I felt strangely comfortable leaping into a lightless pit that was sure to filled with people who wanted to kill me. Part of that was because I was reasonably sure I would survive (my danger sense put the leap as only a moderately dangerous choice), but I think the larger reason was that the I knew Bo and her forces weren’t any more eager to venture below Demon’s Isolation than my team was.
I was certain she would follow us, but the crates that were scattered about the lip of the hole suggested that dealing with whoever was down there was not something that the Queen’s forces found to be pleasant. Granted, airdrops were also an expedient method of delivering supplies but the kind of security the Queen had installed around the pit, and the extreme oddity of the fate weave in this region suggested that she had some serious concerns about the people who lived here.
“I’m going to uncloak us,” I said. “The Queen knows where we are, and I don’t want to set the locals off by barging into the stronghold invisibly.”
“I thought barging into strongholds invisibly was Black team’s only mode of operation?” Darius’ smile was a teasing one, but there was a measure of truth to what he said. With the missions that Captain Hanq assigned us, Black team’s speciality was more on the covert than the overt side of things. I wasn’t completely without the ability to be diplomatic though.
We landed at the bottom of the pit with the gentleness of a feather thanks to Darius’ levitation spell. Around us, I saw a twisting maze of crudely excavated tunnels lead away from the cavern area that we landed in.
The tunnels were shrouded in shadows that weren’t pushed back by the light that Darius provided for us. A quick glimpse with Void sight showed me why. The shadows weren’t the absence of light, they were the manifested presence of a multitude of ghosts who stood together in so thick a crowd that even my magical vision couldn’t see through them.
That was perfect for making the tunnels seem impossible to follow. If we had no way to see within them, we would wander around lost until Bo and the Queen’s forces found us.
That wasn’t a problem though, because we weren’t alone in the cavern.
They inhabitants of the cavern struck the instant it was clear that no one was immediately behind us.
I had expected a deadly response from them, but instead they launched all sorts of restraining devices at us. Zyla slashed the net they cast over us with her anima sword while Darius reduced wide sections of it ash with a wave of his hand.
I cast a physical (not Void anima, I still didn’t want to hurt anyone) shield around us to ward off attacks by bolas and enchanted ropes.
The nature of the attack puzzled me. Royal agents like Bo could deal with the non-lethal assaults as easily as we did. For the underground dwellers to have a chance, they would need to strike from multiple positions of ambush and utilize attacks that would take their foes out of the fight instantly.
Could they be that bad at self defense? I wondered. It was possible but it didn’t feel right. From their chatter, the people attacking us were acting as a coordinated whole. That requires a level of training and insight that should preclude employing blatantly useless tactics.
The other possibility was that there was some benefit they could gain from taking us alive that would offset the risk they were undertaking.
“Stop defending,” I said. “Let them capture us.”
“I can’t see what’s going to happen if we do that,” Zyla said.
“Perfect!” I said and allowed a weighted grappling net to wrap around me like a full body bandage.
Darius, as delightfully brilliant as the day I met him, followed suit and I could see in his expression that he’d figured out the game I was playing.
Zyla had less instinctive faith in me, and had lost a lot of faith in herself, but once Darius and I were down, she decided to follow our lead rather than carve a bloody swath through the under-dwellers’ ranks.
“The Queen’s forces are behind us,” I said as a burly woman with long, dark, braided hair and eyes that resembled solid chunks of sapphire picked me up like a bag of feathers.
She didn’t speak but there was a pause in her step that told me she’d heard and understood me.
“Fari, can you connect us with their leader?” I asked.
“Yep, just found him,” she said.
I felt the mental link spell extended outwards and heard the added weight of silence as the under-dwellers’ leader joined the conversation.
“We’re here as friends,” I said on the link.
Silence greeted me for several seconds but just before I could speak again I heard the leader spoke back telepathically.
“The Unseen have no friends,” Jukan, the leader of the cavern people said.
“We’re here to understand what has happened to you and to set things right from here out,” I said.
Jukan laughed in my mind.
“There is no right on Abyz,” Jukan said. “You will understand this once you are one of us.”
The Unseen who held us moved with a clear purpose as they carried us through the winding tunnels.
“How will you make us one of you?” I asked, and wondered if Jukan meant “one of us” as in “having proved our loyalty to their cause” or “one of us” as in some kind of physical or mental transformation.
“You will be joined to the weave,” Jukan said.
“The fate weave?” I asked. “Everyone here is joined to the fate weave, or at least affected by it.”
“You are bound and influenced by the fate weave,” Jukan said. “But you are not joined to it.”
“What does joining the fate weave require?” I asked, though given that they were eager to induct us into that state, I was pretty sure it didn’t require much and wasn’t necessarily in our best interests. I was also forming an unpleasant idea of what the under-dweller’s relation to the fate weave was. An unpleasant idea that I was fairly certain was correct.
“Nothing on your end,” Jukan said. “And everything.”
“So this is something that will be done to us instead of by us and it will take our lives and power away?” I asked.
“Yes, you will support the fate weave with every breath you draw and in giving your life, you will save one of us from dying instead,” Jukan said.
The people carrying us took turn after turn which resulted in me being completely lost. The one thing I could tell was that we were headed ever deeper below ground.
“And if we resist?” I asked.
“Everyone resists, but no one resists forever,” Jukan said. “If you come as friends then you should see the good that you can do for us. Or is your friendship a cheap bronze coin that you’re trying to trade for gold?”
“Our friendship is worth more than you can calculate under the present circumstances,” I said. “Despite that, you should also be aware that we are going to destroy your world.”
“You are mad,” Jukan said, his tone one of simple appraisal without any negative judgment to it. “That’s very convenient, you might save multiple lives if the fate weave is willing to be mad with you.”
“I have a guess what you’re going to do to us,” I said. “I ask only one thing of you to start with, begin with me and give me a few minutes to show you something before you bind my friends to the fate weave.”
“There are agents of the Queen following you through the old city. They will be here soon and we will need as much buffer from their actions as we can get,” Jukan said.
“I know this sounds like madness, but take a chance on me and I promise that you won’t need the kind of buffer that you’re speaking about,” I said.
“It is madness,” Jukan said. “But it is perhaps madness that you can make real?”
“Do we have a deal then?” I asked.
“If you know what you are promising, if you can do what you say, then yes, you will destroy our world,” Jukan said.
“Will you let me do that?” I asked.
“For my father, and my sister who have gone down into chains and shadows? And for myself and my children and all those who live now and I am sworn to protect?” Jukan said. “I can do nothing but agree with you. We will not hold back though, your madness will need to be stronger than any we have ever encountered.”
“I don’t believe that will be needed,” I said. “This is a different day than the ones you’ve lived up until now.”
“Perhaps. Things do feel different. I cannot see the strands of fate that tie you,” Jukan said, “I have never had that gift, but there is a hum that I have not heard in the air before. Is that you?”
“No,” I said. “The hum you hear is the Queen reaching deep into her power to control us. Even if you could see Aetherial anima you would never see me, not with what I am.”
“She’s telling you the truth,” Zyla said. “I can see every thread of fate before me, and Watersward is a giant cypher, a blank in my vision and the vision of every other fate caster.”
“If she is only one blank, then she is easy to track, easy to disarm, easy to destroy,” Jukan said.
“She’s not alone,” Zyla said. “I’m losing sight of your fates as well. Everyone and everything that interacts with Watersward gets caught in her penumbra and hidden just like she is. That includes all of you now.”
“The Queen will not forgive this,” Jukan said.
“It’s time for the Queen to start asking for forgiveness instead of withholding it,” I said.
That brought only silence from Jukan, probably because he took it as proof that I really was mad.
“I didn’t follow anything except the very end there,” Zyla said on our mental link, but directly to me only.
“I have a theory on what really powers the fate weave,” I said. “And it looks like this place and process might prove me right.”
“What are they going to do to you?” Zyla asked.
“If I’m right, they’re going to try to splice in threads of the Void anima spell that surrounds us so that it can permanently leech off the energy I possess as I gather more in that I’m not using up.” I said.
“What’s the point of giving that energy to the fate weave?” Zyla asked.
“It’s less about giving and more about taking,” I said. “Meaning the fate weave has energy requirements, and those fluctuate over time. A minor accident can be avoid by draining off enough life energy to pay for the spell effect.”
“That doesn’t work for preventing fatal injuries though,” Zyla said. “You’d spent your life to save your life and wind up dead anyways.”
“You’re assuming that the person who pays the price is the same as the one who receives the benefit,” I said. “The fate weave can easily protect against deadly attacks, it just costs someone else their life instead.”
“Is it possible that it doesn’t go that far?” Fari asked. “I mean a spell as large and complex as the fate weave would need to have a lot of safeguards built in. It might let people be brought close to death but then ensure that the person doesn’t actually die.”
“The problem with that is all of the ghosts that are here,” I said. “People are dying and being harvested and then slaved to the fate weave.”
“What would they be using the ghosts for though?” Zyla asked.
“Energy storage,” Fari said. “That’s what you’re thinking right Mel?”
“Yeah,” I said. “Ghosts are made up of anima, but it runs out unless they take more power from somewhere else.”
“Or someone else,” Fari said.
“I doubt the ghosts even directly taking the energy, it’s probably be fed to them by an automated process to keep them strong.” I said.
“So how is letting yourself get caught up in that going to help anyone?” Zyla asked.
“Because it’s the best way I can figure out to show them that they can free,” I said.