“At the beginning of the war, a deciding factor was the enchantment which allowed to recycle the air which was trapped inside an airship’s barrier. This allowed it to weave a barrier tight enough to create an air bubble around the ship, which made concerns about flying too high obsolete.”
Willow and I watch as the last of the city's buildings are ground to dust by Illum's force fields. The remains look as if a god drew a huge spiral into the earth, not caring that a city happened to be in the way. Of course, there are faster methods to get rid of a city, but in my identity as Joyce, I don't want to be connected to the new imperial weapon which burned Orwen and laid waste to Jebli's black market.
Joyce is the just and benevolent ruler of Illum. That’s what everyone has to think. The truth behind the scenes is quite different, but that only concerns those who are unable to betray me.
Doing anything flashy like burning everything to a crisp would certainly make some people suspicious. Using force fields is perfect since I am known for force magic.
If Dorver is correct, then the outbreaks of spontaneous incineration of slaves are becoming a real concern to the Sociocrathy and the Empire. I doubt that it's the death of the slaves which concerns them. It's surely more about the fact that most of the slavers also burn in those incidents.
In the long run, I'll have to come up with a new weapon for my agents. Inferno isn't a complicated spell, so I expect that someone will find a counter to it soon. According to the reports, the resistance is using the spell more often. The spell is a military class attack, but it's expected to be used together with counterspells and interference magic to stop the enemy from cancelling it.
Willow averts her eyes from the scene. “You look worn out.”
“Bad dreams,” I answer.
She studies me for a few moments. “I suppose it's a good thing. The fact that you feel for the town and all those people who are left without a home... It makes you a little less of a psychopath.”
Maybe Willow is a little too blunt. And I don't give a shit about the town and its people, but maybe it's better if I keep that to me. Willow can have her delusions.
The paladin shoved that slave collar right into my face and because of that, all sorts of bad memories resurfaced. I was trying really hard to forget about most of them. Some techniques to recover lost memories can also be used to purposefully forget something. Sadly, that takes time. On top, it's really complicated because I want to remember a few more clues about my origin.
I am sure that Nemus didn't manage to keep his mouth perfectly sealed. There must be something buried in all those years. Some hidden meaning or a careless comment which I didn't manage to understand at the time.
Or did he? Who says that he even knew why he had to keep me alive? He was clearly under orders to do so. So why should his superiors tell him anything more than necessary? I wouldn't have either, especially because he was an idiot. In which case I have to find the fat little bug who was with him when he bought me. That's not good. I don't even have a name to go by.
I touch my tattoo and order Illum to rise. The Sociocrathy will find nothing more than rubble and several thousand refugees when they arrive.
Another thought comes to mind. “Do you think that the Sociocrathy will leave the survivors untouched?”
Willow raises an inquisitive eyebrow and turns her attention to the camps of refugees. They had sprung up all around the town. “I don't think that it's beyond them to solve the problem by eliminating the cause. But it's unlikely. The people down there are just a part. A lot of refugees have already left, heading for other cities and villages. They are spreading in all directions. Not to forget, we left the gate network open.”
She shifts her weight around. “That means that many of the wealthier citizens are already out of the Sociocrathy's reach. Then there are the communication crystals and other means to share what happened here. The Sociocrathy can't keep the news from spreading, even if they purge the whole area. Say, aren’t we a little too high? We are already above the clouds.”
“Don’t worry.” I nod slowly. She made some good points. Then I squint my eyes at her. “I wanted to ask, but why does an assassin like you seem to have morals? It doesn't fit.”
Willow looks away. “I only do what I have to. My job involves taking lives for payment, but I always take the lives of those with a lot of power.” She looks at me. “Nobody with a lot of power is innocent.”
I purse my lips and think about it. “That's a dangerous generalisation, but I suppose that it's true for most cases. The question remains, why do you have to work as an assassin?”
Suddenly Willow starts twitching. It's clear that she is fighting the rules of the special magical contract which I made with her. “Because I have to.”
I turn and look down at the fairy. She is currently about a head smaller than me. After a few days, I noticed that she likes to play with her size. Sometimes she is as small as a bug, then dwarf sized, and on some days she chooses to play in the human league. “I can't let that go. Explain. I ask it of you.”
She looks at me with a mournful expression. “Because they have my hive.”
“They? Hive?” I ask, not understanding.
“We fairies live in hives, like bees. They are our version of cities. Normally, we hide far away in the wilderness. The assassin's guild found my people and used poison to anaesthetise us. Then, they transported the entire hive to one of their hidden training camps and locked us inside a cave. Now they are using us to fuel their magic. If there is a task which requires our skills, they have no problem with forcing one of ours to do their job.”
I cross my arms in front of my chest and turn to face her. So, there is an entire hive of fairies. “How many fairies? And how long has this been going on? Won't they retaliate against your people if they learn that you are with me?”
Willow shrugs. “Two, maybe three hundred. And I don’t know. Generations? And I don't think so. Their forced assassins disappeared in the past. It happens from time to time. The assassins will punish the hive by pulling more magic out of us, but they won't kill anyone. But if they find out that I told you something, they will kill my people for sure.”
I sigh. An entire tribe of little fairies who can help me with my experiments. “We will go and get your people once we are done with the Mirai. Tell me, where do we find this training camp?”
Willow pales. “M- M- Mirai?!”
Ah, that's right. I have to tell everyone about our visitors. “Did I forget to mention it?” I guess I can't postpone it any longer. Fae will wet her pants.
I must admit that Illum looks more impressive than the descriptions made me think. After getting informed about our arrival, I went to the observation platform to have a better view. It's a genuine flying city. The main body is an oval bowl and has a large building on top. It looks like a cute, little palace.
A large ring surrounds the whole central structure at a slightly elevated level. The oval and the ring are connected by several walkways.
A large crystal sphere is connected to the front part of the oval, while a second one is placed at the ring. It looks like they have different purposes. The one at the oval seems to be used as a large pond, while the one at the ring is in the process of being re-purposed. There are clear signs of construction work.
One thing to take note of is that they met us exactly at the suggested altitude. We didn’t even have to search.
I lean forward to look over the balustrade of my flagship. We should be too high for the Sociocrathy. Their ships can't reach this height and the distance will make it hard for them to identify us. My whole fleet has got strict orders not to display any signs of national affiliation. The Sociocrathy won't be stupid enough to think that we are from the Alliance or the Empire, but maybe they will play with the thought that we belong to the Consortium.
The story about Laos's destruction took me by surprise. It's certainly something to keep in mind when I talk to Joyce. A shiver runs down my spine. The thought that Joyce could be Nova and that she was inches away from getting enslaved a second time – it turns my guts.
My ghost cat appears out of the floor and meows. I whistle and Minx jumps up into my arms. “Good girl.”
There is only one way to satisfy my curiosity about Joyce. I would've wished for more information from Emil, but I had to give the communication crystal to my captain. He has to manoeuvre the Zenith to one of the docks at the outer ring.
It took some negotiation, but in the end, Joyce allowed us to close in with our entire fleet. I doubt that my general would've allowed me to board Illum otherwise. He has to follow my orders, but foremost, he has to keep me safe. If he can. I am strong enough to watch out for myself, but it’s easier to leave him to his delusions.
I pet Minx and watch as Illum comes closer. The Zenith has a third of the size of Illum's main-body. It's hard to believe that Illum already houses over a thousand people, but Emil would never lie to me.
My doubts evaporate when we come close enough to identify people on the ring, which seems to be in the process of being turned into a walkway around the main body, including greenery and shops. There are hundreds outside to watch the Zenith. I don't understand what's so interesting about my airship. They live in a flying city.
Finally, the Zenith docks with the outer ring. I take the stairs down to the main deck and am not surprised to find the general and ten guards waiting for me. “I am afraid that you have to stay here, General”
“Why!? You are entering foreign territory. There is no way that I would stay behind. What do I tell your children if something happens?” He shakes his head.
I sigh and pet Minx. “My son knows perfectly well what to do, should something happen to me. Aside from that, you can't go with me, since you could offend the people of Illum.”
He looks at me, not understanding.
Shifting, I try to hold Minx with one arm and point at my cheek, where the general has a large hole in his flesh, showing white teeth. “They might be afraid of you.”
The general gasps. “That's racism! Barbaric!”
“I told you many times to get yourself repaired. The new enchantments which regenerate dead bodies are well tested. There is nothing to fear.”
He shuts his mouth. “Fine. I'll send the guards who look like the living. Just make sure that I don't have to explain anything to your children.”
I ignore him and approach the ramp which allows us to pass over to Illum. After a few quick changes, ten guards follow in my wake. On the other side of the ramp is Emil and several of Illum's guards. All of them look like highly skilled warriors. Former adventurers, as Emil informed me.
“Sovereign!” Emil kneels and gestures towards three people who are standing next to him. “These are Brian, commander of Illum's guard, and Fae and Tristen, members of Illum's command staff.”
The large man who is in full body armour nods and the elf bows to me, showing proper manners. The lean man next to her also bows, but less deep. “If you would follow us? Joyce is waiting for you.”
I nod and gesture for them to get going. My guards take their positions in front of and behind me, while twenty of Brian's guards surround us. The whole display is rather unnecessary, but since the general was in a rebellious mood, I didn't want to waste time by arguing that I can easily take on fifty soldiers.
We have to walk a hundred metres until we reach the inner side of the ring. It didn't look that big from far away. The people are staring, but I am used to that. I notice that all of them are dressed well and seem to be happy. It's like at home, though, this place is clearly a work in progress. There are a lot of unfinished buildings.
I notice that none of my guides are interested in starting a discussion, so I stay silent.
We arrive at a long walkway. Its many little stairs allow the masses to travel between Illum and the ring, but we are led onto a platform. Once everyone is on board, it detaches from the ring and floats us smoothly over to Illum's main-body. We land directly in front of the large building which houses Illum's ruler.
I am led through a long hallway and into a large reception room. Fae walks ahead of us and opens a door for me, smiling. “Joyce is waiting for you.” I step inside and Fae closes the door behind me.
The room is an oversized office. To my left is a stairway which leads out of the room. On the other end, is a large office desk with a panorama window behind it. And in the office chair behind the desk is Joyce, studying me.
Nobody can deny the family resemblance. She looks so similar to my daughter. But that doesn’t mean that I should let my guard down.
I smile and concentrate on my senses to look for any dangers. The room is filled with residual energy, just like the rest of Illum. A little fairy is hiding in the ventilation shaft, left upper corner of the room. What's more troublesome is Joyce's aura. The barrette in her hair is like a bright star of power to my senses.
There is also a strange tendril of violet energy on her chest, from where it wanders up and coils around her shoulder. Her hands are motes of white power. What really intrigues me though, is the rest of her aura. All I have seen so far, can be explained with artefacts and body modifications.
Her aura though, is of a light blue. Most normal people with average souls have green auras. In fact, seeing another colour is very rare. It's very easy to observe their growth as they go through a whole range of colours and grow in strength. From green to yellow after a few decades, eventually turning orange after centuries. Blue is high up the chart of colours and indicates that Joyce’s soul has the experience and strength of someone who can reincarnate. She must have the life experience of several thousand years.
I smile and approach her, taking the free chair which is facing her. When I am settled down, I take a deep breath and let it out. “Who are you?”
Joyce raises her eyebrows in surprise.