Danger feels cold to me. It’s the sensation of fear made manifest, except where fear steals inwards from the tips of my fingers and toes, my danger sense spreads outwards from my heart like a block of ice trying to shield the centerpoint of my body.
The sensation I experienced when the Queen of Abyz casually strolled into Yael’s prison suite was a hyper-focused melding of conscious fear and an unconscious awareness of being in mortal peril. Strangely though, the chill that consumed me didn’t have a magical component. As far as my danger sense was concerned I wasn’t any closer to death or serious injury than I was at any other time on Abyz.
“I am alone and unarmed,” Queen Metai said as she closed the door to the cell and took a seat on a cushioned chair between Yael and I.
My mind was racing over dozens of possibilities, none of which held a clear answer to why the Queen was here, much less any coherent response to what she said. Yael was ahead of me there. From her expression, it looked like she had expected this turn of events.
“I don’t believe it’s entirely correct to say that you’re unarmed when you wield a Jewel of Endless Night,” my fellow Guardian said.
“You are correct,” Queen Metai said. “That’s why I’ve entrusted her to one of my subordinates.”
“You’re serious about this then?” Yael asked.
“You cannot fathom the depth of my sincerity young one,” the Queen said.
“I’m sorry, but you want us to kill you? When did this world go completely insane?” I asked.
“Long ago, and you cannot imagine the burden it is to carry that insanity,” the Queen said.
“Yael? A little help here? What is going on?” I asked.
“Remember how I said I can’t see a future where Abyz doesn’t burn?” Yael said. “Neither can she.”
I looked at the Queen and struggled to fit that into what I knew of her so far. The image that I’d formed of the dread and cruel ruler of Abyz was jarringly at odds with the woman who sat no more than five feet away from me.
In the plain light of Yael’s suite, Queen Metai looked older than her body’s years. Older and far more tired. If Fari was right, that was entirely her own fault. Jumping from one body to the next to extend her own life carried the inherent cost that all the sorrows and pain she suffered over the centuries was carried forward with her.
It was so easy to see her as a villain. The suffering that she slaved the Unseen to was beyond reckoning and the violation of people’s minds and will that she performed on a regular basis with the Dominator was enough to warrant a death sentence anywhere in the Empire. Ebele’s story of how her mother and little sister perished was almost certainly one of thousands or millions of such crimes that could be laid at the Queen’s door.
Part of me didn’t want to see or accept that the person responsible for those atrocities could also be someone willing to lay down their life for her planet.
“So how is having us kill her going to help?” I asked. “Is she just trying to avoid the rush in dying?”
“I don’t think so,” Yael said. “I think you’re here for me aren’t you?”
“Yes, and no.” the Queen said. “I have seen you, and your workings. You are clever and skillful, perhaps the most gifted Aether worker beside myself who has ever walked on Abyz. I fought your manipulations of the fate weave, but you played the deeper game and won. And in the process you will lose so very much.”
“I think I can almost follow what you’re saying,” I said. “You should probably try to be about twice as cryptic so it’ll all sound like meaningless babble.”
“Tell her what you’ve done,” the Queen said to Yael.
“I told you I took one of the fate weave’s minds right?” Yael said. “Well, part of mastering it has involved putting myself into a position where I’m effectively an administrator of the entire spell network.”
“She has control over the weave that is second only to my own,” Queen Metai said. “I believe?”
There was honest uncertainty in Queen Metai’s expression and I thought of Yael’s description of Aetherial casting. Physical spells and Void spells are beautiful. You cast them and they do something you can see and feel immediately. I punch harder or turn invisible or drain the energy out of an attacking spell. Aetherial spells, from my point of view, are a nightmare where you cast it and hope that it does something vaguely like what you want and that no other Aetherial caster has a better spell waiting to swallow up or pervert the intent of yours.
“Yes,” Yael said. “I couldn’t usurp prime control without allowing you to become aware of what I was doing and where I was.”
“She seems to have managed that just fine,” I said.
“And I have to confess I’m curious how you found us?” Yael said to the Queen.
“I know the weave very well,” the Queen said. “I knew if you survived and had influence over one of the control nodes, you would use it to shield yourself. If you were any kind of threat you would have it block out not only direct avenues of attack but also any that held the intent to do you harm. To find the both of you all I needed to do was proceed along a path where I held no intention to do your harm, either directly or indirectly.”
“You just said she’s going to lose a whole lot with how this shakes out,” I said.
“Her loss isn’t one the fate weave will regard as harm,” the Queen said.
“She wants me to take over as her successor,” Yael said. “At this point if she dies, I’d become the new Queen of Abyz. Effectively.”
I felt slow and dim, but I caught the tail of that idea and ran with it.
“Meaning no one else would have the same level of control over the fate weave, so your word would effectively be law?” I asked.
“Not quite law,” Yael said. “Without the Queen’s mental powers, or the Dominator, I wouldn’t be able to make the populace follow me. I would just be the central point that the fate weave rests on. Everything it does would go through me and be an extension of my power.”
“If it is done correctly the Dominator will be yours as well,” the Queen said. “It’s power is tied into the fate weave too intimately to extract it at this point.”
“That’s how you were able to make the Unseen disappear wasn’t it?” I asked.
“Yes,” the Queen said. “And so many other secrets as well.”
Yael gasped and sat back in her chair.
“You melded them together!” Yael said. “That’s where the original corruption in the weave comes from!”
“I wasn’t the one who did that, it was an earlier Queen Metai, but that doesn’t really matter at this point,” she said.
“Original corruption?” I asked.
“The fate weave is not as it was designed to be,” Queen Metai said. “It was distorted centuries ago, all with the best of intentions, and all leading to the cataclysm that faces us now.”
“The fate weave shouldn’t be anywhere near as strong as it is,” Yael said. “A planet-wide spell of that magnitude is possible but the natural ley lines on most worlds won’t support anything more than the lightest of spells over that broad an area and with that wide ranging of a mandate.
“That’s how the weave was originally, from what the records tell us,” the Queen said. “Abyz was gifted with abundant Aetherial anima lines. It was a rare jewel of a world, but even with that the fate weave was only able to reduce the severity of accidents and violence slightly. Protecting an entire planet from all harm was impossible.”
“Until one of your predecessors got their hands on a Jewel with near limitless magic?” I asked.
“Exactly,” the Queen said. “They sought to supplement the weave and turn Abyz into a true paradise, and it worked!”
“But it also went terribly wrong didn’t it?” Yael asked.
“From our current point of view, yes,” the Queen said. “The union with the Dominator gave access to a vast store of anima, but even that was not truly endless and the Dominator was designed to protect her reserves, so when she felt the drain put on her, she pulled her power back.”
“And that almost caused a weave inversion to occur,” Yael said.
“There were several partial inversions, but my predecessor found a solution that prevented a planet-wide catastrophe.”
“Which is where the Unseen come into the picture?” I guessed.
“Yes,” the Queen said. “They were refugees we had agreed to take in, but they were not well liked by the rest of the populace, and were largely confined to their own cities and areas. It was a simple matter for the Dominator to recast them as invaders who came to pillage our resources and who were stopped by the fate weave’s protection.”
“Planetary hypnosis is easier when the populace doesn’t think about the subjects at all though isn’t it?” I asked, again guessing, this time as to why the Queen had implemented the forgetfulness spell to hide them.
“Much easier,” the Queen said. “And the Unseen became the perfect resource. Living, self-reproducing batteries of power that could be forced to serve the weave eternally.”
“How could you see an entire people as nothing more than fuel to burn up however you want?” I asked.
“At first, I imagine, the Queen Metai of that time found it very simple,” the Queen said. “The suffering of the aliens brought her people a greater benefit than any other people in the galaxy enjoyed. And the alternative was death for them all. As a ruler, that is a very simple choice to make.”
“You’ve come to believe differently though or you wouldn’t be here,” Yael said.
“She believed differently, the first Queen of the Broken Web,” Queen Metai said. “The Dominator let her extend her life through passing her awareness into new host bodies. Those of her children. It didn’t take many generations of this for the first Queen to grow weary and horrified of the burden she carried. She tried to pass it all on to her daughter, tried to escape her fate by allowing herself to die. Much of Abyz died with her.”
“There was an inversion?” Yael asked.
“Yes, a vast one,” the Queen said. “The weave is flawed and unstable. It has been since the Dominator was melded to it. Without an experienced will guiding it’s prime node, it tries to reject the Dominator and will almost immediately invert into a planetary death spell.”
“Why didn’t that happen after the first Queen died?” I asked.
“Her daughter, who was too young to handle the weave, who had never been properly trained, bargained with the Dominator and traded away all of her own anima for the knowledge the Jewel had copied from her mother. She seized control of the weave and took up the Dominator along with the sceptre of rulership and has carried them all through the centuries ever since.”
“Where’s the Dominator now?” I asked.
“As I said, I have passed her to a subordinate,” Queen Metia said. “She would not allow this transfer if she were here, so I’ve sent her on a hunt for you.”
“I still don’t see why you want to pass all this on to Yael?” I said. “If you’re tired of living you could just take your mother’s path and pass it to a daughter, except, you know, train her first.”
“During any transition there will be an inversion and death on a wide-scale,” the Queen said. “Unless the new Queen has access to a vast reservoir of power.”
“You’ve misjudged me then,” Yael said. “By my measure, we’re roughly equivalent in terms of inborn power. If you couldn’t prevent an inversion, there’s no chance I’ll be able to.”
I puzzled over that for a second before something Yael had said lit up my mind like a strobe light.
“She’s not assuming you have the power,” I said, my voice barely rising above a whisper.
“No, I’m not.” the Queen said, a smile of victory gracing her face.
“You said she was going to rebel against the Crystal Empress,” I said. “That she’d spread agents out among the stars from the people who vacationed here that she fate bound.”
“They’re not sleeper agents,” Yael said, reaching the same conclusion I had.
“You’re linking Abyz’s fate weave to the Crystal Empire as a whole,” I said. “When it inverts, the Crystal Empress will have to step in and pay the price for it.”
“I cannot defeat her in life,” the Queen said. “But I believe in death I can claim at least some measure of victory.”
“We’ll let Abyz burn before we see you endanger the Empire,” Yael said.
“No you won’t,” the Queen said. “I can’t see Abyz surviving, but I know from twenty years of observation that your Empress won’t allow that to occur, even if it’s the end of her.”
“It won’t be,” I said. “And we’re not going to let Abyz burn either. I said we were going to save this planet, and I still mean it.”
I rubbed my hands together and gave the Queen a look that said “I’ve got a plan”. If she knew me, she would know that was a sign to start trying to escape to a minimum safe distance by any means necessary.
“Now, about killing you?” I said, and smiled.