet’s minor land mass.”

“Why?” Jili asked.

“As best as we can recreate from the logs, it looks like the people who sponsored that contest, a race called the Nophila, intended to use you as a strike force against the natives,” Tym said. “Blow up part of the planet to initiate a global catastrophe and then release a violent species into the world’s eco-system to clean up any serious resistance.”

“A violent species?” Jili asked.

“Humans,” Tym said. “You.”

“I’m not violent,” Jili said.

“You’re human, we’re all violent compared to some of the other races in the galaxy,” Tym said. “More than that though, we’re clever, reasonably hard to kill and adept at both group and individual thinking. Oh, and the Mileene natives at the time were extreme xenophobes who looked like spindle legged spiders with pulsing organs for faces. So low odds on making friends with them plus you probably have an instinct to squash them like bugs.”

Protesting seemed like the right thing to do, but as Jili’s mind whirled dozens of little details filtered into her awareness.

On a primal level, she didn’t feel like any time had passed since the sleep spell was cast, but rationally she knew that the whole point of the stasis field was that it would protect her from the ravages of time.  The Lt’s story of it being five thousand years in the future wasn’t particularly hard to believe in that light. She’d known that warp travel was dangerous. That they’d survived the trip at all was a miracle and on a stellar scale, five thousand years was barely distinguishable from five minutes.

“I know this is a lot to take in,” Tym said. “Are there any questions that you want to ask me?”

Jili lay in the cold sleep pod and considered that question.

“What went wrong?” She settled on that question out of the thousands that were fluttered around her mind. She had no idea if she could afford to trust the man speaking to her, but she also had no idea what she should do if it turned out that she couldn’t.

“Navigational error,” Tym said. “You got thrown into a highly irregular path through warp space, while the Nophilans managed to plunge right into the heart of a star.”

“What do you want with us?” she asked next.

“Primarily for you not to crash into Mileene III,” Tym said. “Beyond that, I think it will be up to you. You’ll need to tell us what you want to do from here.”

That question haunted Jili for the next week as Imperial Navy brought in habitation ships and got the rest of the cold sleepers awake. The process of reviving more than a million humans was a daunting one, but by getting the newly revived to help with the effort, the task went reasonably fast.

“I don’t understand why they woke us up at all?” said Burla, one of the women Jili helped wake up. They were taking their midday meal in one of the ramshackle cantinas setup on the habitation ship they’d been assigned to.

“What else were they going to do?” Jili asked.

“Let us float on by,” Burla said. “Who would have known or cared?”

“You mean aside from us?” Jili asked.

“No, including us,” Burla said. “I mean how do we know someone didn’t find us drifting along a hundred years ago, or a thousand, and just let us keep going.”

“We don’t,” Jili said. “But what does it matter. We’re here now right?”

“Maybe we shouldn’t be,” Burla said. “A lot of people aren’t taking it so well.”

“I’ve seen that,” Jili said. There’d been fights, because with a million people gathered together there are always fights. The feeling Burla spoke of though was more pervasive. A generalized sense of surliness that ran just below the surface for a sizeable swath of the proto-colony’s population.

They’d been contestants first, and then winners. People who scraped a path for themselves out of their old lives and into the promise of a new one. The one trait that united them was the desire to see a different future for themselves and in waking up they’d lost more than just five thousand years. They’d lost the dream that had carried them out in the vast black of the galaxy and the hope that dream had inspired.

“You seem to be hanging together pretty well though?” Burla asked, sizing up her companion.

“Not much use falling apart right?” Jili said. “Just gotta make do with the hand we’ve been dealt.”

The words sounded true, but they barely made contact with what Jili was actually feeling. Over the “Waking” week, Jili had waited, expecting a sense of loss to catch up with her and it never had. Fifty years or five thousand, when she looked out at the sky that enveloped them, she didn’t see a difference.

She wasn’t alone. She had Burla and a million other people who knew exactly what she was going through. She knew some of the other competitors too from before the cold sleep and had made it a point to check on them as they were revived. Each of them had made it through the process unharmed. Apparently the cold sleep spell was one of surprising power and resiliency. Apart from a dive into the heart of a star, little was capable of disturbing those under its protection. Physically at least. The more she looked though, the more Jili had to wonder if she hadn’t lost something across the long millennia that she’d slept.

“Do you ever wonder if they really woke us up at all?” Jili asked. “I mean what if this is all a dream and we’re still stuck in those pods but the spell’s starting to fade?”

Burla reached over and pinched Jili’s arm hard enough for Jili to cry out.

“Yeah, I thought of that,” Burla said. “This isn’t a dream though.”

“Something’s missing though isn’t it?” Jili asked.

“Sure, we all just lost our families, our homeworlds, everything we ever knew,” Burla said. “All for a lie.”

Mileene III couldn’t have supported humans even if they’d survived the crash thanks to the stasis fields. The cold ship hadn’t been packed with any supplies and the native flora and fauna on the planet were from an evolutionary chain that was toxic to humans. The humans would have struggled for months to survive, trying to eat anything they could find, destroying all of the monstrous-looking creatures that inhabited the world before they turned to the only food source that would keep them alive for another day. Each other.

The flight the Nophilan’s took into a solar inferno was too merciful a judgment against them by far, Jili thought, but even there she couldn’t summon up much anger or rage against them. The Nophilans had been horrible people, but she couldn’t fault their plan for using the humans to get what they wanted. It probably would have worked, and history would have long since forgotten about the act of villainy as it forgot about so many others.

“You going to attend the holo-conference tonight?” Burla asked.

The Crystal Navy was making its first official broadcast to the “colonists” via a two way holo-conference setup. Participation was optional since it was just an informational meeting to recap where things were at and what the plans were for the colonists in the next week.

“Maybe,” Jili said and shrugged. She knew what the Navy was going to say. They were looking for a world for the colonists. Anyone who wished to remain in the habitation modules would be supported there for at least the next several months, and definitely until a more stable home could be found for them. There would be further updates on a daily basis, with holo meetings every week where the colonists could voice their concerns and get their questions answered.

She was thinking about that an hour later as she strolled along the habitation module’s outer ring. The great starry vista outside the windows called to her, but she couldn’t find an answer to it. Even with the artificial gravity of the module she still felt as though she was floating.

It was a scream that brought her back to the ground. Primal terror wailing out from someone reached into her brain and kicked off a cocktail of chemicals that brought her awareness into hyperfocus and eliminated all traces of introspection.

She was frozen in place by the scream until she heard another one. Some long forgotten memory surfaced at that. Herself, racing through a jungle, screaming for help as a pack of carnivorous quadrapeds bore down on her. No one had come for her. Anger flared at that. She wasn’t going to let no one come for the boy who was screaming around the curve of the corridor.

Rounding the arc of the hallway, Jili found the young boy she’d expected to find, and standing over him, the last thing in the galaxy she’d ever expected to see.

As she skidded to a halt, the ghost of a long dead Nophilan turned its baleful gaze on her and she felt it’s life stealing magics reach out to silence her beating heart.


The Journey of Life – Ch 6 – Divisions (Part 1)

The cold ship tumbled out of rent in the fabric of space, leaking dreams and toxic plasma. In an earlier era it would have spelled the doom of the civilization it was aimed at. Onboard the ship, an army of advanced killing machines were stored in pods set to protect them from the rigors of orbital re-entry and a hard landing on a planetary surface. In the wake of a cataclysmic impact, the drones would pour out and ‘sterilize’ the land to allow their masters to colonize the world without opposition.

“Who does something like this?” Lt. Tym Ovarch asked.

“People who are very inept,” Lt. Xys said.

The two members of the Horizon Breaker’s “Black Team” were the first into the cold ship after its discovery by long range spell scans.

“No seriously, it takes a lot of know-how to put together an army like this,” Tym said. “How do you not double check your hyper-space calculations? From the readings I’m getting, this thing has been drifting for close to five thousand years.”

“Five thousand years used to be how long interstellar trips took,” Xys said. “That’s why people made sleeper ships like this in the first place.”

“Yeah, I know what the primitives were like,” Tym said. “But these folks weren’t primitive. They had warp spells, they should have been able to make the trip hundreds of times faster.”

“I’m linking into the navigation web now,” Xys said. “Or what’s left of it.”

“Please tell me they didn’t try to plot a hyperspace route by the seat of their pants?” Tym said.

Xys made a few noises to indicate he was still processing the data before he looked up from the communication pool he was carrying.

“I don’t think they were that stupid,” he said. “Not a smart race by any stretch of the imagination, but they definitely had a full flight plan in place.”

“What threw them off then?” Tym asked. “Sabotage? Enemy action? Did the murder drones come alive and kill them all?”

“No,” Xys said. “I’m checking their predicted course versus their recorded flight path.”

“Rogue asteroid plow into them?” Tym asked.

“Don’t think so,” Xys said. “If I’m reading this right, they missed a rounding error.”

“A math mistake?” Tym asked. “Someone forgot to carry a one and they wound up drifting off course for fifty centuries?”

“Oh, it gets better than that,” Xys said. “This was the vanguard ship. The drones in the back were meant to be an expendable shock force to go in and prepare the planet for habitation. The actual colonists were going to follow along six months later, after the drones all died out.”

“So I’m guessing the colonists had a rude surprise when they arrived and, oh look, the original inhabitants were still there,” Tym said.

“If I’m reading the telemetry reports right, they got a much ruder surprise than that,” Xys said.

“Some of the murder drones stowed away on the colony ship and wiped them all out?” Tym said.

“You’re really kind of hung up on the drones aren’t you?” Xys asked.

“We’re in a ship filled with beings who’s only purpose is to depopulate a planet,” Tym said. “You don’t find that even a little bit creepy?”

“We’ve been on Black Team for how long now?” Xys asked. “And you find a million killer drones frightening?”

“Not frightening,” Tym said. “Just, you know, worrisome.”

“Well, put your worries to rest then,” Xys said. “They didn’t rise up and overthrow their masters. They’ve been in an enchanted stasis since the ship launched.”

“That is a strong stasis spell,” Tym said.

“Yeah, I’m pretty sure we’ll be taking this ship in for study by Imperial R&D,” Xys said.

“Oh, those poor, poor murder bots,” Tym said.

“Now you feel bad for them?” Xys asked.

“Have you met the kind of people they have in R&D?” Tym asked.

“Point taken,” Xys said.

The Imperial policy of giving people second chances in positions where there was sufficient oversight to keep them from getting into further trouble meant that Imperial Research and Development was filled with some of the brightest minds in the galaxy. Not the most stable minds, just the brightest.

Imperial troops owed their lives to the countless inventions that came out of the R&D department, but the sensible trooper still made it a point to never, ever be the first to to test one of R&D’s “new toys”.

“So what happened to the colony ship then?” Tym asked.

“Well see this line here?” Xys asked, pulling up a holographic display. “That’s the course this ship took. Notice anything sketchy about it?”

“They dove in pretty close to a red giant star,” Tym said. “And it looks like that’s right where their course started deviating from the projected plan.”

“Yeah, I’m guessing they were trying to get a gravity assist from the star and didn’t account for the drag from the solar wind quite right,” Xys said. “The colonists path is this one.”

Another line appeared on the graph when Xys tapped the display.

“That appears to plunge right into the gas giant,” Tym said.

“That’s based on the observed telemetry from this ship,” Xys said. “It gets better though.”

“Do the murder bots make an appearance yet?” Tym asked.

“Sorry, still no murder bots,” Xys said. “Check out this communique though.”

He brought up document up onto the monitor.

“Enemy action detected in course alteration of terraforming vessel?” Tym read aloud. “I thought you said it was a math error?”

“It was, but from what I’m reading there were some very angry messages sent back and forth where no one would own up to that,” Xys said.

“What did they do?” Tym asked.

“The corrected for the enemy action,” Xys said.

“And that didn’t work out so well for them?” Tim asked.

“Not so much,” Xys said. “See they corrected for what they thought their enemies had done, but they didn’t correct the math.”

“So instead of correcting as much as they needed to, they over corrected themselves right down into the heart of the star didn’t they?” Tym asked.

“Like I said, very inept people.”

“And unfortunately ones we need clean up after,” Tym said.

“It could be worse,” Xys said.

“Yes, in a million different varieties of worse,” Tym said. “So what aren’t you telling me?”

“You know the killer drones?” Xys said.

“Yeah,” Tym said. “They’re waking up aren’t they?”

“They are indeed.”

“You why I used to like being on Black team?” Tym asked.

“My sparkling wit?” Xys asked.

“Sure, and…” Tym said.

“My powerful and stunning physique?” Xys asked.

“You do make good mancandy, but there’s another reason too,” Tym said.

“Because we usually have a Crystal Guardian running around with us who could take down a million angry murder bots in her sleep?” Xys asked.

“Yeah, that.” Tym said.

“I think her vacation’s up in about two weeks,” Xys said.

“Wonderful,” Tym said. “Then we only need to fight off the million murder bot army for two weeks then. That’s only thirteen days, twenty three hours and fifty nine minutes longer than we’re actually likely to last. This is going to be so fun.”

“We could call in the rest of Black Team you know?” Xys said.

“I was more thinking we’d call in the Horizon Breaker’s deck guns on this one,” Tym said.

“I’m not liking our odds there,” Xys said. “The deck guns don’t do ‘precision’ so much.”

“There’s a reason they’re called Annihilation Turrets,” Tym said.

“Can’t say I’m super fond of being annihilated,” Xys said.

“That’s why I’m thinking we shouldn’t be here, and we shouldn’t be here really soon.”

“I’m not super fond of unplanned space walks either,” Xys said. “This ship is armed you know, and our survival shields aren’t all that resilient.”

“How many of the drones are awake so far?” Tym asked.

“None yet,” Xys said. “The stasis thaw cycle seems kind of long on the spell they were under.”

“Maybe that’s why it lasted that long?” Tym said. “Can we reverse it?”

“We’d risk killing all of the drones,” Xys said.

“That doesn’t sound so bad,” Tym said.

“And ourselves,” Xys said. “Any everyone in a two light second radius.”

“It’s just never easy is it?” Tym asked.

“Would they pay us piles of money if it was?” Xys asked.

“They pay you?” Tym asked. “I thought we worked for the food in the cafeteria?”

“Hush, I’m trying to reverse the wake-up order,” Xys said.

“If you blow me up, I will haunt your ghost,” Tym said.

Several tense and silent moment followed.

Requests for status updates came in from the Horizon Breaker, which Tym dutifully answered. Without Officer Fari on board, the communication links between the away team and the ship weren’t as robust and wide as usual, but thanks to her tutelage they still had the information sharing capabilities of a top of the line espionage vessel, despite their designation as a “Fast Response” vessel.

“Black Team’s coming for us,” Tym said.

“Captain Okoro let them?” Xys asked.

“He’s leading them,” Tym said. “Also we’re not supposed to kill the murder bots.”

“I’m glad you mentioned that,” Xys said.

“Just about to have the stasis spell smoke them all weren’t you?” Tym said.

“Of course not,” Xys said. “And once I get done pulling out these modifications there’ll be no evidence to support that notion at all.”

“So how many of them do you think we can take?” Tym asked.

“I’m good for a hundred I’d say,” Xys said.

“So nine hundred ninety nine thousand or so for me?” Tym said. “I’d better get some stretching in.”

“Probably less than that,” Xys said. “I think a couple thousand of the stasis pods failed over the years.”

“A couple thousand?” Tym said. “Well that makes all the difference then, bring them on!”

“You’re an idiot, you know that?” Xys said.

“Yeah, but I’m a lovable one,” Tym said. “Aren’t I?”

“Sure,” Xys said. “I mean there’s people who love sentient slime mold, there’s gotta be someone out there for you.”

“You two going to invite us in or do I get to carve a new docking port in this ancient can?” Captain Okoro asked.

“Docking port cycle starting now sir,” Tym said.

“Have you inspected the drones yet?” Hanq asked.

“Not yet,” Xys said. “The pirating spells are still establishing control of the ship.”

“What do the scanning spells have to say about them?” Hanq asked.

“Nothing,” Xys said. “We can’t get a read on what they are until we get them out of the stasis fields.”

“The ship’s logs list them as an ‘acquired’ weapon race,” Tym said. “Apparently whoever built this ship went out and bought a batch of the most vicious animals they could find to stock it with.”

“Prioritize getting us into the sleep chamber,” Hanq said. “I want to see what we’re dealing with.”

Ten minutes later the sleep chamber door cycled open, it’s security overridden and burned out an Imperial R&D tool which the Horizon Breaker’s crew had been unfortunate enough to field test a few months earlier.

Inside the sleep chamber there were rows of narrow shelves, hundreds of feet high, which held over a million stasis cylinders in total. Most of the cylinders were perfectly opaque, the stasis effect preventing even light from exiting or entering the chambers interior.

“We’ve got the sleep cycle overridden,” Xys said.

“Except on these four,” Tym said.

It had taken the kind of desperate, last minute work that is as likely to result in catastrophic failure as anything else, but between the two of them, Xys and Tym had gotten things under control. It was what they did when the chips were down and why Hanq had sent them in together and alone in the first place. Some people just need the right audience to perform well.

“Let’s see what have here then,” Hanq said and touched the final override button to dispel the stasis effect.

With a rainbow shimmer, the spell fell away from the container revealing the horrible, deadly creature that awaited within. The was a silent pause, broken only when the creature finally spoke.

“Where…where am I?” asked the human who’d been asleep for five thousand years.


The Journey of Life – Ch 5 – Debris and Wreckage (Part 3)

Opal sat and watched Arvana’s reactions with an unnerving sort of calm. It was a calculated display, meant to suggest that the Crystal Guardian was in complete control of the situation. Each moment they spoke though was like a game of chess played onboard a ship during tsunami seas. The moves were important, but there was the matter of the entire board being wiped clean if the players let their attention wander for a moment.

Looking at Arvana, Opal saw a well of potential that ran deeper than the girl could possibly fathom. It was potential balanced on the edge of a blade though. Arvana didn’t trust Opal, and had good reason to be wary.

They were sitting in Arvana’s home, her sanctum, the one place in the universe she should have felt the most safe. It wasn’t the best place for a confrontation, or a calm reasoned discussion, but Opal hadn’t been left with much choice. Arvana was a good enough caster that Opal honestly wasn’t sure she could track the girl if Arvana escaped from her sight. There was still a good chance Arvana could get away in fact. Opal could think of half a dozen combinations of spells that would let Arvana exit the loft undetectably, leaving the girl free to wreck whatever foolish havoc came to her mind. That was why it was important Opal convince her not to try in the first place.

Around Arvana the magics of a Mind Shatter spell grew to a point where they illuminated her with a halo that was visible even in the daylight that was streaming through the large open windows of the loft. The girl was sufficiently impressed with Opal’s prowess. The key was to transform that impression to something that trust could be built on.

“You have very good defenses,” Opal said. “And a talent with invisibility spells.”

“That wasn’t my invisibility spell,” Arvana said, forcing the words out through the concentration required to hold the Mind Shatter spell.

“Most of it was,” Opal said. “I only provided the final twists and held it for a moment while you recovered.”

“Why?” Arvana asked.

“Because you lost your masks in the blast and if the Beacon family knew who you were people would suffer,” Opal said.

“No, why did you care,” Arvana asked. “Why are you here now?”

“I thought I was here on vacation,” Opal said. “But that possibility is looking ever more remote.”

“You’re a galactic,” Arvana said. The word held the fear and wonder that only someone who had never been to space could muster.

“Yes,” Opal said.

“And you work for the Beacons?” Arvana asked. The hurt in her voice was a cry against the abject unfairness of life. She’d lived the knowledge that odds were slanted against them, but to discover that they had never had any hope of succeeding at all was cruel enough to drive her to the self-annihilation that she was gathering power for.

“No, I answer to a very different authority,” Opal said and silently wove magics of her own. Arvana looked determined to go out in a final blaze of glory and was closer to doing so than she appeared to realize. Opal couldn’t allow that to happen, but dreaded what the cost to the young caster would be if she had to stop her the hard way.

“A galactic syndicate is moving in now?” Arvana asked, caught between horror and disbelief at the idea.

Opal smiled. The girl believed in Opal’s show of power, perhaps too much. Easing it back a notch seemed to be called for Opal decided.

“Do you know what the principal weakness of an invisibility spell is?” Opal asked.

“Anyone covered by it can still see each other,” Arvana said. “That’s how you tracked us, isn’t it?”

“Not quite,” Opal said. “I tracked you through the haste spell of your friends that I augmented. You cast the invisibility spell to obscure sight but not to block magic so I was able to follow you thanks to the link the active spell gave me.”

“What are you going to do to us now?” Arvana asked.

“That depends a great deal on you,” Opal said. “You want me to leave you alone don’t you?”

“But you’re not going to do that,” Arvana said.

“I don’t think it would be wise,” Opal said. “I’m not a fate reader, but I can see you are tied up in all sorts of trouble at the moment and if I leave you alone you’re only going to make it worse.”

“If you’re not with Beacon, what do you care what we do to them?” Arvana asked. “Why not just go back to space and leave us alone. There’s got to be more interesting people out there for you to play with.”

Arvana pleaded with reason, but it was the sort of reason that would appeal to a monster. ‘We’re too tasteless to eat, go eat someone else’. That put Opal in a delicate position. Arvana hadn’t reasoned herself into the belief that Opal was a monster. She’d reasoned out how powerful Opal was, but it was a deeper, more fundamental rift of pain that said anyone with power was a monster. Opal couldn’t offer reasonable arguments against her own power. They would be nothing more than transparent lies giving what Arvana had seen her do. She could try to offer reasonable arguments that she wasn’t a monster, could proclaim that she was a Crystal Guardian and held to an exacting ethical and moral standard, but no simple reasoning like that would convince Arvana. Fear can find a counter-argument to anything.

“Do you think you’re too unimportant for my attentions?” Opal asked, trying to shift the conversation into an area where she could attack Arvana’s fears indirectly.

“Yes! Come on, this isn’t a galactic thing! It’s local and small and pointless,” Arvana said.

“Do you know how many people there are in the galaxy?” Opal asked.

“Billions,” Arvana said.

“That doesn’t even cover your local sector,” Opal said. “The galaxy seethes with life. We sapients have expanded through it and filled corners and ecosystems across the stars. For every point of light you see when you gaze at the sky, billions of people are gazing back. With that as a reference point do you think I can claim to be any more important than you?”

“Yes,” Arvana said. “That’s where you live. Out there. You’re strong enough to deal with all that. We’re just regular people here.”

“You underestimate what regular people are capable of then,” Opal said. “Tell me though, why did you go along with the plan to attack the Beacons? You could see where it was going to lead. The vengeance they would take on the community until a scapegoat was found.”

“The attack was going to happen with or without me,” Arvana said. “I had to go along with it because I had the best chance of keeping my friends safe.”

“You succeeded in that,” Opal said. “The stasis I have them in is quite pleasant from all accounts.”

“But you’re not going to let them go either are you?” Arvana asked.

“Not yet,” Opal said. “But once our conversation is complete, I’ll release them unharmed and unhindered.”

“We both know that’s not going to happen,” Arvana said.

“Do we?” Opal asked. Inside, she stifled a groan. Arvana was wearing her fear like a shield. It was a terrible tactic. A master manipulator could use fear as easily as carelessness. Opal could do that too but she was working with the disadvantage that she wanted Arvana in one healthy and whole piece when their conversation was over, so she switched gears and didn’t try to dodge the question further. “What do you think is going to occur?”

Arvana was quiet, but the tremble in her jaw spoke of how terrible she thought their fates would be.

“Is that why you’re building up that Mind Shatter spell?” Opal asked with no reproach in her voice. “Do you know the radius you’re going to affect if you let it go as you have it configured now?”

Opal saw Arvana’s control starting to slip on the spell and added a few support threads to the Mind Shatter. If Arvana chose to cast the spell, Opal’s magics would be added to the devastation is caused, but for the time being the extra anima was helping Arvana keep the unruly spell under control.

“Your two friends here have been with you your whole life haven’t they?” Opal asked. “And above all else, you’re going to make sure they don’t suffer?”

“That’s right,” Arvana said, her jaw tense as her spell built to a critical intensity. Opal saw her tie it off. It was ready to cast whenever Arvana wished to let it go. The girl held it as though she could choose that moment at a whim, apparently unaware of the uncontrollable meltdown that was starting to occur in the heart of the malformed magic.

“And whatever I say, you really won’t trust, will you?” Opal asked. “You know how skilled I am, so even if I leave, I could come back to finish the game at any time. Right now, you think you’re going to have to live with that fear for the rest of your life.”

“That’s why you’re doing this isn’t it?” Arvana asked. “I don’t have any choice here and that amuses you!”

“I must say, you are quite intelligent,” Opal said. “The important question though is are you smart enough to know how stupid you are?”

The Mind Shatter spell wobbled as Arvana flinched in surprise.

“What do you mean?” the young caster asked.

“Intelligent people often know many things and can see how various situations will play out,” Opal said. “Very smart people however know that there are even more things which they don’t know and that there are resolutions they can’t foresee.”

“What other choice do I have here then?” Arvana asked, clutching her hands into fists.

“You want to protect your friends and you don’t want to have to live wondering if someone is coming to get you?” Opal asked. “Then come with me. If you’re by my side, you’ll always know what I’m doing.”

“Come with you?” Arvana asked. “Where?”

“Out there.” Opal said, gesture towards the heavens.

“I can’t,” Arvana said. “The Beacons are hurting people here. They’ll kill Marsh and Keel when they find them.”

“The Beacons aren’t going to be a problem anymore,” Opal said.

The Mind Shatter spell trembled and tried to burst but Opal’s reinforcements caught it and held the spell steady.

“You’re lying,” Arvana said.

“I do that sometimes, but at the moment I don’t need to,” Opal said. “Check the spell web. Look for reports on the explosion at the restaurant.”

“I can’t,” Arvana said. “I’m barely holding the Mind Shatter as it is.”

“Then let it go,” Opal said.

“We’ll die,” Arvana said.

“I won’t let that happen,” Opal said.

Arvana hesitated.

“Lying is a part of my job,” Opal said. “If you trust me though I can make this pledge; I will never lie to you. You may not always be happy with me, and I may not always be able to tell you everything that I know, but I will never lie to you.”

“Why me?” Arvana asked.

“Because I need a student and you need a teacher and somehow in the great vastness of the Million Worlds, we found each other,” Opal said. “Come with me, and leave this place behind.”

“I don’t know if I can do that,” Arvana said, tears welling up in her eyes.

“I don’t either,” Opal said. “And there’s only one way we’re going to find out. Take my hand, let the spell go and we’ll find out together.”

Arvana hesitated for a single instant longer before her hand began to move on its own. As tentative as a kitten, Arvana clasped Opal’s outstretched hand and let the Mind Shatter spell run free.

There was no explosion, no scream of deadly psychic force. Just quiet and the warmth of two hands clasped together.


The Hooded Lantern was shuddered following the blast which damaged its entryway. In the ensuing investigation a shocking amount of information was discovered on various illegal activities the proprietors were involved in. Several of the patrons were also arrested on outstanding warrants stretching back across decades, including galactic extraditions for over a dozen of them.

The local news reports didn’t waste much time on those stories though. The one which captured their attention instead was the massive Internal Affairs investigation into the local police forces who were supposed to be protecting the area dominated by the Beacon family. For months thereafter the courts were the scene to grand corruption cases and sensational indictments brought against a wide array of corrupt law enforcement officials as information against them surfaced at a record pace.

Unseen and unnoticed in all the commotion of the first few days of those scandals breaking was the departure of one of the planet’s residents.

“Do you really have to go?” Marsh asked as they stood at the space port’s docking area.

“Yeah, those robes look terrible on you,” Keel said.

“They’re apprentice robes,” Arvana said. “I think they’re supposed to look terrible so that you’ve got reason to graduate.”

“We’re going to miss you,” Keel said.

“Yeah, it won’t be the same without you here,” Marsh said.

“I’m sorry, were you under the impression that you got to stay here?” Opal asked, appearing at their sides.

“What?” Marsh asked looking dumbfounded.

Arvana smiled. Opal had already filled her in on the fate of her two friends.

“You’re guilty of assault on a Crystal Guardian,” Opal said to Keel. “And conspiracy to commit that assault.” She looked at Marsh with the latter statement.

“What does that mean?” Marsh asked.

“We’re going to put you someplace where you’ll be safe,” Arvana said.

“Technically, it will be an Imperial judge who will do that,” Opal said. “But yes, I will be recommending that you be reprimanded to the custody of a watchful overseer. Also, I happen to need some crew for cleaning out the bilges and other such tasks.”

Arvana grinned with malevolent delight.

“You made me run through the sewers,” she told her friends. “Hope you like mopping cause I see a whole lot of that in your future.”

And together they left for the wide open galaxy that awaited them.

The Journey of Life – Ch 4 – Debris and Wreckage (Part 2)

By the time the bolt caster exploded, Arvana knew her day was going to be miserable, but the signs were there as soon as she woke up. Marsh’s frantic call that they had a line on the black market weapons they needed and the confirmation that Zazog’s crew would be at the Hooded Beacon for lunch was not how she wanted to be greet a new day. Or any day really.

Marsh and Keel had been planning a counterstrike on the Beacon family for weeks. She knew from the first time they told her about it that there wasn’t any chance she could convince them to take a saner approach to the problem (like leaving for a different planet), so she’d settled for pointing out the obvious holes in their plans. The idiots thought they could overcharge some enchanted knives and take Zazog’s crew in a straight up melee fight. When neither of them could score a clean hit on her in a sparring match, they dropped that idea and moved to the plan of getting some real weapons.

The bolt casters seemed like the perfect foil for Marsh’s hot headed zeal. He didn’t have any contacts in the black market and Arvana reasoned that few people would be willing to sell a nut like him the kind of military grade hardware they needed to pull off the assault.

As it turned out though, while Marsh was a little too passionate to close a deal on the weapons, Keel (or rather Keel’s money) was able to convince the right people that a transaction could be made that wouldn’t get traced back to the seller.

They tested the weapons out in an old basement and nearly killed themselves in the process, but with the confirmation that the bolt casters worked as advertised, they had everything they needed to move forward.

Arvana’s part of the job was simple, in theory. She was there to maintain a secure communication web for them and cover their getaway with an illusion. As a primarily Mental anima caster, Arvana’s illusions were purely mind-affecting, but the Beacon family didn’t have any kind of non-intelligent surveillance on their restaurant since that kind of thing always came back as evidence that could be used against you in court sooner or later.

Marsh and Keel thought they were protecting her by keeping her “out of the actual fighting”, but that was mostly because they’d never tried to cast an obscuring spell that covered three people at once and have it hold up during an armed conflict. She’d practiced a few times before they went through the door to the Hooded Beacon and the results had been sufficiently dismal that she’d insisted they wear masks as well. Magic was incredible in what it could do, but simple physical props made it a lot easier and were much more dependable.

Marsh had enchanted the three would-be vigilantes with a haste spell that made the world seem to slow to a crawl before they burst into the restaurant. That had given Arvana the sense that things were happening in a simple, controlled manner. They’d stroll in, blast Zazog and his crew, she’d cloak them and they’d stroll right back out. For them it would take about a minute, and for everyone else inside the restaurant they’d be in and out in under two seconds. In the aftermath the Beacon family would get an anonymous message that anything they extorted from the neighborhood was going to come back to them in medical and repair bills. The Beacons would leave off the extortion racket and people’s lives would get better.

Or at least that’s what Marsh and Keel thought. Arvana knew the plan was doomed, and people were going to get hurt. People got hurt all the time though. She figured the best she could do was to make sure it wasn’t the people she cared about who were on the receiving end of that pain. At least not this time.

The assault went smooth and according to plan right up until the moment when Keel’s nerve broke.

At their accelerated speed, Arvana had time to hear the bolt caster that he was carrying go off and turn to look in his direction before the inevitable disaster occurred.

Later, as they were running away, Arvana had the presence of mind to ask herself if that moment, the one ‘misfire’ on Keel’s part doomed them or saved them.

They were supposed to pick out Zazog’s group and take them down. That was predicated on finding Zazog’s group before the restaurant descended into chaos. The moment Keel pulled the trigger that option vanished.

Marsh tried to argue for killing everyone in the restaurant, but fortunately their black market weapons chose that moment breakdown. It was the kind of amazing coincidence that was too ridiculous for Arvana to even assign a conspiracy too. If the weapon’s dealer had wanted them dead there were plenty of easier, safer methods of accomplishing that than to let them walk into a den of criminals with partially functioning murder devices.

With the loss of their weapon, Keel and Marsh were willing to flee, at last, and Arvana felt a surge of energy as the world slowed down even further. She started to spin the invisibility spell as they ran for the door and was two twists of the anima weaving away from completing it when one of her companions dropped their bolt caster and it exploded.

The force should have killed them. It reduced the door, the window and even the brick steps leading up to the restaurant to microscopic particles. None of the three of them were proficient enough with shielding magic to withstand that sort of destructive force but, before Arvana was even aware of the blast, she found herself tumbling into the road outside the Hooded Beacon. Something, or someone had protected them with a very short lived shield. Arvana thought she saw the remnants of it fade away but couldn’t be sure it wasn’t just an after image of the blast.

As the three of them got to their feet, the haste spell diminished but still held as did Arvana’s invisibility spell, though only be the barest of threads.

Neither Marsh nor Keel thought to question their good fortune. Between the excitement of the attempted assault on the restaurant, the terror of their weapons failing and the mind rattling force of the explosion, the two boys were running on little more than pure animal instinct. The same was true for Arvana, with the major difference being that as a Mentalist, one of her animal instincts was to cast a spell to dampen her emotions and enhance her senses. She wasn’t a calm, cool killer by nature, but she could fake that mindset for a while with the right spells.

As they fled, invisible to the people who were rushing towards the excitement at the restaurant, Arvana fitted the bits and pieces of the failed raid into place. The picture they revealed wasn’t a pleasant one.

Someone wanted them out of the restaurant and didn’t want any of the patrons injured. Their weapons shouldn’t have failed. Not all three of them at once. The speed they were fleeing at was wrong too. Marsh wasn’t a good enough caster to pull off that strong of a haste spell. In his panic it didn’t look like he was maintaining it all in fact.

And then there was the invisibility spell. Arvana thought back. She’d been in the midst of casting it when the explosion went off. There was a brief blip of time, a few hundred microseconds of real time, when she was totally stunned by the explosion. There were spellcasters who were good enough to cast through that kind of distraction. She was not one of them.

Marsh and Keel peeled around the corner of an Puffed Pastry shop and dashed for the entrance to the crypts that ran beneath the city. The crypts were the perfect sort of labyrinth to lose pursuers in. Arvana wanted to smack her two companions for heading to them however since using the crypts was a dead giveaway that they were locals. She was prevented from following through on that course of action by a sickening thought.

Someone else had finished the invisibility spell for her.

A cold, nauseous feeling lodged in her stomach and stuck with Arvana all through their flight to the far end of the crypts. If she hadn’t cast the invisibility spell, if someone else had sewn it shut and maintained it for the few moments before Arvana reached out for it again, that meant someone else was in control of it. Whoever finished the spell was on the inside of it, and able to see them as clearly as Arvana could see Marsh and Keel.

Zazog was a beast. Huge, tough and even stronger than he looked. They’d selected him as their target because putting him in the recovery ward seemed like an attainable goal. He was a very big fish, and Marsh believed his fall would send just the right sort of message to the Beacon family.

They were on the stairs leading up to the rooms they shared on the top floor of a run down theater when Arvana managed to put things properly into context. Zazog was huge and tough and strong compared to the local competition, but that didn’t mean he was the worst thing they had to worry about. If he was really powerful, he wouldn’t be on a minor world like Haldron’s Edge.

“What happened there?” Marsh asked. “What kind of junk did they sell you?”

“The casters were good!” Keel said. “We checked them out!”

“He’s right,” Arvana said. “They were fine.”

“They blew up! How is that fine?” Marsh asked.

Keel looked crushed by the question. He’d sunk a lot into obtaining the weapons, but their loss was inconsequential compared to the pain losing them had inflicted on Marsh.

“The caster didn’t blow up,” Arvana said. “It was destroyed.”

“By who?” Marsh asked.

“Someone in the restaurant,” Arvana said. “We shouldn’t have been able to make it out there.”

“You invisibility spell…” Keel began to say.

“It wasn’t mine,” Arvana said. “Just like the speed spell wasn’t yours right Marsh?”

“What do you mean?” he asked.

“Did you remember to maintain the spell after the caster blew up?” Arvana asked.

“Yeah, of course,” Marsh said.

“When did you let it drop then?” Arvana asked.


A small, mean part of Arvana was happy to see that her sick feeling was communicable. The gears in Marsh’s head turned slower than in hers but he wasn’t stupid. Nor was Keel.

“I didn’t,” Marsh said. “I didn’t maintain it. That was somebody else’s spell.”

“On us the whole way back here?” Keel said. “That’s impossible. No one’s that good.”

“No one local,” Arvana said.

“What, you think we stumbled on a Warlord or something?” Keel said.

“I have no idea what we stumbled on,” Arvana said, her words meant for more than Marsh and Keel’s ears.

“What’s going to happen next?” Marsh asked.

“I think they let us get away because they didn’t want a fight there,” Arvana said. “And I think they covered for us because they didn’t want any of the rest of the Beacon goons involved.”

“That’s good right?” Keel asked.

“No,” Arvana said. “That’s very bad.”

“It means they want to hunt us themselves,” Marsh said.

“How long do we have?” Keel asked.

“Before someone that good catches us?” Arvana said. “They’re probably already here.”

“What can we do?” Marsh asked.

“Make them an offer,” Arvana said.

“I’ve got some money left still,” Keel said.

“Not that kind of offer,” Arvana said. “They’re not going to need money. Not with that kind of skill.”

“What do you think they want?” Marsh asked.

“We’re not going to know until they tell us,” Arvana said. “And then we’re going to have a decision to make, probably on how we want to die.”

With what Arvana knew, she was pretty sure the gesture was a hopeless one, but she started gathering the magic needed for the worst spell she knew, and she prepared herself to cast it wrong.

A Mind Shatter spell, when properly cast, is a pure attack of magic and will, designed to fry another person’s brain and wipe away their ability to ever think again. It’s an ugly attack and one that Arvana had no business knowing how to cast, but she’d learned most of her magic from people who dealt in ugly spells so it came with the territory.

If Arvana followed the correct forms of the spell, the magic would be shaped into a lance and sent out to spear through her target’s defenses. She knew the attack wouldn’t be enough to stop whoever was pursuing them, their defenses had to be stronger than hers by a lot to manage what the casting she’d seen. That’s why she twisted the anima into the wrong shapes. Not a lance but a wave, not restricted to her target but rather ravaging everything around her. She wouldn’t survive the attack and neither would Marsh or Keel, but if she cast it that meant death was the preferable option compared to whatever their pursuer had in store for them.

“And what if what they want is you?” the woman sitting in the chair in the center of the room asked.

Arvana froze.

The woman had been there the whole time, had been with them the whole time, but a subtle block in Arvana’s memory had prevented her from noticing it. Arvana knew her mental wards were solid, but against this woman they might as well not have been there at all.

She looked around at Marsh and Keel. Nether were moving. Both of them stood like they were suspended in time, but there was no haste spell in effect. They were stuck in a web of a much more complicated casting than that.

“What do you want?” Arvana asked.

“I’m trying to decide,” the woman said.

The Journey of Life – Ch 3 – Debris and Wreckage (Part 1)

Opal Kinsguard, Crystal Guardian and Protector of the Empire, had less than a quarter of a second to live. She reflected on the tolerable expanse of time that afford her as she sized up the room she was in.

The most immediate problem was the hyper-charged blast bolt that was hurtling through the air towards her. She sighed inwardly at its presence, more annoyed than anything else. She wasn’t traveling on official business and problems such as assassination attempts were simply rude when they intruded on her vacation time.

She had a variety of options for dealing with the potentially fatal attack but many of them were inappropriate for a casual dining establishment such as she found herself in. This was a problem she’d encountered on earlier vacations and had been determined to avoid repeating if at all possible.

In theory her choice of vacation destinations should have all but guaranteed a peaceful few weeks away from her duty. The tavern she was dining in, the Hooded Beacon, was an unremarkable establishment, on the unremarkable world of Haldron’s Edge. Opal had selected Haldron’s Edge as part of her agenda because it was almost too plain to notice. It held a standard amount of the typical resources a planet offers. It’s population was developed enough so that there were no large open areas to attract new settlers but not so overbuilt that it became a hub of trade merely by virtue of the local population density.

There were sights to see, and beaches and mountains and tropical forests to visit. With a wide and diverse population there were many different forms of entertainment and cultural events. In short, plenty to appeal to the locals but little to attract a galactic traveler.

Even the crime on Haldron’s Edge was ordinary. The three people who had entered the Hooded Beacon wearing face masks appeared to be nothing more than ordinary hold up artists. In the long quarter second as the blast bolt inched closer to the back of Opal’s head she examined the room for any clues that she had missed which could explain why a trio of armed people would decide to rob a restaurant of all places.

Mental anima, Opal’s forte, had her perception and thought processes accelerated beyond anything even vaguely possible for a human. The world didn’t appear to be standing stock still but it was doing a close impersonation of that state. With that added time to process her environment and dozens of passive spells feeding her information, Opal put together the situation that was occurring around her. She noticed the placement of patrons. How several were more armed than she was and how the walls had the telltale signs of repairs from heavy spell casting damage. She noticed the relative lack of clear firing lines in the restaurant and how a particular set of the patrons had arranged themselves with their backs to the most solid of the walls while those around them formed a protective circle.

A crime den. As she surveyed the room she saw that she’d quite innocently stumbled on the headquarters of one of the local underground families.

She sighed. She would be having words with her subconscious soon about the sorts of actions it was allowed to take without informing her. It was one of the problems with having a highly developed mind and the ability to multi-task at a transhuman level. Everything her conscious mind learned to do, her subconscious was capable of as well. Or in other words, she was very good at outthinking herself unless she was careful to avoid doing so.

In this case, she’d consciously known that a few weeks of enforced quiet and relaxation was something she needed to recharge her batteries and work out the snarls that had developed in her thoughts. Her subconscious however apparently viewed the last week as ‘too quite’ and had taken steps to rectify that problem.

Reviewing her memory, Opal was able to pick out the tiny scraps of information that had lead her to the Hooded Beacon at just the right time to be involved in the day’s dramatic events. Some part of her had known this lunch would be an exciting one even before she sat down and ordered the meat sampler platter and its variety of convenient carving utensils.

Despite her subconscious wish for excitement, Opal was determined to preserve as much of her vacation as possible. To that goal she reviewed several possible plans.

The simplest was to let the blast bolt hit her but diminish its force to a non-lethal level. She could feign an injury and play no further role in the proceedings. Technically a crime like this was outside her jurisdiction since it was a purely local matter with no galactic impact. In practice though her mandate to “protect the Empire and its citizens” also covered the defense of lives that were immediately imperiled.

The next simplest approach would be to apprehend the culprits but that presented the first of many complications. If she disarmed the trio, it was unlikely the other patrons would graciously allow the attackers to be turned over to the local police force. They had reputations to maintain. Opal could already seen the more responsive of the patrons beginning to draw their weapons to return fire.

She would need to shut them down as well or there’d be blood spilled and her vacation time was not worth that.

The problem with taking that approach was that she’d need to deal with far more than the people in the restaurant. There would be the extended family who would be looking to reclaim the their reputation. And then the other families who would see weakness or a vacuum that needed to be filled.

In the end the “keep hitting people until the problem goes away” approach would lead to her spending a long time hitting people, including, inevitably, offworlders who were drawn to the conflict like moths to the flame as they tried to figure out what on Haldron’s Edge was so important that a Crystal Guardian was spending time shutting down the minor criminals who lived there.

That left her with only more subtle methods of resolving the conflict, if she wanted to have any chance of maintaining her free time.

With a flick of her fingers, she pulled a strand of Physical anima into a gently curving shield. The lethal blast bolt would miss her by less than an inch and put a new pockmark in the wall beside her.

With her breath, she sang another cluster of anima threads out.

About three quarters of the micro-spells targeted the goons who were going for their weapons. While she could have put them to sleep to render them harmless, she didn’t want to tip her hand that far. Instead she merely stunned them for a second and a half. Not long enough that they’d even notice after the fact, but long enough for her to resolve the situation with a minimum of bloodshed.

The other spells she cast sought out the three attackers. Marsh, Keel and Arvana. They were natives, members of a counter-extortion group that was trying to kick the Beacon family out of the local area. They had the backing of many in the community but there were very few who would risk openly supporting them for fear of reprisal. Marsh was the leader of the group by virtue of having lost a brother to the Beacons and being the most passionate about the cause. Keel was the next most devoted due to a life long love of Marsh and Arvana was involved mostly because she was fond of the other two in a sisterly fashion. She was also their best caster of the mind magics they needed to escape and she didn’t want to see either of them get hurt if she could prevent it.

Opal’s spells gave her that information while the blast bolt was still a good five feet behind her head and just beginning to swerve off course to miss her.

She cast a speed enhancing enchantment and targeted its effects on the three vigilantes. She needed them able to react significantly faster than they were normally capable of if they were going to have time to understand the situation she was putting them in.

For her last spell Opal reached out with spikes of Energetic anima and flatlined the bolt casters they were carrying. The weapons didn’t explode. Opal was determined to see the encounter end without bloodshed on either side.

In the vigilantes’ hands the bolt casters sparked and lost their distinctive hum as the magics that powered them shutdown, leaving the weapons as little more than menacing looking paperweights.

Opal sensed a telepathic web binding the three together and tossed a thread of anima at them to infiltrate their conversation. A surprising amount of resistance met her attempt to eavesdrop but with a few of her more esoteric casting tricks, Opal was able to circumvent the privacy screen on their channel and insert herself into it silently.

“Keel, what the hell are you doing!” Arvana’s telepathic scream was loud enough that Opal had to double check it wasn’t actually audible.

“I saw one of them move! They were going to start shooting back!” Keel said. The guilt he projected suggested that he wasn’t terribly certain he’d actually seen someone move, but he was nowhere near ready to admit that.

“We were supposed to identify Zazog’s party,” Arvana said. “If we take them out none of the rest will give us trouble. If we don’t, they’re going to murder us before we get out of here!”

Opal found Zazog’s group. They were at the table next to her. Fast reacting and highly resistant to hostile spells, they were shaking off the effect of the stun ten times as fast as the rest of the goons.

So Opal hit them a hundred times harder.

“I can only hold this Quickness spell for so long,” Marsh said. He was gritting his teeth and pouring all of his physical anima into the enhancement. With another decade of practice he could have approached Opal’s efficiency with the spell, but it would take him twice that or more to develop the reserve of magic that she possessed to power it.

Fortunately for him, the effect of her spell stacked with his and so what he thought was the result of his best effort was in truth far beyond his actual capacity.

“Do we drop them all then?” Keel asked.

“No!” Arvana said.

“Yes!” Marsh said.

“We’re not going to kill everyone in here,” Arvana said. “Zazog’s our target because taking him down will have the most impact and with his protections they’ll be able to piece him back together.”

“If we don’t take them all out now, he’s going to take us down and leave us in so many pieces that no one will ever put two of our molecules back together,” Marsh said.

Keel raised his weapon to spray the room and finally noticed the dead state it was in.

“We’re in trouble guys,” he said. “This piece of junk disenchanted itself.”

Arvana and Marsh checked their weapons and discovered the same problem.

“We’re dead,” Arvana said.

“We’ve got to get out of here!” Marsh said.

Marsh and Keel looked for exits aside from the main doors they’d come through, but Arvana cast around the room looking for something else. Her gaze settled on the back of Opal’s head and Opal felt a ping of recognition from the young caster. Arvana knew that the woman across the restaurant was actively casting some kind of spell but she didn’t have the training to piece out what it was quickly enough.

Marsh grabbed Arvana and dragged the girl out the front door, as he and Keel ran. It was a terrible exit from their point of view. Not only had the assault failed but the goons would be after them like lightning and the long open road outside wasn’t going to afford them much in terms of cover or places to hide.

From Opal’s point of view though their panicked flight was perfect. One small spell induced a spasm in Keel’s hand and he dropped his bolt caster right at the restaurant’s entrance. A few of the goons managed to notice the bolt caster drop, more of them saw the trio fleeing and pretty much everyone in a hundred yard radius saw or heard the explosion that blasted the doors and everything nearby to a fine mist of particles.

Opal sighed and relaxed her awareness to let time resume its normal rate of progression. The immediate crisis was past but she was going to have so much work to do still.