I’ve been on the edge of a global apocalypse before. Several times, thanks to my line of work. As a result, the sight of the ghosts flooding the ice field before us was one that I couldn’t quite process. They weren’t normal ghosts. I knew those. I’d seen the blasted hellscapes that produced massive quantities of restless spirits. Be it ash and glowing embers or cold lifeless gray, there was a characteristic otherworldly quality that served as a mute testament to the lives that were lost.
Abyz, even this frozen, desolate section of it, didn’t feel anything like that. The planet was far from dead. It buzzed with activity. It held movement and laughter and people in endless varieties. For as barren as the land around me was, I could see the faint glimmer of life magic trapped in the ice. Tiny microbes suspended in time by the cold and down below, in the churning sea, there were tens of thousands of sparks. From sea plants too small for the eye to see to the vast behemoths that lurked in the deeps. I didn’t usually let my vision expand that far because the sheer enormity of it all was difficult to take in, but I couldn’t help myself. The throng of ghosts around me were simply alien to the pulse of life that I saw running through Abyz.
And yet I couldn’t deny they were there.
The longer I watched the ice field, the more ghosts I saw. They weren’t gathering around us. They had been there all along. I just hadn’t been able to see them.
“What is happening here,” I asked. “How many ghosts are here?”
“We don’t know,” Zyla said. “I can’t see them like you do. I can only feel them calling out through the fate weave.”
“I’ve never been able to find a limit,” Ebele said. “The longer I look the more of them I see until it gets to be too much and I have to stop.”
“Why can’t I render them on an overlay?” Fari asked. “I can kind of make out what Mel’s seeing but something’s blocking me from translating that into the display spell.”
“It’s part of the spell that binds them here,” Zyla said. “At least that was Yael’s theory.”
“What happened with you two?” I asked. “The automated message you sent was a little short on details.”
“Before you answer that, let’s move to a more secure location,” Ebele said and beckoned Kojo over.
“Do you have any options for getting off world?” Darius asked.
“No,” Kojo said. “My range is strictly planetary.”
“And the Queen will have the regular traffic routes barred to us,” Ebele said.
“With two Void casters, I wouldn’t think that would be a problem?” I asked.
The rest of Ebele’s forces joined us in a tight circle and clasped hands with each other. At Zyla’s nod, Darius, Fari and I joined the circle and a moment later, after Ebele cloaked us all in Void anima, we were teleported again, this time to a large, artificially excavated cavern. Veins of shimmering material ran through the walls, glistening with pale green and bright silver light.
“Escaping the planet wouldn’t be a problem if the Queen didn’t have both her own cadre of Void casters and the fate weave on her side. Whatever exit point we strike at, you can be sure they’ll have a team waiting for us.”
“Oh! That’s why you attacked the Gala!” I said. “You knew Riverstone and the other Void casters would be there so the fate weave couldn’t engine an ambush for you.”
“Except that it did when you showed up,” Ebele said.
“You were murdering the police cadets,” I said. I was still waiting for an explanation for that, though I had a guess what they were going to say given that I hadn’t actually seen any bodies.
“No, none of them died,” Zyla said. “They were all simply injured and incapacitated.”
“Because the fate weave wouldn’t let you kill them, would it?” I asked.
“I can overcome the fate weave,” Ebele said. “But maybe not on that scale.”
“Why attack the Gala then?” Darius asked. “What did you hope to gain?”
“It was my idea,” Zyla said. “Aetherial casting is a nightmare here, but I was able to read a thread that showed that an attack there would have a significant chance of cracking open the Unseen Veil that hides the ghost of Abyz. It was our best chance to make people aware of what they’re not seeing.”
“Did it work?” I asked. “That was a pretty public spectacle but, with the Queen holding the Dominator, she might be able to make a cover up work.”
“The Queen is holding the what now?” Zyla asked.
“One of the Jewels of Endless Night,” Fari said. “The Dominator is one of the Mind Gems.”
“Why would the Queen need a gem to help her with mind spells?” Ebele asked. “She’s the most powerful mental caster who’s ever lived.”
“How do you know that?” I asked.
“We’ve lost people to her,” Ebele said. “Some of them come back on their own. Some of them we rescue. Every last one is twisted though.”
“Happened to me,” Kojo said. “They lured me into a building and ringed it with a teleportation anchor. Once the Queen had me alone to work with, she made me give up every safehouse I knew of, every person I worked, with and then set a trap for Ebele.”
“Could you resist her?” Fari asked.
“No,” Kojo said. “Once she got her hands on me I didn’t want anything except to serve her. The power she had? It was weaponized bliss. I never wanted anything more than I wanted more of that.”
“How did they break you out of it once they rescued you?” Fari asked.
“I kissed him,” Talib, a short man with twin braids, said. Darius had zapped him unconscious back in our apartment but he’d had enough time to recover while we were talking.
Kojo took his partner’s hand in his own and smiled.
“True love conquers all I guess?” he said.
“It can,” Fari said. “But in this case I think it had a helping hand.”
“The Dominator has a weakness I’m guessing?” I said. “Physical anima?”
“Yep,” Fari said. “It’s a device of pure Mind. It doesn’t work at all on mindless creatures and it’s bindings can be shattered by the application of pure physical force.”
“You can beat the mind control out of people?” Darius asked.
“Depends on the person and depends on how long the Dominator has to work on its target,” Fari said. “In most cases, the amount of physical force needed to break the Dominator’s bonds is more than enough to reduce the victim to a thin paste.”
“Talib can make me weak in the knees, but his kiss had a little less force than that.” Kojo said.
“Did you know he liked you before the kiss?” Fari asked.
“No,” Kojo said. “It was a rather pleasant surprise.”
“That’s all it would take,” Fari said. “Tell me if this sounds right; the kiss changed your world, it changed how you thought of yourself, and it did on a purely visceral, primal level.”
Kojo nodded slowly.
“Yeah,” he said. “It was a pretty big deal. It was like a whole different future opened up for us.”
“It did,” Fari said. “The ‘you’ that existed before the kiss had a whole different set of drives and priorities. That’s what any mind control spell hooks into. The Dominator’s scary because it has an impossible amount of power to throw around, but it still, mostly, works within the basic tenets of Mental anima casting.”
“You said you’ve had multiple people come back from the Queen’s clutches,” I said. “How did you untwist the others?”
“Each one has been different,” Ebele said. “I’ve done Void anima surgery on a few, we starved one back to sanity, and some we’ve haven’t been able to fix.”
None of us had to ask what happened to the ones who they couldn’t fix. Not everyone has access to wizard class healers, and not all fights are ones where you can afford to hold back.
“Let’s say you’re right and the Queen has possession of this ‘Dominator’, what does that mean?” Zyla asked. “Can we take it away from her?”
“The Dominator life-binds with its wielder,” Fari said. “It’s a safety precaution so it can’t be used against it’s master. It can only be separated from a master by killing them.”
“So that’s a yes then,” I said.
Zyla blinked, eyes going wide before a smile slowly spread across her face.
“That’s right, you’re not a full Guardian yet are you?” she asked.
“Doesn’t matter,” I said. “If Master Raychelle was here, I’m pretty sure she would say the same thing. The Queen has misused both her royal and magical power. I’m more than willing to stand trial if it means shutting down a monster like that.”
“It’s not going to be that easy,” Darius said, putting a hand on my shoulder. He wasn’t holding me back. Not literally, but it was one of the non-verbal methods of communication we’d developed that reminded me I was going a little too far.
I had a tendency to solve problems with my fists. I knew that, and I knew it wasn’t always the best solution to employ. Diplomacy, negotiation, subterfuge, and going through existing legal channels often turned out much better, more predictable results. I was capable of each of those tactics but sometimes the best plan really was to smash a problem until it was in smaller, more manageable pieces.
Taking the Queen out of the picture felt like one of those situations, maybe because I find mind control rage-inducing, but Darius was right.
“The Queen is not a viable target,” Ebele said. “We’ve tried. She’s one of the central nodes of the fate weave, and even if you can get past that, we would need an army to take down her personal guard.”
“You’d need more than an army,” Fari said. “With the Dominator, the Queen could turn an army back against you, or have them kill each other before they even lifted a blade against her guards.”
“We have a more important task anyways,” Zyla said. Her tone was ice cold, daring anyone to disagree with her. I wasn’t a big enough idiot to either miss what she was talking about or challenge her on it.
“Yael,” I said. “We need to get her back.”
“Will she have been twisted by the Dominator, or could she resist it?” Darius asked.
“I don’t know,” Zyla said, a single hoarse catch in her throat clipping her words as she spoke.
“It doesn’t matter,” I said and almost earned a deathstrike from Zyla before I had a chance to continue. “We’re not going to leave her under the Dominator’s influence or lose her. If Void surgery can break the Dominator’s bonds then I will personally tear them out of her. Or give her the physical beating she needs if she tries to stop me.”
“I don’t want her to be hurt,” Zyla said.
“I know,” I said, softening my tone.
Around us, Ebele’s people had scattered to the walls of the cave and were tracing patterns over the glowing lines of minerals.
“Is there any exit from here except teleportation?” Darius asked.
“No,” Kojo said.
“And your friends are inscribing anti-teleportation glyphs into the walls, right?” Darius asked.
“Yes,” Ebele said. “It’s how we stay out of the Queen’s reach.”
“There’s also an void cloak outside the dimensional anchor circle,” I said. “So they can’t detect you or reach you at all here? Clever.”
“Here and other places,” Ebele said. “It’s how we’ve survived having our safe houses revealed.”
“How long have you been fighting against the Queen?” I asked.
“My whole life,” Ebele said. “My mother was a resistance fighter while she was pregnant with me. She said I’d kick whenever one of the Queen’s agents was near. I guess it saved her a few times.”
“How long has the Queen held the Dominator?” I asked.
“She’s always been powerful,” Ebele said.
“And what about the Queen before her?” Fari asked.
“Her mother was the same,” Ebele said.
“And her grandmother, and her great grandmother and so on?” Fari asked.
“Yes,” Ebele said. “The royal bloodline is uniquely gifted.”
“Or uniquely cursed maybe,” Fari said. “I don’t think you’ve had a succession of Queens.”
“It’s been the same one all along?” I asked. “Can the Dominator do that?”
“It takes years, but yes,” Fari said.
“What do you mean, it’s been the same Queen?” Ebele asked.
“Let me ask you this,” Fari said. “When a new Queen is old enough to take the throne, does the previous Queen die shortly thereafter?”
“Yes, but they’ve said that was due to extra power they carry placing a greater burden on them.” Ebele said.
“Maybe you should kill the Queen, Mel,” Fari said. “She been body-hopping into her own children, maybe for centuries now.”
“She’ll be incredibly powerful,” Zyla mumbled, memories pulling her away from the present and sending her tumbling back into old horrors that wore her father’s face.
He was a body-jumper too and had been so powerful that it had taken the entirety of the force in Fari’s Jewel of Endless Night and hundreds of thousands of ghosts to take him out.
This time we didn’t have a Jewel to draw on and the Queen did.
Up against that was the fact that I’d had my power for longer than a single day and I had Darius and Fari backing me up.
The Queen didn’t know it yet, but we were about to ruin her whole world.