Previously in Only Slightly
Yarek, who, it turns out, is one of the first ever human wizards, several thousand years old and the result of genetic engineering by an alien race known as the Ikhshiid, gathered The Geraldine, Anneka, Bidet and Fridgara in his mysterious mediaeval dining hall to explain that humanity is under imminent threat by an alien race called the Karema, who defeated the Ikhshiid thousands of years ago. He has created a spell in five parts corresponding to the five magical elements which can shut them off in their part of the galaxy for the foreseeable future, although he isn't entirely certain where all the parts now are.
Anneka is sent off to undergo various trials which will bring out her magical abilities and allow her to become the Air component of Yarek's spell. The Geraldine is revealed to be Water. Bidet and Fridgara are sent to Berlin to locate Spirit, who turns out to be a sentient, telepathic cat named Rmurr, but while they are searching, Yarek feels the person carrying the Fire component of the spell die.
They were sitting around the huge table in Yarek's hall eating a delicious dinner when the air stirred and Anneka seemed to decant out of it, building up out of millions of tiny pieces in the corner of the room. The Geraldine leaped up immediately with a glad cry which sent Rmurr under the table, where she curled herself around Fridgara's ankles. Yarek rose more slowly, but had a smile on his face nonetheless.
'Welcome back,' he said. 'I see you learned a few things.'
Anneka walked over to the table and sat down next to The Geraldine. 'You could say that,' she said. 'It would seem I've got some important work to do.'
'That's putting it mildly,' Bidet said. 'Good to see you again Anneka. We found Spirit while you were gone.'
'You did? Are they here?'
'Yes,' Bidet said. 'Under the table. Rmurr, come and say hello to Anneka. She's the Air component.'
Rmurr jumped up onto the table and eyed Anneka suspiciously. Anneka eyed her just as suspiciously back.
'This is Spirit?'
'Oh yes,' Bidet said. 'Look at her eyes.' Anneka did so, and saw the mark of the Ikhshiid in them, which she now carried herself.
'Well, it's not what I expected, but I'm pleased to meet you, Rmurr,' Anneka said. Gingerly, she reached out and stroked Rmurr's head, and the cat responded with some enthusiastic purring. Fridgara smiled.
'She says that you can do that as often as you like,' the witch told Anneka.
'She can talk?'
'In a way. She's telepathic, but she only seems to be able to send to me at the moment,' Fridgara said. 'Yarek has been working with her on extending her abilities; he didn't have any mysteries worked out for a cat to solve.'
'Understandable, I suppose.' Anneka looked over at Yarek. 'What about the other two? Fire and Earth?'
'We must find Earth next,' Yarek said. 'And we have only about six hours to do so.'
'Why such a hurry? Are the Karema coming already?' Bidet asked. Yarek shook his head.
'Not in force,' he said. 'They continue their subtle magics, although they have recently suffered a setback in one area, perhaps just on one planet; it is a long way from here and so difficult to determine exactly.'
'Well, that's wonderful!' Fridgara said. 'If someone else was able to slow them down...'
'It came at a price,' Yarek said. 'The person carrying the Fire component of the spell died in the process. I suspect it was their magic used against the Karema magic. Without understanding and the other four components, such an effort could easily have proven fatal.'
There was silence for a moment.
'But if the Fire component is lost...' Anneka began. Yarek cut her off.
'It might be possible to recreate the Fire part of the spell,' he said. 'But we need to know more about what happened. The planet in question is, I believe, called Arelon - The Geraldine and Anneka will go there and investigate. I'd send Rmurr, but until she can talk to anyone except for Fridgara she wouldn't be much good.'
'I could go as well,' Fridgara said.
'No, you and Bidet are going somewhere else.'
Bidet and Fridgara looked at each other. Fridgara shrugged.
'Why not?' she said. 'I left my makeup bag there anyway.'
The Geraldine took herself and Anneka to Arelon, navigating her way through the disconnected yet interconnected oceans of the galaxy with the ease which had surprised her ever since she discovered this particular ability. Yarek had explained it as something to do with the way he designed the component of his great spell which resided within her magic, but she still found it surprising, and couldn't help smiling in satisfaction as they emerged from a warm sea near Arelon's main spaceport.
'Something's wrong here,' Anneka said almost immediately, looking around. The Geraldine frowned, inhaling deeply. There was definitely something wrong with the air, almost like it was edged with something sticky.
'Yarek said there was Karema magic here. Perhaps that's what we're feeling.'
'Perhaps.' Anneka looked doubtful though. 'But if it's not here any more, why can we still feel this?'
That was a possibility The Geraldine didn't really want to have to think about. 'Whatever it is,' she said. 'We still have a job to do here. Come on, let's go and see what we can find out.'
'How do you know we're in the right place?' Anneka asked as they set off up the beach towards the spaceport terminal, visible on the horizon.
'I don't,' The Geraldine admitted. 'Just a hunch, I guess. The spaceport seems like the right place to be.'
'In that case...' Anneka took The Geraldine's arm, and the world lurched sickeningly around her, whipped into a frenzy of colours and movement. It was only for a few seconds, but when the world returned and The Geraldine found herself standing on an empty landing pad, she swayed, clapped a hand to her mouth and vomited, just missing making a mess of her favourite soft leatherette boots.
'Warn me before you do that again,' she said, and accepted a tissue to wipe her mouth with. 'I could at least have the chance to close my eyes.'
'It wouldn't help,' Anneka said. 'Your eyelids aren't necessarily in front of your eyes until you solidify again.'
The Geraldine retched again. 'I don't understand why you find it so hard,' Anneka continued. 'You do a similar thing when you travel in the water, and I don't have a problem with that.'
'No, that's completely different,' The Geraldine said, then stopped. It was completely different - wasn't it? She realised she wasn't actually sure what she was doing at all; she just did it. 'Maybe. Anyway, we're wasting time.'
Anneka nodded and walked over to an entrance door. Inside they found a departure lounge filled with empty beds, each one accompanied by an IV stand, some of them with various bits of medical technology next to them. All the beds were neatly made, and showed no signs of having been occupied, but there was a smell in the air, like a hospital.
'What happened here?' The Geraldine wondered aloud. Anneka shook her head and made her way between the beds to the other side of the lounge, where a glass door led out into a courtyard.
'There's someone out here,' she called, and went outside. The Geraldine followed, and found Anneka being greeted enthusiastically by a familiar figure.
'Elizabeth!' she called, and the woman she'd first met forty years before when it seemed the future of the Earth hung in the balance came across the courtyard and gave her an enormous hug.
'Oh, Geraldine, it's good to see you again,' she said. 'How did you hear?'
Anneka and The Geraldine exchanged looks. 'Hear what?' The Geraldine asked.
'About Bill, of course.'
'What about Bill?'
'You mean you really didn't know? You just came?'
'Well, it was a bit less random than that, we're looking for... hang on, what about Bill?'
'Bill... Bill's dead.'
Anneka closed the door on the room they'd found The Geraldine a bed in, muffling the woman's continued sobs. The Sitter on the Chair of Mina had known about Bill's on-off relationship with The Geraldine of course, but she hadn't realised there was quite so much depth of feeling involved in it. Elizabeth sat on a bench seat in the corridor, looking thoughtfully off into the distance as Anneka sat next to her.
'You didn't say how he died,' Anneka said after a while. 'Or what happened here.'
'How did you know something happened?'
'The beds in the departure lounge are something of a giveaway, and that was on top of what brought us here in the first place.'
'What was that?'
'Later. What happened?'
Elizabeth took a moment to collect herself. 'Bill and I were on our way to investigate a planet on the edge of the galaxy we thought might be the planet The Geraldine had ended up on after she vanished from Mars. Bill had a vision one night, of Linda dying on a beach somewhere. We correlated what he saw in the dream with the ship's database and determined it was either Arelon or Gir-Aris where she'd died.'
'It was Gir-Aris,' Anneka said. 'I was there.'
'Were you? You'll have to tell me about that. Bill was upset, he knew Linda very well of course. We set out for Arelon first, as it was on the way to Gir-Aris, but when we got here although we didn't find any trace of Linda, we did find a planet in the grip of a universally lethal plague. We couldn't leave after finding that of course, so Bill turned his magic to attempting to find a cure.
'He found that the plague was spread by magic like he'd never seen before, although in the process he was infected himself. Then we heard that someone elsewhere on the planet had caught the plague and recovered from it. He came here, as Bill was the only wizard on the planet until the team from Earth arrived yesterday. Bill found that Pen-Ghast had a magic born in him which was capable of nullifying the magic of the plague. He thought that it was a forced adaptation of a natural magical gift, something like your own ability to fly.
'Between them, with Bill dying of the plague, they were able to work up a spell which wiped the plague magic from the entire planet, curing everyone who had the disease. However, it appears the spell required more strength than they had required, because when it was done we found them both dead in their laboratory.'
There was silence for a long moment.
'The Geraldine and I came here because Pen-Ghast was the carrier of one of five parts of a very important piece of magic,' Anneka said eventually. 'Yarek, the wizard who created it, felt him die, and felt the magic he had designed his spell to work against as it was involved in Pen-Ghast's death. He sent us here to find out what happened.'
'This spell was designed to work against the plague magic?'
'Yes and no. It works against the plague magic, but only because it was designed to work against all magic made by an alien race called the Karema.'
'An alien race? But we've never-'
'Trust me, they're real enough. I've never actually seen one of them, but I believe Yarek. He was raised by another race who the Karema wiped out thousands of years ago, the Ikhshiid, and he's been waiting ever since for his chance to stop the same thing happening to us, when we were big enough to attract the Karema's attention.'
'And I suppose we're big enough now.'
'Too right. He tells us that the initial attacks against the Ikhshiid were all-out space battles, but it seems they've decided to be more subtle against us. Perhaps because we have magic; the Ikhshiid had none at all, whereas the Karema use magic exclusively for all purposes. My guess would be that the magic Pen-Ghast carried cured him of the plague, but it wasn't up to the task of cleansing the whole planet by itself. If The Geraldine or I had been here...'
'You could have warned him off what he was doing?'
'Oh no, we wouldn't have known. Yarek is the expert on this, not me. We could have helped him though - Pen-Ghast carried the components of the spell relating to the magical element Fire. The Geraldine carries Water, and I carry Air. With three out of the five, there should have been more than enough power to deal with a planet, especially with Bill's strength and skill. If all five of us had been here... well, if all five of us had been here it would all be over right now.'
'So this spell is some kind of weapon?'
'Partly. Yarek tells us that it is a barrier through which the Karema's magic cannot pass, at least until they find a way around it, although he seems to think that will take quite some time. However, it's also capable of cleaning out all Karema magic on our side of the barrier, giving us a good position from which to develop our resources for when they come at us again, or even to try and negotiate with them, although that never worked for the Ikhshiid. Unfortunately, with Pen-Ghast dead, it becomes more difficult to work the spell properly.'
'But you can still do it?'
'I believe so. We have other people working on replacing the missing part of the spell. With any luck-' she cut off as the sunlight outside vanished. 'What's that? An eclipse?'
'I doubt it,' Elizabeth said, 'Arelon doesn't have any moons or large space stations.'
They rose and looked out of the window, where it was almost as dark as midnight. Looking up, she could just see the local sun's corona blazing around something huge and circular which appeared to be spotted with points of light.
'What's that?' she asked. There was a flash of light, and the ground shook beneath their feet. The shaking was accompanied by a wash of something which sent every nerve in Anneka's skin tingling. She must have gasped and shivered, because Elizabeth turned to her, concerned.
'What is it?'
'I think... I think it's the Karema,' she said, as the ground shook again. Streaks of fire were now visible, descending rapidly through the atmosphere, and as each one touched the ground there was a flash, and a few seconds later a vibration which rattled the windows. 'Their plague failed, so they're invading.'
Elizabeth swallowed hard, then grabbed Anneka's arm and pulled her down the corridor. 'Come on,' she said. 'We need to let the authorities know what they're up against. Do you have any way to get help from your friend Yarek? If so, I suggest you use it.'
Anneka thought that was a rather good idea.