Monthly Archives: July 2015

The Journey of Life – Ch 30 – Inherit the Stars (Part 1)

Fast Response ships were not the place for children. While the Horizon Breaker wasn’t, technically, a warship, it logged more combat time than a half dozen planetary navies combined. Plasma arc spells so routinely pounded its shields that during hull repairs the crew worked around the more interesting ones to produce a mural of battle damage on the ship. Concussion waves slammed through the structure so often that every chair was enchanted with its own tiny capture field to help the crew remain seating through the worst battle storms. Boarding actions were rare for the ship to suffer, but that didn’t mean the internal corridors weren’t laden with more traps and counter-intrusion spells than most Royal Palaces.

“There is no sane reason I should let you back onboard this ship,” Hanq said. His words would have carried more weight if he wasn’t speaking to Mel’s back as she settled two tiny infants into their crash-cradles.

“I agree,” she said. “It’s selfish and short-sighted of me to demand this of you.”

“Your family is going to be in too much danger…wait, what did you say?” Hanq asked.

“I said it’s selfish of me to come here,” Mel said. “I’m exposing the crew and the ship to danger that they have no part in.”

“Exposing us?” Hanq said. “No, that not…what are you talking about?”

“I think my baby shower gift for her didn’t last quite as long as I hoped it would,” Fari said, appearing behind him.

“It got us through the first six months,” Mel said. “That was a godsend. Really it was.”

“What baby shower gift?” Hanq asked.

“Do you remember the mission we had to Bleakwater half a year ago?” Fari asked. “Ilya and I were piloting doppelgangers of Mel and Darius and we let their ‘killer’ get away?”

“Yes,” Hanq said. “I thought that was resolved though. Guardian Blackbriar filed a report five weeks later saying she’d led a force to apprehend the cultists that were targeting Mel.”

“Master Raychelle is good, amazing even, but it looks like our friendly little death cult is a bit more widely distributed than we knew,” Mel said.

“We kind of suspected that,” Fari said. “The problem was we saw their agents moving against seven other women whose children could fulfill their prophecy. We had the choice of acting on what we knew or letting those women die to draw out a bigger piece of the cult.”

“You did the right thing stopping them,” Mel said. “And thanks to your warning, Darius and I were able to turn over the thirty cultists who tried to blow up the city we were in to the authorities on Titanus.”

“And that’s why you need us to ferry you in for an Imperial Review?” Hanq asked.

“That’s the first thing I need you for,” Mel said. “The review should come up clean though. I’ve been through enough of them now, and no one important hates me at the moment, and this was so clearly in self-defense that I’m not worried about the verdict.”

“But you’ll need a place to stay afterward,” Fari said. “Somewhere safer.”

“Right,” Mel said.

“And where would that be?” Hanq asked. “This ship is fast but I’m not pulling a crazy black hole slingshot maneuver like the one you three did.”

Mel laughed and Hanq’s blood ran a little colder. It wasn’t a joyful laugh, it was a gleeful one. The kind of laugh someone makes when they get to give someone else news that the someone else is almost sure not to enjoy, but which they may, perhaps richly, deserve.

“We were hidden away on Titanus pretty well,” Darius said. “We arrived in secret, and we stayed hidden away in my parents house for most of the time we were there.”

“Which, to be fair, with two babies isn’t hard to do,” Mel said.

“Even with my Dads’ connections, and Mel’s magical stealth capabilities though, they found us,” Darius said.

“Thirty of them?” Hanq asked.

“Yeah, they really should have sent more,” Mel said.

“More?” Hanq asked.

“Mel’s had some frustrations she’s needed to work out,” Darius said.

“I still think you should have let me burn that diaper factory to the ground,” Mel said. “Seriously, the rashes from those things were just…” She made an unintelligible growl of anger and disgust that no one else in the room wanted to dig any deeper into.

“Galen and Kai have fully recovered from that ordeal,” Darius said.

“I think she still wants to hit people,” Fari said.

“I restricted myself to the people who tried to blow up my city,” Mel said. “I feel I deserve a world of credit for that.”

“And instead you get to sit before a review panel and defend your actions,” Fari said.

Mel sighed.

“Like I said, that part doesn’t bother me. It’s nice to deal with people who can cut through lies like a knife through paper. They ask the questions, I give the answers, and none of us wind up turning into the kind of people who would try to blow up a city in order to specifically kill two helpless children.”

“You did bring the cultists in alive didn’t you?” Hanq asked, hearing the anger that still lingered in Mel’s voice.

“Yes,” Mel said. “Not undamaged, but alive.”

“We have a guard posted on them on Titanus and an Imperial prison transfer ship en route,” Darius said. “Since these people are affiliated with a branch of the cult we haven’t encountered before there’s potentially a lot we can learn from them.”

“Enough to take down the rest of the cult?” Hanq asked.

“Doesn’t seem likely,” Mel said. “Fari’s plan was an excellent one, but this cult is very compartmentalized. I’m betting we’ll need to spend years tracking them all down, and even then we’re likely to miss a few until their galactic apocalypse comes to pass.”

“Why are they so fixated on your children?” Hanq asked.

“They know we spoke to Kai back before she was born,” Mel said. “That’s right in line with part of the vision they receive, hence she’s a high priority target for them.”

“They don’t know exactly who will cause the calamity that they’ve foreseen to come about so they don’t take any chances,” Darius said. “Any viable candidates they can find are eliminated.”

“We’re especially likely to be the targets they’re looking for thanks to some work that Yael and Zyla did,” Mel said.

“I thought that was supposed to be temporary!” Hanq said.

“It was,” Mel said. “I asked them to leave the changes they made in place though.”

“Why would you do that?” Hanq asked.

“Because every thread of fate that leads to Galen and Kai is a thread that doesn’t lead to another expectant mother,” Mel said. “And all of the threads run to me before they go to either of the twins. If these idiots want my kids they are literally going to have to come through me first.”

“And that’s why we want to move back in here,” Darius said.

“Move back in here? I thought you’d found a safer place to live?” Hanq said.

“They did,” Fari said. “Here. With us.”

“This ship isn’t a safe place,” Hanq said.

Mel took Hanq’s hands in her own and looked her old teacher in the eyes.

“Nowhere is safe,” she said. “I could cut all of the lines of fate that surround us and we could go live on the most remote planet in the galaxy and we’d still never be safe. But that’s ok, that’s not what life is.”

“This is a far cry from the most isolated planet in the galaxy,” Hanq said. “We fly into the danger that other people run away from.”

“Because we know that we can fly out again,” Mel said. “We’re not martyrs Hanq. We help people because we can, and we can because we work together. As good or better than anyone else in the galaxy. I’m not coming here because I want you to run away with us and keep us safe. I’m here because I’m going to take the fight to this cult and all of the other ones out there that I can find and there’s no one I’d rather have at my side while I do that than you and the people on this ship.”

“So you’re not just coming back as passengers then?” Hanq asked. “You’re here in your official capacity as a Crystal Guardian?”

“Yes, and no,” Mel said. “Yes, I am still a Crystal Guardian, with all of the responsibilities that comes with the position. But I could give that up.”

“There’s a general clause for any Crystal Guardian who needs to go on inactive duty to raise a family or for medical leave,” Darius said.

“I’m not here as a Crystal Guardian though,” Mel said. “I’m not making this as a formal request because this isn’t an Imperial matter. This is you and me.”

“Then I should probably say no,” Hanq said. “I grew up in this world Mel. It made me someone I spent years learning not to be before I met you.”

“That’s why I’m asking this of you,” she said.

“You don’t get it,” he said. “The twenty year old me? The guy I was then? I wasn’t a Warlord because I was nice, or because I was wise, or because I was strong. You don’t get to be that kind of person without being mean, and vicious and more broken in the head than anyone should ever be. I got lucky I got beat when I did. And how I did. Even with the stars aligning just perfectly, it still took years before I was able to pull things together and look myself in the mirror again.”

“But you did,” Mel said. “You’ve made that journey, you’ve paid that price. Do you think you shouldn’t be around kids? Do you think the environment you’ve created here isn’t the right place for them?”

“Of course it isn’t,” Hanq said. “Those two little ones shouldn’t be raised on a warship, surrounded by catastrophes and violence and fear. They should be raised somewhere quiet and peaceful and happy. Somewhere with open skies and a good environment. Somewhere with good people around.”

“Do you hear how often your crew laughs?” Darius asked. “I’m not talking nervous laughter or gallows humor. I heard plenty of that on Hellsreach. I’m talking about the real, happy to be alive, happy to be here doing what they’re doing sort of laughter. The Horizon Breaker may not be quiet or peaceful, but you’ve made this ship a happy place when things are under control.”

“And how often do we have things under control?” Hanq asked. “We move from problem to problem. That’s our job.”

“And we’re good at it sir,” Fari said. “I could pretend to be modest here, but the reality is we get sent in to do deal with problems other people can’t because we’ve proven we’re capable of doing so. Some of that comes from the Imperial grade equipment we have, some of that comes from the unusual skill sets the crew possesses but by my analysis most of the reason we do so well is that everyone works together as a team. I’m not saying we don’t get into hairy situations, but a lot of the time we keep our strengths hidden and let things look worse than they really are so that we can get to the source of the problem we’re facing rather than just dealing with a symptom of it.”

“You know the reason we work so well together is that I recruited most of this crew from my old band of retainers, right?” Hanq asked. “Are those really the sort of people you want to raise your children around?”

“Yes,” Mel said. “I want Kai and Galen to grow up around people whose focus in life is helping others. People who are brave, and giving and maybe not entirely slaves to following the rules. You might have recruited a crew of scallywags Captain Okoro, but they’re my kind of scallywags.”

“You don’t know what you’re getting yourself into here,” Hanq said. “Kids raised by a crew that’s just short of being pirates are going to turn out to be a terror.”

“I’m counting on it,” Mel said. “It’s how I was brought up after all, and I think the guy who raised me did a pretty amazing job of it.”

The Journey of Life – Ch 29 – Disparate Callings (Part 4)

Mel woke to darkness and screams and the smell of smoke. Forcing her heavy eyelids open she saw what looked like the after effects of city busting bomb. Clothes were strewn all over the place. Around and underneath their garments, piles of vague clutter were clumped in unrecognizable shapes in the dim starlight that filtered into the small room.

Ten thousand miles away, voices were crying out, their owners bereft of all hope of surviving the monsters of deepest night that surrounded them. Mel struggled to drag herself out of a fatigue that had filled her bones in place of the marrow and that coursed through her veins in place of the blood they should have held. Dragged down by sleep’s legion of hands, her brain desperately sought to understand the cacophony that surrounded her.

All had been quiet and normal when she lay down, and yet everything was loud and horrible as she awoke. She wound a thread of Physical anima between her fingers to claim the jolt of energy she needed to claim full consciousness but was stopped by a single thought. Just one glorious, wonderful realization.

“It’s your turn to get up for the twins,” Mel said without the slightest trace of remorse as she poked Darius.

Watching him wake was comical enough that staying awake held some appeal.

But not as much appeal as the blissful embrace an all-consuming slumber offered.

She smiled as she drifted back to sleep in Hector and Osgood’s home on Titanus. Tomorrow would pose new challenges, but she was already recovering from the frankly epic labor the twins put her through and she knew her little family would be able to meet those challenges.

Millions of light years away, another part of Mel’s little family was busy cackling with evil glee as she watched a killer hard at work.

Fari had assembled Captain Okoro, Yael, Zyla, Bo and most of the Chinuri delegation on the bridge of the Horizon Breaker. On a view screen in front of them they watched the Junior Tactical Delegate “successfully” disenchant the lock to crew quarters where “Mel” and “Darius” were sleeping. The Junior Tactical Delegate was someone who had been content to fade into the background throughout their entire discussion. The few remarks he’d made had been solidly in support of the Senior Tactical Delegate who took the lead for most of the conversation, so it was easy to pass off the younger delegate’s silence as being due to respect for his mentor.

Watching the delegate creep into Mel and Darius’ room an alternate interpretation played out in most of the observer’s minds.

“He came along on this mission to kill them?” the Senior Tactical delegate whispered in disbelief.

“I don’t believe so,” Yael said.

“Right,” Zyla said. “The attack on the space liner was shielded from Aetherial foresight. There was no warning it would occur, so he couldn’t have been planning for this.”

“What we’re watching is an opportunistic attack,” Fari said. “He has access to someone his masters thought they wouldn’t be able to get anywhere near.”

The Junior Tactical delegate stepped into the room and closed the door. Once he was concealed from the hallway, he produced an ornamented cylinder from inside his robes.

“What is that?” the Chief Financial delegate asked.

“An anima blade,” Captain Okoro said. “I find watching this disagreeable. Can we end this now or do these delegates really need to see blood spilled?”

“They won’t believe it without confirmation,” Fari said. “So far all our assassin is guilty of is being a creepy trespasser.”

Hanq scowled and turned away from the display. He understood what was really happening but that didn’t make it any easier to bear.

When the Junior Tactical delegate struck, he was at least clean and precise about it. In three quick motions everyone in the room beside himself bore fatal injuries. Fari adjusted the low light vision on her sensing spell to show the results of his work. He hadn’t sent a warning, or showed any mercy. There was no chance a healer was going to undo the damage that he’d wrought on his victims

With a horrifying, and clinical sort of detachment, the Junior delegate sheathed his blade and collected samples from his victims. From their room, he proceeded to the ship’s aft where the docking bays were.

“You are monstrous,” the Lead delegate said. “How could you let him slaughter your crew like that? Just to prove a point to us?”

“You had to believe,” Fari said.

“We would have believed you after he entered their room,” the financial delegate said. “Or certainly after he drew his blade. There was no need for anyone to die here.”

“No one has,” Fari said. “Not yet anyways. Ilya will you collect our doppleganger bodies and bring them up to the bridge?”

“Yes sir,” the ship’s Chief Medical Officer said.

“What is this?” the Senior Tactical delegate asked.

“Proof for you,” Yael said. “That we can protect our citizens.”

“And that our assassin truly believed that he was killing Imperial personnel,” Fari said.

“This was all theater?” the Senior Tactical delegate said.

“Yes,” Fari said. “But your Junior delegate was no more in on it than you were. The role he played was one he chose for himself.”

“I don’t understand why he wanted to kill your personnel though?” the Financial delegate asked.

“Because the real version of me is carrying a special child,” a woman who looked like Mel said. Behind her stood a man who looked like Darius and Ilya, the ship’s Chief Medical Officer who had repaired the bodies to their original undamaged state.

“How is this possible?” the Lead delegate asked.

“They’re doppelgangers,” the Senior Tactical delegate said. “Although magic puppets might be a better name from what I can see. Who’s controlling them, the anima threads are a beastly tangle to make out?”

“Commander Ilya and I are both controlling them,” Fari said. “She handles supplying them with the Physical anima they need to maintain those forms and move around while I direct their movements and speak for them.”

“Like this,” Far said, through the false Mel’s mouth.

“That explains why you would let this play out as it did,” the Financial delegate said. “But I’m still lost on why it all occurred in the first place. How is this child you speak of special?”

“She’s a potential subject of a prophecy which a rather far flung death cult has been murdering people over for quite a while,” Bo said.

“At the moment, she’s not a potential subject, she is the only subject of the prophecy,” Zyla said.

“You should know that the creature which destroyed our space liner is at the other end of that prophecy,” Yael said. “We learned that because it made the mistake of coming close enough to us for Zyla and I to catch some of the Aetherial threads that were left in its wake.”

“Somehow it seems Commander Fari deduced that too,” Zyla said.

“We’ve been expecting someone to take another shot at Mel and Darius for a while,” Fari said. “The cult pursued us very aggressively until we got back to the Horizon Breaker, and it didn’t seem like they were going to give up that easily.”

“So you were working off of a hunch?” Zyla asked.

“When an unexpected distress call came in from the two of you, and I heard that we’d have a number of passengers with special privileges on board, plus you’d had an encounter with the kind of creature referred to in the prophecy, it wasn’t hard to put things together,” Fari said. “Also, I trusted there was an excellent chance that you’d engineered the events after the wreck and were trying to get as much return on the disruption as you could, by drawing together the key players to one location.”

“You sought to profit from our distress?” the Lead delegate asked.

“They worked to salvage as much as they could from a calamity,” Bo said.

“That is unacceptable!” the Lead delegate said. “We are not pawns for your little games.”

“You were never pawns,” Fari said. “You were closer to lab rats.”

“What do you mean?” the Senior Tactical delegate asked.

“We knew that one or more of you were servants to the organizations we are investigating,” Fari said.

“But we didn’t know which of you that might be,” Yael said.

“So you used my sister as bait to lure out the cultists you were after?” Bo asked.

“What?” Fari asked. “No, your sister is perfectly safe. We used her doppelganger here to lure out the assassin we were expecting and send the cult a message.”

“What message?” Bo asked.

“Mission accomplished, the threat is neutralized,” Fari said. “The easiest way to get a death cult to lose interest in you is if they think they’ve already managed to kill you.”

“Well, that’s a viable strategy for this death cult at least,” Zyla said.

“Why all the theater for us though?” the Financial delegate asked. “We could have been informed much earlier as to what was about to transpire.”

“That would have been an option,” Fair said. “Except that there’s still one question that remained unanswered.”

“Why was the assassin in our ranks in the first place?” the Senior Tactical delegate asked.

“Exactly that,” Fari said.

“We could ask him, but it appears that he has sabotaged the security locks on the ship’s fighters and is exiting the docking bay in command of one of them,” Bo said.

“It took him long enough,” Fari said.

“I thought Imperial spellcraft was second to none,” the Financial delegate said. “How did he overcome your security.

“He found a hole in it at one of the unused access tubes for the docking bay,” Fari said. “Fortunately he didn’t seem to notice that the security spells on the access tube had been rendered inert a few seconds before he found it.”

“You let him escape?” the Lead delegate asked.

“Of course,” Fari said. “We need him to report in and provide the tissue samples to his higher ups. They won’t believe that his mission was a success without that.”

“Also, we have various contagious tracking spells on him,” Yael said. “So once he makes contact with his superiors, we’ll be able to track them as well.”

“Within a few months we’ll have their entire organization outlined and should be able to move against it all at once,” Zyla said.

“How does that help us understand why he was here though?” the Financial delegate asked.

“By giving him only a short window of time to act within, we were able to force him to leaves his principal gear behind in his room,” Fari said. “As soon as he entered Guardian Watersward’s room, I instructed the crew to seize his belongings.”

“You suspected he’d be carrying a toxin?” Yael asked.

“It seemed likely,” Fari said. “His attack on Mel and Darius with the anima blade would have been suicidal against any of the other delegates because none of them were planning to sleep tonight.”

“If he planned to kill us all, perhaps suicide was a viable option for him?” Lead delegate asked.

“I don’t believe so,” Fari said. “That he planned to kill us all. He had opportunities and passed them up.”

“Perhaps he was waiting for the right time?” the Senior Tactical delegate said.

“Or the right person,” Fari said. “Like us, he didn’t know who his target was.”

“How can you know that?” the Financial delegate asked.

“Because he had plenty of opportunity to eliminate any of the other delegates or the Imperials when the space liner was destroyed and he didn’t strike then,” Fari said.

“So who was he looking for?” the Senior Tactical delegate asked.

“A traitor to the Chinuri.” Fari said. “If you read his personnel file, you’ll see that he is very devoted to your world. I would guess that’s why he became involved with the death cult in the first place.”

“He wanted to kill anything that would threaten his home,” Bo said.

“How did you gain access to his personnel file?” the Financial delegate asked.

“We’ll talk about your abysmal spell web security later Ambassador,” Fari said.

“Why would he want to kill one of us though?” the Senior Tactical delegate asked. “We represent the hope for the Chinuris’ future.”

“All of you except for one it looks like,” Fari said. “Guardian Clearborn, can you trace the link between the poison in the assassin’s room and the delegate it would have been administered to?”

“I already have,” Yael said. “Chief  Ambassador, you are under arrest.”

“You must be joking,” the Lead delegate said. “I am not subject to Imperial law.”

“I make this arrest under Chinuri law,” Yael said. “You are the one the assassin was here to kill, and I’m wondering if perhaps we shouldn’t have let him.”

“This is ridiculous,” the Lead delegate said. “What possible reason would he have to kill me.”

“Because you are a senior member of the Red Running River and you’re here to ensure that our attack does not go off as planned,” Yael said.

“That’s preposterous!” the Lead delegate said. “What proof do you have?”

“We said we were going to give you access to our comm net,” Hanq said. “Did it not occur to you that we might notice who it was you called?”

“We can give the rest of you a full set of transcripts of the calls if you like,” Fari said.” This is my favorite bit though.”

The holo image shifted to a view of the Lead delegate in his room speaking with another Chinuri. After a second, audio sprang up to expand on the visuals.

“The Empire is launching their full strike tomorrow,” the holo-image of the Lead delegate said. “But they’ve sent in a special operations team early. Be on the look out for them.” the Lead delegate said.

“We’re transferring the contents of the base to our primary fallback position now sir,” a man wearing the emblem of the Red Running River said.

“Good,” the Lead delegate said. “Do it quickly and then get out of there too. If they find nothing they may not look around here for many years to come.

“By the Rushing of the Red!” the holo of the River cultist said.

“By the Rushing of the Red!” the holo of the Lead delegate echoed.

“This is ridiculous,” the Lead delegate said. “Those could have been forged!”

“You may wish to try that argument at your trial, but by then the Chinuri Police will have been able to unearth more details surrounding who your really are.” Fari said. “I’m streaming them the information on where they need to look into already.”

“These are serious charges,” the Senior Tactical delegate said.

“With serious consequences,” Yael said. “Consequences that could be lessened if the Ambassador was to direct the River forces on Bleakwater to stand down.”

“Before you spout off any angry bluster denying your ability to do that Ambassador, please take a look at these reports,” Fari said and had “Mel” hand the ambassador a viewing glass. “You’ll find the names and connections of every River member on Bleakwater in that report, including the several hundred of them who are under your direct employ. That report is being transmitted to the Chinuri congress as we speak. By my count that gives them close to five thousand solid cases to prosecute.”

“In case you haven’t received your daily report, there are only thirty nine hundred River personnel left on Bleakwater,” Zyla said. “Fari is including the one’s who’ve already escaped off-world in the number of those who we are tracking.”

“I’m missing why a member of this death cult you spoke of would be targeting a member of the River?” the Financial delegate said.

“This particular death cult isn’t obsessed with death,” Fari said. “They’re killing off people they believe may trigger a galactic scale apocalypse. In their own minds I think they believe they’re making the hard decisions the Empire won’t in order to keep people safe.”

“How does that align with the River?” the Senior Tactical delegate asked.

“The Red Running River is part of a consortium of other cults dedicated to overthrowing the Crystal Empire,” Yael said. “Their ultimate aim is to hasten the arrival of creatures called the Galactic Devourers.”

“They believe the arrival of beasts like that, while the Empire is still in its early stages, will be enough to overwhelm the Empress and return the galaxy to a state ripe for them to move in and assume control,” Zyla said.

“That’s insane,” the Senior Tactical delegate said.

“What are you going to do about it?” the Financial delegate asked.

“Be ready for them,” Fari said.

The Journey of Life – Ch 28 – Disparate Callings (Part 3)

Fari watched the Chinuri delegation leave the conference room, each scheming their own schemes, each blissfully unaware that there was a traitor in the group working at a cross-purpose to their own.

Fari couldn’t see the lines of fate that ran between the delegates. She couldn’t see which were slated to die before the night was over or which would stand victorious over the ashes of their opponents. Even with all her many-revealing spells and razor sharp senses, the exact makeup of the delegate’s psyches were a mystery to her.

In part that was because they were protected by diplomatic immunity from the best of her more probing spells and in part it was because each of them was a career politician, so merely being aware that they were lying didn’t do much to explain what they were lying about or why.

“And that’s why we need to experiment on them,” Fari said, presenting her case to her boss.

Captain Hanq Okoro steepled his hands over the bridge of his nose and took a moment to consider his Tactical Chief’s recommendations.

The Chinuri that were onboard hailed from a world outside Imperial sovereignty. The Empire wanted them to join the Galactic Parliament and the Chinuri wanted that as well. For various reasons however it had taken over a decade to broker a deal which would allow that to happen.

Experimenting on the latest round of delegates was unlikely to be well received by the Chinuri Planetary Congress and under normal circumstances was something that would never have even been suggested much less entertained as a serious option.

Hanq hadn’t been blessed with a life where he was allowed to live under “normal circumstances” often though.

“What sort of experiments do you have in mind?” he asked Fari.

“Just one,” she said. “I want to see how they react to learning who Mel and Darius are. And who their child might be.”

“That’ll put Mel and Darius in danger won’t it?” Hanq asked.

“Possibly,” Fari said. “If my guess is correct someone will try to kill them before the night is up.”

“You do recall that with all that’s been going on, they are both more delicate than normal, right?” Hanq asked.

“Yes, I can hardly forget that can I?” Fari said.

“And you don’t think that will be a problem for your experiment?” Hanq asked.

“It might even work in its favor,” Fari said.

“Will you get what you need out of this plan?” Hanq asked.

“Definitely, even if Mel and Darius are killed, we’ll have it all recorded for later analysis,” Fari said.

Hanq sighed.

“Why do you never bring me plans that I like?” he asked.

“Because you’re the captain,” Fari said. “You only like plans that put you in danger, and those are terrible plans.”

“Leading was so much easier when I was Warlord,” Hanq said. “Worst thing I had to worry about then was being killed by an underling.”

“I could make daily attempts on your life if that would make you feel better?” Fari asked.

Hanq laughed.

“You know, I might just take you up on that,” he said. “Keep me from getting too old and soft.”

“One way or the other,” Fari said. “But the question remains; can I experiment on the Chinuri?”

“I know I’ll regret this, but I’m curious to know what’s going on here too, so yes. You may provide them with the rope they need to hang themselves,” Hanq said. “And if by some miracle this doesn’t blow up in all of our faces, I’ll see that you receive a commendation for the work you’re doing.”

“Commendations are unneeded sir,” Fari said. “This is all part of my gift to Mel.”

“I will never understand you two,” Hanq said.

“I think that’s ideal for helping you sleep at night sir,” Fari said.

Hanq waved her off with a shake of his head.

Out in the corridor, Fari stumbled upon the next person she wanted to talk with.

“We’re going to hold some emergency negotiation sessions with the Chinuri delegates before the action against the River base,” Yael said. “Can I call on you to be there for logistical support?”

“I believe you can,” Fari said. “I have a wide variety of information relevant to their discussion.”

“That exactly what we need,” Yael said.

“Are the delegates assembling now?” Fari asked.

“Yes, we wanted to give them as much time to work the information as possible,” Yael said.

The two women smiled at each. Each had their own plans in place and, as they’d expected, those plans dovetailed together quite nicely.

The conference room was abuzz with chatter when Fari entered it. She walked in through the door rather than simply appearing within the room so as not to remind the delegates of exactly how much of a presence she had throughout the ship.

In a sense, she was the most confined of anyone on board. She lived within her gem and was bound to wherever it was taken. If someone stole the gem, they effectively stole her. At one time that bothered her, despite knowing that most people were just as stuck within their bodies as she was in her gem and kidnappers stole people all the time so she was at no greater risk there either. Over the years of working with Horizon Breaker’s crew though, things had changed.

Fari was thousands of years old by one measure, but it hadn’t been until the Jewel of Endless Night that was her body was destroyed that she truly started to live again. For the millenia that she’d been bound as the control spell for the Ravager, she’d been held in its stasis. With the bindings broken, she’d freed of more than the slavery that it imposed on her. She was free to change. As all living things do.

Change wasn’t easy of course, but looking back, especially to the odyssey she, Mel, and Darius had recently undertaken, Fari was finally starting to the see the signs that other people had been telling her about for years.

“Ambassadors, if you could take your seats please,” Zyla said. “As you know, we are fast approaching our target and there is much that we are sure you will want to discuss.”

“Yes,” the lead delegate said. “Foremost of which is how you will guarantee the safety of the Chinuri citizens on the planet during your assault.”

“I’ll take that question,” Fari said. “We have several highly trained Advanced Operations teams on board the Horizon Breaker. While we will be waiting for proper support to show up by tomorrow to launch a full scale lockdown of the Red Running River’s base, the initial covert assault on them will begin within a few hours.”

“A covert assault?” the senior tactical delegate asked. “You can’t possibly hold a contingent large enough for that on this ship.”

“It takes fewer people than you might think,” Fari said. “One of our team leaders is an experience Void anima caster.”

“Is she still leading the team?” Bo asked. She was observing Fari carefully, searching for the clues that Fari had to prevent her from spotting for the time being.

“Not directly, but she will be overseeing the mission,” Fari said.

“I would think we should meet with this mission director,” the lead delegate said. “I would prefer to hear the plans from her directly if she is the one who will be responsible for any accidents which occur.”

“I can send for her,” Fari said. “But Black Team reviewing their initial assault plans now. Is it critical that she be part of this?”

“Yes, I believe so,” the lead delegate said. “Or are the lives of my people only a secondary concern?”

The bald-faced belligerence of the lead delegate’s tone was nothing more than a tactical play to wrest control of the meeting from the Imperials. Fari knew this. Yael knew this. Everyone in the room knew it, but the game still had to be played.

“Of course not,” Fari said. “She’ll be with us in a moment.”

“Won’t that impact the raid though?” the delegate for financial oversight asked.

“Her team is very well coordinated,” Fari said. “They can handle most of the review process without her.”

“Be fair, they can handle all of the review process on their own,” Mel said, walking into the room with Darius close behind her. “I just like to keep up the appearance that they need my help still.”

“Guardian Watersward, the Chinuri delegation,” Fari said, introducing the room.

“You seem to have a lot of faith in your team Ms. Watersward,” the tactical delegate said.

“They are among the best in the Empire,” Mel said. “We’ve worked together for years.”

“Those are easy claims to make,” the lead delegate said. “What proof can you offer that this will not become a bloodbath for my people.”

“I wasn’t aware that this meeting was about proving anything to anyone,” Mel said.

“We are ready to deny our approval for this operation and rescind all offers which are on the table if we are not satisfied in this matter,” the lead delegate said.

“That is something which would need to be put to a vote,” the financial delegate said. “Bleakwater is not our colony, and any of our citizens there are either on the other side of the planet or are probably working with the organization which just tried to kill us all.”

“An organization which the Empire claimed they could protect us against, and is now using as an excuse to assault a world on our borders!” the lead delegate said.

“Ambassadors, please,” Yael said. “This is unnecessary. We can present our plans to you and you will see that we have the safety of your people accounted for.”

“Even the ones you claim are working with the Red Running River?” the lead delegate asked.

“Yes, even them,” Mel said. “You’ve been outside the Empire for decades now, which means you’ve probably never seen the things a full Imperial Strike team is capable of.”

“You can take down the Red Running River with a single strike team?” the financial delegate asked.

“That’s impossible,” the tactic delegate said. ”There are too many of them. even if you started winning, the others would flee before you could catch them all.”

“They can’t flee if they’re locked down before they know the fight has begun,” Mel said.

“And how can you accomplish that?” the tactical officer asked.

“We have a very good spell web infiltrator on board,” Mel said.

Each of the delegates carried a clear glass panel with them and, simultaneously, each of the portable screens blipped to life.

“Very impressive,” the tactical delegate said. “But how are you going to deploy that asset. Surely you can’t risk someone so talented on a combat mission like this one?”

“The asset is a resilient one,” Mel said. “I usually safeguard her myself but for this mission my team leader will be her handler.”

“Why is that?” the lead delegate asked. “Isn’t this a mission you should be involved in personally.”

“I am not allowed on active combat missions until my child is born,” Mel said, holding her belly to indicate the swell of the child within.

“I thought you were a Void caster?” the tactical delegate asked. “I was under the impression that such casters could not reliably reproduce.”

“That was my belief as well, but between the fact that my mother was a Void caster and that I’ve heard my daughter’s voice already, I think we will prove to be an exception to that rule,” Mel said.

“You’ve spoke with your daughter?” the tactical delegate asked.

“Not spoken to, only listened to her,” Mel said. “We were on holiday and discovered a planet where you could hear people you might someday be connected to. So we’re reasonably sure she’ll come to term if we avoid exposure to any dangerous situations.”

Fari suppressed a grin. She’d been scanning all of the delegates. Waiting for this very moment. With the lightest of touches she put forth tethers of Mental anima to connect to the delegates who matched a very specific profile of detectable biochemical responses to what Mel said.

The threads of Mental anima came back with solid pulls of connection. The killers Fari was looking for were here. In the conference room. All she had to do next was let them get away with murder.

The Journey of Life – Ch 27 – Disparate Callings (Part 2)

Space liners are not meant to fragment into pieces. It’s considered bad form for any sort of space capable vessel to allow its passengers to experience the sensations that come from direct contact to the vacuum of space. That said, it is an unfortunate reality of galactic society that sometimes space ships do not live up to their intended purpose. This was why casters who spent a sufficient amount of time in space frequently earned their environmental certifications.

As an agent of the crown of Abyz, Bo carried certifications for several different hazardous environment. Her training had been undertaken at the personal behest of the Queen who desired that all of her personal guard be able to survive in anywhere she had cause to deploy them. At the time Bo hadn’t seen the point of including “space” as one of those places though. The Royal Guard was rarely called off planet and the coursework for space environmental certification was brutal and time consuming. Quietly, she’d spent weeks coming up with complaint after complaint as to why she should be allowed to skip the pointless certification classes.

Oddly, not one of those complaints surfaced in Bo’s mind as she reflexively cast an instantaneous air shield at the sound of the space liner’s superstructure shearing into pieces. The destruction of the space liner shocked adrenaline into her system, but thanks to the brutal training she’d so wanted to avoid, the magics didn’t waver in the slightest.

That wasn’t particularly surprising of course. She only had to contend with collateral damage after all. There’d been much worse to deal with during training. Usually spaceships failed because someone made them fail after all and if those someones were really vicious they’d make sure any simple personal shields weren’t enough to save the space stranded passengers.

Having secured her own safety, Bo turned to aid the people who were with her, mindful of the dangers a wrecked spaceship was likely to present. Apart from the free floating (and potentially high velocity) debris, there was the presence of the ship’s anima fields to worry about. Freed from their proper conduits, those could be more dangerous to the passengers that the attack that ruined the ship.

With wreckage all around her, it should have been difficult to find the Imperials, Yael and Zyla. The Guardian and her partner though were both glowing like mini-novas. Not twenty feet away, they were bubbled together in a single shield of their own casting, and working furiously.

Zyla was drawing in motes of magic like a galaxy of stars collapsing to a single point in her right hand. The collected power, which had once been the ship’s main anima shields, flared from her and flowed to Yael through their clasped hands.

From the Guardian’s free hand the magics poured forth in a kaleidoscope pattern. There were a thousand sapients on the space liner and in less than two seconds there were a thousand shields to protect them from the ravages of the airless, cold void.

Bo watched as the two casters worked, Zyla bringing in as much of the ship’s scattered magic as she could and Yael connecting the individual shields to allow people to communicate again.

“Can you get the escape pods?” Yael asked over a telepathic link.

“Did they survive?” Bo asked.

“Fortunately, yes,” Zyla said.

Escape pods are built for extra resiliency, but Bo was dubious they would be serviceable after the ship took enough damage to reduce it shattered parts.

Of course, by that argument, people were (generally) less resilient than either escape pods or space liners, so the fact that most, or perhaps all, of the ship’s passengers and crew were still alive seemed to be an even more amazing stroke of luck.

“Thank you,” Bo said to the two fate casters, whom she was fairly certain were responsible for the lucky breaks that allow for her continued good health.

The rescue of the ship’s passengers wasn’t an easy matter. A suitable ship had to be dispatched, and a emergency warp path calculated. Some of the passengers had been injured in the space liner’s destruction and many more were panicked and traumatized by the events that occurred. In the end though, the ship arrived, the injuries were treated and the passengers were calmed.

Most of the passengers.

The Chinuri delegation was united in their agreement that the Empire had failed to protect them. They stormed onto the bridge of the rescue ship while Yael, Zyla and Bo were speaking with its captain.

“We request an immediate return to Nuriana,” the Chinuri lead delegate said.

“We’re closer to the conference site than your homeworld,” Yael said.

“We cannot negotiate with an Empire that does not take our safety seriously,” the delegate said.

“We take the safety of all our citizens and allies seriously,” Yael said.

“How can you claim them when you are not willing to strike against the Red Running Stream still?” the lead delegate said.

“What makes you think we’re not going to strike against them?” Zyla asked.

“You did!” the delegate said. “When we boarded this ship, you said you could not act, that the time wasn’t right.”

“My apologies,” Yael said. “I spoke in a confusing manner there I see. Agent Riverstone, will you brief the Chinuri on the information we have just been discussing?”

Bo looked at the Guardian and then at the Chinuri delegation. Secrecy was a tool the Royal Agent was used to relying on as a standard part of her arsenal. Any information she gave the Chinuri was a potential hole in their plan, and unless she missed her guess, the Red Running Stream would be alerted to those holes minutes after the briefing was concluded.

“Are you sure of this?” she asked Yael via a private telepathic link.

“Completely,” Yael said.

Yael was one of the three principal casters who had rewoven the planet-wide fate spell on Abyz. Zyla was the second. With those credentials, Bo felt willing, if not exactly comfortable, playing along with their plans.

“The Red Running River has been found to be in league with a number of other cults operating within the Empire. As such, Guardian Clearborn has received permission to treat them as an immediate danger to Imperial Citizens,” Bo said.

“We have more than permission though,” Zyla said. Her look of restrained glee was apparent even to the Chinuri.

“Yes,” Bo said. “My investigations have turned up a wide range of connections between the River and a group I was researching. We have a deep list of their personnel, associates and financial holdings.”

The Chinuri delegates were hushed, waiting with discerning expressions for where the tale was leading them.

“So you’ve been supplying our enemies for how long?” the lead delegate asked.

“According to my findings, the River has been the source of many high end spell components for the cult network,” Bo said. “So it would be more accurate to say that the River has been supplying the Empire’s enemies with the tool to cause things like the mayhem we saw today.”

Yael, Zyla and Bo knew that the encounter with the cosmic beast had been only barely related to the Red Running River, but it was still a useful connection to draw on.

“That’s what cleared us to act against them,” Yael said.

“And what action will you take?” the lead delegate asked. “Sanctions and isolation won’t work on them.”

“We have other tools at our disposal,” Yael said. “In an hour, the fast response ship Horizon Breaker will be docking with us.”

“You’re going to launch an assault on them?” the lead delegate asked. “But what of the ones on Nuriana? You cannot assault our homeworld!”

“I think you mean you’d prefer we not assault your homeworld,” Zyla said.

“Your sovereignty will be respected,” Yael said. “The Empire will send no forces to Nuriana. Fortunately for us, the main contingent of the River’s forces are located on the moon of Bleakwater, which is outside of Nuriana controlled space.”

“There are Chinuri scavengers on Bleakwater,” the lead delegate said. “Leftovers from the abandoned colony there.”

“Yes, and a hidden military base, and, on the other side of the planet, the headquarters for the River,” Yael said. “By this time tomorrow, that headquarters will not exist, and everyone found there will be in custody, awaiting trial.”

“I must get a message back to my government,” the lead delegate said. “They might interpret this as the prelude to an attack on Nuriana.”

“You will be given full access to our communication spells both here and on the Horizon Breaker,” Yael said.

“We can arrange for a privacy shielded conference if you wish to discuss this matter amongst yourselves too,” Zyal said.

“Yes, thank you,” the lead delegate said. “This must be properly reviewed.”

The other Chinuri were fanning their hands in agreement with their leader and none of them lingered on the bridge once given the opportunity to escape.

“You know there are spies from the River among them don’t you?” Bo asked after the last of the Chinuri left the bridge.

“At least two if things are going according to plan,” Yael said.

“Two? Well that’s good,” Bo said. “And would you care to share the details of this plan?”

“We can’t,” Zyla said. “We’re working several steps removed from the cores of the problem. The threads we’re weaving are very delicate as it stands and the more people who can see them the greater the load they’ll have to bear.”

Despite growing up on a planet that was nearly strangled by Aether spells, Bo still wasn’t fond of fate magic. It was fantastically useful, but as in the current situation, she couldn’t help but feel like it was perilously close to leaving everything to chance and then claiming victory for whatever parts worked out close to how you wanted them to be.

She held on to that unease like a shield, and greeted the arrival of the Horizon Breaker with trepidation as a result. If things were going to go wrong, it would be one once the Empire proved it was seriously committed to the endeavor. As the Horizon Breaker docked with the rescue ship, Bo knew there was no turning back. The rogue Chinuri would have to act to preserve their forces somehow.

“Welcome aboard,” Mel said, greeting the new arrivals. “Darius will show you to the observation room and we can get underway for Bleakwater.”

Something was wrong.

The Chinuri boarded the ship, seeming eager to be rid of a problem that had plagued them for decades. Some, including the lead delegate were less eager than the others, but that wasn’t what was setting Bo’s nerves on edge.

“The trip will take two hours,” Mel said as the delegates, Yael, Zyla and Bo were seated in a room with a view out from the forward, starboard side of the Horizon Breaker. “Once our forces move in you’ll be able to follow their progress on holo-screens that will be projected at your seats or a composite one projected against this wall.”

Mel turned to leave and Bo followed her.

“You’re looking well,” Bo said.

“I’m keeping busy,” Mel said.

“No, I mean, you’re not showing as much as I would expect,” Bo said.

From the message she’s received, Bo had thought her sister was over eight months pregnant, but she was only barely starting to show signs of being with child.

Bo looked closer and other oddities came to her attention.

Whoever she was talking to, the woman did not move like her sister did. Mel was a martial artist who had trained for decades. As someone with similar training, and who had fought Mel in all-out struggles on several occasions, Bo had an instinctive sense for how her sister carried her weight. The woman standing before her had more weight than Mel was accustomed to carrying but even that didn’t explain the clumsy footwork and body posture that this “Mel” displayed.

“I’m not that far along yet,” the woman said.

“How many months?” Bo asked.

“Five,” the woman said.

Which would mean that when Mel sent Bo a letter announcing her pregnancy six months ago, she would have been writing it one month before the pregnancy actually began.

Something was wrong with her sister.

The Journey of Life – Ch 26 – Disparate Callings (Part 1)

Zyla lay on her bed and felt a strange and unfamiliar sensation fluttering in her chest. It was contentment, or as near to it as she could ever remember experiencing.

“You doing ok?” Yael asked, rolling over and stretching out a sleepy yawn.

“Mmm,” Zyla said, trying to hold onto the feeling.

“Couldn’t sleep?” Yael asked.

“Didn’t need to,” Zyla said. “Not after we spent all day relaxing at the pool.”

“That was surveillance work,” Yael said.

“We know the Chinuri delegation is safe until at least a week from now,” Zyla said. “We don’t have to guard them this closely.”

“True, but it was a nice day wasn’t it?” Yael asked.

“I want to say that it was too close to home,” Zyla said. “Being on a interstellar liner and being pampered and catered to every moment of the day? It’s very similar to how the elites were treated when I was a child. I want to say I’m not interested in that anymore, but I don’t know that I’d be telling the truth, which probably makes me a terrible person.”

“I think there’s kind of a critical difference or two there,” Yael said. “As a child you were surrounded by slaves. The crew on this ship are well paid and respected as the professionals they are.”

“I suppose that makes it easier to accept,” Zyla said, “But it still strikes me that we could be doing something a little more productive with our time than sipping expensive cocktails and telling sanitized stories of our exploits to the Chinuri.”

“Well,” Yael said, scooting closer to Zyla. “While we know the danger peak for the Chinuri is still a week away, they feel much safer having us nearby before then, and that’s buying the Empire a lot of good will. But since we don’t need to be around them every minute of the day, we could look for other…productive uses of our time?”

Zyla felt a soft kiss on her earlobe and a warm arm wrap around her waist.

Thanks, perhaps, to unconscious manipulations of fate by one or both of them, it wasn’t until late in the morning when they were enjoying a belated breakfast that the calm which surrounded the two women started to unravel.

“Guardian Clearborn?” one of the wait staff asked. “We have a special courier ship requesting docking privileges to meet with you. Shall we clear them for connection?”

Zyla turned her Aetherial senses towards the courier ship and found that it was blank, hidden from her vision in a manner that was disturbingly familiar.

“Yes, please invite them aboard,” Yael said. “And is there an open conference room we could meet them in?”

Zyla shot Yael and uncertain look but waited until they were alone again to speak.

“This is someone we know isn’t it?” she asked.

“That’s my guess,” Yael said. “But I’m as blind here as you are.”

“A trap?” Zyla asked.

“We’ll have to assume so,” Yael said. “Don’t want to get caught again like we did on Abyz.”

Those had been some of the worst days that Zyla could recall. Being alone, on a hostile planet was bad enough. Losing Yael and believing her bound under the dominion of an all-powerful queen had been even worse though.

Zyla didn’t always carry an anima blade anymore, but she made sure to pick one up before meeting with the newcomer. She was deadly without one, but sometimes the obviousness of a glowing blade held inches away from someone’s face sent a much clearer message than anything else could.

“I hope this isn’t an Imperial representative,” Yael said.

“You’d prefer someone more hostile?” Zyla asked.

“No, but if this is an official visit, then it will be for something critical enough to pull us off guard duty on the Chinuri,” Yael said.

“I see. Our delegation will react poorly if we try to abandon them at this stage,” Zyla said.

“I know,” Yael said. “If something sufficiently serious has come up, their reaction may be the least of our worries.”

“Have you caught any glimpses of something that big on the horizon?” Zyla asked.

“No,” Yael said. “But then I didn’t foresee this either.”

“For a moment there I wasn’t sure,” Zyla said. “Do you think anyone else understands how fragmented our view of the future is?”

“Given how often we’re able to get people to make mistakes or play it overly safe?” Yael asked. “I certainly hope not.”

A tall, dark skinned woman in military livery entered the room a moment after Yael and Zyla stopped talking. Zyla blinked and recognized first the uniform, then the woman wearing it.

“Thank you for taking time away from your current assignment to meet with me,” Agent Bo Riverstone of the Abyz Royal Guard said.

Agent Riverstone reached into the satchel she was carrying and Zyla had to struggle to keep her anima blade sheathed. The gesture of restraint proved to be a wise one as the Ayz Royal Guard produced a pair of folders and handed them over for Yael and Zyla to read.

During their ill fated trip to Abyz, Yael and Zyla had run afoul of Agent Riverstone and been stymied in their attempts to fight against her by the magics the planet possessed. On a space liner in the middle of nowhere, Zyla knew she could fight far more effectively, but she still wasn’t sure if she could win a battle if one were to erupt between her and Bo.

“You come with official Imperial orders,” Yael said, looking over the folder,”But you are still part of the Abyz military structure. How did this confluence occur?”

“We have, I believe, some common enemies,” Bo said. “I was tracking a cult that called themselves “The Over Masters”. You’ll find their files sorted into a section in the back labeled ‘Defunct Organizations’.”

Zyla skimmed to the end of the file and pulled up the pages on the Over Masters. It was only summary information but it still filled a dozen sheets with names and associations in very small print.

“It says that the Over Masters were the descendants of a Warlord who once ruled Abyz?” Yael asked.

“Yes, and now that our fate weave has diminished, they decided to attempt a retaking of their claim,” Bo said.

“It doesn’t look like that went well for them,” Zyla said. “Did any of them manage to escape? Or even survive?”

“We took several of them in alive,” Bo said. “But unfortunately quite a few escaped our net.”

“You said they were common enemies?” Yael asked. “How are they connected to us?”

“If you look at the final page of their entry you’ll see a listing for ‘Affiliated Organizations’,” Bo said. “See if the third name on the list sounds familiar.”

“The Red Running Stream?” Yael said.

“The Over Masters are connected with the assassin group that is targeting the Chinuri delegation?” Zyla asked. “How?”

“They share a resource pool,” Bo said. “We’ve seen identical combat artifacts turning up in the armories for both of the cults, and several others as well.”

“They don’t seem to share any ideological connections though?” Yael said.

“No, they don’t,” Bo said. “Which is why I’m here to see you.”

“We’ve been on defensive duty since we were assigned to this case,” Zyla said. “We haven’t been able to research the Red Running Stream at all, apart from interviewing the Chinuri on them.”

“That’s ok,” Bo said. “I have placed my personal team of agents at the disposal of the Empire while we investigate this threat to Abyz. They’re running down leads on the Red Running Stream and the other cults that we’ve discovered.”

“What do you need us for then?” Yael asked.

“We can track down all of the logical trails,” Bo said. “There is another piece of the puzzle that I need an expert opinion on. It’s a prophecy.”

“That sounds like something we can evaluate for you,” Zyla said.

“It’s about my sister,” Bo said.

“Or perhaps not,” Yael said.

“That’s almost exactly what she said you would say,” Bo said. “If it changes things, the prophecy actually involves her daughter-to-be.”

“Mel’s pregnant?” Yael asked.

“Interesting,” Zyla said. “I didn’t think they would be able to have a child.”

“I gather they didn’t either,” Bo said. “But stranger things have happened.”

“I’m not sure that it will matter much for our ability to help you understand the prophecy,” Yael said. “Mel’s daughter is probably obscured by her mother’s powers as far as we’ll be able to see.”

“What is the prophecy?” Zyla asked. “And why do you think it relates to the connected cult issue that you’ve found?”

“It’s intuition,” Bo said. “Nothing more, and I’m concerned that I’m seeing a connection because the events are important to me rather than because there’s any reason for them to be related.”

“That’s possible,” Yael said. “We usually see things from the very limited perspective of ourselves.”

“But if you felt strongly enough about this to seek us out, then it’s worth not dismissing your intuition too lightly either,” Zyla said.

“Thank you,” Bo said. “It feels like with the connection between the cults there must be some well hidden force at work. Their goals are still opaque to me, but the only reason to go to this sort of effort, on this sort of scale, is if you wish to cause a lot of havoc.”

“And the only thing worth directing that level of havoc at is the Empire,” Zyla said. “Which makes this our direct business if so.”

“Yes, but we can’t abandon the Chinuri yet,” Yael said. “Until we find the skein of whatever plan might exist we have to play for the wins that are available to us.”

“I think we have the time to do that,” Bo said. “The prophecy that Mel and Darius talked about spoke of the time when their daughter, or whoever it applies to, takes control of their own powers.”

“Children can start casting at a very young age,” Zyla said.

“But they don’t normally have full control of their magics until their teenage years,” Yael said.

“Since the girl in quest hasn’t even been born yet, I would guess that there is time for us to get ahead of this problem,” Bo said. “And that’s what I’m here to confirm.”

“It’s certainly something that we can look into,” Yael said. “Give us a moment to get ready and then read the full prophecy aloud to us. If we work together we may be able to track its path forward and see the event that it’s referring to.”

Zyla quieted her mind and opened her senses to the Aether. A moment later she felt Yael take her hand and then felt their vision join into one. Together they were far stronger than either of them was apart, but they needed to be exceedingly careful that they didn’t cast themselves so deep into ocean of time that they wound lost in the dreams of what might be.

As though from a great distance away, Zyla heard Bo begin to recite the lines of the prophecy. They were in a very old tongue but thanks to the Galactic Common translation spell everyone in the Empire used, even the ancient words were rendered meaningful. They spoke of a time perilously close, only a heartbeat away, but that was when the event was viewed on a scale far broader than a human life span. The scale of time had to be that wide open though to encompass the size of the threat that the event carried.

In her mind’s eye, Zyla saw all the lights in the galaxy blown out, one after another, until nothing remained, just a hole in the universal fabric with nothing around it save the nearest neighboring galaxies which were next on the menu.

Deep in the depths of time, Zyla felt her hands start to shake at the enormity of what lay in wait them, but the warm grip of the woman she loved helped her to hold on and make it back to the present.

Where the space liner was shaking as though caught in a maelstrom of incredible turbulence.

That was worrisome.

Space is many things, but filled with turbulent winds is not usually one of them.

Looking out the conference room’s wind, Zyla saw something massive blotting out the stars. It had surfaced into their reality, following she and Yael back for unknowable reasons and was diving down once again into the folds of time to await some unspeakable day when it could rise once more.

Though is was thousands of miles away, the shockwaves of its arrival and departure slammed into the star liner, shattering bulkheads and rending apart the frame. Caught in the creature’s wake, the ship disintegrated, leaving Zyla, Yael and Bo adrift in the empty reaches of interstellar space.

The Journey of Life – Ch 25 – Festivals (Part 4)

Life is surprising. Good, bad, sometimes just plain weird and inexplicable, in more ways that people can account for, life is capable of throwing curveballs that they don’t see coming. When he was young, that fact bothered Darius tremendously. Without predictability, he didn’t see how anything could make sense or have meaning. As he grew older, he was able to look back on his past self and see that his struggles with randomness stemmed not from a philosophical dilemma but from the very real concerns of a young boy whose whole life had been lived in a warzone.

It wasn’t order that he craved, it was safety. Osgood had illustrated the difference between the two for him at one point with a simple pack of cards. Together they had built a carefully constructed house, each piece in near-perfect balance with the ones around it. It was a monument to control and precision and predictability.

Thanks to their engineering prowess and steady reflexes, it expanded from a tiny hut to completely fill the dining room table they constructed it on.

Then a stiff breeze blew in through the window and all of the cards collapsed into a pile of two dimensional rubble.

Darius was young enough at the time that he made no effort to hold back the tears that came at the loss of his great effort. That was when Osgood introduced him to the concept of glue.

Their next card castle was much less regular. Cards were stuck wherever looked good and then affixed in position with a healthy dollop of fast drying adhesive. The result was as chaotic as only a child’s unrestrained artistic workings can be, but the castle managed to survive all of the gusts the open windows could throw at it.

That simple afternoon shaped more of the teenage Darius’ thoughts than he paid conscious attention too. Unlike many of his fellow students, he pursued a rigorous course of personnel development, honing both his natural Mental aptitudes as well as an unforeseen talent at manipulating Energetic anima. Those gifts were the “glue” he looked to for safety, and the strengths that made life on Hellsreach bearable.

Then he met Mel.

On an unsafe world, Darius had learned to take the “smart chances”. He’d learned to fight when he could win and evade when victory was uncertain. He was good at it, but he knew he needed to be a lot better than “good” in order to truly be safe.

In Mel though, he found something he’d never expected he could cherish. She didn’t take smart chances. She didn’t fight when she could win. Instead she fought when she needed to.

She fought when people were in trouble, or when there was something wrong that only she could put right. And she didn’t stop just because the odds looked long, or the path was fraught with pain and loss.

Darius knew people who tried to act like that, but he’d never seen anyone make it work before her. She somehow invested herself in what she did completely enough to bring her full strength to bear on the problem, but managed to maintain enough distance from it to be self-aware and able to adapt in ways highly driven people often couldn’t.

Though she never claimed to be, or appeared to have any understanding of it, Darius saw that as genius in Mel. He suspected if he ever tried to emulate her, even with his fairly well developed Mind skills, he’d fall short. Her brain had to be a maelstrom of activity, parsing and analyzing everything around her.

Or maybe she just listened to the people she knew when they offered improvements on her mad schemes or warned her she was going too far. That was a talent all unto itself, and one Darius knew he needed to work on quite a bit.

Whatever the cause of her success, Mel made Darius feel safe about discarding the need for safety. Or at least she had for the several years they’d been together. All of the old desires for safety had come flooding back in recent months though after a new life entered the picture.

“Not that we’re not delighted to see you, but why are you here?” Hector asked. Darius and his biological father had a strong, solid relationship, which meant that Hector was able to be blunt and straightforward with his son in place of the tact and circumspection his career as a politician demanded of him.

“We’re on the run,” Darius said.

“Then why didn’t you break in through the secret doors like we taught you?” Osgood asked as he waved Darius and Mel into the foyer.

“My fault there,” Mel said. “This barge doesn’t do well with squeezing through narrow spaces.”

“You’re not a barge,” Darius said, the words issuing as a reflex.

“Indeed,” Hector said. “You are quite lovely, and also quite wise. Dusty crawlspaces are unpleasant in the best of times. Now, should we be alerting Imperial command for reinforcements, or are you on the run from the Empire itself?”

Darius smiled at the question. From Hector and Osgood’s expressions, either alternative was acceptable. If they had to take on the galaxy for their son, he doubted either of his fathers would hesitate a moment before drafting their battle strategies.

“Neither actually,” he said. “We’re on unofficial leave for the next few months.”

“Unofficial leave?” Osgood asked. “Is this what we called ‘deserting’ on Hellsreach?”

“Less ‘deserting’, more ‘we talked with my boss and arranged for some dopplegangers to take our place for a little while so that we wouldn’t be targeted by a crazed deathcult’,” Darius said.

“I feel there’s a story here that needs telling, but the foyer isn’t the ideal spot for such things,” Osgood said. “Can we get you anything.”

“A place to sit and directions to the bathroom would be nice,” Mel said. “But not in that order.”

Minutes later, Darius found himself alone with his father’s who were waiting eagerly for the story he had to tell.

“This all started with a festival,” Darius said. “Or kind of a series of them.”

He related the tale of their original departure from the Horizon Breaker after Fari’s trouble with organizing one of the Crystal Empresses Gala celebrations. He told them of the various planets they’d visited to help her get an understanding of what people were really looking for, including the Frog Festival planet where they’d been transformed into amphibians.

“I could see that visiting festivals wasn’t getting at the real problem we faced though,” Darius said. “So I sent us on a random skipping path off a black hole and got us shot to the far side of the galaxy.”

Hector choked on the tea he was drinking.

“He obviously made it back,” Osgood said, patting Hector on the back to help him clear his lungs.

“We did,” Darius said. “Fari’s too good of a navigator for that to have been a long time problem. And I think it worked out well.”

“How so?” Osgood asked.

“We needed a break,” Darius said. “All three of us. We’d become so mission-focused that we kind of forgot how to connect with anyone outside a tactical planning room.”

“It would seem you managed to make some kind of connection with Guardian Watersward,” Hector said.

Darius blushed lightly. He didn’t mind acknowledging his relationship with her, but he wasn’t about to get into the specifics of his love life with his parents.

“That was…complicated,” he said.

“Children usually are,” Osgood said.

“We talked about it, having kids, but it wasn’t something Mel though was even possible for her,” Darius said.

“Why not?” Hector asked.

“She’s a Void anima caster,” Darius said. “It’s powerful stuff, but it causes her problems too, like needing special healing techniques when she’s injured and not being able to receive certain magical enhancements.”

“And not being able to bear children?” Osgood asked.

“She wasn’t sure,” Darius said.

“It seems like something convinced her to try though correct?” Hector asked.

“Three somethings in fact,” Darius said. “First there was Fari who pointed out the obvious thing neither of us had considered and set us on the path to figuring out whether it was possible.”

“And that was.”

“Mel’s mother was a Void caster too. She was so powerful of a Void caster that she sort of out-lived her own death,” Darius said. “And she had more children than just Mel, so it wasn’t a fluke pregnancy or a miracle.”

“I take it talking to Mel’s mother was the second ‘something’ that helped convince her to try?” Osgood asked.

“Yeah,” Darius said. “It wasn’t easy from the other side of the galaxy but between the maternal bond between them and the crystal bond between Fari’s gem and the Ravager gem that Mel’s mother inhabits they were able to talk for a little while.”

“And that’s how Mel discovered how dangerous a pregnancy could be?” Hector asked.

“For herself and for the baby,” Darius said. “It takes nine months of diligence and special trance sleeping to ensure that Void anima she carries is kept in check.”

“And there’s a danger to you as well, isn’t there?” Osgood asked, guessing from his son’s expression and what he knew of Mel’s courage that there was more to the story.

“Only as much as I chose there to be,” Darius said.

“What could happen to you?” Hector asked.

“Mel’s anima levels aren’t easy to keep balanced,” Darius said. “That’s true for a lot of pregnant human women, but in her case it’s a bit trickier since she can’t always be sure if what’s draining her strength is the baby, who needs it, or her own Void anima, which doesn’t.”

“So when she gets too low, you step in and offer her some of your energy,” Osgood said.

“As much as she’ll let me,” Darius said.

“And the danger is that she might take too much?” Hector asked.

“It’s a theoretical issue,” Darius said. “But no matter how much I tell her otherwise, she’s not actually the burden that she thinks she is. If anything she needs to let me help her more.”

“So what was the third thing?” Osgood asked. “And how does a crazed death cult factor into this scene of domestic bliss?”

“Well, despite the fact that we were on vacation, we decided to visit a planet named Kies that was holding an ‘Eternal Harvest Festival’,” Darius said. “As it turned out though it was less a ‘harvest’ festival and more a ‘fertility’ festival.”

“That sounds promising,” Hector said.

“We’d kind of decided to take things slowly and let Mel practice with the trance-sleeping techniques for a while before we made any serious efforts to expand our little family,” Darius said. “But then we went to the ‘Summer Crop Whispers’ room.”

“I’m going to guess that it wasn’t a market with talking lettuce?” Hector said.

“Not exactly,” Darius said. “It was a cavern on the seashore, and inside it we heard our daughter’s voice for the first time.”

“Your daughter?” Osgood asked.

“Oh, yeah, Mel’s pregnant with a girl,” Darius said.

“And you heard her speaking?” Hector asked.

“Kies has some odd Aetherial flows,” Darius said. “The Summer Crop Whisper’s cavern carries voices from the future in the present. Specifically the voices of children who will one day be part of your life.”

“But that would suggest your daughter could have been adopted no?” Osgood asked.

“She could have been,” Darius said. “Except when we got back to our ship, Fari ran a scan and, surprise, Mel was already pregnant!”

“A mystical pregnancy?” Osgood asked.

“No, no.” Darius said. “She was conceived quite naturally. We just didn’t think that would be something that could happen yet. Not without significant effort on both our parts.”

“It’s often easier than you imagine it to be,” Hector said. “It’s all the things that come afterward that require the significant effort.”

“Like the death cults that come after you,” Osgood said.

“You know, I was honestly hoping that would be an experience unique to us,” Darius said.

“I’m afraid not,” Hector said.

“It’s actually how Hector and I met if you recall,” Osgood said. “So it’s becoming something of a family tradition I guess.”

“That was a death cult?” Darius asked. “I thought you just rescued me from a bombing attack?”

“Yes,” Osgood said. “A bombing attack by a group that thought Hellsreach had to be purged of all life to regain its spiritual purity.”

“They managed to get themselves nice and ‘purified’ in the end, thankfully.” Hector said.

“But tell us about your death cult?” Osgood asked.

“Well, we made the mistake of telling people at the festival our joyous news,” Darius said. “And that’s when we learned about the prophecy.”

“Damn Aether casters,” Hector said.

“This one read; ‘A child of darkness will be born into the light, and when she claims her power the heavens will tear and a time of great destruction will be upon the galaxy’,” Darius said. “Which, apparently, some people on Kries took to be a reference to our daughter.”

“So Mel is bearing ‘The Chosen One’?” Osgood asked.

“Not as such. Apparently the Kries Old Keepers, as the cult is called, make it a point to kill any offspring of a Void caster who comes to their planet order to forestall the prophecy,” Darius said.

“And the Empire hasn’t stopped them yet why exactly?” Hector asked.

“Kries is outside the Empire, and the cult itself is slippery as hell,” Darius said. “We tried to help the Kries government track them down but we only managed to catch a few cells before we had to get back on duty.”

“A duty which is now being performed by doppelgangers you said?” Osgood asked.

“Yeah, that’s Fari’s present to us,” Darius said. “In order to give Mel and our daughter the best chance of making it through this we wanted to find a nice calm environment for her. Part of creating that was having Fari play puppet master to two doppelganger bodies of us on the Horizon Breaker. She’ll have them make appearances and be nice juicy targets for the Keepers while we spend a few months here seeing that our daughter makes it safely into this world.”

“About that nice, calm environment…” Hector began to say.

He was cut off by Mel’s return.

“I seem to have find some tiny saboteurs working on a nefarious scheme,” Mel said. On her shoulders she was carrying Quinn and Alendo. “They have taken me over and forcing me to demand both cake and pudding.”

The two children cheered at the notion and urged Mel forward like she was a giant robot they were driving.

“Uh, who would these be?” Darius asked, looking from one father to another in confusion.

“You were away too long,” Osgood said.

“Meet your new brother and sister son!” Hector said.

Life was just full of surprises.

The Journey of Life – Chapter 24 – New Arrivals (Part 4)

Life in the Pryas household had never been dull. As the household had been established on a world given to constant warfare that wasn’t terribly unusual but even once they had relocated to the far more peaceful environs of Titanus, Hector and Osgood had kept up a busy and demanding schedule. They were used to laboring for long hours each day and getting to see far less of each other than they preferred.
Meals were sometimes eaten on the run and other times skipped all together in the bustle and roil of days that offered little in terms of downtime. It was the price they paid for building their new and (mostly) peaceful home world though. They’d thought a lifetime of such demanding schedules would prepare them for fostering the dozen children assigned to help with Osgood’s recovery. They were, of course, completely wrong in that belief.

“It wasn’t me!” Alendo said, his voice high and loud enough that distinguishing it from his sister’s was possible only because she cursed more.

“Yes, it was! I saw you break the painting! I saw it!” Quinn said. “I’m not letting anyone else get in trouble when you did it!”

Osgood sighed and shook his head. In the two weeks that the children had been with them, the house had become a warzone to rival the most ferocious conflicts on Hellsreach. The children were talented at their crafted, and any one of the might make a great healer someday, providing that they didn’t kill each other long before then.

From what Osgood could see, the children didn’t even dislike each other. The fights usually erupted over nothing and aside from the destruction of priceless relics from Hellsreach, rarely involved any actual damage being done. The only consistent thing about the battles was that the lines were drawn very clearly with Hector and himself as being “Out of Bounds”.

As long as one of the adults in the house was present the children confined their quarrels to cutting remarks against each other which they seemed to believe the adults were incapable of noticing. As outsiders, Hector and Osgood also enjoyed the privilege of being beyond the scope of the children’s ire.

In part that might have stemmed from the reputation that Osgood was developing as “the Ambassador who took on a whole pirate fleet” (the tale of his involvement in rescuing their ship having grown wildly out of proportion with reality). A lifetime of politics had taught Osgood to recognize the motivations that people kept hidden even from themselves though.

For as much as they sparred with each other, this was a vacation (of sorts), and none of the children wished to endanger that.

“We don’t have to tell anyone,” Alendo said, lowering his voice so as not to be heard. It was a strategy which would have worked better if he hadn’t been screaming a moment earlier, and might have had some small chance at success if Osgood didn’t have a listening spell cast so that he could keep an ear on what the youthful destroyers of his house were up to.

“They’re going to notice the painting is ripped in half,” Quinn said.

“I can fix it! They’ll never know!” Alendo said.

Osgood was tempted to speak up then and defuse the argument before it escalated to physical blows. The painting was a one-of-a-kind from Hellsreach, but that didn’t mean it was any good. Hector had a fondness for cheesy artwork. Osgood did not. The painting outside their room was all Hectors and if it was as damaged as the children claimed, Osgood was considering whether a monetary reward and the suggestion of where they could find other painting’s Hector had hung up would send the wrong sign.

“You can’t fix it, you’re a klutz with mending spells,” Quinn said.

“I am not,” Alendo said. “I only failed the last test because it was stupid.”

“You’re just going to make it worse if you try to put it together again.” Quinn said. “And you don’t have time. We’re only here till tomorrow morning.”

“Then I’ll do it tonight!” Alendo said.

Osgood considered whether jinxing the painting would do any real damage to Alendo’s development. Odds are Quinn was right and the boy would mangle the painting beyond all hope of repair on his own but Osgood felt the need to be certain of that. It really was an awful piece of work.

“Fine,” Quinn said. “But if you don’t make it look perfect, I’m telling Mr. Pryas and the Sisters that it was you, and they can leave you here.”

“Fine,” Alendo said. “Maybe I want to be left here!”

“They’re not going to leave you with the Ambassador you know,” Quinn said. “They’ll send you to gem mines cause you’re a kid and they can stuff you in narrow places.”

“That’s stupid,” Alendo said. “They don’t have gem mines here.”

“Of course they do you idiot,” Quinn said. “Didn’t you read anything the Sisters gave us.”

“Why would I?” Alendo asked.

“So that you wouldn’t be dumb,” Quinn said. “The gem mines are what people come here. It’s the big deal for why everyone is coming to this place. The whole planet is one giant gem that they just keep chipping off pieces of.”

Osgood frowned at that. Titanus was not a gem world, although such things did exist. Either Quinn was making things up to mess with Alendo or there were rumors circulating about Titanus that could lead to nothing but trouble in the long run.

From his time on Hellsreach, Osgood concluded that the most likely scenario was that both options were true. What Quinn could make up, many other people could too. For the vast majority of the galactic citizens the idea of moving to a different world was a dream that they would never actually be interested in seeing made true.

New worlds were dangerous, scary and uncomfortable. Titanus in particular had issues of strife above and beyond the usual difficulties encountered by a new planet. For many people who’d led comfortable lives on planets where real peace  had reigned for decades, the idea of bearing the burdens of settling a new colony had to be motivated by something they could understand. Like greed. That was something humans and most other sapients could understand on a primal level.

That was fine so long as the people believing that were content to stay home. Osgood knew that was unlikely to remain true forever though. Whether by force of arms or financial duplicity, people would turn their eyes towards exploiting “the gem planet Titanus”. As Ambassador he was in the position to head that sort of thing off, but he had to balance his efforts so that he didn’t make Titanus look too unattractive or it wouldn’t be able to attract the sort of tourism and trade that was vital to developing a new colony.

That was a problem for another day however and as such it joined a rather towering mountain of similar problems that were stacked on Osgood’s metaphorical desk. So long as he was recovering in bed however all those issues were out of his reach. Instead, he was forced to turn his attention to more immediate matters.

“Hector?” he asked on their telepathic link. “When you have a moment, I’ve got something that I need to talk with about.”

It was always best to broach difficult topics in person, but that was a luxury that they were rarely afforded.


Later that night, after the children had, in theory, gone to bed Osgood wove a simple spell and waited. As he expected though, he didn’t need to wait long.

“The workshop was a good choice,” Osgood’s projected image said.

Alendo stopped dead in his tracks and turned to look at the ghostly blue image that Osgood had conjured. Remote presence spells had a wide variety of uses, a fact Osgood had come to appreciate more during his weeks of enforced rest. In this instance however, the very simplest use of the spell would suffice.

“I’m not feeling sleepy?” Alendo said. As excuses went it was weak, and the rising, questioning tone Alendo finished with sapped away what little strength it might have possessed.

“So I can see,” Osgood said, nodding towards the pieces of the painting that Alendo had in his hands.

“Oh, umm,” Alendo said. “This isn’t what it looks like.”

“It looks like you’re trying to repair a priceless artifact of pre-relocation Hellsreach art,” Osgood said, smiling at the wheels that he saw turning in Alendo’s mind.

“Priceless?” Alendo asked.

“Technically, yes,” Osgood said. “I mean, honestly, could you imagine anyone buying that hideous thing?”

Alendo’s flush of rising panic turned to a blinking gaze of confusion.

“Wait, so it’s not important?” Alendo asked.

“Art is always important,” Osgood said. “It’s just that some of it shows what not to do when being creative.”

“I…I don’t understand,” Alendo said.

“Don’t worry, it takes a while to see things like that,” Osgood said. “The question is what are you going to do with that, and why?”

Alendo looked around, glancing quickly over the room as though searching for a hole to bolt into or a path of escape. With no options presenting themselves, he sighed and looked down before speaking.

“I’m going to fix it,” he said.

“Why?” Osgood asked.

“Because I broke it, and it’s not right to leave it like that,” Alendo said.

“You’ve broken a number of things here in the last two weeks,” Osgood said.

“Yes,” Alendo said. “I can pay for them. Someday.”

“Is that what’s important?” Osgood asked.

“Yeah, I guess,” Alendo said.

“Why? Because you’ll be punished if you don’t?” Osgood asked.

“No, I’ll get punished no matter what,” Alendo said. “It’s just not right. I mean I didn’t break everything, but you still don’t have all that stuff and someone should make up for it.”

“And why would that be you?” Osgood asked.

“Cause you caught me?” Alendo said.

“So if I hadn’t noticed you would have left without saying anything,” Osgood asked.

“No,” Alendo said. “I don’t know. Maybe? It still wouldn’t be right, but sometimes I do the wrong things. Like breaking paintings. And yelling at people.”

“Would you like to change that?” Osgood asked.

“Yeah, but it’s hard,” Alendo said.

“I know of something that makes it easier,” Osgood said.

“What’s that?” Alendo asked.

“A family.” Osgood said.

“I’ve got a sister and she just makes everything worse,” Alendo said.

“So you wouldn’t mind if she stayed behind here while you left?” Osgood asked.

“What? No! You’re not going to send her to the gem mines are you?” Alendo asked.

“That’s an interesting thought,” Osgood said. “And one I’ve spent a bit of time pondering today.”

“No! You can’t do that!” Alendo said. “She’s not good with tight spaces. She gets really freaked out. Send me there instead. I was the one who broke most of the things.”

“I was thinking we might send you both there,” Osgood said. “I’m afraid there’s not much mining being done these days but the Life Crystals do offer some lovely tours if you get to know them and the trust you.”

“Uh, what?” Alendo asked.

“Yes, we could make it a day trip,” Osgood said. “I’m supposed to be getting up and about again soon and I’ll need to find things to do with my time while I wait to be cleared by my doctors. A short visit with the Life Crystals seems like exactly the thing in this case.”

“But we’re leaving tomorrow?” Alendo said.

“Only if you wish to,” Osgood said.

“What do you mean? We can stay?” Alendo asked.

“The short answer is, yes,” Osgood said. “The long answer involves forms and interviews and evaluations, but I can assure you that if you decide you want to stay with us the answer to all of those will be yes as well.”

“Are you…are you going to adopt us?” Alendo asked.

“That’s up to you,” Osgood said. “I’ve talked it over with Hector and we’re both willing to start the process, but ultimately it will be your choice pending final approval by the adoption review specialist.”

“Oh…that’s…” Alendo said and then fainted mid-sentence.

“Apparently better news that you were hoping for?” Osgood finished for him.


Morning found the Pryas’ + 2, seeing the other children back into the care of the Sister’s of Water’s Mercy. Several more would be staying on Titanus as well, having found potential adoptive families during their stay. The rest were set to resume their training as healers under the tutelage of the Sisters and while there were tears at the departure, the promises to stay in touch were heartfelt and followed up on in more than one instance.

Hector wandered over to massage his husband’s shoulders once the mob was gone and Alendo and Quinn were upstairs, taking in their new rooms.

“The house is going to feel a lot more full with those two here,” Osgood said.

“Too full?” Hector asked.

“No, just about right I think,” Osgood said.

“I’m just glad our lives will be able to get back to some semblance of order again,” Hector said just in time for their bell to ring.

With a puzzled expression, Osgood turned to look up at his husband.

“Are we expecting anyone else?” he asked.

“No,” Hector said, frowning in confusion.

“Well, it’s not assassins,” Osgood said. “They never ring the bell.”

“Just in case, how about I get the door?” Hector said.

“Just in case, how about we both answer it together,” Osgood said.

Together they marched to the entrance to the house and, with defensive spells at the ready, threw open the door to reveal…their son.

And the woman he loved.

Who was very clearly pregnant.

“Hi Dads,” Darius said. “I know this is kind of unexpected, but well, surprise you’re going to be grandfathers. And we need a place to hide. But just for a few months.”


The Journey of Life – Ch 23 – New Arrivals (Part 3)

The Ambassador’s ship tumbled into the endless dark, fires blossoming within to consume what little breathable air the small fighter could produce and Osgood could only think of one thing to remark on.

“This would be an embarrassing sort of end to come to.”

The fire suppression spells had been dispelled when the ship suffered catastrophic damage at the hands of the Purist’s secondary defense batteries. To the credit of the Imperial spellwrights who crafted the fighter, personal scale craft like the one Osgood was trapped in were rarely capable of standing up to a single barrage from a capital ship much less the half dozen that Osgood’s had weathered. That he wasn’t a fine smear of space dust was a testament to the durability the Empire had always required in its fighting craft.

The advantage to that sort of design philosophy was that while the ship had been reduced to a mismatched collection of metal and wood scraps with less than ten percent of its original spell framework remaining, the pilot within was still capable of action, and in Osgood’s case that meant he wasn’t out of tricks to play yet.

“If my luck was good, I’d still have the primary engine crystals that I could draw on for another spell,” he said into the flight recorder in case someone was curious what an Imperial Ambassador tried to do when he was otherwise adrift in space. There wasn’t anything in the official Ambassadorial playbook for that situation, so Osgood took a few pages from his old “Hellsreach Critical Situations Manual”.

Keep fighting.

That’s what the Hellsreach Critical Situations Manual said. It was pretty much the beginning and end of the manual, and Osgood had never had cause to disagree with it’s wisdom.

“Primary engine crystals jettisoned,” the analysis imp said.

Osgood cursed. Rigging engine crystals to explode on contact with the enemy was an old Hellsreach trick. It had a long and venerable heritage and was, in part, why no one in their right mind stole vehicles on Titanus. The colonists didn’t have a good reason to leave their vehicles as fully primed death traps, but some old habits die hard. Especially ones that produce such wonderfully colorful light displays.

“Secondary crystals?” he asked the imp.

The secondary engines on a fighter couldn’t produce anywhere near as much of a bang as the primaries but they would at least let him control the flight of the craft to a degree.

“Secondary crystals ejected and detonated,” the imp reported. “Fifty percent damage to enemy dreadnaught forward capture array detected.”

So, on the good side, the Purists weren’t going to be able to haul Osgood in. On the bad side, he had few options for getting anywhere useful himself. Normally that wouldn’t have been the case. Real fighter pilots were chosen for their capacity at Physical anima manipulation to ensure that even if the ship lost all of its engine power, the caster onboard would be able to get it home, slowly, with their own magics.

Unlike a real pilot, Osgood had many skills, but a talent for Physical anima casting was not one of them.

“Wonderful,” he said. “We get to do this the hard way then.”

For a Mental anima caster, replicating the effect of physical spells involved playing within the rules of physics and finding a method to outsmart them. This often involves explosions when great amount of force were required. In Osgood’s case though such pyrotechnics were not an option. His own ship was rapidly dwindling to possess as much power as a dim matchstick and the only other ships which had the energy to arrest his flight into the void were all busy trying to blast each other into microscopic particles.

All of them except the colony ship.

“This is Imperial Ambassador Pryas to Colony Ship,” he called out on a wide focus telepathic spell. “I will be within range of your aft capture beam within one minute and thirty seconds. Bring me on board.”

“Ambassador?” a panicked young man replied back. “What are you doing out here?”

“Getting that dreadnaught off you, I hope,” Osgood said.

“You did,” the young man said. “They’re fighting the ships that came from the station and the blocking field around us has dropped.”

“Yes, the Void caster who was channel it is have a nice enchanted nap,” Osgood said. “One minute to capture beam contact.”

“I don’t think we’re going to be able to catch you Ambassador,” the young man said. “I read you as passing just outside out our projection cone.”

“No worries there,” Osgood said. “My ship and I will be separating in fifteen seconds. Just look for me, I’ll be within the beam’s capture radius.”

Exhaling heavily, Osgood activated the environmental shield on his suit, used what little Physical anima prowess his had and the remnants of the ship’s maneuvering jets to position himself properly and then pulled the ejection seat cord.

Ejection seats in a space craft are, generally speaking, not a standard option. At best they can’t impart much velocity to the pilot and de-orbiting in just an ejection seat is something only a very few spellcasters are capable of safely. Osgood had selected one of the fighters that contained an ejection seat though because sometimes you don’t need a lot of power, sometimes you need just a little bit exercised at exactly the right time and in the right manner.

The blast from the ejection seat was significantly weaker than it should have been due to the damaged state of the craft but even so it was enough to send Osgood hurtling into space and towards the colony ship, while the remains of his fighter drifted ever farther away.

Sitting in a depowered chair, with only the analysis imp to keep him company, Osgood stared at the sheer magnitude of the cosmos that surrounded him. Billions of points of light. So much life in so many different varieties and yet the close life forms to him, the Purist dreadnaught, were obsessed with murdering everything that wasn’t life them. Or that sympathized with those not like them.

If he’d possessed the power, Osgood would have crushed their ship like tinfoil and reduced them all to space jelly, and for that he was very glad to be as powerless as he was. It was a flaw in his species, and the Garjarack too, that destruction was wired into their psychology on a primal level.

Destroying things felt good. Destroying things that posed a danger felt better, and it was far too easy to convince oneself that people who were different were a danger.

Far away, little more than a pale dot, though, Osgood saw the light shining off of Titanus. In just a few years it had become his home in a way that Hellsreach never had been. It wasn’t a perfect place by any stretch of the imagination. The Purists they were fighting called it home as well for one thing, and they weren’t the only source of conflict on the planet that played host to three major racial groups and dozens of smaller ones.

Osgood remembered Hellsreach though. For everything that was wrong with Titanus, Hellsreach had been worse. Especially in the early days of the war there that predated his birth by over a century. Titanus wasn’t perfect but it was proof that people could change for the better, which, if anything, placed a heavier burden on them to make sure events like the one unfolding before Osgood never occurred. On Hellsreach this sort of attack was expected, accepted and even (occasionally) applauded. People had the excuse of “being at war” and “not knowing any better”. None of that could be the case on Titanus. There was no reason to expect this kind of violence, no reason to accept it and no excuse for people not knowing how to be better.

That was Osgood’s last thought before the capture beam grabbed ahold of him. If he’d been able to feel the force of the beam, he wouldn’t have been surprised that it was like getting pummeled with a sledgehammer over every square inch of his body. It was meant to capture other ships for docking after all, not tiny things like a single human body. As it was though he was unconscious well before the first blow had any chance to register in his awareness.

A wish for better days was Osgood’s last thought before the capture beam bludgeoned him unconscious and, in a rare case of a wish being granted, his first thought on awakening was how nice it was to see his husband’s smiling face waiting for him. Even if Hector was wrapped up in healing bandages not unlike a mummy.

“This doesn’t count as breakfast in bed,” Osgood said.

“It would if it was breakfast time,” Hector said.

“How long have I been out?” Osgood asked.

“Almost two days,” Hector said. “You looked about as bad as I feel, but they managed to put most of the important bits back where they belong.”

“I should hope so,” Osgood said. “I’m rather attached to my bits.”

“And fortunately for me, they’re still attached to you!” Hector said with a devilish smile.

Osgood tried to smirk in response but even that simple motion hurt. He’d calculated everything about getting into the capture beam correctly, but it occurred to him that he hadn’t run a full set of data on just how good or bad an idea that would be. Given that the alternative was burning up, and then freezing to a popsicle in the far reaches of the solar system though, he guessed that whatever the numbers said he would have been stuck making the same choice.

“It looks like you could use some more pain killers,” a young man, the same one from the colony ship if Osgood was hearing his voice correctly, said.

Looking around Osgood noticed that he wasn’t alone with Hector. There was a small army of children assembled in the recovery room.

“Yes, that would be nice,” he said and then glance at his husband to setup a telepathic link. “And who would all of these little people be?”

“These are the colonists,” Hector said, telepathically, “Some of them at any rate.”

“Why are they all children?” Osgood asked.

“It was the wrong colony ship,” Hector said.

“It was the what?” Osgood asked.

“The wrong ship,” Hector said. “Not, technically, a colony ship at all I suppose, but still big enough to count as one I guess. A small one.”

“Yes, ok, but…children?” Osgood asked.

“The Mist Runner, your ‘colony ship’, was registered to the Sister’s of Water’s Mercy,” Hector said. “It’s an orphanage ship.”

“The Purist’s attacked an orphage? Are you kidding me?” Osgood asked.

“I wish I was,” Hector said. “And so do they. News reports up to a hundred systems out are having a field day with this.”

“Oh…oh no,” Osgood said, envisioning what that meant in one horrible moment of clarity.

“Yes, ‘Hero Ambassador Saves Ship Full of Orphans!’, and since you were acting in an official capacity, they’ve been plastering your name all over every broadcast they can,” Hector said.

“Oh gods, that’s ridiculous though,” Osgood said. “I fired one shot! My squadron did all the real work. Wait, my squadron, how did the battle turn out?”

“Fourteen fighter craft were lost, nine of those pilots are in critical condition still, the rest were healed and returned to duty yesterday,” Hector said.

“And the Purists?” Osgood asked.

“They breeched their warp crystals rather than be taken in,” Hector said. “That explosion is what took out six of your squadron.”

“Did any of them hit the escape pods before that?” Osgood asked.

Hector grimaced and shook his head.

“Damn,” Osgood said. “Still not quite at that better tomorrow then.”

“Maybe not,” Hector said. “But recruitment in Purist movements on both sides are down. We’ve even had some people stepping forward to turn in cells that were planning attacks in the next few weeks.”

“Hopefully that’ll last,” Osgood said.

“It won’t, not all of it, not right away,” Hector said. “But it’s a step in the right direction.”

“And a great big target on my back,” Osgood said.

“You’ve got quite the collection back there,” Hector said. “I’m trying to remember if I ever took my own bullseye off you?”

“You’ve had plenty of opportunities to catch me if you wanted to to,” Osgood said.

“What makes you think I don’t have you right where I want you?” Hector asked and bent over to give his husband a quick kiss.

The children tittered at the display of affection and went back to their original activity which was, apparently, softly humming.

“So, I get that we saved them, but why are they here, in my room?” Osgood asked.

“They’re helping you heal,” Hector said. “The Sister’s train the children that they take in. These are in the early stages of learning to be Clerics. They can’t do much spell casting yet, but they can channel their physical anima, so they’re surrounding you with a dense field of it so that your body has plenty to draw from as it repairs itself. Or at least that’s what the Sister who stopped in earlier explained.”

“That’s very nice of them,” Osgood said. “But what’s going to happen to them next?”

“The Mist Runner is being repaired but it’s going to take a month to get it space worthy again, so they’re going to need a place to stay in the interim,”  Hector said.

“Has a spot been selected yet?” Osgood asked, a dim premonition worming into his mind.

“Well, now that you mention it…” Hector began, and smiled broadly at Osgood.

Between his exposure to the vacuum of space, the damage from the capture beam and the madness of the battle it took Osgood a moment to catch on to what Hector was saying. As he did his eyes widened in shock.

“You’re not really thinking…” he began.

“It’s just for a month,” Hector said. “And you could use the day-to-day care.”

“Gods help me,” Osgood. “An entire house full of kids.Only madness can await us!”

The Journey of Life – Ch 22 – New Arrivals (Part 2)

Osgood’s calling was not to be a fighter pilot. His skills lay in planning, and communication, and coordination. Hurtling through the the silent, all-encompassing dark of space though, it was the long forgotten combat flying lessons that he was betting on for not only his life but the lives of every pilot flying with him.

“I’m going to regret every space combat class I ever skipped,” Osgood said aloud, trusting to the vacuum that engulfed his small craft to keep that sentiment private.

“I’ve got links to the guilds forming,” Hector said, his telepathic voice flat and expressionless which only served to warn Osgood of how worried his husband was.

“And the Life Crystals?” Osgood asked, keeping his mental voice similarly neutral. They’d been in desperate situations before but for the last twenty years they’d met them together.

“We need time,” Hector said. “And strong links to send their power through.”

Strong sympathetic links were the key to working magic at interstellar distances. Spells with that sort of range needed connections that were so tightly bound together that the two parts still felt like a single whole even if they were separated by light years.

There were various rituals that could craft objects like that. It was how the Empire had created the warp space ley lines that serviced Titanus and allowed easy transit to other parts of the galaxy. Unfortunately, Osgood had neither the time nor the spellcraft to manufacture a suitable link between the Titanus space fighters and the planetary pool of anima that Hector was putting together for the fighter pilots to draw on.

With meant he was going to have to do things the hard way.

“We’ll buy you as much as we can,” Osgood said. “A lot’s going to depend on how tough that colony ship is though.”

“We’ve got an advanced processing crew on the telemetry that’s coming back,” Hector said. “The colony ship is putting up a fight, but the attack ship is tearing them apart. It’s like the colony ship’s shields aren’t even there.”

“They probably aren’t,” Osgood said. “They’ve got Void casters on the attack ship. I’ll bet you breakfast in bed tomorrow that they’re stripping every bit of anima shielding the colony ship has.”

“How is it still flying then?” Hector asked. “Without any shields, the ship would be like an eggshell before the attacker’s kinetic guns.”

“Colony ships are huge. The inner hulls and framework must be reinforced too,” Osgood said. “That’s not going to do them any good if the attackers can tear a path through to the warp crystals though.”

“With the energy blasts we’re seeing that won’t take long,” Hector said. “How long until your squadron can engage them?”

“We’ll be in weapons lock range in just under a minute,” Osgood said. “How long until the Spell Power Pool comes online?”

“Fifty minutes,” Hector said.

“It’d be really nice if you could make that fifty seconds,” Osgood said. “I don’t think we can hold off that kind of firepower for an hour. Not with the fliers we have and the last generation ships we’ve got here.”

“I’ll make it happen faster,” Hector said.

“Then I’ll get us to the colony ship faster,” Osgood said.

He changed mental channels to the attack squadron’s and sent a notification bell tone for the other pilots to pay attention.

“Accelerate to full attack speed and unlock all weapon systems,” Osgood said.

“What attack formation are we using?” one of the veteran flyers asked.

“Chaos pattern,” Osgood said. “Fly erratically.”

“We won’t be able to cross link our shield sir,” the veteran said.

“Correct,” Osgood said. “Disable shields entirely. All available anima to weapon systems.”

“We’re going to be awfully fragile out there sir,” the veteran said.

“The enemy ship is using artillery-class Void casters. Our shields aren’t going to mean a thing to them,” Osgood said. “We need to get in there and get them off that colony ship.”

The attackers were still outside of Osgood’s visual range when his sensors chirped that they’d achieved a targeting lock.

“Guided kinetic missiles only,” Osgood instructed his fellow pilots. “We can’t risk hitting the colony ship and the Purist Void casters will just absorb any energy blasts we try to hit them with. Fire when ready!”

At his command, millions of tiny projectiles were spat from the guns on the fighter craft, their material forms conjured into being by the anima furnaces that drove the small vessels. Each projectile had its own guidance and propulsion system as well as a warhead primed with conjured explosives. Osgood couldn’t see the attackers, but he was able to make out the bright orange-red fireball of an explosion as the tiny missiles impacted the attacking dreadnaught’s shields.

“Minimal damage detected,” the tiny analysis imp on the control board reported.

“They’ve noticed you,” Hector said. “They’re increasing firepower against the colony ship.”

Osgood swore.

“Maintain speed and full fire volume,” Osgood said to the other pilots.

Full attack speed left the fighter’s able to maneuver and line up accurate shots. With no time left for subtlety, Osgood pushed his ship up to its full transit speed and flashed forward from the rest of the fighter group, foregoing accuracy and maneuverability for raw speed.

“What are you doing?” Hector asked, his voice still rigidly neutral.

“We need to get their attention, and I need to be really close to bring my personal spells to bear.” Osgood said.

“What personal spells?” Hector asked.

“Don’t tell Darius about this,” Osgood said. “I really don’t want him ever trying anything this stupid.”

“You’re going to try to disable their Void caster,” Hector said.

“Just a sleep spell,” Osgood said. “Light and easy to manage at range, but it’ll scare the hell out of them.”

“You’re going to be too close in there,” Hector said. “You need to put some power towards shields or they’ll blast you to pieces.”

As if to demonstrate the truth of Hector’s words, the Purist dreadnaught began targeting Osgood’s incoming fighter with its secondary weapons batteries.

Space is silent and vast and empty. Or at least it’s supposed to be. The dark night around Osgood lit up like a bonfire the moment the dreadnaught’s energy cannons fired. Searing blasts of plasma exploded in overlapping patterns that Osgood wasn’t entirely able to avoid. The explosions rocked his ship like the fury of a tempest and he felt a weird claustrophobia coming on when he saw how small the gaps in the projected explosions were on his targeting screen. Despite that he threw more power into the engines and plunged forward.

“I can’t risk any shields,” he said. “If a Void caster gets a link to my power I’ll never get the sleep spell off.”

“Yes, well, I can’t risk losing you,” Hector said.

On the control board, Osgood saw his shield meter start to climb.

“What are you doing?” Osgood asked, panic slipping into his voice.

“The Terraformer’s guild is fully online,” Hector said. “I’m sending you the power they’re volunteering.”

“We need more than one link for that!” Osgood said. “You’ll burn yourself up.”

“Let me worry about that,” Hector said. “Just start casting the Sleep spell.”

Osgood swore again, but did as Hector said.

Flying a ship while simultaneously casting any sort of spell was challenging. Space fighters, like most combat craft, were linked to their pilots to provide sharper responsiveness. Damage to the craft registered as pain to the crew, but only at very low levels. It would be idiotic to design a ship that crippled its pilot when the fight was turning against them after all. Even that low level of discomfort though could be enough to throw an inexperienced caster’s concentration off, especially when combined with the fearful insanity of live battle.

Osgood had an advantage there however. He had experience. Not battlefield experience, but casting in the midst of a violent political debate had given him some preparation for centering his mind when everyone else was dead set on disrupting his thoughts.

He called on that experience as he wove together the essence of his mind into a weapon. In his mind’s eye, he crafted a spear of shimmering purple light. It wasn’t a normal sleep spell. It couldn’t be or else the Void casters would simply absorb it. To avoid that, he submerged the spear’s form into the cosmic aether that surrounded them. Unless the Void casters were also excellent at manipulating mental anima, they would never see the attack coming. All he had to do was survive and get close enough to actually cast it on them.

A blast hit Osgood’s fighter square on the nose and shattered the shield that Hector had put up.

“Shield source terminated,” the analysis imp said and Osgood’s heart froze.

“We’re…we’re still here, most of us,” Hector said, his voice sounding hollow and stretched out. “Resuming transmission now.”

Shields reformed around Osgood’s shift and he went back to weaving the sleep spell while trying to dodge as much of the incoming fire as he could.

In the space of ten seconds, the incoming barrage stripped the shields away three times and each time Hector reformed them and each time he sounded weaker afterwards.

Ten seconds was all Osgood needed through. With a final burst of speed from the overworked engines, he closed the distance to the dreadnaught and felt the minds within it at last. As he’d hoped they were working with a set of telepathic links similar to the ones he shared with his squadron and Hector. The links were protected and he didn’t have the godlike spellcrafting talent needed to hack into them at range and in the time available but, fortunately, he didn’t need to hear what they were saying. All he needed was to do was match the threads of the links to the minds he could detect and looks for the threads that let to nothing.

One of the problems with being invisible is that the environment will still show signs that something or someone is present. In this case, the Void casters stood out sharply due to the fact that Osgood couldn’t see them via Mental anima sensing.

“We’ve got three Void casters on the enemy ship,” Osgood told the group. “Neutralizing one of them temporarily now.”

With that he loosed the sleep spear and felt it stretch out from his hand to spiral into the ship.

To the attacker’s credit they did have mental shielding in place on the dreadnaught, but with the infrequency of that sort of attack they’d only bought the basic variety that represented the strongest return on investment in terms of protection rating vs. gold expended. Since this was the most typical choice for a combat vessel to make, it was also the most typical thing Osgood had fought against in his years on Hellsreach, so he knew exactly how to bypass that sort of defense.

His sleep spear phased right past the shielding, right through the hull and even right underneath the Void anima shields their casters had in place.

“Be bound in eternal slumber!” Osgood said, his voice carrying to the enemy Void caster and quenching their consciousness like a heavy rain dousing a candle.

Osgood put all his will and all of his power behind the spell. It was easily the most powerful spell of any variety that he’d ever cast, but even so he knew it wouldn’t really induce an endless sleep. The Void caster would need to be disenchanted to wake, but that was going to readily available no matter which side won the battle.

Exhausted from the victorious spell casting, Osgood’s focus on dodging with his ship faltered for a second. Once again his shields shattered only, this time, they didn’t reform.

“Hector?” he called out on their telepathic link.

No answer greeted him, the world was silence and emptiness.

Then fire filled the darkness and Osgood felt his ship buckle and start to sheer apart.

“Ambassador Command to all Imperial ships,” Osgood said as power failed on one component after another on the control board. “We’ve got their attention now. Keep bloodying their noses, whatever it takes. And reach back to Titanus to your loved ones. All Imperial channels are open for your use.”

“What’s the plan sir?” the veteran flyer asked.

“They have us outgunned and outclassed,” Osgood said as sparks turned into open flames in the cockpit. “But there’s a lot more of us than there are of them. Let’s show them what it means when we stand together and how much power we can really bring to bear. Give them hell folks. Osgood out.”