As much as we sometimes want to see them as such, ghosts are not the people they resemble. For one thing, not everyone leaves a ghost behind when they die. There’s been millenia of debate over why that is, and where the “central spiritual energy” of a person goes when they die.
Some people believe that our internal system simply collapses and the inner energy we store which draws anima to us dissipates back to “undifferentiated static of the cosmos”. Other people believe that we exist as beings with greater dimensions than the observable ones and when we die, we exit the material dimensions and take the spiritual energy we have invested in our lives with us.
Spirit energy is easy to detect but difficult to fully quantify so my guess is that the only answers we’ll ever get to that question will come after it’s too late to matter in this world.
Anima, in all its various forms is much easier to measure (well, apart from Void anima which has its own issues). Measuring the amount of magic a person possesses can be done to a relatively high degree of precision. Measuring how much of that power remains in the ghost they leave behind suggests that while some power is lost in the trauma of death, the vast majority remains behind and can be bound up by the patterns of thought and body and imagination the person exhibited in life.
In essence, the ghost becomes a partial copy of the deceased, retaining some of their memories in the weave of their Mental anima, some of their capacity to affect the material world from their Physical anima and so on. As fragments of the person they resemble, ghosts can display the same personality and interests or can be locked into an obsession which some small aspect of who their originals were. That’s why ghosts born from violent deaths can wind up as true monsters despite the person they were copied from being kindly or peaceful.
The usual rule for dealing with ghosts of any variety is simple: don’t. They’re inherently unstable and they (generally) hit the limits of their rationality a lot sooner than most people. They don’t make reliable witnesses, even to things that happened “to them”, because their minds are constructs of pure mental anima and have no solid substrate (like a brain) to rest on. Something that a ghost believes to be true one day can the same thing they vehemently deny the next.
Their instability also tends to get worse over time. Without a living body and the spark of spiritual energy that fill us, the ghost is limited to only the anima they were “born” with. Since that anima is what makes them up, as it dissipates so do they.
That was part of what made the situation on Abyz so hard for me to fathom.
“There are too many ghosts here,” I said. “Even with the Queen hiding whole towns as their source, the ghosts should have evaporated long ago.”
“The Queen has found some method of binding them here,” Ebele said. “None of them are free to pass on.”
“Binding them wouldn’t prevent them from running out of anima though,” I said.
“Unless the bindings do more than slave them to the Queen’s will,” Zyla said.
“You think the chains they’re wrapped in are feeding them magic?” I asked.
“From what I understand of ghosts, I think that has to be the case,” Zyla said.
“Why would the Queen do that?” I asked.
“Do we know that she did?” Zyla asked.
I leaned back in my chair and considered that.
“That’s a good question. Ebele are there any records that suggest the ghosts might pre-date the first Queen’s rule?” I asked.
“Most of the records from before the Unification War were destroyed in the fighting,” Ebele said. “It’s possible the ghosts pre-date the Queen but there’s no way to know for sure.”
“We could ask them,” I said.
“They can’t speak,” Ebele said. “We’ve tried to recruit them before.”
“What about if we remove the chains?” I asked.
“The chains are a part of them,” Ebele said. “We’ve tried to cut the ghosts loose but the chains are warded against tampering. As soon as link is cut, they flare white hot and destroy the ghost they’re attached too.”
“I’m willing to bet if we pool our resources, we can bypass the wards,” I said. Between Fari, Darius, Zyla and myself, there wasn’t much a trap spell could throw at us that we couldn’t counter. “Which is kind of lucky when you think about it.”
Again, I had the sense of an outside hand directing the events around me. I felt my Void anima ripple and growl. Someone, or something, had nudged events to produce an outcome where a team of with a fairly unique set of abilities was assembled. From what I could see, we were being positioned like a spear waiting to be thrust through the heart of Queen Metai’s power (and possibly Queen Metai herself). For as much as taking down a body hopping, mind enslaving, cataclysm planning, royal abomination seemed like a fine idea to me, I didn’t like the idea that someone else was setting me up to do it.
“Removing the bindings might cause more problems than it solves,” Zyla said. “The ghosts are very likely to be hostile, probably even mindlessly so.”
“We can handle them if they get out of control,” I said.
“There’s also the chance that without the bindings supplying the ghosts with anima they’ll evaporate immediately,” Zyla said.
“There’s other problems too,” Ebele said. “Even if the Queen isn’t the one who bound the ghosts, she’s going to sense that massive of a change in the bindings through the fate weave.”
“We can supply them with anima ourselves, and we can perform the chain breaking ritual inside a Void shield,” I said. “The trick is going to be finding the right ghosts to talk to.”
“What do you think talking to them is going to accomplish?” Ebele asked.
“The Queen’s gone to an awful lot of trouble to obscure what she’s doing,” I said. “She’s using more magic to hide the ghosts than any circle of a hundred casters should have access too. We need to find a gap in her armor and the best place to look seems like it would be the place she’s trying the hardest to hide.”
“Unless it’s an elaborate part of the trap she’s turned this world into,” Zyla said.
“It’s that too,” I said. “Queen Metai’s hung onto power for decades or centuries, and she has one of the most powerful Mental anima devices in the galaxy under her control. Whatever else she is, she’s not stupid. Making everyone forget the ghosts and their towns is not going to be the only defense she has in place there.”
“You think we can handle those defenses?” Ebele asked.
“Nope,” I said. “We have no idea what they are. We’re going to stumble on some of them and we don’t have the option of overpowering the forces the Queen will send against us.”
“Then we need a different plan,” Ebele said. “I already told you, I’m not taking any risks for you. My people can’t afford to.”
“You won’t need to,” I said. “I think a small team is what we want here. Just Zyla, Darius, Fari, and I. What I need from you is the location of the oldest of the forgotten cities.”
“The four of you can’t even get there,” Ebele said. “It’s on the other side of the planet.”
“That’s not going to be an issue,” I said.
“Kojo is our only long range teleporter,” Ebele said. “I can’t have him teleport you into an unsafe area.”
“I know. We can manage this without him,” I said. “Ebele, trust me, we’re gonna beat this. Queen Metai is a serious threat. We are not underestimating how dangerous that makes her. But serious threats are what we deal with. We’re going to make things right. It’s what we do.”
“Not on Abyz,” Ebele said. “This isn’t like other worlds.”
“It has some unique challenges,” I said.
“Those unique challenges already cost you a Crystal Guardian,” Ebele said.
I saw Zyla stiffen at that.
“Did it?” I asked. “We’ve been awfully lucky so far. The last time I worked with Guardian Clearborn her fate workings were as subtle as what I’ve seen here.”
“Your friend was captured by the Queen’s forces,” Ebele said. “No one can resist the Queen’s magics. She’s powerful enough to dominate this entire planet. If the Guardian’s fate castings are affecting you then she’s setting you up for a fall and we’re not going down with you.”
“Maybe you’re right,” I said. “You know what the Queen is capable of. You’ve seen it first hand your whole life haven’t you?”
“Yes,” Ebele said. “So give up this idea before it gets you all killed.”
“You know what the Queen is capable of,” I said. “But you don’t know what we can do. I’m not going to ask for you to trust us. I’m going to show you that you can. Then I’m going to show the Queen why she should be afraid of us. Then we’re going to show the world what it means to be part of the Crystal Empire.”
“You’re promising more than you can deliver,” Zyla said. “Any one of those is impossible. Yael failed to save herself, and I failed completely. You can’t accomplish that much more than we did. You’re only an Initiate Guardian still.”
“Do you know what the Crystal Guardians really do Zyla?” I asked.
“They enforce the Empress’ Will,” she said.
“Technically, that is part of the official charter for the Crystal Guardians but given that I’ve never actually seen the Empress, much less spoken with her, it’s more a theoretical aspect of the job than an actual one,” I said.
She looked at me and frowned, waiting to see where I was going.
“What we actually do is spread the message that she embodies,” I said.
“And what’s that?” Ebele asked, scorn in her voice and disbelief in her eyes.
“That the galaxy doesn’t have to be a cruel place. That we can fix the problems before us. That even when things seem hopeless, it’s still worth continuing on because life can get better.” I said.
I saw neither Ebele, nor Zyla were even slightly impressed by my words. I didn’t blame them. Words don’t mean a lot, no matter how much I meant them.
“We’ll continue this conversation later,” I said. “I just want you to remember what I said, so you can decide if I’m crazy once the evidence is in.”
“That seems like an easy question to answer,” Zyla said.
“If we’re done here, I’m going to see what sort of impact our raid on the Gala had,” Ebele said. “I was promised that would help us too.”
She looked at Zyla when she said that and Zyla looked away. I spoke up before she could leave the room though.
“The only thing I need before you go is the name and location of the oldest of the ghost cities,” I said.
Ebele tapped one of the red dots on the projected map.
“This one,” she said. “It’s proper name is in Old Abyzal, which I don’t know how to pronounce, but Galactic Common it translates as ‘The Isolation of Demons’.”
“Was that to anchor the forgetfulness spell?” Zyla asked.
“No, that’s what it was called originally,” Ebele said. “It’s ringed with alarms, but we’ve never tested them. There’s too many monsters there. Even without the Queen’s presence, going into that city is a suicide mission.”
“Not for my team,” I said.
Ebele snorted at that and left our planning room.
“I don’t think this is a good idea,” Zyla said.
“Maybe not,” I said. “But I think this is our best chance to rescue Yael, and save the planet.”
“And if those two things actually are impossible?” she asked.
“Then we do the impossible,” I said. “Just like we did when we fought your father, and just like you’ve done dozens of times since then.”
“We had help then,” she said.
“We had Yael then you mean,” I said.
“Yes,” she said. “Together we’ve been unstoppable, but here? Here we finally found something that stopped us.”
“Do you trust Yael?” I asked her.
“Of course,” she said.
“Look for her then,” I said. “I think she’s still with us. If you can find any evidence of that, if you can believe it at all, then believe in her.”
“I want to,” Zyla said. “More than you can imagine, but that’s what can lead me astray.”
“Yeah, it can. Sometimes we can want something so much that we let it blind us to the things we don’t want to see,” I said. “Sometimes though we just can’t know which possibilities are true and in those cases faith is all we have to go on.”
“You make it sound like it’s easy,” she said.
“That kind of faith is the hardest thing in the world,” I said. “But even when I couldn’t cast any magic, and even now when I’m rubbish with Aetherial anima, that’s the most powerful tool I’ve ever found for sketching the future I want to see.”
“Are those the futures you keep hidden in that damn Void shadow of yours?” Zyla asked, the ghost of a smile gracing her face.
“Yeah,” I said. “Would you like to see the one I have roughed out for you and Yael?”
“I think I just might,” she said.
“Then let’s go get the rest of our team and make it happen,” I said.