Monthly Archives: November 2014

The Horizon of Today – Chapter 29

Ten thousand monsters. All heading towards Vunthor’s control. All able to fly faster than we could.

Watching the deca-beasts tear through the sky far below us was a more beautiful sight than it should have been. Their newly formed wings glistened with multi-hued anima waves that rolled off with every beat and lingered behind leaving contrails that painted the sky in more colors than the most brilliant sunset.

The sheer power of the creatures was incredible to behold and the roar of their passing rumbled through my bones like thunder. We were on the edge of space and they were only a few hundred feet above the ground but I still felt like they might rise up at any moment and swarm around us.

Instead though they flew onwards, ignoring our presence in favor of the siren call that Higgs was singing.

“They’re going to reach Vunthor well before we do,” Fari said.

“No preventing him from making contact with them anymore,” Darius said. He looked at me and I could see the question in his eyes. Should we scrub the mission? Fighting through Vunthor’s regular forces was a risky gamble at best. Fighting through ten thousand inhuman reinforcements was more an elaborate form of suicide than any sort of gamble.

“Are the deca-beasts space capable?” I asked Fari.

She conjured another analysis circle and observed them for a minute before responding.

“Not yet,” she said, “But they’re still growing.”

“How quickly?” I asked.

“The remaining giga-beasts will regain their flight and be space and warp capable well before these guys will,” she said. “I’d guess it will take the deca’s at least a few days before they’re reach that stage.”

“How big will they be then?” Darius asked.

Fari frowned.

“About the size of their progenitor,” she said.

So, ten thousand giga-beasts. In a few days. Unless we could stop them.

“We have to continue on,” I said. “Thanks to this there’s no option to wait for the Imperial Marines anymore.”

“We need a plan for dealing with the deca-beasts then,” Darius said.

“We’ll need intel before we can put one together,” I said. “So that’s going to be your job Mr. Professional Military Scout. Find the best path for observing what Vunthor’s doing with the deca-beasts.”

“Will you be able to keep us cloaked from them?” he asked.

“No,” I said. “In fact, I’m going to need to be far away from you. Vunthor’s cut off the link between us, but with Higgs as an ally he might be able to re-establish it. If we fly in their together, I’ll be a liability.”

“First order of business will be finding a safe place to hide you then,” he said.

“I appreciate the thought, but we can’t waste time on me,” I said.

“You wanted the professional scout? Then listen to the professional scout,” Darius said. “One of the key elements of success to any mission is having the right back up. I need you in a safe spot, so that I can be sure I have a fallback position when, not if, things go horribly awry. No fallback position, no escape, no survival. It’s as simple as that.”

“Fair enough,” I said. “But I think the nearest safe position is back on Hellsreach.”

“A ‘safer’ place to hide you then,” he said.

“I’m not opposed to that,” I said. “Fari can you coordinate with Captain Hanq and his teams? They need to know what we’re up against now.”

“Already on it,” she said. “I’ve also hacked the Garjarack colony ship’s spell web and locked down the warp portal generators. I know it’s kind of too little, too late, but I figured the last thing we needed was Everbright doubling down on his stupidity and sending more Ghost Bombs at the deca-beasts.”

“What would happen if he did?” I asked.

“From my analysis, they’d sub-divide further and their growth rate would increase exponentially,” she said. “Right now we have a planetary crisis. If those things got hit with another Ghost Bomb we’ve have an apocalypse and our only viable options would be to activate Hellsreach in full weapons mode or find a way to recharge my gem.”

“Why didn’t they know that?” Darius asked. “If they did any sort of calculations, why didn’t they account for that possibility?”

“I’m not sure,” Fari said. “It didn’t take me long to scan the giga-beast’s structure and they should have had access to the same sort of scrying spells from the colony ship.”

“Could you have predicted that the bombs would have led to this kind of explosive growth?” I asked.

“Hmm, no, not before the bombs hit them,” Fari said. “But looking at the scan results, it’s easy to see that the giga-beasts would have several methods for surviving the bombs effects. It’s just surprising that explosive reproduction was the one they managed to employ.”

“So if we assume the Verulia team isn’t completely composed of idiots, why would they have launched that attack?” I asked.

“They want the colony to fail,” Darius said. “At this point the cost of reclaiming Titanus and providing security on it has to have tipped their balance sheet into the negative. Throw a couple Ghost Bombs at the targets to prove that they can’t be easily dealt with and they can make a strong case to abandon the entire endeavor.”

“And a strong argument for why they had to abandon the other two colony ships,” Fari said.

“That sounds like how Everbright would think, but something still doesn’t fit,” I said. “Why bother with Ghost Bombing Vunthor’s crew? From what he described of the modified bombs, that might actually have worked. At least if Vunthor wasn’t ready for it.”

“I don’t know,” Darius said.

“It feels like we’re missing a piece of information still,” Fari said.

“Then let’s go find it,” I said.

Darius set me down at a point about five miles away from the cave that I’d last detected Vunthor and Higgs in. We were on the opposite side of a couple of mountain peaks from his position and I hadn’t felt any attempt to re-establish the link between us.

Watching Darius leave twisted my guts into a sour knot of bile. I knew he was smart. I knew he was good at what he did. But sometimes good and smart aren’t enough. Part of me couldn’t stand that. Just the idea of letting him go into danger, alone, seemed absurd. All sorts of rationalizations jumped to mind screaming reasons why I should go with him. I almost gave into a dozen or more of them, but stopped myself each time with the same thought.

I had to trust him. The best tool that I had to keep him safe was to believe in him. He had his own tricks for being stealthy and knew the kind of watch patterns that Vunthor’s forces would use. I told myself that If anyone on the planet could pull off this scouting mission, it was him. I told myself that and then I tried as hard as I could to believe it.

The tough thing about worry though is that it doesn’t go away. It keeps picking away at you, like an ocean eroding the land. I wanted my belief in Darius to be as strong as stone, but the sea can wear stone down into sand by its relentless hammering and worry could do the same to belief.

“I’m concerned about that teleporter Vunthor has,” Fari said. “He could have used them to make contact with the giga-beasts already.”

“Maybe he has?” I asked.

“They’re still heading this direction,” she said.

“This place is a pretty good natural fortress,” I said. “Maybe he wants them here to reinforce it?”

“Is he the kind to consolidate his forces like that?” she asked.

“Yeah, I think he is,” I said. “He commands his people by the force of his charisma and he’s obsessed with control after losing his family members like he did.”

“That’s why he came along for this mission personally, isn’t it?” Fari asked.

“I think so,” I said. “This was a huge gamble, but also a potentially huge reward, even without the giga-beasts. I don’t think he was capable of leaving it in anyone else’s hands to manage.”

“If you were a full Guardian, you’d be expected to handle this on your own wouldn’t you?” Fari asked.

“If I was a full Guardian, I don’t think the situation would have gotten as out of control as it has,” I said. “Master Raychelle could have stopped Higgs well before he called in the cosmic brute squad there, and she probably could have dealt with Vunthor already too.”

“I don’t know about that,” Fari said. “She was focusing on all of Hellsreach, but you were the one who identified Vunthor as being the worst of the dangers.”

“That was as much luck as insight,” I said. “If we hadn’t stumbled across part of his operation in Salmon Falls, I wouldn’t have been so focused on him.”

“Do you think you’re making your own luck?” she asked. “I mean you kind of stumbled on me too.”

“I don’t think I can make luck that good,” I said.

“I remember the results from the tests the Guardians ran on you,” she said. “You do have a decent amount of Aetherial anima at your disposal.”

Meaning I could be weaving a fate cast without being conscious of doing so.

“Decent but not exceptional,” I said. “Master Raychelle figures that it’s mostly bound up in the danger sense that I seem to have.”

“I remember her also commenting that your ‘danger sense’ is unusual too,” she said.

“Just in how it manifests,” I said. “Yael and Zyla have much better, clearer senses when they’re in danger because they’re both wizards at Aetherial casting.”

“But they don’t cast reflexively like you do sometimes,” she said.

“It’s not often they need to,” I said. “You’re thinking that’s important right now for some reason though aren’t you.”

“I’m thinking of a lot things at the moment,” Fari said. “But, yeah, that’s one important thread.”

“Why would it be important?” I asked.

“You can sense danger and cast reflexively in response to it,” she said. “I don’t think Vunthor can.”

“What makes you say that?” I asked.

“It’s the shape of his plans,” she said. “I’ve seen you think like him, but from what he’s done here and the records I copied of his service years, I don’t see him ever thinking like you.”

“Well, I’m not a military commander bent on species-wide genocide, so there’s bound to be a few differences,” I said.

“It’s more than that though,” she said. “You figured out he would come here, and you can even guess what motivated that. Until he got access to the giga-beasts though, he had to be thinking that no one was going to follow him from Hellsreach.”

I thought about that and saw the dots Fari was connecting.

“He had the Council colony ship destroyed to ensure no one would follow them, because that left him with a divided planet to work with. All of the humans on one side and all of the Garjarack on the other.” I said.

“Except the explosion of the colony ship would only delay pursuit if no one made him a priority,” Fari said.

“Don’t sell yourself short,” I said. “You did some pretty amazing navigation work to get us back on his trail.”

“Thanks, but a large part of that was done by the Council colonists who survived,” she said. “We wouldn’t have lived without their efforts because we were under an extreme time crunch, but given enough time anyone could have come up with the calculations for that warp path.”

“Do you think help might be on the way then?” I asked.

“If they follow standard Imperial disaster procedures, then no, I’m afraid not,” she said. “They’ll need a special mission just to ensure that the path is safe first before they send any more ships to their doom.”

“I’d grumble about that but given what’s waiting for them here, I can’t say it’s really a bad idea,” I said.

“Agreed,” Fari said. “But I don’t think that’s the important part. I think the key here is that Vunthor’s limited. By his ego, by his grief, by whatever madness is eating away at him.”

“He is making mistakes too,” I said. “I don’t think he’s fought another Void caster before, for example. If he had he never would have tried that Void attack on me.”

“Right,” she said. “That’s why I think you can beat him.”

“He’s still got Higgs on his side though, and I’ve failed to beat that monster twice now,” I said.

“He’s failed to beat you too,” she said. “Last time you drove him off. Even if that’s all you can manage again, that would still count as a win if we bring down Vunthor.”

“So you’re onboard with me fighting him?” I asked.

“I wish you didn’t need to, I wish you could be safe, but under the circumstances, I don’t think either of those is an option,” she said. “The best course I can see is to press him hard, force him to make more mistakes and do our best to survive the consequences.”

“For what it’s worth,” I said, “I wouldn’t want to try doing this without you.”

“For what it’s worth,” she said. “I feel the same.”

“I have some good news and some bad news,” Darius said as he touched down outside the mouth of the cave Fari and I were huddled in.

“What’s the bad news?” I asked.

“It looks like Vunthor’s ordered the deca-beasts to attack both the human colony ship and the remaining Council colony module,” he said. “The monsters are flying there as we speak. Oh and the giga-beasts have regained their flight and will be here in under an hour.”

“What’s the good news?” Fari asked.

“He didn’t hold any of the deca-beasts back,” Darius said. “There’s nothing between us and him.”

“It’s a trap,” Fari said.

“And an invitation,” I said. “He wants us to come to him, wants me to fight him.”

“What are you going to do?” Darius asked.

“Show him what a mistake he’s made,” I said.

The Horizon of Today – Chapter 28

The moment Vunthor began to gather his power I knew he was trying to kill me. Void anima attacks are limited compared to other magics. You’re options are “extremely limited tap” which can drain your opponent’s strength or “utterly lethal siphon” which will leave them a shriveled, lifeless husk.

That sounds great when you’re fighting someone you want to kill but the truth was any form of magic can be lethal. Other varieties have the advantage of being more flexible and offering options beyond just “kill” or “inconvenience”. Where Void anima possesses an edge is in how difficult it is to defend against.

Unless of course your opponent is also a Void caster.

The first day I’d learned how to cast spells, I tried to attack another Void caster, one of the Karr Khan’s henchmen, and learned the hard way that not only are Void attacks worthless in that situation, they also open a link between the two casters.

On that occasion, my opponent had utilized the link to blow up the airship I was traveling in and I’d plummeted onto the nice comfy rocks below.

I really don’t have good luck with air travel.

But, occasionally, I do learn from past mistakes.

Vunthor threw a hammer blow of Void anima at me and I met it with a shield as thin as silk. I didn’t have to put must force behind the shield. Void met void and I felt the distance separating us vanish into the emptiness.

“Hit me with your strongest lightning bolt,” I told Darius.

He paused, which in retrospect I can’t entirely blame him for, and I felt Vunthor frantically withdrawing from the link.

“Hurry!” I said.

“Do it!” Fari agreed. We were still mind linked so my plan was clear to her.

Darius clasped my hand and I felt an electric tingle that had nothing to do with the touch of his skin on mine.

Before Vunthor could abandon the all power he’d put into the attack and close the path between us completely, Darius’ lightning bolt leapt across the distance, blazing through the thread of darkness to slam into Vunthor’s hate blackened heart.

I won’t lie. It felt good.

“What just happened?” Darius asked.

“Vunthor made a mistake,” I said.

“Did the bolt get him?” Fari asked.

“Yeah, but I’m betting it didn’t kill him,” I said. “Might have flatlined his heart for a few seconds, but he’s in prime form and he’s got medics nearby.”

“Do you know where he is?” Darius asked.

“Yes,” I said. “He’s right where Colonel Beva thought he would be.”

“He’s cut you off though right?” Fari asked.

“He did,” I said. “He’ll be a little weaker for a while, but with Higgs’ power to draw on he’s still going to be formidable.”

“Think he’ll wait for us to come get him?” Darius asked.

I considered what Vunthor’s mental state had been like. For years he’d been driven by weaponize hate, but he held his sanity together well enough to build an organization of elite troops that were fiercely loyal to his vision. Higgs had been willing to sacrifice his life for a chance to advance Vunthor’s plan for example and I knew he wasn’t the only one Vunthor had that kind of influence over.

I thought of the medic Illya and how she’d jumped at the chance to rejoin her compatriots in the aftermath of my fight in the Gar colony ship’s engine room. I thought I’d been able to reach her, to show her that Vunthor wasn’t what he claimed to be, but she’d still gone back to him the first chance she had. If his madness could exert that much force on others then I couldn’t imagine that he was free from its influence either, especially not with Higgs’ worst impulses layered on top of his own..

“No,” I said. “He’s not going to wait. He’s going to prepare. He knows we’re coming for him and he wants that fight. He and Higgs hate me too much to run away.”

“What about you?” Fari asked, laying a ghostly hand on my arm.

“Can I run away? Or do I hate them that much too?” I asked.

“Either. Both,” she said.

“I don’t know,” I said. “I see what you’re saying, I can’t afford to be consumed like they are, but they’ve caused so much pain and suffering it’s hard to think of letting them go.”

“I don’t think letting them go is a option,” Darius said. “We just need to know that you’re not going to do anything crazy like throw yourself at the giga-beasts.”

“I’ll try not to,” I said. “Now, let’s go fly after them since they’re headed right towards Vunthor.”

Darius winced and then rolled his eyes at my feeble smile. To be fair, being with me did involve dealing with a significant chunk of craziness, and that was true even before I learned a rare and deadly spell casting art.

Thanks to our anima shells, Darius was able to ascend to nearly orbital altitudes which kept us somewhat out of the giga-beasts’ path. From past experience I knew they’d be able to reach out and swat us like flies if they cared to, but we were far removed, covered by a powerful cloaking spell and there were enough other things to smash that they didn’t notice us streaking past them.

We flew together like that for a couple of hours, covering far more ground than the landbound giga-beasts could, before another call came in.

“I’m getting a conference call request from Everbright,” Fari said.

“What does he want?” I asked.

“Not sure, but he’s got Colonel Beva on the call already,” she said.

“It’s a either good sign that he’s talking to her,” I said. “Or a really bad one.”

“Want to lay a bet how that’s going to go?” Darius asked.

I ignored him and signaled Fari to link us in to the call.

“Mr Everbright,” I said. “I didn’t expect to hear back from you, you seemed to be incommunicado after our last conversation.”

“I was meeting with my staff,” Gan said. “They had a few radical suggestions that we had to iron out.”

“Are you going to help us or not Everbright?” Colonel Beva asked.

“I believe we have found the solution to the problems that are afflicting Titanus,” Gan said.

“We left three very large problems a few hundred miles behind us and we’re heading towards a fourth very difficult problem now,” I said. “If you have any options for dealing with them, I’d love to hear them.”

“Ghost Bombs,” he said.

That  got my attention in a big way.

“You brought city killing bombs onto the colony ship?”

I’d survived attacks by Ghost Bombs on two occasions. As a result, I’d seen what they could do first hand. Anything not protected by an potent enough anima shield was reduced to lifeless dust in the blink of an eye. They were one of the most effective weapons against unprotected targets that the galactic military forces used.

I hated them.

They weren’t meant for warfare. Military targets were always protected by strong anima shields. Rich enclaves were too. Ghost Bombs only made ghosts out of people too weak to defend themselves in the first place. People like most of the ones in the city I grew up in.

“No,” Gan said. “But we were able to weave together two of them since we last spoke.”

“The only anima source you have which contains sufficient magical force is the colony ships warp portal generators,” Fari said.

“The colony ship has seven portal generators,” Everbright said. “It can still function with the loss of two.”

“That’s going to make escaping the giga-beasts more difficult,” I said.

“We’re not going to escape them,” Everbright said. “We’re going to end them.”

“You think two Ghost Bombs will be enough to do that?” Darius asked.

“We’ve calculated the yield on the bombs,” Everbright said. “One will be sufficient to disintegrate the structure of all three beasts.”

“What are you going to do with the second bomb then?” I asked, all too certain that I knew the answer already.

“We’re going to end the threat posed by the rogue human forces.” Everbright said.

“That’s not going to work,” I said. “I can guarantee you that Major Vunthor will be fully shielded against the Ghost Bombs affects.”

“These bombs carry a special payload,” Everbright said. “Because we’re using warp portal generators as the base component, they’ll first shred into billions of wormholes and then detonate throughout the cave system. If even one particle materializes within a hostile target’s shield, they’ll be subjected to the full force of Ghost Bomb’s detonation.”

“What’s your backup plan for when the bombs don’t work as you expect?” I asked.

“We’ve calculated the parameters of this mission out precisely,” Everbright said. “There will be no failure to deal with.”

“You’ve never served in a combat command role before have you Everbright?” Colonel Beva asked.

“This isn’t a combat scenario, Colonel.” Everbright said. “This is pest control.”

“Mr. Everbright, with all due respect, you’re an idiot,” Colonel Beva said. “You’re initiating a hostile action against an adversary of unknown capabilities utilizing munitions of untested worth. I will not support this initiative.”

“The Crystal Empire doesn’t support this initiative either,” Fari said, in her role as Imperial Overseer. “Not until we can draw up plans to deal with the fallout of the likely failure cases.”

“My apologies,” Everbright said. “This call was not to discuss the implementation of the plan but to verify that none of your forces were within the blast range. The devices are already en route to their targets.”

“You’re not allowed to take unilateral action like that,” Fari said.

“If a threat to the welfare of the global population arises, we are given additional latitude in our actions and are not bound by Imperial oversight.” Everbright said. “I’ll transmit the target coordinates to you. Make sure your personnel are not within the blast radius. Everbright out.”

And again he cut the channel.

“This is going to be bad,” I said. I didn’t know how, and I didn’t have any Aetherial anima spells predicting the future for me, but I still knew I was right.

“We don’t have any people in the mountains,” Colonel Beva said.

“And the giga-beasts have moved far enough from the colony ship that our people won’t be in danger,” Fari said.

“He didn’t offer to provide aid to Colonel Beva’s forces,” Darius said. “Everbright’s planning to eliminate Vunthor and his followers. The threat of violence by the rogue faction was all that was holding back aid for the colonists on the surface. So why didn’t he offer to help the wounded here?”

“Bomb’s can go off course, officially or unofficially,” Colonel Beva said. “I’ll have everyone who can still cast lend a hand with the anima barrier.”

“That’s a good idea,” I said. “I don’t think he plans to bomb you, but there are too many unknowns here to predict what’s going to happen.”

“I have telemetry on the bombs,” Fari said. “They’re almost at the target points.”

“Can you get us a holo feed from both sites?” I asked.

With a wave of her hand, Fari conjured a pair of scrying circles and we got to watch the fireworks begin.

The Ghost Bomb aimed at the giga-beasts was the first to detonate. It tumbled down from the stratosphere towards the giant monsters and was a second away from exploding when the beast nearest to it lashed out with a tongue-like cord of scillia and gulped the bomb down.

The planet killing weapon detonated inside the creature and blasted the giga-beast into pieces.

That would have been good news except for one small problem. Each of the pieces was still alive and continuing to grow.

In place of the giga-beast that swallowed the Ghost Bomb there were now ten thousand smaller deca-beasts. What was worse was the wings they all bore. The giga-beasts couldn’t fly yet, but the deca-beasts were more than capable of that.

In the other scrying pool, I saw the remaining Ghost Bomb tumble downwards and be blinked away by the bands of a teleport spell.

Vunthor had another teleporter on his team. The only reason he hadn’t engaged us yet was because he wanted us to come to him, which was exactly what we were going to have to do.


The Horizon of Today – Chapter 27

I unfurled my wings and cast a physical shield around myself. I was ready, as much as I could be, for the battle against Major Vunthor. My mind was focused, my heart was clear and my skin was on fire.

That last bit was something of a problem.

“Ahh, what the hell!” I screamed as I flew away from Darius so I wouldn’t burn him.

“I’m sorry!” the voice from the flames said. “You fed me, so I thought you wanted me to come out again!”

During my recovery I had Darius, and several other medics, check me over for any sign of spirit possession. I knew I wasn’t just hearing voices when I’d fled from the giga-beasts in warp space. The flames had boosted my flight speed far beyond what I could achieve on my own and had managed to continue it even after the acceleration knocked me unconscious.

Despite test after test though, they’d come up with nothing.

“Where have you been?” I asked aloud. Darius looked at me like I’d gone nuts, which was a reasonable theory under the circumstances.

“She’s talking to an elemental,” Fari said, conjuring an analysis circle to inspect me through.

“In the new home you gave me,” the flames said. They sounded so chipper it was hard to stay angry with them. My skin wasn’t roasting either, which helped too.

“New home?” I asked and then figured it out. “My flight pack! You moved into the storage matrix in the flight pack when you overcharged it?”

“It looks like that’s the case,” Fari said.

“Explains why we couldn’t find any trace of a foreign spirit inside you,” Darius said.

“How did all this happen?” I asked. “And can we make the burning stop happening? I kind of need to be able to cast freely now.”

“Well, the elemental’s anima signature matches the background anima signature for Hellsreach, so it’s a safe bet you picked them up there,” Fari said.

“Picked them up?” I asked. “How, why, when?”

“Why don’t we ask them?” Darius said.

“I don’t know,” the fire elemental said. “I don’t remember much before Mel started feeding me.”

“How am I feeding you?” I asked.

“You throw anima out sometimes,” they said. “It’s delicious, it makes me grow.”

“This making any sense to you?” I asked Fari who was scrutinizing the information the analysis circle showed her.

“Yes, I think it does,” she said. “Can I try something?”

If it was anyone else, I would have asked if it was going to hurt, but I had enough trust in Fari that if what she had in mind hurt it was because it needed to.

“Sure,” I said and braced for a jolt of burning pain that never came. Instead I felt her lightly brush across the surface of my thoughts with a filament of Mental anima. The sensation was a little strange. The closest I can come to describing it is how the quality of sounds change as you focus in on them or try to listen past distractions.

She spent about two minutes gently touching on the various ideas that were percolating through my mind before I felt the Mental anima withdraw.

“Well, the good news is I think I know how to stop the burning,” Fari said.

“And the bad news is?” I asked. Because there’s always bad news.

“You’ll  need to give up your flight pack until we can find a better home for our new friend here,” she said.

“Details please?” I asked.

“Remember when Makkis turned Hellsreach’s anti-personnel weapons on you?” Fari asked. “Remember how you survived that?”

“Yeah, I pulled anima from the volcano we were fighting on so that the Void Lances couldn’t drain me dry,” I said.

“Do you know how much anima you pulled from the volcano?” she asked.

“A lot?” I guessed.

“Sure, we’ll go with ‘a lot’. For reference it was enough that the volcano’s no longer active. In fact the entire magma channel is solid stone now,” Fari said. “What’s important though is that you drew in more than anima.”

“I drew in an elemental too?” I asked.

“Oh, not just one. Hundreds, maybe thousands.” she said. “Almost all of which returned to Hellreach’s native anima stream.”

“And our friend is one that didn’t?”, I asked.

“The only one from what I can tell,” Fari said. “The elementals weren’t particularly sentient when you drew them in. The sentient ones had the sense to run for the core when you went all blackhole on their energy.”

“So what happened with me?” Flames asked.

“The anima that Mel pulled in tore her up inside,” Fari said. “You got caught in one of the tears in her mind. When the clerics healed her, they induced a restful slumber and missed that you were there. So you were sealed in by the healing enchantments that were meant to keep Mel’s anima from bleeding out.”

“Why didn’t the elemental leave once the enchantments were removed?” I asked.

“I didn’t know where to go,” Flames said. “I felt like I was home already.”

“Inside my head?” I asked.

“They absorbed little bits of spare mental anima that you cast out,” Fari said. “And your Void anima kept them hidden and safe. For a fledgling elemental, there wasn’t a better on Hellsreach to ‘grow up’.”

“So why did they burn me whenever I tried to cast spells?” I asked.

“That seems to be accidental,” Fari said. “They followed the currents of any non-Void spell that you cast and grew from the energy you put into the spell. The burning was a side effect of that.”

“I’m really sorry,” Flames said. “I didn’t know how to talk to you, or that you didn’t like what I was doing.”

I resisted the urge to hit myself in the head.

I’d probably been fully healed a while ago, but the feedback from Flames’ presence threw off my spell casting tests. I promised myself that in the future I was going to share every detail of my condition I could think of with my clerics.

It was better to avoid the need for a cleric in the first place, of course, but I was pretty sure that wasn’t going to be an option given my line of work.

“I can handle the flying for both of us,” Darius said.

“I have no objection to that at all,” I told him. It was rather easy to pick between baking my skin off or cuddling up with the cutest guy I knew. Easy, so long as I didn’t let myself think about the lethal situation I was letting Darius expose himself to. Those thoughts led to madness, so I clobbered them down as best I could and forced myself to think of the job at hand.

“Can I help?” Flames asked.

“Probably not,” I said. “I find burning to a crisp throws me off my game.”

“Technically you weren’t actually burning by the way,” Fari said. “In theory I could edit the sensations out for you so you could fly and cast at the same time, but I’d rather not do any sensory blocking spells on you. Those leave you open to all sorts of nasty attacks.”

“Can’t Flames just choose not burn me?” I asked.

“It’s close to an autonomic reaction for them,” Fari said. “Given time they could learn to control it but the giga-beasts will flatten Titanus to a pancake long before then.”

“Do I need to remove the flight pack?” I asked.

“No,” Fari said. “So long as the wings aren’t deployed, there aren’t any active anima links between the pack and you.”

“What about moving them over to your Jewel?” I asked, remembering how Fari had absorbed the Bone Stealers and other spirits when we were fighting Makkis.

“It’s possible but it would be dangerous for them,” Fari said. “The energy reservoirs in the Jewel separate different types of anima for individual storage areas. A big spirit can retain the links to their power across the distances involved, but small ones like Flames can lose all the coherence they’ve developed with their Mental anima.”

“That sounds bad,” Flames said. “Can we not do that.”

“Mel wouldn’t ask you to risk it,” Fari said.

She was right.

But it still would have been nice to have my wings back.

Instead I fluttered over to where Darius was floating and dropped into his waiting arms.

“That leaves the question of where, exactly, we’re planning to go?” Darius asked.

“Vunthor’s going to be able to hide really well,” Fari said. “Even leaving aside the fact that he’s probably holed up in a cave system that will resist scrying spells, he’s a Void caster. If he has an invisibility cloak cast over his forces it’s going to take a while to narrow down where they could be.”

“Not for me,” I said. “If I can find Higgs, I’m pretty sure Vunthor will be in the same place.”

“If Higgs has gotten a boost from Vunthor won’t that be really dangerous?” Darius asked.

“Yeah, for everyone in range of him.” I said.

“If this is the part where you tell us that you have to face him alone to keep us safe, please remember how well it worked out when Makkis split us up.” Fari said.

“We beat a hundred year old conspiracy against an entrenched genius-level caster,” I said. “I’d say it worked out fine.”

“If you want to spend another two months in recovery, we can save time and I can drop you from here,” Darius suggested with a smile that made it very clear he was not going to be left behind. Fari was wearing the same smile.

“Are you really sure,” I asked them both. “Vunthor was smart and powerful before Higgs hooked up with him. He’s probably a literal monster at this point.”

“All the more reason we’re going to be there with you,” Darius said.

“We may not be able to fight Vunthor himself,” Fari said. “His Void casting will make that dangerous, but don’t forget, he has a small army with them.”

“So you’re saying that there’ll be so many faces to punch that I shouldn’t be greedy and keep them all to myself?” I said.

“Scouting out enemy warrens and marking their leaders is, quite specifically, my regular job description,” Darius said.

“And I am legally responsible, in part, for the safety of all the law-abiding colonists on Titanus.” Fari said.

I wanted to protest, but that was my mindless stubborn streak rearing it’s ugly head up. I drew in a slow breath and asked myself how I really felt about the support Fari and Darius were offering me.

It felt weird. I wasn’t used to people having my back. The thought sent a twinge of longing through me. I couldn’t lose people who would support me like that. They were more precious than even my anima casting.

At the same time though, the thought of pushing them away was abhorrent too. In part I wanted them close to me always, but in part, if I was honest with myself, I was more than a little scared.

I had limits. The volcano showed me that, the giga-beasts showed me that, Higgs showed me that. I didn’t want to die (again) and I didn’t want to be crippled. Master Hanq had taught me that it’s ok to run away rather than be hurt. The best method to win a lot of fights was to not get in them in the first place. The problem is there are some fights you can’t run from.

There were people who only had me for protection. People that Vunthor’s hate was going to destroy unless I stood against him. So I had to fight.

And I couldn’t do that without Fari or Darius.

I thought about how I’d feel if the situation was reversed. If there was a battle that only Fari could fight and she wouldn’t let me help her.

It would tear me apart.

I couldn’t do that to her and I couldn’t do that to Darius.

I’d been wrong to stab Hanq. I should have flown with him and we could have fought the giga-beasts together. I couldn’t take that back, but I could learn from it. I could listen to Echo’s words and let people help me even when that was very hard to do.

“You’re both insane,” I said.

“We have to have something in common with you,” Fari said.

Darius just gave me a quick peck on the forehead to show that he agreed with both Fari and I.

“Let me see if I can find Vunthor then,” I said.

“We should land first,” Darius said.

“Yeah, if you start sprouting Void spikes that could go badly if we’re this high up,” Fari said.

We touched down the remains of the mountain that the giga-beasts had plowed through. In the distance they were plodding on relentlessly.

I settled down into crossed leg seated position and tried to clear my mind.

“If this goes badly, then head back to Captain Hanq,” I said. “You’ll need to put together a new strategy and it should probably involve getting as many people out of the system as fast as possible.”

“It’s not going to go badly,” Fari said.

“History suggests that’s a bad bet, but I’ll be careful,” I said.

I sank into a Void trance and felt the presence of the giga-beasts like a giant pounding drum. Barely audible over the drum was the familiar chanted rhythm of “Hate! Hate! Hate!” sung with new vigor.

I listened intently, scanning to find the source of the chant and felt a cold hand reach back for me.

“You must be the Crystal Guardian my new angel has shown me visions of,” Major Vunthor said across the emptiness that separated us. “The Empire has made a terrible mistake in choosing who they sided with. They need to be educated like all the others now and you’re going to be my first lesson to them.”

Through the Void I felt his power gather and surge outwards to strike against me.

The Horizon of Today – Chapter 26

The problem wasn’t that the world was falling apart around me. It wasn’t that Everbright’s cold disinterest in the welfare of the people on Titanus made me want to slap him all the way back to Hellsreach. It wasn’t even that Darius, Fari and Hanq, were in danger because I was too weak to end things before they got to this point. The real problem was that I had no one around that I could hit.

I like problems that I can punch in the face. I’ve spent a long time learning how to punch things really hard. It’s also a natural response to frustration, anger, fear and whole bunch of other negative emotions.

The Sisters who raised me weren’t terribly keen on the idea, but I always found that letting those feelings out left me better off than holding them in. That wasn’t something I did naturally at first though. It took a lot of work with Master Hanq before I could let loose while training or sparring. The funny thing was, until I learned to do that, I had terrible problems with self-control.

Of course, once I learned it was okay to get angry and hit things (and people), Master Hanq had the long headache of teaching me not to hit everything and everyone. He mostly succeeded with that, but it’s probably accurate to say I’m still something of a “work in progress” on that front.

One thing he did teach me in that vein though was to channel my restless need to hit things into some kind of action.

“The giga-beasts are too big to punch,” I said. “But we’re going to need to stop them somehow. Captain Hanq is busy closing the portal with Black team and the rest of his crew is landing the colony module and will need to provide protection for it. We have the three of us to add to whatever resources and personnel you have there Colonel Beva. What plans did you have for dealing with Major Vunthor before this?”

“With the state we’re in?” Colonel Beva said. “We’re in a purely defensive posture at present. Vunthor’s people gutted our weapon stockpile before they left.”

“That may not make much difference,” Darius said. “The colony ships were carrying fairly light armaments. They were really only suitable for subsistence hunting in case of a disaster.”

“So the good news is that Vunthor’s not packing a lot of fire power,” I said.

“Unless you count the giga-beasts,” Fari said.

“Which the full armaments of a colony ship would do precisely nothing to,” Darius said.

“If we can’t fight then running is the next option. Titanus is a big place and we can block Vunthor’s scrying,” I said. Or more specifically, Fari could block Vunthor’s scrying, so he wouldn’t be able to find us without sending out scouts to physically search the whole planet.

“We have too many wounded here,” Colonel Beva said. “It would take us weeks to relocate everyone. Without help from the other colony ship, we’re going to have to surrender to any demands they make.”

“What do you have that Vunthor would want?” I asked.

“Nothing,” Beva said. “He took the weapons he wanted. There’s enough indigenous wildlife and human-compatible vegetation that they’ll be be fine for supplies. We don’t have anything that he would care about.”

“Yes you do,” Fari said. “You have hostages.”

“Hostages?” Beva asked.

I winced. Fari was right.

“Yeah, for when the Imperials get here,” I said. “If they have all of your people to act as shields it will make it very difficult to uproot them.”

“It could buy them time to get reinforcements,” Darius said.

“From where? We’re out in the end of nowhere here,” Beva said.

“From your people,” Darius said.

“Anyone who had sympathies for Vunthor’s side left with them already,” Beva said.

“Not if they were too injured to be moved,” Darius said. “And then there’s the possibility of brainwashing.”

“Mental anima can’t take long term control of someone, and even short term it’s not easy,” I said, quoting what I’d learned from Master Raychelle.

“They wouldn’t do it with anima,” Darius said. “They’d just break the spirits of all the prisoners and see which of them they could build back up again.”

“We really can’t let this happen then,” I said, picturing all too easily how successful Vunthor would be with that approach.

“My first priority is the safety of the colonists,” Colonel Beva said. “I won’t ask anyone to throw their lives away against those things.”

“We wouldn’t expect you to,” Darius said. “But we will need to come up with something to do about them.”

I thought for a moment about the crisis that was in front of us.

The giga-beasts were huge and unstoppable, but they were also a game changer for everyone on Titanus. Vunthor’s original plans couldn’t have taken their presence into account so even if Higgs had made contact with them and they’d managed to settle into a happy little hate-fest together, Vunthor was still in the position of adjusting his plans to take advantage of the huge windfall that had been dropped in his lap. That meant we had a narrow window where his preparations would be in flux while his people sorted out the new plans.

“If we’re going to strike, it needs to be very soon,” I said. “By twenty hours from now, Vunthor will be ready to use the giga-beasts for something. He might even pull things together sooner in fact.”

“How is he going to command things that large?” Beva asked.

“He’s not the one who’s commanding them,” I said. “Not primarily. It’s the Void ghost of the guy who blew up the Council colony ship that’s luring them in.”

‘Void ghost’ was technically an incorrect description of what Higgs had become but the distinctions didn’t matter to Beva.

“Can we target that ghost?” she asked.

“We’ve tried that. Twice, ” I said. “It’s extremely resilient.”

“I’d still rather fight one ghost than three of those things,” Beva said.

“Unless you have Void anima casters in your forces you won’t be able to touch him,” I said. “And if you do, they should stay well away from him.”

“What other options do we have?” Darius asked. “There’s still time for us to put something together too.”

We were all silent for a minute, pondering the options before us. There weren’t a whole lot of good ones but there were plenty of stupid and futile things we could try.

“If we can’t stop Higgs and we can’t stop the giga-beasts then there’s only one person we can target,” I said at last.

“Vunthor is surrounded by his most loyal forces, in an inaccessible mountain range that’s riddled with tunnels,” Fari said. “Getting to him is not going to be trivial.”

“Getting to him now will be challenging,” I said. “Getting to him once the giga-beasts are in play is going to be a whole lot worse.”

“What if he choses to bunker down? We may not even be able to find him, much less engage him in combat,” Darius said.

“That’s a possibility. There’s no one on the surface of Titanus that he hates enough to risk his neck for a shot at,” I said.

“And the only force that’s even vaguely a threat to him is on the colony ship, which is safely out of his reach,” Darius said.

A chill went through me when he said that. The jolt of fear had nothing to do with my danger sense though. I looked at the giga-beasts far below us searching for the details that I hoped wouldn’t be there only to be disappointed and terrified by what I saw.

“Oh no,” I said as the ideas tumbled together in my head. “We’re focusing too low. Colonel Beva, your people aren’t in direct danger.”

“That would be good news, but what makes you think that?” she asked.

“If Vunthor gets his hands on the giga-beasts, you’re not going to be the first target he turns them on,” I said. “The sole focus of his hatred has been the Garjarack and, if Higgs bonds with his psyche, that rage is going to be amplified.”

“How can he strike against the Garjarack?” Beva asked.

“The giga-beasts pursued us across warp space,” I said. “They’re walking now because they’re adapting to this environment still but they’re still adapting.”

“Oh, that’s bad,” Fari said as she looked through a conjured scrying pool, “Mel’s right. They’re integrating into this dimension. At the rate they’re recovering from the transport they’ll have flight capability back well before they reach Vunthor.”

“Will they be able to reach the colony ship?” Darius asked.

“They’ll be able to reach anywhere,” Fari said.

“Even back to Hellsreach?” Darius asked.

“Easily,” Fari said. “They could get there in a few days if they traveled through their own dimension and knew where they were going,”

“Or were lead by someone who was after revenge on half the people still there,” I said. “Fari, can you get Everbright back on the line? Even if he’s not going to help, this concerns the Garjarack colony ship. They need to know what we’re going to do and the danger they’re in if we fail.”

“Wait,” Colonel Beva said. “If they’re after the colony ship, why can’t we use that to lure them away from here?”

“Use the Garjarack as bait?” I asked.

“They’re already being targeted,” Colonel Beva said. “Let’s take advantage of that and get some value out of it. I’m not saying don’t warn them, I’m just saying that’s our best hope for getting Vunthor off Titanus without anyone dying.”

It was a tempting strategy at first glance, but like most temptations held some hidden costs that were a lot less palatable.

“The giga-beasts caught up to us the moment Higgs decided they needed too,” I said. “By nature they don’t move as fast as one of our ships but they can be goaded into moving a lot quicker when they need to. If we try to have the Garjarack serve as bait, the giga-beasts will catch and destroy them easily.”

“I can’t get through to Everbright,” Fari said. “The colony ship command module is on secure lockdown.”

“Are they under attack?” Colonel Beva asked.

“Not that I can detect,” Fari said. “The security protocol seems to be the one invoked for high level conferences.”

“They wouldn’t need a high level conference for planning a multi-month orbital stay,” I said. “The colony ships were prepared for that possibility from the get go.”

“Try this link,” Darius suggested and offered a bound circle of physical anima to Fari.

“Cadrus?” Fari asked, recognizing who the magic connected to. “You kept a link to the Garjarack family?”

“Not kept, but I spent so long healing Kallak I can recreate their family signature,” Darius said.

“Bring him into the call,” I said. “We need to make sure the Garjarack have a heads up about what might come after them.”

Fari had Cadrus linked into our telepathic conference less than a minute later.

I’d gotten so used to her efficiency and power that it only barely registered what an incredible feat she’d performed.

Most mental casters didn’t have anywhere near the range she did, and even wizard class Mentalists used devices to augment their abilities for complex spells. Fari meanwhile was multi-casting telepathy spells across planetary scale distances and providing an uncrackable layer of security on top of each spell thread to ensure Vunthor couldn’t listen in to what we saying (or even be aware that we were talking) all without any external help whatsoever.

Any time I wanted to complain about the hand that life dealt me and how miserable it was to be stuck dealing with problems like Vunthor, I had to stop and consider how incredibly lucky I was with the friends life had sent my way. Looking at Fari and Master Hanq and all the other people in my life, it was easy to see that things did kind of balance out in my favor.

“Guardian Watersward, you wished to speak with me?” Cadrus asked over the telepathic link.

“Yes, and I’m sorry it’s not under better circumstances,” I said. “Fari can you project the giga-beast image to him as well?”

“Already displaying it,” she said.

“These are creatures from outside of warp space. They followed us here and will soon be under the command of a rogue human military commander,” I said. “They’re currently adapting to the physics of our dimension, but they will shortly regain their flight capabilities. We expect you will come under attack after that occurs.”

“Is this what destroyed the human colony ship?” Cadrus asked. He was calm, but his mental voice had a distant quality to it. Rationally, he knew I wouldn’t call and make wild claims like this unless they were true, but that didn’t stop part of him from wishing he could disbelieve what I was saying nonetheless.

“No, that was sabotage,” I said. “The rogue military commander crashed his own people’s ship so that his forces could get dug in here on Titanus first.”

“Can the other humans stop him then?” Cadrus asked.

“He is beyond our sphere of influence,” Colonel Beva said, trying to conceal how bad off her forces were from the people who had been ‘the enemy’ for her entire life up until three months ago.

“I see,” Cadrus said and still calm but confused asked, “What did you want us to do then?”

“Speak to the Verulia Industries crew,” I said. “They’re aware of the situation on the ground but don’t know that the giga-beasts are adapting back to their flight capable forms. I need you to convince Gan Everbright to order an immediate evacuation of the colony ship to any system that will provide refuge and is within warp portal range.”

“What will you be doing?” he asked.

“We’re going to try to stop Major Vunthor before he gets his hands on a tool that will let him destroy this world and Hellsreach as well.”


The Horizon of Today – Chapter 25

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Nothing in a direct path,” she said.

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

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

“What about the Garjarack city?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Major Exan Vunthor,” Colonel Beva said.

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

“I knew it!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes please,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What do you mean?” Everbright asked.

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

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

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

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

“What are those?” Gan asked.

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

“Where are you now?” Colonel Beva asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Definitely,” Darius agreed.

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

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

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

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

“Was Vunthor a Void caster?” Darius asked.

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

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

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

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

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

“That could be very bad,” Gan said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We really were all alone here.

The Horizon of Today – Chapter 24

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

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

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

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

That’s when the wings started to appear.

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

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

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

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

“Give it time,” I said.

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

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

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

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

“Lift it,” Hanq commanded.

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

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

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

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

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

He ripped the weapon’s room in half.

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

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

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

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

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

Unless someone was still calling them.

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

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

Higgs was there waiting for me.

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

“Hate,” he said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unfortunately, it was also a mistake.

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

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

“Hate.” I heard him say as he fled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Where’s Captain Hanq?” I asked.

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

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

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

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


The Horizon of Today – Chapter 23

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We are being careful,” he said.

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

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

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

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

He chuckled.

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

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

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

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

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

“Was I that bad?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

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

“How did you win then?” I asked.

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

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

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

“Are you still mad at me?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

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

I did a double take.

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

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

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

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

“Yeah, it was comfy,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

“You were hiding from the Empire right?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We’ll crash then!” Master Hanq said.

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

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

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

The passage through the portal was accompanied by screaming.

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

The Horizon of Today – Chapter 22

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I, meanwhile, died.


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

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

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

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

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

“How long was I gone for?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

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

“What about the colony ship?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fari caught my look of confusion and explained.

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

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

“Where are we now?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You saw him?” Darius asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Right towards us,” I guessed.

“And right towards Titanus,” Master Hanq said.

The Horizon of Today – Chapter 21

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I can’t help it!” the flames said.

“What are you!” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You have to!” I told her.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which of course I could.

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

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

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

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

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

But I couldn’t drain the flame creature either.

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

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

I didn’t want to die either.

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

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

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

“Hate. Hate. Hate.”

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

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

No. Not the creature. The man.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I could, but I never would.

“Hey, what’s this?” the flames asked.

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

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

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

“Is that too much?” the flames asked.

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

“Like this?” the flames said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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