There are times when a gamble pays off but you almost wish it hadn’t. That was what waking up felt like. On the one hand there was the joyful knowledge that I’d guessed correctly about Bo keeping me alive until the disaster I’d induced was under control. On the other hand, I was thoroughly and certainly captured.
I woke to find myself in a familiar sort of room. Anti-magic glyphs glowed malevolently from the walls of my tiny cell. The bed was comfortable, which was a surprise, but the heavy iron shackles that bound my arms and legs spoke quite clearly as to what the nature of my stay would be like.
“What are those things?” Bo asked. The door to my cell was a few feet past the foot of the bed I was on. She was leaning against it and watching as I sat up and took in my quarters.
“Gigabeasts,” I said. “They eat anima and it’s a really bad idea to hit them with heavy munitions.”
“Yes, we know,” she said, in a tone that told me they’d discovered both of those facts the hard way.
“Probably should not have knocked me out,” I said.
“True,” she said. “I should have killed you before you finished the spell.”
“Maybe,” I said. “In your defense though that wasn’t something you could have expected anyone would try for, especially not in the middle of a fight. How many of your troops did you lose?”
“None,” she said.
“Good,” I said. “I figured you’d have them all in tunnels with you.”
“How do we stop these Gigabeasts?” she asked.
“The answer to that question is the only reason that I’m still drawing breath is it?” I asked.
“Technically you haven’t received a trial yet either,” Bo said.
“You’d put a Crystal Guardian on trial?” I asked. “With the kind of things you have to hide?”
“You’ll face a military tribunal,” Bo said. “No media, no witnesses.”
“You could save a lot of time and hassle and kill me now,” I said. “We both know the outcome would be the same.”
“That’s not true,” Bo said. “If you cooperate, we won’t have to extract the information from you by force.”
“I can curl up into my own Void anima,” I said. “You can harm my body all the want, but I won’t feel a thing.”
“The Queen doesn’t need to torture you,” Bo said. “The royal blood of Abyz runs in her veins. Even your Void shields won’t help you against her.”
“You’re not going to let your Queen get within a hundred miles of me,” I said. “Not after what I did in Demon’s Isolation. Not when she’s so close to completing her grand scheme.”
“What are you babbling about?” Bo asked. “The Queen has no grand scheme. It’s you Imperials who are seeking to destroy this world.”
“Are you sure about that?” I asked.
“A hundred cosmic-class hyper-predators is a convincing piece of evidence,” she said.
“A hundred?” I asked. “I guess I did botch the spell. It was only supposed to summon three of them.”
“There were nine to start with,” Bo said.
“And then you hit them with a city-buster blast?” I asked.
“They were devouring one of the hearts of the fate weave!” she said.
“Yeah, that was the general idea,” I said. “The Queen made Demon’s Isolation so remote and hidden that it seemed like the perfect space to deploy those things. At least assuming that the Unseen made it out safely.”
“Do you know what damage to the fate weave on that scale could have done?” she asked.
“Shut down the whole thing?” I said.
“No. A spell with the size and depth of the fate weave doesn’t shutdown,” she said. “It shatters. And then all that magical energy goes somewhere.”
“Sounds like a feast for the Gigabeasts,” I said.
“A feast set on the table of a dead planet,” Bo said. “If the fate weave shatters it will pass through an anti-phase period as it tears itself apart.”
“Anti-phase meaning its function inverts?” I asked.
“Yes, the magics that are designed to protect life will instead bend probabilities to ensure that everyone it touches dies.”
“With the power that’s been built up by the fate weave, I take it your projections show that there’s enough anima to kill everyone on the planet a few hundred times over right?” I asked.
“That’s what the conservative estimates say.”
“And yet you’re all still here,” I said.
“Not if we can’t stop the Gigabeasts,” she said.
“How far are they from the nearest population center?” I asked.
“Twelve hours out at their current travel speed,” she said.
“I presume most are regrowing from the attack you hit them with?” I asked.
“Yes, but that seems to be happening at a steady rate,” she said.
“It’s not.” I said. “You can expect them to vary the rate of their regeneration and their travel speed upwards as they get closer to their goal. I would expect them to reach their destination in no more than four hours.”
“So four hours until we have countless civilian deaths, on a planet where accidental and violent deaths have been unknown for generations,” Bo said. “This is what we have to thank the Crystal Empire for?”
“Don’t get self-righteous with me,” I said. “You know the fate weave is still in effect. The farther the Gigabeasts move away from Demon’s Isolation, the more the fate weave will limit them. Even if we let them get to a population center, it would take hours for them to gnaw the fate weave till it was weak enough for them to do any real damage.”
“Is that your plan then?” Bo asked. “To hold us hostage until the fate weave is about to break.”
“No,” I said. “I’ll give you spell to banish them. I didn’t summon those things because I want to destroy the world.”
“And yet you claimed they were here to end it,” she said.
“That’s because they are,” I said.
“I don’t see the difference,” she said.
“Abyz as it is now has to end,” I said. “You can’t keep going like you are because if you do, Abyz will be destroyed. That’s what brought the first Crystal Guardian here. Concern for the future of this world and the people on it.”
“That’s a lie,” Bo said. “Abyz is the safest place in the galaxy. It’s the Empire that’s dangerous. You’re the ones who bring death and oppression wherever you go.”
“Death and oppression?” I asked. “Where did you get that kind of skewed view of us from?”
“From history,” Bo said. “From the recordings that show the conquest of the galaxy and how your Crystal Empress crushed everyone who tried to stand against her.”
“That’s an interesting reading of the events,” I said. “Tell me though, how exactly is the Empress oppressing you?”
“We live by her suffrage,” Bo said. “At any moment she can chose to purge our planet if she feels we’ve violated the Edicts she imposed on us.”
“You live by your Queen’s suffrage as well, and I’m going to guess that her edicts are a lot more capricious than The Common Galactic Accord of Rights is.”
“The Queen is our rightful ruler,” Bo said. “Not an alien overlord who violated our sovereign domain and annexed us unwillingly into a collective that we have barely any voice in.”
“Do you hear yourself?” I asked. “Nearly every word you said there was wrong. Alien overlord? The Empress barely holds an executive power at all. The Galactic Senate and its sub-houses vote on everything the Empire does.”
“And what voice do we have in the Senate?” Bo asked. “A negligible one.”
“Yeah, in the greater Senate where all of the worlds meet. But there’s a million worlds that meet there. No one has a singular voice that can dominate it,” I said. “That’s what the local sub-Senates are for, and there you have just as much a voice as any of your neighbors.”
“But we never asked to be part of this Empire, it was forced on us,” Bo said.
“You’re part of the galaxy, like it or not,” I said. “And, yes, I know some systems and some areas of the galaxy are not part of the Crystal Empire. I was raised on one of them. From what I’ve seen though, that didn’t stop life from sucking. In fact Belstarius was arguably a lot worse than most of the Imperial worlds I’ve visited, even before it’s capital got wiped off the face of the planet by a warlord fleet.”
“Belstarius?” Bo asked. “The border world near the Chiang cluster?”
“Yep,” I said. “Home sweet home until it caught a bad case of Ghost-Bomb-itis.”
Bo got an odd look on her face but said, “Go on.”
“What I’m saying is that the Empire that you see, this horrible conquering beast, is more of a myth than a reality. Look at what the actual Crystal Empire asks of you today, not what you imagine it has done to you.”
“What do you mean?” she asked, eyeing me suspiciously.
“I was never a good history student, but even I know colonialism has some serious problems that arise with it,” I said. “And the Empress’s faction knew that too. So look at the things the Crystal Empire did when it swept into power. Did it demand tribute or taxes from its member worlds? No, it provides resources to them because the Imperial Core systems have boundless enchantments to call on.”
“We don’t need charity or pity,” Bo said.
“And you don’t get any. Abyz is far too wealthy on its own to qualify for sustenance grants from the Empire. Instead the Empire has left you largely alone, only requesting that you appoint a representative to the Galactic Senates that you are a part of.” I said.
“And demanding that we obey the Empire’s rules,” Bo said.
“Yes, Empress demands that a short list of rights for sapients be observed across the galaxy,” I said. “If a world is unwilling to treat all sapients as people, only then we’re empowered to step in and correct that problem with exceptional measures.”
“By destroying the world?” she asked.
“No, not even in the most extreme of cases,” I said. “Which is why I’ll tell you the spell to banish the Gigabeasts with. They’re not a bargaining chip. Or a threat. They’re a tool. If the time comes to end the fate weave, they may be able to help absorb and diffuse the anti-phase wave when it breaks.”
“So are you saying that you gave us a hundred unstoppable monsters as a gift?” Bo asked.
“I’m saying that they’re an insurance policy. They offer an option in case things go wrong in one particular fashion,” I said.
“An option that requires that we keep you alive,” Bo said.
“That’s not the best reason for you to keep me breathing but we can add it to the tally,” I said.
“I suppose you’ll need to be removed from this room to demonstrate the spell?” Bo asked.
“I wouldn’t mind if you took the shackles off, but no, I can give you the basics of the spell well enough from here,” I said.
“Enough then, tell me how to get rid of these things,” she said.
So I broke it down for her. With a squad of Void casters under her command, I knew Bo wouldn’t have much trouble leading the Gigabeasts back to the warp space rift that I’d opened. Sealing it would be more challenging but still well within the capability of the forces she commanded.
“If you’re lying about any of this, I will end you,” Bo said.
“What I’m interested in is what you’re going to do when you discover that I’m telling the truth,” I said.
“Turn you over to the military tribunal so that you can be judged for the crimes you committed,” she said.
“I can’t ask for more than that I guess,” I said.
If I was right, the only tribunal I was going to face would be an Imperial one when I was called to stand and explain my actions on Abyz. If Bo was willing to go with the fiction that an Abyz tribunal would get a crack at me that was fine. It just meant I had slightly more time to work with before she started hunting me again.
She opened the door and took one last questioning look at me before she locked me into the cell.
I waited a few minutes to make sure she had time to start briefing her troops about the banishing spell, before I started working on my shackles. I was far from a master escape artist but since this wasn’t the first anti-magic cell I’d been trapped in, I’d practiced a few different escape techniques that didn’t rely on anima casting.
I was working on dislocating my thumb (it’s less fun than it sounds) when the door opened up again.
A shock of fear flew through me. Bo should have gone off to deal with the Gigabeasts. There wasn’t any good reason for her to come back and check on me.
Which was why it wasn’t her who stepped through the door.
“You’ll have an easier time with these,” Yael said and tossed me the keys to the shackles.