Monthly Archives: January 2014

The Seas of Tomorrow – Chapter 5

    Laying on the ground struggling to keep from bawling my eyes out wasn’t the best plan for survival. I knew that, but after a thousand ghosts funneled through my mind I didn’t have enough left in me to do anything else. Not right away at least. To tell the truth, it was tempting to lie there forever. Giving up seemed so easy, and maybe even the smartest play I could make. With what I had seen, it seemed like the only thing opening my eyes was going to do was let more of the grey city crawl inside me.

    For a long moment that was more than I could bear. So I stayed there. Curled up inside myself. Wrapped in the darkness of my eyelids.

    The ghosts hadn’t hurt me. Not physically. I’d even been buffered from their emotional pain. The tears I fought against weren’t for them. They were the selfish, childish tears that I’d held back a thousand times before.

    I’d been knocked down a few times in the last hour or so, and getting back up was getting harder each time. Where will and desire left off though, stubborn habit pushed me back to my feet.

    Something looked wrong when I did and it took me a moment to notice that it was the grass under my feet. The green grass.

    In running from the shelter, I’d stumbled into a park and collapsed there. Looking behind me I saw that the grey hadn’t disappeared. Instead, there was a sharp dividing line where the effect of the spell bomb stopped. On one side, there was only bare earth and death and, on the other, the grass and trees were green and vibrant.

    “Someone might be alive still.” I said in a whispered breath.

    I looked around and got my bearings before taking off towards the orphanage. There were other people I knew, but my first stop had to be what passed for my home. I might have hated parts of it but it was still my place. Maybe the only place where I belonged.

    Ten minutes of jogging later and I was surrounded by grey once more. More than one bomb had fallen. More than one area of the city had been razed of life. I tried to reassure myself that the Sister’s complex wouldn’t have been hit. We were in an unimportant section of the city, and on the outskirts of it at that. There wasn’t any logical reason to waste pricey magical ordinance on a target like that. That argument didn’t make me feel any better though since the same could be said about attacking my world in general.

    I ran faster, trying drown the thoughts in my head with the rushing wind. Physical exertion had grounded me in past, but not this time. Even at a flat out run, I couldn’t distract myself from thinking about what I was going to find when I got back. The image of the dormitory as a grey and empty shell was crystal clear in my mind’s eye.

    There wasn’t going to be anyone there for me.

    I couldn’t tell if that was another vision of the future or the voice of despair speaking. Or if there was any difference between them.

    That thought made me angry. I hated feeling whiny and weak. I hated the idea that I couldn’t do anything, that I had to just watch as horrible things happened. I’d spent years fighting that. Fighting the other kids at the orphanage when they tried to push me around, fighting guys on the street like Badz and Davos and Maraz who thought that I was easy prey because I was a girl, or because I was smaller than them, or because I didn’t hit them first.

    The bombs had been different though. I couldn’t fight back against a bomb, especially not one that the actual military couldn’t deal with.

    And yet I had. In a way. I looked at my normal seeming left hand. I could still feel the darkness within me, the Void anima, clearer than ever before. It’s presence was a contradiction. Alien and yet familiar. Terrifying and disgusting and somehow reassuring.

    I didn’t know what that meant, except that it made Taisen’s offer of help more appealing. Even if he was crazy. In his favor was the fact that his mending spell was working fantastically. Despite the pace I was running at, I wasn’t feeling tired at all.

    That might have been why I had the energy to jump high enough to land on the roof of a hover truck when something broke the silence that was smothering the city.

    I crouched on the roof of the truck and looked around like a frightened cat to identify the source of noise. Overhead I saw an airship, one of the big ones, its engines screaming as it tore through the sky. I strained my eyes to follow it but it was too far away by the time I caught sight of it to make out any markings. It could have been one of ours doing a fly over to see what kind of damage had been done, but the cynic in me doubted that. Anyone who was looking to bomb us would have targeted our meager military bases first. Given the size of the airship it seemed a lot more likely that it was landing troops to secure whatever they’d been willing to murder a city for.

    I wasn’t sure what that meant in regards to me. I doubted they’d be expecting to find lone girls running through the city, but I was pretty sure they’d be happy to shoot any they came across. Hiding was one option, but there were almost too many problems with it for me to count, the largest of which being that if anyone I knew was alive, they wouldn’t be if a troop of invaders found them before I did.

    With that off the table, I picked up my pace. Taisen’s mending spell must have been incredibly overcharged by the the extra energy he poured into it because, as fast as I ran, my body was able to keep up without tiring. I was so into the effortless running groove in fact that I didn’t even notice when someone shot me.

    One moment I was sprinting down East Canal street and the next I’d tripped and gone sprawling through a stand that sold dried fruits and tourist knick knacks. The crack of the bolt caster was distinct enough to tell me someone was shooting. The pain in my left arm followed along after that to let me know they were shooting at me.

    “There was a live one!” I heard an armor muffled voice shout out.

    “Target down. Advancing to confirm kill.” another said.

    Several more called out “Advancing to support” in response to that.

    I wasn’t used to dealing with military types but it didn’t take a master of mind magic to work out that they were talking about me. That should have been terrifying but instead I felt a cold anger simmering inside. On its own, it might have sparked some rather stupid and suicidal thoughts, but my fear mixed with it to keep me rational.

    There were a lot more of them than I wanted to try fighting, but there was no way in hell I was going to sit and wait for them to kill me. Staying low to the ground I broke for the alley behind me. Cries went up from the soldiers and bolts crashed into the bricks of the shops I was running between.

    I felt the cold passage of a pair of bolts narrowly miss my head as I dodged and weaved my way to the alley’s end. The fence that blocked off the alley to prevent traffic from passing down it was twice my height and topped with rusted spikes. That would have made the alley a dead end but, fortunately, there were piles of shipping boxes piled against it that let me spring over the top of the fence and hit the ground of the far side in a rolling tumble.

    I made it to the far end of the alley by the time the soldiers reached the fence and, without pausing, cut to the left and then across the street to disappear down another alley on the far side of the road. I heard the soldiers behind me as I ran, their leader calling for them to fan out and search in both directions. Unless I missed my guess they’d also be reporting my position to someone who could dispatch more troops, possibly with the kind of magic wielders who would be able to pin down my location no matter where I ran.

    That thought kind of sucked. On the other hand, the thought of leading half the invasion force on a wild goose chase brought a grim smile to face. I knew it wouldn’t really be half the invasion force but if I was going to entertain the delusion that I would live to see the next sunrise, then a grand delusion seemed like the way to go.

    I cut across a few more roads and took a few more alleys to get away from the troops that were pursuing me before dodging into a store that had been open when the bombs hit. I locked the door behind me and dashed into the back room before the pursuing soldiers caught up.

    With a second to think, I tried to put together a plan but I came up blank at first. My escape hadn’t been entirely due to luck. The soldiers were carrying a full load of field equipment. I was unencumbered. They were professionals trained in searching and capturing cities (most likely), but I knew this area. I didn’t have to guess which alleys led to which streets, or what the fastest way to get out of a line of sight was. Also, I was able to run as fast as I could and they needed to stay wary of traps and ambushes. I had a lot of advantages, but something still didn’t feel right about the fact that I’d gotten away from them.

    I looked at my arm. The one that had been shot. It still hurt a bit but it looked fine. As far as I knew that was impossible. Even civilian bolt casters are designed to pack enough punch to kill someone. The anima shields that your typical thug like Davos could raise gave them a good chance of withstanding a glancing shot, but a dead center hit would still punch right through them. Any respectable military wouldn’t mess around with bolt casters like that. They’d go for the ones that would kill you even on a glancing blow.

    In my case I should have been even deader than most since I didn’t have any anima shield to protect me. Even if it was an extremely glancing blow, it seemed like I should be short one left arm. Not that I was unhappy to still be roughly symmetrical, or alive for that matter.

    I pitched that line of thought away. Maybe if I found Taisen again he could explain it. Given that I’d never even held a bolt caster there was probably a lot I didn’t know about them I decided.

    What I needed to think about instead was how I was going to get back to the orphanage without leading the soldiers to any survivors who might be there. I tried to plot a path from where I was to there and saw too many places where I’d be visible for too long. Too many places, unless I was underground.

    I closed my eyes and sighed. The sewers could get me close to the orphanage.

    “Maybe the bombs will have killed the things down there too.” I said, hating the idea but knowing that it was my best option.

    I figured the soldiers would doubleback and start checking the shops as soon as they confirmed that they’d lost me. That meant I needed to keep moving as fast as I could, so once I had the idea, I had to start acting on it. What I hadn’t figured was that not all the soldiers would have made it past me or that there’d be one carefully moving through the alley behind the shop that I’d hidden in.

    I didn’t see him as I slipped out the back door, but I heard him charge the bolt caster as he lowered it to my head. He did call out a warning or order me to freeze. His immediate reaction to seeing me was to shoot to kill.

    Adrenaline flooded my body and I reacted faster than thought would have allowed. I dropped and spun, catching the barrel of the caster with my right hand and shoving it aside. The twisting spin pulled my right side away from the soldier and gave forward momentum to my left.

    If I’d been thinking, I would never had tried to hit him. He was in armor sturdy enough to deflect any punch I could throw and he had a solid anima shield in place on top of that. My best bet would have been to knock him off balance and run for it. Instead I hit him with a left handed palm strike to the center of the chest that had all of my weight behind it. Against armor and an anima shield, he shouldn’t even have felt the blow.

    Impossibly, I watched his anima shield shatter under my blow and felt a surge of force drain through me. The soldier didn’t trip or stumble, he dropped like a puppet whose strings had been cut.

    Without a shot being fired or any noise being made, the fight was over and the soldier wasn’t moving.

    I looked down at my hands in shock.

    Black smoke was drifting lazily around my left hand again and my right held the soft glimmer of a tiny anime shield.

The Seas of Tomorrow – Chapter 4

    I should have been dead. That was the first and only thought that rang through my head as I picked myself up off the floor of the clinic’s treatment room.

    I hadn’t made it to the shelter. I hadn’t been protected by anything more than the clinic’s walls and windows. There was no chance they’d held off the deadly magics that had rained down over the city.

    But I was alive and I was having a hard time understanding why.

    I glanced around. We were both alive. Taisen was still with me, just watching quietly and holding very still. In the distance I heard more explosions and I felt something coiling within me.

    I wasn’t sure how I’d wound up on the ground. I couldn’t remember falling. All I could recall was the sense of knowing that I was in danger a moment before the the blast.

    “You can let that go.” Taisen said. He was holding himself still but I was able to follow his gaze to the circle that had manifested on the floor around us. Wisps of oily, dark smoke chased each other around us in a ring as thick as the width of my hand.

    “What is it?” I asked, my voice strangled with nerves. Whatever it was felt alien and cold.

    “Your hand.” Taisen said, not answering me and still not moving.

    My left hand was shrouded in the same dark smoke that was racing around us. Seeing it, I started to shiver and almost fell backwards. Taisen reached out to stop me but jerked his hand away before he grabbed my arm. I stumbled but stopped myself before I crossed the ring of smoke.

    “What is this!” I asked again.

    “Void anima. Please, let it go.” he said with quiet insistence.

    I uncoiled my hand from the fist I’d clenched it into and the smoke swirling around us dissipated .

    “Thank you.” he said, breathing deeply and relaxing at last.

    “What happened just now?”

    “I think you just saved us both, but in a very dangerous way.”


    “Void anima consumes other magics. Any other magics. That boom we heard? That was a spell bomb detonating. Somehow they found a way to get one through the defense grid. You reacted to the transmutation wave the bomb spread by creating a shield for us.” Taisen explained.

    “This doesn’t make sense. Why would this all be happening now?” I demanded. Too much had changed too quickly and I felt like I was coming apart at the seams.

    “I don’t know. I’m not a senior agent. I just know that I have to report this. All of this. You most especially.” Taisen said.

    “Me? Why? Because I have some weird anima condition? Why not the city? Why not get the Crystal Empress to come here and stop whoever’s bombing us.”

    “We’re outside her dominion. By the time a ship gets here, this will all be over.”

    “Then what does it matter! We’ll all be dead!” I yelled at him. I wasn’t giving him a fair break, but, if I knew one thing, it was that life wasn’t fair.

    “No. My shelter is well hidden. We can stay in there and be safe. The bombs they’re using? Those have to be life extinguishers. There was no damage done to the clinic, just the people. They’re not going to be looking for survivors. We can wait for them to go. Once they leave, we can be picked up by the Empress’ forces.” Taisen offered.

    It wasn’t even vaguely tempting.

    “The people? They’re the only thing I care about here! If I can defend myself then I’m not staying. I’ve got to see if anyone I know survived!” I told him. I felt anger seething within me at the thought of what had happened. Taisen’s eyes went wide at my words  but he was focused on my hands, not my lips. From my left hand, dark smoke was steaming forth.

    “I’m leaving. Make your calls and hide in your shelter. Someone should survive today.” I told him. “And tell your Empress, if you see her, to murder the hell out of whoever was responsible this.”

    Without waiting for him to reply, I spun and ran out of the door of the treatment room. I barely slowed in the reception area when I saw it covered in a grey film. Just like it had been in my vision.

    The streets outside were grey as well.

    And empty.

    I ran faster and aside from my own breathing and the slap of my shoes on the pavement, the city was silent. No hover car horns blaring. No crowds bustling. No birds screeching. Not even the wind. Just emptiness and grey everywhere.

    I crossed street after street, directionless, just running, as the enormity of what had happened sank into me.

    I was alone. Maybe in the whole city. Maybe in the whole world. Except for Taisen. I slowed to a walk and let myself catch my breath. I felt tremendously cold, but my body wasn’t shivering. I couldn’t feel my body much in fact. I felt disconnected from it. Disconnected from my whole life. In the grey, empty city, I might as well have been the one who was a ghost.

    I’d felt like this before. I didn’t know when, but I knew the sensation of being utterly alone was one I’d experienced at some point. The end of the world was a place I was familiar with. I coughed out a short, barking laugh. Maybe it was my real home? Maybe it had come to take me back?

    I could have gone crazy, but that would have been too easy. The cold that brought me back. It reminded me that I was alive. However screwed up things were, I was still breathing and I had to deal with that.

    I moved forward. The city was huge. I’d run for minutes but that didn’t cover even a small fraction of it. There was more to see. Other places that might not have been affected by the spell bombs.

    I’d recovered most of my breath during my little meltdown, so I started jogging again. The holo taxi had dropped me off miles away from anywhere that I knew but I was familiar with the major landmarks of the city. Since the bombs had left structures intact that meant I was able to navigate without much trouble.

    I considered taking one of the holocars that were in the streets. Some had plowed into buildings or each other but with the general gridlock of the evacuation none were very damaged. Unfortunately they were all spell locked to their owners. If I was a career criminal and could cast spells worth a damn I might have picked up how to break a spell lock or, even better, reset one to accept me as a legitimate user. Since neither of those were true, I had to make due with jogging past the hundreds of perfectly serviceable vehicles lining the roads.

    The jogging wasn’t bad though. Moving my legs and feeling the breath in my lungs helped. I knew Belstarius wasn’t the first world to have suffered an orbital attack like this. Other cities had been destroyed and there were almost always survivors. I wasn’t the first girl in history to be in this sort of situation and I was better off than a lot of others would have been. I hadn’t been injured in the attack and I was still benefiting from the mending spell that Taisen had cast, feeling stronger all the time.

    Then there was the issue of the Void anima.

    Assuming Taisen wasn’t insane or lying, I had some kind of protection and maybe a weapon that I could draw on. Without any training in Void magic, I knew it wasn’t something I could depend on though, but it helped me hold back the terror of thinking about another bomb dropping.

    Instead, I thought about Taisen as I ran. He didn’t seem like a nutcase, but the whole “I’m an agent of the Crystal Empress” thing had been kind of crazy. Belstarius was an unaligned border world. We weren’t on the wild frontier but we also weren’t particularly noteworthy either. Far from anywhere important, no special resources, no special history. No reason for the Crystal Empress to have any interest in us.

    Even presuming she (or her underlings) did station agents on planets like Belstarius, I couldn’t imagine how tiny the chances were that I’d run into one of them right before the city came under attack for the first time in ever.

    The safest assumption was that Taisen was delusional, but that didn’t feel right. He’d seemed sincere. Thinking about that, I felt a pang of guilt at leaving him behind. The guy was probably trying to help me, but sitting locked away in vault would have driven me completely insane. I couldn’t hide from what had happened. I had to know.

    My resolve on that was tested a couple of minutes later when I noticed the signs for one of the city’s shelters. I slowed and then stopped, uncertain of whether I had what it would take to handle the things I might find inside.

    “I’ve got to know.” I whispered thinking more about myself than the unknowns who would have been in the shelter when the bombs hit.

    I felt magic as I walked forward. I wasn’t adept at sensing anima, I was just guessing, but the strange, buzzing hum of power that sang along my skin as I drew close to the shelter couldn’t have been anything else. I knew I was approaching something dangerous, but I wasn’t afraid. Whatever was waiting in there didn’t have any claim on me. I felt untouchable as I pressed forward through the curling, invisible wisps of power that were leaking from the shelter.

    That didn’t seem like a safe mindset to have, so I forced myself to stop and take stock of the area. The shelter was below ground with the entrance sloping down about twenty feet from street level to the main gate. Slate grey, ensorcelled bricks lined the walls and road leading to the shelter. If it had been in active lockdown, they would have burned with a brilliant red light. The runes were dark though indicating that the defenses weren’t fully active and it was safe to approach the shelter. Even the iron gate, wrought with hexagrams and protective circles, was inviting since it was swung completely open.

    Just like it would have been if people were still streaming into it.

    Beyond the gate, the lights were on in the shelter but there was no movement. Knowing I wouldn’t find anything more inside the shelter than I had on the streets I walked forward. All I had to do was look inside to be sure, but I was fighting myself. Not for any special mystical or deep reason. I was just scared as hell.

    I wasn’t wrong to be either.

    Looking in to the shelter I saw that it was as empty and grey as I’d expected it to be. That gave me the courage to step over the threshold. The one that still had an active anima field going.

    The moment I breeched the shelter’s constraining field, I felt a blast of pure force hit me and a thousand screaming voices echo in my ears. The blow felt like it should have knocked me across the street and through a few buildings but instead I felt it drain through me, like I was a conduit to the earth beneath my feet.

    The voices remained longer though. So many, screaming so loudly, but I was apart from them. Their pain didn’t reach me any more than the physical blow had.

    “It’s ok.” I said aloud, speaking to the ghosts that were only in my mind from everything I could see. The screams grew softer and some of the voices grew quiet.

    “It’ll be ok.” I repeated, believing it for no good reason whatsoever.

    “I wasn’t done yet.”

    “I never got to tell him.”

    “How could this happen.”

    “We did what we were supposed to.”

    The cacophony of screams turned to pleading and requests, bargaining and denials. That made it so much worse. They wanted answers and I had none.

    I stumbled away from the shelter but the voices didn’t grow any more distant.

    I ran again for a while, hearing the echoes of people, young and old. I wasn’t running to anywhere consciously and I wasn’t running to get away from them. I just couldn’t stand still, couldn’t do nothing, while their voices rang through me. I didn’t want to find the ghosts of the people I knew. I didn’t want to hear their voices added to the chorus in my mind but that’s where some part of me was pointing my feet.

    Home was too far away though and the voices too disorienting. I collapsed on the way there and lay on the ground, listening as the voices poured out their fading memories.

    “What do you want?” I asked in a whisper.

    The voices went silent for a long moment.

    “Restore us.” a man said. He had been in his prime with a family and everything to live for.

    “I can’t. I don’t have that kind of magic.” I said.

    “Avenge us.” a woman said. She had been one of the city guards, a protector who hadn’t been able to defend those put in her charge.

    “I don’t know who did this, and I’m just one girl. I can’t fight a battleship.” I said.

    “Remember us.” a child said.

    And then they were gone.

The Seas of Tomorrow – Chapter 3

    The last thing I needed was the hammerblow of adrenaline that hit me in the wake of the receptionist’s accusation.

    “You killed him! Why did you kill him?” the receptionist screamed, repeating himself.

    I looked at Taisen’s body, crumbled beside the table I was on, and tried to make sense of what had happened. The surge of blood through my veins fuzzed up my head for a moment, but I fought it back. I needed to think, not fight. Not that thinking helped much.

    A scowl settled on my face as the gears turned in my head. I hadn’t killed him. I couldn’t have. But he’d done something, or tried something, and it obviously hadn’t worked out well.

    I didn’t notice that I was glaring at the receptionist until I saw him go pale and dash away like a mouse. He wasn’t smart enough to figure out that I couldn’t have killed Taisen in the condition I’d been in, but he was clever enough to know that if I’d killed his boss I wouldn’t have any reason to leave him alive. I slumped on the table and listened to him go, the outside door slamming as he fled the clinic. Even with the healing Taisen’s spell had given me, I didn’t feel up to chasing the receptionist down and explaining what had happened. Instead I got off the table and bent down to check out how the healer was doing.

    In my expert medical opinion, the verdict was “pretty damn bad”. He wasn’t moving and his arms were burnt and ugly, but he was still breathing from what I could see. That last bit was a good sign. I looked around the room for anything that might help wake him up but I was no cleric. Even with their labels still on them, there were way too many jars and bottles for me to have a chance of figuring out which ones might contain something useful.

    I briefly considered trying the spell that he taught me. If I could separate my physical anima from the darkness in me, I might be able to lend some to him and make him feel better. At a very coarse level that was what healers did, at least as far as I knew.

    It took maybe a half second at most for me to discard the idea. I’d never cast a meaningful spell before and healing spells were some of the most difficult to work with. There was even a decent chance that whatever I’d done when I tried to cast the spell the last time was responsible for Taisen being in condition he was in.

    Instead I settled for slapping him, lightly, on the cheeks and saying “hey, wake up!” a lot. That worked about as well as you might expect.

    “Where I am supposed to take you? We’re already at a clinic!” I grumbled.

    On the off chance that the table had some kind of passive healing magics built into it, I picked the fallen healer up and laid him him on it. He grunted in pain as I touched his burnt arms but didn’t rouse any further.

    “We can’t stay here. Your desk boy babbled something about the city being under attack.” I said. He wasn’t awake enough to hear me but I was talking for my own benefit so that didn’t matter much.

    It didn’t seem surprising that we were under attack, I’d been expecting it since I heard the news report about the warp portal forming. It didn’t seem surprising, but it did feel unreal. Like it was something I’d been dreaming about for a long time. I would have pinched myself to make sure I was awake but the aches and pains that I still had made it impossible to deny that everything around me was real. I shook my head to clear the deja-vu-like feeling that had gripped my thoughts. I didn’t have time to lose myself in a daydream, however compelling it might feel.

    “You’ve got to have contacts right? Other clerics you keep in touch with?” I asked the unconscious Taisen.

    He’d said he run the clinic by himself but the guy must have needed a day off once in a while. If I could call one of his cleric friends they might be able to come over and get Taisen on his feet again. I headed out to the receptionists desk to look for any emergency numbers they had on file. It seemed like a long shot, given the impending attack, but if there was one sort of person it would be worth sending a cleric to make a house call on, it would be another cleric. Even if the planetary defense grid held there’d still be a need for Taisen’s services to treat the people who were invariably trampled in the rush to get into the shelters.

   It was factoring in the defense grid that made me think we had enough time for someone to come and get Taisen back on his feet. After centuries of galactic warfare, only frontier worlds were set up without a fortress-like defense system to protect them from orbital bombardment or worse from potential enemies. Belstarius wasn’t rich, but as an unaligned world we were on our own when it came to defense so we’d invested in some decent enchantments from what I’d read.

    They weren’t going to be enough.

    I didn’t know how I knew it, but I was certain they weren’t going to save us.

    I found the list of emergency contacts on a pad In the waiting room. As I dialed the holocomm for the first cleric on the list, I looked out the front window and saw the crowds in the street. The alarms had been raised. People weren’t being encouraged to go to the shelters anymore; they were being required to.

    I dithered when the holo didn’t connect to the first cleric. I knew I should be in the crowd that I saw, moving to the shelters. I also knew that if I left Taisen laying on the table in the treatment room I’d be leaving him to die.


    I have a pretty strong self-preservation instinct, but the thought of abandoning someone who was in bad shape because of me made me feel sick. I tried the next cleric on the list, but the holocomm said they weren’t available either.  I punched up the next three with the same result. Probably because they were heading to the shelters or the emergency care wards. Just like Taisen should be.

    “Maybe I can carry him there.” I said to no one but myself.

    I’d lifted him on to the table, so I knew I could hoist him up. It was one of the advantages of the martial training I’d done. That plus being on the tall side for a human girl, had given me more strength than people assumed I had. I had stamina too, since my teacher was an absolute nightmare about the training regime I had to keep up. If I hadn’t been beat half to death, I wouldn’t have had a problem with throwing a lightweight like Taisen on my back and hauling him to the next nearest clinic. The idea of trying to carry him through the crowds that were on the street, while I was feeling only half recovered, was not an appealing one though.

    Giving up on the holocomm, I stomped back into the room to consider what other options I had.

    “I can’t leave you here.” I told him. “But we can’t stay either.”

    I felt a shiver pass through me. It started in my chest and ran down my left side to the tips of my fingers.

    “Something’s coming. The city…” I trailed off.

    The city was going to die. I saw it, like a hallucination, or a dream, but more solid and clear. I saw the clinic, grey and empty. I saw the streets outside, steel grey dust covering them as well. Even the shelters.  Empty and grey.

    A frosty anger yanked me out of the vision and back into the clinic. I stumbled and caught myself on the edge of the table feeling light headed for a moment.

    “I can’t go crazy.” I ordered myself. I’d never had a vision before, I didn’t have the Aethereal anima needed for them. Very few people did. So what I’d seen couldn’t have been a real glimpse of the future. What it could have been, what it most likely was, was a sign that I was losing it. Between the head trauma and having a really rotten day, some people might even have found that reasonable. I wasn’t one of them. I couldn’t afford to be crazy, and some part of me knew that I wasn’t.

    It occurred to me that might be the crazy part speaking but, one way or the other, I had real things I needed to focus on.

    “Need to call this in.” Taisen muttered.

    I spun to look at him and saw that he was starting to stir, but he was only half conscious still.

    “Call who? I tried calling your emergency contacts but none of them are answering.” I said, hoping he was awake enough to hear me.

    “Not them.” he said, forcing the words out through the haze of fatigue that held him down.

    “Who, just tell me who to call!” I demanded.

    “You can’t.” he said, his words slow and slurring as he dragged himself back to consciousness. “Give me a moment.”

    I didn’t have any healing skills, but I knew what it was like to get knocked out, so I went and grabbed him a cup of water. Juice would be have been better, but I had to work with what was available. By the time I got back it, Taisen was sitting on the bed and cradling his arms over his lap.

    “Here.” I said and passed him the cup of water.

    “Thank you.” he replied, and then poured the water over his arms. Instead of falling to the ground though it clung to his burns and began to glow with a pale light. He shuddered and slumped forward but I managed to catch him by the shoulder before he tumbled off the table.

    “Wow. I haven’t felt like this since my first year in school.” he said, his expression pained and his face almost as pale as the light on his arms.

    “What happened?” I asked.

    “Anima drain. How are you feeling?”

    I’d heard of anima drain. It was what happened when someone cast spells that drew out too much of their personal magic. If the vids I watched were to be believed, it could have a wide range of effects, from a headache at the low end to death or even disintegration at the worst extreme.

    “Better. Or better than I was. What did you do?”

    “Believe it or not, I just tried to a simple mending spell on you.” Taisen said. He was focusing on his arms, which I noticed were looking much better than they had been.

    “And that damn near killed you?”

    “No. You did.” he said. I jerked back at that and he pitched forward without my support. I was able to catch him before he fell, I didn’t want to hurt the poor guy any further, but I was still stunned.

    “Don’t worry. It wasn’t your fault. I’ve studied this. I just didn’t think I was ever going to run into it myself. Especially without any warning.” he explained as I helped him get back onto the table.

    “What’s ‘this’. What did I do to you?” I asked. I knew I hadn’t done exactly as he’d instructed, but I’d never thought it could kill him. I felt a flash of anger go through me. If what he was doing was that dangerous the jerk should have warned me.

    “It’s not something you did, it’s something you are. Or maybe something you have. Ugh. I’m not doing any good here. Let me ask a question instead. How many anima types have you been tested for?”

    “All four. Physical, Mental, Energetic and Aethereal. Zeroes across the board.” I said.

    “Four. Right. So you were never tested for all the animas then.” Taisen said, and laughed. It was a short chuckle but it made me want to hit him all the same.

    “What else is there?” I demanded instead.

    “Nothing. By which I mean, the anima of emptiness. I know that doesn’t make sense. Bear with me for a minute.” he said and shifted around on the table. The glow faded from the water on his arms and he directed the liquid back into the cup. The burns had faded to where his hands and arms looked like he had a mild sunburn.

    “Ok, analogies don’t work well here, and I haven’t studied this in depth, so take this all with a grain of salt. The simple version is, the anima in us is tied to various aspects of who we are. Big guys have a lot of physical anima and so on, like we talked about.” he explained.

    “So this Nothing anima is tied to something we’re missing then?” I asked, trying to guess where this was going. I should have been more surprised at the idea, but I could still feel the darkness that I’d gathered into my left hand.

    “Yeah, that’s a good way to look at it.”

    “Great. And healing me nearly killed you.” I stepped away from him. I knew I wasn’t hurting him by holding him up but I felt unclean somehow. Like this thing in me could lash out and kill him at any moment.

    “I was unfair before. I’m sorry about that. It’d be better to say that I hurt myself by being careless. When I tried to cast the mending spell on you, I didn’t hold back on my anima at all. I’m used to encountering resistance and with you there was none.” he said.

    “Resistance?” I asked.

    “Yes. People resist spells, even healing spells. Even when they’re injured, most people’s bodies won’t accept foreign anima easily. One way around that, is to put more energy into the spell than it needs. It makes for a faster treatment regime at the cost of caster spending more of the anima on each spell. I’m lucky, I replenish my anima quickly, and with the clinic being as busy as it is I’ve gotten into the habit of treating my patients as quickly as I can.”

    “And since I have basically no anima, there was no resistance and you dumped too much into me?” I asked.

    “Not at all. You have quite a bit of anima from what I could tell. The problem in this case was that what I touched on was the Void anima.”

    “Let me guess, that’s like opening a water bottle in space.” I said.

    “Exactly. I’d only planned to feed you a small amount of anima but when I touched the Void anima in you I wasn’t holding back at all and it pulled all my power out through my hands.”

    “And that’s what burned you?” I said.

    “Yes. So, you can see how it’s my own fault. If I’d been casting the spell properly I wouldn’t have been in any danger.”

    I’d had a lot of people lie to me over the years, with the Sisters being the masters of the lies meant to spare my feelings. I probably didn’t need it from a guy I’d almost killed, but a part of me wasn’t sure of that. The idea that there was something dark and evil inside me was almost worse than the beating I’d taken.

    “I don’t think I should try any magical healing again.” I said.

    “That’s ok. You should be fine for now. I need to call this in though. I know this is unusual but I’d like to ask you to stay here while I do. I think I’ll be able to offer you the help you need if you do.” Taisen said.

    I wondered what kind of help I needed that he could offer. He had to have more important things to work on than a street rat like me. Then I remembered that we both had something more important to worry about.

    “No! We can’t stay here. We have to get to the shelters!” I told him.

    “The shelters? Why?”

    “The city is under attack, or its going to be.” I said and started pulling him towards to the door to the treatment room.

    “Wait, attack? When did this happen? How long was I out?”

    “Five or ten minutes. A new warp portal formed, big enough for a warship to get through. They’ve been evacuating people to the shelters for the last half hour or so.” I told him.

    “Why didn’t Daske tell me?” Taisen asked and then yelled for his receptionist.

    “He took off already. He came in right after you collapsed. Thought I’d killed you.” I said.

    “That idiot.”

    “You’ll have to chew him out later. We have to get to a shelter. I think this is going to be bad.” I said.

    “No, he’s an idiot because we have a shelter here.” Taisen said.

    “You do? But there’s no signs for it.”

    “It’s limited use.” Taisen said.

    “Oh, do all clinics have it for their clerics?”

    “Not exactly.”

    He lead me to the other side of the room and placed his palm on the light switch for several seconds. A series of glowing glyphs appeared in a circle around the light switch and he tapped them in a sequence that was clearly a password. When he hit the last number a section of the floor beside me moved to reveal a ladder leading down a room below.

    “I’m not just a random cleric.” Taisen said. “I’m also an agent of the Crystal Empress. I have access to resources that can help you.”

    I pulled away from him. I couldn’t tell if he was crazy, or I was, or everything was, but going down into an enclosed room with a guy I’d just met did not seem like a great idea to me. I’d done my part. He was awake and could look after himself. I didn’t need to buy into anything else he was selling. Not when it was way outside anything I was supposed to be involved in.

    I’d just turned to go when the spell bomb went off that killed the city.

The Seas of Tomorrow – Chapter 2

    I’ve never liked visits to the clerics and, since the good Sisters of Water’s Grace have never been particularly well funded, I haven’t had to deal with visits to clinics too often. As a result, I wasn’t used to the the idea that no matter what sort of shape you were in, there was paperwork you had to do before they’d agree to take your money and patch you up.

    “Fill this out please.” the receptionist said as he passed me a document on a clipboard.

    It looked like a standard form, though the blood seal on the bottom made me a little wary. Those were only used on legal contracts from what I’d heard. There wasn’t any fine print on the form that I could see,not through my swollen eyes at any rate, but I suspected that putting down any false information would be a bad idea.

    Under “Name”, I put down “Mel Watersward”. It was my real name as far as I knew. As an orphan though it was possible I’d been born under a different name. Either way I didn’t think the blood seal would mind that bit of potential inaccuracy.

    For the rest of the details, I gave out the information for the orphanage. I was lucky in a sense. I’d turned seventeen a month ago, so I didn’t need to have a guardian sign off the paperwork but I wasn’t out on the street yet either. Instead I pressed my thumb to the blood seal and felt it draw out a drop of my blood. More details appeared on the form, including my ethnicity (human, mixed worlds), my age, allergies and current anima levels.

    “Here. How long is this going to take?” I asked as I passed the form back to the receptionist.

    “I’ll let you know when we’re ready. If you could take a seat.” he said. I glared at him. I was not in good shape. The number and variety of things that were wrong inside me were sufficient that I couldn’t keep track of them and from the way my thoughts were going occasionally spacey I was pretty sure something unpleasant was going on in my head. Given the beating I’d taken, I knew that had to be clearly visible in the condition of my face, but this guy was as unhurried as if I’d walked in with a stubbed toe.

    “How long is it going to take.” I repeated through gritted teeth. There was no one else in the waiting room. It seemed absurd that they couldn’t take me in and make with the healing spells immediately.

    “I will let you know when we are ready.” he said, irritation rising in his voice.

    The thought of smashing his face into the desk until he looked worse than I did was a seriously tempting one. The only problem with it was that the cleric would probably heal him first which would just delay things for me even longer.

    I suppressed my pain-fueled anger and stalked back over to the flimsy waiting room chairs. On the holodisplay the news casters were still rambling on about the warp portal that had appeared. They had zero new information to share so they’d dredged up a panel of “experts” to blather about what this “shocking development” might mean.

    For fun, I mentally edited everything they were saying to be about a giant zit on the planetary governor’s forehead.

    “It goes without saying that we’ve never seen anything like this, and that means there’s cause for concern.” one of the experts said.

    “Clearly, clearly I agree.” another one stammered and then added, “but you have to admit this also represents a unique opportunity. We’d be fools not to study this.”

    “It’s true, this could be the biggest event of the decade!” a third expert interjected.

    Smiling hurt but it was worth it. The alternative was dwelling on how bad I felt and that wasn’t going to lead anywhere good. Despite my attempt to distract myself though, the icy feeling in my chest wasn’t going away. Every time I thought about the warp portal I felt sure that whatever came through it was going to be a lot worse than anyone was expecting.

    Below the babbling experts, a ticker tape ran on the holodisplay listing off the few facts the channel had collected. The portal wasn’t a large one. It’s mass distortion profile suggested it could transport a battleship but not an entire fleet.  It had been detected an hour ago and was located about a twentieth of a light second off the starward side of Belstarius, our planet.

    Since it was outside our atmosphere, it could be stable over interstellar distances. Since it was in near orbit, it would be perfect to launch an assault from. Neither of those thoughts made me feel particularly comfortable.

    “The cleric will see you now.” the receptionist said.

    I got up and felt dozen arcs of pain shoot through various parts of my body. I grimaced and forced myself to step towards the doorway that the receptionist indicated. As I approached it, I saw a father holding a baby wrapped in multiple blankets exiting the treatment area.

    “Be sure to give her the syrup before she goes down for the night for the next two weeks, and I’ll see you again in a month.” the cleric was saying as the man left the room.

    Seeing that they’d actually had a patient, I was glad I hadn’t put the receptionist’s face into the desk, but I still wasn’t thrilled with his attitude.

    “So let me guess what you’re here for, sore throat?” the cleric joked as he escorted me into the treatment room. He was younger than I would have guessed, maybe in his early twenties. About my height, which put his at the normal height for a guy his age, unlike Davos and Maraz who were both on the gigantic side of the scale, as thugs tend to be.

    “Yeah, it kind of hurts when I smile.” I told him flatly.

    “I see. Well if you can get ready, I’ll get your file. I’m Healer Taisen by the way.” he said.

    “Mel.” I told him, offering my name since he’d given his.

    “Ok Mel. If you’ll lie down on the table in the circle over there and get as relaxed as you can, we’ll get started just as soon as I review your forms.” Taisen said and stepped out of the room.

    The room was a simple affair. The treatment table was the central piece of it. It was covered in a fresh white cloth and looked padded enough to be reasonably tolerable to lay on even in my current condition. Around the table was inscribed a circle to help channel the cleric’s spell casting. It was etched into the floor and set with a reflective metal, probably chromed steel since I doubted the clinic had the resources for ensorcelled silver or similar high quality materials.

    Around the edges of the room were counters and cabinets that looked to hold various elixirs and sampling kits. I noticed from the labels that the bottles were mostly over-the-counter medicines, probably enchanted to greater potency by the cleric himself. In a way, that felt comforting. The few times I’d been to a cleric’s on my own, I’d had to go to one of the “back alley temples” that only lived up to half that description. The quacks who ran them usually had some skill but for anything more than simple, straightforward injuries you were taking a serious risk of them making things worse rather than better.

    “Admiring our supplies?” Taisen asked as he returned.

    “Just trying to figure out how to get up onto the table.” I told him. Twisting and bending did not seem like comfortable things to be doing at the moment.

    “Here, try this.” he said and placed a small stool in front of the table. Guessing that he’d dealt with people in my shape or worse before, I stepped up onto it, turned and sat gently onto the table. Bending over to remove my boots wasn’t pleasant but I managed it while Taisen read the form.

    When he looked back to me, his mouth was crooked in puzzlement.

    “Odd anima levels you have here. Can you tell me what happened?” he asked.

    “I’m not sure.” I said “Are you bound by doctor/patient confidentiality?”

    “Yes, under my license as a practicing cleric, I am not permitted to disclose anything you tell me to the planetary law enforcement personnel.” he said. He was picking his words carefully, which tripped a red flag for me, but my head was battered enough that I couldn’t think of what he wasn’t saying.

    “A guy was trying to grab one of the kids from the place I’m at. I knocked him out but two of his friends took exception that.” I said.

    “Lay down, I have more questions, but I want to make sure you’re stabilized first.” Taisen said. He walked around to the head of the table once I’d made myself “comfortable”. I felt him place the index and middle fingers of each hand on the sides of my head. He chanted something in Old Galactic, probably the centering words for a healing spell, and I felt a buzz of anima go through me. It felt great for a moment but the relief was short lived. It seemed to drain away as fast as it came in.

    Taisen cut off his chant mid-word and stepped back away from the table.

    “Well now that was unusual.” he said. I craned my neck and saw him rubbing his hands together as though they were frozen.

    “Tell me more about what they did to you.” he said as he started tracing a luminous sigil in the air.

    “Nothing too special. One of them grabbed me so I broke his arm and knee. I think I might have given him a skull fracture too but I didn’t have a chance to check. I was going to make sure of it but his friend caught me before I could. That’s the one who did most of this damage. He slammed me around a few times and mashed my face in a few times more.” I explained. Looking back on it, it wasn’t one of my better fights. One more punch probably would have done me in.

    “That explains the physical trauma I suppose. Oh and thank you for not saying you ‘fell down some stairs’ or were ‘hit by a hover’. Even if you’re lying, I appreciate the effort at coming up with a unique one.” Taisen said.

    “I’m not lying. I know it sounds stupid, but these guys were idiots. The first one didn’t put up any anima shield at all and the other one dropped it right after he punched my face in.” I said.

    “Wait, are you saying you fought someone with enough training and anima to manifest a visible shield? No, two people like that and you managed to beat them?” he asked.

    “Yeah, they’re goons though. I just got lucky and surprised them.” I said.

    “I imagine you did. Tell me, have you been tested for your anima capacity?”

    “Yeah, I flunked in all four categories.” I told him.

    “It’s not a test you can flunk, but I gather you tested very low for physical anima?”

    “Bottom fifth percentile for all of them.” I wasn’t proud of it, but there wasn’t anything I could do about it. Sure, I could practice and improve but you needed to be in the 60th percentile or higher in at least one of the four categories to be employable for any magical work and getting there from where I was didn’t seem practical at all.”

    “You’ll pardon my saying this, but that’s ridiculous.” Taisen said.

    “Excuse me?”

    “Your current condition aside, you’re obviously very fit. Add to that the fact that you’re not whining and sobbing for a pain relief spell and I’d say you’ve got more willpower than any two or three of my other patients combined.” he said.

    “So what?”

    “Magical aptitude isn’t directly linked to our physical, mental, emotional or psychological states. I’m sure you’ve been taught this. It’s entirely possible for someone who’s very small and very weak to have a tremendous amount of physical anima.” he said.

    “Yeah, so I’m the reverse.”

    “That’s the thing. There’s not a direct link but there is what we call inherent capacity.” Taisen said.

    “Meaning a big strong guy is going to have a decent amount of physical anima just from being big and strong?” I asked. I’d noticed that was true for thugs like Davos and Maraz, but I’d assumed that was selection bias. Meaning it was only guys who were big, strong and had a lot of magical juice who’d make a career of being thugs.

    “Most of the time. Exceptions exist when the person has been damaged or is naturally unbalanced.”

    “Unbalanced?” The Sisters had never gone too deeply into magical theory with us since almost none of us tested at exceptional levels. Those few who did were sent to special teachers or wound up getting adopted before the Sisters had to worry about their education.

    “Yes, magically speaking. Take me for example. The coursework to become a licensed cleric is grueling. Biology, anatomy, organic divination. You don’t get through the classes without having a pretty respectable brain. For a normal person that would mean that their mental anima would be above average. Mine however is in the same range as yours.”

    “So even though you’re smart you can’t work mental magics to save your life?” I asked.

    “I like to think of it as, I’m smart, I can’t work mental magics, and that can save your life. See the aptitude I should possess for mental magics is instead expressed as physical anima. I’m not a big hulking guy, but I’ve got enough magic to run this clinic by myself. A lot of healers are unbalanced that way.”

    “So what does that have to do with me?” I asked.

    “Well, from what I can see you should have a significant amount of physical anima and energetic anima, based on your fitness and you’re emotional control. From talking with you, I’d be shocked if you were below average in terms of mental anima too and yet your readings indicate you’re almost entirely lacking in magical aptitude. That doesn’t fit.” he explained.

    “Maybe I’m cursed?” I suggested.

    “Nope. That was the first thing I checked for. Add to that the fact that I am seeing very odd spikes of anima in you, and what happened when I tried to apply a simple pain relief spell.” he said.

    “I saw you jerk your hands away.” I said.

    “Can you tell me how it felt?” he asked.

    “The spell? It felt good for moment but then it kind of drained away.” I explained.

    “Interesting.” Taisen said. He was staring at me through one of the flowing sigils that he’d traced. There were close to two dozen floating in the air around the table and he moved from one to the other, observing and adjusting them as he went.

    “Are you going to be able to fix me up?” I asked.

    “I don’t know. You’re a puzzle.” he said.

    “Maybe I should go someplace else then.” I said and tried to get up off the bed. That was a bad idea. WIth the state I was in, the bed wasn’t exactly comfortable but moving was infinitely worse.

    “No, I don’t think you’re in the shape for that. If I can’t help you, we’ll call a medicar for you and I’ll take you to the hospital myself.” Taisen said.

    “Wait, how bad is this?” I asked.

    “Bad enough.” he said.

    “I need more details than that.” I told him.

    He pushed aside the sigil he was looking through and eyed me critically.

    “From what I can see of your internal injuries, you’ve suffered sufficient trauma that your system should be going into circulatory shock. That’s a fatal condition. You are not exhibiting the symptoms of circulatory shock however, which suggests that you possess sufficient physical anima for your body to self-correct and return to homeostasis. That would normally indicate a treatment plan of light mending spells and rest if your lifestyle allows it. However, your observed anima levels do not support the diagnosis that you are regenerating your injuries.” he said.

    “So I should be dead but I’m not?” I said.

    “No. You should be healthy but you’re not. Something is suppressing your natural capacity.” he explained, “Add to that the fact that your body absorbed or dispelled the effect of a pain relief spell whose minimum duration should have been an hour and that applying the spell to you caused severity one frost burns to my hands.”

    “What does that mean?” I asked.

    “That’s what we’re going to find out.” Taisen said. “I need you to work with me on this.”

    “How?” I asked. The mention of frost burns scared me. I could still feel the cold mass in my chest but, up until Taisen had mentioned freezing his fingers, I’d assumed it was just an effect of my body being messed up. I hadn’t thought I was literally freezing from the inside out.

    “I imagine you haven’t had much training in magic. I need you to cast a very basic spell for me though. I’ll monitor your physical anima while you do it and that should help me identify where your energy is going.” he explained.

    “How can I do that?”

    “The spell I’m going to have you cast is a rest spell. It’s not even a full sleep spell. It’s one of the first medicinal spells that’s taught. It puts the body into a state that’s conducive to falling asleep if no other factors are present. With your injuries, I don’t expect you’ll be able to fall asleep, but it may distance you from the pain somewhat.”

    “Ok. How do I cast it?” I asked.

    “I want you to place your right hand over your heart.” he said.

    I lay my hand on my chest expecting it to burn with cold. I was relieved to find that from the outside at least I felt as warm as usual.

    “Ok, close your eyes. I want you to focus on your right hand. Picture it holding a small ball of light. The light is your physical anima. Feel the warmth of your hand, that’s your pathway to your anima. Don’t worry about finding the magic though. Just feel the warmth and imagine it spreading through your body, starting at your heart and sending waves of relaxation out with each beat.”

    “It’s hard to relax with my ribs feeling like this.” I told him.

    “I know. Don’t worry about getting the spell right. All I need you to do is try.” Taisen replied.

    I closed my eyes and focused like he’d told me to. It felt a little strange to think of my right hand holding my magical life force. My left hand, the dominant one, kind of wanted in on the action. Since I was pretty sure that would mess up Taisen’s readings, I shook off that thought and let my focus drift into my body the way I did when I was practicing my martial forms.

    It wasn’t my right and left hand that I thought about. It was active and passive. It was weighted and free. On my active side, I pictured my anima, light, joyful, healthy, powerful. Memories of shattering boards and speeding through katas faster than my mind could follow wrapped around that image of my anima. Me, when I was active and alive. That’s what I held in my right hand.

    Over it all though I felt a huge darkness. The weight of the cosmos against the freedom of my anima. On its own, the cosmos would have swallowed up my anima, but an idea occurred to me. In fighting, I’d learned to move my weight from one foot to the other, freeing me to move without fighting myself. I tried something similar with my hands. In my right hand I wanted to hold my physical anima, that meant I needed to shift the darkness within me to my left hand.

    I pictured my left hand draining out and becoming empty. I felt it sink down against the table, heavy and cold. The anima in my right hand sparked and flickered to life. I felt my chest warm and relax under my hand.

    From my left hand though I felt almost a growling sensation. The darkness I was holding there craved the light of the anima. I pushed harder to keep them apart.

     I felt Taisen put his hands on my head and I willed the darkness in my left hand into an imagined sphere. I tried to draw in as much of it as I could from the rest of my body but there was just too much there.

    For a moment, I think, my heart stopped entirely. Then I felt a flood of energy pass through me. My eyes shot open but I couldn’t see anything except a brilliant light until I forced a breath in past my lips. That took more effort I’d ever expended on anything but it was worth it.

    I felt alive and I felt better. Not great, but like I was mending at last. I sat up on the table and looked around for Taisen, congratulations and a smile on my lips.

    That’s when the receptionist came running into the room. He hadn’t gotten halfway through the door before he started screaming.

    “We’re under attack! From the portal! They’re sending ships!” he blurted out.

    Then we both noticed Taisen, collapsed at the head of the table. His hands and arms were badly burned and he wasn’t moving.

    “You…you killed him!” the receptionist gasped.

The Seas of Tomorrow – Chapter 1

    I hadn’t killed the guy who lay on the ground at my feet, but it hadn’t been for lack of trying. Barring any unfortunate accidents, he was going to live to experience all the joys that came with a concussion and a fractured skull. That put him in a better position than me though. I wasn’t likely to live to see the next ten minutes with the way his friends were looking at me.

    “Badz got himself whupped by kid. I can’t believe it.” one of the two thugs who’d cornered me laughed. His name was Davos. Like Badz, the guy I’d knocked out with a sucker punch from ambush, Davos considered himself one of the local tough guys. I usually stayed well clear of idiots like that but I’d broken that rule for the little boy that was crouched in the back corner of the alley we were trapped in.

    Laz was the youngest and newest ward of the Sisters of the Water’s Grace. It wasn’t my job to look after the other orphans the Sisters had taken in. On the other hand, I’d seen the city eat up too many kids already and I’d be damned if I let a piece of scum like the Badz or his crew power themselves up by leeching the life out of another one.

    “Laz, you see an opening, you get the hell out of here.” I whispered to him and turned to face Davos and Maraz, the other thug who was blocking the mouth of the alley.

    “Gonna be bad for our reps if word gets out.” Maraz said.

    “Looks like we’re gonna need to make sure these two can’t talk to anybody then.” Davos said.

    I shifted my left foot forward and rolled my shoulders as I settled into a fighting stance.

    “Oh look. She thinks she can fight.” Davos laughed again.

    Rather than answering him, I just smiled.

    Davos was a tall, skinny whiplike guy with greasy hair. He looked fast and I knew he’d be stronger than he appeared. Maraz on the other hand was a beefy, bull-like bald guy. He looked tough and strong, but I knew he’d be faster than he appeared. Guys like them almost always had a lot of physical anima, or body centered magical talent since that was all that had going for them. They looked imposing, and dangerous because they were. It wasn’t just their physical capabilities either. They liked violence, they enjoyed causing pain, and they’d made a habit of both. That was a bad sort of guy to get into a fight with.

    Compared to them, I looked frail. I had muscles, but they were thin and lean and I was significantly shorter than either of them. What’s more, I didn’t have the kind of physical anima they did. In fact I sucked at magic. I always had.

    Davos bounced forward, all lazy and relaxed until he was within striking distance and then he let loose with a jab to my face. It was quick and forceful. I couldn’t block or dodge it. Unfortunately for him it was predictable, and since I didn’t have incredible physical reserves to fall back on, I’d learned how to take advantage of what openings came my way.

    Davos’ punch rocked my head to the side, but I was able to roll with blow to reduce the worst of its effects. I spun with the force, grabbing his arm and pulling him with me so that his arm locked straight out. He tried to pull back but that just pulled me with his arm and helped me fall on his elbow. He screamed as it snapped the wrong way and I broke my fall with a short kick to the inside of his knee. The cumulative damage was too much for him and he tumbled to the ground, dragging me with him. I tried to kick away from him, but he held onto me with his remaining arm and slammed me into the ground as we fell.

    My arm took most of the impact, but the pain distracted me and bought him time to grab my head. The next thing I knew he was knocking me against the ground. I saw stars, but my reflexes stayed with me and I grab his hand before he could slam my head against the bricks again. Without thinking about it, I grabbed his index finger in one hand and his little finger in my other.

    Davos had a lot more strength than I did, and magic to back it up. If he was focusing he’d have raised an anima shield to prevent the kind of damage I’d inflicted on him. He’d been careless though because I didn’t look like a threat and as a result he’d lost the use of an arm and a leg. If I gave him time to think, he’d raise his defenses. Instead, I broke both of his fingers and then shot an elbow into his face and shattered his nose. I grabbed Davos’ head to put him down for the count, but Maraz pulled me off him before I could.

    That was the problem with fighting two guys at once. Skill and determination can only take you so far against superior numbers and might.

    Maraz slammed me into one of the alley’s walls and knocked the breath out of me completely. I saw him draw back his fist and moved my head on sheer terrified instinct. Miraculously that was enough to dodge the blow. Unlike Davos though, Maraz had his anima shield in full effect, so punching a brick wall at full force didn’t damage his hand at all.

    Faster than I could follow his drew his fist back for another punch. I kicked upwards and managed to deflect the blow at the cost of letting him get his other hand wrapped around my throat.

    I kicked with my other foot and caught him first in the chest and then in the chin. Neither blow phased him at all.

    Behind him, I caught sight of Laz bolting out of the alley. Maraz’s fist hit me like a piston after that. One, two, three blows and then I felt myself being thrown against the other wall of the alley. I toppled into a boneless heap and tried to force my quickly swelling eyes open. Everything hurt, but I couldn’t afford to let that slow me down.

    “What the hell did you do to Davos!” Maraz yelled as he grabbed the front of my shirt and hauled me back up.

    I knew it wouldn’t do much good, but I shot a palm strike up into his chin followed by another to his throat. Amazingly he collapsed, choking and sputtering. The idiot had dropped his anima shield thinking he’d beaten the fight out of me!

    Before he could recover I boxed his ears and smashed his face with a rising knee strike. I went to press my advantage but he flailed out with a wild strike that caught me in the center of chest and knocked me back into the wall. I felt something crack but didn’t have time to think about it before he roared and charged at me.

    Fortunately for me, he was slow because of the pain he was in and too distracted to put up his anima shield again. I ducked under his attack and kicked him right in the armpit. That knocked him off balance enough that I was able to sweep his legs from under him.

    With him on the ground without an anima shield and me standing it ceased to be a fight and just became a stompfest. He managed to land one solid punch on my right leg but the kind of head trauma that comes from repeated kicks was too much for the low level regeneration offered by his anima to deal with.

    I could have just left the three of them there in the alley. They didn’t know me or Laz, so while they’d probably come looking for me, all I had to do was lay low for a bit and they’d fade away as just another ugly part of the city I called home.

    I could have left it at that, except I’m not exactly a saint, despite the best efforts of the Sisters. So I stole their wallets.

    I probably should have felt bad about about leaving them penniless but healing spells aren’t cheap and as far as I could see (which after the beating I took was maybe ten feet in front of me), I deserved to get patched up a lot more than they did.

    Opening their wallets, I found that crime paid pretty well. The credit talismans were unmarked and not bearer bonded, which was predictable for people who made their living via “extra-legal activities”. It was more money than I’d ever seen before too. Possibly it was all the money they had. I hoped so anyways. The idea of them starving and destitute appealed to me immensely.

    I tasted blood in my mouth as I walked down the street away from the alley. People weren’t exactly staring, no one did that who’d lived here longer than a week, but I knew I had to look like a wreck based on the amount of room they were giving me.

    On the fairly likely chance that I was going to pass out from internal bleeding before I could walk to a cleric’s clinic, I waved down a hover taxi and had the driver take me to the nearest one he could find.

    That turned out to be a twenty minute ride away, which told me that the taxi driver wasn’t too worried that I’d die in his cab, or leave it a bloody mess since I was pretty sure we passed at least three or four clinic’s before we arrived at one that was labeled in Galactic Common rather than any of the local languages.

    “Do I look like an out of towner?” I asked him, feeling surly about the extra fare charge.

    “You look like a mess. Do you want me to take you somewhere else?” he asked, looking back at me in the mirror.

    “No, this’ll be fine. Here, have a tip too.” I said, paying double the fare’s cost. “You don’t want to remember that you dropped anybody off here. It’s more trouble than its worth.”

    I saw him delete the stop from his holo-display.

    “I don’t know what stop you mean.” he said.

    I guessed that he’d done me a favor, taking me to a random clinic far away from the scene of the crime, but with my adrenaline draining away I was feeling the pain of the beating I’d taken too clearly to have room to feel any appreciation for his ‘thoughtfulness’. It was almost worse knowing that what I was feeling was only a pale shadow of what I’d be feeling over the next few days if I didn’t get healed up before then.

    With that in mind, I dragged myself up into the “Peaceful Light Clinic” and waved at the receptionist who was minding the empty waiting room. He looked up and looked me over as I entered.

    “Please have a seat. I’ll get your paperwork ready.” he said, gesturing to the row of chairs against the wall on the opposite side of the room from his desk.

    There was a holovid display that was tuned to a 24 hour news channel on the wall adjacent to the one I was sitting near so I turned to watch it. The usual talking heads were present, doing their best to make the news sound even worse than it actually was. I smiled at the thought that I might hear about three thugs who were found beaten and robbed in an alley but  that sort of thing never made the planetary news. People like me, Laz, and the thugs didn’t matter in the big picture of things.

    “This just in.” one of the newscasters said, as a ‘Breaking News’ banner scrolled across the holodisplay. “We’re receiving reports that a new warp portal has been detected in the system. The planetary defense grid has been activated and citizens are advised to proceed to the nearest secure location until this threat has been evaluated.”

    I sat back and frowned. I’d seen the defense grid activated plenty of times before, but a new warp portal wasn’t something that had ever come up before. As far as I knew, the celestial dragon paths that let people travel from world to world were all pretty well mapped out. A new one opening could mean almost anything.

    Somewhere inside me I felt a shard of ice start to form.

    My world wasn’t special or noteworthy. We had a few big cities, a lot of little settlements and a ton of boring, empty wilderness. It was possible that a new warp portal would place us closer to the heart of civilization and bring in trade and tourists and all sort of good things.

    It was possible, but I knew that wasn’t how the universe worked.

    If someone had suddenly developed an interest in us, it wasn’t going to be because they were friendly.

    I felt the ice in my chest growing colder and more painful.

The Imperfect Mirrors – Epilogue

    My name is Way. For the last four years I’d been a student at the Parliament of Time. That was changing. With our general schooling behind us, my classmates and I were moving on to the real training for the roles we’ve chosen for ourselves. For the longest time that terrified me. I’d thought that “moving on” meant “moving on from the relationships I’d formed with the people there”.

    I’d been wrong and there was a band of pink light on the ring finger of my left hand to prove it. I held onto that and treasured the reassurance it offered. I’d given away a piece of my heart to be near the one that I love, and received so much more in return.

    I smiled as I felt the warmth of Jin’s ring dance under my fingers. Exchanging the rings had been a symbol of what we’d forged between us. The truth though was that I’d given her my heart the first time we’d embraced. She’d pulled me back to myself when I was crumbling to pieces, and yet in all our our time together after that, she’d never held it as a debt against me.

    I loved Jin from the first day that I knew her. It wasn’t love at first sight though. The first time I saw her, she confused me because she tried to help me. Then she scared me because she wanted to talk to me. And finally she terrified me because, at my most destructive, she embraced me. She saw who I wanted to be and offered me the chance to be that person. It sounds simple but believing in someone, especially someone who can hurt you deeply, can be the hardest thing in the world. Jin had done that for me, and I almost couldn’t help but fall in love with her.

    Somehow, in falling in love with her though, I hadn’t seen how much she was falling in love with me. She saw me as beautiful and she made me see myself that way too. We’d always been open and shared how happy we were to be together, but I don’t think either of us had reflected on what that meant until we were faced with being parted. When it came time to put into words what I knew inside, it had been easy to admit how I felt about her to myself. What had been hard was listening to the voice that told me I might mean as much to her as she did to me. Maybe it had been too much to hope for, that I could make anyone as happy as she made me.

    I can be quiet, and scary sometimes. I’ve destroyed things that can never be replaced. It’s easy for me to see why someone who really knew me would want to run and run and never come back. She’d never turned away though. For as terrible as I can be, she’d never let me go after that first embrace, and I’d never wanted her too. I think I gave her my heart because even from the beginning, she’d invited me into hers.

    “You have a nice smile on your face. Happy thoughts?” Jin asked. We were sitting together on a big comfy beanbag chair, with Jin on my lap, resting her head on my shoulder.

    “The happiest.” I said and wrapped my arms around her. A warm and gentle night breeze was blowing across the balcony of her parent’s home but she snuggled in closer as though seeking shelter.

    “I think I understand why some people want to freeze time.” Jin said with a contented sigh.

    “Don’t you dare!” I warned her. Meddling with time was one of those ideas that sounds good and yet rarely ever works out well in practice.

    “Wouldn’t dream of it.” she mumbled before giving me a light kiss on the neck. “It’s too nice a night to spoil with another trip to the Auditor’s office.”

    We’d each spent the day being “debriefed” by the Parliament’s official auditors. Jin’s debriefing had taken longer than mine for a number of reasons, not the least of which being that she’d kind of broken the world we supposed to be protecting. To be fair, she’d also come up with a novel solution for fixing it.

    “Speaking of the Auditor’s, what did they say about ‘Guy’?” I asked her.

    “They weren’t all that happy that I’d invited a dream creature into a real world, but they had to admit it was an effective ploy.” she said.

    “So they think Madelaine will be ok with him?” I asked.

    “I think so. They were at least talking about monitoring her where she was rather than extracting her back to the Parliament before she wrecked the world.” she said.

    “Did they say anything about how that will affect Kari’s project?” I asked.

    “Apparently this counts as a gold medal success. Her fate weaving has changed the fate of the world for the better, including identifying a latent dream weaver and arranging for one of the least disruptive resolutions on record. The idea of using creatures like ‘Guy’ has been considered for a while but no one was willing to risk it before us, so Kari gets some bonus points for arranging the situation that required it.” Jin said.

    “Where did you even find ‘Guy’ by the way? When Kari said he didn’t exist I thought that part of the fate weaving was going to turn into a chaos vortex or something.”

    “Believe it or not Peri led me to him.” Jin said.

    “Your sister? Wait, did she awaken too?” I asked.

    “No, she just sort of fell into a rift that had formed under her bed.” Jin said.

    “Oh, you mother had mentioned that. That wasn’t a rift to one of the Faerie realms?” I asked, feeling a bit guilty. I’d noticed it when it was pointed out but it had been tiny and there was a barrier in place so I’d assumed it was something minor.

    “Nope, it was a full rift into the dreaming. Belle looked into and probably could have handled everything but once Peri followed her in I wanted to make sure they both made it out ok.” Jin said. “Oh, and do you mind if Peri kind of ‘borrows’ Belle for a while?”

    “Borrow Belle?” I asked. Belle had been my familiar when I met Jin. In freeing me, Jin had freed her as well. Without the need to attend to my every whim, these days Belle was closer to being my kid sister than a servant. We were still close but it wasn’t uncommon for her to go off exploring for a week or two if something new caught her interest. If either of us were in trouble we knew we could call, but with the safety offered by  the Parliament that hadn’t been necessary in years.

    “Yeah, Belle made the mistake of appearing before Peri in her ‘puppy form’ and now Peri is convinced that she’s the best puppy in the world.” Jin said.

    “Belle? How are you doing with this?” I asked via dream speech.

    “I think I can tolerate it.” Belle sent back. The undercurrent of the dream speech carried the sense of how wonderful it was having Peri scratch right behind her ears while she was in ‘puppy form’.

    “Thank you Belle!” Jin said in dream speech too and then added in regular speech, “I think she’s happy to have someone to protect again.”

    “I shudder to think what would happen to someone who tried to mess with your sister.” I said. Between Jin, her mother and her brother, Peri was probably the best guarded four year old in the world. Adding Belle to the mix was an invitation for Peri to go out seeking trouble, but I didn’t mention that. I wasn’t worried the two of them would get into anything too bad and what trouble they did find probably deserved what it was going to get.

    “It’s funny to think how much older she’ll be before I get to spend much time with her again.” Jin mused.

    “Having second thoughts?” I asked.

    “No. I’ve had enough of those and you banished them quite wonderfully.” Jin said.

    “No second thoughts about us either?” I asked. I already knew the answer but it was nice hearing her say it.

    “It should feel weird to be married right? Or at least different? But it just feels…right.” she said.

    “I know what you mean. It’s like nothing changed between us. I love you today and I loved you yesterday. That feels the same. The only difference is that now other people know too.” I said.

    “Speaking of letting other people know, my mom asked if we’d like to have a reception.” Jin said.

    “Oh.” I said and felt a warm bubble of new happiness float up within me. I knew Jin’s family but I hadn’t ever spent a lot of time them. The thought of her mother welcoming me into their circle was nice. I blinked and felt my throat get a little tight.

    Family was something I’d been without for a long time.

    “We don’t have to if you don’t want to.” Jin offered.

    “No, I’d like to. I’d love to in fact.” I said and then blurted out the idea that had leapt on me. “Do you think we could invite my parents too?”

    “Your parents?” Jin asked. She looked confused and I could understand why. My parents didn’t exist. Not in any proper sense of the term. My father had destroyed himself utterly seeking to restore the girl I’d once been and my mother had died in a forgotten and lost age of the world. Despite that I’d met them both four years ago, deep in of the Unreal

    “I know it’s a crazy idea. We can’t go back to the shores of Oblivion. I’d just like to share this with them.” I said. Jin and I could go almost anywhere, but the far ends of the Unreal, where all reality, even dreams, gave way to nothingness, that was a place even we couldn’t venture to lightly.

    “I’d like that too. I thought they moved on though?” Jin said. The last we’d seen them, they’d been together but where they’d been heading had been unclear, except that it was somewhere I couldn’t follow.

    “I know. It’s just a crazy thought.” I shrugged. Jin’s family would be plenty for me.

    She kissed me quickly on the lips, brushing away the melancholy of my words.

    “I wouldn’t be much of a dream lord if I couldn’t make crazy wishes come true would I?” she said.

    “I can’t ask you to do that though.” I said, shaking my head.

    “You don’t have to. Do you remember Pen?” she asked.

    “Yes, he was the first dream lord you met, wasn’t he?” I asked in return.

    “Actually just a remnant of one. He went into the Parliament’s research division after a teaching for a little while. He’s back to teaching now and Professor Haffrun recommended him as my mentor.”

    “Is that good?” I asked. I knew they’d parted well and had remained loosely in touch, but I didn’t have a sense of how talented a mentor Pen might be.

    “I think so. He knows a lot, and he knows me well enough to not start me off with baby steps. In fact, the first project he’s given me is to pick somewhere that I would consider ‘dangerous’ and we’ll work out a plan for how to approach it safely.” she said.

    “I don’t think he meant Oblivion.” I said uncertainly.

    “Then this will be a good lesson for him to provide better parameters on his projects won’t it.” she said with an evil grin.

    “I assume there’s going to be some oversight on this?” I asked, wondering what sort of insanity I was letting my beloved wander into.

    “All vetted by the Parliament, meaning in this case Professor Haffrun.” she assured me. That eased my worries. However crazy Jin might be, she’d never managed to weasel her way into anything truly dangerous under the Professor’s watchful eye.

    “Still, you don’t have to…” I started to say, but she put a finger on my lips to cut me off.

    “Give me a letter for them. Just tell them what you’d like. You’re right, I probably won’t see them, but if I do, I’ll make sure they get it and they know that you’re still thinking about them.” she said.

    I sighed and relaxed.

    “Thank you.”

    “How about you? Have you gotten your first assignment yet?” Jin asked.

    “Yeah, my mentor is a woman named ‘Wry’. I think she comes from a world like this. Our first assignment is safeguarding a diplomat who’s trying to negotiate a peace between two parallel worlds.” I said.

    “That doesn’t sounds too bad.” Jin said.

    “The one problem is that the diplomat is the one who started the war in the first place.” I said.

    “I take back my evaluation. Do you think you’ll be ok?” Jin asked.

    “Wry has said I’m along to learn etiquette and poise. Supposedly if there’s any fighting to be done, she’ll handle it.”

    “Do you think she’ll be able to?”

    “I’m not sure. She was hard to get a read on. Either she’s kind of delusional or she’s really good at hiding her full power.” I admitted.

    “If you need a hand…” Jin said, and ran her fingers over the pink ring she’d given me.

    “The same for you.” I said, resting my right hand over her left. I felt both of our rings beating with a soft warmth. Together.

    I’d been afraid of losing her. I’d been afraid of what I’d become without her. I could still lose her, and I could still become something terrible, but I wasn’t afraid anymore. Wherever we were, no matter how many worlds lay between us, we would never truly be apart, and as long as we were together, nothing was impossible for us.

The Imperfect Mirrors – Chapter 32

   Endings aren’t always fun. Sometimes they’re last chance we’ll have to do something. Sometimes they’re about saying goodbye to those we’d rather not be parted from. Even with being able to make the impossible real though, I had to bow to one greater reality: sooner or later everything needs to end.

    For as much as I’d felt stifled by Earth Glass, as our time there came to a close I found myself feeling strangely wistful for it. ‘The Amazing Jin’ had to deal a world that was far more limiting than my own, but it still felt pretty cool being her. When I left Earth Glass for good, she’d disappear. She’d still be a part of me, but no matter how much people on Earth Glass looked for her, they’d never discover where she went. In a sense, that felt like a fitting legacy for her. One final, unsolvable mystery to spur the imagination of those who learned about her.

    “We’re going to be landing in about a minute”, Way said over the intercom. “How are our passengers doing?”

    “I don’t understand why they’re all still asleep?” Madelaine said as I opened my eyes and looked around the Brotherhood’s sacrifice chamber. She was referring to the members of the Brotherhood who were dozing soundly (though not particularly comfortably).

    “What we’ll tell the police is that I used a slow acting knockout gas to disable them.” I said.

    “But what really happened?” she asked.

    “That’s a difficult and dangerous question to answer.” I said. Once we stepped off the airship, reality would reflect that they’d been disabled by a knockout gas that didn’t affect the abductees due to the presence of the cults other drugs that were in their system. Until then however, they were asleep because I said they were asleep.

    Technically we’d succeeded in keeping Madelaine’s power in check. That meant explaining to her how the Dreamlit world worked was something the official auditors would have to decide on. In practice though, based on the surprise I had in store for her, I was pretty sure she’d be figuring things out herself if the auditors didn’t tell her first.

    “I think I know something about answers like that.” Madelaine said with a laugh. “What does the society that you’re with call themselves?”

    “Society?” I asked with a mischievous sparkle in my eye, clearly playing dumb. I hadn’t admitted that I knew she was part of the “Scribes”, or that I knew how much the documentation we had would help the Scribes in dismantling the Brotherhood’s world world organization. I had just told her of the contents of an interesting book I’d read that contained Smythe’s name and those of his associates. I explained that it was how we’d known where she was and what Smythe was up to. I also let her know that, since I didn’t have her address, I had the book delivered to Guy McIntyre’s apartment and that I was sure he’d have it for her the next time she saw him.

    “Looks like there’s quite a crowd waiting for us.” Way said over the intercom.

    “Who’s there?” Madelaine asked.

    “Way radioed ahead to the police. It seems that there was a series of arson attempts which were instigated by Mr. Smythe. One of his men provided reams of testimony and evidence to that effect. Several of his associates are also wanted in conjunction with a number of felonies, including the near fatal shooting of a police officer.” I said. “And, I had her call your boss too, so he should be there as well.

    “My boss?” she asked, confused as to who I could mean. She, and just a few others in her secret society, knew that her nominal boss, Guy McIntyre, didn’t really exist. He was a convenient fiction, who’d allowed her to operate outside the boundaries that had been placed on her by gender and age. He also served as another mask to hide her from the Brotherhood’s attentions. All in all a very handy gentleman to have around. That’s why I’d stolen him.

    Any magician worth their spotlight can make someone disappear. The real trick was making them reappear somewhere no one expected.

    As we landed and the police stormed on board, one additional fellow came with them. Dapper and surprisingly young for a multi-millionaire, Guy McIntyre greeted Madelaine Deckard with a warm hug and the sort of relieved joy that was entirely natural for someone discovering that their employee and friend had not come to an ugly and untimely end.

    For her part, Madelaine was wide-eyed and speechless.

    It took the better part of two hours to get things sorted out with the police, during which time “Guy” kept up a steady stream of pleasant small talk about his unexpected vacation to Switzerland and the discovery that the very airship we were sitting in had been purloined by the Brotherhood from one of his European companies.

    Of course his paperwork on that matter was impeccable and, since they were inside a patch of reality I controlled, the police had no problem accepting it and graciously returning the good Mr. McIntyre’s stolen property to him on the spot.

    Outside, I felt Earth Glass pitching a fit at how unrealistic that was. Happily, I was able to tell it to go stuff itself. The inside of the airship was my world, so it followed my rules. For a little while longer anyways.

    “I don’t understand any of this! Who is he?” Madelaine asked after the police, the Brotherhood and the abductees had left the ship.

    “Am I not the spitting image of your boss?” asked ‘Guy McIntyre’.

    “Yes, but no. I mean, you look exactly as I’ve described him, but you’re not…I mean he’s not real.” Madelaine stammered.

    “Neither am I. Though I’m hoping to change that with your help.” he said.

    “Think of him as an actor whom I’ve hired to play the role of Guy McIntyre that you came up with. You’ll find he’s more or less a perfect match for what you had in mind for your boss.” I explained.

    “But I don’t understand why?” Madelaine asked.

    “Remember how I said I broke something that should never have been broken? Guy here happens to be an expert at fixing that sort of thing. You could say it’s how we met.” I said.

    “Yes, well it’s a gift. I must say I find this role to be delightful too. So much better than being a monster under the bed.” Guy said.

    “You’ll need to stay with the dirigible for a while I’m afraid.” I said.

    “Yes, until things are mended. It shouldn’t take long though, and I expect the world will be happier if I don’t suddenly give up my reclusive ways as an immediate reaction to all this.” he said.

    He surveyed the tiny area that was going to be the extent of his kingdom.

    “What do you say Madelaine? Would you like to take a dirigible tour of the world with me? I could be a great deal of help to you.”

    “This is madness.” she said, but there was a faint smile burbling up from within her.

    “Sometimes you want to run from madness, other times its a good idea to embrace it. I’ll leave it to you two to decide which sort of occasion this is.” I said, as I turned to leave.

    I paused at the door to the private chamber and turned back to look at the two of them. If she accepted him, Guy would be able to make sure that Madelaine’s powers as a dreamweaver didn’t have to be suppressed and wouldn’t endanger the world. On her part she’d be able to help him gradually become part of the reality of Earth Glass. How that all played out though was up to them.

    “Mr. McIntyre.” I said before I left the room, “This ship is now yours. Sail her to good skies.”

    And with that I let go of the fractured reality of Earth Glass and gave the burden over to the former monster-under-the-bed turned wealthy philanthropist.

    Outside the ship, I found Way and Kari waiting for me.

    “Your shoulder looks a lot better.” Kari noticed.

    “Your head too.” Way observed.

    “Yeah, turns out they were just flesh wounds that bled a lot. Nasty scratches but nothing serious.” I said. We all chuckled at Earth Glass’s annoyance at that. Healing myself while we were in the airship may have been a little out of line but I felt it was forgivable after everything I’d gone through.

    “I got a call from a friend of ours.” Kari said, meaning Professor Haffrun. “I’ve got to go to meet with her. She said she needed an official report on what had happened as soon as I could manage it.”

    “Do you need any backup?” I asked.

    “No, she said she wanted to talk to me alone.” Kari replied.

    Which meant we’d each be getting our own personal debriefing of the events of the past few days. That was sure to be fun.

    “Did she have any messages for us?” Way asked.

    “Yeah. She’ll talk to you later, but she wanted me to give you a heads up that the start times of your apprenticeships have been moved up. I don’t know if that’s a good or bad sign though?” she said.

    I didn’t either.

    On the one hand, we’d saved another world which was generally counted as a good thing. On the other hand the manner in which we’d saved it was sure to raise a few eyebrows. The accelerated date for our apprenticeships could be a sign that they wanted us under advanced supervision as fast as possible.

    When I looked inside I couldn’t tell how I felt about that. Three weeks with Way had felt like far too little time. The prospect of that being even shorter left me feeling queasy. On the other hand, there couldn’t be much chance that they’d saddle us with mediocre mentors after this. If nothing else they’d have to be concerned about us corrupting our mentors if they weren’t our equals or better.

    For myself, I didn’t care too much about the issue of who would be instructing me. I wanted a good teacher but I knew I could get by with whoever was assigned. For Way though, I wanted the best they had. She had so much promise as a guardian, it would be a crime to saddle her with someone who couldn’t help her develop. I called myself ‘The Amazing Jin’ here, but the truth was that she was the one was truly amazing.

    “Want to head back to my home?” I asked her once Kari had left.

    We were sitting on one of the piers near when the dirigible had landed, dangling our legs over the edge as we watched the sun slowly set.

    “Not just yet.” Way said.

    “Oh?” I asked, turned to look at her. She was facing the sunset but her eyes were closed.

    “I have a question for you, but there are somethings I should say first.” she said.

    “We can talk more easily back home can’t we?” I asked, missing the added layers of dream speech that would let me feel what she was feeling.

    “We can. And I want to talk to you there too, but I want to do this here because all we have here is the words. Here, they’re as real as they can be and I want you to know that everything I say, every word, is real.” she said.

    I looked at her silently. My own words were lost for the moment. I didn’t know what she was going to say, so I didn’t know how I could respond. I paused for a breath and searched inside for anything to hold onto and what I found was her.

    I thought of my sister, I thought of the courage she’d shown. Whatever Way said, I knew it was going to change things between us. That terrified me, I didn’t want things to change. Or at least a part of me didn’t. Looking inside to whatever little spark of courage I could find, I found that I didn’t want to stay in stasis either. I wanted us to grow.

    Everything needs to end, but the end of who we were offered the hope of becoming who we could be.

    “Ok.” I breathed, accepting whatever was to come.

    “I’ve been worried about the apprenticeship.” she began. “No, that’s not quite right. I’ve been worried about being away from you.”

    I nodded, not wanting to interrupt her.

    “You were there for me from the beginning. You pulled me back from becoming something truly awful. I am who I am today thanks to you.” she said. “We’ve been together since then, and in a sense that’s been my entire life, but it’s nowhere near long enough.”

    I nodded again, feeling my throat growing tight.

    “I want to spend so much more time with you, but at the same time, I can’t imagine keeping you all to myself. It scares me that I would, in a heartbeat, pass up everything else to settle into a life with just you. You can be the sun and the moon and the stars and everything beyond them and yet a part of me would keep you caged in my heart if it meant keeping you close to me.” she said.

    I felt tears rolling down my cheeks and a laugh fighting its way free of my lips. I knew all too well what she meant, she was saying the words that had been chorusing in my heart for weeks.

    “I wasn’t sure about even talking about this. I didn’t want to make you worry about me and I didn’t want to risk holding you back. I was dithering over it but then I talked with your mother and she told me I had to. So, there it is.” she said and went quiet, looking down at the waves below us.

    I reached over and took her hands in mine. There were tears in her eyes as well as in mine.

    “Everything you said, every word, I want to say back to you.” I told her. “Four years or a lifetime, I haven’t had nearly enough time with you. You’ve inspired me, you’ve supported me, you’ve kept me sane when I could have lost myself so many times now. I don’t know what the future holds, but I know I want it to hold you, with me, forever.”

    Way smiled and laughed like I had.

    “But at the same time, I can’t bear the thought of you missing out on growing into the woman I see in you. You are so much more than the just the girl I want to spend all of my life with. You are fire and light and the storm and the new day dawning. I’m greedy. I want not just you as you are but you as all you can be too, and I know for that, I can’t ever hold you back.” I said.

    We were silent for a long heart beat.

    We’d never spoken like this before. We’d always just known that we were happy being with one another because of what we shared in dream speech. Way had been right though. Putting our thoughts into words made a difference. It made me think about what I’d been feeling for a long time. It made it real.

    “I love you Jin.” Way said, looking as vulnerable and lost as I’d ever seen her.

    “I love you too Way.” I replied and kissed her.

    The sun had finished setting by the time we broke off the kiss and in the early evening light I looked on the person who would always hold the keys to my heart. I’d never seen and never would see anyone else as beautiful.

    “You said you had a question for me too?” I asked after a moment more of drinking Way in with my eyes.

    “I do.” Way said as she motioned for me to stand. I did so, and gave her a puzzled look. Most questions don’t require particular postures.

    Then she went down on one knee and I remembered the one question that did have a traditional form.

    “Even if we have to be separated for a while, I want a part of me to be with you always.” she said and drew her hands away from her chest to offer me a band of golden light. “Will you marry me?”

    I couldn’t speak at first because I couldn’t breathe. Inside my head every voice I had screamed one word in unison, so loudly that I thought the Earth itself was going to ring with it.

    I reached forward to touch the ring, a piece of her heart and soul, and forced my breaths into rapid inhalations so that I could manage to respond.

    “Always and everywhere.”

The Imperfect Mirrors – Chapter 31

    Being fashionably late is fine for parties, but for rescues it leaves a little to be desired. I kept that in mind as I climbed down ladders and walkways that led through the interior structure of the Brotherhood’s enormous dirigible.

    Most flying ships don’t have rooms built within the gas bag as far as I was aware. The Brotherhood had theirs specially built to serve as a “private chamber” for their rituals. That made it one of the worst places to try to face them. The heart of their power.

    I knew what waited for me in a general sense as I approached the closed room. There would be at least thirty of the Brotherhood in addition to the thirteen sacrificial victims. The cultists would be armed with a minimum of their ceremonial swords, though several would also be carrying firearms as well.

    Assuming I was still early enough, their victims would be alive and would immediately become hostages if I looked like a threat to Brotherhood.

    I’d expected that there’d be guards outside the room and was surprised when there were none. On consideration though that made sense. The only people on the airship were trusted members of the Brotherhood. The ritualists were all inside the sacrifice chamber and the ones who weren’t part of the ritual were in the regular areas of the ship where they could guard against an aerial attack. In the event one of the victims got unruly the ritualists would be able to call the other guards for backup easily enough, so why have someone guarding a door that was only closed to prevent distractions from entering the room?

    If I’d been been able to retain my gear when I landed, I could have planted a few pyrotechnic charges and some smoke bombs to make a properly dramatic entrance (the dirigible was filled with Helium rather than Hydrogen, so fire wasn’t much of a worry). Cultists are a diverse lot, but enough of them tend towards the paranoia and superstition that a bit a of theater can have a profound impact on them.

    Instead I very quietly opened the door and walked in. Without fanfare or saying anything, I walked down the small row in between the assembled cultists and over to the sacrifices, who were chained together. It wasn’t until I started picking the lock on the first girl’s manacles that anyone got over the shock of seeing me wander in. I’d expected that. People have a hard time processing things that are out of context for what they were expecting.

    “What are you doing?” the leader of the ritual demanded. He was wearing the ever-cliched, “form-covering black robes”, etched with “mystic” sigils in “blood red” thread. His face was obscured by both a hood and a mask. For someone who, in theory, held all the power in the world within this room, his clothes spoke of a deep and abiding fear of being caught.

    I turned to him, and blinked as though I was deeply confused by his words.

    “Unlocking these manacles.” I said, as though it was the most obvious thing in the world.

    The Brotherhood outnumbered me forty to one as it turned out. Any two of them could have captured me immediately, but none of them moved. I wasn’t part of the script of their little play and so there was no protocol for how to handle me. That indecisiveness wouldn’t last long but it was kind of fun to watch for the few moments while they were befuddled.

    “YOU!” the leader screamed and I recognized his voice.

    “Hello Cranston. Or should I call you ‘Mr. Smythe’ while you’re in your make-believe clothes?” I asked.

    “Kill her.” he said, confusion and uncertainty turning to anger and savagery as they so often do in men like him.

    “No.” I said. Half the men in the room were armed with pistols. At my word, twenty pistols misfired. For the lucky ones the guns merely jammed. For the less fortunate, they exploded.

    It was beyond a one-in-a-billion coincidence for that to happen and everyone present knew it. The world fractured hard in response to that. One more push, one more unlikely event that I demanded to happen and reality would crumble around us.

    The Brotherhood couldn’t know the danger they were in, but they could see that a score of pistols misfiring at my command was something to be concerned about.

    “I don’t know what kind of trick you’ve pulled on our guns, but you’re not getting out of this room alive.” Smythe said.

    “You’ve searched for magic your whole life Smythe. I would have thought you’d appreciate the chance to see the real thing rather than this farce?” I said as I released the first girl’s hands and let her manacles fall to the floor.

    “I’ll get the rest of you out in a minute.” I told the other people who were chained up. “Apparently Cranny wants to make an issue out of this.”

    “Who are you?” Smythe demanded. I couldn’t see his eyes, but I knew they were wide with rage and fear in equal measures. I was being too calm, and things were too weird. Plus I’d vanished before. His superstitions were telling him I was a divine agent of retribution for his life of evil or something like that. I figured I had about thirty seconds before he decided to test that hypothesis by ordering his men to attack again.

    “Jin. I’ve told you my name before. Don’t make me tell you again.” I warned him as I walked casually around the low area of the room the manacled people were in. The sacrifice chamber was a large hexagon with a sunken, circular area in the middle of the room. The circle was about three feet lower than the rest of the room. Just enough to put the people in it below everyone else without providing any cover for them.

    At one end of the circle there was a set of risers that lead to a podium set above the rest of the room. That’s where Smythe was standing. At the other end of the circle, the people the Brotherhood had abducted were chained to the wall. In between the two, there was a rough stone altar. It was blackened by bloodstains that had been laid down over the course of many years.

    “You are a stage magician. You know nothing of real power. I don’t know how you got here or why you have come but if you thought to rescue these cattle then you are as doomed as they are.” Smythe said.

    “Do you think this is power Smythe? Destroying lives?” I asked.

    “The power over life and death is the greatest power of them all.” Smythe said, fervor rising in his voice.

    “No. It’s not.” I said. “Even a child can end a life with a gun. Destruction is easy.”

    “You think so, but so many of the cattle we cull would disagree. Even if we armed these wretches, they would not be able to take a life, not even to free themselves.”

    “You poor deluded idiot. That’s not a sign of their weakness. It’s a revelation of the strength of their humanity.”

    “The strong are the ones who survive. What you call ‘humanity’ dooms them to death at the hands of those who wield real power.” Smythe insisted.

    “We are all doomed to die. That’s not what matters. What matters is how we chose to live.”

    “What matters is what we make of the world and only the strong have the power to change it.” Smythe said. I was surprised he was playing along with this and debating with me. I guessed that the trick with the pistols had rattled him more than I’d imagined it would.

    Or Madelaine Deckard was helping me.

    I felt outwards and sensed the fractures I’d made tearing slowly open at the force she was unconsciously putting on them.

    “The smallest pebble can start an avalanche. Even one voice can change the world, no matter how small, or alone it might seem to be.” I replied.

    “We shall see how your voice can change the world then. Chain her to the altar and make her scream!” Smythe commanded.

    I laughed. It wasn’t a comforting sound. Neither was the predatory grin that twisted itself across my lips. I was so very tired of holding back. Of putting up with Earth Glass. The moment they laid a hand on me, things were going to end in fire. Black. Unending. Fire.

    I felt a hand touch mine and looked down.

    Madelaine Deckard, still chained up, was looking at me with pleading eyes.

    The Brotherhood had no idea of the danger they were in, but, on some level, Madelaine did.

    I looked at her, and sighed. There were still good people here. It was a foregone conclusion that the world was going to crumble, at least locally, but that didn’t mean that I could give up on the people who were here.

    “No.” I said again. At my word, the burly men who had risen from their seats to apprehend me slipped and fell into the circular pit, breaking their knee caps and shin bones.

    It was the final straw. The world shattered.

    And I caught it.

    It took an impossible amount of power to hold each microscopic fragment of the world together. That wasn’t a problem. I’m an impossible girl and power is not a limiting factor for me. Holding the fragments together was the only way to prevent the fracture from spreading any further than the room we were in, so I didn’t have a choice except to keep them there. The problem was, the moment I stopped focusing on the holding the room together, reality would vanish and the fractures would spread over the rest of the planet.

    “Oh God! What are you!?” Smythe cried over the screams of pain of the men who’d been crippled by their falls. The rest of the Brotherhood had risen from their chairs but were frozen in place. The ones who’d been aggressive enough to follow Smythe’s orders were in obvious agony and unable to move, but there wasn’t anywhere the others could run to either.

    “I’m one small voice.” I told him.

    “Guards! Men! There’s an intruder in the ritual chamber!” Smythe called into an intercom on the podium.

    “I’m afraid your men are indisposed.” Way replied over the intercom.

    “What…what have you done?” Smythe asked, fighting a losing battle to keep his terror out of his voice.

    “Something terrible.” I told him.

    “What do you mean?” Madelaine asked.

    “I broke something that should never have been broken.”

    “Can you put it back together?” she asked, following the metaphor if not fully understanding what I meant.

    “Not like it was.” I explained. My first instinct said that the best thing I could do would be to shatter the rest of the Dreamlit barrier around Earth Glass and then reimagine the world in my own image. It would mean forever changing the fates of everyone who lived there and limiting them to the sorts of futures that I could conceive of. It would also mean that the world would change drastically from what it had been.

    “Die!” Smythe said. He was mad with rage and fear and, I think, miffed that I wasn’t paying attention to him anymore. I didn’t cause his gun to explode. It simply clicked on empty cylinders.

    “Looking for these?” I asked him, tossing the bullets from his revolver in my hand.

    That enraged him further. Drawing his ritual knife from his robe, he leapt off the podium at me and slammed the blade into my chest.

    I smiled back at him at pointed at the hilt. He looked at it and noticed the lack of blood where he had “stabbed” me.

    “Trick knife” I said as he pulled the hilt back to discover that the blade had collapsed into the handle.

    He threw the worthless knife away and reach for my throat with his bare hands.

    I stopped him with a finger on his forehead. He froze in mid-lunge, still as a statue.

    “Pressure point.” I said and then added “Not really.”

    I snapped my fingers and the manacles fell off of the people who’d been abducted.

    “I’m sorry that took so long.” I said.

    “What’s going to happen to us?” one of the abductees asked.

    “We’re going to get you home safe and sound.” I said.

    “And what about what’s broken?” Madelaine asked, aware of how wrong things still were.

    I thought about that. If I spent years at it, I might be able to slowly patch the over the hole I’d punched into the world. It wouldn’t be exactly the same, and I’d need to stay in this affected area for the whole time, but it would limit the damage to this one area. It would make the dirigible something like the Flying Dutchman – an exceptional bit of weirdness in an otherwise very plain world. I’d miss out on my apprenticeship and I’d wind up as a recluse who couldn’t leave the dirigible, but inside it things would be however I wanted them to be.

    As deals went, it was kind of crummy, but sometimes we’re stuck with the cards we’re dealt.

    My world would be no bigger than the inside of the airship. It was going to be pretty boring, living the life of a recluse, but at least my friends could visit me when they were on vacation.


    A recluse?

    I felt a wild, insane joy tear through me.

    Sometimes we’re stuck with the cards we’re dealt, but even the lowliest magician in the world knows at least a few card tricks.

The Imperfect Mirrors – Chapter 30

    Our senses tell us what is real. Wind singing around us, the blazing noonday light of the sky above the clouds, the roar of an engine pushed to its maximum capacity. All of these told me that I was in a plane sailing through the air above Los Diablos. Beneath me, I felt worn leather that held the warmth of the sun and covered the hard seat at the front of the small aircraft Kari had managed to “liberate” from an flying circus that just happened to be in town.

    We were pushing the edge of the envelope in more ways than one. From overdriving the plane’s engine in an attempt to reach Madelaine Deckard in time, to the various “coincidences” we’d each demanded of the world. I could feel in my bones that something was going to break very soon. The trick was going to be making sure it was the right thing.

    “I see the dirigible!” Way shouted back to us from her perch on the wing, her voice barely carrying over the rush of the wind and the engine’s desperate whine.

    The plane Kari had pilfered for us was a two seater. She’d included “flying experience” in her identity on Earth Glass (or at least she retroactively bullied the world into accepting that she could do it) so she was pilot. That meant she got the back seat of the plane.

    I was still nursing a more or less non-functional arm thanks to Madelaine shooting me, so I got the forward seat and Way got to play wing walker. Our plan, as much as we had a plan, bordered on insanity. We knew the dirigible carried a compliment of well armed snipers. Any attempt to dock with it in flight would result in them shooting us to pieces. The snipers were located under the dirigibles balloon though, which meant they didn’t have a line of sight to fire at people descending on them from above.

    “They’ve seen us too. They’re launching their escort!” I shouted back as I saw two small planes drop from the underside of the dirigible and roar to life.

    The doctor I’d kidnapped from the Brotherhood had warned me about them but, since our options were limited by time and how much we could reasonably push the world to accept, we had to make due with Kari’s piloting skills to deal with them.

    With our goal being the dirigible itself, Kari pulled us into a climb to buy as much advantage over the small fighter planes as possible. The Brotherhood’s planes were little more than high performance engines with guns and wings though so they were able to rise far faster than even the stunt plane we were flying could.

    “Hang on tight!” Kari yelled. My stomach tried to turn itself inside out as she flipped the plane over so that we were upside down and then began diving towards the balloon.

    The two fighters that were rising to meet us inverted as well and tried to match our dive speed. They had better engines but we had a lot more momentum by the time with passed them. As they turned to pursue us, the fighters lit up their machine guns, the heavy rattle of automatic weapon fire rising above the screams of the engines.

    Hitting an enemy plane in a situation like this took expert gunnery skills. It also required that your targets be incapable of bending the laws of chance to suit their needs. The shots came close and even clipped our plane in a few places but none hit anything vital.

    “We need at least a thousand feet!” Way called back, reminding Kari before we dove to low.

    “We’re getting there.” Kari called back, barrel rolling us out of the path of more enemy fire. To say that having the straps dig into my shoulders was painful was like saying that walking on broken glass would give you a few scratches. I clamped my eyes shutter against the pain, growled some of the more colorful curses that I’d learned under my breath and did my best to remain conscious.

    “About 1500 feet, get ready to let go.” Kari said.

    My plan had seemed like a good idea while we were on the nice, stable, ground with a distinct lack of bullets zinging around us. As I unbuckled the restraints and felt Kari pull back into an ascent I began to wonder if perhaps a little more planning had been in order.

    Like any good magic trick though, the key to the plan lay in misdirection. From the point of view of the fighters tailing us it looked like Way and I had fallen out of the plane and were plummeting to our doom as Kari raced skywards seeking a position above them again.

    From my position, it looked like Way and I had intentionally leapt to our doom. My hope was that the fighters wouldn’t blast us full of holes before returning to finish Kari. I did my best impression of a panicking, falling girl for several hours to help encourage them in thinking we weren’t worth pursuing. Or at least it felt like several hours. In reality it was probably a second and a half at most before the fighters both peeled upwards in pursuit of Kari.

    That’s when Way and I popped our parachutes.

    A thousand feet isn’t actually that much room for a parachute jump. By the time the chutes opened we had precious little time to correct our course. Since our options were “manage to land on the dirigible” or “float gracefully past it and down into the sniper’s line of fire”, we were rather motivated to “stick the landing”.

    My legs took the shock of the landing well enough, but getting out of the parachutes harness before it dragged me off the top of the dirigible proved to be problematic. I pulled the quick release cord, but I wasn’t able to move my bad arm well enough to get it untangled from the lines. I felt the wind catch the parachute and lift me up by my bad shoulder and couldn’t suppress the scream of pain that followed.

    The pain was almost enough to make me miss the sense of weightlessness as I began falling over the side. Tangled in the lines of my chute and only able to hold on with an arm that was barely functional left me with no cards to play to save myself. Gravity was a very specific and very inflexible rule on Earth Glass. No amount of pleading, nudging or coaxing was going to convince the world to make an exception for me on the “falling to my death” question.

    I saw Way fighting out of her parachute and desperately leaping for me. This time she was going to be too late though. We’d landed too far apart and I’d been blown off the top too quickly. There was genuine panic and concern in her eyes as I slid out of her grasp and started accelerating towards the ocean below.

    Rationally, it was silly. The fall might kill “The Amazing Jin” but I would be fine. “The Amazing Jin” was only one tiny part of who I was. One name I wore, one version of me out of a countless multitude. As I fell though I understood why Way looked so scared. It was easy. I just thought of how I would feel if she was falling away from me.

    Each part of us is small, but even the little bits matter to those who care about us.

    Somehow that thought reassured me. I felt a fierce calm spread through heart. This wasn’t how I had to let things end. However it looked, I wasn’t actually powerless, and it did matter to someone that I wind up ok here.

    I thought of the other perils I’d faced in the last few years.  It would almost be embarrassing to die of a little fall like this. If the world wanted to kill me, it was going to have to take a whole lot better of a shot at me to get the job done. Gravity might suck, but even the planetary mass of Earth Glass wasn’t enough to bring me down if I had my friends to think about.

    With a wild scramble I wriggled myself out of the cords of the parachute and let myself fall freely. I bounced off the dirigible’s side and pitched myself clear of it with nothing below me but the wide blue ocean. I had nothing to hold me up except pixie dust and happy thoughts so I plummeted like rock.

    Even outside of Neverland though, happy thoughts can be a potent tool. One tiny nudge on the world was all it took to bring Kari and the two fighter planes screaming around from underneath the dirigible.

    It was a million-to-one chance that one of the fighters would wind up underneath me at the precise location and speed needed to catch me. The world screamed at the notion until I pointed out that Kari was watching us and had a perfect spatial sense. Its how she was able to dodge two pilots in superior planes. It also meant that calculating how to put one of them under me was a piece of cake.

    It wasn’t quite a good enough story to get me into the cockpit of the plane, but I was able to grab onto the tail as it flew by. As it turns out having a girl, even one of my unimposing size, hanging on to the rudder and elevators makes flying rather difficult. If the girl happens to be familiar with flying and decides to make the matter worse, say by forcing the plane onto a collision course with a dirigible, even a fairly seasoned pilot can get a bit unnerved.

    The Brotherhood pilot tried shouting curses at me and when that didn’t work he tried to turn around and knock me off. When that failed, he jumped out of the plane himself.

    I saw his parachute open as I forced the plane into a pure climb that quickly stalled out its engine. The climb put me just far enough above the dirigible that I was able to fling myself clear as the plane pitched over and began an unmanned power dive into the ocean below.

    Unencumbered by a parachute this time, I rolled with the landing on the top of the dirigible and came to my feet an arm’s length from Way.

    She looked at me, blinking in surprise. I looked back, smiling a silly grin. That whole maneuver had left my shoulder a blinding mass of pain, but the endorphin rush of still being alive was quite sufficient to make the pain take a back seat for the moment.

    I thought she was going to turn and get on with the mission, but instead she lunged forward and grabbed me into a tight hug.

    “Don’t do that again.” she said softly into my ear.

    “But…” I started to say before she silenced me with a kiss.

    “Please.” she added as she broke off the kiss. She was smiling too.

    “Ok.” I agreed, an icy fear melting in me that I hadn’t been aware was there.

    We stood there for a moment longer before pulling apart.

    “They’ll know we’re here after that stunt.” I said.

    “Let move then.” Way agreed.

    There was an access door on the top of the dirigible that led to the inner compartments that balloon was inflated around. It was locked, which seemed weird given the lack of burglars one would expect to be infiltrating a dirigible. On the other hand we were dealing with a fairly paranoid group who did have people that were out to get them.

    Like Way and I for example. Unfortunately for them, the locks they’d chosen only slowed us down for around ten seconds before we were inside the dirigible.

    “I’ll take care of the guards.” Way said. We knew from the doctor that they’d be stationed in the publicly accessible areas of the dirigible. The secret compartment inside the balloon area was where the ritual was being conducted.

    “And I’ll get Smythe and his inner circle.” I said.

    “You lost your pack, do you need another weapon?” Way asked, offering one of the guns we’d managed to swipe off someone.

    “Nah. I’m just going to talk to them.” I told her.

    “Try to to leave something for the police to identify them with then.” Way suggested, serious but smiling even so.

    “We’ll see how merciful I’m feeling.” I said. In truth, I wasn’t sure how I was going to deal with Smythe and the rest of the Brotherhood’s inner circle, and there was a part of me that just wanted to go back to the top of the dirigible but I could feel the walls of reality groaning louder and louder under the strain of keeping Madelaine’s power in check.

    “We should go take care of things.” Way said.

    “I know. But it won’t be easy.” I said.

    “Yeah.” Way agreed, and on that note we parted, each heading towards where we needed to be to save the world.