Monthly Archives: June 2015

The Journey of Life – Ch 21 – New Arrivals (Part 1)

Osgood Pyras, former member of the Hellsreach Common Council and current Imperial ambassador to the colony world of Titanus woke with the gentle laziness that greets one in the early hours of the day. Beside him, his husband Hector lay blissfully unconscious.

Blissful for Hector that is. The moment Osgood dispelled the deafening spell he’d cast on himself, the roar of Hector’s titanic snores filled Osgood’s ears with the familiar melody with which he’d greeted the day for nearly twenty years.

It wasn’t a bad trade-off, Osgood decided. Against twenty years of snoring and sheet stealing and sheer pig-headed stubbornness stood twenty years of kindness, support and shared commitment. Together they’d overseen years of warfare and kept their people safe and whole. They’d brought a new world to life and said goodbye to an old one. And they’d raised a son.

Darius was only biologically related to Hector, but in so many more ways he took after Osgood. The two of them, Osgood and Darius, had been constant companions in Darius’ youth and so it was wound up being even harder on Osgood than Hector that Darius had flown off to the stars to chase dangerous dreams and amazing women.

As he slipped out of bed, trying to suspend his thin frame over the creaky floorboards as much as possible, Osgood thought of his absent son and sighed. It had been too long since Darius’ last letter, which suggested the boy was neck-deep in a world of trouble. Again.

Stepping into the shower, Osgood longed for the days when he could set boundaries on his son’s world. The fencing had never been enough to keep the child safe. No children were ever safe in the warzone that Hellsreach had been, but at least while Darius was nearby, Osgood had been able to perceive the dangers that threatened his child and act against them. With Darius off in whatever dark corner of space he’d disappeared to, he was beyond the reach of anything except Osgood’s prayers, and no matter how many of those Osgood sent, he never felt like it was enough.

Despite his ghost-like attempt at leaving the bedroom without disturbing Hector, Osgood wasn’t surprised when his husband joined him in the shower a few minutes later.

“I had the weirdest dream,” Hector said as he stepped into the tiled area and pulled the glass door closed behind him.

“I warned you about the Calfrey Eel last night,” Osgood said. “If it’s not cooked right, the hallucinogens don’t break down fully.”

“The Eel was cooked wonderfully,” Hector said. “And it wasn’t that kind of weird. It was weirdly vivid and solid, not trippy. Almost like a premonition.”

Despite the warm water pouring over his shoulders and down his back, Osgood felt a chill run through his spine. Both he and Hector were talented with Mental anima. They didn’t have the precognitive abilities that Aetherial casters sometimes did but their subconsciouses could be inhumanely talented at putting together pictures of the future from small clues that their conscious minds missed. A Mental caster’s vivid dreams weren’t guaranteed to become tangible realities but it was dangerous to ignore them.

Osgood had woken thinking about Darius, which mean his own subconscious had worked something out too and any premonitions in direction of their missing son weren’t likely to be good ones Osgood feared.

“What did you see in the dream?” Osgood asked.

“Darius,” Hector said and Osgood’s stomach plummeted down to his feet. “But dozens of him. We’d turned our house into a daycare center and there were more of him running around than we could possibly keep track of.”

That was not the kind of premonition that Osgood had expected to hear. And not the kind that he would have expected Hector to take seriously. Usually premonitions were for dire, life changing sorts of events. Not silly fantasies.

“I don’t believe the local zoning would allow us to run a daycare center out of this house,” Osgood said. “Or will that be the next thing the Terraformers Guild formally requests be added to the Titanus by-laws?”

At one time, the two of them had been members of opposing factions in the Hellsreach Common Council and Osgood had never entirely given up his love of needling Hector over political issues, especially ones that weren’t actually important to either of them.

“I suppose that would depend on the Crystal Empire’s official stance on the matter,” Hector said. A laugh accompanied the words, but Osgood wondered for a moment if his husband was actually joking.

“Local zoning is an area which the Empire does not chose to form an opinion on,” Osgood said, playing along with the surface mood of humor. “Although it will be happy to provide knowledgeable advisors as requested.

That was the official Imperial policy on virtually everything in regards to planetary affairs which made Osgood’s job as Ambassador a particularly easy one. On most days.

“We’ll see what today brings I guess,” Hector said. “Wouldn’t want to bother the advisors if it was just bad Calfrey Eel I suppose.”

The rest of the shower and the breakfast afterward passed with the usual pre-day chatter. There was a void of silence in the house that each filled in as best they could. It wasn’t the painful emptiness of true loss but rather an awareness that a harmony of two voices would never be the same as the blending of three.

“Are you headed up to the station today?” Hector asked as he finished the poached eggs Osgood had prepared.

“Unfortunately,” Osgood said.

“I thought you were supposed to be planet-side all week?” Hector asked. “Did something come up?”

“Distress beacon, very faint though, and but close enough to the line that anyone who warps into the system could possibly pick it up.” Osgood said.

The line in question was one of the celestial ley lines that connected Titanus to the rest of the galaxy. Most ley lines were naturally occurring paths of anima that stretched between the stars. Titanus had one of those but the other dozen or so which led to it were all of Crystal Empire origin, constructed by spell casters gifted in working magic across unfathomable distances.

“Pirates?” Hector asked.

“Not likely,” Osgood said. “The Empire kicked the Dispraxia League out of here pretty hard. Last I heard they were still hunting down the stragglers. No, this is probably homegrown.”

“Purists,” Hector said, fatigue washing over his face. After a lifetime of warfare over inter-species hatred, Hector was done with people who wished to cling to the “old times”. The world was new and changing. Its people needed to be as well.

“Probably,” Osgood said. “Just because we came halfway across known space to get away from Hellsreach doesn’t mean people actually wanted to stop fighting. Not when we have such a clean and wonderful planet here that we can ruin.”

“They’re not that bad,” Hector said. “Most of them.”

“The humans or the Garjarack?” Osgood asked.

“Both.” Hector said. “Most of them want to make a new start of things. We’ve seen that time and again.”

“I know,” Osgood said. “But we’ve also seen that simply transplanting people from one ball of dirt to another doesn’t make all their old wounds go away.”

“I thought our intelligence said that the Purist movements were dying out?” Hector asked. “How can they have enough influence left for something like this?”

“There are always people who can profit off unreasoning hatred, and the fewer of the Purists there are the more virulent they’ll become,” Osgood said.

“So what is the Crystal Empire going to do about this particular pocket?” Hector asked.

“I don’t know yet,” Osgood said. “It’s going to depend on what sort of support I can requisition.”

“Here’s to hoping you get a giant gift box from the Empire then,” Hector said.

Osgood spent the flight up to the orbital station considering exactly what he’d want to find in a giant gift box. His early military training wanted to see a “sun killer” scale fleet show up to make it clear in no uncertain terms that Titanus’ space lanes were not to be interfered with. The Council member he’d once been was quick to point out the numerous ways that kind of show of force could go horribly awry though. Not the least of which being the likely upsurge in recruitment for the various “Purist” groups on both sides of the species divide on Titanus as the fear of the “Empire taking away all our rights” became easier to envision.

By the time he arrived at the station, he had his actual requests in mind. A small set of fast response ships, capable of tracking down the erratic signal and locating its source before the Purists behind it found a target to their liking. He had the requisition drafted and gave instructions for his staff to meet him first thing for a review but by the time he arrived at the station it was already too late.

“What happened? Why are the fighters scrambling?” Osgood asked as the Imperial stations docking bay surged in chaos around him.

“We picked up the distress beacon five minutes ago sir,” one of the station’s seers said.

“Are there any other ships in the area?” Osgood asked, already knowing what the answer had to be.

“Yes sir, a colony ship from Kezzela,” the seer said.

“Have we instructed them not to respond to the distress beacon?” Osgood asked.

“We can reach them Ambassador,” another caster said. “There’s a blocking field around the ship.”

“It activated at the same time as the beacon didn’t it?” Osgood asked.

“Yes sir,” the communications caster said.

“How many pilots do we have on duty?” Osgood asked.

“This was a light shift sir, the colony ship wasn’t due to arrive until tomorrow, so we adjusted our staffing to account for that,” the communications caster said. Which meant someone had set this up.

“Do we have any readings on what’s happening to the colony ship now?” Osgood asked.

“We’re seeing unusually high Energetic anima readings and telemetry is showing its approach speed has increased,” the caster said.

“They’re under attack and trying to make a run for it,” Osgood said. “Can we see what’s attacking it yet?”

“No sir, all we’re seeing is shadows out there.”

“Shadows?” Osgood asked and then figured out what that really meant. “Oh no no no.”

He started running towards the fighter bays and the seer and the comm caster ran with him.

“What is it sir?” the comm caster asked.

“They have Void casters shielding their ships,” Osgood said. “That colony ship is never going to make it here and our fighters are going to get slaughtered.”

“Should I call them back?” the comm caster asked.

“No, but tell them to proceed at three quarters speed and get me every Mental anima caster on the station,” Osgood said. “If they’re not rated for flying then pair them up with someone who is. Or someone who thinks they can fake it. I don’t care. Just get me all of them in space in the next two minutes.”

“I’m flight certified sir,” the seer said. “And I’m a 6th rank Mental caster.”

“Same here sir,” the comm caster said.

“Good, pick out your favorite fighters then. We’ve got a colony ship to save.”

Osgood hadn’t flown a combat mission in over twenty years and even then he’d been nothing more than boy press-ganged into service by an extreme circumstance. As far as he could see that was the only thing that was ever going to get him behind the controls of a fighter craft. As his tiny ship lurched out into the void, he had to wonder if seeking out a job less prone to putting him in extreme circumstance might not be a wise idea.

“The time for wisdom is past,” he said before turning his comm link on, “but perhaps there’s still room for cunning.”

Placing his palm on the the communication panel, he gave the authorization for a special Ambassadorial channel. It would consume a ton of precious concentration from the communication casters but in this case Osgood felt his use of power could be justified.

“Os? What’s up?” Hector asked in response to the Priority Alert message and the long range telepathic link that formed.

“Typical day at the office,” Osgood said. “Our old office.”

“Oh hells,” Hector said. “What can I do?”

“I need you to get in touch with some people for me,” Osgood said.

“Who do you need?” Hector asked.

“Basically, everyone.”


The Journey of Life – Ch 20 – Orchestrations (Part 3)

Yael’s contact from the Silver Saucer had the good sense to wait a full week before arranging another meeting with her. Any sooner and he would have looked desperate. Also he wouldn’t have had time to run a myriad of background checks on her to determine that she was indeed connected with an underworld weapons distribution clan. This was fortunate because if he hadn’t run those checks, Yael wouldn’t have been able to corrupt them and secure his near unquestioning acceptance of her entirely falsified position.

The week delay wasn’t without cost though. Yael was forced to stay in one of the most opulent private suites on Uronos in order to maintain her “visiting princess” disguise. Zyla, meanwhile, was stuck with their previous apartment, mice and all, while she developed her cover as an off-world prize fighter. The two prong approach gave them a much wider insight to the nature of the conspiracy but after a week apart, neither had a particularly deep well of patience to draw on for further delays.

“I could sponsor you,” Yael said over her telepathic link to Zyla. “Princesses do that sort of thing all the time.”

They were on opposite sides of the city but it felt like they were on opposite sides of the galaxy and Yael felt a growing hunger to change that state of affairs. Still, she told herself, they’d waited years to be together another day or two would be bearable.

“That would raise dozens of red flags in our targets,” Zyla said. “Which I’d be fine with but you won’t let me take them apart. Metaphorically speaking of course.”

“It’s not that I object to the idea, but it’s sort of a chore putting them back together,” Yael said. “And we still need them until we have the organizations they’re fronting for under control here.”

“After tonight, the weapon suppliers aren’t going to be a problem anymore,” Zyla said.

“You have your part of the fate spell complete?” Yael asked.

“As complete as I’m going to get it,” Zyla said. “I’ve enhanced the long standing flaws in each of our ‘competitors’ designs and set them against each other as strongly as I could without provoking an open war.”

“And they haven’t figured out that they’re being manipulated?” Yael asked.

“They’re well aware that there are Aetherial spells compromising them,” Zyla said. “The vast majority aren’t mine though. Once things started falling apart for the first weapon supplier, they turned on their nearest rivals all on their own. I think I spent less anima pitting them against one another than you did getting clean water for our apartment.”

“You’re amazing, you know that?” Yael said.

“What kind of luck are you having with Sub-Minister Nerill?” Zyla asked, referring to the man Yael had met at the Silver Saucer.

“He finally took the bait,” Yael said. “We have a meeting tonight at 7:00.”

“He’s convinced you can be trusted?” Zyla asked.

“More than the other sovereignties who are vying to supply his movement with a warp capable space armada,” Yael said.

“And they’re not trying to assassinate you why exactly?” Zyla asked.

“As far as Nerill knows, they’re trying very hard to assassinate me,” Yael said. “That none of the assassin’s he knows about have managed to enter the atmosphere much less get within striking range of me adds to the allure I think.”

“And are any of these assassins actually real?” Zyla asked.

“None of the ones he knows about,” Yael said. “I’ve dealt with others more quietly than that. As far as the other armada vendors know, they each think they’re in the lead for the sale.”

“Who are they actually selling to?” Zyla asked.

“I cheated,” Yael said. “I’ve got a team of Auditors working on them already. From what I gather we’re going to buy the ships from them using their own money.”

“That will hurt their bottom line a bit,” Zyla said.

“Yes, I expect heads will roll,” Yael said.

“You probably only mean that figuratively don’t you?” Zyla asked.

“I’m afraid so,” Yael said, tickled by Zyla’s disappointment.

The Warlord’s daughter wasn’t as bloodthirsty as she claimed to be, but the hard exterior was something Zyla had put a lot of energy into developing. It had been required for her survival while growing up, and Yael felt a warm, aching, thrill when she considered that she was the first one Zyla had let see the person underneath that shell.

“Will you need any backup for the meeting tonight?” Zyla asked.

“That would be delightful,” Yael said. “But we’re almost at the end here.”

“All the more reason to be careful,” Zyla said.

“I agreed, but in this case my cover would be in more danger than I am,” Yael said. “From what I can foresee lining up tonight, I’m pretty certain I can take care of myself.”

“Of course you can,” Zyla said. “You’re amazing too.”

There was a mischievous under-current to Zyla’s words that the telepathic link conveyed with perfect clarity. Shared memories came too, but only for a fleeting second, with the notion that Zyla was eager to see them repeat.

“Ok,” Yael said, her breath catching in anticipation, “We’ll wrap this up as soon as we can then right?”

“Right,” Zyla said and signed off from the link.

Yael stalked immediately into the shower to prepare for her meeting with Nerill and set the water to its coldest possible setting. She emerged, shivering and slightly blue but no less determined to end their assignment sooner than later.

Despite the urge to rush through the evening’s engagement though, she gritted her teeth and took the requisite time to assemble her princess costume correctly. The complexities of the garment, and the need to conjure animated servants to help reassemble it around her, gave Yael the opportunity to also reassemble her poise and the bearing she wished to project.

By the time she made it to the table at the floating restaurant Nerill had specified for the meeting, Yael the Crystal Guardian had been replaced by Her Royal Highness of the Court of the Autumn Throne.

Her Royal Higness was patient, calm and calculating. That was why she didn’t throttle Nerill when he arrived a half hour late for their dinner discussion.

“My apologies for being tardy,” the minister said. “Debate on the current appropriations bill went longer than anticipated.”

“So long as you are appropriating the funds to seal our arrangement, I won’t hold that against you,” Yael said.

“There are no worries on that account,” Nerill said. “Funding for what you offer has already been secured.”

“From where?” Yael asked.

“Excuse me?” Nerill asked.

“Where are these funds coming from,” Yael said. “We have demonstrated our capabilities in good faith to you, if we are to proceed we need to know that your funding isn’t going to dry up when it’s most needed.”

“I assure you that it won’t,” Nerill said. “This is an effort which cannot fail.”

“Our apologies then,” Yael said. “But we will have no part in plans which cannot fail, as they always somehow manage too.”

Yael rose to leave but Nerill placed his hand on hers before she could go. With the wary expression of someone who was certain she had no further interest in the proceedings, Yael sat down once again.

“Please, there is no need for such dramatics,” Nerill said. “I believe we are both too invested in this transaction to back out now.”

“It is never too late to back out of a bad deal,” Yael said. “You’ve seen the weapon caches we can supply and the capital ships. All of it Imperial grade merchandise. It’s not immodest to say that our competitors cannot come close to offering comparable materiel.”

“And that is why we are willing to meet your rather ‘premium’ rates,” Nerill said.

“We have concerns whether you will be able to continue to afford those rates,” Yael said. “Your initial order volumes are notably smaller than we calculate you would require for the conquest of Kremkin’s Reach.”

“We will not need to conquer the Kremkin system in order to pay for your products,” Nerill said.

“You are upgrading a local militia to a fully capable military,” Yael said. “The only target within reach which can return that investment is Kremkin’s. Unless you have another source of funding? One perhaps you would care to share with us?”

“What do you know Uronos, Your Highness?” Nerill asked.

“You are an independent world,” Yael said. “One without the friends and allies required to stand as a player on the galactic stage.”

“Yes, and that is a position which we chose over two decades ago,” Nerill said. “Do you know why?”

“We imagine you are about to enlighten us?” Yael said.

“Political dogma,” Nerill said. “The people who ruled Uronos at the time, and the ones who rule it still, would not give up any measure of their power. So they hid behind ancient treatises on philosophy, and political party platforms, and mindless patriotism and anything they could find to convince the sheep of this world that remaining independent was the only option and that joining the Empire meant submitting to the worst sort of tyranny.”

“But you disagree with that assessment?” Yael asked.

“Of course I do,” Nerill said. “As does every other merchant on the planet who would benefit from trading in the galactic markets.”

Yael watched as the lines of fate shifted around Nerill illuminating moments from the future he sought to grasp. There would be fire, and bloodshed. Thousands or perhaps even millions dead but for Nerill those events passed by in the blink of an eye. Those flames and the screams of the dying would bring the stars to Uronos. Literally the Crystal Stars of the Empire. The High Council of the planetary government would be brought up on formal charges for violating the Imperial Peace. Without any meaningful fighting, Uronos would be brought into the Empire and a new government elected by the people. Immigration would become trivial and the population would shift. More importantly to Nerill though, commerce would grow and he and those connected to him would become wealthy far beyond the limits of what they could attain on an isolated and unconnected planet.

“So you wish to be part of the Empire?” Yael asked.

“Yes, and that is why this plan cannot fail,” Nerill said. “If the conquest of Kremkin’s Reach is successful then we will have expanded Uronos’ reach exponentially. In the far more likely case that it fails however, it will be because the Empire has stepped in and once they take an interest in Uronos we will have access to all the resources and connections that two decades of isolationism have denied us.”

“And you think the Empire will treat you kindly when you’re admission offering is a mountain of the dead?” Yael asked.

“We’re purging the radical and unstable elements from society with this move,” Nerill said. “The Empire conquered countless systems and allied itself with thousands of warlords. They will not be so squeamish as to reject us because of a little blood on our hands.”

Yael watched and caught the threads of fate as he spoke. Each time he referred to “we” or “our”, the threads grew more clear until she was able to tag each one so she could follow it later and retrieve the conspirator at the far end of it.

“And what of the dead of Kremkin’s Reach?” Yael asked. “Do you think the Empire will overlook them?”

“I am counting on the fact that they won’t,” Nerill asked. “Without a crime of heinous proportions there would be no need to make the High Council a scapegoat after all.”

“I see you’ve thought of almost everything,” Yael said.

“Not ‘almost’ everything,” Nerill said. “Everything. There is no outcome to this which does not result in historic levels of profit for all involved. Is that enough to satisfy your concerns?”

“Just to be clear,” Yael said. “You plan to indirectly overthrow the existing government by using the Crystal Empire as your catspaw after you arrange for the murder of potentially millions of Uronos and Kremkin’s Reach citizens. And this doesn’t strike you as too audacious of a plan to succeed?”

“Not at all,” Nerill said. “The mere fact that we are able to put it in motion will ensure its success. The Empire cannot overlook an action like this.”

“And if they try to prevent it?” Yael asked.

“By the time they catch wind of it, it will already be too late,” Nerill said.

“Excellent,” Yael said. “I think that’s all I need.”

“Then you’ll move forward with this deliveries as we discussed?” Nerill asked.

“Oh, I wasn’t speaking to you,” Yael said. “I was speaking to them.”

She pointed over Nerill’s shoulder to  a squad of High Council agents who were advancing through the restaurant.

“What have you done?” Nerill asked.

“Broadcast our discussion to the High Council,” Yael said.

“But why? What could you possibly have to gain from this?” Nerill asked, panic racing behind his eyes.

“By my calculations, roughly 3.2 million lives,” Yael said.

“But your home world’s economy will crash without this! And the Empire will confiscate your stolen goods! And your family will hunt you down to torture you for the rest of your life!” Nerill said. “You can’t throw all that away! It doesn’t make any sense.”

“Perhaps I have another buyer?” Yael said.

“Kremkin’s Reach!” Nerill exploded with rage and reached across the table to throttle Yael. Fortunately for his sake, the High Council agents were close enough to them that they caught Nerill before he could lay a hand on Yael. “You’re selling us out to Kremkin’s Reach!”

Yael simply smiled and sipped her wine as Nerill was led away by the High Council agents.

As satisfying as it can be, sometimes it best not to let your opponents know that all of the checks they did were subverted by Imperial Intelligence. Or that the weapon caches they saw were largely generated by illusion spells. Or that the capital ships were on loan from the Imperial Navy.

“But why didn’t we want Uronos to join the Empire?” Zyla asked later as they lay cuddled up and exhausted in bed.

“We do want Uronos to join the Empire,” Yael said, “But not like that.”

“I guess I can see why millions of dead might be a problem,” Zyla said in a teasing tone.

“That and it shouldn’t be through trickery,” Yael said. “Anyone can be part of the Empire, all they have to do is ask.”

“And what if they never chose to ask?” Zyla said.

“They can chose that too,” Yael said. “But there are some decent enticements for joining.”

“Yes, even if takes far too long to see that sometimes,” Zyla said and snuggled closer into Yael’s embrace.

The Journey of Life – Ch 19 – Orchestrations (Part 2)

Yael hated princess costumes. The best ones were posh, and ornate and made her look like a dazzling beauty. Not one part of that matched who she felt she was though.

In her mind, Yael wasn’t a broken nosed brawler but neither was she a delicate royal flower. Her Guardian robes were just about the right level of formality for her. Simple, functional and appropriate for a wide variety of situations. Sadly, mingling with the elite of a non-aligned world was not one of those appropriate situations. Especially not when she wanted to keep any hint of Imperial involvement in their affairs a secret.

“Did you hear they were debating closing down the arenas?” said a nearby woman who was drinking from a long stemmed wine glass.

The viewing lounge at the Silver Saucer was packed, as Yael had expected, with various politician and their hanger-ons who were prominent in the local government. It was the sort of establishment where the local elite could enjoy “common recreations” while remaining above and apart from the general rabble. On the floor below the balcony Yael was on, a crowd of the less wealthy were milling about and at the center of it all, behind glass-steel walls, was the fighting pit where the night’s action would take place.

“It’s well past time, but what sort of plan do they have for the displaced fighters?” a woman standing beside the first said.

“A plan? Do they ever think these things through that far?” the first woman asked.

“I suppose not,” the second woman said. “Perhaps I should speak with the Commissioner of Education about allocating some additional funds for our Adult Education programs.”

“That wouldn’t hurt,” the first woman said. “I’ve been looking into a variety of competitive sports leagues they could transfer into, but so far none have shown an interest in developing a franchise here.”

Yael didn’t envy the two women the dilemma that faced them. Uronos had a large number of arena-style combat theaters. The gladiators who fought in them ranged from commoners hoping to score a lucky victory to the seasoned professionals who were minor celebrities in their own right. Transitioning all of them to a different career could involve more bloodshed and pain than the arena fights produced in a year.

Yael leaned back and tuned in to a different conversation. She wasn’t at the Silver Saucer to eavesdrop. At least not on purely local matters. She was hunting for a bigger catch than that, but to lure it in she had to be careful not to give herself away. So she sipped from a suitably exotic beverage, as was expected of an off-world princess, and appeared to be waiting for an official entourage to come and collect her. That she was positioned at the proper spot to overhear a wide variety of conversations throughout the nearby area had nothing whatsoever to do with luck though.

“Is the buyer here yet?” Zyla asked on their telepathic link.

“I believe so,” Yael said. “There’s no contact on the Aether thread leading back to our arms dealer but it’s suspiciously blurred.”

“That’s sloppy,” Zyla said. “Did they even try to tie the thread to someone else?”

“Not from what I can see,” Yael said. “This is pure obfuscation.”

“Not quite pure,” Zyla said. “If they were serious about it, they would have obfuscated the thread back at the corpse, just like they did with the murder site.”

“You raise a good point there,” Yael said. “How are preparations for your Arena bout going?”

“Well enough,” Zyla said. “I’m through the qualifying matches and have a place in the real show.”

“Your opponents are all still breathing I hope?” Yael asked.

“Yes. Unfortunately,” Zyla said. “I may not enjoy the Empire’s strictures against killing but I can control myself, even when my foes so richly deserve a less kind fate.”

“Thank you,” Yael said. “Has the new arms supplier made an appearance yet?”

“They’re here and meeting with the ring manager now,” Zyla said. “They should be calling me in to speak with them in just a few minutes.”

“Which weapon system will they offer you?” Yael asked.

“I’m an off-worlder,” Zyla said, “So I’ve set it up that they’ll sell me one of their competitor’s ‘fine’ products.”

“While  the actually working models are all going to the locals right?” Yael asked.

“Right,” Zyla said. “And I’ve already got a contact lock spell on the sellers. When the deal falls through and they try to inform their home office we’ll have a solid path back to the people who are behind this.”

“On one side anyways,” Yael said. “The local angle here is just as important.”

“Yes, but I’m not the one stuck dealing with people I’m not allowed to punch in the face now am I?” Zyla said. The emotional layer of joy and teasing that underlay her words had no problem coming through on the telepathic link.

“It’s going to be best two out of three next time,” Yael said.

“They’re calling me in to offer me my ‘special advantage’,” Zyla said. “Good luck with the locals.”

Yael sighed. It wasn’t that she particularly enjoyed fighting, but she had to admit that between the two of them, Zyla had nabbed the better job. Frowning, she began delicately knitting out a tiny, almost inconsequential, fate spell.

“Pardon me, but it looks as though you are waiting for someone,” a tall man in plain suit said.

Yael turned to look at him. One of the loops from her tiny spell had snared the man around the shoulders. More incriminating though was the small curl of connection that she saw leading away from him into a quickly blurred haze.

“I am,” Yael said. “Though I have to confess I expected him to be older and more wrinkly.”

“I see, this is your invitation then I take it?” the man asked, gesturing to the micro-fine thread from Yael’s spell.

“I’m impressed that you noticed it,” Yael said and let the spell dissipate into pure Aether again.

“it was a fine piece of workmanship,” the man said. “Did you suppose that no one here would be able to appreciate that?”

“Let’s say instead that I am delighted to find a fellow practitioner of the subtle arts who has spent the time required to master the discipline,” Yael said. She spoke in her “princess voice”, which she was admittedly rusty at using, but given that her training as a Crystal Guardian had included a several month stint where she served as a real princess in the Court of the Autumn Throne, it was a role she was reasonably sure was she could play with some authority.

“I’m sure our schooling here is but a shadow of the royal academy you trained at,” the man said. “Ours focus too long on the practical aspects of magic I am afraid.”

“I’ve always found the practical aspects of the non-tangible fascinating,” Yael said.

“And is that what you’ve come to observe tonight?” the man asked.

“In a sense, yes,” Yael said.

“There may be little to see,” the man said. “Our fighters are not generally gifted in anything but the physical arts.”

“Is it not customary here to augment the combatants?” Yael asked.

“Yes, to a limited extent,” the man said.

“Perhaps there will be less call for my attention to these exhibitions then,” Yael said.

“It would be a mistake to think of these contests as mere exhibitions,” the man said. “These are serious matches intended to try the competitors skills to the utmost.”

“My apologies for misspeaking then,” Yael said. “I was referring to the exhibition of the augmentation gear.”

“You have a keen eye,” the man said.

“Not for all things,” Yael said. “Just those which intersect my areas of interest.”

“Are you an aficionado of material enchanting as well?” the man asked.

“No, my interest is more financial in nature,” Yael said. She watched as the connections began to shift around the man.

He was tied to the government on Uronos, but only indirectly, which was a surprise. Yael had expected him to be one of the minor functionaries doing the bidding of a more empowered master.

There were threads that suggested he had power and obscured backers, but from the direction and resonance of the harmonies on those threads, Yael guessed that the man sitting beside her was more than a minion or a catspaw. To some extent he was the architect and shaper of the plan that was unfolding on Uronos.

“And what sort of concern do you represent?” the man asked.

“At the moment, none, as I have no contracts on Uronos,” Yael said. “I am, at present, merely observing the competition.”

“Are you sure there is an opportunity for competition here?” the man asked. “All of the enchanted material in the area is donated.”

“So I gather,” Yael said. “And I am not interested in charity work at present.”

“It seems a shame that your evening will be wasted then,” the man said.

“Not wasted, at the least my curiosity will be assuaged,” Yael said. “I’ve lost a few opportunities now to less reputable sorts who promise quality they can’t deliver. I am most interested to see how your contestants fare given that you’ve set an even playing field for them to fight on.”

“It seems you won’t have to wait long,” the man said. “The first match is beginning now.”

Yael watched Zyla enter the ring from one side while man at least half again as tall as she was entered from the other direction.

“As you see they both are outfitted with standard quality armor, shields and bolt casters,” the man said.

“And yet, the gear carried by the male contestant has been modified to include a more sleek appearance. It certainly appears to be higher quality than what his opponent is forced to work with,” Yael said.

“I guess that might yield some psychological advantage,” the man said.

“But not a material advantage,” Yael said.

“What do you mean by that?” the man asked.

“Watch how he moves, compared to his opponent. I’ve seen this sort of bait and switch before,” Yael said. “The seller claims that an enchanted piece has all manner of properties, but once it is in the field the thin veneer wears off the actual performance of the object is exposed as woefully inadequate..”

“You will forgive me for believing that you might be a somewhat biased source for those claims?” the man asked.

“Of course, but you needn’t take my word for it,” Yael said. “The proof is in the performance.”

“I fear this performance will not be so telling,” the man said. “This seems like a decidedly uneven match.”

“That is the first sign I would point you towards,” Yael said. “The fight program says that the woman is a first time fighter in this arena. That seems to be a poor match-up with the reigning champion for the past three weeks. The only reason I can see for it would be to show off the shiny new gear the champion is wearing on a stage where the odds are stacked in their favor.”

“There will be other matches,” the man said. “Perhaps they’ve reserved the more interesting line ups for later in the evening.”

“Perhaps, but see how the woman moves?” Yael said. “She’s avoiding all of his blows and she’s not even accelerating much. That’s a classic sign that the targeting enhancement in the fighter’s armor is failing. My competitors always did have problems with that spell. The real thing to watch for however is all of the weak spots the armor displays.”

“Such as?” the man asked.

“The arm for instance,” Yael said. “It looks like a minor blow caused it to seize up. Unless I miss my guess the knees will lock up next, more or less on their own.”

As Yael spoke, Zyla laid a smackdown on her opponent, locking his leg joints with the barest casting of a physical spell, to make it look like she’d disabled him with nothing more than a series of weak strikes.

One final blow from Zyla caused the armor her foes was encased in to shatter into it’s component pieces and drop off him leaving the fighter in little more than a loin cloth.

“It’s nice to see people who test the products they plan to invest in,” Yael said.

“It can certainly prevent troubling surprises later,” the man said.

“If you should know anyone who is in the market for somewhat higher quality merchandise, you’ll know how to contact me,” Yael said and spun a thicker more obvious loop around the man letting it settle on his shoulders like a mantle.

Or a noose that hadn’t yet been contracted.


The Journey of Life – Ch 18 – Orchestrations

Yael Clearborn, Guardian of the Crystal Empire and Arch-Mage class Aetherial spell caster glared at the mouse that stood in the grime covered bathroom with her.

“I’m not getting out of this tub until you leave,” she told the non-magical, non-sapient rodent.

It froze in place and twitched it whiskers at her.

Even naked and unarmed, Yael knew she was more than a match for the mouse, but she wasn’t interested in killing the small creature, and her more subtle abilities weren’t worth using on so small an adversary.

If only it saw itself like that.

It wasn’t a question of the mouse being trapped. The tiny creature had plenty of bolt holes to scamper into. The hotel room Yael and Zyla had rented might have earned a one-star rating at some point in the past but it had long ago sold that star and anything else it could pawn. Where the money the hotel took in went was a mystery, with the only clear answer being that none of it was invested in upkeep or accommodations for the guests. The base boards showed that neglect clearer than a building inspector’s condemnation order. Or at least clearer than the order which somehow always wound up buried under a small pile of money before it could be officially served to the hotel owners.

“Seriously, you need to go,” Yael told the mouse and loomed over it, careful to stay on the far side of the tub’s small wall as she did so.

She wasn’t scared of the mouse. She’d wrestled rodents the size of small houses and survived swarms of creatures that covered entire mountain ranges. She just didn’t want to squish the little thing. It was kind of cute. And it probably had a variety of plagues or whatever that would be a hassle to be treated for. And she was finally clean after a week of trudging through slimy streets and meeting with slimier people.

But mostly it was that the little thing was cute. With it’s big black eyes and pale violet fur. It’s little hands rubbed over each other like it was waiting to speak but had to fight crippling shyness to do so. Yael imagined it asking why a giant monster was in it’s home and had to concede that she was more the interloper than the mouse.

“We’re only here for a little while longer,” she said. “Just put up with us and I’ll leave you some food when we go.”

The mouse glanced away, reviewing its exit options, but stayed frozen in place.

At least until Zyla came in a moment later.

Zyla saw her partner standing in tub, below the dripping shower head, with a towel wrapped around her, and a small mouse sitting in the middle of the small bathroom blocking Yael’s escape.

The rodent turned to look at the new arrival and Zyla locked eyes with it.

“Leave,” she said. Her voice held the annoyance of a royal command and just enough heat to unfreeze the mouse. It flinched in surprise and bolted into the nearest hole in the wall boards it could find.

“My hero,” Yael said, stepping out of the bathtub at last.

Zyla shook her head.

“Truly a fearsome beast to have held you at bay.”

Zyla started to undress, being careful to place her clothes on what few surfaces were both off the floor and relatively clean.

“Did you have any luck tracking down the arms merchant or the ship contractor?” Yael asked as she toweled herself dry.

“Yes and no,” Zyla said, adjusting the water to her preferred, near freezing, temperature. Frosty but clean water gushed from the aging faucet into the tub. “The arms dealer was easy to find. He’s in the city morgue, currently occupying collection bins five through thirteen and awaiting processing. Our ship contractor has fled the planet, for perhaps understandable reasons.”

“And just so I can report on this honestly,” Yael said. “The arms merchant was at the morgue before you found him correct?”

“He hadn’t made any threats against you,” Zyla said. “So yes, that’s an accurate guess on your part.”

Yael wrapped her towel around Zyla and drew her in close.

“What would I do without you to protect me?” she said.

“A lot more damage,” Zyla replied and kissed her on the nose. “Let me get clean though. Morgues aren’t nice places to visit and I can feel the preservatives still clinging to my hair.”

Yael breathed in, inhaling the scent of Zyla’s hair. After a second she wrinkled her nose.

“Yeah, that could use a little shampoo,” she said and released Zyla from the towel grapple.

“We’ll want to hit the Silver Saucer tonight,” Zyla said. “There’s a thread leading back there that resonates with both of our revolutionaries.”

“That’s what I expected,” Yael said. “We tracked them this far separately, but there had to be somewhere their paths crossed.”

“Oh, and one other thing,” Zyla said and beckoned Yael closer.

Given that they could fall back on telepathic communication for secure communication, Yael was puzzled over the need to whisper anything. Puzzled until Zyla pulled her in for a kiss that is.

“Thank you for getting the water running,” Zyla said and pulled away to step into the tub. A series of fortunate (read: Aetherial magic sponsored) accidents had occurred which ensured the delivery of nice fresh water to the otherwise dilapidated hotel. This despite the fact that neither Yael nor Zyla could afford to alert anyone that a new Aetherial caster had arrived on the planet. In Aetherial battles it was often the caster who used the least magic who won, but clean showers were worth the risk of detection.

Yael smiled and touched her lips which buzzed with a pleasant energy. Zyla was still reserved, still quiet and shy in her stern and stoic way, but little by little she was starting to trust the commitment they’d made to each other and take advantage of what that meant.

Yael stepped out of the bathroom before she could let herself be lured into the icy blizzard that Zyla called a shower.

By the time she was done with dressing and a simple set of her daily anima exercises, Zyla was out of the shower too and ready to go over the casefile they’d spent the better part of two weeks assembling.

“This is starting to paint the kind of picture we didn’t want to see,” Zyla said, spreading the key documents out over the spare bed in the small apartment.

“It is but something still feels off,” Yael said. “We’ve got proof of not only mass weapon sales but also capital ships being requisitioned and parked out of system.”

“More that out of the system,” Zyla said. “In direct striking range of two of the neighboring systems.”

“We’re missing a ‘why’ though,” Yael said.

“There’s an obvious answer to that,” Zyla said.

“Yeah. Conquest,” Yael said. “But does that feel right?”

“Consider who you’re asking,” Zyla said. “Do you want the answer I’d like to believe, or that one I was trained to believe from birth?”

“Both,” Yael said.

Zyla looked at her with a raised eyebrow.

“I’m serious,” Yael said. “You don’t have to throw your old life away. It gives you a lot of skills I don’t have, and it made you who you are today.”

“In other words someone I’m trying not to be anymore,” Zyla said.

“As in someone amazing, who’s a lot better than she gives herself credit for,” Yael said, laying her hand on Zyla’s.

There was a time when Yael would never dared to speak so intimately with Zyla. There was a time when Zyla would have instinctively jerked her hand away from the gesture. Yael smiled when Zyla didn’t flinch. The old days were fading away, as old days always do, and Yael liked what the new days were bringing.

“A warlord would find being confined to a single world unbearable,” Zyla said. “Having all of your holdings on one world makes them too vulnerable. Conquest was a necessity for a secure reign.”

“But Uronos has been at peace for close to a century,” Yael said. “Well before the Crystal Empire appeared.”

“That’s true,” Zyla said. “But it’s an unaligned world. The Empire’s rules don’t apply here.”

“Not here, but Barstow Sigma is the closest system and that is Imperial territory,” Yael said.

“Which means an attack there would definitely draw an Imperial response,” Zyla said. “So that won’t be their target. The strong do not attack the stronger.”

“Kremkin’s Reach is the next nearest system and that’s unaligned too,” Yael said.

“A viable target then, except Kremkin’s has a defense treaty with the Empire as well,” Zyla said, finding the dossier on the solar system in question. “Could they think the Empire won’t honor the treaty?”

“Maybe, but that’s a large bet to make and Kremkin’s seems like a poor system to make it for,” Yael said.

“Perhaps not,” Zyla said. “A good warlord doesn’t look at a conquest solely for its own sake. They look for the position it can put them in.”

“And what would conquering Kremkin’s get Uronos?” Yael asked.

“By itself very little,” Zyla said. “Some slaves if the civilians survived, some resources too, but Uronos still has plenty of those to mine from the asteroids and planets of its own system. On it’s own there’s not much reason to move against Kremkin’s, or there wasn’t until half a year ago.”

Zyla passed a folder over to Yael. It was one of the documents that Imperial data analysis techs had forwarded to them this morning so the contents were new to the Crystal Guardian.

“What am I looking for here?” she asked.

“A set of celestial ley lines were discovered recently in near orbit to Kremkin’s,” Zyla said. “They’re long routes but they open up dozens of new ‘neighbor’ systems.”

“So Uronos wants to build an empire of their own and now they’ve got the portals to do it with?” Yael asked.

“Maybe,” Zyla said. “It is a possible motive, but I think you’re right. Something feels ‘off’ about that.”

“For Uronos’ sake, I hope the feeling is correct,” Yael said.

“We can’t let them attack anyone can we?” Zyla asked.

“No,” Yael said. “And worse than that, if they do try to attack Kremkin’s, we’ll have to step in and place them under Imperial censure.”

“Or in other words, conquer them,” Zyla said.

“It’s not as simple as that,” Yael said. “Revoking the government of any planet, independent or otherwise, is considered a cataclysm level event. They’ll lose their independence and there’ll be teams of Imperial Auditors and socio-engineers working on the planet for years after that.”

“I thought the Empire revoked millions of governments though when the Empress swept into control of the galaxy?” Zyla asked.

“That’s the ultra-simplified version of the story,” Yael said. “The reality was much more complex than that. The Empress and her forces didn’t ‘conquer’ most of the worlds in the Empire. There were military actions but those were mostly limited to the most aggressive of the Galactic Warlords and their supporters. Peaceful systems like Uronos were approached diplomatically.”

“The Empire took over systems with diplomacy?” Zyla asked.

“In many cases, yes,” Yael said. “The Empresses forces had, and still have, a tremendous amount to offer member worlds. Especially for relatively poor worlds, becoming a member of the Crystal Empire meant receiving celestial infrastructure they could never have afforded on their own and they were given a voice in galactic affairs when otherwise they would have been ignored.”

“And the ones that refused to join?” Zyla asked.

“They stayed unaligned like Uronos,” Yael said. “The Empresses goal wasn’t to unite the galaxy. She just wanted to stop the stellar scale bloodshed that kept knocking planets back into the galactic dark ages.”

“My father claimed she’d overextended herself and had to pull back to delay the Empire crumbling through her fingers,” Zyla said.

“That sounds like the kind of story a defeated warlord would cling to,” Yael said. “You’ve seen the range that we can patrol though. And that’s with spell casting on a human level still.”

“Well, mostly human,” Zyla said. “They’re still worshipping you on Drexden as the Grand Harvest Goddess.”

“That was such a mistake,” Yael said, shaking her head. “My fake divinity aside though, the Empress and the Prime Guardians are on a whole different level than we are.”

“You’re saying they could subjugate the entire galaxy if they wanted to?” Zyla asked.

“Not subjugate,” Yael said. “From what I’ve seen, the Empress does have limits and removing free will from another seems to be definitely beyond her abilities.”

“That’s inconvenient for a ruler,” Zyla said.

“I’m not sure it’s even fair to call her a ruler,” Yael said. “She’s more a living symbol of the Empire, but when you look at who makes the real decisions, that’s all done by the Galactic Parliament.”

“How does that help us here?” Zyla said.

“It doesn’t,” Yael said. “If anything it puts us back to questioning what the motive for the military build up here could be.”

“With how well this was obfuscated by Aetherial anima, I think we’re left with only one option,” Zyla said.

“The Silver Saucer,” Yael agreed.

Zyla reached for her anima blade and flicked it to life. The deadly red brand hummed in her hands and illuminated her face as she spoke.

“So that means we get to fight it out to see who gets to be the visiting princess and who has to brave the gladiator pits.”

Yael called her blade into her hand from across the room, but the fight had already begun.

The Journey of Life – Ch 17 – Festivals (Part 3)

Darius looked at the rainbow array of crystals on the flight control panel before him. He’d been rated as “Flight Capable” since he was six years old. Originally it had been flight under his own power, thanks to his natural talent at Energetic Anima. Being able to soar through the air like that was an awesome experience but not without its downsides.

Bugs, for example, were not tremendously fun to fly through at a few hundred miles an hour. The same was true of rain storms. And, with rare exceptions (one of which was snuggled up next to him taking an unplanned but much needed nap), flying like that with others involved a lot more lifting and carrying than Darius was comfortable with.

That was why he’d learned to operate as many different sorts of flying craft as he could, an interest which had led to his current role as the team’s warp space pilot.

For a normal flying craft, you needed to worry about only three dimensions. There were controls for pitch, and yaw and while the experience of moving through the air wasn’t one humans had an inherent talent at, it was something they could learn with practice.

Warp flight was a rather different story. The benefit of warp space was that it was both cotangent with regular space but not co-equal. That meant distances in regular space which were measured in light years were sometimes measured in miles in warp space. And sometimes not.

In general, the less mass there was present in an area in regular space, the more condensed the area was in warp space. Or in other words, big empty distances became tiny little gaps.

The problem was they didn’t become tiny little gaps consistently and they didn’t stay tiny all of the time either. In some cases the changes were predictable, in others a potential traveler simply had to react to changes as they occurred.

That was why Darius had dozens of controls in front of him, rather than the handful he would have needed for a flight in regular space. Each smooth polished wooden lever and cool gleaming crystal button controlled a different aspect of the ship’s trajectory. They offered an unbelievable amount of control but at the price of being more than a single human could keep track of.

In that sense, Darius was lucky. He couldn’t have flown the ship alone, and thanks to Fari he didn’t have to. She supplied the navigation and signal processing that a full team was usually required to perform. He, in turn, supplied the physical conduit to the ship and the moment to moment reflexive adjustments while they were in flight.

Together they made a good team.

“How’s it going?” he asked the translucent blue girl, keeping the communication purely on their telepathic link to avoid waking Mel.

“We’re making excellent time,” she said. “We’ve almost entirely around the event horizon for the black hole in the Velar system and after that it’s clear sailing till we reach the spaceport on Nova Helios.”

Blackholes, despite being singularities in regular space, cast huge shadows in warp space and were an inordinately common problem to stumble across (at least compared to the chance of running into one in regular space). Fortunately for travelers they also tended to stabilize warp space in their vicinity, so while they were dangerous to encounter, venturing near them was often safer than following other paths.

“And how about this trip in general?” he asked. “You seemed a bit reluctant when Mel was dragging you out of the planning room, and I can’t imagine the Frog God made this any more appealing.”

“It wasn’t so bad for me,” Fari said. “I didn’t have to deal with getting slimed after all.”

“That sounds like you’re coming around to enjoy this little vacation,” Darius said.

“I have to admit it’s got its appealing points,” Fari said.

“You’ve got holos recorded of the whole frog-thing don’t you?” Darius asked.

“Don’t worry, my blackmail rates are very low,” Fari said.

“Is it wrong that I’m tempted to get into a bidding war with Mel so that Black Team can see the frog holos of her?” Darius asked.

“Only if you win and can’t make your payments,” Fari said.

“I suppose I might have trouble with that,” Darius said. “What with Mel killing me before the holos could get out.”

“Then I’d have a bidding war over who gets to help hide the body,” Fari said.

“I’ll claim a posthumous cut of the proceeds,” Darius said.

“That’s the worst get rich quick scheme I’ve ever heard of,” Fari said.

“I’d say I was a prodigy at making bad plans, but I think this one here,” he nodded at the still sleeping Mel who was slumped against his left arm, “she’d probably try to contest that.”

“Funny how her terrible ideas tend to work out well so often though isn’t it?” Fari asked.

“Yeah, I may be part of ‘Team Engineering’ but I’m pretty sure I don’t have the cleverest brain on this ship,” Darius said.

“You’re brilliant though!” Fari said.

“So all of my test scores claim,” Darius said. “But what you and Mel can do is scary smart.”

“I think I’d rather I wasn’t so scary,” Fari said.

“Is that why Mel dragged us out here?” Darius asked. “Still worried you’re not a real girl?”

“No,” Fari said. “Maybe.”

“You’ve struggled with that for a while haven’t you?” Darius asked.

“It’s a hard question to answer,” Fari said. “There’s so much I can do, but so many things I can’t do too.”

“Do any of them matter?” Darius asked. “I mean who you are isn’t defined by your capabilities.”

“Sometimes I feel like I’m defined by the function I was created to fulfill more than anything else though,” Fari said.

“I see why we’re out here then,” Darius said. “And why Captain Hanq was so eager to have us leave.”

“He thought we were a danger to the ship?” Fari asked.

“He thought the ship was a danger to us,” Darius said. “Or at least to you and Mel, and he knew I’d be miserable without you two around.”

“We tend to get in a lot more trouble away from the Horizon Breaker than we do when we’re on it though,” Fari said.

“Yeah, this is more the danger of burning out,” Darius said. “Neither of you have had a break in years, you’re long overdue for one.”

“That makes sense, but I have to confess, I kind of feel like we’re still on a mission,” Fari said.

“I guess we are, somewhat,” Darius said. “So maybe it’s important that we define the mission parameters well.”

“The original plan was to learn about festivals through first hand experience,” Fari said. “And we’re only a few hours away from the next one Mel had on her list.”

“On a scale of one to ten, and bearing the Frog God in mind, how much are you really up for going to another festival?” Darius asked.

“Honestly?” Fari asked. “Maybe a one, or a one and half.”

“Kind of what I thought,” Darius said. “New destination then.”

“What? Where are you taking us?” Fari asked.

“Do you trust me?” Darius asked. “Because there’s still time for me to get back on the original course if not.”

Fari started to speak, caught herself and then sighed.

“You know, for better or worse, I do,” she said.

“I’m glad,” Darius said. “I spend so much time focused on Mel, that I think I forget to tell you how much you mean to me too.”

“That’s ok,” Fari said. “Sometimes I think I siphon away too much of her time, especially on crazy quests like this.”

“There’s nothing crazy about that taking care of you,” Darius said. “And you know, I’ve never minded the time you two spend together.”

“Why is that?” Fari asked. “I mean, I feel the same way with her and you, but I wasn’t sure if that was just more of my programming.”

“Well, for me it’s pretty simple,” Darius said. “She loves you. Being with you makes her happy. You’re family to her and that’s something she’s needed all her life I think.”

“But you’re her guy,” Fari said. “You’re the one she really loves.”

“The one she ‘really’ loves?” Darius asked. “Have you met Mel? Do you think she’s really only capable of loving one person in the whole galaxy?”

“I don’t think there’s much of anything that’s beyond her,” Fari said. “In the thousands of years I’ve been…whatever I am, I’ve never known anyone like her.”

“Maybe that’s why you two are so well matched,” Darius said. “Because I don’t think there’s anyone as amazing as either of you. And not because of what you can do. There’s lots of people with phenomenal amounts of power. You both have something more than that though. Even without any of your powers, I’d still be blessed beyond measure to have you in my life.”

“What if I’m just a reflection of her though?” Fari asked. “Before I met Mel, I wasn’t…kind.”

“Before you met Mel, you were literally bound in terms of what you could think and do,” Darius said. “I’ve read the reports, even the classified ones.”

“How did you get those?” Fari asked.

“I’m not the brains of this team, but I’m not exactly slow either,” Darius said. “Remember, I grew up on a war planet where slicing into the other sides protected files was considered required subject matter for five year olds.”

“Then you know the kind of things I did,” Fari said.

“And I know the kind of things you’ve done since you gained the ability to chose for yourself,” Darius said. “So I stand behind my assessment. You’re as wonderful as Mel is, and neither of you is a copy of the other.”

“Thank you,” Fari said. “I don’t know why, but that means a lot somehow.”

“You’re welcome,” Darius said.

“But that still leaves one question open,” Fari said. “Where are you taking us?”

“I have no idea!” Darius said.

“How can you have no idea?” Fari asked. “We’re drifting back towards the event horizon of the black hole!”

“That does seem to be the case,” Darius said. He slid an amber crystal a quarter turn clockwise, increasing their displacement from the real space gravitational plane. The ship rumbled in response as it’s hold on warp space grew more tenuous. On his shoulder, Mel grumbled and stirred as well.

With the choice of waking up his beloved when she was likely to be in a cranky state or risking being devoured by an inescapable singularity, Darius made the choice that experience and wisdom agreed was the only viable option.

“We’re closing into a peek slingshot orbit,” Fari said. “I don’t have enough data to plot where we’re going to wind up except to assure you it’s going to be at least halfway across the galaxy.”

“Sounds perfect, doesn’t it?” Darius asked. He wanted to keep the mischievous smile off his face but that it was too hard to fight that and the blackhole’s devouring maw at the same time.

It took a mad genius to handle warp space navigation under most circumstances. The one exception to that rule was when you didn’t care where you ended it. In that case all you needed to be was mad.

“How is being lost somewhere random in the galaxy perfect?” Fari asked.

“Because then we definitely won’t have any missions to work on!” Darius said.

Fari started to object and then paused. Outside the window of the ship, the weird swirls of warp space contracted into impossibly dense coils with the paths beyond them unpredictable by any science, magic or math that she knew. A slow smile spread across her face as a sense of freedom spread through her.

“You know, you just might be on to something,” she said as their ship passed the slingshot point and was hurled away, across the light years, to a place they’d never planned to go.

The Journey of Life – Ch 16 – One More Step

The rain that fell on Targrav carried carried both the cold touch of the day’s misery and the warm memories of past delights. Underneath his gloved fingers, black sand glittered like each grain held a nebula of stars. The faintly shining beach ran down to brilliant azure waves that lit the stormy night with a magical glow that had nothing to do with any spell cast by a sapient.

Targrav had never been to a beach like the one he lay broken on. Across the million, or billion, worlds in the galaxy, he doubted another like it even existed. Despite that, the serenity of that barren stretch called back memories from his earliest childhood.

Midnight swims on a far less lustrous beach with Mera, his best friend and earliest love. Thanks to her, even those early memories sparkled with a light to match the luminance of the otherworldly shore before him.

The rain did nothing to dim the glow of the ocean, or the sparkle of the sands, just as a far distant rain, long before, had done nothing to dim the time he and Mera had spent together. He couldn’t help thinking about her as the warmth in his body faded and a darkness with no connection to the night closed ever inwards around him.

She was above him, above the clouds, above even the night itself, safe and jetting across the vast reaches of warp space. That thought filled him with a fierce heat that the cold rain and the puncture wounds could never touch. It was a heat that could carry his spirit on forever, but unfortunately it offered no support to his body.

The crash had been terrible. They’d hit a storm in warp space that was born from no natural source. Their ship had been forced back to normal space at the perfect spot for the ambush. A distant system, a warp gate close in to a planetary moon. Optimal conditions for attackers to lay in wait for passerby.

Targrav shuddered at the memory of their first sighting of the pirate fleet. Three ships. Broad beamed and running under pure Anima power. No celestial sails for these vessels, just iron plates and engines of fire. Atop the decks of the marauders lay a motley collection of guns and shields that had been scavenged off a dozen better vessels. In place of proper enchanted runes, the pirates had carved crude sayings and blasphemies, as much to inspire themselves as to shock their prey.

Targrav flinched as the storm turned violent. Lightning crashed down from the heavens and split the sea, darkening the waters where it struck them. Thunder followed, booming over the beach and rumbling through Targrav’s flesh to shake his bones. The rage of the clouds was right above him, the storm seeming incensed that he clung to life, despite his injuries and exposure to the elements.

The pirates had screamed in a similar rage. The craft Mera and Targrav flew couldn’t out match even one of the pirate ships, much less three of them. It was a comfortable little bubble boat meant to float on the seas of space and convey the couple to their destination. Mera’s curses couldn’t make it fly faster or dodge more nimbly, but her skills as a pilot almost pushed the little craft’s performance far enough.

As an enchanting engineer, Targrav had known the moment his wife had run to her limit. There were too many bolts, too many beam attacks, too much in the sky to avoid and not enough shielding to cover them. The cascading failure of their meager defenses had left him with only an instant to act and only a single path that he could see.

Warp engines store a tremendous amount of anima. Even for little bubble boats. Without the proper constraining circles, it was still possible to open a portal to warp space but the results were volatile at best. Targrav didn’t have any functional constraining circles to rely on but he also didn’t care if the end result of the transit spells that he cast yielded “energetic” results. All that mattered to him was that the ship’s piloting platform be left in a state where it was capable of acting as a life pod.

In terms of that, every hour of practice he put in, every boring book he ever studied, and every miserable test he ever prepared for finally paid off. The warp portal formed flawlessly. Inside its volume the storm of enemy fire died away, whisked into the aether by the warp portal’s exposed skin.

For a brief moment Targrav felt hope flair that he might reach the flight deck in time but before he could take even a single step in that direction, the warp spell failed cataclysmically, as unbounded warp spells always do.

The explosion rent the bubble ship in half, with the flight deck and what was left of the engines rocketing into warp space and far beyond the reach of the pirates when the engineering deck and the rest of the ship were shot in the other direction, down to the surface of the moon the pirates had made their base on.

It was not an easy descent or an easy landing. The remains of the ship included too many small, sharp objects moving at too high a velocity. Even with the protection of his enviro-suit, Targrav had not been spared.

But neither had the pirates.

The damage the exploding warp portal did to the bubble boat was trivial compared to the effect it had on the three warships.

The pirates were greedy, where proper military tactics were to engage warp capable targets at range, they’d all raced towards the bubble boat, eager to be the first to board, and the first to claim the spoils of plunder.

All three of the warcraft paid for that. Their shields were woefully inadequate to repel a blast of the magnitude that hit them and each popped like a soap bubble. The iron plating they were armored with didn’t fare any better, crumpling to foil and shattered slivers of metal which would have been a danger if any of the pirates had survived being popped and crumpled and shattered themselves.

In the wake of the warp portal’s silent explosion in normal space, there had been only isolation. The remains of the bubble boat had fallen to the surface of the moon, inertial dampening spells struggling to retain their coherency until the impact with the surface dissipated them in one final burst.

The spell burst had saved Targrav from the trauma of the crash landing, a fact for which he would gratefully write a long and heartfelt endorsement for the bubble boat’s manufacturer, except that he could tell from the pain in his side and the numbness in his legs that he wasn’t likely to write anything for anyone again.

All in all though, he felt good. The pain was there but as long as he lay still and let the rain wash over him, the cold helped numb it away. He could picture drifting off to sleep under the rolling, roaring drone of the cloud choked sky. Sleep seemed peaceful and eternal sleep even more so. All he had to do was close his eyes, listen to the thunder and rest peaceful in knowing that Mera was safe.

Pushing himself to a sitting position was agony. Sheer, pointless agony. He was stranded with no ship, no food, no anything on an unexplored moon that was off the standard warp lines and unlikely ever be visited again.

He tried to stand and fell over, fresh waves of pain radiating from the stabbing pain in his side. From his new position, helmet down in the sand, Targrav noticed the faint scent of ozone mixed with the salty tang of the ocean.

The pain was bad but the scents were much worse. The enviro-suit was supposed to be sealed.

Targrav held his breath and looked for the hole but there wasn’t “one” to find. The suit was ripped in a hundred places and the helmet’s visor was missing more pieces than it retained.

On a more positive note, he decided, the air hadn’t killed him in a single breath. Under the circumstances, that didn’t seem to leave him much choice, so Targrav drew in another lungful of air. If the pirates lived here, Targrav hoped the moon’s atmosphere wouldn’t contain anything too toxic. When he didn’t immediately start coughing or choking, he counted the gamble as a victory.

In a few moments, the pain became more manageable and Targrav rolled onto his side. The black nebula sand spread softly beneath him, forming a welcoming bed.

Or a grave.

The thought pushed Targrav back to his knees.

However comfortable the beach was, he couldn’t stay out in the rain.

Strewn around him were pieces of the bubble boat. Bits of glass-steel and fragments of wood. Each was valuable even in their present state, but the thing that caught Targrav’s eye was the smooth and almost intact observation dome from the bubble boat that lay half buried in the sand.

He and Mera had spent many nights together in that tiny space, watching the stars and planning for their future. The cold space outside had done nothing to steal away the warm words they shared or cool the heat of their touch.

Targrav rose again, slower this time, but even more determined. The transparent dome would be cool, the warmth it once held forgotten in destruction of the bubble boat. Even if it was as cold as the rain though, it could protect him. Provide shelter from the wind. Hold in what little body temperature he had left.

The trek across the sands was no more than fifty feet, but it felt like a journey of hours.

With each step, Targrav asked himself what the point of continuing was. Each moment he bought himself was another moment of pain. He knew if the end came like this, if he struggled against it, he’d leave nothing but a messier corpse.

The wind confirmed that belief by spearing through the rents in his enviro-suit and chilling him to the point where he was left trembling.

So much easier to lay down in the soft, inviting sands.

With one wobbling step after another he pushed on though.

The observation dome called to him. It held more than the promise of warmth. It held memories of the future. The one he planned to see with Mera.

Searing pain so bright it eclipsed Targrav’s vision burned through him. He was not all right. Not by any stretch.

But he was alive.

Step by step, faltering, weakening, but always advancing he continued until he rested his hand on the glass-steel dome and discovered it was warm enough to almost burn him through the enviro-suit’s glove.

The ship’s heat had been lost, but the fire of re-entry still lingered in the durable material.

Heartened by that stroke of luck, Targrav eased himself to the ground gently and pulled himself into the dome.

It was shelter. It was all that he had left of home. It was enough for moment.

He rested, blackness sweeping over him for the blink of an eye that lasted either a few seconds or a few hours. However long it was, Targrav felt some of his anima had been restored by the time he opened his eyes. His wounds had worsened, but with the energy he’d recovered and his minimal training in healing magics, he was able to halt the degradation and temporarily deal with the worst of the injuries. Even that small exertion though drained him to the point where sleep overwhelmed him again.

In his dreams, he saw himself, alone on a tiny, forgotten pebble. His struggles for life condemning him to an eternity of loneliness and isolation. Without Mera, he wasn’t sure why he’d fought so hard to continue on.

The storm was raging when he woke next. And the sun was shining.

Targrav took several seconds to fit those two things together in his drained and pain-addled mind before successfully reframing the first of those impressions.

The storm wasn’t raging.

A ship was descending with full thrusters blaring as it screamed into a landing position.

Targrav thought about the pirates and tried to rise. He might have to fight them off.

The ship was on the ground when he regained his senses from falling again and people were running towards him. He struggled to stand once more, but before he could there were reassuring voices and soft hands turning him over so that he could breath more easily.

“This is him,” a woman said. “The enviro-suit matches the description Mera gave us.”

At the mention of his wife’s name Targrav felt new life stir in him. It was either that or the influx of healing anima that the woman sent surging through his body.

“My name is Ilya,” the woman said. “I’m a healer from the Imperial fast response ship Horizon Breaker and we’re here to rescue you.”

“How did you know?” Targrav asked, his voice rough with the damage from sand and wind and rain.

“We got your wife’s rescue beacon signal,” Ilya said. “She jury-rigged it to transmit back both of your locations. Crazy thing I guess. Rescue beacons are the last thing in the world you want to mess around with.”

“Is she safe?” Targrav asked.

“Sort of,” Ilya said.

“What do you mean?” Targrav asked.

“Well, she kind of kidnapped the rescue party we sent for her,” Ilya said. “And stole their ship. She’s about an hour behind us and we’d like you to help us talk her into not breaking any more galactic laws in trying to rescue you.”

The Journey of Life – Ch 15 – The Road Trip (Part 2)

Randos Ovalamech ran faster than he had ever run before. He ran faster than any Ovalamech had ever run in fact. He just didn’t run fast enough.

Not fast enough to reach the escape shuttle that was always prepared to rocket him off the planet. (The bridge leading to it collapsed while he was still a hundred yards away or more.) Not fast enough to reach the communications control room where he could send a call for help. (It exploded when he was a dozen yards away, flinging him to the ground and allowing the invisible beasts that pursued him to gain precious ground.)

He didn’t even run fast enough to make it to grand arch that lead from the Ovalamech estate to the rest of the Ovlopoli, the family’s ancestral capital city. Dark fire roared across the connecting span and drove Randos and his body guards back from the last open path of escape.

“What are these things!” one of the bodyguards screamed.

Randos made a mental note to fire the coward, or better yet, use him as some form of expandable bait. Death benefits could be revoked in the case of gross incompetence on the part of the deceased and as far as Randos was concerned all of his security forces were grossly incompetent for letting an attacking force get the upper hand on them.

“Back to the mansion,” Randos said and waited for his men to proceed him. Leadership was about making decisions. Risk taking maneuvers like venturing first into dangerous territory were for lesser men who could be easily replaced.

“The armory would be more defensible sir,” one of the senior bodyguards pointed out.

Randos made a note to fire him as well. He wasn’t paying the guards to think. Not when he was in command. They were meant to listen and obey. Anything other than that caused delays.

“Back to the mansion,” Randos said, the words issuing from a jaw set tight enough to grind out sparks of rage.

The bodyguards fell into position around him and made haste towards the temporary safety of the mansion. None of them believed they could withstand the attacking force there but even putting up a decent fight might count for something.

“Why has our surveillance not identified the intruders?” Randos asked.

“We can’t pierce their invisibility spells sir,” a bodyguard said.

“And our surveillance was the first area they hit,” another said.

“How is that possible!” Randos clenched his hands and looked to be desperate need of a throat to crush. “Central surveillance is in the heart of the estate.”

“If we can’t see them, maybe they’re fighting us from the inside out?” one of the body guards on the left flank said.

“That would mean going into the mansion would be a really stupid move,” one of the rearguards said.

Randos whipped around, ready to shoot the idiot who dared defy his commands at a time like this. The two men behind him were looking behind themselves. Covering the rear quadrant of the squad as they were supposed too. Except there were supposed to be three men acting as rearguards.

“Who said that?” Randos asked.

“Symmans sir,” one of the rearguard said.

“Where is he?” Random asked.

“I don’t know, he was here a second ago,” the guard said.

“They’re here. Run. Now,” Randos said.

He spared a glance to his left and saw two men running beside him. There were supposed to be three there as well.

“Shields!” he said.

The bodyguard directly ahead of him raised a bubble shield. He was clearly spooked though. The guards were supposed to raise one large shield together, not smaller, individual shields.

In the end it didn’t matter however. One moment Randos watched as a glittering silver bubble sparkled around the lead bodyguard. The next the bubble was wrapped in a shroud of billowing nightsky that seemed to swallow it like a giant maw.

A single scream penetrated the dark cloak and then everything vanished, cloak, shield bubble and the bodyguard.

The bodyguards started firing but that didn’t improve their conditions at all. In the wake of the bolt caster fire, a high, horrific laughter sounded, echoing from around and even within them. Randos flinched when the laughter came from a spot just an inch behind his left ear and he felt a cold hand brush down his spine.

Ovalamech’s don’t scream, they are not unmanned by terror, and they do not beg for mercy. If any of Randos bodyguards tried to deny that, he would have them executed to silence their lying tongues. It was thanks to the courage of the Ovalamech’s in fact, that Randos was able to reach the mansion well ahead of his more fit bodyguards.

Doors, Randos decided, are a convenience accessory for a house. It is perfectly reasonable to forego their use and instead crash directly through the large stained glass windows to the side of a door. The stained glass was, after all, clearly out of fashion and in need of replacement. Also opening the door would take a precious fraction of a second which Randos was not sure he had to spare.

Glass windows are a funny thing though. On the entertainment holos, heroes crash through them all the time and continue pursuing their quarry with nary a pause. From the depictions in the videos, no particular shielding was required to do so safely. Glass, from everything Randos knew, was a mostly harmless substance, meant for decoration and some of the more obscure forms of casting support that the Ovalamech corporation specialized in.

In that sense the stained glass window was an excellent instructor. Its primary lesson was on the difference between “candy glass” and “real glass”. Candy glass, as seen in the holos, breaks into highly photogenic chunks with reasonably blunt edges. Real glass, on the other hand, breaks into a shower of razor sharp spikes that thirst for the blood of the fool who shattered them.

Randos had expected to burst through the window and finally win a race by making it to the hidden room that lead to the subterranean safehold his family had prepared generations before. Instead of that happy day dream though, he found himself faced with the nightmare of skidding across the floor on his face as his legs mysteriously gave out on him.

The mystery was explained a split second later when his body’s pain blockers failed and he was hit by the agony of all the cuts he’d suffered going through the window.

He waited for a pair of breaths for his guards to catch up with him. The prospect of running any further was beyond imagining but they could carry him. He could still be safe!

Any moment.

When his guards arrived.

They would carry him away from this insanity.

And then he would fire them all. Or execute them. Or both. No Ovalamech should ever experience this sort of suffering and it clearly had to be their fault.

But his guards didn’t seem to be coming.

There weren’t any screams.

But there wasn’t any other noise either.

No sound of men running. No sound of weapon fire. No sound of anything except the wind blowing and insects chirping their night calls, unconcerned with the calamity that was befalling Randos Ovalamech.

The door wasn’t far away. It was hidden in the paneling at the other side of the entrance hall that Randos lay in. He’d found it as a child, when he played there with his brother and sister. He wished they were with him still. Mostly so that they could be the ones laying on the floor, shredded by broken glass. But his brother had been too ambitious and too much of a threat not to sell to a cult willing to pay top dollar for royal blood and body parts.

Randos wished he could have done the same with his sister but she was ambitious and intelligent. She had taken over control of the Overmaster Cult the Ovalamechs had used to build their shadow empire. With her power base, Randos couldn’t afford to move against her and with the arrangements they had for sharing power, he had little reason to wish to, aside from ego (so, of course, doing so was always a priority in his mind).

Since she was unfortunately off-world and had been for the better part of the last ten years, Randos decided that hoping to swap places with her wasn’t going to accomplish anything.

Crawling on his hands and knees through the broken glass wasn’t accomplishing much either, but in slow, agonizing increments he drew closer to the wall. As he came within arms reach of the wall, hope surged within him.

He was going to make it.

And then he was going to plot his revenge.

He laughed as a thought occurred to him. He’d never known how horrible broken glass was. He could draw on this experience to punish those who defied him more properly in the future.

As he reached the hidden door, Randos found himself tensing, not in pain, but in anticipation. His guards were removed. Every other avenue of escape had been denied him. It seemed impossible that he would escape at this point.

But then the door opened, its security spells confirming his identity with ease. And he was inside. Safe at last!

“I thought you might have a hidey hole like this,” a woman he’d never seen before said as she literally stepped out of a shadow.

Randos didn’t scream. He definitely did not scream till his was out of breath.

“Are you done?” the woman asked.

Randos nodded. Defiantly. He wouldn’t let this woman make him talk.

“Good,” she said. “Because you’re going to answer some questions for me. Starting with the names of all your sister’s little followers.”

“You want my sister?” Randos asked. “Is she responsible for this?”

“You’re both responsible for this,” the woman said. “She’s been assaulting Abyz and you’ve been supplying her with the weapons and personnel to do so. I want to know why.”

“It was all her idea!” Randos said.

“That doesn’t tell me what I want to know,” Bo said.

“I don’t know why she wanted to do that!” Randos said. “She’s a loose cannon, a pariah, we haven’t met in years!”

“Then why is she using Ovalamech supplies and casters in her assaults,” Bo asked.

“She must have been stealing them!” Randos said.

“Stealing them? From you?” Bo asked. “Ovalamech, do you have any idea how thoroughly we’ve penetrated your operation? We’ve read your entire spell web.”

“That’s impossible!” Randos said. “And…and unimportant. All of our operations are completely above board. We have nothing to hide!”

“Ovalamech, you have Ghost Bombs on these premises with only your bio-signature  set for command access. Those alone are so illegal that I can have you arrested and put away for multiple life times and your trial would take roughly ten minutes to complete,” Bo said. “And we both know that ghost bombs are the least of your crimes.”

“You can’t prove that!” Randos said. “I have people who will testify that you must have falsified the controls! I have lawyers who will eat you for lunch! You can’t touch me!”

Dark mist rose around him, not as a cloud but as dozens of wispy, curling tendrils. The mist didn’t make contact with him but whenever it drew near Randos felt a soul searing cold as his anima was teased out from his control.

“You mistake me Ovalamech,” Bo said. “I could take you to the Imperial courts, but I’m not going to do that. You assaulted my world. You’re never going to get to do that again.”

“You can’t kill me!” Randos said. “I have powerful allies. They’ll destroy you! They’re destroy your whole planet.”

“Oh, I’m not going to kill you either Ovalamech,” Bo said. “I’m going to leave you just like this. Very much alive. Very much in control of your organization. After all this devastation, after being reduced to this state, you’re going to make a full recovery and be left with all the power you had before.”

“What? Why?” Randos asked.

“Because I want your sister to wonder,” Bo said. “I want her to question why someone would go to this much trouble, and then leave you be. I want her thinking about that as we take her cult apart piece by piece, just like we did here.”

“You’ll never manage that!” Randos said.

Nalasi appeared at Bo’s side holding a scroll from deep with the safehold.

“Looks like we’ve got all their names here,” Nalasi said. “Great that this guy showed us where their best bolt hole was.”

“You tricked me!” Randos said. “All of this destruction, it was all so I would come here!”

“Not all of it,” Bo said. “Some of it was to convince your sister that you really had your back up against the wall and had no other choices open to you.”

“She’s going to think I turned on her,” Randos said, horror dawning slowly across his face.

“Not just her,” Bo said. “Everyone in her cult. From the groundling fanatics to your cronies in the inner circle who reap all the rewards from the murder and mayhem you cause. Unless I miss my guess, that scroll has all of their names doesn’t it?”

Randos saw his doom played out clearly before his eyes. The only question in his mind was who would be the one to take him down. No one in the Overmasters would let him live for a betrayal like that, but he had to guess it would be his sister who did the deed. She always preferred the personal touch. Made it easier to be sure the target was eliminated properly.

“You can’t leave me like this!” Randos said. “What can I do?”

“Well, we’re certainly not going to protect you,” Bo said. “But you might try turning yourself into the Imperials. Anyone you provide evidence against will be someone they can arrest for you.”

“But that would destroy my entire organization!” Randos said.

“Or you can let your entire organization destroy you,” Bo said. “Have fun making that choice!”


The Journey of Life – Ch 14 – The Road Trip (Part 1)

Bo Riverstone had conquered many demons in her life, some figurative but some quite solidly literal. Standing in the ruins of an evacuated office building, she found herself struggling to both catch her breath and remember why she’d ever thought her present line of work was a sane one.

“That was the toughest one we’ve encountered so far,” her Mom said. Her mother was spared the necessity of catching her breath due to the fact that she had no body to breathe with in the first place. Echo, as her daughters had taken to calling her, wasn’t unique in the galaxy but as an incarnate spirit bound to a Jewel of Endless Night, she was more than a little unusual.

“They’re appearing quicker too,” Bo said. “At this rate, I don’t think we’re going to be able to keep up.”

“Mel’s one warp space communique away,” Echo said.

“The last time my sister was here, everyone on the planet died,” Bo said.

“They got better,” Echo said.

“Yes, but we don’t have a trio of arch-mage class Aetherial casters to pick up the pieces at the moment,” Bo said. “And anyways with as fast as these malefic spirits are arriving, one more Void caster isn’t going to be enough. We need to fix the problem at its source.”

Bo started to pick a path out of the crumbled building. She kept an eye out for survivors as she climbed from the pit of the buildings sub-basements but from all the reports she’d gotten the building had been fully cleared before she took the fight to it.

Moving through the rubble proved to be a lot harder than creating it had been. The building was one of the old, squat, solid offices with plenty of basement levels excavated for storage. The builders had stayed within the city’s construction codes, so it wasn’t their fault the lowest levels were dug deep enough to allow for an easy transition of a spirit from Beyond Space into the physical world. Bo made a mental note to tell someone in zoning and planning that they needed to update their building codes and check any existing structures that ran as deep as the destroyed office building had.

“I’m sorry, I’ll keep trying,” Echo said. There was tension and regret in her voice. Not all of the incursions had been dealt with as well as this one. With Bo’s early arrival, only a building had been lost this time.

“It’s not your fault Mom,” Bo said. “No one else has been able to find the summoner responsible for these attacks either.”

“No one else has my power,” Echo said. “I should be able to do this.”

“You shouldn’t need too,” Bo said. “The fate weave is supposed to make things like this impossible.”

“It’s not as powerful as it was,” Echo said.

“I know,” Bo said. In part that was her fault. If she’d disagreed with her sister more, if she’d gone all out in her fight against Mel, Bo might have been able to preserve the old form of the fate weave. The stronger form. The one that kept them completely safe at the cost of consuming the lives of those society didn’t see.

Bo climbed out of the last of the wreckage and found her support crew waiting for her. When the Imperial Auditors arrived, they’d been careful with their assessments of the Royal Agents. In a sense the two groups were kindred souls, where the Imperial Auditors were charged with protecting the Crystal Empire though, the Royal Agents held a more limited scope of responsibility; they only needed to worry about the safety of everyone on Abyz.

In the end, the auditors arrested only a small number of the Royal Agents. The rest were placed under the direct command of the Prime Minister and, for the most part, continued working to protect the citizens they had served for years.

“No other incursions reported boss,” Nalasi, Bo’s senior lieutenant, said.

“Or we just haven’t found it yet,” Harios, Bo’s other senior lieutenant, said.

The other casters on Bo’s squad were handling to crowd control and and tending to the people who’d been wounded by the demons initial attack.

“We’ve got enough of a presence here that the caster may be holding back their second for the moment,” Bo said. “Alert Minister Alinaki. If I’m right, another major attack is going to come a lot sooner than we’re ready for.”

“Or a lot farther away,” Echo said.

“What do you mean?” Bo asked.

“We shouldn’t have been able to reach this demon before it tore up most of the city,” Echo said. “I plotted out our incursion points and they’re not random.”

“Why haven’t we seen a pattern to it before this?” Bo asked.

“We’ve been mapping them in two dimensions on a map of the planetary surface,” Echo said. “I don’t think that’s how our summoner is looking at their targets though.”

“They’re picking the spots to attack in three dimensions?” Bo asked.

“Four actually,” Echo said. “They’ve been spaced around the Royal Capital at varying distances and directions, but each incursion has been when one of the three moons is at perigee.”

“Why would the distance to a moon matter?” Harois asked.

“Because interplanetary teleportation is extremely difficult,” Bo said.

“Wait, these monsters are teleporting in from the moons?” Nalasi asked.

“Not by themselves,” Echo said. “If they had the capability to do that, they would flee once the fights turned against them, and all of the invaders have fought the bitter end.”

“Yeah, because they’re spirits and destroying their bodies here doesn’t actually kill them,” Harois said.

“It doesn’t kill them, but it does leave them drained, and banished back to their home plane,” Echo said. “If you think about the kind of place they come from, you can see why that might be a fate worse than death.”

“If the summoner is conducting the spell from the moon that would explain why the fate weave isn’t able to stop them,” Bo said.

“It’s trying its best,” Echo said. “The fact that we were in the vicinity at all, is probably due to its manipulations. If we were deployed based around the suggested pattern of the other attacks, we would have been a hundred miles to the east of the capital.”

“We need to do a couple of things then,” Bo said. “Harios, start interviewing the people who work here. Everyone we evacuated.”

“Sure thing boss,” Harios said. “What am I looking for?”

“Any reason why they might have been targeted by our demon summoner,” Bo said. “If they violated their pattern they were after someone or something. Focus on teleportation detection or prevention research, and ask Minister Alinaki to crank up as many teleportation area denial fields as she can manage for the next few hours.”

“You said we needed to do a couple of things boss,” Nalasi said. “Should I be getting a shuttle prepped for a lunar expedition?”

“Yep, work with Echo on the transit route,” Bo said. “We need to be at their base in under an hour.”

Fifty five minutes later the Royal Space Yacht “Light Tripper” slammed through the walls of a previously undetected structure on the Abyzal moon of Dridos.

“You’re under arrest,” Nalasi called out from inside her space-suit. With the moon, and the base they’d crashed into, being an airless environment, Nalasi’s words carried to the edge of her visor and then to the other space suits she was linked to.

“I think they’ve figured that out,” Bo said.

The Light Tripper had approached under the cover of an invisibility spell. No one inside should have had any warning of their arrival, or of the instantaneous exposure to hard vacuum that accompanied their crash into the building. It wasn’t the friendliest of greetings, but Bo wasn’t feeling in a particular friendly mood.

“Assuming they’re still here,” Echo said. “I’m not detecting any active anima in the building.”

“Stay sharp,” Bo said. “They might be cloaked.”

“Shouldn’t we be too then?” Nalasi asked.

“We’d make terrible bait if they couldn’t see us,” Bo said.

“Aww, this is another bait mission?” Nalasi said. “Why did I draw the short straw this time?”

“It’s the cost of being talented and clever,” Bo said. “People start relying on you and trusting you to have their backs.”

“Note to self; learn to suck more,” Nalasi said.

“Don’t worry,” Bo said as she entered the enemy base. “If a demon eats you, I’ll make sure not to take you along on any more bait missions.”

“You are all heart boss,” Nalasi said, following Bo into the darkened, empty building.

The base showed signs of recent use, but there was a disturbing absence of inhabitants. Bo lead them up to the top of a tall summoning spire which reached out like a vulture’s talon towards the planet far above them. The top floor was entirely crafted from etched glass, walls, ceiling and floors. In the center of the room, a triangle was scored into the floor so deeply that regular runs of it were open to the vast shaft that was burrowed into the moon’s interior. The center of the triangle was an empty circle that was surrounded by etchings inlaid with the bodies of millions of tiny insects. From a distance they formed what looked like a solid black cord that ringed the empty summoning circle and held back the creatures which passed through it.

“Why is there a pit under a glass floor?” Nalasi asked.

“Because this isn’t a tower,” Echo said. “It’s the barrel of a very peculiar gun.”

“They’ve been shooting the demons at us?” Nalasi asked.

“No,” Bo said. “Or not exactly. Look at the roof, there’s the first part of a targeting lens but there’s no armature to hold the other redirection crystal.”

“That’s how they got the demons to appear in places like a basement,” Echo said. “They only need someone to carry the final piece of the lens to their target destination and this spire can form a link to that location.”

“There must be similar structures on the other two moons then,” Bo said.

“I’m already calling it in boss,” Nalasi said. “I’ll have the Royal Navy sweep them clean.”

“Why would someone do this?” Echo asked.

“Because they think they can get Abyz back,” Bo said, pointing to the great sigil carved into the glass floor. “Before the Queen’s reign, before the original fate weave, Abyz threw off the rule of a fanatic Warlord family that called themselves the Overmasters. That’s their symbol.”

“That was a very long time ago. Is it them or someone who’s borrowing their insignia?” Echo asked.

“It doesn’t matter,” Bo said. “If they have the resources to build a place like this, then they’re a threat in either case.”

“Speaking of threats,” Nalasi said. “I think there’s one that we need to turn our attention to sooner than later.”

“You’re thinking about what’s at the bottom of the pit?” Bo asked.

“If the top of the spire is the transport mechanism, then the bottom will be where the portal to the demon’s home realm is,” Echo said.

“Yeah, the question is just how secure is that portal?” Nalasi asked.

From deep below them the answer rose in the sound of the beating of hundreds of wings.

“They don’t really have a good sense of who their dealing with,” Bo said. “Mom, would you like to handle this?”

“Certainly,” Echo said.

The black lightning that lashed down onto the surface of the Moon lancing through the building and the land around it. Mind anima directed the lightning to seek out each of the thousand demons that were rising up the barrel of the summoning spire. Void anima moved the lighting through the shadows of solid matter to so that the monsters couldn’t hide from Echo’s wrath. Physical anima and Energetic anima ripped apart everything the lightning sought out and Aetherial anima ensured that none of the demons escaped its touch.

“That’s not what that Jewel used to do is it?” Nalasi asked.

“I’ve modified it some,” Echo said.

“That’s good,” Nalasi said and inched away from Echo. “What’s our next move?”

“First we close the portal below us for good, then we track down the Overmasters,” Bo said.

“They’ve almost certainly left the system by now,” Echo said.

“I know, and it’s a big galaxy to hide in, but I know some clever and talented people who haven’t been eaten by demons yet, so I think we’re going to find them and give them a reminder on why they want to leave us alone,” Bo said.