There’s nothing quite like feeling shackles slip away. It’s the warm rush of freedom as blood flows unimpeded to your extremities. It’s the spark of hope of that you might escape the fate your captors had in store for you. It’s the joy of finally getting your hands on the one responsible for your troubles so that you can beat some answers out her!
“Given that I’m freeing you, why do I get the sense you’re going to try to take my head off any moment?” Yael asked.
“The temptation is there, but I’m holding it back for the time being,” I said.
“I’m the one letting you out of this prison,” Yael said. “Why the hostility?”
“Well, for one, this isn’t hostility. Hostility involves dislocated limbs and an exciting exploration where I locate where your pain pressure points are,” I said. “And two, I’d be more grateful for you letting me out of this prison if I wasn’t reasonably sure you’re the reason I’m here in the first place.”
Yael opened her mouth with an expression that suggested she was going to deny what I’d said. I held up my hand to shush her before she tried to tell any lies that I was likely to smack her for.
“Listen, I’m alive, I’m in more-or-less one piece and the people I care most about are in the same state. So I’m not saying I’m mad at the work you’ve done here,” I said. “I’m sure I’ll be very impressed at the Imperial review when they go over how brilliant your crafting was, but I still think I owe you a good punch to the jaw for what you put us all through.”
“How do you know I put you through anything?” Yael asked.
“I repeat, I’m alive and in one piece,” I said. “And that’s due to a number of fortunate occurrences. Specifically ones which the fate weave should have been working overtime to make blow up in my face. Somebody has been working counterspells though, and I know of precisely two people on this planet who have both the inclination and capacity to do that.”
“How’s Zyla?” Yael asked, and almost succeeded in keeping the note of bone deep worry out of her voice.
“She misses you,” I said. “And at this point is probably going just a little crazy.”
Yael tensed and visibly fought to keep her expression neutral.
“Out of curiosity,” I asked, “Why didn’t you stick together?”
“There wasn’t time,” Yael said. “Just like there’s no time now. If you want to help me, and Abyz, we need to get out of here.”
“Leave the room where all my magic is suppressed?” I said. “Yeah, I think I can agree to that.”
Stepping out of the small cell was like emerging from a pond I didn’t know I was drowning under. As soon as I was clear of the suppression glyphs I felt strength and power flood back into me. It wouldn’t be anywhere near enough to fight off an army of the Queen’s guard but it beat being weak and chained up.
“So where are we going?” I asked.
“My cell,” Yael said.
“Wait, what? How are you still locked up here?” I asked.
“Let’s just say I’ve been very lucky,” she said.
“You’re going to explain that right?” I asked.
She nodded and led us down corridors that just so happened to have no guards patrolling them until we reach another cell door. This one opened onto a rather different room than the one I’d been shackled in though. Where my room was the size of a small walk-in closet, Yael had somehow managed to score the penthouse suite of cell rooms.
Her door opened onto a large open area that was tastefully appointed with various forms of cushioned furniture. A small fireplace blazed on the outer wall and on one side of the room I saw a low wall marking off a kitchen and dining area. One of the two doors on the other side of the room was open and beyond it lay a spacious bedroom.
“This is an old facility,” Yael said. “It dates back to before Abyz’s unification. This is one of the apartments for noble prisoners who were being held as hostages.”
“And is that what you are?” I asked. “A hostage the Crystal Empress will need to redeem?”
“No, it was a clerical error that placed me in this room rather than one of the anti-magic cells like you were in,” she said.
“That’s a rather incredible clerical error,” I said. “Especially for Abyz, and especially with a prisoner like you.”
“Well, it helps that they don’t quite realize that I’m a prisoner here,” she said.
“Ok, since that makes less than no sense, how about you start at the beginning and use small words so I’ll understand?” I said.
“I think you’ve figured out most of it already,” she said. “And since when have you ever needed small words to understand something?”
“Humor me,” I said. It was hard following esoteric discussions about anima casting that I wasn’t familiar with but that wasn’t why I wanted Yael to keep her explanation simple. If there was anything that fate spells loved to mess with it was complicated communications, and despite the fact that she was living in luxury I didn’t think Yael was completely free from the effects of the fate weave.
“If you’ve seen Zyla then maybe she shared with you the visions she had concerning Abyz?” Yael asked.
“She did,” I said. “Is it safe to talk about that here though?”
“The security devices have been stuck on a repeating loop for the last two weeks in this room. No one’s monitoring us at all now,” she said.
“That convenient,” I said. “And yeah, Zyla had visions that the planet was going to be destroyed right?”
“That’s what brought us here originally, but what we found was a lot more complex,” she said.
“The fate weave is backed by the Dominator,” I said, guessing at the source of the complexity.
It was delightful, and terrifying, to see how much of a surprise the news came as to Yael.
“Oh, you’ve got to be kidding me,” she said. “The Queen has one of the Jewels of Endless Night?”
“Yep, I watched her use it,” I said.
“Well, that explains a whole bunch of things then,” Yael said.
“There was some other complication you had in mind though it sounds like?” I asked.
“Just a little rebellion is all,” she said.
“The people want to overthrow Queen Metai?” I asked, failing to fit that piece into my mental puzzle.
“No, the Queen’s going to rebel against the Crystal Empire,” she said.
“That’s really stupid of her,” I said. “Isn’t it?”
“Not necessarily,” Yael said. “Abyz does a lot of tourist trade. I thought she was merely fate binding the people who visited here, but if what you say is true and her Mental anima prowess comes from a Jewel of Endless Night, then she could have sleeper agents spread all across the galaxy.”
“That can’t possibly be enough to help her win a war with the Empire though,” I said.
“It doesn’t have to be,” Yael said. “The Queen doesn’t want to conquer the Empire. Not yet anyways. She wants to secede.”
“Why…” I started to ask and interrupted myself. “Oh, of course, she’s violating the Sapients’ Rights Accord with how she’s abusing the Unseen so she knows once we find out about that we’d remove her from office. She’s preemptively fighting to keep her position.”
“That’s a repeating pattern for her,” Yael said. “And, unfortunately, there’s some real concern for the people of Abyz behind her actions too.”
“Real concern?” I asked.
“She’s tied into the fate weave at a fundamental level,” Yael said. “If we remove her from power, the whole thing will invert and kill everyone on Abyz.”
“But you have a plan to stop that right?” I asked.
“Yes, but it’s kind of a work in progress,” she said.
“Meaning what, exactly?” I asked.
“Meaning, I don’t know if its possible to prevent the inversion,” she said.
“Then is this a case where we leave the Queen in power?” I asked. “I’m pretty sure the Empress would prefer that to several billion dead people.”
“I’m sure she would, but that’s not what I meant,” Yael said. “Zyla and I were investigating the weave when we got separated. I stayed behind not because I wanted to get caught, but because I already was.”
“The fate weave got you?” I asked.
“And I got it,” she said. “I sank probing spells deeply enough into it that I discovered one of the directing nodes.”
“What’s a directing node?” I asked.
“At Demon’s Isolation, you found one of the power sources for the fate weave,” she said. “Basically one its hearts. What I found was essentially one of it’s minds.”
“The fate weave is sapient?” I asked.
“Not quite,” she said. “It has extremely sophisticated data processing worked into it and an in-built drive to preserve the lives of everyone on Abyz, but it doesn’t have a will or awareness of its own.”
“So when you captured it’s mind, you were able to redirect it?” I asked.
“One of its minds, and yes,” she said. “We’re protected by it now and even Queen Metai can’t work against that since she’d have to dismantle the fate weave itself to get at us.”
“Does she know you took control of a directing node?” I asked.
“Not yet,” Yael said. “If she finds out though, that’s one of the prime accelerators for the apocalypse.”
“One of?” I asked.
“There’s a lot of options for hastening the end of Abyz, but what I was saying earlier was that there’s no path I can see that avoids armageddon,” Yael said. “One way or the other, Abyz is going to burn.”
“That sounds very dramatic, but you’re not fooling me,” I said. “I’ve paid attention to your career for the last few years too you know. You and Zyla are a fate wrecking machine. You can’t expect me to believe something like a little planetary class spell and a Jewel of Endless Night are enough to beat you.”
Yael smiled at that but it was a weary, uncertain smile.
“I envy you sometimes,” she said. “All of you casters who aren’t Aetherial specialists.”
“Why?” I asked.
“Because there’s a secret to Aetherial casting,” she said. “And it’s a simple one; sometimes we don’t know.”
“You don’t know what?”
“Anything,” she said. “How are our spells are going to turn out, what future we’ll actually meet, how we’re going to make it all work. Half the time, I’m not sure my wins are due to anything more than pure non-magical luck, especially when I’m up against another Aetherial caster.”
“From where I stand it looks like you make your own luck by the boatload,” I said.
“Most of that’s Zyla,” Yael said. “I make luck for her and she makes it for me.”
“Why don’t you stick with her then?” I asked.
“The first thing I saw in the fate weave was that she needed to stay free if we were going to have any hope of working this out,” she said.
“I figured that, but I was speaking longer term than that,” I said.
“What do you mean?” Yael asked.
“Seriously? Are you really that dim?” I asked. “You, and her, together, bonded. You know like people do.”
Yael closed her eyes and bowed her head.
“It’s not that simple,” she said. “I’m responsible for her parole. I can’t ask that of anyone who’s under my authority.”
“I get that, and it’s excellent that you’re concerned about it, but have you ever talked with her? Asked her what she’d like to do?” I asked.
“I can’t bring that up!” she said. “I can’t make any offers that would compel her in any way. It wouldn’t be right.”
“I’m not talking about making an offer to her, at least not yet, I’m saying just talk to her. Ask her what she wants. It’s not that hard,” I said.
“I can’t deal with any of that now,” Yael said. “There’s a planet that’s going to die very soon. I’ve got to focus on that.”
“I appreciate our situation, but I want you to think of two things for me,” I said. “First, Zyla passed up her parole hearing last year, claiming her record wasn’t clean enough and you two had a serious crisis to avert. Maybe that was true, but look into your heart and see if you really believe it. Was she concerned about the hearing, or was she afraid to gain her freedom and lose you in the process? Second, If this planet does burn, and we die, casters like us are have a decent chance of leaving ghosts behind if we left something unresolved. Do you think you or Zyla would rest peacefully with things as they are now?”
“I don’t think anyone would rest peacefully here,” she said.
“Then let’s figure out what it’s going to take to save the world,” I said.
The door to Yael’s apartment swung shut. I hadn’t noticed that anyone had joined us, or that the door had even been open. That was a bad sign. Then I saw who was there and my blood froze solid in my veins.
“I believe I know the answer to that,” Queen Metai said. “You’re going to have to kill me.”