Volume III of Legacy: Black Star, Part 1 - Cover

Volume III of Legacy: Black Star, Part 1

Copyright© 2023 by Uruks

Chapter 6: One Team, Two Missions

Construction is behind schedule again. The local fauna and flora of this world are proving to be ... resilient. Of course, that’s one of the reasons that Black Star Prime was selected. The hardiness of the resident animal life will provide our test subjects with suitable organic material to consume.

“I still don’t know why I’m here,” Eramar grumbled. “It’s not like I can participate in any official capacity, not until the court martial is concluded.”

He wore a traditional maroon Fire Ministry uniform in place of his usual armor. His cloth uniform usually came with an inordinate amount of medals and straps, indicating Eramar’s rank and many accomplishments as a Wielder. But since his status as a Wielder was on suspension pending an investigation after what happened in District 8, his uniform was bare.

“And so you are not participating in any official capacity as a Wielder, but are simply here acting as my manservant,” Saria answered flatly with a toss of her long, curly brown hair.

Saria felt as uncomfortable as Eramar looked, but then she always felt that way since having to don the stuffy, regal robes of the Fire Minister. The long gold and red robes went all the way down to her golden-booted feet and covered most of her arms. It was shaped very similar to a dress, but perhaps a bit more illustrious. She was hardly able to walk in the blasted thing, let alone fight. She would’ve much preferred to don her armor as she had for a good portion of her considerably long life, but sacrifices had to be made when serving in a public office. At least the loose-fitting outfit was a bit easier on her bosom (which was a fair bit larger than the average woman’s as many had noted with envy).

“Speaking of which, here you are, manservant.” Saria picked up an armful of datapads from her desk and handed them to Eramar. “Make yourself useful and sort my itinerary for the day. Oh, and later on, don’t forget to pick up my groceries from the market too. You know how much I hate food from those synthesizer things. There’s an energy shortage anyway. I’m always thinking of ways to be cost-effective. Now, aren’t I a wonderful Fire Minister?”

“Saria,” Eramar said warningly still holding the datapads in his arms.

“The correct answer is ‘you’re the best Fire Minister that ever was’. Also, what happened to ‘my lady’? Not that I started liking that title, but the lack of it does make one wonder about her manservant’s priorities.”

“My lady,” said Eramar respectfully, but firmly. “I know what you’re doing. You’re trying to get me accustomed to being your right hand once again. That is premature.”

“I will be the judge of what is premature, Wielder Razor,” Saria responded as she took a seat at her desk. Then she smiled to herself, and said, “I mean manservant.”

Eramar made a noise of displeasure. “How long do you plan on calling me that?”

“How long do you plan on moping?” Saria said, quite enjoying herself as she examined her nails and considered calling Sergei back for a manicure. He did have many talents after all, and not just as a masseuse. “Now, don’t you have some datapads to sort for me, manservant?”

Eramar muttered something indistinguishable as he took a desk where one of Saria’s accountants usually sat and worked. He rifled through the datapads obediently, but with no small amount of quiet grumbling.

Saria’s usually bustling office was empty save for her and Eramar. She didn’t want an audience for the missions she had assigned for Squad 99. In fact, there was to be no official record of their next endeavors of any kind. It was her hope, and she knew Zand’s as well, to keep the young Elementals out of anything too dangerous for the time being. But she also needed to keep them busy with activities that would propel their growth, some of which did not involve fighting in the least. She imagined Grafael would not be too happy to hear about that.

Saria tapped her fingers impatiently as she surveyed the empty office. The large, round room was lined with tall, spiraling marble columns and decorated with many curtains of red and gold. Rows of empty desks lined either side of Saria’s desk which also acted as a makeshift throne. Behind Saria was a large window where she could see a good portion of the Ministry of Fire as the office sat near the top of the volcano.

On her desk sat a white feathered quill, a final heirloom of the one man that Saria might’ve given her heart to. She had many suitors over her extremely long lifespan, but only one man had ever managed to capture her heart. And ironically, he was the one man that refused to hang around. The others, she had to basically beat away before they left her in peace.

You better appreciate what I’m about to do for you, Zand, thought Saria to herself. I never put much stock in your ‘Children of Destiny’ or ‘Grand Solution’ and other such metaphysical nonsense. But I will do this for you. I will see to it that Squad 99 is looked after. Hopefully, those brats can manage to stay out of trouble for the time being.

As if summoned by her thoughts, the doors at the end of the chamber dissolved in a shower of flames, ushering in the young members of Squad 99 escorted by Saria’s guards. Aside from Grafael and Tork, they were all dressed in their casual civilian clothes as Saria had summoned them before they had time to change into their uniforms. Rachel wore a simple sleeveless red shirt with dark pants (which were far too tight for Saria’s liking), and red slip-on slippers. Torsha’s outfit was a bit more conservative than Rachel’s, wearing a frilly white dress that allowed room for her bushy tail, and brown leather sandals on her furry feet. Éclair wore a blue, long-sleeved open-shoulder top, a white mini skirt that wasn’t too inappropriately short, as well as see-through glass slippers. Leon wore his Victorian-styled dark suit and cloak, along with long leather boots that added to his aristocratic bearing. And Ryan wore a simple white T-shirt and black pants. Thankfully, he had the sense to at least come with shoes this time, albeit white tennis shoes that looked like they had seen better days.

Squad 99, and their newest member, Torsha, lined up to stand at attention in front of the Minister’s desk. Technically, Torsha was a Monk and not a member of the Fire Ministry, but she was acting as envoy for the Monastery in an effort to smooth relations. Her presence on Squad 99 was another favor that Zand owed Saria. Although, considering how useful the young Werewolf Monk proved to be, Saria might’ve considered herself the beneficiary of such an arrangement.

Saria’s guards bowed to their Fire Minister, and she in turn graced them with a respectful nod of her head. When the guards left and the doors reappeared, Saria immediately felt more comfortable. With all the technological shielding and psionic wards placed around the office, not even Zanderius himself would be able to spy on them.

“At ease, Squad 99,” Saria commanded, leaning back in her chair, and already feeling more relaxed.

Their postures became less rigid, but they still remained a little tense. Saria doubted that a true Elemental could completely eliminate tension. It just came with the territory of their dangerous lifestyles.

Ryan, as usual, seemed the least tense, glancing over at Eramar and asking quietly, “What are you doing here? I thought you were on sabbatical from Wielder duties, or something.”

Eramar huffed under his breath and continued typing on various datapads. “Don’t ask,” he answered without looking up from his work.

Leon Lurranna, wearing his Victorian-style suit and black cloak, adjusted his glasses in that habitual manner of his and stepped forward. “Lady Minister. Squad 99 reporting for duty.”

“As well you should, Third,” Saria said with a nod. “I know you are all feeling restless given how long it’s been since your last mission. My Grim Team, the pride of the Fire Ministry, should not languish idly for too long. Your period of training has served its purpose. Now it’s time I put you all to work before you get fat and soft on me.”

Grafael grinned, shuddering slightly with pleasure as he said quietly to himself, “Oh, thank Rhuknor.”

Éclair shook her head, smiling to herself as she said, “Saurians.”

Saria folded her hands in front of her and leaned on her knuckles. “I have a mission for you. Two missions, in fact. You will have to divide your forces, but I trust this is not beyond your purview.”

Saria thought she detected the slightest look of concern from Ryan, and perhaps even Éclair, but with her, it was more subtle.

Leon showed no reaction as he simply said, “Of course not, my lady.”

Saria stifled the urge to correct him on the title as she continued. “There has been some disturbing activity from the underworld lately. I don’t have to remind you of what transpired nearly three months ago on Galsin. One of our training facilities was blatantly assaulted by a band of renegades. Such disrespect to the Fire Ministry and the Empire itself has not occurred in an age. The criminal underbelly of our universe must be quelled. They need to be reminded of who holds the power in this universe. They need to be reminded to fear the power of Elemency for order to be restored.”

Saria paused and glanced down at her quill for a moment, allowing herself to think of Zand if only briefly. “The Space Pirates and other criminal organizations have been steadily growing more aggressive. Even though all of the guilty parties from the raid on the Exams were killed or captured, many crime lords have become emboldened by the incident. Instability throughout the Empire is running rampant, especially among the fringe worlds. After questioning some of the captured Space Pirates, and treating them of their derangement brought on by Dark Water, we now know the source of the infection.”

Saria spoke carefully. “Squad 99, you will coordinate with our contact and investigate the Space Station Nirvana, the hub of piracy in the Empire. Keep in mind, with the advent of Dark Water, it is very likely that Mystics and Mages may be involved with the Space Pirates. That means the Order of Shadows, the selfsame organization behind the Goblin Assassins who attempted to start a civil war between the Ministries over a year ago to this day. You will look into this connection and report back to me with your findings. At least, most of you will.”

Rachel cleared her throat nervously, and said, “My Lady Minister, I know you said you had two missions for us, but with a mission this important, would it not be better to face it at full strength?”

“Am I being questioned, Third?” Saria said non too gently.

Rachel shook her head stiffly, her face passive as she came to attention. “Of course not, my lady. My apologies.”

Saria appraised her granddaughter for a moment. She took that well. There was a time when such an outburst from me would’ve made her cry, or lash out angrily. I sometimes forget that she’s not a little girl anymore.

“The other mission is of equal importance, but only one of you is required for it. Éclair Kaves. You are up to date on your lessons in negotiations and emissary work, are you not?”

Éclair looked up in surprise, but quickly recovered as she said, “Yes, my Lady Minister.”

“Your tutors tell me that you are a quick study. You have a natural gift for public speaking and conversation. You know how to put people at ease in almost any situation ... at least in the realm of politics.”

Éclair flushed momentarily in embarrassment and said, “Well, I’m not sure if I would go that far, my-”

“We do not give false praise here, Second, therefore, I will not accept false humility,” Saria said, her tone once again becoming commanding. “Are you qualified for emissary duties or not?”

Éclair drew herself up, lifting her head high as she said without hesitation, “I am, my lady.”

Saria nodded. “Good. There’s a trading agreement I need you to finalize on my behalf. The Ministry of Fire has been negotiating with the Insectoids on a substantial shipment of Sun Gems. It will go a long way to strengthening ties with a Kaves present, preferably one who has the grace for politics. Unfortunately, that does not include me nor my granddaughter.”

Rachel opened her mouth as if to protest. Then she thought better of it, shrugged, and said, “Point taken.”

Saria stopped herself from grinning as she continued. “Second. Understand that this is not simply about trade. With these uncertain times facing the universe, I am hoping to procure a military alliance with the Insectoids and other parties. It may even be possible to coordinate with them in containing the recent crime wave plaguing the outer galaxies. I want you to make the necessary groundwork for such an eventuality.”

Saria then raised a cautionary finger. “Preferably, without the Emperor’s notice. Chissler’s policies limiting the Ministries and Patrollers have greatly encouraged the enthusiasm of pirates, smugglers, and slavers. We must now work to clean up his mess, and it would be best to do so discreetly.”

Éclair looked startled for a moment as she began to fully grasp the weight of such an undertaking. Her resolve was shaken only temporarily before her eyebrows narrowed in determination.

“I understand, my Lady Minister. It will be done as you wish,” Éclair said unflinchingly.

Saria allowed herself a silent moment of pride ... pride for all her cubs now on their way to becoming lions. “And finally, one of you will have to accompany Éclair on her mission. I know this decreases the participants of the more dangerous task involving intelligence gathering, but squad mates should not travel without reliable backup that they can trust. You have all experienced many trials and rigors together thus far. I think you can relate to the sentiment.”

Éclair’s posture seemed to ease a bit in relief, and surprisingly, so too did Ryan’s.

Grafael huffed angrily, no doubt disappointed at the prospect of not going on the more dangerous mission, but Saria could see his loyalty for Éclair winning out over his need for thrills.

“My Lady Minister,” began Grafael hesitantly. “Éclair is my protectorate. We have been together since coming to the Ministry of Fire. Though it pains me that my allies must go into danger without me, I cannot abandon her. Therefore, would you allow me to be the one who-”

“Ryan Uruks,” Saria said suddenly. “You shall be Éclair’s escort for the negotiations with the Insectoids.”

There were startled looks of surprise between Éclair, Ryan, and Saria. Ryan himself seemed the most surprised, and the most disheartened.

“My Lady Minister,” said Leon, almost exhibiting emotion for once. “I do not mean to question you, but I must protest. Surely I would serve better as escort. There is no question that Ryan is a valuable member of our squad, but he lacks the experience for such a task.”

“Experience?” Saria said questioningly. “Hmm. What are an escort’s duties? To serve and protect in every capacity that he can. To be a shield against danger should it come. He will not be required to participate in the talks himself. He has not received any training in that regard. But as an Elemental – and perhaps even more importantly, as a part-Saurian – Ryan has already demonstrated superb instincts for such work.”

“But ... but...” stammered Grafael, torn between his duty to Éclair and his respect for his kin.

Saria raised a hand, silencing any further protests from both Grafael and Leon. “Grafael. You cannot go. Your strength is needed against the pirates. Leon, you cannot go either. Your expertise is needed. You’ve had dealings with the underworld in the past. That experience will be useful. And Rachel’s skills as a Spiritual Type are most suited for espionage, not guard duty.”

Rachel raised a finger, opening her mouth to protest. Then she lowered that finger and closed her mouth, realizing the point Saria made.

“As for Tork and Torsha, they have ... relations with our Nirvana contact. Relations that will become important for maintaining a stable unit when you reach the rendezvous point.”

“Relations?” Tork repeated.

“What relations?” Torsha asked suspiciously. “I don’t know any pirates. I’m a Monk, for Caretaker’s sake.”

“That will become clear when you each receive your mission briefings later,” Saria explained, secretly enjoying the opportunity to sound mysterious in front of youngsters.

As her arguments settled in, Saria saw a bit of the determination in Leon’s eyes waver ever so slightly, but not dissolve completely. Ryan, on the other hand, appeared worried as if he wished to protest, but couldn’t think of anything to say. Éclair remained unreadable.

“So you see, Third,” Saria said, addressing Leon. “Your Minister is not so frivolous as you believe. I have indeed thought this through, considering every angle. Ryan is the best choice for the task at hand. The rest of you are needed for other duties.”

Leon was usually not one to argue, but his expression grew stubborn as his jaw tightened ever so slightly. “Still, my point stands. Éclair’s mission could yet prove dangerous. Perhaps not as risky as Nirvana, but there is a risk ... there always is for Elementals. Ryan’s behavior has, quite frankly, been erratic as of late. Éclair should have a more reliable ally at her side in case of-”

“I agree with the Minister’s choice,” Éclair said quietly.

All eyes now fell on Éclair. None were larger than Leon’s, except for perhaps Ryan’s.

“Éclair?” Leon questioned, almost sounding betrayed.

Éclair looked up at Leon, her features gentle but resolved. “Leon, you said it yourself. Ryan has been behaving too independently. It’s not conducive for teamwork. It would be perilous sending him to a place like Nirvana with the rest of the team right now. I would prefer not to endanger all of you with...”

Éclair paused and then faced Ryan. “Forgive me for being blunt, Ryan, but Leon is right in that you haven’t been the most effective member of our team as of late. You have been distracted ... unfocused. Therefore, the less dangerous mission should be the one you participate in. Personally, I would recommend that you be relieved of duty for a short period of time until you clear your head. But that is not my decision.”

Ryan said nothing, his red eyes leaving Éclair’s and going to the floor as if in deep thought.

Éclair then faced Leon and then Grafael, giving them both hard looks. “Besides. I am hardly helpless myself. If the worse should happen, I can provide my own protection. Ryan will serve as my backup in such an event.”

Saria drew her fists to her lips to hide her smile. She has the makings of a Minister, alright. You were right about that much, Zand.

Leon seemed like he wanted to argue, but said nothing as he studied Éclair. Grafael was staring at Ryan with inscrutable azure eyes, and Ryan continued facing the floor.

“It would seem that Éclair can also think things through,” concluded Saria, bringing the matter to a close. “We will adjourn for now. You will leave on the morrow. Take the time this evening to settle any arrangements for your trip. Before your departure, meet in Dr. Lanchester’s lab for your mission briefings at Oh-five-hundred hours. With Thisimius on sabbatical, Lanchester will be handling your inventory for the time being. Squad 99, dismissed.”

Squad 99 came to attention, each giving the Minister a salute before marching obediently out of the office.

When they were gone, Eramar raised a questioning eyebrow towards Saria from his desk. “You think they’ll figure out that their assignments are mostly for fluff?”

Saria patted her desk with both hands and then stood to her feet. “Not completely. These are important missions, but according to my analysts, not half as dangerous as what Squad 99 has been up to for the past year. With any luck, Kormal can keep the assignment on Nirvana confined to an uneventful stakeout while our true investigative teams weed out the real rats in the underworld. And the trading mission with the Insectoids is fairly routine despite my dramatizations. But it will be a good experience for Éclair nonetheless. After all, we both know she’s meant for much more than the life of a soldier. Perhaps both she and Ryan.”

Eramar’s tone became more serious. “And what of the rumors of Black Star ... the ships vanishing and colonies going dark in nearby systems?”

Saria’s thoughts turned grim, but she tried not to overreact. “I’ve already sent a small fleet to reconnoiter the area. We’re strengthening patrols along the Zeta Way Galaxy just in case, but my staff believes it’s nothing too serious. Probably some smugglers using past horrors to their benefit, relying on fear to avoid prying eyes.”

“And if it’s not simply smugglers?” Eramar asked.

“Then it is all the better that Squad 99 stay as far away from Black Star as they can.”

Tyrant screeched, flapping wildly in Ryan’s face. The golden feathered hawk with its sharp beak and even sharper red eyes clawed and pecked ferociously at Ryan. He always got like this before a trip. Actually, he always acted like this even if Ryan wasn’t taking a trip.

“You’re sure you can handle this, Thomas ... I mean, my honored disciple?” Ryan asked his junior one last time.

Thomas Madison was now ten years old. He threw a fit if Ryan didn’t call him his ‘honored disciple’, so Ryan relented on that count no matter how annoying it got. Still a snot-nosed squirt with messy light brown hair, freckles, and a gap tooth. His face was a bit pudgy, but since he had been receiving light training as a Grunt, the kid wasn’t chubby. Kind of a weird little kid, but he did have a big heart and an even bigger stomach. Ryan thought the kid would eat his own hand if it was made of jelly beans. He just didn’t know how the kid stayed so small all the time given how much he ate. High metabolism perhaps.

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