There’s a moment right before you step into a fight where you have a choice. Do I give in to the torrent of violence that’s pulling me forward? Do I hold back? Fight defensively? Try to escape? So many bad choices can be made in moments like that. Watching Bo move confidently through the melee towards me, I discovered something though. The moment of decision that I was expecting? It was long past.
I still had choices to make, but the range of my options was limited by one central fact; I wasn’t going to flee. Whatever happened, whatever the cost was, I’d already gone all-in on fixing things on Abyz. Rescuing Yael and Zyla was still a priority, as was rescuing Illya, Hanq and the rest of the Horizon Breaker’s crew but even if I could manage all that, I couldn’t just sail away into space and leave things unfinished here.
I couldn’t leave Ebele to fight on alone. I couldn’t leave Queen Metai to grow further in power to where she could destabilize her whole sector of space. I couldn’t leave the Unseen to be crushed in the metaphysical talons of the fate weave. Most of all though? My mother had been here. That was why I couldn’t leave.
For as important as she was to me, for as much as I would have been willing to hang in the deeps of the Void forever to be with her, I couldn’t remember that much about her. The feel of her arms lifting me up. The sound of her voice comforting me to sleep at night with story after story. A few half glimpsed memories of her smile.
I knew who my mother was in the emotions that lived on in me, but I had no idea who she’d been as a woman beyond some simple facts. She was a Void anima caster. She died protecting me from an attack somewhere near Belstarius. She split with my father before I was born. She was beautiful in the way that only a loving mother can look to her child.
There was so much about her that I didn’t know though.
Including, apparently, that I wasn’t her only daughter.
If something on Abyz could help me find a clue to who my mother had been and who my sister was, then Queen Metai had a problem, because I was going to take the planet apart until I found what I was looking for.
From the look in Bo’s eyes as she shoved a pair of Unseen away to get to me, I had the feeling that the Queen’s champion was going to object to my plan to take her little paradise apart.
“You should have stayed underground Guardian,” Bo said. “This isn’t going to go well for you.”
She led with a hyper-speed jab that hurled her across two dozen feet of the cavern. At that distance, the blow was mostly just a feint, despite the fact that it would have turned me to pulp it if landed. Her follow up came in the form of a series of twisting strikes all focused on my midsection.
I countered the strikes and tried to bind her arms into a lock but had to settle for hitting her with a snap kick to the chest that knocked her back a handful of paces.
“You know that was never going to happen,” I said. “Just like you know this isn’t going to go well for either of us.”
It was my turn to attack, but I held back and instead began weaving threads of Void anima into one of the more hideously complicated spells that I, in theory, knew how to cast.
Casting high order spells is difficult under the best of circumstances and usually considered suicidal to attempt in combat. Part of the reason for that is that most high order spells require a lot of magical energy and can be easily disrupted. That turns them into bombs with a detonation point of “inside the caster”.
I had an advantage there, in that the spell I was casting was a pure Void anima spell, so only another Void caster could directly interfere with it. Also, it required only a tiny amount of energy, so even if it was disrupted it wouldn’t pose much danger to me. In fact I was going to be in enormously more danger if I successfully cast the spell than if I screwed it up.
Bo saw what I was doing and crooked her head to one side, trying to figure out what I was working on. Her confusion only lasted an instant though before she shrugged and threw herself back into the fight. Beating me into unconsciousness was a viable answer no matter what effect I was attempting to invoke.
I saw her spark another moment of hyper-speed and answered her in kind. Her punch caught me in the ribs and mine caught her right on the side of the head. There was a microsecond where an expression of utter surprise registered on her face before we finished knocking each other back with a thunderclap of force.
I smiled, despite the nauseating level of pain. As stupid gambits go, opting for offense when your opponent is convinced you have every reason to fight defensively wasn’t a brilliant one but it was effective at buying a few seconds of reprieve to complete the really difficult parts of a spell.
Bo picked herself up off the floor and I saw blood running from a split lip and what looked an awful lot like a broken nose. I looked prettier, but was hurt a lot worse. Another body blow like the one I’d taken would mean fun things like “collapsed lungs” and “perforated kidneys”.
“Do you need a hand?” Fari asked.
“Nope, this is all going according to plan,” I told her.
“Oh no,” she said. “Darius! Get over there! She’s working on one of her plans!”
A ten foot wide lightning bolt erupted through the crowd, turning a swath of both the Royal forces and the Unseen who were fighting into crackling statues.
“Hold on for ten seconds,” Darius said as the Royal forces threw off the damage and stun effect thanks to their armor and training.
“This isn’t that sort of plan,” I said. “This is a ‘start running now’ kind of plan.”
“Please tell me you’re kidding,” Darius said.
“What are you casting?” Fari asked.
“I’m inviting some friends to come play with us.” I said.
“What kind of friends?” Zyla asked. “We’re cut off from reinforcements.”
“Let’s just say they’re on the large side,” I said. “One might almost call them titanic.”
I knew no one could be listening in on one of Fari’s telepathic conference lines, but I didn’t want Zyla to say the name of them even by accident.
“You’ve got to be kidding,” Darius said, straight, unalloyed fear in his voice.
“She’s not,” Fari said. She didn’t sound afraid. Just stunned and worried, the former of which being a rare state for her.
“Yeah, I’m not,” I said. “As soon as I finish casting, I’m pretty sure I’m going to have the Royal’s complete and undivided attention. That’ll be your cue. Get the Unseen out of here, and let them know that I can split them from the fate weave.”
“Why?” asked Zyla.
“So they’ll have a reason to help rescue me!” I said.
“I mean why will they believe that you can?” she said.
“I broke myself loose” I said. “I’ll make sure to prove that to them.”
“I hate this plan,” Darius said. “So you had better pull it off or I am going to be really unhappy.”
“Get moving,” I said. “I promise I’ll come back to you.”
“You better,” Fari said. “You don’t want to see what we’ll do if you don’t.”
I finished tying the worst of the knots in the weave of the Void spell and rammed a thread of it deep into the fabric of local spacetime. There was all sorts of math to described what I was doing, and hundreds of special equations to ensure that the spell was cast properly. A wise and careful caster worked all those out and rechecked the results several times in advance of picking up the first thread of anima.
Fools like me, relied on a good theoretical understanding of what we were doing, the natural feedback that occurred during spellcasting and gobs and gobs of luck. In theory technical skill, experience and artistry contributed to whether high order spells were effective, but in practice planning and luck seemed to be the two biggest factors that influenced the final results.
Bo wiped the blood off her mouth and adjusted her neck with a jerk that suggested she was resetting a few misaligned vertebrae.
“Why are you doing this?” she asked. “Does the Empire have to corrupt everything it touches?”
“Wow, I don’t even know where to begin pointing out how wrong you are,” I said. “How about we start with the people here? How can you not see that what you’re doing to them is wrong?”
“You have no idea what these things are,” she said. “You don’t know the history of this world. These creatures deserve everything that’s been done to them.”
“Really?” I asked. “And you’re sure of that?”
“I’m sure that you don’t know what you’re doing,” she said.
“And I’m sure that if their crimes were as monstrous as you think, the Queen wouldn’t need to go to the lengths she has to keep them hidden,” I said.
“The state of the creatures here is necessary and allowing the ignorant and self-righteous to disrupt that endangers the lives the Queen is sworn to cherish and protect,” Bo said.
“Necessary? For who? For the Queen?” I said. “I know you’re feeding the fate weave off these people and others like them around the world.”
“Then you know what the cost of disrupting this site could be,” she said. “Each of the creatures that you destroy is another citizen’s life that is endangered.”
“What makes the life of a citizen more valuable than the life of one of these people?” I asked, my fists clenching hard enough that the Void spell wobbled.
Bo started to answer that but I interrupted her.
“No, you know what, forget it!” I said. “I’m sure that you’ve got some story that portrays them as the worst plague to ever hit the galaxy and I’m sure that, like every other time I’ve found a group of people with power oppressing a portion of their population, the stories you cling to for why it’s ok to treat them like animals aren’t worth the breath you waste spouting those lies.”
“These aren’t people,” Bo said. “They’re monsters.”
“No! They’re not!” I shouted. “I’ve spent ten minutes with them, and I can see that.”
“That’s ridiculous!” Bo said. “All you’re seeing are your pre-conceptions! We have lived with these beasts for centuries! We know what they are!”
“Centuries?” I asked. “When was the last time you talked to one of them?”
“I don’t need to talk to filth like that,” Bo said. “Not with the blood they owe me!”
“What could they possibly owe you when you take their lives every minute of the day?” I asked.
“I had a family once,” Bo said.
“And they fate weave didn’t save them?” I asked. I saw where she was leading me, but I couldn’t understand how anyone would get there on Abyz.
“They left it’s protection,” she said. “They were idiots like you.”
I was silent for a moment, letting the pieces fall into place.
“They came down here,” I said. “Outside the protection of the fate weave. They were trying to re-establish contact with the Unseen.”
Bo nodded without saying a word.
“Why?” I asked.
“Because they felt sympathy for the beasts, because they let an offworlder convince them that our world needed to change and that an apocalypse was worth risking,” she said.
“Were you with them? Did you see what happened?” I asked. It was a ghoulish and horrible question, but given that the Queen controlled the Dominator, potentially a critical one.
“I saw what was left,” she said. “Afterwards. The pieces that remained. Things an eight year old should never have to see.”
I was willing to bet her memory was a true one, at least as far as she’d experienced it. For someone as powerful as the Queen though reframing the narrative of what a horrific scene means is trivial. Bo was smart enough to know that too, but it’s difficult to see clearly when everyone around you is only interested in seeing history through the same lens.
I breathed out and took in Bo’s posture and expression. I wasn’t going to talk her out of her beliefs. They were too deeply rooted. They might even be true, but part of me rebelled at the notion. I didn’t have a lot of reason to trust the Unseen, but Bo was powerful and it was awfully convenient that the Queen had such a potent motivating force to use to hold her loyalty.
“There are lots of things eight year olds shouldn’t see,” I said. “But that doesn’t mean your family was wrong.”
“And you think you know what’s right?” she said.
“I think I know what I have to do,” I said.
“As do I,” she said.
I saw regret in her eyes, and the hard edged cold that said she’d chosen to finish this fight permanently. This time when she attacked at hyper-speed, I did defend myself.
Anima boosted attacks hit wizard class shields that exploded outward. The shields gave her power but bought me time to unleash the spell I’d been holding.
A hush fell over the melee as the sound of the spacetime tearing open drowned out everything else and then vanished. After a second, the unnatural quiet was broken by the thudding of something impossibly heavy on the surface far above us.
“What have you done?” Bo asked.
“Called for the end of this world,” I said.
“No!” she said. “Not while I still stand.”
I didn’t even see the blow she hit me with.