Monthly Archives: September 2014

The Horizon of Today – Chapter 11

It’s rare to see someone summon an anima blade without an anima device. The drain of manifesting anima in a tangible form is immense but its the focus that’s required which usually makes it impossible for people to achieve.

“You will take my child away over my dead body.” Eirda said.  Her voice was barely a whisper but it didn’t need to be any louder. The tent was dead silent. We were all riveted in place by the red glow of the weapon she’d conjured from sheer will. It was pointed at Illya, but in the close confines of the tent there wasn’t enough room for anyone to escape her wrath if Eirda lost control.

As the Crystal Guardian present it was my responsibility to resolve situations like this. As the person who’d brought Illya into the tent, it was my fault that it had occurred in the first place. There were at least a dozen things I could have said to defuse or resolve the potentially lethal problem before me but for a critical moment I couldn’t do anything but stare at Eirda’s anima blade.

My own defenses rallied within my hands and chest, moving according to subconscious designs and I felt my skin begin to burn again. This wasn’t right. I wasn’t done healing. Eirda wasn’t supposed to have access to a weapon like that.

I wasn’t going to let myself die. I knew that. What scared me, I think, was what I was going to do to ensure that I lived. My Void anima could eat Eirda’s anima blade. It was pure energy, no threat at all. I tried to convince myself that was true, except I felt the phantom flames spreading over me. Old wounds, long since healed flared with pain. The spots where I’d been stabbed with an anima blade before.

I bit down and gritted my teeth to hold in a scream. I knew I couldn’t freak out but apart from that my mind had gone blank.

“Kallak needs that energy,” Darius said, putting a hand on Eirda’s leg as he slumped away from the boy and sagged into unconsciousness.

That simple gesture broke Eirda’s focus. She looked back at her son and the human who’d been struggling to keep him alive and the blade in her hand shattered into a million particles of light.

“Get him over onto that bed,” Chief Jallo said, indicating where Cadrus should take Darius.

“You, sit down before the backlash hits you.” TJallo said to Eirda. Eirda was already sagging and all but tumbled the floor before her family caught her.

“And you, explain what you mean. What’s wrong with Kallak.” Jallo addressed this remark to Illya, while simultaneously recasting the regeneration spell that Darius had been laboring to hold together.

Part of me wanted to run to Darius’ side and make sure he was ok. Hours of spells casting can be dangerous and Physical anima wasn’t his forte. On the other hand, it seemed wise to stay in-between Illya and the Garjarack family, especially in case I needed to “escort” her out of the tent quickly.

There was also the problem that I could feel waves of delayed stress washing over me. My anima was wild and out of control and just barely staying inside me. I was irrationally concerned that if I took a step in any direction I might explode or burn to ash. I knew that was crazy but remaining where I was struck me as the best course of action all the same.

“When you had him tested for his anima potential, it showed he had a broad spectrum talent, didn’t it?” Illya asked. “He was above average in all areas, but seemed scattered and couldn’t pick up casting of any one anima type easily.”

Eirda roused herself from the stupor her hastily cast anima blade had knocked her into.

“How do you know that?”

“He’s able to focus better when his sister is with him though,” Illya continued. “He can cast whatever sort of spells she’s adept. Not as good as she can but better than anything else he tries.”

“Yes, but I don’t understand…” Eirda said.

“I think I do.” Chief Jallo said. “You think he’s a geomancer. Where have you seen one before?”

“My brother,” Illya said.

“How did he die?” Chief Jallo asked. It hadn’t been a difficult guess to make give the tone of Illya’s answer.

“The Gar,” Illya said. “Toxic cloud spell. It infected the land. We couldn’t separate him fast enough.”

“We’re going to need a room on the Imperial Station,” Chief Jallo said, finally turning to address me.

“Right, I’ll see how soon we can get an orbital shuttle down here,” I said, and sent out a mental ping to the Imperial station’s command and control room. Being within a fully functional spellweb had a lot things going for it, not the least of which was the ease of communication that came from having someone else pre-casting all of the telepathy spells you might need to use.

“You’re not taking my son,” Eirda said, though the weariness in her voice made it clear she wouldn’t be opposing that idea with another anima blade.

“A shuttle with room for all of you,” I said.

That was enough reassurance for Eirda it seemed. Her eyes sagged closed and her arms went limp as casting fatigue dragged her into sleep’s embrace.

“I’m not clear on what the diagnosis is and why we need to relocate to the Imperial station,” Cadrus said.

“Your son may have a rare gift, one which standard testing will often miss,” Chief Jallo said. “Medic Illya believes that he is a geomancer. This means that his anima is connected to the planet’s. There are many benefits to this but, apparently, there can also be drawbacks.”

“His anima is part of the magic that flows through Hellsreach,” Illya said. “If that energy is disrupted on a planetary scale though, his will follow it.”

“So the earthquake is responsible for his condition?” Cadrus asked.

“It’s possible,” Chief Jallo said. “The planet’s anima paths can be disrupted by large scale seismic activity. I didn’t know that it could affect a caster as strongly as this, but that would explain Kallak’s symptoms.”

“It fits with what I’m seeing too,” I said and explained what my Void anima sight showed me.

“And if we take him away from Hellsreach, that will save his life?” Cadrus asked.

“If Illya’s theory is correct, then I believe it will,” Chief Jallo said.

“Will he be able to return?” Cadrus asked.

“It’s too soon to say,” Jallo said. “Let’s focus on getting him stable again and then work from there.”

“I can agree to that,” Cadrus said. “How soon can we leave?”

“Imperial station C&C is saying the soonest they can get a full orbital shuttle here is two hours. They’ve got a couple of personal crafts that can get here sooner but they won’t fit your whole family,” I said, relaying the information that the Imperial flight controller was giving me.

“Can Kallak last two hours?” Cadrus asked.

“I can’t be certain. I haven’t treated someone with these symptoms before,” Jallo said.

“Wait, maybe he doesn’t have to wait that long!” I said. “Imperial Control, can you link me to Mister Gan Everbright?”

“Affirmative Guardian Watersward, we have him registered on the web,” the flighter controller said. “Initiating connection now.”

I waited a moment as the controller set up the spell links for me and got Gan on the link as well. Normally this sort of thing would be outside a flight controller’s responsibilities, but one of the perks of being a Crystal Guardian is that all Imperial personnel are expected to support you to the extent that their duties will allow. It’s the kind of blisteringly unfair privilege that I’d dreamed of having as a kid.  Ordering people around sounds like a ton of fun, but it’s less enjoyable when you see the impact it has on their workload and overall morale, so I try to use it only for simple tasks that can be resolved quickly.

“Guardian Watersward, to what do I owe the pleasure?” Gan said.

“You have an orbital shuttle at the aid station don’t you?” I asked.

“Do you have need of it?” he asked.

“Yes, how soon can you have it prepped for lift-off?” I asked.

“Ten minutes. Two if it’s an emergency,” he said.

“Make it two,” I said. “We have a patient in need of medical evac here.”

Kallak had lasted for hours but Gan had said he’d followed an Aetherial casting that brought him here. If he was looking for events that would convince the populace to leave Hellsreach then a rescue where time was of the essence seemed to be a likely scenario.

“There’s a charge for expedited service.” He said it as a joke, intending to diffuse the gravity of the situation, but at the same time I knew he fully intended to get paid for his part in saving Kallak.

“The Empire will cover your costs.” I said, committing to as little as I thought I could get away with.

“Our ship will be ready by the time you get the patient here.” Gan said.

Cadrus carried Kallak to Gan’s transport ship.

Eirda came along under her own power, but only with support from a few of her children.

“Are you going to send one of your staff up with us?” I asked Chief Jallo.

“No, we’re not due for another batch of wounded for half a day,” she said. “I want to watch this case myself. Once Kallak has stabilized I’ll trade off with one of the other healers.”

“Do you ever sleep?” I asked her.

“Certainly,” she said. “Once a week, like clockwork.”

Her skin was lighter than mine, but pretty similar to Darius, which put her on the dark end of the spectrum for Hellsreach and about standard for Galactic society. It also meant she was just dark enough that I couldn’t tell if the circles under her eyes were natural or the result of epic sleep deprivation. Her delivery was also so dry I couldn’t tell if she was joking or not.

“What about me?” Illya asked. “Should I go back to the prison ship?”

“Guardian Watersward has final say on that,” Chief Jallo says. “But is she sends my one available expert on geomancers to the brig when I have a geomancer to treat, I’m going to declare her unfit for duty and take you with me anyways.”

“Guardian Watersward will take that under advisement Chief Jallo,” I said and fought back a smile.

“I don’t believe I should go with you,” Illya said. Her spine was straight as an arrow and her jaw was set tight.

“Do you have a physical or anima-related condition that prevents you from venturing into space?” Jallo asked.

“No.” Illya said.

“Then you’re coming with me,” Jallo said. “I won’t ask you to stay with the Garjarack, but I will request that you assist me. We have a patient. We’re going to treat him. It’s as simple as that.”

It wasn’t of course. For Illya it couldn’t be, and none of us were under any illusions to the contrary, but sometimes what’s real is less important than what you choose to believe could become real.

“I’m coming too, if you don’t mind Chief,” Darius said.

“You should rest, you’ve already over-exerted yourself,” Jallo said.

“I’m not as bad off as I pretended to be,” he said.

“And you’re in worse shape than you realize,” she said. “We’re going to need you when the next batch of wounded come in. Get some sleep until then.”

Jallo looked over at me.

“Or whatever,” she added.

The warm sensation on my face had nothing to do with anima casting for a change. Unfortunately, I had to toss some cold water on that idea.

“I need to stay with Medic Illya,” I said. I’d had to arrest her to put her in the prison ship. Until that was resolved she either needed to be in custody or accompanied by a designated law enforcer. Chief Jallo was many things but a galactic cop was not one of them, which meant I was the only one available who could officially look after Illya outside of a secure holding area.

Darius frowned.

“What if you’re needed down here?” he asked.

“Raychelle and Opal have the Guardian angle covered,” I said. “In terms of the overall recovery, I think I can do more good by getting a read on Everbright. If he and his company are on the level, they might be the best solution we have to the problems here.”

“I’d definitely like to be along for that,” Darius said.

“I’ll give you the full run down when I get back,” I said. “You can be my ‘independent analyst’.”

“I’ve probably got several conflicts of interest in that case,” he said. “Just promise you’ll stay safe. Fari won’t be able to help you up there either.”

“I know,” I said. “Don’t worry, I won’t do anything stupid.”

As I said the words I felt a loop of Aetherial anima coil around me and my danger sense flared. There was a current of fate that wanted to put me in a situation where I’d have to try one of my less brilliant plans to survive. I grabbed the bit of magic before it could slide away and called up my Void anima.

The darkness in me swept out and devoured the magic that was trying to bind my destiny. I wanted to unleash it fully to stab whoever the caster of the Aetherial spell was but I saw wisps of smoke starting to drift up from my burning hands. Dropping the anima like a hot poker, I was staggered to see that there weren’t any blisters on my hands.

Had I just imagined the smoke? Was the burning just psychosomatic? The thought that I might be going crazy was a troubling one, but it felt wrong somehow. Too easy. I had issues. Deep ones, but the burning sensation didn’t move me the way they did.

I gave Darius a kiss goodbye that lasted a little longer than was necessary and fell far short of long enough. I was going to come back to him, and he would be there waiting for me. Whoever was casting Aetherial spells could have prevented me from seeing him again (whatever their real goals were) and whatever their excuse was they were going pay for that.

The Horizon of Today – Chapter 10

The wounded were arriving as Illya and I walked out of her transport ship prison. I’d been worried that she’d try to escape once she had the chance, but she followed me into the triage room without a word and got to work. She was quiet and spoke only to ask brief questions. It didn’t make for the best bedside manner, but under the circumstances it was exactly what was needed to sort the patients out and get them to the right areas for treatment.

I stayed with her and the wounded, rather than retreating to the command room to “stay on top of things”. Officially I’d report that it was to “ensure her behavior and the safety of the other people at the aid center.” That was a small part of the reason why. The truth was, I was fairly certain she wasn’t going to attack anyone at that point. I’d given her too much to think about. The revelations about Major Vunthar had shaken her despite the fact that they didn’t surprise me at all.

With a hundred years of bloody war behind them, the people on Hellsreach had a lot of issues to work though. As an outsider, it was easy to see the patterns of the harm they inflicted on each other and the atrocities they were capable of. Major Vunthar’s anger and thirst for revenge were present on all sides of the conflict. Given what I’d done to the Karr Khan when he showed up after killing my home town, I wasn’t sure I was in a position to condemn Vunthar, but that wasn’t going to prevent me from stopping him either.

For Illya it wasn’t an issue that Vunthar had betrayed the peace process and was threatening the safety of the world at large. With the pain she carried, I didn’t think she cared about things as grandiose as that. His actions hit her harder than I could gauge because they were a much more personal betrayal. In the face of all she’d lost, Vunthar had been the one force that seemed to on her side and paying attention to the needs of her people.

It didn’t take a lot of empathy to know that she shouldn’t be left alone after learning that wasn’t the case. Work would help give her some distance from the news. Keep her mind off processing it until the raw power of her emotions drained away a little. After that though she was going to have a lot to deal with.

On top of all that however I had one other reason for staying with Illya, and it was the simplest of all of them. Even without healing magics of my own, I was still able to help care for the wounded. Carrying people on stretchers, acting as a runner for medicines and water, or helping people fill out medical history forms to help with diagnosis and treatment plans. In the chaos of the recovery efforts, there were plenty of opportunities for me to be useful, which was more than I could say for the last couple of months.

I dove into the work and lost myself in it for a while, happy to be getting something done rather than waiting to heal for a change. We’d been working on the wounded for a few hours when it occurred to me that I hadn’t seen Darius since he went in to the Garjarack family’s tent.

“How are things going with Kallak?” I asked on the telepathic link that Fari had setup.

“Still working on him,” Darius said and I could hear the weariness in his mental voice.

I felt my pulse accelerate. It shouldn’t have taken hours to heal Kallak’s injuries and Darius wouldn’t have spent that long on one patient if Kallak’s condition wasn’t serious.

“What’s wrong?” I asked, bracing myself for the answer.

“I don’t know,” Darius said. “I’ve never seen anything like this.”

“Have you contacted Chief Jallo?” I asked. Jallo was the senior healer at the aid center. I’d seen her handling some of the cases that came in, but she was also managing the rest of the staff too, including Illya and I. I looked around and didn’t see her, though that wasn’t too surprising since the last of the wounded were being moved to the recovery rooms and the next batch wasn’t due in for over twelve hours.

“Yes, she’s here with me now,” Darius said. “I called her over before and she couldn’t make out what was wrong with him then so she had me stay to apply a low level regeneration spell to him while she helped the rest of the wounded.”

“What’s happening with him?” I asked.

“His anima’s leaking out of him, but he’s unwounded,” Darius said. “He collapsed because he literally ran out of energy. The regeneration spell is keeping him going but none of the anima staying within him.”

I shuddered at that thought. I knew what it was like to have your anima ripped out of you. I’d been hit with a planetary weapon systems that did just that. I’d been able to save myself but only because I was kind of a freak and doing so had still cost me months of recovery.

“I’ll be there in a minute,” I said.

I looked around and saw Illya reading over the medical history of her last patient. I’d helped his father fill it out. It was a single sheet and the man’s injuries hadn’t been severe or complicated (which was why he was one of the last who was treated).

“I think we’re done here,” I told her, putting a hand on her shoulder to get her attention.

She startled when I touched her and that broke her from whatever daze she’d drifted into.

“Back to the transport?” she asked.

“No, not yet,” I said. “There’s another patient I need to check on.”

“Did another batch arrive?” she asked.

“No, this one came in earlier,” I said.

Illya looked around the room for the mysterious patient, but settled in beside me as I gently pushed her forward. We got to the door out of the primary aid center before she realized who the patient had to be. I could see she wanted to freeze in place but I wasn’t about to let that happen.

“You did good work in there,” I said, holding the door open for her. “How long have you been a medic?”

“Since I was fourteen,” she said.

“I thought the minimum age for service was sixteen for the human forces?” I said.

“Its eighteen for offworld troops, the ones recruited from the homeworld,” Illya said. “My family is support services though, so I’m native born. They’ll take us as soon as we can cast reliably.”

We’d covered half the ground to the tent without her rabbiting on me, so I decided to dig a little deeper.

“I’ve heard that there wasn’t much promotion for the support services. How did you manage to get on the medic track?”

“I had a sponsor,” she said. “I actually learned how to cast healing spells really young. My family was assigned to a hot camp, one of the ones off the front line but still in the strike area for the Gar’s long range attacks. So I had a lot of practice.”

“How did you wind up in Salmon Falls?” I asked.

“The unit I was assigned to got transferred there just after the cease fire,” she said. There was a catch in her voice that left me a few guesses as to what was being left unsaid.

“Major Vunthar was the one who transferred your unit there wasn’t he?” I asked.

She nodded.

I’d already talked to Imperial command and asked the two actual Guardians on the planet if we could put out a warrant for Vunthar’s arrest. All of them had agreed to it without reservation when I explained the situation. Predictably though, Major Vunthar was nowhere to be found. He was also not responding to official communiques from his Exxion IV superiors.

With the disaster recovery still underway and my impending job as an Imperial Overseer (approved by Master Raychelle, to my surprise), I couldn’t afford to make Vunthar my top priority, but there was no way I was going to let him get away with what he’d done.

I filed that thought as a “future problem” though as we stepped into the tent.

The Garjarack family turned to look at us when we entered and Illya’s breath caught in her throat. Guilt? Shock? Anger? It was probably all of them and more.

Cadrus recognized me at first glance, and from his expression also recognized Illya as well.

“Guardian, this is not the best time for visitors,” he said.

“We won’t be long, I just wanted to see your son,” I said.

“He is not well,” Cadrus said.

“I know, I want to see if his affliction looks familiar,” I said.

Cadrus looked back and forth between Illya and I, and then nodded and moved aside to allow me to get closer. I stepped into the circle of family members and saw that both Chief Jallo and Darius were tending to the young Garjarack boy on the bed.

Darius’s eyes were closed and I could see a soft light pulsing from under his hands were he had laid them on the Kallak’s chest. Chief Jallo was more active, peering through a series of observation spells that provided her with all sorts of enhanced information. I could see from her expression though that the data she had wasn’t adding up to anything sensible.

I didn’t know the anima and life sensing spells that Chief Jallo did, but my Void anima vision did let me see magic in a way other spells couldn’t replicate. I called up an erg of it and felt my face grow warm with the casting.

In my altered vision I saw Darius suffused with an electric yellow light. Ripples of blue raced through him too, with the two colors representing his natural talents at Energetic and Mental animas. Chief Jallo by contrast was almost entirely lit in red. She had a great capacity for healing magics due in part to being unbalanced towards Physical anima similar to one other healer I knew.

Then there was Kallak. There was barely any light running through him at all.

I looked underneath him, expecting to see Void anima spikes plunged into his body as they had been in mine but there was nothing there. No Void anima spikes. No lurking spells at all. Just a trickle of physical anima pouring out of him and into the ground below.

“He’s not injured?” I asked.

“Clearly he is, we just haven’t found the location of the wound yet,” Chief Jallo said.

“It’s not a Void anima attack,” I said.

“I know, that was one of the first things I checked for,” Chief Jallo said.

“Then what could it be?” I asked.

“I’m working to determine that,” she said. I heard the annoyance in Jallo’s voice clearly that time.

I turned away from her and spoke with Cadrus in a low whisper.

“One of your other children was also afflicted by this weren’t they?” I asked, thinking back to the child who’d been in the other bed the last I was in the tent.

“Beneda, my youngest daughter,” Cadrus said. “She had similar symptoms but she responded to treatment better than Kallak has. Your friend was able to restore her before Chief Jallo got here.”

“Was they exposed to something that the rest of your family wasn’t?” I asked.

“No,” Cadris said. “Not within the last day. We’ve been together the whole time since then.”

“How long were they as frail as they were at Salmon Falls?” I asked.

“Weeks,” Cadrus said. “We haven’t eaten full rations in weeks. It wasn’t as bad as it was today, but Kallak has not been healthy since the cease fire.”

“Did something happen then?” I asked.

“Kallak collapsed then too,” Cadrus said. “We thought we were going to lose him but the next morning he was recovered. He never lost consciousness like this though.”

“Were he and his sister close?” Illya asked. It cost her to talk to the Garjarack. I could see that it was about the last thing in the world that she wanted to do. Cadrus didn’t seem to be able to read her expressions like I could though. Humans were probably as skewed in their body language to him as Garjarack were to me.

“Yes, they were always together,” Cadrus said.

“I know what’s wrong with your son then,” Illya said. “We need to get him out of here. He can’t stay on this world.”

The Horizon of Today – Chapter 9

I’d turned 18 while convalescing. All things considered it was one of my better birthdays. I finally had anima powers like everyone else (even if I couldn’t use them while I was healing), I had a boyfriend (even if I didn’t get to see him as much as either of us wanted too), and I had (arguably) the coolest job in the galaxy. There was a price to pay for all of that though; I also became an adult human.

Being an adult isn’t a bad thing of course, I’d basically acted and been treated like one for years. The catch with turning 18 was that I could legitimately be called upon to handle situations where my actions actually mattered. My apprentice status meant I wasn’t saddled with too much responsibility right away, but global disasters have a knack for tossing problems all over the place.

I was grumbling about that in a ‘why me?’ sort of mood as I made my way over to one of the Imperial transport ships. Thanks to my position, I was all on me to deal with Medic Illya and the unnecessary crisis that she represented. In theory the base commander could have taken over the matter but he was swamped with supporting the rescue work, and I preferred to have a shot determining Illya’s fate myself.

“I thought you were going to let me rot in here?” she said as I let myself into the transport’s small security area. The aid station wasn’t equipped to handle prisoners and I didn’t want to flag her as an official prisoner until I decided what to do with her.

That thought alone seemed alien to me. Thanks to my Guardian robes, I got to decide what to do with this woman who was at least ten years older than me and had a lifetime invested in helping the people of Hellsreach.

Or at least some of the people.

I didn’t respond to her question. I just sat down and looked at the personnel report that I’d had one of the base commander’s aide’s print out for me.

“You can’t hold me in here. There are still people who need me,” she said.

“Yes. There are.” I agreed and kept reading the personnel report. I didn’t need to; it was short and I’d read it on the way to the makeshift cell.

“You’re going to let them die?” she asked.

I kept reading. It made her uncomfortable and I was just angry enough that I didn’t care to offer her an reassurances.

“Look this isn’t about me. You have to let me help the people from Salmon Falls,” she said.

“The Garjaracks. What did they do to you?” I asked.

Silence was my only answer.

“There are people coming in who need help,” I said. “You’re a talented healer, but the fact of the matter is that you’re also an attempted murderer.”

“It wasn’t murder.” she said and went silent again.

“What did they do to you?” I asked again.

If hadn’t been hard for me to guess that Illya was the one who’d alerted the people from Salmon Falls that there were Garjarack at the Imperial aid center. She’d been one of the few non-Imperials to encounter them before they were brought to their tent. No one else who knew they were at the aid center had any reason to be hostile to them.

Fortunately, while Illya was a great medic, throwing together a plan to kill over a half dozen Garjarack’s wasn’t one her fortes. After she’d seen them she’d gone to the nearest scrying pool and used it to establish a link back to one of her friends from Salmon Falls. Discovering that had taken about five minutes and a simple replay spell to show the conversation she’d had.

Her friends had taken one of the fighters that was part of the base’s war cache and flown off to ‘eliminate their enemy’. The aid center didn’t have a squadron of its own for defense, so it should have been a simple mission for Illya’s co-conspirators. Except for the part where Fari turned the planet’s local defenses against them. Which, I suppose, they could be forgiven for not expecting.

That had ended the assault from the Salmon Falls area, and left me with a mess to sort out. The pilots were easy enough to deal with. They’d be bound for trial based on the recordings and their failure to communicate with the aid center’s flight tower. Illya would have to stand trial as well, again based on the evidence that was found. Trials take a long time to put together though and there were going to be people in need of Illya’s help landing within minutes.

So the question before me was could Illya be forgiven for attempting to murder Imperial citizens. At least enough to allow her the freedom she’d need to work on the wounded people who were brought to her.

If you’d asked me that question two months ago, the answer would have seemed clear. Combat trained anima casters are extremely dangerous. Releasing Illya from her bonds and allowing her full access to her casting abilities would mean risking the lives of those around her. Given the attempted murder charge against her, that should have made the answer a blindingly obvious “No”. Sitting across the table from her though, with my “adult” badge on, I was forced to admit that the answer was neither blindingly obvious nor likely to please people regardless of what I chose.

“They broke the peace. What I did wasn’t murder. It was war. We had to make it stop!” she said.

“How did they break the peace?” I asked.

“They attacked our town,” she said. “In the dead of night. With no provocation and no warning. They wanted our supplies and they murdered so many of us to get them.”

“If it was night, how do you know who was behind the attacks?” I asked.

“We saw their ships! We know what the Gar are like! I grew up my whole life listening to the sounds of them killing us. Before the Empire conquered us? After the Empire conquered us? It didn’t matter! The Gar are the murderers! Not us!”

“Is that why didn’t Salmon Falls report the attack that occurred after the ceasefire was declared?” I asked.

“We did report it! And you Imperials did nothing. Just like you’ve done nothing for the last twenty years!”

“Illya, no report of an attack on Salmon Falls has been reported in the last two months,” I told her.

“You lost the report? We’re dying because of bureaucratic incompetence?” she screamed.

“No. There was no report filed. At all. Not with Imperial command and not in the Exxion IV command web either,” I said, keeping my voice calm and measured.

“That’s impossible! Major Vunthar was there the next morning! He saw everything!” Illya said.

“Every weekly report from Major Vunthar’s office for the last two months says the same thing,” I told her and passed over one of the other print outs I had.

“Where did you get this?” she asked.

“My friend who hacked the planet’s defense systems to bring down your fighter? She’s very good at getting information from spell webs,” I said.

“This isn’t possible!” Illya said.

“I’m sorry Illya, but I have no reason to lie about this. For two months your Major Vunthar has been reporting ‘all actions proceeding as expected’, despite the fact that your people have been driven from their homes and are malnourished from running on three-quarter’s rations.”

“This doesn’t make sense.”

“Doesn’t it? Have you met Major Vunthar? I’ve only read his personnel file and his record practically tells the story for him.”

“What do you mean?” she asked.

“He lost his wife and three children to a Garjarack advance fifteen years ago. He lost all but one sibling over the last twenty years and he was one of the defenders of the town of Kelp’s Point when it fell to Garjarack hands and his parents were killed.”

“That not an unusual story,” Illya said.

“I know,” I said. Despite the war having raged on for over a century, the pattern of atrocities by each side on the other had been unbroken until a few months ago. “The unusual part are the commendations and the disciplinary notes he’s received.”

“I don’t see any disciplinary notes here?” Illya said.

“Right. Look at his earlier records,” I said. “Over the last fifteen years, he’s volunteered for some of the bloodiest campaigns on the planet and has been decorated in most of them. In the last few years though he’s received several disciplinary notes on his record for insubordination to superiors.”

“What did he do?” she asked.

“Argued against the peace process that was starting. With his fists.”

“Who could blame him. Peace is a lie here,” Illya said.

“It’s not,” I said. “And it never has been. Have you ever been to one of the native cities? I’ve seen humans and Garjarack living in peace with no problems.”

“That’s those humans and Gars,” Illya said. “They’re the freaks and aberrations that neither side wanted. We’re different. We’ve fought too hard and lost too much. The Gar are never going to forgive us and I’m certainly never going to forgive them.”

“That might be true. You might never be able to live together,” I said. “Your children, or your grandchildren might be a different story though.”

“I’m never going to have children,” Illya said. “Thanks to the Gar.”

“Spell damage, or they took someone close to you?” I asked. It was insensitive, but at this stage, I needed to understand what drove her.

“Both,” she said.

“In the attack on Salmon Falls?” I asked.

“The spell damage came from when I was young,” Illya said. “A toxic cloud spell that wasn’t neutralized fast enough. I pulled through, mostly.”

“And the one you cared about?”

“The first attack on Salmon Falls.”

“Illya, I know you don’t want to hear this, but look at the evidence before you,” I said. “I don’t think the Garjarack were responsible for that attack.”

“Lies. This is all lies.”

“It would be comforting if it was, wouldn’t it?” I asked. “Think about it though. We’ve been giving out relief supplies to everyone. Why hasn’t Salmon Falls gotten any?”

“There’s not enough to go around, so high priority targets are receiving the supplies first,” Illya said.

“Have you seen the supplies we have stockpiled here? At an aid base?” I asked. “Why would we stock up an aid base that might need to host refugees and not the town where they’re actually living?”

“You want everything under your control.” she said.

“No. We don’t. We’ve been giving ninety percent of the material we bring in to the existing supply chains. We can get food in easily. Replicating your existing distribution networks was too costly and pointless though. That’s what Major Vunthar and people like him are supposed to be in charge of.”

“We’ve been starving.” she said.

“Yes, because the human you depended on has been trying to wage his own private version of the war,” I said. “Or maybe he’s got broader ambitions. Maybe he thinks he can start it up again entirely? I don’t know what his story is. I don’t know that this evidence means he’s guilty. All I know is that there’s a good reason to think that the Garjarack family you tried to murder had nothing to do with what happened to Salmon Falls.”

“Why does it matter?” Illya asked.

“You tell me,” I said.

“Fine, I’m a murderer too then.” she said. “Convict me and let everyone I know die.”

“I can’t convict you,” I said. “I can’t even testify about what you’ve said, even that confession. My authority here covers emergency situations only. You’ll have a trial, in an Imperial court, and it’ll be a fair one. So why does what we’ve talked about matter.”

“Because you can decide whether I get to help the wounded,” she said.

“And?” I prompted her.

“And you need to know whether I’m going to try to kill the Gars again.” she said.

“Close, but not exactly it,” I said. “I need to know if you’re going to live to see the trial.”

“Why wouldn’t I?”

“The Gar have done horrible things to you, not the family out there maybe, but they all look the same to you right? They’re all responsible for the losses you’ve suffered,” I said.

Illya looked at me silently, trying to follow where I was going.

“We need your skills as a medic. I can unshackle you, but I can’t stop you from trying to kill the Gar family again,” I said. “To be clear; I can’t stop you from trying, but I can stop you.”

She was silent again, but she met my eyes. She’d seen the kind of response I could bring against a threat. She understood exactly how serious I was, but I didn’t want to leave anything unclear on that point.

“I want to speak at your trial Illya. I want to speak on your behalf and tell the jury that it was thanks to your work that lives were saved,” I said. “I want to do that, but if I have to, I’ll speak at your funeral.”

Illya nodded in understanding, and I could see the wheels turning in her head as she imagined the different futures that might be.

“Or you can stay here. If you don’t trust yourself. You’ve already helped out. If that’s all you can do, then that’s all you can do.”

She looked at me carefully, and then at the door behind me. I saw her gaze drift aimlessly into the middle distance as she looked inside herself. A moment later, she came back to the present and, with a sigh, looked me in the eyes again.

“Leave me here.”

I nodded and rose from chair.

“Is that what you really want?” I asked.


She was staring blankly ahead, but I could feel the force of her will holding back the worries and fears that were raging inside her.

I traced a small sigil on the air and cast some of my Physical anima into it. My hand felt like I passed it through a fire, but that faded as the unlocking spell dissipated. The chains that bound Illya fell off her with a solid clunk.

“Then come with me. We have work to do.”

The Horizon of Today – Chapter 8

Gan’s announcement should have been good news. A new home for the people of Hellsreach would solve a lot of problems. The cold talons in my chest that warned me of danger seemed weirdly out of place therefor. I scowled for a moment as I tried to work out what was wrong with the offer before a more obvious reason for the frosty alert presented itself.

“We’re triggering the next quake early,” Fari said. as she reappeared beside me.

“Why would you do that?” Cadrus asked. “Aren’t there still people being rescued?”

“The disaster response teams are bracing the buildings they’re still working on,” Fari said.

“How much time do we have?” I asked.

“About a minute,” Fari said. “We’re going to catch the aftershocks that are following the last one to help relieve the stress that’s set to power the next mega-quake.”

“Did you warn Darius?” I asked.

“Yes,” Fari said. “I’m warning as many people as I can.”

She flickered as she spoke, and I felt a stab of entirely non-supernatural worry course through me.

“Don’t spread yourself too thin,” I said. “Just let me know afterwards that you’re ok.”

She nodded and vanished again, returning to the planetary control system.

“Cadrus, Nenya, you should head back to your family,” I said. “You’ll be safe in the tent.”

“How bad is this quake that’s coming?” Gan asked.

“Bad enough that I needed to be warned about it,” I said.

“Looks like the fate casting we did worked perfectly then!” Gan said.

I stared at him for a moment in disbelief.

“You wanted to be here during a mega-quake?” I asked. My brain was spinning to put things together and clicked onto the answer before Gan found the words to explain himself. “Ah, of course. That’ll make it easier to talk people into leaving.”

“That’s what I’m here to speak with you about,” Gan said.

“Why me?” I asked.

“It’s unusual to find two Crystal Guardians working on a planet, much less three,” Gan said. “You are the one the Imperial Ambassador directed me to speak with. He said that Guardians Kinsguard and Blackbriar were fully engaged with the rescue operations that were underway.”

I wasn’t a full Guardian, but if the Imperial Ambassador wanted me to act as one in order to preserve Opal and Raychelle’s time then I wasn’t going to correct Mister Everbright on the subject.

“We should find somewhere safe to wait out the quake,” I said.

“If you’ll allow me?” Gan replied. Without waiting for my response he wove a shielding dome around us. It was beautiful work and he finished it with time to spare before the quake hit.

The ground shake was barely noticeable inside the dome but watching the way the buildings around us moved I could see it had been a strong one. The building didn’t fall down however which meant it was much weaker than the mega-quake that leveled Salmon Falls. Fari and Opal had timed the quake well. The rumbling lasted for over a minute, but diminished in severity almost immediately. Once it was done, everything was still and the planet had expended a lot of the energy stored in the local faultlines.

“That was more powerful than I expected it would be,” Gan said as he let down the shield bubble.

“You should have been here for the last one,” I said. It was a reflexive boast but it raised a question in my mind. Why hadn’t Gan been here for that? Or here a few weeks earlier? If he was working under a fate casting it meant he was trying to ensure his actions precipitated or canceled out some dramatic events. Showing up in the wake of one wouldn’t cancel it out, but he might be focused on reacting to a larger event that was still impending.

“We’ve been scrambling for two month to get the approvals in order,” Gan said. “It’s a miracle we made it here today at all.”

“Approvals for what exactly?” I asked as I led Gan back into the aid center building. I didn’t want to go running back to someone with real authority but I wasn’t thrilled with the idea of negotiating for unknown stakes on an issue I was unfamiliar with and having no one to back me up.

“Planetary property transfer,” Gan said.

“You’d said you were going to take the people here to a whole new world,” I said. “You meant that literally didn’t you?”

“Yes,” Gan said. “Exxion III is barely habitable. That’s been true for decades due to the war but even with the peace you’ve created this planet isn’t ready to support the population that’s here. There’s too much damage that needs to be undone. The mega-quakes you’ve seen are making that clear to everyone.”

“So what are you going to do with the people?” I asked.

“My company, Verulia Industries, intends to offer habitation plots on a world newly opened for colonization in exchange for land rights here on Hellsreach. We’ll provide transport to Titanus and the materials for colony development.”

“And in exchange you get ownership of Hellsreach,” I said. “So, if this planet is unlivable, how does this benefit you?”

We’d reached the Aid Center building  and people were scurrying around to deal with the impending arrival of the wounded from Salmon Falls. The third time a medic bumped into us I got the hint and dragged Gan into one of the unused conference rooms.

“There are artifacts that can be recovered from Exxion III. We’ve calculated they will be equal to the value of the land and supplies we’re providing, with a tidy profit left over for our troubles,” Gan said.

I thought about that for a moment and picked at the parts of it that felt wrong.

“If there’s value here why should people leave it to you and travel to somewhere that might collapse before it becomes viable?” I asked. Developing new colonies wasn’t easy. With as many populated worlds as there were in the galaxy, there was usually a good reason why an empty world was uninhabited.

“Verulia Industries is fully committed to the success of the Titanus colony,” Gan said. “As for value of the artifacts I spoke of, the people here lack the resources to exploit the opportunity that is literally under their feet.”

“Why not make a partnership of it then?” I asked.

“Partner with who?” Gan asked. “Even if we could get the locals to agree to that arrangement we wouldn’t be able to compensate them fairly.”

“Why?” I asked, though I could see a few of the problems that would stand in the way.

“Let’s say we find a medium value artifact beneath a Garjarack settlement,” Gan said. “That might be enough to pay for a hundred other dig sites. The Garjarack won’t be willing to take a 1/100th share though, especially not if the other 99 are all human settlements.”

“If you own all the settlements though, then the problem goes away,” I said. “What about the people who refuse to move.”

“We’ll be making a very attractive offer,” Gan said.

“And what about the one’s who get to Titanus and want to come back?” I asked.

“That will not be part of the offer,” Gan said. “We’re not going to require that anyone stay on Titanus. They’ll be free to sell their plot and travel anywhere they can afford to go, but the property exchange will have to be non-cancelable. Otherwise, as soon as we find an artifact site, the people who owned the land around it will want their property back to look for artifacts there too.”

“I thought you said the people didn’t have the resources to do that on their own?” I asked.

“They don’t, but if we do the preliminary work and identify a viable site, our competitors would jump at the chance to piggyback off that. They’ll back anyone with a claim that strong,” he said.

“How are you going to transport the people? That’s an enormous effort isn’t it?” I asked.

“We’ve contracted a personnel shipping company. They’ll be here by the end of the week and will be ready to transport the first batch of one hundred thousand colonists to Titanus within two weeks.”

“You’re moving very quickly,” I said.

“We’re a business Guardian Watersward,” Gan said. “We only survive by staying ahead of our competition.”

“I see. And what do you need me for?” I asked.

“Any project of this size requires an Imperial Overseer,” Gan said. “It’s not glamorous I’m afraid, but we’ll need your sign off at each of the gated stages of the project in order to proceed.”

“I’ll be getting reports and doing inspections I take it?” I asked.

“We’ll provide you with a staff to help with that if you like.” Gan said.

That sent up a few warning bells, but I let them pass. I could ask Master Raychelle about it once she wasn’t busy saving lives.

“I’ll confer with Guardian Kinsguard and Guardian Blackbriar on this, as well as the Ambassador, but for the moment I have no problem with filling that role,” I said.

“Good! Would you like to see our initial presentation? I can show you holo-vids of what Titanus looks like and how our proposed colonies will be set up,” Gan said.

Before I could answer an aide burst through the conference room’s door.

“Guardian Watersward?” she said as she processed that I was indeed who she was expecting to see. “The commander needs you in the communications center.”

“What’s happened?” I asked.

“There’s a fighter approaching,” she said. “From the direction of Salmon Falls.”

That got me up.

“I’m sorry. We’ll need to continue this later,” I said to Gan and followed the aide through the corridors to the aide center’s command room.

“Commander,” I said as I caught sight of him over one of the scrying pools in the room. “What can I do?”

“We have a link open to the craft but they’re not responding to us,” the commander said. “You met with them in person, so I’m hoping you can get a response out of them.”

“What’s their ETA?” I asked.

“Five minutes,” he said.

I turned to the aide who’d come in with me. “Can you run to the recovery wing and get Medic Illya. If I can’t reach them, maybe she’ll be able to.”

The aide virtually disappeared she took off so fast.

“Let me see if I can talk them down,” I said. “Which scrying pool has the link open to them?”

“This one,” the commander said, indicating a basin that was covered with a red velvet cloth.

I pulled the cloth free and dipped my fingers into the water. The sounds of a ship in flight sprang to life around me. I spent a second listening for conversation but whoever was flying the ship was doing so silently.

“This is Guardian Mel Watersward to the pilot of the approaching fighter craft please state your name and intention,” I said. “Do you have wounded. We will have clerics waiting when you arrive if so.”

I knew it was a longshot, but hoping the ship was flying here for a peaceful purpose seemed like a decent way to start a dialogue with them. As it turned out though all I got back was silence punctuated by the thrum of the fighter’s engine.

I wasn’t supposed to cast spells but there were some that weren’t terribly dangerous to work with. Sense enhancing spells for example. I wasn’t terribly good with them, but they took only a trifling amount of anima to pull off so the chance that I’d overcast one was all but non-existent.

Or at least that’s what I told myself as I went ahead and violated my healer’s orders for the first time in months.

Feeling my physical anima moving at my command again was glorious, as was the sense of completing a spell and the magic of it rising through me. I’d selected an auditory enhancement spell to let me hear through the link with superhuman ability. I could tell got it right because I was able to make out subtle creaks in the fighter’s airframe. With the spell cast correctly though I was at a loss to explain the burning sensation I felt on my skin.

I thought back to the last time I’d cast a spell. On the slopes of the volcano over the primary control site for Hellsreach’s weapon systems. I’d channeled so much force from the lava that I had literally caught on fire. I’d also nearly lost myself in the process. My recovery period had been as much about restoring the damage the fire had done to my mind as it had been healing the wounds to my body. The first thought I jumped to was that my physical recovery wasn’t complete and that I was about to self immolate again. When that didn’t happen, I had to start wondering if the problem was in my mind.

On the chance that the burning was a product of my imagination, I did what I always did with unpleasant memories and pushed the burning sensation to the back of my awarenessso that I could move forward. I’d have time to be crazy later.

“I repeat, identify yourself and your mission,” I said and then listened as intently as I could.

No response.

No heartbeats either.

“You wanted to see me commander?” Illya said as she and aide entered the room.

She looked nervous, which was natural for someone who’d been summoned to the commander’s office at a run. What wasn’t natural was how she was looking at me. She was angry, scared and guilty, and some part of her knew I would figure out what she had done.

“Illya, why is there an unmanned craft flying here from Salmon Falls?” I asked.

“An unmanned craft?” she asked. Her face was a carefully guarded mask, but I could hear her heartbeat speed up at just the wrong moment. She wasn’t surprised at all by the aircraft. She was surprised that I knew it was unmanned.

“Where did you find Medic Illya?” I asked the aide.

“She was outside on break,” the aide said.

“Near the tents?” I asked.

“Yes, how did you…?” the aide started to ask but I cut her off.

“Fari, we have a problem, can you bring one of the defense systems online?” I asked.

“Yes,” she said. “What’s happening?”

“There’s a fighter on an approach vector to the aide station. It’s unmanned. I need you to disable it,” I said.

“Is there any chance there’s someone inside it?” Fari asked.

“I don’t think so. No heartbeats, or are they under a silence spell, Illya?” I asked.

“I don’t know what you mean,” she said.

“Ok, Fari, feel free to disintegrate it,” I said.

In the distance there was sound like thunder.

“You…you destroyed the ship?” Illya said, her mask crumbling.

“You said there was no one onboard right?” I asked her.

“I didn’t say anything. Why did you destroy the ship?” I saw her blinking back tears as she spoke.

“It was unresponsive. Clearly enchanted to carry out a specific attack pattern, probably on the refugees that we have here,” I said. “Though that sort of enchantment is tricky. It takes a while to set one in place from what Guardian Blackbriar has told me. Silence spells are a lot easier. Give a soldier a mission and hit him with one of those so no one can countermand the orders and it’s pretty much the same thing as the enchantment with far less time wasted.”

“But why did you disintegrate it?” she said.

“It was a fighter. You don’t fly one of those at an aide center unless you want to hurt someone,” I said.

“I see,” she said and her mask came back on. “Can I get back to my patients?”

“Not yet,” I said. “Come with me.”

Again I was glad that killing with a look wasn’t an easy trick to pull off. Illya said nothing, just fell into step behind me.

I dropped the sense enhancing spell and felt the burning sensation fade with it. Losing the enhanced hearing took away one of my potential defenses and with Illya walking where I couldn’t see her, she was in a perfect position to ambush me. I didn’t think she would though. She was withdrawing into herself not raging out of control. She could change her mind but I didn’t intend to give her long enough for that to occur.

We walked out to the landing area for incoming ships and found Gan waiting there.

“We were supposed to have clearance to land next,” he said. “What is this ship doing here?”

Illya’s eyes lit up at the sight of the craft before us. It was an Exxion IV fighter ship. Unremarkable in any sense, except for the fact that it wasn’t disintegrated at the moment.

“But you said…” Illya turned to me, her mask of anger shattered by her confusion.

“I said Fari was free to disintegrate it,” I said. “It’s not like she wasn’t going to check for herself though.”

“What was the explosion then?” Illya asked.

“Backfire from the warp guns firing,” Fari said and turned to me. “Oh, we’re down one battery of warp guns now by the way. It’ll take at least a week for them to recharge from a quick firing like that.”

“Thank you.” I said on our private telepathic channel.

“You’re welcome,” she replied. “Just remind me to take a week off after all this.”

“I can recommend a good recovery center!” I said.

The commander and a trio of Imperial guards exited the building after us.

“You’ll want to question the pilot of that ship,” I said. “And detain Medic Illya please. I’m going to need to speak with her.”

“There are injured arriving soon though!” Illya said.

“I know,” I said and nodded to one of the guards to take her away. We couldn’t afford to be down a medic, but I also couldn’t afford to let an attempted murderer roam free.

“I’ll call off my ship and let the wounded take our landing slot,” Gan said.

“Thank you,” I said. “I may have to keep you here longer than you planned.”

“Plans can change,” he said and smiled at me.

He was being so reasonable it was hard to mistrust him, but every time I looked at Gan Everbright and thought about the gift he was offering of Titanus, I felt the cold talons of danger digging into my chest. My time as an Imperial Overseer was not going to be easy, or safe, from what I could sense.

The Horizon of Today – Chapter 7

We arrived at the Imperial aid center in time to save the two wounded people that we had brought with us. The Garjarack family I’d sent ahead in our original transport also arrived safely. That was where the good news ended though.

“Master Opal just sent me a report,” Fari said. “There’s another mega-quake on the way.”

“Where are these things coming from?” I asked.

“I wish we had a culprit but it looks like they’re natural,” Fari said. “Master Opal and her team worked a tectonic sensing ritual after the first quake and there’s still a lot of tension built up on the faultlines from when the planet was moved.”

“Do we know where the quake will happen?” I asked.

“Yep. Evacuation procedures have begun but we’re stretched thin with the disaster recovery efforts,” Fari said.

“Another quake is going to be really hard on the people who are trying to dig the survivors out,” I said.

“I’ll see if I can help Master Opal,” Fari said and winked out, transferring herself to the planetary control systems.

I’d been worried about the aftershocks when Darius was trapped under the building. Another quake like the first one would mean a lot more aftershocks too.

We’d been lucky so far. Over the last two months, the previous mega-quakes were focused along the Lost Iron rift in the Southern Sunfire ocean. The coastline in that area had been obliterated by tsunamis but there were no settlements on either side of the ocean, due to fallout from battles that predated the Crystal Empire taking over the Exxion system.

In truth the planet was a timebomb in a number of ways. Predicting which plates were going to let loose and in which order was tricky issue. Master Opal’s team had managed to defuse a few of the earlier problem by using the planetary drives. That had come at the cost of making later quakes harder to predict.

“I should get back to my people,” Illya, the human medic from the village said as she left the treatment room where our two attackers lay in a healing trance.

“I wish I could offer you a transport, but there’s another quake coming,” I said.

“Then they’ll need me all the more!” she said.

“The Imperial forces there know the quake is on the way,” I said. “They’ll have your people prepared for it.”

“There’s too many people to evacuate,” Illya said.

“Yeah and adding one more isn’t going to make that any easier,” I said.

“Just put me on a transport that’s going close to Salmon Falls,” she said.

“Illya, there are people who need you here,” I said. “Two of them are in the room behind you, but there’s going to be more. They’re due here in the next half hour.”

“From Salmon Falls?” she asked.

“The serious cases,” I said. “The others are being sent to the nearest Exxion IV outpost.”

I saw her relax at that and understood the feeling. I’d wound up taking care of some of the younger kids at the orphanage once in a while because the Sisters couldn’t be everywhere. Do that enough times and people start to depend on you, which can be a good, empowering feeling, but it comes at a price. If anything happens to the people you’re responsible for, that good feeling can turn to self-hate in an instant.

“Ok, I’ll keep tending to the people here then,” Illya said.

Before she could leave though Cadrus, the adult male Gar of the family I’d rescued, came up to us with Nenya, his daughter in tow.

“Guardian Watersward, we need your help,” Cadrus said.

Illya spoke before I could respond.

“These aren’t natives.”

I was close enough to her that I could feel the anima spell that she cast. A red glow played around her body. She’d raised a shield, but the spell went beyond that. As a healer, she had to possess a sizeable amount of Physical anima to draw on. As a combat-medic, she had to know how to use that anima for more than healing.

“No, they’re not,” I said. “But they are here peacefully.”

I tried to make my voice as soothing and calm as possible, but Illya’s reaction wasn’t a reasoned one so my words all but bounced off her.

Nenya looked puzzled. She could see Illya’s medic insignias and had probably assumed Illya was one of the Imperials since she was standing next to me. Cadrus, on the other hand, had shifted himself in front of his daughter. He hadn’t cast a spell of his own yet, but from the tension in his eyes I could see that he was holding one ready to go.

“We need a healer for our youngest,” Cadrus said.

“I’ll come with you to find one,” I said, “Illya are you going to be ok?”

I put a hand on her arm as a gesture of reassurance. It was also gave me the smallest chance of containing her is she decided to go off.

“Fine.” That was all she was able to say before pivoting away from us and heading back to the treatment room she’d been assigned to. I watched her go, waiting for her to turn and snap, but she just walked away. With her shield up.

I held in my sigh of relief out of consideration for Cadrus and Nenya. It wasn’t a great outcome but it was the best I could have hoped for under the circumstances.

“She doesn’t heal Gars, does she?” Nenya asked.

“She has other patients assigned to her already,” I said. It was true, but far from the reason Illya had left. Cadrus could see that too but it didn’t seem to bother him. I guessed he was used to seeing humans as the enemy and being treated the same in return.

“We need to find a Gar medic,” Cadrus said.

“I don’t know if we have any here,” I said. “What’s wrong with your child?”

“We don’t know,” Nenya said.

“He has fallen unconscious and we cannot rouse him,” Cadrus said.

“Let’s find someone right away then,” I said.

I lead the two Gar to central aid station and flagged down one of the medics there. She was a Rigellun, a race that looked similar to humans but had skin that varied along different shades of purple and blue. There were also racial differences in the shape of the ears and eyebrows which were noteworthy to the Rigelluns but were subtle enough that I had a hard time making them out.

“We’ve got a Gar child who needs help,” I said.

“Have they been triaged yet?” the medic asked me.

“We were all inspected when we landed, but Kallak was conscious then,” Cadrus reported.

“Wonderful,” the medic said. “Is he showing any other signs of distress? Labored breathing? Irregular pulse?”

“No, he just appears to be unconscious,” Cadrus said. “But there’s no cause for it.”

“Kallak? Was that his name?” the medic asked.

“Yes!” Nenya said.

“I don’t have him in here,” the medic said referring to a master list of patients at the aid station. “I’ll add him to the list as one of the serious cases. We’ll have a medic over to see him as soon as one is free.”

“Thank you,” I said and then turned to Cadrus and Nenya, “Can I see Kallak while we wait?”

There wasn’t anything that I’d be able to do for him, but since I was technically on the injured list myself still, there weren’t many other ways I could help.

“Of course Guardian,” Cadrus said.

The Gar family had been quartered outside the aid center in one of the family sized tents that had been set up to receive the incoming disaster survivors. We entered and I was surprised at the smell inside. It was fresh and clean. The air was slightly warm and moist, but I knew that would feel comfortable to the Gars. The Imperial tents were woven with low level enchantments built into them to keep their users safe in a wide range of environments. That made them more expensive but on the scale of resources that the Empire worked with, it was a trivial distinction.

Inside, the rest of the family was waiting for us. They were clustered around a pair of beds where two of the children lay. Cadrus’ wife glared at me when I came in. Before I was through the tent flap, she stood to put herself between the children and me.

“We needed a healer, Cadrus. This one said she didn’t have any healing abilities,” Eirda, Cadrus’ wife, said.

“She spoke with the healers. They will be sending someone,” Cadrus said.

“They had best send someone soon,” Eirda said. It was spoken as a threat but the look of helpless rage on her face said she knew the words were empty.

“We’re expecting another transport in with wounded in less than thirty minutes,” I said. “I think they’ll try to get someone to see Kallak before that.”

“You think?” Eirda said.

“I’m not a medic or a cleric. I can’t say which cases are more critical than others,” I said.

“The humans won’t have to wait for treatment though will they. There’s plenty of medics for them,” Eirda said. “You won’t let them die.”

“I won’t let anyone die,” I said.

“That medic would though,” Nenya said. “The one you were talking to. She would let us all die.”

“She’s not an Imperial,” I said, as though that excused Illya’s actions somehow.

“She was human though, wasn’t she?” Eirda guessed. “Just like all of the rest of the medics at this center.”

“Not all of the medics here are humans,” Darius said as he came into the tent and joined us. “Fortunately, I am, and I’ve healed Garjarack patients before.”

“You’ve worked with our people?” Eirda asked.

“Every day,” Darius said. “Now tell me what happened with your child.”

“He collapsed,” Eirda said. “He has been weak for several days, but no worse today than before.”

Darius moved in to inspect the boy and his sister and I stepped back to give them room. Cadrus stepped away with me.

“Please forgive my wife,” he said. “She sees you as a human and it upsets her.”

“I am a human,” I said.

“Yes, but you are not like the human’s here,” Cadrus said. “I believe we can trust you.”

“Thank you, but why do you think I’m different from the people here?” I asked.

“You are darker than they are. Like the Rigelluns. You are like a human, but different,” he said.

“Walk with me Cadrus?” I asked.

“Of course,” he said.

Nenya tagged along with us, apparently more interested in our conversation than in her brother’s treatment.

“I’m glad that you trust me Cadrus, but you need to understand that I am human, the same as the people you’ve fought, and the same as Darius, the one who’s trying to heal your son in there,” I said. “That’s not important though. Human, Gar, Rig, we’re all in this together.”

“You mean together in the troubles the planet is having?” Cadrus asked.

“That and a lot more,” I said.

“I understand your words Guardian, but you must understand our experience,” Cadrus said. “Our religion teaches us that all life springs from the same source. We are all one family. And yet we have shed blood with the humans here for generations. There are some who can move beyond that. Ones who turned against the war early on, or left when they grew tired of the senselessness of it.”

I caught a glimpse of something that made me wonder if he was speaking from personal experience. Did he know people who left when they grew tired of the war. A brother or sister maybe? I filed that away as a tool for later if I needed it.

“Then there are those of us who stayed true to our own.” Cadrus said. I could see how the limits of Galactic Common were chafing at him. He wanted to explain the idea in Garjarack so that he could distinguish between the layers of proximity in his relationship to the Garjarack war command.

“Some of us are ready to move on but embracing a new future is difficult. There is more danger in that than anything we have ever known,” he said. I saw him glance at Nenya and was able to read that bit of body language easily. If the peace efforts fell apart, Cadrus could lose everyone dear to him in an instant, especially if he let his guard down around “the enemy”.

“And then there are the ones for whom the fighting has been too bitter. Some wounds run so deep they will never heal,” Cadrus said.

It wasn’t hard to guess who he was referring to, though I wondered if his assessment was necessarily accurate. Eirda hated humans, at least as far as her behavior towards me indicated, but when Darius showed up as the one to heal her son, she’d been willing to work with him immediately. Some of that was concern for her offspring, but there had to be a part of her that could still be reached too.

“I’ve never read of anything but time and effort making things like that easier,” I said.

“A common enemy can help speed things up.”

I turned to find a tall, muscular human man standing behind me. His skin was as dark as mine which said he was an off worlder too, but I didn’t see any Imperial insignia on him.

“Can I help you?” I asked. Without thinking about it I placed myself between the new comer and Cadrus and Nenya. I noticed I’d done that a half second later and suppressed a grin. For all our differences, humans and Gars aren’t really so different.

“If you’re Guardian Watersward you can,” the man said. “My name’s Gan Everbright and I’m here to bring these people to a whole new world.”


The Horizon of Today – Chapter 6

I flew out of the village with Darius, the medic Illya and two of our wounded attackers. Despite Darius and Illya’s best efforts, both of the attackers remained in serious condition. The Imperial transport had shown up less than twenty minutes after Fari called for it, which gave them a chance at making it, but it was going to take some difficult healing spells to repair the damage they’d suffered at a time when Hellsreach’s resources were stretched thin.

The mega-quake had destroyed more than the town of Salmon Falls. Supply towns and encampments on both sides of the war border had been flattened in its wake. Master Raychelle and Master Opal were going to be in the field for days dealing with fires both literal and political.

The one bit of bright news was from the negotiating team who was working on the peace process. On the border between the Gar and Human forces, the two sides had set up joint efforts to assess the damage and rescue any survivors who were trapped. From what Fari said the “joint efforts” most boiled down to “I won’t shoot you, if you won’t shoot me while we look for our wounded” but in some cases she was getting reports of former enemy units working together.

I’d seen a glimmer of that in the people of the village above Salmon Falls. Before we left with their wounded there had been a few beyond just Illya who’d approached me to find out what was happening. I could see the less trusting sorts hovering behind them, but no one had raised a hand against either Darius or I.

Part of me wanted to blame the light show Fari had put on when she freed the people trapped in the rubble. From the point of view of the villagers, I’d held out a gem and summoned living star fire. Someone who can do that isn’t the sort of person you generally want to annoy.

I hadn’t noticed fear or awe in them afterwards though. There was just concern for their family members, both the ones who’d been pulled from the rock piles and the ones who’d been hurt in the village during the quake.

There hadn’t been much that I could do for them though. The scale of the problem put it well beyond my capacity to fix as an individual. All I could do was let them know how widespread the damage was, and what the plans were for dealing with it as they developed.

I’d demanded to speak with the village chief when I arrived but Mayor Lakter, the civilian administrator, had been one of the attackers who hadn’t made it out of the rock pile alive. His second in command was one of the people we were flying back for emergency healing care. That had left leadership of the small village uncertain, until the woman who’d grabbed my arm stepped forward to speak for the rest of them.

“Was this you?” she’d asked me. “Were you responsible for this?”

It wasn’t hard to see in her eyes that she’d already decided on the answer to that question.

“Do you think I could be?” I said, challenging her. “And do you think if I was, I would use an attack like that on a town like this?”

“It doesn’t matter what I think,” she said and stared at me, daring me to contradict her.

So I did.

“Looks like you’re one of the smarter people here,” I said. “But you’re working from some bad information if you think I or any other Crystal Guardian on this planet go around flattening towns with earthquakes.”

“Maybe you weren’t trying to flatten the town.” she said.

That’s when it clicked. Someone had teleported an entire building into the center of the village in an effort to save the people inside it. That someone was almost certainly an extremely talented spell caster who was also almost certainly exhausted and unable to cast any additional spells for a while. Being vulnerable like that tended to make people cranky, and I was pretty sure the “someone” in question hadn’t been a huge fan of the Imperial forces to begin with.

I smirked. There was no chance I was going to talk her out of her paranoia. It might be justified after all. If she was actively working against the peace process, we would be enemies and if I came to stop her (and had my full anima powers back), I could make life extremely unpleasant for her.

“You might want to consider the control I just showed with the rock pile,” I said. “My attacks don’t tend to miss their targets.”

I saw her eyes widen at the less-than-subtle threat behind my words. I wasn’t trying to pick a fight, but I knew if I pushed her a bit more I’d succeed in getting one.

Under the circumstances that was both a good and a bad thing. With the teleport spell leaving her tapped out, this would probably be the simplest most straightforward fight that I could have with her. If I was certain we’d wind up as enemies then this was the time to take her down. The time, but not, perhaps, the place.

If it came to a fight, I’d throw both the first and the last blow. They might not be one and the same punch depending on her level of hand-to-hand training, but she was standing with her weight distributed in too sloppy a manner to respond well before I battered her into unconsciousness. That wasn’t the problem. The problem was all of the other people who were standing around her. I counted at least five people whose uniforms marked them as military reservists who were staying close enough to have her back.. Add to that the twenty people who were working to repair the village within fifteen yards of us and keeping a close eye on the verbal confrontation. The math was not in my favor, though after the display with the rockpile I wasn’t sure they knew that.

“So, if it wasn’t you, then who did this?” the woman asked.

“The quake tore through both human and Gar holdings,” I said. “No one benefited from this so I don’t think it was anyone’s fault.”

“Somebody benefited. Somebody always makes it out of situations like this richer than they went in,” the woman said.

“Maybe,” I said. “But the planet did get pushed out of its orbit and then dragged back. Surface quakes wouldn’t have been anything to the people who built this place.”

“What do you mean?” the woman asked.

“Have you watched the news?” I asked. “Hellsreach is a war world. It wasn’t designed for people to live on. It’s designed to crush other worlds.”

People started coming closer as we talked, which was unsettling, but I could see they were listening intently.

“A war world?” the woman asked. “No one’s told us about that.”

“Why do you think the Imperial forces are here?” I asked. I’d thought the story about what happened two months ago had become global news an hour after it occurred, but from the looks in the eyes of the people who surrounded me, I was wrong.

“You want to stop the war and take our homes,” the woman said.

“Ok, that’s screwed up. Where do you get your news from?” I asked.

“Major Vunthar gives us our orders,” one of the men from the crowd said.

“Orders? What about news? Holo-vids? Letters from the rest of the world?” I asked.

“This is a secure base. We don’t get holo-vids here.” the woman said.

I blinked. There were a thousand reasons for keeping people like this cut off from what was going on and I couldn’t think of any of them that were good.

“Lieutenant Tulk what does it mean if this place is a war world?” one of the girls asked the woman I was talking to.

“That means the whole planet is an artifact. One big gun. Am I right?” Tulk asked.

“Simple version? Yes. Complicated version? Its worse than that.” I said. There was so much information that had been released for public consumption I had no idea where to start.

“How can it be worse than that?” Tulk asked.

“A gun you fire at other people. A war world has local defensive systems too in order to repel invaders,” I said.

“So more guns?” Tulk said.

“No, the builders of this place didn’t think that small,” I said. “One of the defensive systems converts the planet’s surface to magma. All of the surface. That’s a first order defense. The kind that gets broken out before the battle gets really serious.”

“That can’t be real,” Tulk said.

“Why do you think you’ve been fighting over this place for a hundred years?” I asked. “Neither side knew how to activate the war world, but they were damn sure they didn’t want to give the other side the chance to figure it out first.”

“What happened?” Tulk asked.

“Someone figured it out,” I said. “A native.”

“Where’s her now?” she asked.

“In Imperial custody,” I said.

“So that’s why the Empire is here. They want to take the whole world from us?” Tulk said.

“No,” I said. “We showed up before the planet was activated. I came here to be part of the peace discussions. The Empire is staying here now to be sure the planet is not used as a weapon by anyone and to help all three sides come to an agreement on how the fighting can be stopped for good.”

“That’s easy. Kill all the damn Gar!” one of the guys in the crowd said. He used a humorous tone, but he wasn’t joking.

“Is that what you were trying to do in Salmon Falls?” I asked.

It was a dangerous and stupid subject to get into but I wanted to understand what justifications they used for the things they’d done.

Actually, if I was honest with myself, I wanted to hear their arguments so that I could tear them to pieces and convince them to be better people than the murderous idiots they appeared to be.

And that was the stupid part. Understanding other people is fine. Believing that you can argue them into being better people is the mark of a deluded fool. Nothing in my life had ever suggested that sort of thing would work. I’d never seen the Sisters do it, I’d never seen Master Hanq do it, and I’d never managed it myself.

But the desire was still there. This wasn’t a problem I could punch, but I still had to try to break it. Even if it meant breaking myself in the process.

“We weren’t doing anything in Salmon Falls,” one of the military reservists said.

I sighed and massaged my forehead with one hand. Apparently I wasn’t the only stupid one in the area.

“I have a lot of disaster recovery work ahead of me,” I said. “Can we cut to the chase please? You set up Salmon Falls as a trap for the Gar. You left poisoned supplies for them to take back, gave them a ship with a homing beacon to lead them to the town and then dropped bombs on them when they arrived to keep them distracted and on the run.”

“We didn’t…” the reservist began to say, but I cut her off.

“Shut up. Yes, you did. You evacuated the town’s population and brought them here, probably months ago. The bombs that were going off were being teleported into the town from the building that is currently a pile of rubble in your central grove. And, before the earthquake destroyed it, the town showed signs of having been bombed and repaired just enough to look like it was intact from the outside.”

“The town was bombed before the eathquake,” Lt. Tulk said. “By the Gar.”

“A raid?” I asked. “After the ceasefire two months ago?”

Tulk just glared at me.

“Of course. And that’s why you brought the townsfolk to the secure base. Except there were too many of them for the barracks. So you built the housing here as fast as you could using whatever supplies were available. Did your Major Vunthar give the order for that?” I asked.

Tulk didn’t need to speak to confirm that. I could see it in her eyes. She was loyal to her forces. Everyone here was. Everyone except maybe Major Vunthar, wherever he was.

“Just one last question then,” I said. “When the Gar raiders first bombed the town, did you see them, or just their ships?”

The Imperial transports arrived before anyone could answer me, but I caught the flare of surprise in Tulk’s eyes as the question hit home.

After the ceasefire had been declared there’d been a fair amount of looting between the sides as the organized military forces pulled back to the agreed upon positions. The raiders could have been rogue Garjarack troops striking one last blow against their hated enemy, or they could have been something much worse.

The Horizon of Today – Chapter 5

Walking into the shanty town wasn’t the kind of move that was going to ensure a long and healthy life for me. If I’d been planning on a long and healthy life I wouldn’t have signed up to be one of the Empress’s trouble shooters though.

“They’re not going to be happy to see you Mel,” Fari said.

“I know that,” I assured her.

“They have bombs,” she said.

“I know that too,” I said.

“If you’re in the middle of them, I’ll have to hit you with the stun burst too,” she said.

“If I have to ask you to stun burst a refugee community, I’ll be more than willing to take the hit myself as well,” I said, as I made my way through the dense forest that separated me from where the action was. Out of the corner of my vision I noticed that I’d picked up an “escort” of sorts along the way.

A guard had been hiding in the tree canopy outside of the village. I hadn’t noticed him until he touched down about a dozen yards to my left. He was cloaked by a camouflage spell but in my Void anima sight, the spell glowed a brilliant red, defeating its purpose entirely.

I considered turning to deal with him. His spell was lousy and inefficient, so there was a decent chance I could take him in a straight hand-to-hand fight, but I pushed the idea aside. I wasn’t here to break faces, I was here to rescue Darius. My best hope of doing that was to approach these people in an unexpected way.

“That’s a bad idea Mel,” Master Raychelle said. “Fari’s attack may not disable everyone in in the area, but it will definitely disable you in your current state.”

“If she has to stun burst the town, she’ll hit the people trapped in the wreckage too,” I said. “The only thing keeping them alive is their residual shields and those won’t stand up to an attack like that.”

“Think clearly,” Master Raychelle said. “You don’t want to throw your life away if Darius can’t be saved.”

“I’m not going to throw away either of our lives,” I said. “I’ve got a plan.”

“Share it with me,” Master Raychelle said.

I reached the edge of the clearing and people started to notice me. It was last moment that I could turn away but I cast that option aside.

“No time,” I said and marched right out of the forest.

There were easily thirty people gathered around pile of rubble that made up the collapsed building and three times that number running around in the kit bashed houses beyond it. Some wore military uniforms, others wore the coveralls common for support staff but most had on simple tunics and pants.

I swept my robes around me and locked eyes with the nearest adult I could find.

“I need your Mayor or Chief here with a damage report and a tally of injured as fast they can get it!” I said.

The woman I addressed looked at me like I was speaking some obscure outworld dialect rather than Galactic Common. I didn’t wait for her to finish processing my words before I continued though and I didn’t slow my pace towards the rubble pile.

“This structure, it came from Salmon Falls didn’t it?” I asked and again didn’t wait for an answer before continuing, “You’ve got no support enchantments on it and you’ve got multiple people still trapped within. We need to get them out of there before the next aftershock hits or we’re going to lose them.”

I passed through a crowd of people who had no idea to what to make of me and stopped short at the base of the rubble pile. It helped tremendously that I was human. If I’d tried this in a Garjarack village, their natural reaction would have been to shoot me, but I looked just enough like the people here that they didn’t file me immediately into the “enemy” category. They were too used to the enemy having scales and a tail and it made their thinking sloppy.

“Hell of a transport job,” I said. “I’m going to want to talk to the caster who pulled that off. Incredible feat. Shame they didn’t leave the top floors behind though.”

“Who are you?” one of the men asked at last.

“Guardian Watersward. I’ve got Imperial support in-bound, but there’s no telling when the next part of the quake is going to hit, so we need your people and mine out of that pile now,” I said.

Playing on my status as a Crystal Guardian was shaky in the sense that I was technically only an initiate and not a full Guardian yet, but in this case I was all the Guardian these people were going to get. The concern about the aftershocks was very real too, but not what I was most worried about with this crowd. Their animosity towards “Gar sympathizers” was more likely to get Darius and I killed than the chance of the building collapsing any further. That was the reason they needed to think Imperial troops were on the way.

That was also a cue to Fari to actually send the Imperial support that I needed. Bluffing would only keep them from shooting me for so long. Once the crisis was past and Darius and their people were free, they’d have time to ask themselves how much they really wanted outsiders knowing where they were and what they’d been up to. I had Fari as an ace in the hole but I really didn’t want to have to start shooting them, even after I got Darius out of the line of fire.

Stun bursts are non-lethal, but only in the sense that any reasonably healthy body should be able to withstand their effects. Forcibly knocking someone unconscious is disruptive no matter how you do it (barring certain Mental anima spells) and for people in as bad shape as these folks looked to be it was an open question how well they could tolerate that kind of disruption.

“What are you doing here?” one of the women nearby asked. She wasn’t the official leader of the group. Her clothes were a mix of dark and light beige colored layers, rather than a military uniform or even the support staff coveralls. Despite her dress though, she carried herself like a fighter.

“Helping you,” I said. “Has anyone done a scan to locate where your people are in all of this?”

“We didn’t ask for any Imperial help,” the woman said and grabbed by my arm.

It was a direct challenge to my authority and I let her do it, fighting back the reflex to break her arm and dislocate her shoulder. She and the rest of the people here could do immense harm to me. The only way I saw to prevent that was to act as if the opposite was true.

“Then you’re extremely lucky that I was in the area,” I said and looked down at her hand, silently asking if grabbing me really seemed like a good idea to her.

The tension moment dragged on for what seemed like an hour with neither of us moving. I filled my head with visceral plans for how I would take her apart as well as everyone that stood within twenty feet of me. Part of me knew I’d be lucky to get through a handful of them but I focused on what victory would feel like rather than letting myself imagine the agony of defeat.

She pulled her hand away before I got to the really interesting ideas on how I could fight that many opponents, but she didn’t back off.

“How are you going to get them out there?” she asked. The rest of the community was focused on the two of us which offered the advantage that I only had to negotiate with one of them. With how people tend to be though, I knew it was only a short time before someone else got brave enough to stick their opinion where it wasn’t needed.

“Like this,” I said and turned back to the rock pile. “Fari, boost the sense link to maximum and see if you can located any of the trapped people as we go.”

I was counting on her being able to detect where the people were because my next idea would be a terrible one if I misaimed it.

“You can channel the planetary defense spells through your gem right?” I asked her privately on our telepathic channel.

“Sure, that’s easier that targeting them over the sense link,” she said.

“I know you’re splitting your attention at the moment, can you turn control of the transport over to one of the Gars?” I asked.

“Yes, they’re all loaded in now,” she said. “What do you in mind for me?”

“Forget the stun blasts, I need you to bring one of the petrification rays online,” I said.

“You plan to use that on the building, not on the people?” Master Raychelle asked, guessing at my plan without me needing to spell it out.

“Right. If we can keep the building from falling down any further we can use more aggressive means to get them out of there,” I said.

“What did you have in mind for your ‘more aggressive means’?” Master Raychelle asked.

“I suppose the Matter Annihilation Batteries are still off-limits right?” I asked. Even my worst plans shied away from using anti-matter as the answer to my problems, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t a tempting tool to think about deploying.

“We’re already dealing with one global catastrophe today, let’s not make it another one shall we?” Master Raychelle requested.

“They’re on hard lock down too. I can’t interface with them,” Fari added. It didn’t surprise me that she’d already checked out the status of the Matter Annihilation Batteries. Part of why we got along so well was that we thought disturbingly alike sometimes.

“Cold Plasma cutters should do the trick then,” I said. Plasma cutters work by invoking an incredibly hot flame that can melt virtually anything. For Cold Plasma you layer another spell on top to reabsorb the intense heat from the cutting blade and the material that’s being melted. This helps prevent things like melting the people that you’re trying to save.

“Those are in short supply,” Master Raychelle said.

“Not if you know someone as talented as Fari,” I said.

“You want to use my gem as a rock cutter?” Fari asked. “Please. I’m much better than that!”

I felt the charge start to grow in gem that I wore on my chest. It was Fari’s home and the remnant of a world killing super weapon. Its world killing days were past, but it still possessed the same energy storage capacity as it once had and Fari was still a frighteningly good caster even if her current form imposed some limits on the spells she could manage.

“Step back. This is going bright,” I said, warning the people around me away as I pulled Fari’s gem clear of my shirt and held it out towards the rock pile. I didn’t have a definite idea what Fari was going to do, but I figured it would be safer to have everyone out of the area of effect no matter what it was.

I needn’t have worried of course. Given time and the right circumstances, Fari’s spell casting control is incredibly precise.

Beams of petrification stabbed out from the gem and froze a very specific set of the stones in the pile into place. Under the effect of the spell they fused together and became a new superstructure for the building. That alone guaranteed that the people trapped inside wouldn’t be killed in the next aftershock. There was still the problem of saving them from the damage they’d already endured though so once the supports were in place Fari really cut loose.

Plasma cutters are hard to look at. In consideration of my poor tender eyes, Fari slid a black overlay across my vision that blocked out 99% of the light that was coming in. That meant I was the only one who got to watch the dozens of Cold Plasma cutter flames that Fari summoned from the gem. Everyone else was blinded by the light in my hands that was brighter than the midday sun.

Under Fari’s control, the cutters lashed out like the heads of a fiery hydra and tore the rock pile apart. She used some other sort of effect, an air-inversion spell I think, to whisk away the frosty dust that she was reducing the rocks to. Both of the spells were incredible to watch in action but the thing that really blew my mind was the microscopic control of her casting. In less than a minute she’d unearthed all six people who’d been trapped in the rubble, including Darius!

There were times, and this was one of them, when I really wished Fari had a physical form so that I could hug the hell out of her.

“I regret ever doubting your awesomeness,” I said, staring in awe at the work she’d done.

“Go get Darius before the villagers’ vision clears!” Fari said.

She didn’t have to tell me twice. I sprinted up the rock pile before any of the people around me could see well enough to stop me.

I found Darius in a small cocoon of rock embedded in what had originally been the ground floor. He was laying on top of the remains of the basement and sub-basement levels but the rest of the building had almost entirely buried him. From the way he was posed, I could see that he’d felt the quake coming and had prepared for it as best as he could. That hadn’t been enough to save him completely but his shield spell had created a small, pocket of open space in the debris that rained down from the floor above. It was enough to keep him from being crushed to death and had bought me time to get to him, just as I’d hoped.

Seeing him there, eye closed and chest unmoving was a creepy sight though. I knew he wasn’t dead. He was in a “Survivor’s Trance” designed to minimize bodily needs for things like air and water while continuing to supply anima to defensive spells like the shield that had protected him. I knew that but believing it was difficult with what I was seeing.

“Come back to me.” I said and brushed my hand across his face.

I don’t know if it was my words, or the touch, but something broke the trance spell and his eyes flickered open.

“Wow, that’s not a bad way to wake up,” he said as he opened his eyes to see me.

I smiled back and brushed his hair. He looked a bit disoriented but under the circumstances I couldn’t blame him..

“You’re not in your bed. You’re under a collapsed building,” I said. “How do you feel.”

“I’m ok,” he said and then took a moment to wiggle his feet and flex his hands to verify that fact.

“Good. It looks like you got your shield cast in time. Can you get up?” I asked.

“Let’s see,” he said and lifted himself out of the rock cocoon. I helped him up onto his feet and he looked around, confusion written all over his face.

“I’ll explain later,” I said on the telepathic link that Fari set up for us. “Just follow me lead for now.”

“I must have taken a hard hit than I thought,” he said telepathically. “This doesn’t look anything like Salmon Falls.”

“It’s not,” I replied. “Salmon Falls was a lot safer than this place.”

“People were trying to bomb us in Salmon Falls,” he said.

“Yes, these people to be specific,” I said.

“Ah, I see, I’ll wait till later for that explanation then,” he said.

I looked at the crowd below us. Their vision was coming back and some of them were starting to see what Fari had accomplished.

“I need medical personnel and family members up here immediately!” I called down to them. That got the response I was hoping for, which shocked me more than anything else had since we’d landed in Salmon Falls.

As I watched the medics in the small village tend to the wounded I got a better sense of what we were dealing with. The other people who were trapped in the rubble weren’t the casters that Darius was. No one in the village except the teleportation wizard was that skilled. They were reserve troops, backline support staff and the family members that grew up around them. Just ordinary people stuck in a bad situation.

“Do you have any healing skills Guardian Watersward?” one of the medics, a woman named Illya, asked me.

“No, I’m sorry,” I said. Not only didn’t I have healing skills, I knew I probably never would. My talents lay in Void anima manipulation which was dangerous enough to use around healthy people, much less the injured. To be a healer required a very different touch than the one my calloused and rough hands were able to give.

“I know the basic Curing spells,” Darius said, “Where can I help?”

It was a smart move in terms of winning the villagers over to our side, but I could see that wasn’t why Darius was doing it. He’d grown up hating the war on Hellsreach, but he consciously wrestled with himself not to hate the people who fought it.  Reaching out to them in their hour of need didn’t necessarily feel right to him, but it was what he knew he needed to do.

I found myself observing them with a different eye though. I had no reason to hate them or the war they’d fought. I was an outsider, and I was supposed to use that status to render impartial judgments on the people of Hellsreach.

Their pain and poor conditions resonated with a spot in me that had seen people in their kind of shape too often while growing up. The Sister’s of Waters Mercy had never been a rich group, and there were plenty of times they’d had to scrape to get by, but they’d always kept us housed and fed. I wasn’t sure these people had any more than that and I suspected they had to put up with less pretty often based on the fortunes of the war.

At the same time though, they’d been trapping and murdering Garjarack’s. The family I rescued definitely wasn’t the first to have fallen into their trap and if I hadn’t stopped them from bringing back the tainted supplies I was sure that a lot more Garjarack than just they would have died too.

It was my duty to stop things like that and bring the perpetrators to justice. Looking at the shattered bodies of the ones who’d been the most actively responsible for the trap, I had to wonder if the planet hadn’t enacted its own justice on them though, and whether the Garjarack would be willing to accept that too.


The Horizon of Today – Chapter 4

My first thought when as I stared down into the empty hole where a building and my boyfriend should have been was the wordless desire to hit someone, very hard. Master Raychelle had tried to teach me that violence shouldn’t be the first answer for a Crystal Guardian, but from what I’d seen it was usually a second choice that was kept close at hand.

“They took him,” I said, anger lacing a feral edge onto my voice.

The foundation was empty. No building. No Darius. That wasn’t the kind of thing earthquakes did. That was the kind of thing people did when they were trying to rescue their comrades from a collapsed building.

Mass teleportation like that wasn’t easy. Only a very experienced spell caster would have been able to pull it off. On a lot of planets that would have narrowed the list of suspects tremendously. Hellsreach had been at war for so long though that master class spell casters were roughly twenty times more common than on typical planets in the Empire. It still made for a small list, relatively speaking, but it was a longer one than I had time to sort through.

Whoever abducted Darius had little reason to leave him alive once they worked out who he was. At best they might try to ransom him, but with Master Raychelle and the rest of the Imperial forces on planet that was foolish chance for them to take.

Dealing with a teleporter was problematic because, in theory, they could be anywhere. In practice though I knew they had to be reasonably close by. I had Master Raychelle to thank for that deduction. She’d spent the last few months, when she had spare time, teaching me as much about anima casting and magic theory as she could. In part it was to prevent me from burning myself out like I had, but it also served to make up for the glaring gap in my education.

I’d never been a superb student. More than one of the Sisters of Water’s Mercy had laid literal curses on me for my lack of attentiveness in class. To be fair though, at the time, it was worth it. Classes at the orphanage were that boring.

Master Raychelle’s classes were a whole different story though. She had a gift for teaching, and knew how to speak to me in a way that made sense. Also, the subject matter she was teaching was easy to stay engaged with. Subjects where the tests are life or death rather than pass/fail tend to command my attention pretty easily it turns out.

What I’d retained from her lessons was that teleportation, even for the most talented caster was a tiring, energy expensive procedure. That told me that the building mover had to live close by. Whoever had set up Salmon Falls as a trap for the Garjaracks was a small time operator in the grand scheme of things. That they had a master class caster on call said the caster was someone they knew personally rather than an outside agent. Especially if the caster was on call at a moment’s notice for earthquake rescue work.

“Fari, are there any abandoned supply depots in the area?” I asked, playing a hunch.

“None on the official records, but give me a moment,” she said. “Ah, there it is! Looks like there’s one about two miles to the east of your current position. It’s hidden but the orbital imaging for this area is sharp enough to make out the irregularities in the vegetation.”

That was within the range for a standard teleportation spell. It had to be the right place. I turned to Cadrus and Nenya.

“I can’t ask you to follow me into this,” I said. “Go back and meet up with your family.”

“I thank you Guardian,” Cadrus said. “Can you not wait for support to arrive though?”

“I’ve called for an Imperial Enforcement Squad,” Fari said. “They’re tied up dealing with the results of the earthquake though.”

“How big was that quake?” I asked.

“Big enough that I’m dealing with its aftermath too.” Master Raychelle said, cutting into the mental link that Fari and I were speaking on. Master Raychelle is a Void anima caster like I am, but she’s also a talented mentalist as well. Seeing her appear beside Fari was surprising only because I’d rarely seen her do it, not because I had any doubt she was capable of doing so.

“What is your situation there?” she asked.

“The quake wiped out the town that Darius and I were inspecting. Things were complicated even before that though,” I said.

I explained to her, in short, quick sentences, how the town had been set up as a trap, how I was sending a Garjarack family into the nearest Imperial aid center and how Darius had been injured by a collapsing building and then kidnapped.

“Do you think you’re in any shape to mount a rescue?” Master Raychelle asked.

“Yes,” I said without hesitation.

“Alone?” Master Raychelle asked.

“She doesn’t need to go alone!” Nenya said. “We can help her!”

Cadrus looked at his daughter and narrowed his eyes. On a human I would have guessed that meant either disapproval or fatigue but I was still learning Garjarack body language so as far as I knew it could have been a sign of breathless excitement. Given the circumstances though, I was going to guess that the father wasn’t thrilled with the idea of his daughter tagging along to take on a random number of hostile humans with only a broken Crystal Guardian to support them.

“Thank you Nenya, but I can’t ask that of you,” I said. “This is going to be dangerous and your family needs you.”

“We are all family,” she said. “Isn’t that the teaching father?”

“Yes,” Cadrus agreed. “But perhaps we will be a hinderance to the Guardian?”

“I know how to fight!” Nenya said.

“You are not ready for this battle,” her father said.

“But I’ve trained…!” Nenya began to protest.

“You are unarmed and unarmored my daughter. Do not seek to fight from a position of weakness when the fight may be avoided,” Cadrus said.

“But the Guardian is unarmed!” Nenya said.

“I’m a Crystal Guardian,” I said and let a flicker of Void anima darken my eyes to the pitch of deepest night. “We’re never unarmed.”

It was a straight up lie. My options for tackling a pack of combat ready humans lead by a master class wizard were extremely limited. There was a mystique to the Crystal Guardians though. People believed we could do the wildest things. That was helped in part by the fact that each Crystal Guardian was either extremely talented (like Master Raychelle) or had a relatively rare gift with anima casting (like me). The greater part of our reputation though came from simply encouraging people to believe that we were amazing.

The deception might be hard to live up to sometimes, but I watched how Nenya’s eyes lit up at the thought that I was going to somehow save the day and saw how worthwhile it was to make the effort to be larger than life.

“Also,” I added. “I won’t be alone. Fari, you still have access to the planetary defense systems right?”

“That’s correct,” Fari said.

“You could be useful Nenya. Trust me on that,” I said. “But the planetary weapons have a rather large effect radius and it’ll be easier if Fari only needs to avoid hitting one of us.”

Nenya nodded at my words and looked at her father.

“I thank you again Guardian Watersward,” he said. “For what you have done for my family, I hope that we can repay you someday.”

“This isn’t the last you’ll see of me,” I told him. “I’ll have some questions for you once this is all calmed down.”

“Head back to the clearing about a hundred yards behind you,” Fari said to Cadrus and Nenya. “I’ll land the transport there in five minutes once I’ve picked up the rest of your family.”

“I’m going to get Darius,” I said with a nod at the Garjaracks before I broke into a run in the direction Fari indicated for the hidden supply depot.

“Talk to me about your plan,” Master Raychelle said. “You plan to act as a forward observer for Fari who will use one of the non-lethal planetary defense systems to disable the kidnappers, correct?”

“That seemed like the best idea,” I said. “No chance of a miscasting burn for me, and plenty of firepower to take the kidnappers down with.”

“What about the master class wizard who teleported the building away?” she asked in the same tone of voice she used when she was quizzing me.

“They should be exhausted by a teleport that large,” I said. “Also they’d need to be at the destination area to cover such a large area unless they were galactically talented at space warping. In which case they wouldn’t have needed to take the whole building.”

“You were paying attention my lecture last week,” she said.

“I pay attention to all of your lectures,” I said.

“At least when I have you alone,” Master Raychelle said.

Darius had offered to help with my studies, but it turned out to be a little too distracting to share a lesson book with him. I honestly have no idea what Master Raychelle’s lecture was on that day unless she happened to actually be talking about gorgeous shoulders and earlobes that were begging to be nibbled on. Darius had been banished from helping with lessons after that which was terrible for everything except my ability to focus and learn the material being presented.

“I’m not distracted now,” I said.

“Yes you are,” Maste Raychelle said. “You worried and angry and acting before you think. As your mentor, I should order you to stand down and await official backup.”

“But you’re not going to do that?” I asked. When she put it like that, standing down almost seemed reasonable, even if there was no chance I’d actually agree to it.

“No,” Master Raychelle said. “The quake that just hit was bad. We have a thousand mile swath of devastation to deal with and we need every available resource on search and rescue in a dozen different cities. If that wasn’t the case I’d be scrambling there to be with you myself.”

A thousand miles of devastation like what we’d seen in Salmon Falls was beyond my ability to imagine clearly. All I could picture was buildings reduced to rubble as far as the eye could see with people trapped in each one of them.

“I understand why you can’t be here,” I said. “There’s a lot more lives than just Darius hanging in the balance now.”

“There are, but that’s not why I’m willing to authorize you to undertake this rescue,” Master Raychelle said.

“I know I haven’t known him long, but he does mean a lot to me,” I said.

“That’s another strike against you doing this,” she said. “In any conflict, you need a calm, clear head. That’s exponentially harder when the conflict involves people we care about.”

“I can stay focused,” I said.

“I know, and that’s why I’m willing to trust you here,” Master Raychelle said. “You have a wonderful mind Mel. I’m not going to hold you back from using it.”

“Thank you,” I said, feeling a little stunned. I was used to compliments on my martial prowess, generally from guys I’d knocked onto the mat in under a round of sparring. Compliments on being smart though were kind of foreign to me.

“I am going to insist you keep me in the loop however,” Master Raychelle said. “I can help with the search and rescue here and keep a remote eye on you with no problem if you’ll do your part in telling me what’s happening.”

“Well, right now, I’m closing in on the supply depot,” I said. “I’m guessing this is where the humans got the bombs that they were blasting Salmon Falls with. Probably enough weaponry there to outfit an entire rogue militia force.”

“The aerial images make it look like one of the bases Darius was telling us about,” Fari said. “The ones that were intended to be ‘left behind’ in case the Empire forced a peace treaty between the two forces.”

“At least we know what they were really fighting over now,” I said. One of the big mysteries when we’d first arrived was why the human forces from Exxion IV and the Garjarack forces from Exxion II had continued fighting a land war over Hellsreach, aka Exxion III. As it turned out “trying to gain control of an ancient war world” had been the incentive to keep the two sides fighting for decades.

With that kind of prize on the line, I expected that we’d find an extremely well stocked garrison waiting for us. The human forces from Exxion IV had twenty years to prepare for the Empire shutting down their open warfare after all. Leaving behind enough firepower to ensure their hidden forces could keep waging the war for decades more seemed like the kind of investment both sides would be willing to make in a heartbeat. I had the image of a few dozen soldiers waiting in ambush for me, armed to the teeth and ready to kill at the first sign of trouble.

Instead, we found just about the last thing in the world that I was expecting.

Darius hadn’t been kidnapped by a group of master saboteurs or hardened militia men. The collapsed building was visible in the center of a clearing as I sprinting around a large rocky hillside, and there were no armed guards in sight.

Through the dense trees I saw that a shanty town that had been erected outside of the torn-apart supply depot. Dozens of people were swarming over the wreckage and lifting away pieces of it to free the men who were still trapped underneath.

I watched as they carried out an unfamiliar body, a young man, but not Darius thankfully. Even from a distance I could tell that he’d been crushed under the weight of the brick and stone. A older man ran forward and cradled the young man’s body in his arms, rocking back and forth in the kind of agony that spoke of a lifelong connection between the two.

These were the people who’d been trying to kill the Garjarack family. These were the people who had kidnapped Darius. I was supposed to hate them. I was supposed to smite them with righteous vengeance.

Instead I walked quietly forward to see how I could help.