Monthly Archives: July 2014

The Winds of Yesterday – Chapter 26

It seemed wrong that a bright sunny day should herald the end of the world.

“What did you do.” I asked Councilman Breeg.

“Everything you imagine me guilty of.” he said with a sneer.

“The planet’s orbit is changing.” Darius said. “It’s what the emergency Council session was called for.”

“That’s not possible.” I said. Changing a planet’s orbit was far beyond the power of any caster. Magic is powerful, but planets are on an entirely different scale. Even the decades that  Makkis’ conspiracy had to work with wouldn’t have come close to letting them put together a spell of that caliber.

“I think he’s right.” Fari said. “I’m reading reports from around the planet and from the Imperial stations automated systems. The planet’s rotation has accelerated and it’s orbital path is changing. There’s seismic disturbances being called in from around the globe too.”

“People have fought for control of this world for so long.” Breeg said. “To bad for them, we got it first.”

“Who’s ‘we’?” I asked.

“The new rulers of this world.” Breeg said.

Darius took a step forward and caught himself. He scowled at Breeg and spoke in a slow and solid voice.

“The Council didn’t authorize this.”

“The Council has never ruled here.” Breeg said. “It is, was, and always has been a joke. A fiction to keep the malcontents on each side in place. All it was ever meant to do was to buy time and that time is now up!”

“So that’s it? Your plan’s complete and now you’re king of the world?” I said. It was hard to get a handle on the idea that Breeg’s group was literally in control of the planet. Killing hundreds of people was trivial compared to devastation they could cause with that kind of power.

“There is one thing I still need to do.” the Councilman said.

And then he breathed lightning at me.

I raised a Void anima shield instinctively. In part that was a response to my danger sense going off and in part it was because I‘d been expecting Breeg to turn on me since he started talking. I hadn’t forgotten that his casting skill was good enough to summon the fire elemental, or that he had every reason in the world to hate me.

As it turned out though, my shield wasn’t needed. The lightning arced away before it hit me. Like a brilliant blue-white river, it flowed to my left and into Darius’ outstretched hand where it gathered into a blinding ball.

No one wasted time with words from there.

The lightning strike hadn’t been a sparring jab or a move to stun me. It had packed enough power to reduce my bones to dust. Breeg was playing to kill.

Darius hurled the ball of gathered electricity back at my attacker. The Councilman dodged to the side and slung the deadly projectile around and then back at me again. I saw it coming and faded away, rolling under its path. That bought Darius time to regain control of it.

He split the ball into three buzzsaw-like disks and sent each one at Breeg along a different path.

Breeg didn’t dodge any of them. Instead he conjured a large buzzsaw of energy around himself and sucked the three disks into it.

I felt a stab of cold in my chest warning me of danger and managed to throw myself to the ground behind one of the support pillars before the next attack hit.  From the floor, I watched as Breeg’s disk blew outwards with the force of a bomb blast. The pillar I landed behind shattered into a shower of debris when the exploding buzzsaw hit it.

In the aftermath, I couldn’t see what happened to Darius but I did see Breeg step back and call lightning down through a gaping hole in the roof. Summoning the elemental had drained his reserves, I reasoned. Letting him power back up was the last thing I could afford to do, so I leapt forward.

And passed right over a Runic circle.

The buzzsaw had distracted me enough that I hadn’t noticed the enchantments it had left inscribed onto the floor in its wake. Each Runic circle that I crossed over exploded and pummeled me bloody. My Physical anima shield was good, but the Runes packed an insane amount of punch. They weren’t what made me scream though. What made me scream was that the explosions included a force effect that knocked me through the outside wall of the building.

I just had time to grab a window sill of the apartment building opposite the one I’d be blasted out of before Breeg resumed his attack.

“I have no idea how you found out that I was the one who destroyed the Palace Arms, and I don’t care.” Breeg said. “I’m going to kill you, trap your ghost and make you listen as everyone lauds me as a hero who destroyed an evil renegade.”

Breeg was flying on scintillating jets of blue light that blazed from the soles of his feet. That was a trick only someone who was exceptional skill with Energetic anima casting could pull off. My wing pack worked on the same principal but was imbued with a simpler spell. I could have tried to match Breeg’s flight with it, but I knew he’d had the edge in terms of maneuverability if we took the battle to the air.

Unfortunately for him, that only left the option of taking the Councilman down the hard way.

The buildings were close enough together that I was able to leap from one to the other and ascend towards Breeg while he was screaming at me. He didn’t let me get all that close before he resumed his attack though.

Rather than a lightning bolt that he had to aim, Breeg called down a column of electricity as wide as the alley. I could have pushed my Physical anima as far as it would go and it wouldn’t have helped. There was no where to dodge the torrent.

“Took you long enough.” I muttered, relieved that he was finally going all out on me.

One of the problems with being a Void anima caster is that I don’t have perfect control over it. This had led to problems with other people casting spells on me. I nearly killed the first guy who tried to cast a healing spell on me for example because my Void anima ripped a lot more magic out of him than he’d been expecting.

Master Raychell had taught me that most combat spell casters hold back on the anima that they put into each attack spell. That prevents them from burning out too quickly and it also prevents me from draining them dry if I absorb the spell with a Void anima shield.

Councilman Breeg was a masterful spell caster, but he’d never really learned to fight. The Lightning Waterfall spell is the perfect one to use when you have to be sure to hit your target. Breeg’s saw that and cast it in an instant, putting all the force and fury he possibly could into it. It made for a deadly killing stroke and could have finished the battle in an instant. His problem was that he didn’t try to understand the situation he was in. He just went with what he already knew and failed to pay attention to the fact that his opponent had already surprised him on multiple occasions.

It wasn’t a fatal mistake on his part, but that was only because I needed him alive to learn what Makkis’ plan was.

The Lightning Waterfall slammed into my Void shield and I devoured it. I felt the threads of anima running through the spell and ripped at them, tearing power out of Breeg in gouts that singed his flesh and made him scream.

To his credit, he was a better spell caster than I’d anticipated too. With ruthless efficiency, he severed the threads connected to the Lighting Waterfall, casting away the reservoir of power he’d used to cast the spell.

“Aww. Come on. Cast another one.” I taunted him. I’d flipped onto the top of the apartment building after the lightning spell dissipated.

“What are you!” Breeg asked, his eyes wide with shock and terror.

“Everything you fear and more.” I answered, paraphrasing he earlier quip at me.

He looked at me, anima dancing around his eyes as he tried a True Seeing spell to determine what he was faced with.  I could see confusing crashing over his features. At my core, I wasn’t anything special. I had an unusual talent, but apart from that I wasn’t his equal in skill or power. At least not until you added in the fire elemental essence and the bone stealer animas that I carried.

I knew it would take him a second to see those vast pools of anima that were at my fingertips and it was kind of amusing to see the realization creep across his face when he did.

Puzzlement. Focused attention. Concern. Fear. Terror. Each emotion painting over the last. It wasn’t until I smiled at him that he bolted though.

The blue flames at his feet sputtered for an instant and then blazed as bright as the sun overhead. In a second he was a figure receding into the clouds above.

I unfurled my flight pack wings and the fire elemental’s wings to give chase and saw one of the Council’s armed transports banking in towards the building.

“This is going to be a problem.” I said on the mental link Fari had setup.

“Can you cloak us again?” Darius asked.

“Yeah, but it’ll cut into my flight speed. I’ll never catch him that way.” I said.

“You won’t have to.” he said. “Hang on.”

A second later I was being hugged and then the ground dropped away and the roar of the wind drowned out everything.

I blinked and found myself face to face with Darius, who’d wrapped his arms around me underneath my own. Below us a column of blue fire that burned as bright as Breeg’s was pushing us upward. It took me a second to connect the two events.

“You can fly on your own!” I said.

“I told you Mental anima was my second best casting skill right?” he said with a smile.

Meaning his first skill was with Energetic anima. From the looks of it it he was in Breeg’s range in fact. Maybe better even.

I cloaked us as soon as my brain processed what was happening and then called out to Fari.

“Can you provide navigation for Darius?” I asked her.

“Yep. I have a lock on Breeg.” she said.

“Is he heading back to the Council building?” I asked, a suspicion growing in my mind.

“No. He’s heading out of town.” she said.

“What direction?” I asked.

Fari provided the answer with a topographic map of the area and a blinking indicator for Breeg’s position.

“He’s terrified. He’s trying to escape us anyway he can.” Darius said.

“Yeah, but look at the way that he’s changing course. He’s not just trying to get away from us. He’s trying to get to someplace. Somewhere that he feels safe.” I said.

“He doesn’t have any holdings or known addresses in the direction he’s traveling.” Fari said.

“What is in that direction then?” I asked.

“It’s wasteland out this way.” Darius said. “We don’t even patrol here. The land’s worthless and local creatures are too dangerous to bother.”

“Are any of them aerial?” I asked, thinking that Breeg might be trying to lure us into a trap.

“None of the significantly dangerous ones are.” Darius said.

I tried to think of what other possibilities there were but it was difficult to get my brain together. Between the chase and the fight and the lack of sleep and the fact that Darius and I were clasped together in an embarrassingly tight hug, thinking wasn’t high on the list of things that I felt naturally inclined to do.

That way lay madness though, and it was definitely the wrong time and the wrong situation to be noticing how nice his hair smelled.

“What about legends?” I asked, desperate to distract myself from my previous line of thought.

“Legends?” Darius asked. “Oh wait. Oh no. It had better not be that.”

“What?” I asked, knowing from his tone that whatever he’d thought of was almost certainly correct, despite how much he didn’t want it to be.

“There was a civilization here before the humans or the Garjarack colonized Hellsreach. Like tens of thousands of years before, maybe more.”

“What happened to them?” I asked.

“No one knows. Humans and Gar fought over this place for so long that most of the ancient ruins were annihilated. There wasn’t any serious work done on unearthing the past until twenty years ago.” he said.

“When the Empire put a lid on the warfare.” I said.

“Right. It didn’t stop the boiling, but it contained it enough that people were able to search the uninhabited areas of the world looking for ruins that had escaped the decades of violence we’d had.” he said.

“Let me guess, no one found anything up here, but there’s a tale from during the war about an awesome ruin that someone stumbled on.” I said.

“Yeah, it’s a common story on pre-inhabited worlds.” Darius said. “Here’s the part that makes it unique to our current situation; care to guess who owns the biggest exploration and mining company in this area?”

There was only one answer that made sense.

“Makkis and Breeg.” I said. “They found an intact old ruin and covered it up.”

“Better than that, I’m guessing they found something in the old ruin. Something that’s unimaginably powerful.” he said.

“And now they’ve figured out how to use it and are going to take over the world with it.” I said.

“How do we fight that?” Darius asked.

“We break it.” I said.

“What if its too big to break?” he asked.

“Nothing’s too big break. We’ll just need to hit it hard enough.” I said.

I was wrong about that. More wrong than I could imagine.

The Winds of Yesterday – Chapter 25

The feeling of satisfaction I experienced when my uppercut connected with Makkis jaw was a bliss like I had never experienced before in my life. It was a textbook perfect punch. He was turned away from me, distracted by the arrival of the page, as I moved in and started shifting my weight. The page tried to warn him of my approach. The poor boy had read the alert, he “knew” that I was a dangerous criminal.

None of them had any idea how true that was about to become though.

Makkis turned back to face me as I stepped within arm’s reach of him. He had a smirk on his lips that he was fighting to suppress.

I helped him out with that.

Stepping forward with my right foot, I bent at the knees and coiled by left hand into a fist below me.

It was one action. One exhilarating release. My fist rose upwards with the force of a rocket lifting off and caught Makkis right under his chin. The word he was forming shattered as the force of the blow lifted him off his feet.

One advantage to being tall is that when uppercuts like that hit, you’ve still got a lot of extension left in your arm. I put so much force and weight into the punch that I didn’t stop my upwards momentum until I’d spun nearly 180 degrees and was reaching for the sky.

Not that I paused there.

Building on my momentum, I spun into a pivoting step and slammed an elbow strike into Councilman Breeg’s nose. I saw Breeg’s eyes rolling back into his head from the blow and grabbed him before his could fall away from me.

For some reason, probably because they were used to others doing the violent work for them and because neither was particularly talented at Aetherial anima casting, neither Makkis nor Breeg had seen this coming. They’d backed me into a corner, tried to kill me, tried to destroy me, and they hadn’t foreseen that I would strike back.

I was too much of a brute for them, I guess, and for my own good when it came to it.

In assaulting the Chairman of the Common Council, I’d declared a private war on Hellsreach. I couldn’t have played into Makkis plans better if I’d been working for him. There was no way the Common Council was going to trust me enough to believe my testimony in a hearing.

That didn’t matter though. Makkis had made a mistake.

I couldn’t win with the Common Council. Makkis had beaten me too thoroughly there. But that was the mistake. If there’d been a chance to work things out with them, I would have tried and in doing so, wasted all of the time I had remaining.

Instead, I was an outlaw. Of my own choosing. The difference that made was incomprehensible at first.

Moments before, I’d been paralyzed with terror at the thought of being cast out, of being unwanted, of being unworthy. With two counts of assault under my belt, I hoisted Breeg’s unconscious body onto my shoulder to add kidnapping to my list of crimes. Despite the extra weight, I felt unrestrained, like shackles I’d worn all my life had fallen away from me.

The room was blanketed by a stunned silence in the seconds following my attack on Makkis and Breeg. For a world with a century of warfare in its immediate history, it didn’t look like the council members were personally familiar with being exposed to violence.

I took advantage of the all-too-brief shock and broke into a run, carrying Breeg still slung over my shoulder. That took some Physical anima magic to make happen but it was worth it.

“Shoot her!” one of the guards called out.

“I’ll hit the Councilman!” another called back.

Hector, Darius’ father, brave and stupid man that he is, tried to get in my way. He might have disliked, or even hated Breeg and Makkis, but he believed in the Council. I could see the same seriousness in his eyes that Darius had when he talked about it. He couldn’t let something as fundamentally wrong as the kidnapping of a council member go unopposed.

Fortunately for all of us, Hector’s forte wasn’t Physical anima casting and he wasn’t close to being in my league in hand-to-hand combat. He tried a clumsy grab aimed at my arm and I tripped him. Often when I trip someone it’s with the intent of ramming their head through the concrete we’re standing on. Once you are in control of someone’s fall though you have options. In this case I chose to spin Hector into a graceful little pirouette that left him sitting on one of the  galleries benches.

“Stop her!” the first guard screamed. His voice was tinged with panic which told me he thought I was trying to kill myself and Breeg. In his defense, I was running full speed at the twenty foot tall picture windows that gave the Council a view of downtown Zawalla City.

“I’ll get her!” Darius shouted and moved to intercept me.

That was trouble. He was still wearing some of his scout combat gear. Even if he wasn’t as good with Physical anima as I was, he was going to have a big advantage if we came to blows.

“He’s gaining on you!” Fari said and gave me back some of the fire elemental’s power.

I hit the windows like a comet.

The corona of fire that surrounded me blasted the glass outwards with enough force that I didn’t get slashed to ribbons and I exited the building like a shooting star.

The sensation of falling was a reassuring one. I was trapped by gravity, but I was free otherwise! I’d escaped pursuit and I had access a person who was sure to have the information I needed. All I had to do was fly away.

“I would really appreciate it if you could catch me!” Darius said over our mental link. “And please, please make it look like we’re fighting tooth and nail.”

I flipped over in my fall, unsure what I would find, and saw the idiot leap out of the tower!

“Are you kidding me!” I screamed back at him.

“Your wings can carry three right?” he asked as he started to plummet.

I had no idea how much I could carry.

“The flight pack’s only rated for two.” Fari said.

“This is going to be fun then. Give me the elemental’s power back.” I said and flared out both the flight pack’s wings and the wings of fire the elemental’s essence provided me.

The elemental wasted no time trying to usurp control of me, but I slammed it’s essence into a tight little ball in my mind and drove a dagger of Void anima into it, pinning its urges in place.

“Catching” Darius turned out to look a lot like “colliding” with him for the simple reason that a mid-air collision was the best I was able to manage with Breeg’s unconscious body throwing off my aerial agility.

Darius clung onto me and shifted around like we were grappling in mid-air. Again, it was a realistic performance since for the first minute or so the weight of the three of us and the lift provided by the four wings I’d conjured was highly unstable. He eventually wound up hanging beneath me with both hands clutching my left ankle. I’m sure it looked impressive, but it wasn’t what I would describe as comfortable.

The one big advantage of having Darius and Breeg along for the wobbling flight though was that the ground forces couldn’t risk shooting at me. As we passed beyond the force field that surrounded the Council headquarters (through a hole carved with Void anima) I saw the flying transports lifting off to pursue us. That meant I had to lose them, which meant diving into the city.

Under ideal circumstances, a flight through a densely packed cityscape could be fun. Twisting and turning around buildings would be thrilling and a great test of my fine control with the flight pack. For the flight we actually had I would replace “fun” with “screaming terror”.

In the end though, we landed. Not safely. Not painlessly. But we landed.

We wound up in a dusty upper story warehouse. The windows were caked with enough grime to prevent anyone from seeing in and enough of them were broken already that the one we’d smashed through didn’t stand out. I was pretty sure we’d lost our pursuers because I’d taken so many turns and passed through and under so many obstructions that I had no idea where we were.

“Are you completely insane?” Darius asked. His eyes were wide and his hands had a tremble left in them but I could see he was intact which was all I’d been hoping for towards the end of the flight.

“Uh, you’re the lunatic who jumped out of perfectly good building without a flight pack on!” I said.

“I had a plan.” he said.

“So did I!” I said.

“We need to work out what we do next.” Fari said, appearing in between the two of us.

“I think we need to know what he’s doing here.” I said pointing at Darius.

“He came to help.” Fari said.

“Why would you do that?” I asked. I knew that I looked guilty to him. Power mad, murderous and guilty.

“Fari filled me in on what happened.” he said.

“And you believed her?” I asked. I’d lived through everything Fari could have told him about and even I had to wonder if I’d been hit with a Delusion spell when I stopped to think about it.

“Yeah.” he said. “I do.”

The quiet tone of the words was almost an admission of defeat.

“I know I came down on you pretty hard before about not understanding the situation here.” he said. “It’s complex. I guess even more than I knew.”

“Yeah, well, I don’t think I’m helping to make it much simpler.” I said. “And you weren’t wrong. I still don’t know what’s going on here.”

“Someone, Makkis probably, is trying to frame you.” Darius said.

“He’s done a good job. Look at me now – I’ve kidnapped an elected official of your government! On nothing more than an educated guess!” I said.

“Yeah, that’s going to be all kinds of fun to sort out later. My dads are going to have a meltdown when they find out what’s really happening.” he said.

“Your father Hector was very brave.” I told him.

“I know. Thanks for not hurting him.” Darius said. “That’s part of why I believe what Fari said.”

“He was trying to do the right thing.” I said.

“He’s not the only one.” Darius said, looking at me with a faint smile.

The room felt a bit warm. The fire elemental’s lingering essence I decided.

“Fari could you take the elemental away again?” I asked.

“Already did.” she said. Her smile was more of a teasing one.

“You said that Breeg was the one who summoned the fire elemental that destroyed the Palace Arms?” Darius asked.

“That’s the apartment building we were at.” Fari said.

“Yeah. We weren’t there when it burned, but we saw it go up in a post-cognition spell. One second it was fine, the next the elemental burst through everything in the building. I don’t think anyone made it out of there.” I said.

“The fire crews reported fighting the blaze to protect the surrounding buildings. No rescue attempts were made within the Palace Arms itself.” Fari said.

“So you know Breeg is responsible for their deaths.” Darius said. “But you can’t prove it in a hearing.”

“There’s more than that.” I said. “Fari confirmed that Makkis is the one who was spying on us when we escape from the containment facility. He played the same game there, trying to tie up Fari and my time so that the Ghost Duster bombs would get us.”

“That’s kind of a relief believe it or not.” Darius said.

“Why?” I asked.

“My dads’ political enemies are the enemies of the Empire.” Darius said. “We’ve had a lot of discussions about how the Empire would treat the Common Council if an official relationship could be forged. Makkis himself is in the minority position on relations with the other worlds and the Empire but he’s built up such a powerful voting block that he’s been able to squelch a lot of the proposals my dads have put forward. Maybe with this, they’ll be able to get some momentum for their ideas.”

“Maybe. Like you said though, it’s a complicated situation.” I said.

“That’s assuming there is a later.” Fari said.

“Which brings us to Breeg here.” I said. “He knows what Makkis and his cabal are planning. It’s gotta be happening soon or they wouldn’t have been stalling to buy a few additional hours.”

“It’s not happening soon.” Breeg said, reviving from unconsciousness at last. “Look at the sky! We’ve already won!”

I looked outside and saw a bright, sunny day. Nothing that suggested victory by one side or the other.

“You’re behind this?” Darius asked with a look of understanding and horror in his eyes.

It took me a moment to catch up. It was bright and sunny out when it shouldn’t have been.

“Fari, what time is it?” I asked.

“It’s ten minutes before dawn.” she said. I could see she’d pieced it out too.

It was ten minutes before dawn, but the sun was hanging in the center in the sky like it was noon.

When I’d guessed that Makkis’ scheme had planetary implications, I’d had no idea how right I was.

The Winds of Yesterday – Chapter 24

I was an outlaw. A rogue agent. The Empire was going to hunt me down. Fari’s words washed over me and a sick wave of dread followed them.

For a moment I was seven years old again and being scolded by the Sisters of Water’s Mercy. I’d stolen a fruit tart from one of the street vendors. It was stupid. The thing tasted like cardboard. I knew it was going to taste like cardboard too but I was bored and one of the other girls dared me to do it so I did.

I’d thought I was too clever to be caught. I’d been training with Master Hanq for a little bit at that point so I was sure I had the moves and enough speed that no one would notice me. I thought with my mighty “fist anima” (I was a stupid kid, it sounded cool at the time) I was powerful enough to take what I wanted and be the Queen of the town.

I’d been wrong. Of course.

I’d been caught. Of course.

And the Sisters had chewed me out. Of course.

The worst part of it though was the way it broke the illusions I had. “Fist anima” wasn’t going to see me through. I wasn’t powerful. I was just a little girl.

I’d cried myself to sleep that night, not because of the Sisters’ insane punishments (I can’t even remember what they were) but because of how weak I felt. I gave up going to Master Hanq’s place too.

Standing in the Council chamber, all those feelings came back to me. I wasn’t a Crystal Guardian, one of the most fearsome warriors in the galaxy. I was Mel. Just Mel and I had no business telling people who were in charge of a planet what they should do.

The fire elemental essence I was carrying jumped into the gap of weakness in me. I could show them I was important. In fact, if I was going to be hunted down, I’d give them a damn good reason to come after me. Flames crackled along my skin and I felt my vision glaze over with waves of heat.

“Fari. Help. Get the elemental out of me!” I said on our telepathic link. I couldn’t keep myself together and fight off its influence.

I felt the flames rise in me, overtaking the last vestiges of rational thought I had. A cool wind whipped through me pulling them off my skin before I could burn. That stoked them higher and brighter but the more they were pulled away from me the more wisp-like they became, until they fluttered out entirely, absorbed into Fari’s gem.

In a way that helped. I sobered up in an instant with the elemental’s influence removed. The problem was, my sober eyes could see just how bad the situation I was in was.

I had a lot of anima, but the Council had an army to work with. I might be able to escape them, but I wasn’t going to be able to beat an entire planet’s worth of armed forces. What was worse though was that I’d dragged Fari down into the mess with me. If I was an outlaw, anything she did would fall under the “aiding and abetting” category of crimes.

“We have offered a solution to the dilemma you present us.” Makkis said. “Under the circumstances, this is more than you have any legal right to request, but in the interest of beginning proper relations with the Empire we are willing to move forward. Councilman Breeg is going nowhere until this matter is addressed. This should be more than sufficient for you, unless you are unwilling to deal with us in good faith?”

Makkis smiled at me as he finished the question. His expression had all the friendliness of a dagger to the heart.

I paused to find my answer and I saw his smile deepen. He had me. Every path I looked down was one where he emerged victorious.

The delay was going to strengthen the people on the council who opposed him, but he was in favor of it. A five year old could figure out what that meant. If he didn’t mind the delay it was because his plans were going to run to completion before the hearing began. All he needed to do was buy time.

If I opposed the delay, he could call off the whole trial on the basis that I wasn’t willing to deal with the Common Council as a legitimate governing body. I couldn’t say I respected their authority if I ignored it because I thought my goals were more important.

Of course, they were more important. Or at least I believed they might be. I didn’t have solid proof that Makkis, Breeg and their conspiracy had a plan in motion that would affect the planet though. That was all intuition and basic reasoning on my part.

He’d claimed that he’d ‘already won’, the first time I talked to him. That was a lie. If he was secure in his victory, he wouldn’t have destroyed one of his own bases and burned down a building full of people to keep me off his tail.  So he had to still be working on whatever scheme he was playing at.

I wracked my brain to find some clue about what it could be that I could share with the other council members. Once my outlaw status became known I wouldn’t be able to stop Makkis but, if I put Osgood and Hector on the right trail, they’d have every reason to bring him down for me.

It couldn’t be a personal scheme, I decided. The Empire was isolated from the situation on Hellsreach by the Joint Exxion Congress, the Human and Garjarak governing body that reported to the other two planets in the system. With them unwilling to recognize the Hellsreach Common Council or report on its existence, Makkis could have been planning to run any sort of racket imaginable and we wouldn’t have heard of it. Unless it affected the entire planet. Then, one way or the other, we’d find out what was going on and get involved.

Makkis had claimed that he was trying to send a message to the Empire to stay out of Hellsreach’s affairs. That was a lie too. There was no better way to have the Empire slam down on Hellsreach than killing one of the Crystal Guardians.

Even if I was a criminal and a Wanted rogue agent, the Empire, and maybe even the Empress, would react poorly to the loss of Master Raychelle.

So Makkis scheme had to have planetary, if not system-wide, ramifications. In fact it had to be something that would allow the Makkis to stand against not only his enemies on the Common Council but also the military might of Exxion 3, Exxion 4, and the Crystal Empire.

“If you’ll pledge to deal in good faith, and keep Councilman Breeg here, then I’ll accept the delay.” I said. My voice had lost its otherworldly quality. Several council members sighed in relief at the defusing of tensions. Even Osgood and Hector seemed pleased. Only Makkis looked like he understood what I was really saying.

We both knew he wasn’t dealing in good faith. I hadn’t accepted the delay, I had only admitted that I didn’t have a play to make yet.

What I wanted to do was run. They hadn’t heard the broadcast of my rogue status yet, but I knew it was a matter of minutes before someone brought the news in. Then Makkis’ victory would be complete. The hearing would never go off if Breeg’s accuser was revealed to be a galactic criminal.

I saw Makkis smiling at me still. He was ecstatic behind his hardened gaze. He knew he’d won.

He shouldn’t have known that though. Not with that much certainty. I’d surprised him too many times so far. He should have been worried still. If it was Master Raychelle in my position, he would have been terrified.

But it wasn’t Master Raychelle. It was me. A soon-to-be fugitive.

And he knew that! I could see it in his eyes!

Understanding blossomed from the depths of my subconscious and a brand new wave of fear rolled through the my guts.

I shouldn’t have been branded a criminal and I wasn’t a rogue agent. Master Raychelle was the one who’d left me. Everything I’d done since then had been to protect people or find the ones responsible for hurting them. More importantly, most of it had occurred when communications back to the Imperial station were jammed. They couldn’t brand me a criminal for my actions because they had no way of knowing about them!

That wasn’t just reassuring, it made sense with something Fari had told me earlier.

“You tried to establish a communication spell to the Imperial station while we were on our way here didn’t you?” I asked Fari telepathically.

“Yeah. I couldn’t get through.” she said.

“I remember. You thought it might have been destroyed. There was another possibility though wasn’t there?” I asked.

“Yeah. If all of the communication spell matrices were taken offline for repair.” Fari said.

“Can you connect to them now?” I asked.

“Yes.” she said and added “Oh no.”

“Let me guess.” I said. “They weren’t down for repair were they?”

“No. They were down for reprogramming.” she said.

“Makkis controls them now, doesn’t he?” I asked.

“Not directly. The one who hijacked them is named Unlew.” Fari said. “Of course the two of them share controlling interest in a few different businesses, off-world businesses in fact, so I think it’s safe to say Makkis’ conspiracy holds the Imperial station now.”

“Anyone left alive onboard it?” I asked.

“Yes. All members of the crew are captive in the landing bays, which are sealed.” she said.

“So anyone who wants to reclaim the station will need to spend extra time or risk killing the hostages.” I said.

“That’s a bad sign. Hostages won’t buy them much time if an Imperial battle cruiser shows up. They must be really close to whatever they’re trying to do.” Fari said.

“I know.” I said. “I can’t believe how stupid I am though.”

“You’re not stupid. Makkis shouldn’t have been able to take over the Imperial station. You couldn’t see that coming. None of us could have.” Fari said.

“I know. I don’t feel stupid about that. I just…” I choked back the words at first. It was hard to even think them, because they sounded so childish in my head. “I just can’t believe with all this that what I feel happy about is not being a criminal.”

“Mel! Why would you think…” Fari started to say and then caught herself. “Oh. I’m sorry! I didn’t even think about what I said to you. I knew the report was bogus. It had to be. I just wanted to warn you about it.”

Somehow the relief was almost harder to bear than the fear had been. I thought back to being a seven year old. Maybe crying it out like I had then would have done some good. In front of the Common Council was not the place to revert to pre-adolescent behavior though, however good it would have felt.

I swallowed hard and forced myself to as calm of a state as I could muster.

“It’s ok.” I told Fari. “I needed the heads up, and it kind of doesn’t matter that I’m not really a wanted criminal. Once the report reaches the Council, they’re going to treat me like an outlaw no matter what.”

“And with the Imperial station down, we don’t have any backup from the Empire that could arrive here in times anyways.” Fari said.

“Yeah. Not unless they were already here and the one person I know of who fits that description is still missing in action.” I said.

“I’m starting to get worried about that. Master Raychelle should have contacted you by now, shouldn’t she?” Fari asked.

“Yeah, probably. I can only think of a few reasons why she wouldn’t have and none of them are good.” I said.

The muttering among the council members stopped when Makkis cleared his throat.

“We must assemble the entire Council if possible. I know several members are absent because they were not able to travel to the emergency meeting on short notice. I propose we authorize suppressing the anti-teleportation wards and diverting city power to the transport pads in the Council Building to facilitate their arrival.” Makkis said.

“Council by-laws forbid leaving this building undefended while a quorum of council members are present.” Osgood said. He was fighting the political battle of getting the right council members into position to take down one of Makkis’ supporters. I wanted to yell at him that it wasn’t going to matter, but I knew that move would leave me too open to Makkis’ counter attack.

I didn’t have a plan, but every moment until the report of my “outlaw status” came in was time for me to come up with one.

The council members fell to bickering over points of order and related by-laws and precedents for exceptions. They were wasting time in exactly the manner that Makkis needed them to, but with their focus off me I was able to step back and think too.

That is until I heard a soft chime ring in my ear.

“It’s Darius.” Fari said. “He’s trying to reconnect to the telepathic link we had setup.”

“Can you keep it secure?” I asked.

Fari huffed in disbelief at the question.

“Ok, ok. Let him in then please.” I said.

“What are you doing here?” Darius asked, the moment the communication spells were joined together.

“Getting in trouble.” I told him. “What are you doing here?”

“Testifying about what happened at the base. About you specifically.” he said.

“What have you told them?” I asked.

“Nothing yet. They hadn’t called for the witnesses yet. The emergency meeting was just getting going when you burst in.” he said. “What happened?”

“A lot. An assassin tried to kill me at the base. Two of them in fact.” I said. “I tried to beat one of them back to their home but Breeg torched it. He killed everyone inside the building to keep me from finding anything that would lead to them.”

“How do you know it was him then?” Darius asked.

“Fari and I summoned the elemental that he used. It lead me here. Right to him in fact.” I said.

“That’s impossible.” Darius said.

“No. Not impossible. Just very difficult. And very dangerous. Sorry for the grand entrance there. I wasn’t entirely in my right mind with the elemental egging me on.” I said.

“And now?” Darius asked.

I saw a page enter the Council chamber room at a breathless run. He looked around. Caught sight of me and went white as a sheet. He paused on the doorway for a precious pair of seconds while I wished him away with all of my meager mental anima skills. I knew what was on the sheet of paper he was carrying.

My mind control skills being non-existent, I watched him cast his gaze down, pull up his courage and start marching towards Makkis.

I’d run out of time to come up with a plan.

“And now, I’m about to kidnap a Council member.” I told Darius.

The Winds of Yesterday – Chapter 23

Seeing Darius standing with the Council members made the idea of burning them all to ash somewhat less appealing. It bothered me that the idea didn’t seem horrific though.

“You may have been right.” I told Fari. “The elemental’s getting to me.”

“I can take it away.” she offered, concern suffusing her mental voice.

“Not yet. I need to see this through.” I said.

With a long, slow breath, I exhaled fire from my nostrils and floated down to the floor of the rotunda. As I did, I pushed the fire elemental’s essence away from my mind and pulled in the wings of flame that supported me.

I hated doing it and my hands shook with the effort it took.

Maybe I’m more vulnerable to lure of power than most people. I felt like a lower life form for so much of my life because I couldn’t manipulate anima or cast even the simplest spell. Maybe that explains why the fire elemental’s essence was so intoxicating to me. The truth was I didn’t want to just burn them. Not when reaping their anima would be so much more delicious.

I tried to tell myself that those thoughts were the fire elemental speaking but I suck at lying. I had power, plenty of power, but more was always better.

Fari could have pulled me back from that precipice, but she didn’t have to, not when I saw Darius watching me and waiting to see what was going to happen next.

It wasn’t love that pulled me back. He was cute and smart, but it was a little early to say I cared about him that much. Seeing him with the Council members moved me in a different way. It reminded me that they were people. Not obstacles, and maybe not even enemies, at least not most of them.

One of the Council members who was standing beside Darius was the first to summon up the courage to speak in the hush that had fallen over the room in the wake of my arrival.

“That was a dramatic entrance. Who are you and what business do you have here?” the man said. He was taller than me, with skin of the same deep tan shade as Darius’. When I looked between the two of them I saw that their skin tone wasn’t that only resemblance between the two. Hair, eyes, facial features. None were an exact match, but if the Councilman wasn’t Darius’ acknowledged father then a paternity test was in order.

“I am Mel Watersward, Crystal Guardian, Initiate Class, and I am here on official Imperial business.” I said. My voice sounded weird when I spoke. There was an echo in it and it filled the hall more than its volume should have allowed.

“The Imperial ambassador has never established official ties with this Council.” the Councilman said.

“I don’t really care about that at the moment.” I said. The political situation on Hellsreach was the next best thing to insane as far as I could tell. Untangling the mess I’d been dumped into and establishing a proper dialog between the Hellsreach Council, the Empire and the governments of the other two planets in the system would take months of negotiations. With the way Red Robes had been striking at me, I guessed that I had days or hours until his plan came into effect.

“Then we have nothing to say to you.” the Councilman said.

“You may not, but Councilman Breeg does.” I said. Fari had filled me in the Council members names and connections via a handy visual overlap spell.

“This Council stands together!” the Councilman said. From Fari’s overlay, I saw that his name was Hector.

Councilman Hector moved forward to place himself between the rest of the Council and I. Another councilor, Osgood, stepped up beside him. Fari’s overlay spilled out information about the two men as fast as she mined it from the Council’s spell web. They belonged to the same voting block, though not the one that held the majority in the Council. Both were primarily mental anima casters but neither had tested in the top tier for proficiency, which suggested neither could be Red Robes. Beyond that it was all personal information. They were married, to each other, Hector was Darius’ biological father, and between the three of them they were reasonably wealthy by Hellsreach standards.

The last bit surprised me. I couldn’t puzzle out why Darius would serve as a scout in the Hellsreach Council’s army if his family was that influential and if they had enough money to avoid it. On Belstarius, rich people hired poor people to be the ones to go out and get shot at. I had assumed that was the way it worked everywhere in the galaxy.

I also couldn’t puzzle out why Hector was defending Breeg. From the information Fari provided, it looked like the two hated each other. Breeg was in a party that had no overlap with Hector and Osgood’s. The best guess I could come up with was ‘political theater’, where Hector wasn’t defending Breeg so much as defending the sanctity of the Common Council. From the way the groups of Council members were isolated from each other I could believe keeping the government together required that sort of drama.

I looked to Darius briefly to see if I could read any clues from him before I stepped on any more landmines. It was tough to read his scowl, but he didn’t appear to be delighted to see me.

“I’m sorry, but I can’t let you harbor a murderer.” I said.

“That’s absurd!” Breeg said, stepping forward, though not so far as to be in front of Hector and Osgood. “You can’t burst in here and slander my name like that!”

“Indeed.” the Head Councilman said. “If you have accusations to levy, then they must be heard by an impeachment committee and then the judiciary. This Council will not negotiate in the face of violence or threats thereof.”

The Head Councilman, a guy named Makkis, put me in a difficult position. Master Raychelle had told me that we needed to respect the Exxion governments’ policies as much as possible until the final peace agreement was worked out. On the other hand, I was, nominally at least, part of a law enforcement division with jurisdiction that superseded the Common Council’s legal framework. The various member planets of the Empire were allowed to pass their own laws, apart from laws which infringed on the Empire’s declared “Rights of All Sapient Beings”. Murder was specifically one of the crimes which no member planet was allowed to sanction as legal.

That didn’t mean that the Crystal Guardians had the right to pursue murder cases wherever they cropped up though. There were only two instances where we were allowed to that I could remember. The first was when the decision of a planetary court was appealed to the Imperial ambassador. That didn’t apply here since the Imperial ambassador seemed to be out of commission or absent. The second case however did apply.

“As a member of a governmental body recognized by the people of Exxion 3, Councilman Breeg’s actions place him under direct Imperial jurisdiction.” I said, hoping that the brief lesson I’d had on Imperial law wasn’t leading me astray.

The idea, as I understood it, was that the Empire wouldn’t cast judgment on the citizens of a planet directly unless it was either requested to or in cases where the accused was in a position to put themselves above the law. As the sole Imperial representative on Hellsreach, (Master Raychelle was out of contact, so I was guessing she didn’t count), I had full judicial privileges to exercise. Or, in other words, I could act as judge, jury and executioner. Something told me I was probably missing the finer point of a few laws there but the reality of the situation was however things were resolved there was going to be a huge mess. The best I could do was try to preserve as many lives as possible.

Except Red Robes crew, the fire elemental essence whispered to me. Breeg and the rest of them could burn or be ripped apart just like they’d done to others.

“It seems as though we are at an impasse then.” Head Councilman Makkis said. “Unless you wish to press your claim and kill us all.”

I recoiled at hearing Makkis speak my private thoughts.

“He tested extremely high for mental anima aptitude, but he wasn’t reading your mind there.” Fari told me.

“I guess my entrance made it sort of obvious.” I replied back on the telepathic link.

Darius opened his mouth to say something, but Councilman Osgood managed to speak first.

“That’s not necessarily the case.” Councilman Osgood suggested, turning to face the Head Councilman. “There is precedent for calling emergency impeachment hearings in the face of serious charges.”

“This girl blasted her way into a closed session carrying no proof of her wild accusations. How serious are we to take her claims?” Head Councilman Makkis said.

“Murder is as serious a claim as anyone can make.” Councilman Hector said. “As for her evidence, that’s for the hearing panel to determine.”

“We are assembled for a matter of planetary importance. That must take priority.” Makkis said. His face reddened and his lips compressed into a thin line. The council members near him shuffled back a half step or more even though he hadn’t raised his voice or moved in any threatening way.

Fari provided a series of colored lines on the visual overlay spell she’d cast. The lines connected the members of the various parties and showed the parties affiliation with each other. Breeg and Makkis were in allied parties, both of which were in opposition to Hector and Osgood’s party. Beyond that, the web of voting history and public allegiances Fari turned up was so tangled I couldn’t guess what the council would do if they decided to vote on the matter.

“You seem to be confused Councilor Makkis.” I said. “I am not here to make a personal accusation. This is a planetary matter.”

“All the more reason we should engage with her on an official level.” Councilman Osgood said. The outer edge of his mouth were turned up in the smallest of smiles but his eyes shone with sheer delight. I didn’t mistake that for approval of me. Osgood had the look of someone playing a game and stumbling on a winning move. It wasn’t hard to imagine that, by invoking my Imperial authority, I’d changed the political landscape where Osgood and Makkis were fighting. The Empire hadn’t made official contact with the Hellsreach Common Council until I decided it was a bright idea. I had no idea what the ramifications of that would be, but I was sure all of the parties involved would fight to turn it to their own advantage.

“I see you’re point.” Makkis said, addressing Osgood and ignoring me. “It will need to be a proper hearing to hold official weight. The absent Council members must be alerted so that they can hear the testimony and have a say in the deliberation.”

“Of course.” Osgood agreed. His smile widened and Fari showed me why. The current assemblage of council members was made up of barely more than half of the Council. Many hadn’t been able to make the emergency session. Given the right window of time, Osgood and Hector could count on tipping the balance much closer to their favor.

I winced. Agreeing with Osgood would win me an ally, but I couldn’t do it. The political stakes were high, but the planetary stakes were higher.

“I’m sorry, but this cannot be delayed.” I said. “Councilman Breeg has murdered hundreds of people already. The group he is affiliated with has murdered ten times that number and destroyed part of one of your military bases, all within the last twenty four hours.”

“She’s insane.” Breeg said. I saw him siddle closer to Makkis as he did so though. I winced again. Breeg looking to Makkis for protection wasn’t proof that they were part of the same conspiracy, but the move had been so instinctive that it made me consider the possibility.

“Makkis is Red Robes.” Fari said.

“How can you tell?” I asked, surprised that my intuition was correct.

“His reaction to your reaction clued me in. I cast a high tier analysis spell to confirm it though. His body structure matches Red Robes exactly, and the anima signature on the defensive spells he’s wearing is the same.”

I thought about my next words carefully. Whatever I said, whatever I did, and however people reacted, I knew that things were about to get loud.

“The Imperial embassy is transmitting again.” Fari said.

I felt relief sweep over me. I’d played this to the precipice of disaster. With the embassy responding again, the experienced professionals could come in and sort things out.

“They’re broadcasting a Wanted notice system-wide. For you. You’ve been declared a rogue agent and an enemy of the Empire.” Fari said.

The Winds of Yesterday – Chapter 22

The time for waiting was done. There was a fire burning in my veins and I saw the thread that lead back to its source. With a wave of my hand, I dropped the Void anima barrier that obscured us and unfurled wings of fire. In the dim illumination of a too-early morning, the light I cast outshone the oncoming dawn. From the ashes of the destroyed building, I rose leaving a trail of flames behind me and sonic boom to herald my coming.

“This isn’t a good idea.” Fari said. I heard the concern in her voice and dismissed it.

“We have to act now.” I told her. “Before the summoner can call up any more reinforcements.”

It took tremendous power to call forth a fire elemental the likes of the one I’d consumed. By all rights, the summoner should have been exhausted by the effort, but I was fighting against people who had decades to plan. I couldn’t bank on them running out of resources. I’d gained an advantage, one they couldn’t have planned for, and I needed to capitalize on that as fast as possible.

The fire elemental’s sense of where its previous summoner was led me to the center of Zawalla City. At the speed I was traveling, I covered the miles in seconds, ascending high into the sky in the process.

“That’s the Common Council building!” Fari said as we caught sight of our destination. A thrill of expectation ran down my spine as I spun over and dove towards the gleaming building below me.

“Looks like they’re in session.” I said, noticing the lights and activity around the structure.

The Council’s headquarters was a large circular building, a dozen stories tall with two rectangular wings stretching to the east and west. Despite being  owned by the least powerful of the three governmental forces on Hellsreach, the Council building managed to look imposing. The polished white stone with its gold inlays that the building was built from was part of that. The rest of Zwalla was no worse than my home town but my home town wasn’t exactly a shining beacon of galactic prosperity. The Council Building, by contrast, could have stood proud on one of the Empire’s core worlds. The gleaming white and gold said that someone had not only invested a lot of money in Hellsreach’s native government, but continued that investment by paying for the upkeep of the facility.

The Council’s wealth wasn’t the only thing imposing about their headquarters though. The platoons of armored soldiers around it were not for show or ceremony. They were all carrying fully functional weapons and they had plenty of practice in using them.

Even with the power I was infused with, the idea of assaulting the central HQ of the Common Council seemed foolish. They were expecting trouble, maybe because they were always expecting trouble due to the strife on the planet or maybe because the last day had seen catastrophe after catastrophe piling up. Either way, I would receive the wrong sort of “warm welcome” if I tried to crash through their defenses.

The smart move was to land and talk with them calmly. Given the chance, people will on rare occasions chose to be reasonable. It would have been so nice if that was an option for me.

“If the summoner’s in there, he’s either on the Council or close to someone who is.” Fari warned me.

“I know. That’s why I’ve got to make this quick.” I said. Assaulting the Council was such a bad idea that I felt sure Red Robes hadn’t accounted for it.

The summoner was on the top floor of the Council building, ten stories up, inside the rotunda that crowned the building. From my vantage in the clouds, I dropped towards him, folding the flame wings around me as a shield. That saved me from the volley of blast bolts the platoon of defenders shot at me.  The first few volleys were inaccurate but the soldiers fired in sustained bursts that tracked me as I spiraled down.

The bolts found their mark at the same time as I crashed through the defensive field that surrounded the governmental compound. The barrier should have been unbreachable but I had more than the fire elemental’s strength to draw on. When I reached out for it, Fari gave me some of the stolen power I’d taken from the bone stealers. That plus the fire elemental’s might plus my own Void anima punched a hole straight through a shield that could have held off a score of Ghost Duster bombs.

That kind of power is fatiguing to use and my supply of it was only “huge” not “infinite”. I started to notice the limits of it as my flame wings absorbed more of the blaster bolts. I wasn’t in danger of running out of energy immediately but I couldn’t withstand that kind of damage forever either.

It didn’t help that the Hellsreach forces were good shots and braver than I would have been in their position. They had a job to do and they put their all into doing it, which made surviving their attacks more taxing that it would have been against a greener recruits. I admired their determination and dedication to their job, it was just inconvenient that their job happened to involve killing me at the moment.

I flared my wings out to arrest my fall before the ground did the work of killing me for them and covered myself in Void armor.

“I need to convince them to stop shooting me.” I told Fari.

“Don’t kill any of them.” she said, more out of concern for me than for the soldiers, I think.

I agreed with her, or at least most of me did. I was able to absorb the majority of the blaster bolts’ energy, but enough was leaking through my armor and the protection offered by the wings that it was getting unpleasant. I’ve never run naked through a hive of angry bees but it was easy to imagine what that would feel like after standing up to the fire the Hellsreach defenders were laying down on me.  Most of me didn’t want to kill the defenders for that but there was a part of me that was in the mood for vengeance.

Plus some of them were almost certainly working with Red Robes.

So they deserved to burn.

Tongues of fire flared in my hands, eager to turn everyone who was hurting me into ash.

I shut down that line of thinking as fast as it cropped up and clenched the tongues of fire away for good measure. The fire elemental wasn’t dead. I hadn’t even beaten it. Not fully. In absorbing its power, I’d absorbed its essence as well. It wanted things to burn, and I wanted to burn Red Robes for the things he’d done. As long as we were in agreement, the fire elemental didn’t feel the need to fight with me. Holding it back from burning the troops felt unnatural though. Our goals diverged on that subject and the elemental was willing to fight me over it.

That was fine though. I was willing to fight back.

We landed on the roof of the Head Quarters, beside one of the heavy bolt caster guns, melting it to slag in the process. The ground troops lost their line of fire as we touched down which made things somewhat easier. The other heavy bolt casters continued firing on me though and those stung like hell.

I’m terrible at manipulating Energetic anima, but when you’ve got as much available as I had thanks to the elemental, throwing steel melting fireballs is easy. Too easy. I tried to hold back on the force I put into each fireball but the elemental slammed through my resistance.

In three seconds, the three nearest heavy bolt caster batteries were in flames. Their crews were alive from what I could tell, but some of them were going to need medical attention. Thanks to their fellows they were going to receive it. I was happy about that, but less happy that there were enough of the defenders left that they could manage the medical care needed for the wounded and still keep shooting at me.

“We need to get out of here.” I said to Fari. “The summoner is about forty feet below us, over there.”

I pointed to a spot underneath the center of the rotunda.

“That’s the central meeting room. The Council members were called in for a special session before dawn this morning.” Fari said. She’d accessed the Council’s spell web and was pulling information from it as fast as she could for me.

“They’re all in there?” I asked.

“Yes. As well as reporters and special witnesses.” she said. “I’m trying to put together a list of who that is and how they’re connected but their spellweb is well guarded.”

“Keep working on it. I can guarantee we can get the summoner but if they have allegiances the other Council members don’t know about we might not be able to catch their whole group.” I said.

“You’re assuming the whole Council isn’t in on this.” Fari said.

“I am, and I know that’s dangerous, but if they were all in on it, I don’t think Red Robes would be working so hard to get rid of us and hide any information that could lead back to him.” I said.

“You’ll need to hurry, they’re starting to evacuate the Council members.” Fari said.

I needed an entrance into the Council chamber, but all of the existing ones were guarded which meant I’d have to burn my way through a squad of soldiers to use them. That left one good option that I could see; make my own entrance.

I summoned up a fireball that was too bright to look at and hurled it at the center of rotunda’s dome. Before I had the chance to follow it through and descend on the people below in all of my dark and fiery glory, I found myself dodging the thrusts and slashes of an anima blade.

The soldier who attacked me hadn’t wasted any time with orders to surrender or offers of mercy. Her first strike had been kill and she’d followed it up instantly with slashes meant to disable me.

As bad as fighting her was though, my situation got even worse with the arrival of the rest of her squad. None of them were young and none were old. They were in that perfect range where they’d had time to accumulate plenty of experience without age slowing them down or dulling their reflexes.

On any other day, or under any other circumstances, they would have shredded me to ribbons. The Council couldn’t have asked for better defenders.

Unless they asked for me as I was in that moment.

Fari handed me more power before I even asked for it. With Physical and Mental anima surging through me like lightning, I watched time slow to a crawl. The soldiers were still moving but there was an exaggerated slowness to their actions. It was as though this were a normal sparring match that we were running at half speed.

Even with that, I got sliced up fighting them. Anima blades are murderously hard to parry bare handed and there were six of them on one of me. I twisted and dodged, weaving around their blows and disarming them as fast as I could, but they pressed their attacks so strongly and coordinated so well that there was no escape from some of the blows.

In the end I settled for tripping the soldier who had first attacked me and using her fall to cover my escape as I took flight and dove into the hole I’d made in the rotunda.

Beneath me, I saw at least fifty people. Some were guards who started to bring their bolt casters to bear on me as I dropped into the chamber and looked around for the summoner.

The geometry of the room wasn’t what I would have preferred for a fight. If the defenders opened fire within the room people were going to get hurt, me among that number.

I didn’t trust my control with using fireballs to disarm them, so I hung in the air, suspended on wings of flame, the dark anima of the Void swirling around me. I hoped that might intimidate them but I knew it was a gamble. At the very least though,  if they were aiming up they would only be shooting the ceiling when I dodged out of the way.

I scanned the crowd of people, letting the fire elemental’s essence lead me to the person who had summoned him. The Council members were shrinking back from me, slowly since I was still amped up on the power Fari had give me, and the difference between guilt and fear were difficult to make out. I didn’t need the summoner to admit his guilt though. The fire elemental would know him no matter how he might try to hide.

I caught sight of him standing behind one of the older council members and his aura flared into brilliance. The fire elemental recognized the one that we needed to burn.

It took everything I had to hold the elemental back at that point. I needed the summoner to talk before he fried. The elemental didn’t care about that. His only desire was to be let loose. There was fuel to burn here and lives to take.

My wings flared out greedily and licked the white stone of the rotunda’s dome blackening it to pitch. The guards that were protecting the summoner wouldn’t be able to stand in my way. I could sweep them aside and turn the Council to ash to make sure I got all of the conspirators.

I shook my head at those thoughts, forcing the elemental back under my control. No one was going to burn until I said so. Certainly not the guards who were only doing their duty.

I looked over their ranks and saw that some of the witnesses who had been called in for the sessions were gathering up their weapons and joining the uniformed guards in defending the Council members.

The whole population was psychotic. From the heavy set elderly woman in the robes of an academic to the newsman who was putting down his pen and holo-tablet to draw his personal bolt caster. They were all nuts.

Even Darius, who was standing with two of the Council members and was looking up at me with the same look of utter shock and amazement that I felt on seeing him.

The Winds of Yesterday – Chapter 21

The fire elemental arrived, as many fires do, with a single spark. He didn’t want to appear before Fari and I, but we didn’t allow him to make that choice. It was a cruel summoning, there wasn’t much fuel to burn in the charred remains of the destroyed apartment building. That didn’t stop the spark from growing though.

In response to our summons, the fire elemental poured its essence into the material world and a column of flame danced before us and swelled towards the brightening sky above.

I took my Void anima in hand again. Fari had her connection to the spirit, I didn’t need to pull it in any more. Instead I cast a circle of protection and obscurement outwards.

I could have cast the circle around us to protect Fari and I from the elemental’s wrath, but that would have severed Fari’s control of it and left the monster free to consume the nearby buildings as well. That’s why I made sure to cast the circle wide enough to encompass the whole building. That trapped us inside with the elemental and him inside with us.

“You’ve done everything wrong, Dark One.” the elemental said. From a column of fire it shaped itself into the form of a broad shouldered man composed of flames. It was tall, seven feet at least, and growing an inch every few seconds.

“You’re here.” I said, pointing out that we hadn’t done everything wrong.

“I am. Soon, you won’t be.” he said.

“We hold a binding over you.” Fari said, appearing beside me.

“It will not last long.” the elemental said. “And you cannot compel me far with it.”

“That doesn’t matter, you are under our command until the binding is fulfilled.” Fari said.

“Decide what you wish then.” he said. “I will not stay my vengeance from you though. Whatever you desire, you will have it and then you will burn.”

“You seriously want to talk about vengeance?” I asked.

“You dragged me here. Your hands are steeped in sin against me.” he said.

“Hundreds of people lived in this building. They’re ashes now.” I said. I couldn’t feel their ghosts. Whatever anima they’d possessed had moved on, or returned to the source, or whatever happened with the anima of the departed under natural circumstances.

“You all should be ashes.” the elemental said.

“We dragged you here. You should consider that there are other things we can do to you.” I said. It hadn’t been the elementals fault that it killed everyone in the building, a human or a Gar summoner was responsible for that, but I’d seen the way it had reached towards the building across the street. It had enjoyed destroying the people here and it would enjoy destroying anyone else it could. We could stop it, according to Fari’s theory anyways, but I doubted we could manage that without destroying a large part of it.

“That changes nothing. I will burn you.” he said. He swelled larger and I heard a hungry glee in his voice. I thought back to the vision. He hadn’t been coerced into killing everyone in the building. He’d done it gladly. The summoner hadn’t bent the elemental to his will, he’d merely released it and let the fire burned where it wanted to.

If it had been another elemental, one that chose to embody the flame that illuminates or the flame that warms, they might have moved through the building as a natural fire would have. The building still would have been destroyed, Mulwin’s belongings rendered safe from prying eyes, but the inhabitants would have had time to escape.

This monster wasn’t that sort of elemental though. He was the fire that destroyed. I heard his laugh and in it was the echo of  laughter I’d heard too often growing up on the streets. It was a sadist’s laugh. It gloried in the power and freedom of cruelty.

“You will answer our question.” Fari said.

“And then I’m going to extinguish you.” I told him.

“Foolish words. My heart is stronger than this world’s. I answered your call, but I am not yours to shape or bind.” he said.

I gestured with my left hand and called rune covered chains of Void anima up from the circle that flowed beneath us. The dark energies wrapped around the elemental’s arms and legs. They cut into the mass of its chest and ensnared its throat.

Where the Void anima touched the elemental’s flames, the fires dimmed and sputtered. Elementals can’t feel agony, but tearing away at its essence seemed like a decent substitute when it came to making my point.

“You will burn.” The elemental’s voice crackled with contained rage. “Ask your question and burn.”

“Who sent you to do this?” Fari asked, gesturing at the ruins around us.

“A mortal.” the elemental said, smug satisfaction radiating from him brighter than the flames that made him up.

“Not good enough.” I said and tightened the chains.

“And now, you burn.” the elemental said.

He tore through the Void anima chains, letting them rip huge gouts of flame out of him as they

cut through his arms and legs and chest. The chains around his neck held him for a moment before he pushed forward and they sliced off his head. When one head fell away, another roared forth to take its place.

He was fifteen feet tall and advancing when Fari stepped in front of me.

“Answer the question!” she commanded, the blue of her ghostly form blazing with fire of its own.

The fire elemental rocked back at her words and tried to press forward. It looked like a hurricane wind was set against it.

“We do not care for mortal names.” The elemental grunted as it spoke the words. “His face was hidden by the bones of slain mortals and in his hands he held the keys to the slain world. Your power is as nothing to his little mortal.”

“Though his face and name were hidden, you know him still.” Fari said. “Take us to him!”

The hurricane winds died away and the elemental stood up to a newly towering height.

“One command alone. That is all you may compel from me.” the elemental said, his voice bright with madness and glee. He surged forward and I managed to push Fari behind me and raise a personal shield just as he struck.

The shield shattered under his blow and I felt searing heat wash over me and hurl me backwards. I was lucky. I hit part of the ruined wall and tumbled cleanly through it.

The elemental roared in crazed delight and exploded towards me. I cast another shield, this one matching my rage against his. Fari wasn’t vulnerable to material injuries but a pure anima attack could affect her. I had too few friends in my life, there was no way in blazing hell I was going to let a monster like the fire elemental take one away from me.

The elemental crushed down on my shield, bringing a physical force to bear that was at odds with the flames that made up its body. In return, I lashed out with whips of Void anima that flayed power from the elemental with every hit.

For as fast as I damaged the monster though, new flames rushed in to replace the power that was lost. That was fine with me. The more power it had, the more I got to consume.

The elemental saw what was happening as my shield grew stronger instead of weaker from his continued attacks. If there’s one thing fire is good at though, it’s attacking from all directions at once. I’d been distracted by the pounding force it unleashed on the shield it erected and only noticed the wall beside me collapsing at the last second.

It was too late to dodge the wall, so I channeled some of the power I’d stolen from the fire elemental into a backhanded slam against the bricks that were about to squish me. The stolen anima was mostly Energetic anima, which I wasn’t familiar with using. As a result, my casting came out less like a spell and more like an uncontrolled explosion.

On the plus side, the wall that was falling at me shattered in two with a ten foot section around where I hit vanishing into a cloud of dust particles. The down side was that the explosion tossed me face first through the opposite wall.

I don’t know how I landed, except that it wasn’t in any shape or form, the way Master Hanq had taught me to land from a bad fall. I shook my head to clear the ringing from my thoughts and tried to get up and put my shield back in place.

I was too slow.

Fire isn’t pretty. It looks pretty from a distance, but up close its horrible. From a distance it’s warm and bright and safe. Up close though it is pain. Pure, unspeakable pain.

I felt a flash of that agony and heard Fari scream too before I was pulled out of my body. I thought I was dead, but then memories surged through me. I knew I was alive, but my thoughts were too distant from the world to interfere with what came next. I was hurt, dying, but not dead. I’d been hurt like that before. It didn’t leave me capable of rational thought. I just knew that I didn’t want to die and my body and instincts took over from there.

Void anima washed over me and solidified into a suit of armor. It pulled at my other animas, draining me, while at the same time feeding power to repair my body. Thought was gone, but rage remained. I wasn’t out of control though. I was still me. I wanted to live. I wanted my friend to be ok.

And I wanted that elemental to die.

Claws of void anima covered my hands. They were grotesque. I loved them.

The elemental was larger now. Twenty feet? Twenty five? It looked delicious.

With a growl, I leapt up to a beam on the second floor and launched myself off it at the elemental’s throat. The elemental blasted me with fire as I fell towards it and I became a black star wreathed in red and orange light. The hard Void anima armor that I wore smiled and I plunged my claws into the elemental’s chest.

Like a dog digging to find its most beloved bone, I slashed away at the flames of the elemental in a blur. Power coursed through me as I did so. Rich, pure energy, from the elemental’s heart.

I’d been tipsy on the power I’d taken from the bone stealers. That had been a rich blend of animas that carried the echoes of the dead. This was something quite different. This power was untainted. Where the dead wished for vengeance and peace and the continuation of the thousand things they’d left undone, this power wished for only one thing.

It wanted to burn.

There were so many enemies, the power said. All the mortals. The slayers of the world.

They all needed to burn.

I’d been drunk before, but this was more than that. This was madness. Joyful, blissful madness. To have a clear and unfettered purpose. To smite those who stood against me. No doubts, no fears, no holding back.

I looked up to find myself standing on the ground, the darkening remnants of the fire elemental splayed open before me. I’d ridden its faltering body to the ground. In my hands, the elemental’s heart pulsed. It was nothing more than a gout of fire. The last vestige of an ancient power.

No doubts. No fears. No holding back. I crushed the flames and drank them in, feeling the last surge of power flood through me.

My body was fine. Better than fine. It sang with power. I was still on fire, still burning, but the flames held no pain. Not for me. All their pain was being saved for the people who stood against me. I pictured a pyre of their corpses, pictured the whole world burning as a beacon in the night.

It was beautiful.

I’m not good with mental anima. I can managed a little with each form of anima but that certainly wasn’t enough to fight off the influence of the ancient spirit I’d absorbed.

That’s where Fari saved me. Again.

Her touch was like a falling into a cool pond on a blistering day.

My Void armor faded away and I sagged down against the nearest wall. I was exhausted but my thoughts were clear.

“I wanted to burn the world.” I told her.

“He wanted to. You just want to burn a select portion of it.” she said, sitting down beside me.

“I don’t think I can do this again.” I told her. “I not sure I can even stand for that matter.”

“I’m sorry. I didn’t know he’d be that strong.” she said. “Let me pull him out of you and store him with the other anima.”

“We can’t.” I said. “He’s giving me the answer we wanted. I know where his summoner is.”

“It’s a trap.” Fari said. “He wants you in a situation where you’ll call on his power. It’ll give him another chance to overwhelm you.”

“He doesn’t want to overwhelm me. He just wants to burn people.” I said. I focused on the power I had stored from the elemental and called it forth into my hand.

He was the flame that destroyed. I knew some people who needed to be destroyed. I wasn’t entirely myself in that moment, but there was no disagreement in me about what was going to happen next.

The Winds of Yesterday – Chapter 20

It’s one thing to hear that an apartment building burned to the ground. That’s the usual way a bad fire is described. Standing before the ashes of Mulwin’s apartment though I saw just what it took to make that description a reality.

Fari’s post-cognition spell used the echoes of power that remained in the building’s ashes to call forth a vision of its destruction. Across the four lane road, I saw the pile of black rubble spin back up into the sky and resume its shape as a block-wide home for hundreds of people.

The fire that consumed it didn’t start gradually. Whatever elemental was summoned into the building was too big for the structure to contain. Its flames burst out from every window as the interior rooms became fuel for the beast.

The suppression spells triggered the instant the fire began, but that meant they were an instant too late to save the inhabitants. Even with their support structure crumbling beneath them, the protective spells tried to fight the elemental. That saved the surrounding buildings. It bought time for the Zawalla fire brigade to arrive and contain the ancillary damage caused by the massive fire. What the spells did not do though was banish the fire elemental itself.

Lost in the grip of Fari’s spell, I gazed up at the towering monster of flame that raged in the confines of the crumbling apartments and tried to imagine how the fire brigade had managed to smother the blaze. The scene played out further, following their arrival, and I saw their efforts fail with every spell they cast. The elemental was too much for them.

The last of the suppression spells failed and the flame monster surged outwards, consuming the outer walls of the apartments. It turned its titanic maw towards the apartment building behind me and I saw it loom over my head, crossing the street and blotting out the sky in a curtain of greedy fire.

And then it was gone.

Banished by its summoner.

All that was left were ashes, dust and the choking scents of smoke and loss.

Fari’s spell faded and the past fell away from my eyes. The smell of the flames remained though.

“On the bright side, I think there’s enough echoes left that I’ll be able to setup a good link to the fire elemental.” Fari said. She didn’t sound any more pleased with the prospect than I was.

“So we get to ask that thing one question and then we have to fight it or it will run amuck?” I asked.

“Yes.” Fari confirmed.

“Do you think we can do this?” I asked.

“Yes.” she said, though she didn’t sound quite as certain about that.

I breathed in the heavy odor of char and weighed the risks. The fire elemental’s destructive power was undeniable. If we failed, hundreds of people would pay the price. If we didn’t try though Red Robes would finish his work and put his plans into effect. He had murdered hundreds in the last few hours and the war he promoted had claimed a thousand times as many victims as that. The numbers made for a compelling case but I couldn’t balance out lives by looking only at how many of them were on each side of an equation.

If I was going to risk the lives of the people around me, I had to ask myself a lot of questions. Could I keep them safe? What would I be willing to sacrifice to protect them? Was there a better way?

It’s amazing how often people forget to ask that last question. In this case though, if there was a better way I couldn’t see it and Fari, who was a lot smarter than I was, couldn’t see it either. That didn’t mean one wasn’t there, just that both of us had failed to find it in the time we had available. I thought about it that way to force myself to stay open to the possibility of a different approach while accepting that the path I’d chosen was the best I could do.

I knew I might not be able to keep the people around us safe, but the only way to get to Red Robes was to take a gamble and at least this one put the primary exposure to danger on me. I’d sacrifice my safety before I sacrificed any one else’s. If I failed, it wouldn’t help the people of Zawalla that I burned up first, but at least our plan ensured I would fight for them as hard as I could.

“Tell me what I need to do.” I said.

“We’ll need to start at the center of the building, where the fire elemental was first called.” Fari said.

Sneaking past the cordon lines the fire brigade left up wasn’t difficult. The excitement of the fire had fallen away a few hours after the elemental was banished. It was dark and late and people wanted to get back to sleep. Even in the face of a tragedy like this, life went on.

“You’ll be the one calling the elemental back.” Fari said. “I need you to pull in the threads of Energetic anima that remain from it.”

“I’m guessing I can’t just flood the area with Void anima though right?” I said.

“Yeah, you’ll need to be gentle, like you’re pulling on a spider’s web. We’re trying to draw the elemental back by threads that are barely connected to it anymore.” Fari said.

“Might as well get started then before it shakes them off.” I said.

I breathed out slowly to push my fear and doubt away. The cloak of invisibility around me dropped away as I did. I needed all of my concentration for the task at hand. Maintaining an extra spell on top of that would guarantee failure.

Fari talked of the remaining slivers of the elemental as threads, so I focused my mind on that image. I reached out with my Void anima and tried to shape it into thin tendrils that could wrap around the bits of fading Energetic anima and bring it back to me without destroying it. It was hard. My usual spell casting mode was to throw out buckets of Void anima and patch up any holes in the spell with buckets more of the stuff. This felt more like sewing, a skill the Sisters of Waters Grace had tried to teach me many times at the orphanage without the barest hint of success on any occasion.

I found the first strand of the elemental anima in a still hot bit of melt that had melted in the fire. Pulling the anima out of the metal was easy. Too easy. I felt Fari try to help me ease back on the force I exerted but it was too late. The anima snapped loose from the metal and vanished into the Void before I could pull it into myself.

“I know we’re in a hurry, but we can’t rush this part of it.” Fari said.

“Right. Slower then.” I said and gritted my teeth. Moving slowly can be harder than moving fast. I pictured the exercises Master Hanq made me do at “1/10th speed”. An hour of that would leave me sore for days early on.

I sent my Void anima out, moving it with exaggerated slowness as I sought out another spark.

“You’re still a little too quick.” Fari said.

Moving the Void anima slower felt like it was going to be impossible. It was like pushing me off a building and asking me to fall at half the normal rate. After a minute of attempting to control my Void anima at that speed I was shaking with fatigue and all I had to show for my efforts were three more broken strands of Energetic anima.

“You’re getting there.” Fari said. Her mental voice was quiet and hopeful. Based on the results I saw, I was sure her words were meant more as an encouragement than as a reflection of reality.

I pulled my Void anima in and relaxed for a moment, trying to catch my breath and recenter my casting efforts. In the east I saw the sky beginning to brighten with the approach of day. It had taken a while to walk to Mulwin’s apartment from the edge of the city but even with that dawn seemed to be approaching too quickly.

“What’s going to happen if we’re still working on this when the sun rises?” I asked.

“Don’t worry about that. For now, just focus on pulling in those anima threads.” Fari said.

Even the basic lessons in spell casting I received let me translate that; if the sun rose it was going to be even harder to pull in the threads. Since what we were doing was already impossible enough that Red Robes wasn’t planning for it, I didn’t like our chances if I took any longer to work out how to do what Fari needed.

My instincts told me that what I needed to do was to try it my own way. If I flooded the area with Void anima I could reach out to all of the remaining threads at once and pull in the strongest of them that remained. That would solve the problem in one quick swoop and play to my strengths rather than my weaknesses.

Needless to say, my instincts are stupid sometimes, which is why I don’t listen to them if I have half a choice in the matter.

It would feel good to let loose, but I knew all I would accomplish would be to scour the building clean of any trace of the elemental that destroyed it. As miserable as it was, sometimes the only way to get a job done is to do it the hard way.

With a calm inhalation, I gathered my Void anima inside myself. On the exhalation I let it suffuse me. From a silent, cold, sphere in the center of my chest, I pushed it to flow outwards to the limit of my skin.

The threads of anima I needed to find were far away from me and the arrival of the new day was unnaturally close but I put both of those facts out of my mind. I was all there was and I was empty, I was the Void.

Memories from times long gone struggled to fight to the surface of my mind. Cries and screams and fire and loss. It wasn’t the time to see those though, so I focused on the silence at the center of my being instead. I had no memories, I had no senses. I wasn’t a Crystal Guardian, I wasn’t an orphan, I wasn’t Mel. I simply was.

Around me, there was anima of every variety. All of the world was magic when you looked at it from the Void. Every piece of matter was an endless miracle, every erg of energy was the promise of impossible change and every passing thought a fragment of godlike awareness.

I didn’t move, because I couldn’t move. I was the Void, I was absence and emptiness and the space between things.

I was the Void, but I was not alone.

Fari’s touch passed through me like a whisper, the most gentle of impulses, reminding me that I could breathe and so I did.

Inhale and I felt myself, felt the edge of my Void anima where it played along my skin.

Exhale and I grew larger, spreading outwards with my breath to cover a tiny fraction more of the world.

Inhale and exhale, grounding myself and growing. It was slow work, much more so than what I had tried before, but the pressure of the clock was lost to me. I couldn’t sense time passing, or the impending arrival of the sun’s light, except in the flow of world’s anima as it streamed around me.

When I encountered the first of the elemental’s stray anima, I knew what it was. It was too pure, the heat caught in the ruins of a cooking pot had a life to it that the warmth of the rest of the ruins lacked.

I didn’t try to pull that strand in. I just kept breathing and reaching out. Inch by inch, strand by strand, I found the connection that Fari needed to work with. Each bit lay where it had fallen, but within me, they were twined into a gossamer cord reaching beyond the world to the elemental plane from which they came.

To the cord, I felt Fari add her magic and her will. Bolstered by her strength, it changed. What once was gossamer grew stronger than steel, the cord becoming a mighty leash that we pulled on together.

The fire elemental was not used to such summons. There was a proper way to call a being as vast as he. The ritual required calling out the name that flattered him, it required feeding him with expensive incense and rare fuels. And it required the promise of blood and flesh that he would be given to burn.

We offered none of those things. We didn’t entreat the elemental. We didn’t seek to placate him or gift him with payments for his service. We dragged him to us in protest and torment. Our voices demanded his attention and compelled his presence before us.

When he arrived, there was no binding circle to hold him. No protective spell carefully calibrated to contain his wrath. There was only Fari and I to stand before a being who was ancient when the planet we stood on was formed.

It wasn’t going to be a fair fight at all.

The Winds of Yesterday – Chapter 19

Zawalla City was in “uncontested territory”. That meant the land it sat on held no tactical significance for either side in the conflict over Hellsreach. That was the theory anyway. In practice any city with infrastructure greater than a lean-to could be tactically useful if one side or the other controlled it. Zawalla had the advantage that it’s isolation made transporting troops and supplies through it costly enough that both the Gar and Human forces had better options where they could focus their military might.

Those “better options” included regions of land where natural ley lines were more prevalent. In the equatorial regions that the Gar and Humans fought over, the ley lines were as dense as the thickest jungle. That allowed the troops to reshape the land and fly their transports through the air with much less anima expenditure. Spell casters who knew what they were doing and ran low on personal energy could recharge their anima faster by drawing on the plentiful energy that flowed around them. That technique could lead to other sorts of issues if it was over used, which was why Master Raychelle hadn’t taught  me much about it yet. She’d filled me in on the basics though when she explained the basic points of the conflict on Hellsreach.

The basic points should have been enough to see me through the assignment so I hadn’t asked for a more in-depth course in Hellsreach history. I’d assumed that the only thing I needed to worry about was the safety of Pallas Arachnegen, our negotiator, while she worked out the details of the peace agreement. Looking back, I had to shake my head at my optimism.

“I don’t think you could have guessed that any of this would happen.” Fari said when I shared my self-recriminations with her.

“Maybe not, but I had to know something would go wrong.” I said.

“If it helps, I checked on other diplomatic missions the Crystal Guardians have undertaken and this is in the top 3% of ones that have encountered problems.” Fari said.

“Does that make me an A+ trouble maker?” I asked.

“I think Red Robes would grade you that way.” she said.

“I bet he’d want to throw a few demerits on my report card too.” I said. “If Master Raychelle brought me here to learn, then I’ve destroyed a lot of school property so far.”

“Don’t worry, I’m sure we’ll get to destroy some more!” Fari said.

“Just so long as we leave the school standing. I think I might flunk out if I break the planet on them.” I said.

“Yeah, I would advise against doing that.” Fari said. Her tone was light and humorous but there was an undercurrent to it that reflected a millenia of memories of planetary destruction. I could have apologized for the joke but I didn’t think that was what she needed. I would never blame her for what others had done with the Jewel of Endless Night when she was a part of it. None of it had been her choice or her fault. That didn’t mean it hadn’t hurt her, but I could see she wanted to put that hurt behind her so I chose to believe that she already had. It’s weird but acting like something is a certain way can often be one of the first steps to make it become true.

“How close are we to Mulwin’s apartment building?” I asked.

“It’s still a few miles away. From the dispatch messages I’m picking up, they just cleared the street around it for traffic again.” Fari said.

I sniffed and the heavy aroma of smoke stung my nostrils. I hoped we were closer but even running at a steady jog, I couldn’t cross distances a fraction as fast as I could with the flight pack. That played into Fari’s plan but it meant I had to spend a lot more time outside and exposed than I would have preferred.

I didn’t mind being out, alone, in a “bad part” of the city after dark. I’d learned how to stay out of sight and avoid trouble years ago and with the power Fari carried for me I could make trouble regret ever running into us if it came to that. Zawalla City disturbed me in another way though. It reminded me of home.

The spot where I landed was the back side of an abandoned restaurant. It was covered in scrub grass and weeds that engulfed the long, one story building. The lights of the city petered out towards its periphery but there was enough illumination to see that no one had cared for the place in at least a decade or more. Even the road that ran past it showed signs of disuse.

It was the emptiness of Zawalla’s abandoned outskirts that called back images of my hometown and the lifeless grey that covered it the last time I walked its streets. The deeper into Zawalla we walked though the more signs of life I saw. Zawalla’s geography was different from my hometown’s too. I forced myself to focus on that in order to drag my mind away from thoughts that led nowhere pleasant.

Zawalla rested in a wide, bowl-like depression in the low hills that grew in height until they shot up into the sheer cliffs of Hellsreach’s Great Northern Necklace. The Northern Necklace was a range of mountains that ringed the world and encircled the top of the temperate latitudes. There was a similar chain of mountains in the south. Travel to the arctic regions was possible but the added difficulty imposed by the mountains meant that the population of the north and south polar areas was sparse even in the most seasonable weather periods.

Despite its relative remoteness though, Zawalla City had a population that was larger that any of the cities on my homeworld. As I flew within range of it, Fari tapped into the city’s municipal spell matrix and mined the local knowledge web for information quicker than I could follow her. That let her answer the questions I thought to ask as fast as I could come up with them.

“Why is this place so big?” I asked her.

“It’s been outside the conflict areas where the Garjarack and Human forces have fought for the last two decades. With the Common Council’s forces in place to the south to defend it, Zawalla City is one of the safer spots to live for people not involved in the conflict.” she said.

“Makes sense that Mulwin would take an apartment here.” I said. “How much do you think will be left of her building?”

“Almost nothing.” Fari said. “The dispatch reports I can hear have declared it a total loss.”

“That fits with what we’ve seen. Red Robes hasn’t held back on anything he’s done so far.” I said.

“I’m counting on that.” Fari said. “ If he wanted to make sure Mulwin’s apartment couldn’t be searched, burning it was the best option. A regular fire might not have consumed the building fast enough though. That’s why I’m sure he would have used a fire elemental to stoke the blaze.”

“And you think that we can contact that elemental?” I’d never heard of someone conjuring the same spirit as another caster, which suggested it was either an advanced technique or a crazy idea that Fari had come up with on her own. Either way, I wanted to see if we could manage to do it.

“I think so.” she said. “What I’ll need you to do is simple. Or simple to describe anyways.”

“Easy in theory, difficult in practice? That sounds like every lesson Master Hanq ever taught me.” I said.

“I think you should be able to be able to handle your part of the spell. It will take careful control of your Void anima but you’re talented with that. It’s my portion of the spell I’m worried about.” she said.

“Why? I’m guessing you’re handling the mental anima part of the spell right?” I asked.

“Yes. I’m used to being able to expend as much power as I want though. For this I’m going to need to match the summoner’s mental state based on the traces of mental anima that remain in the environment. The tricky part is I can’t used any more magic than they did or I might fry your mind.”

“I think I see why people don’t do this often.” I said. “For what it’s worth though, if this has that kind of risk associated with it, I feel better about our chances of succeeding.”

“Why?” Fari asked.

“I think any scheme that’s going to work for us has to be one that puts us outside the realm that Red Robes can plan for. He’s not all powerful, so there have to be some possibilities that are too extreme and unlikely to be worth spending resources on. This feels like one of them.” I said.

“There is one other thing you should know about this idea.” Fari said. “If we succeed, the elemental will be summoned but it will be aware of the release word that freed it from the previous binding. Since we have to construct the same spell to summon it, that means it will know how to escape the binding we put on it.”

“Can you add another binding spell to the summons?” I asked.

“Not without risking that it will call a different elemental.” she said.

“So what do we do about an out of control elemental?” I asked.

“I’ll be able to compel a single answer out of it. Once we have that, you’ll need to dispel it.” she said.

“That’s not as easy as just saying ‘go away’ is it?” I asked.

“No. The only way I know to dispel an uncontrolled elemental is to destroy the body it creates for itself.” she said.

“Sounds like this will be fun then.” I said.

“Did I mention that their bodies can melt steel with a touch?” she said.

“Sounds like it will be a lot of fun.” I said.

“If you want to back out, I won’t be offended. I know this isn’t the kind of thing we should be try on our own. Not in a crowded city like this.” Fari said.

“If we were fooling around and trying this for fun, I would agree with you. As it is, I think you’ve found the best option that we have available to us.” I said.

“What if I screw it up though?” Fari asked.

“You won’t. You’re crazy good at anima casting. Millennia of experience remember? I know you can manage it.” I said.

“Thank you.” she said. She was beside me in her blue ghost form, so I got to see her shoulders relax as the tension she’d held in them drained away.

“We might as well get started then. We’re almost there.” she added as I turned the corner out of an alley and emerged onto a street that was brightly lit despite the deep dark of the night above us.

“Go ahead.” I told her and opened my mind to the spell she began to cast.

According to Master Raychelle I have a decent amount of mental anima. I feel like it’s a tiny drop compared to my Void and Physical animas though. Mostly that’s because those were the first two animas I worked with and my martial training helped me develop my body and give me an awareness of it that I don’t have with my mind. I guess if I’d been a better student in school I might have more natural talent with mental spells but instead I feel clumsy and out of control when I try to cast them. Even with my other animas, I feel like most of the time I get by with brute force. Void anima is simple to use and Physical anima isn’t much more complex. If there’s a problem, I hit it. If that doesn’t work I yell and hit it harder.

Fari is the polar opposite of me. Her casting is graceful in a way mine will probably never be. She makes the most complex weavings look simple and the simplest weavings into pure art.

I felt the spell she cast spread out from the center of my mind like a gossamer veil. Rather than obscuring my vision though it joined our perspectives together. Telepathy spells are beyond me, but they’re easy enough to explain. They allow you to talk in private and at a distance. This spell was that effect taken a light year further.

We saw the same things, we felt the same things and as I moved my anima around I felt her hands helping me shape and direct where it went.

From what Master Raychelle had explained, group casting is difficult because the participants can fall out of synch with each other and ruin the effect at any time. That wasn’t an issue for us. With Fari’s joining spell in effect, we were two people moving together as one. It was weird and thrilling and solemn all at the same time.

Without her needing to tell me, I moved all of my Void anima except for a tiny spark out to the invisibility spell that shrouded us from detection. In response she cast a detection spell to locate the echoes of the spirit that had destroyed the burned apartment building.

We had both assumed that the echoes would be faint and difficult to find given the time that had passed since the fire elemental had been banished.

We were wrong.

Through the lens of the post-cognition spell, we saw the after-image of the elemental burning bright as the sun and as tall as the building it had destroyed.

The Winds of Yesterday – Chapter 18

I didn’t need to see the burning building to taste the ashes of defeat that billowed from it.

“When did they torch Mulwin’s apartment?” I asked Fari.

“The first report came in an hour ago.” she said.

“An hour ago? But that was before Mulwin tried to assassinate me?” I said.

“I know. I can’t believe its a coincidence though.” she said.

“It’s not.” I said, uncertainty growing into dread the more I thought about the chain of events. “It’s a contingency plan. He wanted to make sure there were no clues left in case we escaped the assassination attempt.”

“That seems extreme.” Fari said. “And how would he know we wouldn’t get the information we need by reading the assassin’s minds?”

“He killed an entire prison and ordered Mulwin to rocket strike her own base. I don’t think ordering that a building be burned to the ground would bother him.” I said. “It’s a good point about the mind reading though. Why go to the trouble of cleaning up physical evidence unless he knows I’m rubbish at mental anima spells?”

“I don’t think he ‘knows’ anything like that. We intercepted his scrying spell and tracked it back to him. As far as he knows you’re as good with mental anima as I am.” Fari said.

“Could he have given Mulwin and the other assassin a spell to shield their minds?” I asked.

“Yes, but any shield can be broken with enough time and skill.” she said. “There is one way he could be sure we wouldn’t be able to extract the information from their minds though.”

“Kill them?” I guessed. It was the classic fate of an assassin in the spy novels I’d read as a kid.

“That would work too, but if we assume these were valuable assets, he might have cast a shield on them that could be monitored by someone else.” she said.

“So there weren’t two assassins, there were three?” I said.

“Maybe.” Fari said.

We couldn’t prove that, but it fit with what a careful planner would do. One  assassin for direct contact with the target. That was their best chance at a verifiable kill. Another assassin for contact at range with overwhelming firepower in case the target fought back. The second assassin had less chance for a verified kill, and the attempt was more obvious, but she would have been a lot harder to escape from if I hadn’t been able to turn invisible. In the case where neither of the assassins succeeded the plan fell back to their handler who had no contact with the target at all. His only job was to report on the mission and trigger a kill switch on the assassins if it was required.

“Were you able to find out who the first assassin was?” I asked Fari.

“Yes. Sergeant Frassile Norlen. He and Mulwin transferred to the base together six months ago.” she said.

“The location of the Peace Conference hadn’t been chosen then.” I said. That suggested they were assets that Red Robes had in place for general use.

“You think that Red Robes has agents spread throughout the Hellsreach Common Council’s forces?” Fari asked.

“His organization has had twenty years to entrench themselves. They should have people everywhere by now.” I said. The words twisted a knot in my gut. My foes were prepared and they had the home turf advantage. I had a mountain of power to call on but I had no way of knowing who I needed to hit with it.

My flight faltered as my concentration lapsed. Rather than risk crashing into the forest below, I settled down onto the branches of a tall tree. In the distance the lights of Zawalla City flickered. They should have been comforting but in my imagination, the tiny fires burned away the trail of clues I’d hoped to follow back to Red Robes and his organization.

“Where do we go from here?” I asked. My brain wanted to race in a hundred directions but I forced myself to breath and drink in the quiet and stillness around me. Insects chirped and night birds warbled in a way I, as a city girl, had only heard in Holo-vids.

I listened to the unfamiliar voices and breathed in the perfume of a forest different from any I’d ever seen. A sense of the alien essence of the landscape crept into my pores and I shivered.

I was on a different world. I was alone, except for Fari. People had tried to kill me and would try again as soon as they found me.

And I was ok with that.

Ok with being lost. Ok with being far away from Belstarius, where I’d been raised. Ok with being in danger.

I was tipsy from the swigs of power Fari had given to me, but I knew something deeper was at work too. The stolen power made me feel giddy and invincible when I touched it. This was different. I felt calm down in the center of my being. I felt alive. I felt happy.

I’d been worried that I would become a monster and that worry was still there. Feeling happy after the death and violence that I’d witnessed seemed inhuman. The night air twirled around me, bringing back into the moment, and I accepted that sense of inhumanity too. Maybe I wasn’t human. Maybe I didn’t need to be. My best friend was a girl I’d known for two months whose body was an ancient enchanted gemstone. She’d been a part of killing billions of people and she was one of the kindest people I’d ever met.

Maybe I was a monster because the deaths of strangers didn’t fill me with pain and despair. Maybe I was a monster because I looked forward to a dance with Red Robes and his group that was sure to end in violence. Or maybe I was just a regular girl.

Red Robes wanted to kill me, but he respected me, maybe even feared me. I stood at the center of a world spanning plot, caught in machinations that incredible and terrifying people had spent decades putting together and they were afraid their meticulous plans were going to break before I did.

Growing up I’d felt unwanted and unworthy. Like most of the kids at the orphanage. I figured that was the way I would always be but here I had the chance to make a difference. To matter. Even if nobody ever knew what I did, that was worth it to me.

“Onwards I guess.” I said, letting go of the stillness and readying myself to fly once more.

“Oh I’m sorry!” said a distracted Fari, “I’ve been trying to establish a link back to Imperial HQ but it’s not there.” Fari said.

“There’s still a jamming spell on us?” I asked. Given the distance we’d traveled that would require an enormous radius on the spell, unless they have locked it onto me with Fari or I noticing.

“No, I don’t sense any resistance to my communication spell.” Fari said. “I’m not sensing the Imperial station either though.”

The Crystal Empire’s local facility was a small orbital station that held the official representative to the Exxion system and her staff. Master Raychelle and I had docked there on the way to the Peace Conference and picked up the negotiator that we were escorting. Despite the station’s small size it had state of the art defenses and a cutting edge communications array. Fari should have been able to cast a link to the station even if the crew had abandoned it.

“Could it have been destroyed?” I asked.

“That’s the level of response I’m getting from it. The only other possibility I can imagine would be if they brought all of the spell matrices down for repair at the same time.” Fari said.

“Don’t they have emergency systems in place for that?” I asked.

“Yes. That’s what’s making me think they might have been destroyed.” she said.

That wasn’t good news. In fact it was about as dire as news could get since it meant I had no back up and no means to request any.

“It’s just you and me then it looks like.” I said. “How do you feel about taking on a world together?”

“That sounds crazy.” Fari said. “Count me in.”

I laughed. If she hadn’t been born thousands of years before me, I think Fari could have been my twin.

“I hoped you’d say that.” I said. “I also hoped you’d have an idea for where we can find another trail that will lead us to Red Robes.”

“You know, I think I do. If you don’t mind experimenting with your Void anima.” she said.

“As long as I don’t have to kill anyone who doesn’t deserve it, I’m ok with that.” I said.

“I think you’re safe there. We won’t be dealing with anyone who can be killed.” Fari said. “Head towards Mulwin’s apartment building. I’ll show you the route to take. You’ll need to land outside the city and walk in to it.”

“That’s going to take hours.” I said. I didn’t know how much time there was before Red Robes finished his plan so my first impulse was to be greedy with every minute we had. Rushing in without a plan of our own though was suicide.

“I know. Its important for a few reasons though. We need the building to cool down enough that they’ll think what we’re going to do is impossible.” Fari said.

“I have a bad feeling I know why they might think your idea is impossible.” I said as I nonetheless took flight again and began winging my way to the border of the city.

“I’ll admit it’s difficult, but I think we can do it.” she said.

“Have you ever tried this thing you have in mind?” I asked.

“I never had a skilled Void anima caster to work with before, so, no.” she said.

“You remember I’ve only been working with Void anima for two months right?” I asked.

“I don’t believe that’s true, but I’ll agree that you’ve only been conscious of manipulating your Void anima for that time period.” Fari said.

“What makes you think that?” I asked.

“Have you listened to what Master Raychelle teaches you when she goes through your casting exercises?” Fari asked.

“Yeah, she’s going over the basics.” I said.

“Right. She’s going over all of the basics.” Fari said. “When Master Hanq started teaching you, did he show you all of the simple punches and kicks and blocks at once?”

“No, he spaced them out. I spent weeks learning to punch straight before he taught me anything else.” I said.

“Anima caster training is the same, but Master Raychelle didn’t start you with one simple exercise. She gave them all to you over the course of a few days.” Fari said.

“But they were simple.” I said.

“So is throwing a straight punch.” Fari said. “Do you know why she has you practicing the basic casting techniques?”

I thought about it and the parallels to Master Hanq’s lessons were obvious once I looked for them.

“Because you always practice the basics.” I said. “I thought Master Raychelle practiced with me just to make sure I did the exercises right though!”

“That was part of why she practiced with you, but she also needed to keep her own training up.” Fari said.

“I don’t understand though, how can I be that good at Void anima casting? I didn’t even know I had any Void anima until just before I met you.” I said.

“You told me that the internal aspects of casting came easy to you right? You were able to separate your different animas as soon as the idea was suggested to you.” Fari said.

“But that’s the most basic of basic techniques. Isn’t it?” I asked.

“It is, but it still takes most students years to master it. A lot of adults never get it completely down in fact. They’ll learn to separate their primary anima from everything else and then that’s the only one they need to worry about using from then on.” she said.

“I can’t understand that. It’s so simple to do, why would anyone have problems with it?” I said.

“Because they haven’t spent years working on without being aware that was what they were doing.” Fari said. “From what you told me, your Master Hanq had to adapt his own fighting techniques for you to use because you didn’t have the anima casting ability that he did.”

“That’s right. He would always say ‘ok this will work a little different for you’ and then show me something like a Lightning Bolt punch. I’d try it and I’d hit good and hard but no lightning.” I said.

“Right, he adapted the technique because you don’t have a lot of Energetic anima like he does.” Fari said. “The thing is, I don’t think he changed the technique all that much. The internals of it, the way you move force through your body, that laid the groundwork for moving anima through your body too.”

I laughed. It was wild and unrestrained since there was no one except Fari to hear me.

“You have no idea how many times he said I was holding myself back. He just meant that I was being stubborn in picking up something he was showing me, but if we only knew.” I said. “I think I was literally closing my power down by mixing all of the other magic in me into my Void anima.”

“That seemed like what must of have happened. I just wonder why you would do that?” she said.

“I think I was hiding. Something happened when I was little. When I lost my mother. I think I was hiding from that.” I said.

“Do you remember what it was?” Fari asked.

“No. I’ve only got bits and pieces from when I was that young. Quick images and sensations.” I said.

“I’ll try to be careful of those then.” Fari said.

“Why, what is this plan of yours?” I asked.

“We’re going to pool our talents and talk to the spirit that burned Mulwin’s building to the ground. Spirits don’t have any political connections and the one who burned the building down will be able to lead us to the person who summoned it.” Fari said. “Then you can convince them to tell us who we need to talk to next.”

The lights of the city grew brighter as we approached its border.If we played this right, Red Robes would never see us coming. If we played it wrong, he would, but he still wouldn’t be able to stop us.