Our time was running out. Each second we stayed in the apartment was a serious slice off the lead we had on Queen Metai’s forces. In less than an hour we’d lost our medic, our captain, our ship and our most direct connection back to the Imperial throne. With the Queen’s agents aware of who they were dealing with, I expected the kid gloves to come off. The answer to whether the hotel would be something other than a pile of rubble if they caught us there was something I wasn’t eager to discover. But I let a long moment hang in silence as I stared across the room at the two women who confronted us.
“Who are you working for Watersward?” Zyla asked. Her body was rigid as granite, struggling to hold back a flood of Physical anima and the tide of violence that drove it.
I blinked for a second and tried to understand the question. The surprise of seeing one of the two people I’d come to rescue, scrambled my brain long enough that Darius got to the obvious answer before I did.
“You’re worried the Queen’s gotten to us already,” he said.
“Right, mind control,” I said, catching up. “Sorry, it’s not a problem for me, so I wasn’t thinking of it. We’re on your side, Zyla. We came here to rescue Yael and you.”
“Void caster?” Ebele, the woman standing next to Zyla, asked.
“Yes,” I said. “Nice work on the invisibility cloak. Didn’t notice you even when I glanced over the room with Void sight.”
“It helps to use real shadows to hide in too,” Ebele said. “And you were distracted.”
“You didn’t kill any of them did you?” Zyla asked, her anger still barely contained.
“No,” Darius said. “Mild shocks only. They’ll wake up in minute and have a bit of a headache but I can help with that.”
“We don’t have a minute to spare,” Ebele said.
“I can wake one of them sooner,” Darius said.
“Get Kojo up,” Ebele said. “He can get us all out of here.”
“To where?” I asked.
“Neutral ground outside of town,” Ebele said. “We can talk there and decide what to do next.”
“You’re surprisingly calm for someone who just had over half her forces incapacitated,” I said.
“We entered your room without permission,” she said. “We knew the risk, if you came back. That you only incapacitated them suggests you’re still the people Zyla spoke of.”
“You knew we would be here?” I asked.
“I hoped you would be,” Zyla said, her demeanor finally softening. “When I saw you at the Gala and you were sitting beside the Queen’s agent…”
She trailed off but I heard all the words she wasn’t saying. The Horizon Breaker was their insurance policy, maybe even their last hope after their usual safeguards and backup plans failed. If the Queen got to me and the rest of the crew before we could help them, Yael and Zyla might wind up losing everything.
Or maybe Zyla already had? I wanted to ask her why Yael wasn’t with her, but her anger gave me all the answer I needed.
They’d been partners for three years. In that time, everyone except apparently the two of them had seen how much they cared for and loved each other. There was a power imbalance there with Yael technically being Zyla’s parole officer, which complicated things, but not (in my opinion) irrevocably so. In time I was pretty sure they’d work through all that. Until then though, they stuck together, even through some missions that sounded scary as hell. If Yael was missing, there was one thing I could be certain of; it wasn’t by her own choice.
“What hit me?” Kojo said as Darius brought him back to consciousness.
“She did,” he said, pointing at me as he laid a hand gently on Kojo’s forehead and brushed a healing wash of Physical anima into Kojo’s scalp to erase the damage I’d inflicted on the poor man.
“We need to be out of here as of two minutes ago,” Ebele said, helping Kojo to his feet.
“We just got here two minutes ago,” Kojo said.
“I stand by what I said. Can you handle seven of us?” Ebele asked.
“Eight actually,” I said. “We left a friend on the balcony.”
“Sort of,” Fari said, appearing in her translucent blue form. “Best not to leave the body there though. It still has a resonance to you and they could do some ugly things with rituals if we’ve annoyed them sufficiently.”
“The same is true with Illya right?” I asked. Since the doppelganger was configured to appear as either of us so it seemed wise to ask.
“Yes, though it’s a little harder from that end since the doppelganger’s a blend,” Fari said.
“I think we’re going to have to lose it,” I said. “It’s too much of a risk at this point.”
“You’re right,” Fari said. “I was hoping we could hold onto it for a little longer, but I guess without Illya to power it, it’s not that useful.”
“You have a fully formed doppelganger?” Zyla asked.
“Yeah, outside on the balcony,” I said. “We were going to use it to let me infiltrate the Central Police and see if they knew where you or Yael was.”
“Bring it with us,” Zyla said. “It might still be useful.”
“Can you provide enough anima to get it moving?” Fari asked.
Zyla closed her eyes, paused for a second to find the doppelganger and waved a hand. Shambling not entirely unlike a zombie, the empty shell opened the balcony door and entered the room.
With a little cheer, Fari disappeared and the doppelganger gained a sudden jolt of grace to its movements. When I looked into its eyes, I saw not a hollow shell but my friend staring back at me.
“We’re ready to go,” I said.
“Almost ready,” Darius said and stepped into the bedroom to grab a sack. “Anima blade pieces, combat armor for each of us and local currency.”
“I like how you pack,” I said.
“A police detail just checked in with the main desk,” Fari alerted us.
“We’re out of time,” Ebele said.
I felt an anima field rise around me and forced myself to suppress every erg of Void magic I was holding.
Like healing spells, teleportation spells were benign intrusions of someone else’s anima into a person’s body. For most folks, this wasn’t a big deal. The teleport spell hit them and they were safely and calmly transferred to another point in space instantaneously. The Void anima I carried wasn’t that great at distinguishing friendly magic from hostile spells though. I’d progressed a lot since the first time someone cast a healing spell on me and I nearly killed him, but I still had to be careful when receiving any kind of beneficial enchantment, especially if the person helping me wasn’t used to dealing with Void anima.
Probably from hanging around with Ebele, that wasn’t a problem for Kojo. I’d been worried I hadn’t warned him but he was well versed in being careful when teleporting Void casters. It took an extra couple of seconds for the spell to complete as a result of that though, which wasn’t entirely comfortable for anyone involved.
“Maybe having a body isn’t so great,” Fari said. “I feel like my stomach was pulled out through my nose.”
“I thought it felt more like someone stuffed a glacier in my ear,” Darius said.
“Speaking of glaciers, where are we?” I asked.
Ebele answered me with a nothing more than a silent smile. We weren’t at the trusting stage of our relationship just yet it seemed.
We’d landed at on the edge of an ice cliff. Behind Darius, Fari and I, a shimmering, sun drenched sea stretched out far below us and off to the horizon. Great blue-white shards of ice floated in the frigid waters, looking like a particularly pure and unwelcoming archipelago.
Beside us rose irregular walls of the same ice. They looked like they had suffered from several recent explosions and along their pockmarked bases, I saw nearly a dozen people crouching behind cover and carrying oversized bolt casters. Whatever else the location was, Kojo had teleported us to a moderately decent ambush spot. I could think of a few improvements they could make but it was hard to say what kind of time and resource constraints they were under and until the situation was clearer I didn’t think volunteering those kind of suggestions was necessarily a bright idea.
“So, you would like us to be a little more convincing about being on your side?” I asked, gesturing to the ambushers spread around us.
“I’m reasonably convinced already,” Ebele said. “This is for their benefit, and in case someone decides to follow us.”
“Bolt casters won’t be much use against me,” I said.
“They don’t know that,” she said. “And if we came to it, they wouldn’t be the ones you’d need to worry about.”
“I suppose not,” I said. Ebele was standing still and keeping her anima completely internalized, just like me. Neither of us had any cues to evaluate how good the other was. It was a little maddening actually.
I felt Darius take my hand and only noticed after he did it that I had been rolling my fingers into a fist, in preparation for a fight.
“Sorry,” I said on our private, three-way link, “Not the time to go picking a brawl, I know.”
“It’s been a rough night,” Darius replied.
“Be honest though, aren’t you curious who would win?” Fari asked.
“If those two fight, I know exactly who would win,” Darius said. “The Queen.”
I bumped him.
“Spoilsport.” I said.
He was correct of course, but that didn’t do much to assuage my curiosity.
“Why don’t we get the main issue cleared up?” Zyal asked. “Why were you seated with agents of the Queen and why did you attack Ebele’s forces at the Gala?”
“Simple, the Queen’s agent sat with us, probably due to the ‘meet someone special’ field the Queen had layered onto the fate weave and I was trying to stop Ebele’s forces from killing or hurting anyone,” I said.
“Why were you special to the Queen?” Ebele asked. “Aside from being available to help her forces.”
“I wasn’t special to the Queen,” I said. “I was connected to Agent Bo Riverstone. We fought a couple days ago. She was looking for me, I was looking for her and apparently the ‘Someone Special’ field was happy to oblige us.”
“You both looked like you were in a very good shape for having fought a couple of days ago,” Ebele said.
“Well, she looked good because I barely laid a finger on her,” I said. “I looked good because I brought our ship’s medic with us, and she’s a phenomenal healer.”
“Where is she now?”
“Captured,” I said. “Along with our Captain and crew.”
“So the Queen has hostages to use against you,” Ebele said.
“Zyla, can you explain what happens to people who try to use hostages to coerce the behavior of Crystal Guardians.” I said.
“If the Queen attempts to use the medic, or any other member of Guardian Watersward’s crew against her, then Guardian Watersward will be required under Imperial law to remove the Queen from power by any means necessary,” Zyla said.
“Up to and including summoning the Imperial Navy,” I said. “If I could get a summons out.”
“That all sounds reasonable,” Ebele said. “But there’s no reason someone tied to the Queen couldn’t be a reasonable liar. Do you have enough from them yet to rule that out Zyla?”
“Yes,” she said. “There’s no fate bindings on any of them, and I can’t detect any mental spells in effect except for a shielded telepathic link between the three of them. Whatever their agenda is, it’s not being controlled by anyone external to them.”
“You notice our link?” Fari asked. “I’m impressed!”
“Mental anima isn’t my primary focus but I had very exacting tutors,” Zyla said.
“Any of them still left to hunt down?” I asked.
“No, we captured the last one four months ago,” she said.
“Nice work!” I said. “So you know you can trust us, perhaps you could give us some reasons to trust you?”
“That’s easy,” Ebele said. “How many people do we have here?”
“Not counting us?” I asked. “Looks like eleven, though I can see another three spots where people could be hiding that I don’t have a good view of.”
“Now look with Void sight,” Ebele said.
I switched my vision over to look for anima rather than physical forms and nearly fell off the cliff in shock at what I saw.
“There’s about several hundred people gathered around us,” I said.
“Where?” Darius asked.
“Everywhere,” I said. “Fari can you give us an overlay of what I’m seeing.”
“Sure,” she said. “Or not. What the heck is happening here?”
“Guardian Watersward, meet the Unseen,” Ebele said.
“What are they?” I asked.
“Ghosts,” Zyla said. “These are souls of those that Abyz consumes to power the fate weave. These are the people who called us here in the first place.”