Swearing to take down the Queen and actually doing it were two very different things. I had some ideas on how we could proceed, but I’d learned over the last three years that any idea I had could always be improved by knocking it around with other people.
I’m not different from anyone else in that regard. We all have blind spots and a limited amount of brainpower to put towards any given task. Working with the right people means there’s a much better chance someone will notice the problems that lurk in our blind spot.
It’s one of the things I think the Crystal Guardians get exactly right. We’re tasked with troubleshooting on a galactic scale, and due to our numbers we wind up working assignments solo a large percentage of the time. There simply aren’t enough of us to go around in large groups. Despite that we almost never work alone.
My relationship with Fari, Darius and the crew of the Horizon Breaker was unusual only in that I wasn’t a full Guardian yet. Normally as an initiate, I’d be paired with a senior Guardian who’d act as my mentor. Nominally, I still had Master Raychelle Blackbriar for that, but while she kept tabs on me, it was really Captain Hanq who served as my safety net and instructor.
The arrangement with Yael and Zyla was similar, though in that case I think the two of them were more of a safety net for each other, despite whatever legal fictions might exist as to Zyla’s parole.
Beyond those personal relationships though, there was the expectation of how we were supposed to interact with the people who were living in whatever situation we’d come to resolve.
“Don’t take offense at this,” Ebele said, “But I hoped there’d be more of you coming to rescue your friends.”
Darius and Zyla had walked off with Kojo to inspect the teleportation wards. Amongst his other talents, Darius had learned a great deal about enchanting and general engineering from his time about the Horizon Breaker. For example, we’d been called on more than once to break into places warded by teleport anchors so he knew a fair number of security holes to look for as a result.
Fari and Talib had ventured off to another area of the mine to review the info Ebele’s group had on the royal spell webs. Most of them were shielded or even kept completely disconnected from the general planetary spell web but there are always backdoors and other work arounds for gaining access to their information.
That left Ebele and I along together in their makeshift planning room.
“No offense taken,” I said. “I’d be happier with a squad of Imperial marines at my back now too.”
The aggravating part was that the Horizon Breaker had a whole bushel of extremely dependable combat troops, and the Queen had taken them off the board in one move. It was petty, but things like that really made me want to smack her in the face even more.
“We’ll have to be enough though,” I said.
“I’m not sure I can count on that,” Ebele said. “Understand, I can’t risk my people just because you’ve decided to help take down the Queen. Everything we know says that she can’t be defeated by any grand gestures or straightforward attacks.”
“You’re looking to the long term. Chip away at her power base until she’s vulnerable, then strike when you can be sure of victory?” I asked.
“Exactly,” Ebele said. “The fate weave isn’t perfect and no matter how good of a caster she is, the Queen makes mistakes too. The more we push on her, the more those mistakes will add up. Give her enough time and she’ll bring the whole system down herself.”
I looked at the map of Abyz that Ebele had projected onto the planning room’s wall. Red dots marked a series of points, each of which lay outside the major metropolitan areas.
“What are these?” I asked.
“The Queen’s mistakes,” Ebele said.
I tapped the projection of the map on one of the red circles to expand it so that I could get a ground’s eye view of what lay at those coordinates. The image zoomed in and changed orientation until I was looking through a viewing window that showed an empty street in a dead cityscape.
I felt a chill run through me. Not the warning of danger, but the memory of it. I’d found the blasted deathscape I’d expected to see when I noticed the throng of ghosts on the arctic ice field.
“How many people lived here?” I asked, trying to do the math to determine if this could be the source of the ghost horde.
“We don’t know,” Ebele said. “These areas are shrouded by the same effect that keeps the Unseen hidden. Most people who wander into the cities forget they’ve ever been there with ten minutes of leaving.”
“How did you build this map then?” I asked.
“It’s a mental anima effect,” Ebele said. “Shield your mind and you can retain what you’ve seen.”
“I see.” I said. Establishing a static effect that covered areas that large and made people forget about the cities’ existence was a ludicrously impossible effect for any caster to achieve.
Unless they happened to be wielding a Jewel of Endless Night.
Only the Queen could be responsible for the red marks on the map and there’s no reason she would go to that much effort unless something happened there that she absolutely couldn’t let people remember.
“They’re difficult to explore even with shielding,” Ebele said. “There are all kinds of alarm spells in place in most of them. The rest are overrun by monsters.”
“Monster in paradise?” I asked, “I thought all the local fauna was kept docile by the fate weave?”
“That’s what they tell the tourists,” Ebele said. “An ecosystem can’t sustain itself like that though. It’s true that fate weave keeps the creatures of Abyz from harming any of the people or tourists but in the wilds they still hunt and kill the same as on any other world.”
“And the monsters?” I asked.
“They hunt and kill better than most other things,” Ebele said. “None of them are sapient, but they don’t need to be with the sort of powers they exhibit.”
“I guess I’m not surprised by that,” I said. “Abyz is drowning in magic. It would be implausible if the animals weren’t affected by it.”
“We think those towns may be instrumental in taking down the Queen, but they’re another avenue that we’re not ready to run down yet,” Ebele said.
“I understand where you’re coming from,” I said. “It’s impressive that you’ve managed to hang on this long in the face of the odds against you.”
“It hasn’t been easy,” Ebele said. “We’ve lost some good people over the years.”
“But never someone so critical that the resistance fell apart,” I said and watched her reaction. I had a couple of unpleasant theories forming in the back of my head and I needed data to confirm or discount them.
“We plan for everything,” Ebele said, her voice wavering just slightly out of sync with her lips. The muscles in her neck tightened as she spoke and I saw her fingers ball up into fists.
“That can’t be easier either,” I said, still watching her closely.
“It’s that or we let the Queen win.”
She was looking at me, but there was a distant quality to her gaze.
“Fari, can you do a remote scan for me?” I asked on our private telepathic link.
“Here?” she asked.
“Yeah, I need to know if Ebele’s under any specific mind affects at the moment,” I said.
There was a pause before she replied.
“None that I can see from here.”
“Damn,” I said. “I hate being right sometimes.”
“Do you need me to come back there?” Fari asked.
“Or me?” asked Darius.
“No, Ebele’s not a threat,” I said. “I think I just got confirmation that we’re alone for this one though.”
“How alone?” Darius asked.
“If I’m right, there’s not going to be anymore Imperial forces coming,” I said. “We can’t call in the cavalry, because we’re all the cavalry there is.”
“It’s funny you mention that,” Fari said. “Like creepy funny. I was just discussing with Talib how we might be able to get a message out to the Morning Rose.”
The Morning Rose was an Imperial Naval vessel. Specifically it was a Crystal Star. When I met Darius, he was living on a planet that turned out to be an ancient super weapon capable of razing other planets to space dust. A Crystal Star is the kind of vessel that can go toe-to-toe with weapons like that.
The only thing more serious than calling in a Crystal Star to solve a problem is requesting the presence of one of the Prime Guardians or, in the case of Universal Armageddon (yes, the Crystal Guardian’s handbook has a section on that), the Empress herself.
Needless to say, those were options which Crystal Guardians exercised with extreme care. A Crystal Star could solve a lot of problems very easily, but that much power concentrated in that specific of an area tended to attract a commensurate level of trouble and flat out weirdness, trouble and weirdness which generally dwarfed whatever problem they’d been called in to deal with.
Similar arguments are made about calling in a Crystal Guardian, and there’s a measure of truth there as well, but I hold only a tiny fraction of a Crystal Star’s power, and so usually draw only a tiny fraction of their trouble and weirdness along in my wake.
Then there are the times when I manage to land in an ocean of trouble and weirdness that was clearly not of my making.
“I’d love to be wrong about this,” I said. “And even if I’m not I’d say come up with your best plan of attack for contacting the Morning Rose. I suspect we’re going to need a whole slew of options on how we hit the Queen.”
“I’ll keep working with Kojo and Zyla then,” Darius said. “They’ve got some dangerous holes in their coverage here.”
“Do you need Zyla’s help fixing them?” I asked.
“Probably not,” he said. “Do you want me to send her back to you?”
“Yes please!” I said.
Our conversation had been quick thanks to telepathy, but even so it was a little odd to see how long Ebele was zoned out. The moment I finished speaking with Darius and Fari though, she blinked and continued on as though she’d never paused.
“I was 10 when they got my mother and little sister,” Ebele said. “You say you understand, but I don’t think you do.”
She waited for me to protest by I stayed silent and nodded for her to continue. We’re never more ignorant than when we protest that we know something without being willing to listen to someone else’s experience with it. It’s so tempting to try to appear intelligent by defending our opinions and beliefs but sometimes the truly smart play is to simply shut up and let somebody else speak.
“My mother thought we had to take risks sometimes,” Ebele said. “She swore that she was going to be careful and precise, and she was. I’ve reviewed her notes, gone over her plans, every detail, every movement.”
I watched the muscles in her neck unclench as the memories she spoke of washed anger away in a stream of old sorrows.
“Her plan should have worked,” Ebele said. “She should have escaped with my little sister and been able to tell the Imperials about what was going on here.”
She sat back in her chair and sagged into a frown.
“Too many impossible things happened to stop her though,” she said. “The fate weave bent over backwards, and despite everything my mother could throw at it, despite all the precautions and all the contingencies and all the people who were running interference, the Queen found them.”
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“So that’s why we’re not going to take any chances,” Ebele continued. “I’m not going to risk losing any more of my people unless you can find some power that eclipses both the fate weave and the Queen. There has to be no chance that she can survive what we do to her.”
“I don’t know if I can promise that,” I said. “I don’t know enough about the Queen or Abyz yet to offer you anything really, except maybe this; don’t you think it was kind of lucky that you were able to find us right before the Queen caught us, and right when we needed to look for some allies who knew what was really going on?”
“Yes…,” Ebele’s voice trailed off for a moment and I saw a spark of understanding flare in her eyes.
There was no such thing as “luck” on Abyz.