We left Halli and the corruption there behind us the moment the Imperial dreadnaught that Hanq had called for arrived. Fari gave them a compressed memory dump with the names, dates and verifying records for each of the false trials the Magistrate had presided over during her tenure. I guessed there’d be around a dozen or so Imperial High Court judges who were going to be very busy in the months to come, not to mention a similar number of private penitentiary companies that were going to be greeted with the news that they were no longer in business and several thousand people who would be tasting freedom again for the first time in far too long.
For as tempting as it was to stay and make sure that was all sorted out properly though, I felt a surge of eager anticipation when the Horizon Breaker jumped through the portal to warp space.
“Your danger sense acting up yet?” Darius asked as we scrubbed down to get the grime from Halli out of our skin.
“Yeah,” I said as I scoured his back with a rough washcloth under the hot water. “It went off as soon as Fari told us about Yael’s letter.”
“What’s she like?” Darius asked, stepping out of the spray of water and letting me get underneath.
“Yael?” I asked. “The last time I saw her, we fought off a warlord armada together. She was only an apprentice then and there was only one person I saw who lasted more than three seconds in a fight with her.”
“I wish. If we’d fought she’d would have splattered me across a disturbingly wide area,” I said. “No, it was one of our enemies, a girl named Zyla.”
“Is this the same Zyla who’s been partnered up with her since then?” Darius asked, rubbing me down with some industrial strength detoxifying soap.
“The same, although I believe Yael is technically Zyla’s parole officer,” I said.
“How long of a parole period is it?”
“Just a year before she could apply for a review,” I said. “Xyla was instrumental in helping us stop her father and she worked pretty hard after that to make amends for the things she did too.”
“So why is she still on parole?” Darius asked.
“She gone review yet,” I said. “Last I heard, Zyla had a few gray marks on her record for how she handled some of the situations she and Yael had been in and she wasn’t willing to stand in front of the parole review board until they were cleaned up.”
Darius followed me out of the shower and passed me a towel so that we could dry off. I felt the tingle of a small spell on it and gave him a quick kiss. With his talent at manipulating Energetic anima, it was a trivial effort to enchant a towel to be warm and fluffy. Trivial but still appreciated.
“That makes sense,” he said. “But it sounds like you think there’s more going on there?”
“I don’t know. I haven’t kept in touch with them that well, I’m just wondering if it’s a question of Zyla holding herself to an unrealistic standard or if Yael’s been encouraging that brand of craziness in her.”
“Yael’s a Guardian isn’t she?” he asked as he pulled on his pants.
“Yeah, but she’s probably the tightest wound Guardian I’ve ever met,” I said, pulling on a fresh set of my combat robes. In theory I was safe onboard the ship, but I like to be protected by both theory and heavy duty environmental spells whenever possible.
“So wound up that she’s likely to make mistakes?” he asked.
“No, just the reverse,” I said. “She and Zyla are both ridiculously skilled with Aetherial anima. Watching the two of them fight was like watching master gamesmen at work. It was all plans with plans and maneuvers that come out of nowhere and should never work but somehow turn out in their favor anyways.”
“Could the two of them have had a falling out?” he asked.
“Maybe?” I said. “That would explain why they’re both out of contact but if Yael had seen that coming she’d have left more information in her message.”
I leaned in to bury my face in his hair and drew in a nice long breath. It was a little weird, I’ll admit, but I loved the smell of his hair. When I held the embrace a few seconds too long he put his hands over the arms I wrapped around his chest and hugged them until I relaxed and let go.
“You’re going to be careful on this one right?” he said. Despite the phrasing and tone of voice he used, it was a request not a question.
“As much as I can be,” I said.
“And you’re going to come back to me?”
“Always,” I said. We both knew it was a statement of intent more than a promise. The Horizon Breaker had been very successful in the two years we’d been a part of its crew but even so we’d lost people, and come close to losing each other a few times too. In fights like the one on Halli, I still had a tendency to show off and not take things seriously, but that was a situation where we were dealing with an opposition so far below our weight class that we would have been in more danger from excessive worry than from anything they could do to us.
In this case, I had no idea what kind of opposition we were up against, but excessive worry didn’t seem like it would be an issue.
Once we were dressed, we joined Hanq, Fari and the other team leads in the Captain’s briefing room.
“We’re going to be arriving at the planet Abyz in sixteen hours,” Captain Hanq said. “Officially our reason for visiting is to convey a diplomatic parcel to the Imperial Ambassador there. The parcel is part of the yearly budget discussions and contains an offer from the Empire to assist Abyz’s efforts to renew and revitalize it’s main orbital station.”
I winced. We were going in undercover. That was good in the sense that I’d get to be in the vanguard but bad in the sense that we’d have to be restrained and tactful in how we looked for answers. I’d been trained in a lot of things, but restraint and tact were areas I was still working on.
“Our true purpose will be to ascertain the whereabouts and status of these two Imperial personnel,” Hanq said and called up holo-vid representations of Yael and Zyla in the center of our conference table. The scrying bowls in front of each of us changed and a book appeared which listed the vital information for each of our missing persons.
I watched the other team leads take in the relevant details and saw more than a few force themselves to hide their surprise. Rescuing a Crystal Guardian wasn’t an everyday mission and everyone at the table had been with the crew long enough to know how tough the “non-standard” missions we took on could be. One-by-one I saw them glance over at me and I could only shrug and try to look like I had a handle on things in response.
“We’re going to be very limited in our investigation though,” Fari said, taking over the briefing as Captain Hanq often had her do. “Abyz has tight restrictions on immigration and tourism. Apart from the primary spaceport and a half dozen resorts, off-worlders are barred from the rest of the planet.”
“What about Imperial inspectors?” I asked. Worlds that tried to bar Imperial inspectors tended to be worlds where the corruption was obvious enough to be visible from space, but a few of them were paranoid for other reasons.
“Inspectors have full access, but it takes a month to ‘acclimate’ them to the planet,” Fari said.
“Toxins in the air?” Tym, the other Black Team leader asked. “Is this another cesspit like Halli?”
“No, supposedly its beautiful there,” Fari said. “Very safe too. The whole planet is bound up in fate magics.”
There was a round of collective cursing from everyone at the table.
Aetherial anima dealt with many different immaterial qualities of reality. My danger sense, for example, drew on my Aetherial magic stores. Precognition spells, illusion casting and all sort of other unique and interesting effects could be created with Aetherial anima but the most basic use for it was fate binding.
In theory a fate spell simply altered a number of random events so that a given overall effect the caster desired occurred. Rather than shooting a lightning bolt at someone like an Energetic anima caster could, a fate binding might cause an electrical power line to fray and land on the caster’s enemy. Or they might get caught in a particularly bad thunderstorm and struck naturally. Or a hovercar from the Lightning Fast Delivery company might run them over.
Fate magic was, generally, imprecise which made it lousy for achieving very specific ends but excellent for encouraging broad trends, or executing attacks that were incredibly hard to see coming. As a Void caster I had some level of protection against it since I could devour any anima that touched me, but that wouldn’t necessarily help when a Lighting Fast Delivery hovercar was barreling down on me.
“From Guardian Clearborn’s note we know that they were investigating an anomaly in the Fate bindings themselves,” Hanq said. “She indicated the need for care due to the possibility for a cascade failure in the spell matrix and advised us to restrict our investigation to ensuring that a planetary crisis hasn’t been triggered.”
“How much damage are we looking at if there is a cascade failure of the fate bindings?” I asked.
“Abyz bills itself as a ‘Paradise Planet’,” Fari said. “And they can support that claim largely thanks to the fate bindings. Check out their crime and accidents statistics.”
I looked at the scrying pool in front me as the personnel reports on Yael and Zyla changed to a datasheet on Abyz.
“Did they forget to fill in their numbers here?” I asked.
“Nope,” Fari said. “The Imperial Ambassador’s seal is on these. They’ve had no accidents and no violent crimes since their induction into the Empire.”
“That’s not possible is it?” Darius asked. “What would you power that many Fate spells with?”
“According to the Queen’s senior staff, the ley lines on Abyz are naturally unbalanced towards conversion to Aetherial anima and are exceptionally suited to fate spells,” Fari said.
“And has anyone ever confirmed that?” I asked.
“The fate spells were in place before Abyz joined the Empire,” Fari said. “The few efforts that were made to probe them resulted in partial collapses and so the research was called off.”
“That’s why Guardian Clearborn advised us to avoid tampering with the binding spells,” Hanq said. “Abyz is home to over six hundred million people, and another sixty million tourists. The fate bindings are their primary safety net. If they fail, we’ll be looking at a backlash that could kill all of them.”
“What are our mission parameters then?” I asked.
“Our primary goal is to preserve the lives of the people on Abyz,” Hanq said. “Guardian Clearborn was concerned that if they went missing it might be due to an event severe enough to trigger a cascade failure. We need to make sure that’s not the case and have a contingency plan in place in case it is.”
“And if everyone there is happy and healthy?” I asked.
“Our secondary mission is to locate and assist Guardian Clearborn and her assistant,” Hanq said.
“What about catching the bad guys?” I asked.
“We don’t know that there are any bad guys here,” Hanq said. “Its entirely possible there was a natural disruption in Abyz’s ley lines that caught Guardian Clearborn’s attentions. It’s also entirely possible that her failure to stay in contact is due to perfectly normal difficulties encountered in pursuit of the case.”
He waited a moment to make sure that the official message had been conveyed, before continuing.
“We are not idiots however, so we’re going to assume that there are bad guys at work here until we have proof otherwise,” he said. “Guardian Watersward, please assemble a team for deep infiltration.”
I looked at my former mentor and smiled. I’d already been thinking of that exact idea, but I was pretty sure he wasn’t going to be a fan of the team I had in mind.