Queen Metai held almost every conceivable advantage over us. My job therefor was simple. I had to figure out how to turn those advantages against her.
Some of them were easy to turn into liabilities. She was going to know where we were the next time we did anything remotely significant against her. That meant we didn’t have to plan for sneaking past her. Instead, we got to decide where the next battlefield was going to be.
That was one of the reasons I wanted to head to the oldest of the ghost cities. We had the best chance of meeting ancient and terrifying monsters there. Ancient and terrifying monster have two useful traits. First, they’re ancient, which means they have the best chance of knowing very old secrets. Second they’re terrifying, which means no one in their right mind wants to mess with them if they don’t have too!
Zyla was among those “people who were in their right minds” and objected to venturing into a deadly area and poking the things with sticks until we got the reaction we were looking for. Darius and Fari, on the other hand, had more experience with how my brain works and settled from adopting pained expressions that said “not again” more eloquently than any words they could have spoken.
It’s been remarked, that my plans range from “bad” through “terrible” and right on to “have you lost your mind?” Strangely it’s the latter type that I find the most reliable. Darius is quick to point out that “reliable” and “painful” can often be used as synonyms in describing those plans. Fari doesn’t even bother pointing it out, she just starts putting together contingency arrangement to help me survive when things go horribly wrong.
Despite their entirely justifiable reluctance though, all three of them agreed with my basic reasoning and were more willing to come along with me than they were to let me assault the city on my own.
Our first challenge arose the moment we tried to leave Ebele’s hidden base.
“When I said I wasn’t going to risk my people for you that included lowering our shields to let you leave before we’re sure that the Queen’s attention is elsewhere,” Ebele said.
“That’s not going to be a problem,” I said.
“I thought you wanted to run off and get yourself killed right away?” Ebele asked.
“Oh, we’re leaving. We just don’t need you to open the shield for us,” I said as I clasped hands with Darius and Zyla.
“How do you think…” Ebele started to ask before I stepped in her shadow and the three of us disappeared.
Vanishing in front of another Void caster is a neat trick, and a part of me regretted that I didn’t get to see Ebele’s expression when she figured out that we were actually gone.
I wondered how long it would take her to work out what we’d done and what kind of meltdown she’d have in the process. In general I don’t try to freak out my allies like that but, if she was going to risk working with us, I was pretty sure I needed to get her to buy into the mystique surrounding the Crystal Guardians a little more, so she’d extend us a little more trust.
In truth, the trick I used was a pretty simple one. The shields that prevented teleportation were themselves protected by a shield of Void anima, but the Void shield was on the outside of the anti-teleport wards. That meant a quick pulse of my Void anima was enough to disrupt the anti-teleport spells for the second it took for me to Shadow Step from Ebele’s shadow to one in the mine shaft above the room we were standing in.
The Void Shield presented some issues itself – I couldn’t “see” where the landing point was which would have made a Shadow Step spell impossible, except that I had Fari with me and she’d had a chance to review the plans of the mine that Ebele’s secret base lay underneath. With Darius to provide an extra burst of energy to make up for the magic lost to the Void shield’s leeching effects and Zyla to twist the fate weave around us so that the Queen’s forces wouldn’t get astronomically lucky and detect my travel spell, we had our impossible exit well in hand.
That only left us with the need the circumnavigate halfway around the world without the Queen spotting us. Shadow Stepping is a great spell to know, but unlike Kojo, my range was nowhere near long enough to get us that far.
Fortunately, again, I wasn’t alone and trying to carry the whole world on my shoulders. Darius and I took care of the first stage of our journey. No one can do high speed, low altitude flight like my lovely, darling boy. Normally that kind of transit involves a lot of commotion – breaking sound barriers and such. Having a Void anima caster along though means you don’t make any more commotion than she wants you to and I was not looking to pick a fight just yet.
Zyla wasn’t as big a fan of Darius’ flying as I was, probably because she wasn’t used to the kind of maneuverability he could achieve even when burdened by two passengers. To her credit she managed not to scream at all, but her grim expression suggested I could look forward to some kind of payback for suggesting this particular course of action.
Fari had no such complaints largely because she’d left the doppelganger body back at Ebele’s base and was traveling with us in her gem. On a physical level that meant she had nothing to worry about. Darius could impact the planet at a significant fraction of the speed of light and Fari’s home would be none the worse for the wear.
Which isn’t to say this wasn’t a dangerous trip for her too. Fari’s an unimaginably good caster, but she has some serious limitations as well. Unlike the rest of us, she can really only manage Mental anima spells and only a subset of those. Ghosts, especially really old ones, tend to have either extremely powerful Minds or no minds whatsoever, both of which pose issues for her.
Normally I like to wear Fari’s gem to keep her close to me. I feel comfortable knowing that if someone wants to hurt my friend they’ll literally have to do it over my dead body. In this situation though it made the most sense to have Zyla carry Fari’s gem. Fari was immune to mind control and could extend that immunity to a person who was in physical contact with her, like she’d done with Darius at the Gala. Of the three of us, I could fight off the effects of the Dominator on my own (to some extent) and Darius had extensive training in Mental magics, which left Zyla as the most vulnerable member of our team.
As the one fate caster on the team, I hoped she was also the one most likely to escape to freedom if something went tragically wrong. Darius wouldn’t leave me behind and I wasn’t going to leave anyone behind, but Zyla might have the sense and power to run and actually get away when things went horribly wrong.
And thing were going to go horribly wrong. There’s no sensible plan that I or anyone else could come up with that didn’t involve the assumption that things were going to turn bad and then worse and then really unpleasant at some point. The Queen’s power base was too broad and comprehensive to cling to illusions like “maybe I can come up with something clever that’ll make it all work out ok!”
I believed we could beat her, but I’d gone into plenty of fights believing I could win while knowing with bone deep certainty that I was going to take a beating in the process. In my less charitable moments, I’m convinced that’s a key factor in society remaining civilized; even the powerful have to contend with the fact that the weak can do some unpleasant damage if pushed to it.
That was one of the cards that I wanted to play against the Queen, but I’d already seen where it would fail. If Fari was right about her body hopping, the Queen had been in power a long time and was as near to omnipotent on Abyz as she needed to be. That kind of state, maintained for that long can allow people to forget that weaker folks can still pose a serious threat. If Queen Metai was fighting us alone, I know she’d underestimate us and I’d be prepared to take advantage of that as ruthlessly as I could.
But the Queen had Bo.
Agent Riverstone handled herself in the kind of professional manner that told me, she was neither going to over- or underestimate our capabilities. She would withhold her judgment until she had evidence to back up her guesses as to what we could do. If we pushed her, she would make calculated theories based on as much information as she had available. It wasn’t a perfect mode of operation but it was damn hard to beat in the long run.
If we had a prayer of turning our situation around, it was that I expected neither side had a “long run” to plan for, and Queen Metai and her forces might not be as aware of that as we were.
That’s why I insisted that we move faster than Ebele was comfortable with. Moving quickly though did not mean moving in a manner the Queen or her agents would predict.
They knew we had a teleporter, so I was certain wherever we were first detected would be locked down under anti-teleport wards seconds after they got wind of where we were. It would take ridiculous levels of power to project wards like that but the Queen had the best casters on the planet to call on and could afford to use every one of them against us.
That was another strength that could be turned into a liability though. She had plenty of casters to spend on fighting us, and she knew we were the primary threat to her continued reign (and perhaps continued existence). The key wasn’t to try to hide (since they would detect us eventually) or to pretend we were weak (since they already knew we weren’t). The proper game plan (in my view) was to convince Queen Metai and Bo that we were so powerful and unpredictable that they needed to commit all of the forces to stopping us in every manner they could.
That meant tons of casters on anti-teleport wards. The anti-teleport wards in turn meant they wouldn’t be able to use their own teleporters to move troops into place without giving us a chance to escape. That was no problem though since they had plenty of elite troops to station all around the world on active call, ready to deploy at a moment’s notice. Sending in small teams was insane against a force like ours though. The last thing they wanted to be in was a fair fight, not when they could send in an army and be certain of crushing their foe like a bug.
That meant putting together nice big teams, but there were so many places we could strike at that priorities had to be established. Guards for the spaceports were obvious. If we got out and communicated with the Crystal Empire, Queen Metai was toast. It might require a greater investment than the Crystal Empire wanted to make, but the Empress wasn’t going to let a world dominating mind controller stay in power. Especially not if my suspicions proved to be true. To prevent us from communicating off the planet though, they also needed a serious guard presence on every interstellar communication node and on the central loci of the planetary spell web.
We had some natural allies on Abyz so they would need to be dealt with as well. Criminal rounded up and offworlders monitored more closely. The Queen had doubtlessly suborned the Imperial Ambassador but he would need to be guarded too since we’d shown the ability to not only resist the Dominator’s control but also free victims who’d fallen under its spell.
There were so many bases they had to cover and so ways for things to go wrong, that I almost felt bad for my foes when I thought about it. Basically Bo was having every bit as rough a day as I was, with the main difference being her boss was probably going to kill her if she screwed up, whereas mine would do her best to avenge me if I let things go cataclysmically wrong.
In the end it was Bo’s bad day that gave us the opportunity we needed though, which I suspected she would not be happy to learn.
Basically all military movements and deployments create chaos. There’s simply no such things a perfectly coordinated armed force. I’ve seen platoons composed of literally hiveminded soldier still manage to screw up simple things.
That fact coupled with Fari’s nearly godlike control over information systems got us into the nearest Abyz military base, got us a set of uniforms and got us orders to patrol the skies around the lost city we were looking for in our very own commandeered Abyz Spider-class Skyfighter.
The only bad part was that, presuming we survived this whole endeavor, no one on the Horizon Breaker was going to believe we managed to evade the Queen’s forces by waltzing right in and stealing one of her own fighters.
Sometimes though, crazy is what works.