Monthly Archives: February 2015

The Compass of Eternity – Chapter 19

Demon’s Isolation was an unfriendly town in the same sense that the surface of a star is a warm and toasty vacation destination. Veins of Void anima ran through the town and throbbed with a dull pulse like a heartbeat.

“That landing felt extra terrible, “ Darius said, shaking his head to recover. I saw him collect his wits and take stock of what was happening in between the blink of an eye, “And now you have a Void shield covering us. We’re under attack already aren’t we?”

“From the instant we landed,” I said.

“Hostile sapient, or a trap?” Fari asked.

“Something is incredibly wrong with the fate weave here,” Zyla said.

“I don’t think it reaches into this city,” I said. “There’s a Void spell all around us, so probably a trap, to answer Fari’s question. I think it’s killing the fate weave, and everything else in the vicinity.”

“No, it’s not,” Zyla said. “The fate weave’s still present, but it’s different.”

I switched over to Void sight and risked opening my mystical vision to the Aetherial spectrum.

Just as Zyla said, the fate weave was all around us, but it looked very different from the vibrant torrent of power that the rest of Abyz was submerged in.

“They’re joined together,” I said as I inspected the fabric of the spells that surrounded me. There was a lot less Aetherial anima binding us inside the town, but I could still see thick strands of the fate weave trying to wrap themselves around us. They weren’t just less numerous though, they were paler than I remembered them being.

I inspected them closer and found that the threads of the fate weave were braided with threads of the Void anima spell. At the ends of the threads, the magics sunk into each other and merged. From what I’d been taught, that was impossible. The Void anima should consume the Aetherial anima of the fate weave completely. Given what my eyes were seeing I had to conclude that my training had missed a few things.

“What does that mean?” Fari asked.

“That we’ve come to the right place,” I said. “How long do we have until the troops show up?”

“The first ring of a Grand Ward has gone up,” Fari said. “They’ll have teleportation cut off in under a minute.”

“This way,” I said and took off at an anima-assisted run.

“Fleeing from our last detectable position or have you found something?” Darius asked.

“Little bit of each,” I said as I moderated my pace so that Darius and Zyla could keep up with me.

We ran through the wreckage of the ancient city, bounding across streets and buildings with inhumanly long leaps. I’d run through cities for all my life. There were similarities you could find whenever the races who lived there had vaguely humaniform body configurations. Buildings tended to be constructed to the same scale for example. Roads and alleys too.

I had no idea what sort of people had lived in Demon’s Isolation, but from the empty door frames and barren interiors I could tell that they weren’t completely alien.

I could also tell they hadn’t been able to fight whatever had taken them. Apart from the damage our landing had done, the buildings were in remarkably good shape. The long years had taken away any luster they might have once had, but structurally they seemed sound.

The empty structure’s brought back unpleasant memories of my home town. Grey and silent in the wake of a weapon that only vaporized the citizens. There wasn’t any grey here, which I was very grateful for, but the overall effect was the same. We were walking through a tomb.

“We’re disturbing the fate weave but it’s not reacting to us,” Zyla said.

“The Void fibers are anesthetizing it,” I said. “I think.”

“Did Guardian Blackbriar cover anything like this in her training?” Darius asked.

“Not even slightly,” I said. “What I’m seeing is supposed to be impossible, so I’m kind of working it out as I go.”

“Where are we heading?” Zyla asked. “I can feel the fate weave growing thinner.”

“I’m taking us to the center of the Void spell,” I said. “There’s got to be something very interesting there.”

My plan had been to head towards the heart of the Mental spell that made people forget about this place, but the Void magic seemed freaky enough to make the primary focus given our limited time.

“And if there’s not we’ll make something interesting there, right?” Darius asked.

Our plans for escaping weren’t good ones, but they were large and very loud, which would at least make our (very likely) deaths entertaining and useful.

“I don’t think we’ll have to worry about that,” Zyla said. “There’s definitely something in the direction Mel’s leading us. It’s big though.”

I shot a glance over at Darius. He shrugged as he leaped over a small, single story building. We’d worked with “big” before. “Big” factored into most of our more successful plans and was certainly in the docket for this one.

“Fari, are you picking anything up?” I asked.

“Between your shield and the ambient Void anima?” she asked. “Nope, just us.”

“Think the same applies to Agent Riverstone?” I asked.

“I doubt it,” she said. “Whatever is here is important, we can be sure of that, and with the Void anima field that’s in place there’s only a tiny number of casters who could survive being where we are now.”

“So if they were going to put in detection spells, they’d focus on ones that worked against a Void caster,” I said, seeing where Fari’s train of thought lead. “Any guesses which ones we’ve triggered?”

“Probably several of them,” she said. “The anima levels you’re seeing even within the radius of your shield are massive. Anyone willing to set this up would have the energy available to create layered defenses.”

“Any reason we’re not dead yet?” Darius asked.

“They must have to come here to service something,” Fari said. “A warning system plus a troop response if needed is a much better answer to a false alarm than blowing yourself up because you botched a disarming spell or forgot to cast it one time.”

“The troops would need to be protected from the Void anima spell too wouldn’t they?” Zyla asked.

“I’m sure Agent Riverstone was one of the first people who was teleported in,” I said. “She and the rest of the royal operatives are probably shielding the Queen’s troops the same as I’m shielding you.”

“Probably why we’ve stayed ahead of them,” Fari said. “They’re moving at the speed of their slowest member.”

“And watching for counter-traps,” I said.

“But we haven’t had time to set any up,” Zyla said.

In the distance there was giant explosion that was cut off by an implosive silence.

“We haven’t had time to setup any good traps you mean,” Darius said. “With Void casters on the other side I couldn’t risk a decent yield on any of the runes.”

“What just happened?” Zyla asked.

“Runic Traps,” Darius said. “I’ve been scattering them as we go. They don’t pack much punch, but there’s an inversion effect on them so if a Void caster tries to drain the energy of the blast they’ll find that the energy implodes on them and strips away a bit of their Void anima in the process.”

“And you did that on the fly?” Zyla asked.

“Well, on the run, and believe me, I’ve had worse environments to cast them in,” he said.

I nodded in agreement. For one thing, with the city being deserted, Darius could be a lot sloppier in the triggers that he setup for the traps without the worry of an innocent setting one of them off. Even the “low yield” traps he was throwing out behind us still packed enough force to level a small building.

For as potent as they were though, I had to factor in the skill Bo fought me with. Based on that, I was pretty certain that Darius’ traps weren’t going to accomplish anything other than slowing down our pursuers but under the circumstances that was exactly what we needed.

With a final leap to the top of a six story building, I came to a halt and let the others catch up.

“We’re here, sort of,” I said and looked over the edge of the building.

Below our position, a concave depression broke the dense cityscape that surrounded us. The bowl was about a half mile across and in the center, at the lowest point, I saw a great gaping hole. Around the hole were a dozen crates in the kind of irregular formation that said they’d been air dropped into their current positions.

“What in the Crimson Hells is this?” Zyla asked, landing beside me a moment before Darius caught up with us.

“Supplies,” I said.

“The question is supplies for what?” Darius asked.

“Not what, who.” I said.

“You think there are people down there?” Fari asked and then saw what was really running through my head. “You think we’ve found the source of the ghosts!”

“Or it could be monsters,” Darius said. “The city is called Demon’s Isolation after all.”

“Are we that lucky?” I asked him.

“Not according to our last twenty mission logs,” he said.

“Monsters would be better than people why exactly?” Zyla asked.

“Because monsters we could unleash on the people following us,” I said. “People we’ll need to protect.”

“The good news is this puts an end to Mel’s plan to lead the royal forces away so that the rest of us could escape safely,” Darius said.

“You don’t know that was my plan!” I said.

“Mel, dearest, you’re very clever sometimes but try to think when the last time you fooled both Darius and I was?” Fari said, laying a blue spectral hand on my arm.

“That would be ‘never’ in case you’ve lost track,” Darius said and folded his arms.

“That was your great plan?” Zyla asked, staring at me like I’d lost my mind.

“No,” I said. “It was one of my great plans.”

I frowned and tried to not to look any of them in the eyes. I had other plans, but they went from “a lot worse than acting as a decoy” to “no sane individual would even conceive of this.”

“The important thing is that it’s off the table,” Darius said. “The Queen will be able to detect if we split up, and we all know that we have to go down into that pit no matter how much of a death trap it is right?”

My frown turned into a scowl. The supply crates were the kind of thing that would only be dropped for people to use. If the intended target was non-sapient, they wouldn’t be able to open the locking mechanism. People were more dangerous than monsters. Monsters had resilience and special powers and lacked fear or mercy. Those were formidable qualities but people could think and plan and that tended to trump everything else.

The people in the pit wouldn’t know we were coming to them in friendship and probably couldn’t afford to take chances. Unless I missed my guess, the only outsiders they’d seen for decades or longer were agents of the Queen like Bo, and I couldn’t imagine those encounters were very pleasant. I knew, before we took a single step further, that they were going to hit us as hard as they could if we ventured into their domain. The scary thing wasn’t that we would have to defend ourselves. It was that I didn’t know how if we’d be able to hold back enough to not kill a few of them in the process.

Killing innocents, especially ones who’d be unimaginably mistreated for generations, wasn’t something I ever wanted to do, but Darius was right. We had to go down into that pit. The people there were too well hidden. They had to be close to the heart of what was really happening on Abyz.

“The Queen’s forces will be here soon,” Fari said. “We need to get going.”

“And no, you can’t stay here and fight the Queen’s operative while we find out what’s happening with the underground people,” Darius said.

I clenched my fist. He was right about that too, but it was the very next plan I’d considered. I could slow the royal forces down better than any of Darius’ traps and when I fought I tended to do a lot more damage than Darius or Zyla, so having me away from the people in the pit would be a lot healthier for them.. Especially if I had to break out the Void anima spells.

I could be terrifying. It was part of what qualified me to be a Crystal Guardian, but sometimes terrifying is exactly what isn’t needed to resolve a situation.

Ironically, it was for that same reason that I couldn’t stay behind to fight with Bo and the army she was bringing with her. If she pushed me hard enough, I would have to answer in kind, and that wasn’t a scenario that was going to end well for anyone.

“Down we go then,” I said and leapt into one of the darkest on all of Abyz.

The Compass of Eternity – Chapter 18

Flying the Abyz “Spider” fighter proved to be just as interesting an experience as I expected it to be. On the positive side, that meant that the suborbital trip to our  destination passed by with blinding speed. On the negative side, the blinding speed came with the danger of actual blindness as several components that regulated the ship’s flight and navigation decided to explode in our faces. I would have been willing to trade a month’s paychecks for a less interesting flight but I knew that wasn’t going to be an option even before we set out.

To her credit, Fari did an amazing job of forging credentials for us on the fly and locating a top of the line ship to serve as our transport. The Abyz Spider fighter was unusual both in terms of its armaments and its ability to transport up to four casters at once. That should have keep our flight nice and simple, but the fate weave was fighting to undo Fari’s work at every turn.

I fight against the aetherial manipulations and can resist the fate weave’s direct attacks, but in a multi-person fighter plane, there were too many things that could be turned against us for me to protect us all with a Void shield. The plane itself, for example, would have been unhappy to have most of it’s enchantments bathed in Void anima. A Void shield might successfully prevent damage to fighter’s systems from the fate weave, but it would also drain all the energy out of the enchantments that let the plane fly in the first place.

Fortunately we had an answer to the fate weave’s machinations.


It’s rare to see a wizard-class Aetherial caster strenuously exerting themselves. They normally work on very long time scales and favor subtlety over force. Against the fate weave and under the time constraints we were fighting against though, Zyla didn’t have the option of being subtle. Instead she grew very still.

When I press my magics to the limit, I often wind up moving faster than the eye can follow and the collateral damage around me accumulates quickly enough to qualify for disaster relief aid. In Zyla’s case though she didn’t move at all. Not physically at least. Her anima was another story. As we flew into the worst of what the fate weave could throw at us, I felt a counter surge of magic tearing around us like a hurricane. When I looked back, Zyla was in the middle of that hurricane and I could see the starkly visible glow of her magic fighting tooth and nail to keep us in the air. She was weaving layer after layer of spells faster than I could follow or comprehend, and she was doing it against a power that dwarfed her own by millions or billions of times in terms of raw magical force.

In a sense, it was odd to see that fight occurring at all too. The fate weave wasn’t usually inclined to crash fighter planes from what I could tell, but under the Queen’s control it was willing to make an exception for us it seemed. It was thanks to the work Zyla did that our wings weren’t ripped off and thanks to her that the distressing nature of our flight wasn’t apparent to those monitoring us from the ground.

Conflicting gusts of wind hit the airframe of the craft but only served to provide lift and cancel out the drag that was slowing us down. Internal components of the ship failed, but most of them weren’t critical and the few vital ones were in areas that Darius (our resident engineer) was able to jury rig repairs for.

That left me to fly the Spider, which was always thrilling to do on a craft I hadn’t received any training on.

Under normal circumstances handling an unfamiliar plane wouldn’t have been that hard. There are some near universal standards on how flight enchantments are laid down, so interfacing with a new craft was mostly a matter of learning its limits and peculiarities. Discovering those limits and peculiarities the hard way when fighting against maelstrom winds  did present a few difficulties though.

“We seem to be upside down,” Darius said. “And flying backwards.”

He didn’t sound frightened by that. In fact he didn’t even sound surprised. I’d either broken my poor boy somewhere over the last two years or he’d acclimated to the kind of situations I brought into our lives. Either way, he was a keeper I figured.

Of course “keeping” him requiredkeeping us all alive, so I cursed and poured Physical anima into the Spider’s engines, struggling to bring us around to the proper bearing.

“We are being advised of turbulent air fronts and instructed to climb to thirty thousand feet,” Fari said, relaying the commands from the Abyzal military weather personnel who were part of the control staff for the troop deployment we were using as a cover.

“Probably good they’re calling it turbulent air,” I said. “If they knew we had micro-vortex’s up here, someone might get suspicious.”

I got the fighter pointed in the correct direction and brought it up to full standard throttle to push a path through the mini-tornados the fate weave conjured against us. As luck, or more specifically as Zyla, would have it, I hit a gap layer in the vortex where the winds were calm. That was enough for me to push us through the destructive edge of the storm without being ripped to shreds. The instant we were out I engaged the transonic boosters and dove towards the countryside below us.

“They’re reporting secondary storms forming in the higher altitudes,” Fari said.

“The fate weave’s not terribly clever is it?” I asked.

“I think someone’s working very hard to make that statement a reality,” Darius said and gestured back to Zyla who was sweating in addition to glowing.

“We’re getting close, just hold on a little longer,” I said and started to think about how we were going to fall into the Queen’s clutches.

Evading Queen Metai’s forces was possible in the short term in we stayed hidden. To get the information we needed though, I was pretty sure we had to expose ourselves to her, and that meant I was flying us right into a trap. I suspect that’s why the fate weave wasn’t fighting harder than Zyla could counter. The Queen wanted us captured and I wasn’t exactly working against that goal.

“We’re going to leave our assigned operational zone in fifty seconds,” Fari said. “I can stall them for probably twenty second after that under normal conditions, so presume we have about two seconds with the fate weave interfering.”

“What’s their best response in that case?” I asked.

“There are three other Spiders on patrol routes that will let them intercept us,” Fari said.

“Can any of them reach us before we get to the outskirts of Demon’s Isolation?” I asked.

“Not unless our engines fail,” Fari said.

“Darius?” I asked.

“I’m on it,” he said. “Prepping for total engine failure in thirty two seconds.”

“Is there a teleport lock on the city yet?” I asked.

“Nothing active,” she said. “We’re twenty seconds from breaching our patrol zone and the first ring of alarms around Isolation. If we’re going to stealth in, we’ll need to do so starting in ten seconds.”

“I think we want Plan R here,” I said. We had several different general plans worked out for situations like this. Plan R was a favorite of mine though and, while I was biased in favor of using it more than we perhaps should, it seemed like the right approach given the situation.

“Bringing weapon’s systems online,” Darius said.

“I’ve blocked the weapons arming report from being sent back to command and control, but the moment we fire they’ll know what’s up,” Fari said.

“Good,” I said. “Let’s get their attention then shall we?”

Plan R is for “Rockets” and after reading about military ships for far too long as a kid, I still got a kick whenever I got to fire them off at unliving targets.

“All automated alarm posts within striking range are on your display,” Fari said.

“Locked and firing,” I said.

From the underside of the Spider, eight missile pods dropped down and unleashed a battery of conjured projectiles. The magic missiles roared ahead of us like slender dragons, each hungry to destroy one of the “hidden” alarm sites that ringed the nearest edge of the forgotten city of Demon’s Isolation.

The magically generated munitions packed an explosive punch as part of their payload but they also had a solid, physical aspect to them as well which was aided by the transonic speed we were moving at. That made the resulting explosions when they impacted a wonder to behold. The whole ridge ahead of us lit up with a wall of flames that announced the start of hostilities to everyone within several hundred miles.

A moment later we plowed through the fire and I fired another salvo at the next ring of alarms.

The Queen’s forces didn’t want a fight. They wanted a slaughter. They had vastly overwhelming force to throw against us and the capability to pin us in place while they brought that force to bear. The key therefor wasn’t to try to fight the Queen’s forces. The key was to make them delay themselves long enough that we could accomplish our objective.

Agent Riverstone was, according to Fari’s research, one of the highest level operatives in the Queen’s employ. She also had the most experience dealing with me. That meant she was the most likely candidate for being in overall charge of the operation against us. The Queen might call the strategy but a smart leader, like she was, left the tactical decisions to the people whose expertise lay in those areas.

I knew Bo wouldn’t underestimate us, but she also struck me as the sort to go for the smart plays if given the choice. When she saw two rings of alarms go up in smoke, the smart money would be on my team having convinced Ebele’s to launch an all-out assault on the lost city. That was the simplest explanation for the destruction we caused. The idea that we modified a fighter craft in flight to have a hyper-advanced targeting system and overcharged missile payloads would sound ludicrous to anyone familiar with the enchantments that the Abyzal airship bore.

Even if they thought to question the captured crew of the Horizon Breaker about our capabilities, Bo’s team would probablybe led astray since Darius, Fari and I don’t take those kinds of risks in most cases. Agent Riverstone would be much more likely to learn that I usually tried to talk people into siding with us and only went for truly risky plans when it was my own neck on the line and no one elses.

Despite all that though, Bo was a smart lady and might guess that the attack was overblown and that I was bluffing. Even so though, she’d still be in a position where she’d be better off forming an enormous force that could deal with several dozen strong casters rather than proceeding with a moderately sized squad that was capable of handling Darius, Fari and I. It was the safer course of action and the one most likely to guarantee an immediate win.

That sounded great for Bo and terrible for us and if I was very luck that’s what she would think too.

“The communications web has lit up like a stellar nova,” Fari said. “They know we’re here.”

“I’m getting us onto the group immediately then,” I said. “Tell me when they get the teleport lock comes into effect.”

The moment they froze us out of teleporting away was the moment that they had their troops in place. I wanted that to take as long as possible, since that was our window of opportunity in the city, but I also needed them to be as hasty as they could so that we’d have the best chance of surviving the coming disaster.

My landing wasn’t the best I’d ever managed. The Spider fighter wound up cracked in half and there was a large crater where our munitions pods detached and wiped out a few deserted city blocks. The plane’s safety systems did deploy however, so we all walked away only slightly more banged up than when we started the flight.

That particular miracle was mostly Zyla’s doing, though I did manage to provide personal shields for us that held out until the ship’s crash systems could engage. Unfortunately those safety systems only worked while we were still inside the Spider.

As we crawled from the wreckage of the fighter, I felt my breath being crushed from my lungs. Abyz was drowning in Aetherial magic. Except here.

All around us I felt an alien Void anima spell. It was an emptiness that echoed on a planetary scale. The fate weave couldn’t touch us here, it protected and controlled the living, and it had no place where we were, down among the dead.


The Compass of Eternity – Chapter 17

Queen Metai held almost every conceivable advantage over us. My job therefor was simple. I had to figure out how to turn those advantages against her.

Some of them were easy to turn into liabilities. She was going to know where we were the next time we did anything remotely significant against her. That meant we didn’t have to plan for sneaking past her. Instead, we got to decide where the next battlefield was going to be.

That was one of the reasons I wanted to head to the oldest of the ghost cities. We had the best chance of meeting ancient and terrifying monsters there. Ancient and terrifying monster have two useful traits. First, they’re ancient, which means they have the best chance of knowing very old secrets. Second they’re terrifying, which means no one in their right mind wants to mess with them if they don’t have too!

Zyla was among those “people who were in their right minds” and objected to venturing into a deadly area and poking the things with sticks until we got the reaction we were looking for. Darius and Fari, on the other hand, had more experience with how my brain works and settled from adopting pained expressions that said “not again” more eloquently than any words they could have spoken.

It’s been remarked, that my plans range from “bad” through “terrible” and right on to “have you lost your mind?” Strangely it’s the latter type that I find the most reliable. Darius is quick to point out that “reliable” and “painful” can often be used as synonyms in describing those plans. Fari doesn’t even bother pointing it out, she just starts putting together contingency arrangement to help me survive when things go horribly wrong.

Despite their entirely justifiable reluctance though, all three of them agreed with my basic reasoning and were more willing to come along with me than they were to let me assault the city on my own.

Our first challenge arose the moment we tried to leave Ebele’s hidden base.

“When I said I wasn’t going to risk my people for you that included lowering our shields to let you leave before we’re sure that the Queen’s attention is elsewhere,” Ebele said.

“That’s not going to be a problem,” I said.

“I thought you wanted to run off and get yourself killed right away?” Ebele asked.

“Oh, we’re leaving. We just don’t need you to open the shield for us,” I said as I clasped hands with Darius and Zyla.

“How do you think…” Ebele started to ask before I stepped in her shadow and the three of us disappeared.

Vanishing in front of another Void caster is a neat trick, and a part of me regretted that I didn’t get to see Ebele’s expression when she figured out that we were actually gone.

I wondered how long it would take her to work out what we’d done and what kind of meltdown she’d have in the process. In general I don’t try to freak out my allies like that but, if she was going to risk working with us, I was pretty sure I needed to get her to buy into the mystique surrounding the Crystal Guardians a little more, so she’d extend us a little more trust.

In truth, the trick I used was a pretty simple one. The shields that prevented teleportation were themselves protected by a shield of Void anima, but the Void shield was on the outside of the anti-teleport wards. That meant a quick pulse of my Void anima was enough to disrupt the anti-teleport spells for the second it took for me to Shadow Step from Ebele’s shadow to one in the mine shaft above the room we were standing in.

The Void Shield presented some issues itself – I couldn’t “see” where the landing point was which would have made a Shadow Step spell impossible, except that I had Fari with me and she’d had a chance to review the plans of the mine that Ebele’s secret base lay underneath. With Darius to provide an extra burst of energy to make up for the magic lost to the Void shield’s leeching effects and Zyla to twist the fate weave around us so that the Queen’s forces wouldn’t get astronomically lucky and detect my travel spell, we had our impossible exit well in hand.

That only left us with the need the circumnavigate halfway around the world without the Queen spotting us. Shadow Stepping is a great spell to know, but unlike Kojo, my range was nowhere near long enough to get us that far.

Fortunately, again, I wasn’t alone and trying to carry the whole world on my shoulders. Darius and I took care of the first stage of our journey. No one can do high speed, low altitude flight like my lovely, darling boy.  Normally that kind of transit involves a lot of commotion – breaking sound barriers and such. Having a Void anima caster along though means you don’t make any more commotion than she wants you to and I was not looking to pick a fight just yet.

Zyla wasn’t as big a fan of Darius’ flying as I was, probably because she wasn’t used to the kind of maneuverability he could achieve even when burdened by two passengers. To her credit she managed not to scream at all, but her grim expression suggested I could look forward to some kind of payback for suggesting this particular course of action.

Fari had no such complaints largely because she’d left the doppelganger body back at Ebele’s base and was traveling with us in her gem. On a physical level that meant she had nothing to worry about. Darius could impact the planet at a significant fraction of the speed of light and Fari’s home would be none the worse for the wear.

Which isn’t to say this wasn’t a dangerous trip for her too. Fari’s an unimaginably good caster, but she has some serious limitations as well. Unlike the rest of us, she can really only manage Mental anima spells and only a subset of those. Ghosts, especially really old ones, tend to have either extremely powerful Minds or no minds whatsoever, both of which pose issues for her.

Normally I like to wear Fari’s gem to keep her close to me. I feel comfortable knowing that if someone wants to hurt my friend they’ll literally have to do it over my dead body. In this situation though it made the most sense to have Zyla carry Fari’s gem. Fari was immune to mind control and could extend that immunity to a person who was in physical contact with her, like she’d done with Darius at the Gala. Of the three of us, I could fight off the effects of the Dominator on my own (to some extent) and Darius had extensive training in Mental magics, which left Zyla as the most vulnerable member of our team.

As the one fate caster on the team, I hoped she was also the one most likely to escape to freedom if something went tragically wrong. Darius wouldn’t leave me behind and I wasn’t going to leave anyone behind, but Zyla might have the sense and power to run and actually get away when things went horribly wrong.

And thing were going to go horribly wrong. There’s no sensible plan that I or anyone else could come up with that didn’t involve the assumption that things were going to turn bad and then worse and then really unpleasant at some point. The Queen’s power base was too broad and comprehensive to cling to illusions like “maybe I can come up with something clever that’ll make it all work out ok!”

I believed we could beat her, but I’d gone into plenty of fights believing I could win while knowing with bone deep certainty that I was going to take a beating in the process. In my less charitable moments, I’m convinced that’s a key factor in society remaining civilized; even the powerful have to contend with the fact that the weak can do some unpleasant damage if pushed to it.

That was one of the cards that I wanted to play against the Queen, but I’d already seen where it would fail. If Fari was right about her body hopping, the Queen had been in power a long time and was as near to omnipotent on Abyz as she needed to be. That kind of state, maintained for that long can allow people to forget that weaker folks can still pose a serious threat. If Queen Metai was fighting us alone, I know she’d underestimate us and I’d be prepared to take advantage of that as ruthlessly as I could.

But the Queen had Bo.

Agent Riverstone handled herself in the kind of professional manner that told me, she was neither going to over- or underestimate our capabilities. She would withhold her judgment until she had evidence to back up her guesses as to what we could do. If we pushed her, she would make calculated theories based on as much information as she had available. It wasn’t a perfect mode of operation but it was damn hard to beat in the long run.

If we had a prayer of turning our situation around, it was that I expected neither side had a “long run” to plan for, and Queen Metai and her forces might not be as aware of that as we were.

That’s why I insisted that we move faster than Ebele was comfortable with. Moving quickly though did not mean moving in a manner the Queen or her agents would predict.

They knew we had a teleporter, so I was certain wherever we were first detected would be locked down under anti-teleport wards seconds after they got wind of where we were. It would take ridiculous levels of power to project wards like that but the Queen had the best casters on the planet to call on and could afford to use every one of them against us.

That was another strength that could be turned into a liability though. She had plenty of casters to spend on fighting us, and she knew we were the primary threat to her continued reign (and perhaps continued existence). The key wasn’t to try to hide (since they would detect us eventually) or to pretend we were weak (since they already knew we weren’t). The proper game plan (in my view) was to convince Queen Metai and Bo that we were so powerful and unpredictable that they needed to commit all of the forces to stopping us in every manner they could.

That meant tons of casters on anti-teleport wards. The anti-teleport wards in turn meant they wouldn’t be able to use their own teleporters to move troops into place without giving us a chance to escape. That was no problem though since they had plenty of elite troops to station all around the world on active call, ready to deploy at a moment’s notice. Sending in small teams was insane against a force like ours though. The last thing they wanted to be in was a fair fight, not when they could send in an army and be certain of crushing their foe like a bug.

That meant putting together nice big teams, but there were so many places we could strike at that priorities had to be established. Guards for the spaceports were obvious. If we got out and communicated with the Crystal Empire, Queen Metai was toast. It might require a greater investment than the Crystal Empire wanted to make, but the Empress wasn’t going to let a world dominating mind controller stay in power. Especially not if my suspicions proved to be true. To prevent us from communicating off the planet though, they also needed a serious guard presence on every interstellar communication node and on the central loci of the planetary spell web.

We had some natural allies on Abyz so they would need to be dealt with as well. Criminal rounded up and offworlders monitored more closely. The Queen had doubtlessly suborned the Imperial Ambassador but he would need to be guarded too since we’d shown the ability to not only resist the Dominator’s control but also free victims who’d fallen under its spell.

There were so many bases they had to cover and so ways for things to go wrong, that I almost felt bad for my foes when I thought about it. Basically Bo was having every bit as rough a day as I was, with the main difference being her boss was probably going to kill her if she screwed up, whereas mine would do her best to avenge me if I let things go cataclysmically wrong.

In the end it was Bo’s bad day that gave us the opportunity we needed though, which I suspected she would not be happy to learn.

Basically all military movements and deployments create chaos. There’s simply no such things a perfectly coordinated armed force. I’ve seen platoons composed of literally hiveminded soldier still manage to screw up simple things.

That fact coupled with Fari’s nearly godlike control over information systems got us into the nearest Abyz military base, got us a set of uniforms and got us orders to patrol the skies around the lost city we were looking for in our very own commandeered Abyz Spider-class Skyfighter.

The only bad part was that, presuming we survived this whole endeavor, no one on the Horizon Breaker was going to believe we managed to evade the Queen’s forces by waltzing right in and stealing one of her own fighters.

Sometimes though, crazy is what works.

The Compass of Eternity – Chapter 16

As much as we sometimes want to see them as such, ghosts are not the people they resemble. For one thing, not everyone leaves a ghost behind when they die. There’s been millenia of debate over why that is, and where the “central spiritual energy” of a person goes when they die.

Some people believe that our internal system simply collapses and the inner energy we store which draws anima to us dissipates back to “undifferentiated static of the cosmos”. Other people believe that we exist as beings with greater dimensions than the observable ones and when we die, we exit the material dimensions and take the spiritual energy we have invested in our lives with us.

Spirit energy is easy to detect but difficult to fully quantify so my guess is that the only answers we’ll ever get to that question will come after it’s too late to matter in this world.

Anima, in all its various forms is much easier to measure (well, apart from Void anima which has its own issues). Measuring the amount of magic a person possesses can be done to a relatively high degree of precision. Measuring how much of that power remains in the ghost they leave behind suggests that while some power is lost in the trauma of death, the vast majority remains behind and can be bound up by the patterns of thought and body and imagination the person exhibited in life.

In essence, the ghost becomes a partial copy of the deceased, retaining some of their memories in the weave of their Mental anima, some of their capacity to affect the material world from their Physical anima and so on. As fragments of the person they resemble, ghosts can display the same personality and interests or can be locked into an obsession which some small aspect of who their originals were. That’s why ghosts born from violent deaths can wind up as true monsters despite the person they were copied from being kindly or peaceful.

The usual rule for dealing with ghosts of any variety is simple: don’t. They’re inherently unstable and they (generally) hit the limits of their rationality a lot sooner than most people. They don’t make reliable witnesses, even to things that happened “to them”, because their minds are constructs of pure mental anima and have no solid substrate (like a brain) to rest on. Something that a ghost believes to be true one day can the same thing they vehemently deny the next.

Their instability also tends to get worse over time. Without a living body and the spark of spiritual energy that fill us, the ghost is limited to only the anima they were “born” with. Since that anima is what makes them up, as it dissipates so do they.

That was part of what made the situation on Abyz so hard for me to fathom.

“There are too many ghosts here,” I said. “Even with the Queen hiding whole towns as their source, the ghosts should have evaporated long ago.”

“The Queen has found some method of binding them here,” Ebele said. “None of them are free to pass on.”

“Binding them wouldn’t prevent them from running out of anima though,” I said.

“Unless the bindings do more than slave them to the Queen’s will,” Zyla said.

“You think the chains they’re wrapped in are feeding them magic?” I asked.

“From what I understand of ghosts, I think that has to be the case,” Zyla said.

“Why would the Queen do that?” I asked.

“Do we know that she did?” Zyla asked.

I leaned back in my chair and considered that.

“That’s a good question. Ebele are there any records that suggest the ghosts might pre-date the first Queen’s rule?” I asked.

“Most of the records from before the Unification War were destroyed in the fighting,” Ebele said. “It’s possible the ghosts pre-date the Queen but there’s no way to know for sure.”

“We could ask them,” I said.

“They can’t speak,” Ebele said. “We’ve tried to recruit them before.”

“What about if we remove the chains?” I asked.

“The chains are a part of them,” Ebele said. “We’ve tried to cut the ghosts loose but the chains are warded against tampering. As soon as link is cut, they flare white hot and destroy the ghost they’re attached too.”

“I’m willing to bet if we pool our resources, we can bypass the wards,” I said. Between Fari, Darius, Zyla and myself, there wasn’t much a trap spell could throw at us that we couldn’t counter. “Which is kind of lucky when you think about it.”

Again, I had the sense of an outside hand directing the events around me. I felt my Void anima ripple and growl. Someone, or something, had nudged events to produce an outcome where a team of with a fairly unique set of abilities was assembled. From what I could see, we were being positioned like a spear waiting to be thrust through the heart of Queen Metai’s power (and possibly Queen Metai herself). For as much as taking down a body hopping, mind enslaving, cataclysm planning, royal abomination seemed like a fine idea to me, I didn’t like the idea that someone else was setting me up to do it.

“Removing the bindings might cause more problems than it solves,” Zyla said. “The ghosts are very likely to be hostile, probably even mindlessly so.”

“We can handle them if they get out of control,” I said.

“There’s also the chance that without the bindings supplying the ghosts with anima they’ll evaporate immediately,” Zyla said.

“There’s other problems too,” Ebele said. “Even if the Queen isn’t the one who bound the ghosts, she’s going to sense that massive of a change in the bindings through the fate weave.”

“We can supply them with anima ourselves, and we can perform the chain breaking ritual inside a Void shield,” I said. “The trick is going to be finding the right ghosts to talk to.”

“What do you think talking to them is going to accomplish?” Ebele asked.

“The Queen’s gone to an awful lot of trouble to obscure what she’s doing,” I said. “She’s using more magic to hide the ghosts than any circle of a hundred casters should have access too. We need to find a gap in her armor and the best place to look seems like it would be the place she’s trying the hardest to hide.”

“Unless it’s an elaborate part of the trap she’s turned this world into,” Zyla said.

“It’s that too,” I said. “Queen Metai’s hung onto power for decades or centuries, and she has one of the most powerful Mental anima devices in the galaxy under her control. Whatever else she is, she’s not stupid. Making everyone forget the ghosts and their towns is not going to be the only defense she has in place there.”

“You think we can handle those defenses?” Ebele asked.

“Nope,” I said. “We have no idea what they are. We’re going to stumble on some of them and we don’t have the option of overpowering the forces the Queen will send against us.”

“Then we need a different plan,” Ebele said. “I already told you, I’m not taking any risks for you. My people can’t afford to.”

“You won’t need to,” I said. “I think a small team is what we want here. Just Zyla, Darius, Fari, and I. What I need from you is the location of the oldest of the forgotten cities.”

“The four of you can’t even get there,” Ebele said. “It’s on the other side of the planet.”

“That’s not going to be an issue,” I said.

“Kojo is our only long range teleporter,” Ebele said. “I can’t have him teleport you into an unsafe area.”

“I know. We can manage this without him,” I said. “Ebele, trust me, we’re gonna beat this. Queen Metai is a serious threat. We are not underestimating how dangerous that makes her. But serious threats are what we deal with. We’re going to make things right. It’s what we do.”

“Not on Abyz,” Ebele said. “This isn’t like other worlds.”

“It has some unique challenges,” I said.

“Those unique challenges already cost you a Crystal Guardian,” Ebele said.

I saw Zyla stiffen at that.

“Did it?” I asked. “We’ve been awfully lucky so far. The last time I worked with Guardian Clearborn her fate workings were as subtle as what I’ve seen here.”

“Your friend was captured by the Queen’s forces,” Ebele said. “No one can resist the Queen’s magics. She’s powerful enough to dominate this entire planet. If the Guardian’s fate castings are affecting you then she’s setting you up for a fall and we’re not going down with you.”

“Maybe you’re right,” I said. “You know what the Queen is capable of. You’ve seen it first hand your whole life haven’t you?”

“Yes,” Ebele said. “So give up this idea before it gets you all killed.”

“You know what the Queen is capable of,” I said. “But you don’t know what we can do. I’m not going to ask for you to trust us. I’m going to show you that you can. Then I’m going to show the Queen why she should be afraid of us. Then we’re going to show the world what it means to be part of the Crystal Empire.”

“You’re promising more than you can deliver,” Zyla said. “Any one of those is impossible. Yael failed to save herself, and I failed completely. You can’t accomplish that much more than we did. You’re only an Initiate Guardian still.”

“Do you know what the Crystal Guardians really do Zyla?” I asked.

“They enforce the Empress’ Will,” she said.

“Technically, that is part of the official charter for the Crystal Guardians but given that I’ve never actually seen the Empress, much less spoken with her, it’s more a theoretical aspect of the job than an actual one,” I said.

She looked at me and frowned, waiting to see where I was going.

“What we actually do is spread the message that she embodies,” I said.

“And what’s that?” Ebele asked, scorn in her voice and disbelief in her eyes.

“That the galaxy doesn’t have to be a cruel place. That we can fix the problems before us. That even when things seem hopeless, it’s still worth continuing on because life can get better.” I said.

I saw neither Ebele, nor Zyla were even slightly impressed by my words. I didn’t blame them. Words don’t mean a lot, no matter how much I meant them.

“We’ll continue this conversation later,” I said. “I just want you to remember what I said, so you can decide if I’m crazy once the evidence is in.”

“That seems like an easy question to answer,” Zyla said.

“If we’re done here, I’m going to see what sort of impact our raid on the Gala had,” Ebele said. “I was promised that would help us too.”

She looked at Zyla when she said that and Zyla looked away. I spoke up before she could leave the room though.

“The only thing I need before you go is the name and location of the oldest of the ghost cities,” I said.

Ebele tapped one of the red dots on the projected map.

“This one,” she said. “It’s proper name is in Old Abyzal, which I don’t know how to pronounce, but Galactic Common it translates as ‘The Isolation of Demons’.”

“Was that to anchor the forgetfulness spell?” Zyla asked.

“No, that’s what it was called originally,” Ebele said. “It’s ringed with alarms, but we’ve never tested them. There’s too many monsters there. Even without the Queen’s presence, going into that city is a suicide mission.”

“Not for my team,” I said.

Ebele snorted at that and left our planning room.

“I don’t think this is a good idea,” Zyla said.

“Maybe not,” I said. “But I think this is our best chance to rescue Yael, and save the planet.”

“And if those two things actually are impossible?” she asked.

“Then we do the impossible,” I said. “Just like we did when we fought your father, and just like you’ve done dozens of times since then.”

“We had help then,” she said.

“We had Yael then you mean,” I said.

“Yes,” she said. “Together we’ve been unstoppable, but here? Here we finally found something that stopped us.”

“Do you trust Yael?” I asked her.

“Of course,” she said.

“Look for her then,” I said. “I think she’s still with us. If you can find any evidence of that, if you can believe it at all, then believe in her.”

“I want to,” Zyla said. “More than you can imagine, but that’s what can lead me astray.”

“Yeah, it can. Sometimes we can want something so much that we let it blind us to the things we don’t want to see,” I said. “Sometimes though we just can’t know which possibilities are true and in those cases faith is all we have to go on.”

“You make it sound like it’s easy,” she said.

“That kind of faith is the hardest thing in the world,” I said. “But even when I couldn’t cast any magic, and even now when I’m rubbish with Aetherial anima, that’s the most powerful tool I’ve ever found for sketching the future I want to see.”

“Are those the futures you keep hidden in that damn Void shadow of yours?” Zyla asked, the ghost of a smile gracing her face.

“Yeah,” I said. “Would you like to see the one I have roughed out for you and Yael?”

“I think I just might,” she said.

“Then let’s go get the rest of our team and make it happen,” I said.

The Compass of Eternity – Chapter 15

Time is rarely my friend. As part of the Horizon Breaker’s crew, my life consisted of hopping from one crisis to another and the consistent thing about crises is they don’t tend to leave you with much time. Despite that, I was forced to be the voice of restraint in the planning session Ebele put together with Zyla and I.

“I think you’re right,” Zyla said. “With what little I can make out through the fate weave, it doesn’t look like we’ll be able to reach any more reinforcements until we deal with the Queen or she deals with us.”

“She’s got a lot more resources to deal with us than we have for dealing with her,” I said.

“Which is why we need to act now,” Zyla said. “She doesn’t know who you are yet, or what you’re capable of. Once she knows what she’s up against she’ll have the whole planet set against us.”

“She captured Captain Okoro and our medic Illya,” I said. “I’m pretty sure she already knows everything they do about Fari, Darius and I.”

“But that was recent, if she isn’t prepared for you…” Zyla started to say but I cut her off.

“If she’s not then Agent Riverstone will be,” I said. “I’ve fought her twice already. She doesn’t know everything I can do, but she knows the level I can play at.”

“You don’t understand what’s at stake,” Zyla said. “I am being perfectly serious and perfectly precise when I say that this planet, and everyone on it, will die if we don’t stop the Queen.”

“I thought you couldn’t cast any future viewing spells because of the fate weave?” Ebele said.

“I can’t now that I’m here,” Zyla said. “The weave here is so thick I’m blind and crippled, but I know what we saw when we set off for on this mission.”

“Can you fill me in, or have things changed too much?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” Zyla said and sagged back into her chair. “With future casting, it’s very easy to fool yourself into seeing what you want to see and with how disastrously wrong everything went, I think that’s what happened.”

“Tell me what you thought you were getting into then,” I said. “It’s somewhere we can start. And, Ebele, see if you can pick out any elements that may have been planted as traps.”

“Why me?” Ebele asked. “I’m not particularly good at Aetherial casting.”

“You’re familiar with Abyz and you’ve spent time behind a Void shield so you may be aware of things that the Queen is blocking from the rest of us, especially from Zyla,” I said.

“You know I usually hate being around you,” Zyla said. “But under the circumstances I have to say it’s kind of a relief to have a break from the constant surge of Aetherial anima around us.”

“Check me on something though, we’re not fully cut off from all of Abyz’s Aetherial anima here right?” I asked. “Even within the Void shield that’s protecting this place, we’re still subject to the fate weave.”

“No,” said Ebele. “We cloak this place in the strongest shields we can.”

“Actually, I’m afraid Mel is right,” Zyla said. “The deep threads of the fate weave are still in effect here.”

“That’s not possible,” Ebele said. “We’ve tested the shield. The Queen definitely can’t work any magic past it.”

“That’s true too,” Zyla said. “But the fate weave is more than the Queen’s magic. She’s just one of the prime nodes in its skein. Every piece of the planet is bound by it.”

“So the rocks around us are radiating Aetherial magic?” I asked.

“And this desk and the people in here and their clothes, everything,” Zyla said. “That’s why the planet is going to die. It’s all connected, much too tightly.”

“That can’t be possible!” Ebele said.

“Have you had any formal training in Void casting?” I asked.

“Only from my mother,” Ebele said.

“That’s not uncommon, it’s a rare skill, and a lot of people go through life never even aware that they possess it,” I said. “I can show you a fairly simple trick with it though that’ll prove what Zyla’s saying.”

“Ok,” Ebele said.

“You know how to see through your Void magics right?” I asked.

“Yes, that’s one of the first things I learned,” she said.

“You’re lucky,” I said. “I had to figure it out the hard way.”

I thought back to the terrifying day when I’d first learned I had magic like everyone else, but that my magic was rare and deadly and going to get me into a lot of trouble. Good things had come from that revelation, not the least of which being Darius and Fari, but I don’t know that I would wish that experience on anyone else. Fortunately I’d had quite a few good teachers since then so bringing Ebele up to speed didn’t have to be quite so traumatic.

“Start by calling up your Void sight then,” I said and did the same myself.

“Ok,” Ebele said.

“You focused on the Physical anima in the room right?” I asked.

“Yes, was I not supposed to?” Ebele asked.

“It’s ok,” I said. “It’s a natural reaction here, there’s so much Aetherial anima around that you need to cut that out to see anything. Physical anima is easy to see, so it makes a simple choice when you need to filter the Aetherial anima from your vision.”

“Ok, I’ve relaxed back to see all the forms of magic,” Ebele said. “If I strip away Physical, Energetic and Mental I don’t see anything though.”

I did the same and found myself just as blind as she was.

“Try to focus on the Aetherial magic around us,” I said.

“I can’t, there isn’t any,” she said.

“For now, let your imagination fill it in,” I said. “You want to retain your awareness of the anima you’re looking for and let your sensitivity sharpen on its own.”

“How long is this going to take?” she asked.

“Not long at all,” I said as I glimpsed the first ghostly after images of an Aetherial thread.

I waited a moment to give Ebele a chance to notice the threads on her own. A few seconds passed and I was starting to wonder if I needed to work on a simpler exercise with her when she jumped out her chair.

“What the hell was that?” she asked.

“Faint flash? Looked kind of like a living creature?” I asked.

“Yes,” she said, staring at a spot on the floor.

“Aetherial echo,” Zyla said. “It’s the magic of a future that might have been.”

“Why did it look so inhuman?” Ebele asked.

“It’s unformed,” Zyla said. “Probably an action that any of the three of us could have taken, but none chose to. So it’s a crumbling reflection of each of us.”

“That’s horrible,” Ebele said.

“More spooky than horrible,” I said. “The horrible things should be becoming clear about now if you keep looking.”

“Pale filaments? Is that the fate weave?” Ebele asked.

“Part of it,” I said. “I think. It’s buried very deep.”

“That sounds right,” Zyla said. “That’s how it manages to function so well. By tying in to the roots of the people and things here, it can affect vast changes by pushing on the smallest areas possible.”

“So does this mean the Queen has been directing our actions all along?” Ebele asked.

“I don’t think so,” I said. “Zyla, this isn’t under the Queen’s control right?”

“Correct. To the extent of the Void shield, the Aetherial anima here doesn’t have any external influences on it except for the three of us.”

“Wait, Ebele and I are influencing the fate weave too?” I asked.

“I don’t think it’s a conscious thing,” Zyla said. “You’re kind of like a wrecking ball though. Your Void anima wants to snap and devour any Aetherial anima that tries to constrain you.”

“And that’s why you don’t like being around me, right?” I asked. I’d known that I was a black hole as far as Yael and Zyla’s future sight. I hadn’t known that I was unconsciously shredding their spells. I mean, usually I was all too happy to do that consciously since I wasn’t fond of people messing with my future like that.

“Yeah, that.” she said, but I caught the moment’s pause in her response that said there was a little more in play than she was willing to get into at the moment.

“Does that help us?” Ebele asked.

“Yes, and no,” Zyla said. “The Queen probably can’t use the fate weave directly against you, but she can certainly use it on the people and things around you.”

“Like what happened to my mother,” Ebele said.

“Yes, I’m afraid so,” Zyla said.

“It’s a limit, but we can work around it,” I said.

“Then let’s get to it,” Zyla said. “Guardian Clearborn and I came here because of a series of visions I discovered. So it’s my fault that we’re in this mess.”

“That’s extremely debatable, but what did you see in your visions?” I asked.

“They started pleasant enough,” Zyla said. “I saw Abyz as it appears now I guess, bright, beautiful, a paradise. I joked with Guardian Clearborn that we should schedule a vacation there.”

It didn’t escape my notice that she was referring to her partner as ‘Guardian Clearborn’ rather than ‘Yael’. With the family she’d grown up in, I couldn’t tell if she was simply too used to reporting her experiences in a stark and purely professional fashion or if she was still struggling with intimacy issues concerning the person she was closest too.

I made a note to talk to her about that later. One of the benefits of having brilliant and empathic friends was that they’d forced me to confront a lot of self-sabotaging strategies I’d picked up over the years. I wasn’t anywhere near as close to Zyla as Darius and Fari were to me, but it still seemed good to offer her a few things to think about.

“The visions reoccurred on their own and grew more compelling each time,” Zyla said. “My guess now is that it was part of a trap, a honeypot to lure in the people who might pose a danger to the fate weave.”

“Does that sound right Ebele?” I asked. “Do you know if any other Aetherial masters have been lured to Abyz for the Queen to capture or dispose of?”

“I don’t know of any, but with the Queen’s mental powers that doesn’t mean anything,” Ebele said.

“Guardian Clearborn assisted me in a focused fate viewing,” Zyla said. “That’s when we saw the cataclysm.”

“Did you both see it?” I asked.

“Yes,” Zyla said. “It grew clearer and stronger the longer we put off the decision to investigate it.”

“What form did the cataclysm take?” I asked.

“We saw the planet scorched by storms of raw magic,” Zyla said. “The last bastion on it was a citadel covered in Void anima.”

“So you couldn’t see into it?” I said.

“We didn’t need to,” Zyla said. “At the top of the citadel we could see the Queen of Abyz stirring the storms and absorbing the ghosts of a trillion of lost lives.”

“A trillion ghosts?” I asked. “That’s impossible…”

I wanted to protest that no one could possibly absorb that much power. Even the power of one life contains an unholy amount of energy and can do serious damage to the Void caster who steals it. I’d channeled a lot more than that on a few occasions and had needed months to recover from the experience. A trillion ghosts though would burn me up like the core of a sun.

Unless of course I had a place to store the energy and a control mechanism that was used to dealing with that level of power.

Like a Jewel of Endless Night.

The Ravager, Fari’s Jewel of Endless Night, had held an entire star’s worth of magic. I didn’t know what powered the Dominator but it was unlikely to be much less powerful than that.

“We have a serious problem then,” I said. “With that much power, the Queen might be able to challenge the Empress.”

“She could try,” Zyla said. “But that wouldn’t matter. The vision only showed what would happen to Abyz. Once the Queen was done drawing in the power, there would be nothing here.”

“No life?” I asked.

“No planet,” Zyla said. “Everything will be consumed. All the magic, all the life, all the energy and matter. Everything.”

“But that’s not all that you saw,” I said. “There had to be another future or you wouldn’t have come.”

“That’s the trap I fell into,” Zyla said. “I thought there was a bright future, one where Abyz was reborn as something new, a truly beautiful world, but that’s not to be. The future I saw has already been lost.”

It wasn’t hard to guess what had changed. Yael was gone and Zyla couldn’t picture a bright future without her.

“Maybe, but there’s something you not considering,” I said.

“What’s that?” Zyla asked.

“How large of a shadow does the Queen cast over the future?” I asked.

“It’s enormous,” Zyla said. “She blots out the Abyz’s destiny from every angle I could see, except the one that lead us here.”

“And what does my future look like?” I asked her.

“I have no idea,” she said. “You’re a cipher, just like you always are.”

“And Ebele?” I asked.

“The same,” she said.

“And Fari?” I asked.

“The same?” she said and I saw her starting to follow my train of thought.

“And Darius?” I asked.

“The same!” she said.

“And Kojo, and the rest? All the same I bet,” I said. “The Queen may have a destiny that blots out the future of Abyz, but she’s as blind to future’s that we can make as you are.”

“And if each person you interact is obscured by your power…” Zyla said.

“Then even if we can’t beat her individually, I think together we can craft a future that she’ll never see coming,” I said.

“Where do we begin though?” Zyla asked.

“With the people you came here to rescue,” I said. “I need to have a talk with some very old ghosts.”

The Compass of Eternity – Chapter 14

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.


The Compass of Eternity – Chapter 13

I’ve been on the edge of a global apocalypse before. Several times, thanks to my line of work. As a result, the sight of the ghosts flooding the ice field before us was one that I couldn’t quite process. They weren’t normal ghosts. I knew those. I’d seen the blasted hellscapes that produced massive quantities of restless spirits. Be it ash and glowing embers or cold lifeless gray, there was a characteristic otherworldly quality that served as a mute testament to the lives that were lost.

Abyz, even this frozen, desolate section of it, didn’t feel anything like that.  The planet was far from dead. It buzzed with activity. It held movement and laughter and people in endless varieties. For as barren as the land around me was, I could see the faint glimmer of life magic trapped in the ice. Tiny microbes suspended in time by the cold and down below, in the churning sea, there were tens of thousands of sparks. From sea plants too small for the eye to see to the vast behemoths that lurked in the deeps.  I didn’t usually let my vision expand that far because the sheer enormity of it all was difficult to take in, but I couldn’t help myself. The throng of ghosts around me were simply alien to the pulse of life that I saw running through Abyz.

And yet I couldn’t deny they were there.

The longer I watched the ice field, the more ghosts I saw. They weren’t gathering around us. They had been there all along. I just hadn’t been able to see them.

“What is happening here,” I asked. “How many ghosts are here?”

“We don’t know,” Zyla said. “I can’t see them like you do. I can only feel them calling out through the fate weave.”

“I’ve never been able to find a limit,” Ebele said. “The longer I look the more of them I see until it gets to be too much and I have to stop.”

“Why can’t I render them on an overlay?” Fari asked. “I can kind of make out what Mel’s seeing but something’s blocking me from translating that into the display spell.”

“It’s part of the spell that binds them here,” Zyla said. “At least that was Yael’s theory.”

“What happened with you two?” I asked. “The automated message you sent was a little short on details.”

“Before you answer that, let’s move to a more secure location,” Ebele said and beckoned Kojo over.

“Do you have any options for getting off world?” Darius asked.

“No,” Kojo said. “My range is strictly planetary.”

“And the Queen will have the regular traffic routes barred to us,” Ebele said.

“With two Void casters, I wouldn’t think that would be a problem?” I asked.

The rest of Ebele’s forces joined us in a tight circle and clasped hands with each other. At Zyla’s nod, Darius, Fari and I joined the circle and a moment later, after Ebele cloaked us all in Void anima, we were teleported again, this time to a large, artificially excavated cavern. Veins of shimmering material ran through the walls, glistening with pale green and bright silver light.

“Escaping the planet wouldn’t be a problem if the Queen didn’t have both her own cadre of Void casters and the fate weave on her side. Whatever exit point we strike at, you can be sure they’ll have a team waiting for us.”

“Oh! That’s why you attacked the Gala!” I said. “You knew Riverstone and the other Void casters would be there so the fate weave couldn’t engine an ambush for you.”

“Except that it did when you showed up,” Ebele said.

“You were murdering the police cadets,” I said. I was still waiting for an explanation for that, though I had a guess what they were going to say given that I hadn’t actually seen any bodies.

“No, none of them died,” Zyla said. “They were all simply injured and incapacitated.”

“Because the fate weave wouldn’t let you kill them, would it?” I asked.

“I can overcome the fate weave,” Ebele said. “But maybe not on that scale.”

“Why attack the Gala then?” Darius asked. “What did you hope to gain?”

“It was my idea,” Zyla said. “Aetherial casting is a nightmare here, but I was able to read a thread that showed that an attack there would have a significant chance of cracking open the Unseen Veil that hides the ghost of Abyz. It was our best chance to make people aware of what they’re not seeing.”

“Did it work?” I asked. “That was a pretty public spectacle but, with the Queen holding the Dominator, she might be able to make a cover up work.”

“The Queen is holding the what now?” Zyla asked.

“One of the Jewels of Endless Night,” Fari said. “The Dominator is one of the Mind Gems.”

“Why would the Queen need a gem to help her with mind spells?” Ebele asked. “She’s the most powerful mental caster who’s ever lived.”

“How do you know that?” I asked.

“We’ve lost people to her,” Ebele said. “Some of them come back on their own. Some of them we rescue. Every last one is twisted though.”

“Happened to me,” Kojo said. “They lured me into a building and ringed it with a teleportation anchor. Once the Queen had me alone to work with, she made me give up every safehouse I knew of, every person I worked, with and then set a trap for Ebele.”

“Could you resist her?” Fari asked.

“No,” Kojo said. “Once she got her hands on me I didn’t want anything except to serve her. The power she had? It was weaponized bliss. I never wanted anything more than I wanted more of that.”

“How did they break you out of it once they rescued you?” Fari asked.

“I kissed him,” Talib, a short man with twin braids, said. Darius had zapped him unconscious back in our apartment but he’d had enough time to recover while we were talking.

Kojo took his partner’s hand in his own and smiled.

“True love conquers all I guess?” he said.

“It can,” Fari said. “But in this case I think it had a helping hand.”

“The Dominator has a weakness I’m guessing?” I said. “Physical anima?”

“Yep,” Fari said. “It’s a device of pure Mind. It doesn’t work at all on mindless creatures and it’s bindings can be shattered by the application of pure physical force.”

“You can beat the mind control out of people?” Darius asked.

“Depends on the person and depends on how long the Dominator has to work on its target,” Fari said. “In most cases, the amount of physical force needed to break the Dominator’s bonds is more than enough to reduce the victim to a thin paste.”

“Talib can make me weak in the knees, but his kiss had a little less force than that.” Kojo said.

“Did you know he liked you before the kiss?” Fari asked.

“No,” Kojo said. “It was a rather pleasant surprise.”

“That’s all it would take,” Fari said. “Tell me if this sounds right; the kiss changed your world, it changed how you thought of yourself, and it did on a purely visceral, primal level.”

Kojo nodded slowly.

“Yeah,” he said. “It was a pretty big deal. It was like a whole different future opened up for us.”

“It did,” Fari said. “The ‘you’ that existed before the kiss had a whole different set of drives and priorities. That’s what any mind control spell hooks into. The Dominator’s scary because it has an impossible amount of power to throw around, but it still, mostly, works within the basic tenets of Mental anima casting.”

“You said you’ve had multiple people come back from the Queen’s clutches,” I said. “How did you untwist the others?”

“Each one has been different,” Ebele said. “I’ve done Void anima surgery on a few, we starved one back to sanity, and some we’ve haven’t been able to fix.”

None of us had to ask what happened to the ones who they couldn’t fix. Not everyone has access to wizard class healers, and not all fights are ones where you can afford to hold back.

“Let’s say you’re right and the Queen has possession of this ‘Dominator’, what does that mean?” Zyla asked. “Can we take it away from her?”

“The Dominator life-binds with its wielder,” Fari said. “It’s a safety precaution so it can’t be used against it’s master. It can only be separated from a master by killing them.”

“So that’s a yes then,” I said.

Zyla blinked, eyes going wide before a smile slowly spread across her face.

“That’s right, you’re not a full Guardian yet are you?” she asked.

“Doesn’t matter,” I said. “If Master Raychelle was here, I’m pretty sure she would say the same thing. The Queen has misused both her royal and magical power. I’m more than willing to stand trial if it means shutting down a monster like that.”

“It’s not going to be that easy,” Darius said, putting a hand on my shoulder. He wasn’t holding me back. Not literally, but it was one of the non-verbal methods of communication we’d developed that reminded me I was going a little too far.

I had a tendency to solve problems with my fists. I knew that, and I knew it wasn’t always the best solution to employ. Diplomacy, negotiation, subterfuge, and going through existing legal channels often turned out much better, more predictable results. I was capable of each of those tactics but sometimes the best plan really was to smash a problem until it was in smaller, more manageable pieces.

Taking the Queen out of the picture felt like one of those situations, maybe because I find mind control rage-inducing, but  Darius was right.

“The Queen is not a viable target,” Ebele said. “We’ve tried. She’s one of the central nodes of the fate weave, and even if you can get past that, we would need an army to take down her personal guard.”

“You’d need more than an army,” Fari said. “With the Dominator, the Queen could turn an army back against you, or have them kill each other before they even lifted a blade against her guards.”

“We have a more important task anyways,” Zyla said. Her tone was ice cold, daring anyone to disagree with her. I wasn’t a big enough idiot to either miss what she was talking about or challenge her on it.

“Yael,” I said. “We need to get her back.”

“Will she have been twisted by the Dominator, or could she resist it?” Darius asked.

“I don’t know,” Zyla said, a single hoarse catch in her throat clipping her words as she spoke.

“It doesn’t matter,” I said and almost earned a deathstrike from Zyla before I had a chance to continue. “We’re not going to leave her under the Dominator’s influence or lose her. If Void surgery can break the Dominator’s bonds then I will personally tear them out of her. Or give her the physical beating she needs if she tries to stop me.”

“I don’t want her to be hurt,” Zyla said.

“I know,” I said, softening my tone.

Around us, Ebele’s people had scattered to the walls of the cave and were tracing patterns over the glowing lines of minerals.

“Is there any exit from here except teleportation?” Darius asked.

“No,” Kojo said.

“And your friends are inscribing anti-teleportation glyphs into the walls, right?” Darius asked.

“Yes,” Ebele said. “It’s how we stay out of the Queen’s reach.”

“There’s also an void cloak outside the dimensional anchor circle,” I said. “So they can’t detect you or reach you at all here? Clever.”

“Here and other places,” Ebele said. “It’s how we’ve survived having our safe houses revealed.”

“How long have you been fighting against the Queen?” I asked.

“My whole life,” Ebele said. “My mother was a resistance fighter while she was pregnant with me. She said I’d kick whenever one of the Queen’s agents was near. I guess it saved her a few times.”

“How long has the Queen held the Dominator?” I asked.

“She’s always been powerful,” Ebele said.

“And what about the Queen before her?” Fari asked.

“Her mother was the same,” Ebele said.

“And her grandmother, and her great grandmother and so on?” Fari asked.

“Yes,” Ebele said. “The royal bloodline is uniquely gifted.”

“Or uniquely cursed maybe,” Fari said. “I don’t think you’ve had a succession of Queens.”

“It’s been the same one all along?” I asked. “Can the Dominator do that?”

“It takes years, but yes,” Fari said.

“What do you mean, it’s been the same Queen?” Ebele asked.

“Let me ask you this,” Fari said. “When a new Queen is old enough to take the throne, does the previous Queen die shortly thereafter?”

“Yes, but they’ve said that was due to extra power they carry placing a greater burden on them.” Ebele said.

“Maybe you should kill the Queen, Mel,” Fari said. “She been body-hopping into her own children, maybe for centuries now.”

“She’ll be incredibly powerful,” Zyla mumbled, memories pulling her away from the present and sending her tumbling back into old horrors that wore her father’s face.

He was a body-jumper too and had been so powerful that it had taken the entirety of the force in Fari’s Jewel of Endless Night and hundreds of thousands of ghosts to take him out.

This time we didn’t have a Jewel to draw on and the Queen did.

Up against that was the fact that I’d had my power for longer than a single day and I had Darius and Fari backing me up.

The Queen didn’t know it yet, but we were about to ruin her whole world.


The Compass of Eternity – Chapter 12

Our time was running out. Each second we stayed in the apartment was a serious slice off the lead we had on Queen Metai’s forces. In less than an hour we’d lost our medic, our captain, our ship and our most direct connection back to the Imperial throne. With the Queen’s agents aware of who they were dealing with, I expected the kid gloves to come off. The answer to whether the hotel would be something other than a pile of rubble if they caught us there was something I wasn’t eager to discover. But I let a long moment hang in silence as I stared across the room at the two women who confronted us.

“Who are you working for Watersward?” Zyla asked. Her body was rigid as granite, struggling to hold back a flood of Physical anima and the tide of violence that drove it.

I blinked for a second and tried to understand the question. The surprise of seeing one of the two people I’d come to rescue, scrambled my brain long enough that Darius got to the obvious answer before I did.

“You’re worried the Queen’s gotten to us already,” he said.

“Right, mind control,” I said, catching up. “Sorry, it’s not a problem for me, so I wasn’t thinking of it. We’re on your side, Zyla. We came here to rescue Yael and you.”

“Void caster?” Ebele, the woman standing next to Zyla, asked.

“Yes,” I said. “Nice work on the invisibility cloak. Didn’t notice you even when I glanced over the room with Void sight.”

“It helps to use real shadows to hide in too,” Ebele said. “And you were distracted.”

“You didn’t kill any of them did you?” Zyla asked, her anger still barely contained.

“No,” Darius said. “Mild shocks only. They’ll wake up in minute and have a bit of a headache but I can help with that.”

“We don’t have a minute to spare,” Ebele said.

“I can wake one of them sooner,” Darius said.

“Get Kojo up,” Ebele said. “He can get us all out of here.”

“To where?” I asked.

“Neutral ground outside of town,” Ebele said. “We can talk there and decide what to do next.”

“You’re surprisingly calm for someone who just had over half her forces incapacitated,” I said.

“We entered your room without permission,” she said. “We knew the risk, if you came back. That you only incapacitated them suggests you’re still the people Zyla spoke of.”

“You knew we would be here?” I asked.

“I hoped you would be,” Zyla said, her demeanor finally softening. “When I saw you at the Gala and you were sitting beside the Queen’s agent…”

She trailed off but I heard all the words she wasn’t saying. The Horizon Breaker was their insurance policy, maybe even their last hope after their usual safeguards and backup plans failed. If the Queen got to me and the rest of the crew before we could help them, Yael and Zyla might wind up losing everything.

Or maybe Zyla already had? I wanted to ask her why Yael wasn’t with her, but her anger gave me all the answer I needed.

They’d been partners for three years. In that time, everyone except apparently the two of them had seen how much they cared for and loved each other. There was a power imbalance there with Yael technically being Zyla’s parole officer, which complicated things, but not (in my opinion) irrevocably so. In time I was pretty sure they’d work through all that. Until then though, they stuck together, even through some missions that sounded scary as hell. If Yael was missing, there was one thing I could be certain of; it wasn’t by her own choice.

“What hit me?” Kojo said as Darius brought him back to consciousness.

“She did,” he said, pointing at me as he laid a hand gently on Kojo’s forehead and brushed a healing wash of Physical anima into Kojo’s scalp to erase the damage I’d inflicted on the poor man.

“We need to be out of here as of two minutes ago,” Ebele said, helping Kojo to his feet.

“We just got here two minutes ago,” Kojo said.

“I stand by what I said. Can you handle seven of us?” Ebele asked.

“Eight actually,” I said. “We left a friend on the balcony.”

“Sort of,” Fari said, appearing in her translucent blue form. “Best not to leave the body there though. It still has a resonance to you and they could do some ugly things with rituals if we’ve annoyed them sufficiently.”

“The same is true with Illya right?” I asked. Since the doppelganger was configured to appear as either of us so it seemed wise to ask.

“Yes, though it’s a little harder from that end since the doppelganger’s a blend,” Fari said.

“I think we’re going to have to lose it,” I said. “It’s too much of a risk at this point.”

“You’re right,” Fari said. “I was hoping we could hold onto it for a little longer, but I guess without Illya to power it, it’s not that useful.”

“You have a fully formed doppelganger?” Zyla asked.

“Yeah, outside on the balcony,” I said. “We were going to use it to let me infiltrate the Central Police and see if they knew where you or Yael was.”

“Bring it with us,” Zyla said. “It might still be useful.”

“Can you provide enough anima to get it moving?” Fari asked.

Zyla closed her eyes, paused for a second to find the doppelganger and waved a hand. Shambling not entirely unlike a zombie, the empty shell opened the balcony door and entered the room.

With a little cheer, Fari disappeared and the doppelganger gained a sudden jolt of grace to its movements. When I looked into its eyes, I saw not a hollow shell but my friend staring back at me.

“We’re ready to go,” I said.

“Almost ready,” Darius said and stepped into the bedroom to grab a sack. “Anima blade pieces, combat armor for each of us and local currency.”

“I like how you pack,” I said.

“A police detail just checked in with the main desk,” Fari alerted us.

“We’re out of time,” Ebele said.

I felt an anima field rise around me and forced myself to suppress every erg of Void magic I was holding.

Like healing spells, teleportation spells were benign intrusions of someone else’s anima into a person’s body. For most folks, this wasn’t a big deal. The teleport spell hit them and they were safely and calmly transferred to another point in space instantaneously. The Void anima I carried wasn’t that great at distinguishing friendly magic from hostile spells though. I’d progressed a lot since the first time someone cast a healing spell on me and I nearly killed him, but I still had to be careful when receiving any kind of beneficial enchantment, especially if the person helping me wasn’t used to dealing with Void anima.

Probably from hanging around with Ebele, that wasn’t a problem for Kojo. I’d been worried I hadn’t warned him but he was well versed in being careful when teleporting Void casters. It took an extra couple of seconds for the spell to complete as a result of that though, which wasn’t entirely comfortable for anyone involved.

“Maybe having a body isn’t so great,” Fari said. “I feel like my stomach was pulled out through my nose.”

“I thought it felt more like someone stuffed a glacier in my ear,” Darius said.

“Speaking of glaciers, where are we?” I asked.

Ebele answered me with a nothing more than a silent smile. We weren’t at the trusting stage of our relationship just yet it seemed.

We’d landed at on the edge of an ice cliff. Behind Darius, Fari and I, a shimmering, sun drenched sea stretched out far below us and off to the horizon. Great blue-white shards of ice floated in the frigid waters, looking like a particularly pure and unwelcoming archipelago.

Beside us rose irregular walls of the same ice. They looked like they had suffered from several recent explosions and along their pockmarked bases, I saw nearly a dozen people crouching behind cover and carrying oversized bolt casters. Whatever else the location was, Kojo had teleported us to a moderately decent ambush spot. I could think of a few improvements they could make but it was hard to say what kind of time and resource constraints they were under and until the situation was clearer I didn’t think volunteering those kind of suggestions was necessarily a bright idea.

“So, you would like us to be a little more convincing about being on your side?” I asked, gesturing to the ambushers spread around us.

“I’m reasonably convinced already,” Ebele said. “This is for their benefit, and in case someone decides to follow us.”

“Bolt casters won’t be much use against me,” I said.

“They don’t know that,” she said. “And if we came to it, they wouldn’t be the ones you’d need to worry about.”

“I suppose not,” I said. Ebele was standing still and keeping her anima completely internalized, just like me. Neither of us had any cues to evaluate how good the other was. It was a little maddening actually.

I felt Darius take my hand and only noticed after he did it that I had been rolling my fingers into a fist, in preparation for a fight.

“Sorry,” I said on our private, three-way link, “Not the time to go picking a brawl, I know.”

“It’s been a rough night,” Darius replied.

“Be honest though, aren’t you curious who would win?” Fari asked.

“If those two fight, I know exactly who would win,” Darius said. “The Queen.”

I bumped him.

“Spoilsport.” I said.

He was correct of course, but that didn’t do much to assuage my curiosity.

“Why don’t we get the main issue cleared up?” Zyal asked. “Why were you seated with agents of the Queen and why did you attack Ebele’s forces at the Gala?”

“Simple, the Queen’s agent sat with us, probably due to the ‘meet someone special’ field the Queen had layered onto the fate weave and I was trying to stop Ebele’s forces from killing or hurting anyone,” I said.

“Why were you special to the Queen?” Ebele asked. “Aside from being available to help her forces.”

“I wasn’t special to the Queen,” I said. “I was connected to Agent Bo Riverstone. We fought a couple days ago. She was looking for me, I was looking for her and apparently the ‘Someone Special’ field was happy to oblige us.”

“You both looked like you were in a very good shape for having fought a couple of days ago,” Ebele said.

“Well, she looked good because I barely laid a finger on her,” I said. “I looked good because I brought our ship’s medic with us, and she’s a phenomenal healer.”

“Where is she now?”

“Captured,” I said. “Along with our Captain and crew.”

“So the Queen has hostages to use against you,” Ebele said.

“Zyla, can you explain what happens to people who try to use hostages to coerce the behavior of Crystal Guardians.” I said.

“If the Queen attempts to use the medic, or any other member of Guardian Watersward’s crew against her, then Guardian Watersward will be required under Imperial law to remove the Queen from power by any means necessary,” Zyla said.

“Up to and including summoning the Imperial Navy,” I said. “If I could get a summons out.”

“That all sounds reasonable,” Ebele said. “But there’s no reason someone tied to the Queen couldn’t be a reasonable liar. Do you have enough from them yet to rule that out Zyla?”

“Yes,” she said. “There’s no fate bindings on any of them, and I can’t detect any mental spells in effect except for a shielded telepathic link between the three of them. Whatever their agenda is, it’s not being controlled by anyone external to them.”

“You notice our link?” Fari asked. “I’m impressed!”

“Mental anima isn’t my primary focus but I had very exacting tutors,” Zyla said.

“Any of them still left to hunt down?” I asked.

“No, we captured the last one four months ago,” she said.

“Nice work!” I said. “So you know you can trust us, perhaps you could give us some reasons to trust you?”

“That’s easy,” Ebele said. “How many people do we have here?”

“Not counting us?” I asked. “Looks like eleven, though I can see another three spots where people could be hiding that I don’t have a good view of.”

“Now look with Void sight,” Ebele said.

I switched my vision over to look for anima rather than physical forms and nearly fell off the cliff  in shock at what I saw.

“There’s about several hundred people gathered around us,” I said.

“Where?” Darius asked.

“Everywhere,” I said. “Fari can you give us an overlay of what I’m seeing.”

“Sure,” she said. “Or not. What the heck is happening here?”

“Guardian Watersward, meet the Unseen,” Ebele said.

“What are they?” I asked.

“Ghosts,” Zyla said. “These are souls of those that Abyz consumes to power the fate weave. These are the people who called us here in the first place.”