Her hands wouldn’t stop shaking.
That armor. That voice. Nor’s heels clacked on the polished marble floors as she paced, her mind racing in circles. Who was behind that crimson helmet? She wished, desperately, that her gift went beyond compulsion, that she possessed some greater power that would allow her to see through the shield to the enemy beyond.
Darai’s voice yanked her back into the present. He pressed his cold hand to her wrist, the feeling like an electric shock. She backed away, her heart racing. Beside him stood the producer, his four arms crossed as he waited for her orders. Despite the sudden shock of the moment, he still looked at her as all the others did—like she was a goddess come down from the stars.
“We’ve managed to trace the origin of Arachnid’s message, Majesty,” the producer told her. “It seems he was filming in a cave on Sora.”
Sora. A moon in the nearby Prime System, virtually uninhabitable due to the poisonous gases in its atmosphere. The perfect place to hide, shivering in the shadows like a spider.
Nor would see the fool squashed beneath her heel.
Zahn’s eyes met hers from across the room. She gave him a quick nod, and though they didn’t share a mental link like she and Valen did, a silent message seemed to pass between them all the same. I’m okay. We’re okay.
Nor lifted her chin and turned to Darai. “His armor is likely the only reason he was able to survive long enough to send us a message from Sora. A clever place to hide, where I cannot easily reach him.”
“Could we send drones in to find him?” Zahn asked as he began to pace, already trying to solve the problem for her. She loved him for his effort, but it would take more than what Zahn could come up with on his own to silence this threat.
For Arachnid knew. Somehow...the man behind that red helmet knew about Nor’s and Valen’s compulsion. But how? It was impossible, and yet Arachnid’s final words were all Nor could hear. You cannot compel me.
“Clear the room,” Nor said. She reached for her crown, straightening it against her curls.
Darai’s jaw looked to be hanging on broken hinges. “My dear...”
She held up her hand, and her adviser fell silent. “I said, clear the room.”
Darai snapped his fingers, ushering the others out. They raced from the room as if it were on fire. As the doors closed behind them, Zahn rushed to her side. Years before, when Xen Ptera was attacked and everything was stolen from her, it was Nor who had picked herself back up. She’d had Darai and Zahn at her side then, as support. But ultimately, the decision had been hers to stand up. To carry on with her life, and make something more of it.
She’d never believed she needed to depend on others until Valen came along—and until Zahn’s heart had merged with hers. She let her lover press his hand against the small of her back as he gazed at her with worried eyes, his soldier’s mask gone now that the room was empty of watching eyes.
“He knows,” Nor said shakily. “If he knows about the compulsion, then there’s a chance he knows about Exonia. And he will try to stop us from reaching the other side.”
“Then we will destroy him before he takes another breath,” Zahn answered. “We’ll tighten the security measures around Nexus, too.”
Nor fell silent as she considered what to do next. She was the queen of Mirabel. The savior of this planet and the many beyond it. She would not bow to any man, especially one too cowardly to show his face.
“Please, Nor, you must tell us what it is you wish to do,” Darai begged. “Do you want to send a team after him? Give another speech? Do you want to have Valen—”
“Valen is not to be disturbed in this chaos,” Nor said. “He needs peace. Time to focus only on his compulsion. If anything, we need to move more quickly now. For if this Arachnid poses a true threat, if he manages to share his knowledge of our compulsion with the other Unaffecteds... Exonia could be at risk.”
“I’ll do whatever it takes to stop this man,” Zahn said. “You give the command, Nor, and I will send every soldier we have.” His dark eyes could have burned a hole in Nor’s soul, for all the fire in them. He’d always been a fighter, leaping to her defense the moment anyone dared speak ill of her name.
“I know what needs to be done,” Nor said, moving toward the window to look out upon her estate. Her kingdom. Zahn shifted to stand behind her, his warm hands closing around her shoulders. She sank back against him—not because she needed his strength, but because she wanted it. Because when he was at her side, she knew she had all the loyalty in the world.
“Phase Two will come soon,” Nor said, pulling away from his touch, turning to face him instead. Darai hovered in the background, a bitter expression on his lips. “But we may as well conduct a test fire, in light of Arachnid’s message.”
She typed a code into the holoscreen on her desk. The lights overhead responded at once, fading to near-darkness. A few more codes, and a map of the galaxy materialized in the office, beautifully rendered orbs of light representing each planet. They danced across the ceiling, and the stars flickered across Zahn’s face, showing his determination.
Nor walked to the front of the desk, her body passing through the holographic orb that represented Arcardius. Just past it, at the edge of the galaxy, was the Void.
A place without any light. Not a single star shining. Not a single planet or satellite to break through the blackness of it all. Soon, it would be torn open, and the people who truly held her heart would come through, to live safely and prosperously under her rule.
Some nights, Nor feared her plan wouldn’t work. That she’d never see Exonia; that Nexus would fail to break open the doorway that kept Nor from her true home.
But that wasn’t an option. Nexus would be finished soon, and as long as Valen held on, his exhaustion carefully monitored, his mind occasionally given time to rest from the compulsion...then all would be well.
“It’s beautiful,” Nor said, trailing her fingers through the dark expanse that was the Void. An entrance to another world. In her mind, she saw the future, the sky opening wide. She saw not one galaxy, but two, bowing to her command.
It would be the greatest achievement Mirabel had ever witnessed. Nor was sure that the story of her reign—the creation of the Nexus satellite, the complete command of every planet in Mirabel—would be written down in the archives. Songs would be composed about it, paintings created in reverence.
“I can taste it,” Nor murmured, closing her eyes. “I can taste the glory, not only of Mirabel, but of Exonia.”
Across the room, Darai cleared his throat. “Majesty. While it is good to see you leaning toward the positive... I implore you. We must make a decision about Arachnid.”
Despite his words, Nor lingered for a moment longer in her vision of the future. It was her driving force. Her passion, to continue in her mother’s footsteps.
Then she felt Zahn touch her hand, trying to draw her attention back.
If anyone else had done that, they would have found themselves without hands for such an impertinence. But not Zahn. He was different in so many ways. He helped smooth her sharp edges, helped her to become the embodiment of strength and softness, easily able to work between the two in harmony.
Nor took a deep breath.
“Arachnid wishes to thwart our plans to reach Exonia,” she said, this time allowing herself to lean deeper into Zahn’s touch. His warmth mingled with hers, eliciting a sigh of relief.
“That’s impossible. No one else knows of the compulsion,” Zahn insisted.
“But it isn’t,” Darai replied grimly. “I feared this would happen—have feared it since the day your mother ran off to this planet. General Cortas knew. He found some way to resist her power.”
“He’s dead,” Nor said flatly.
“But it’s possible he shared the information with someone else,” Darai told her gently. “His body was never found, after all.”
“His wounds were fatal,” she snapped. “Valen gave me his word.”
Darai inclined his head. “I have no doubt that his aim was true, Majesty. Nevertheless, if he somehow made it off-planet before he died... Perhaps he managed to send a message.”
“Then we will send Arachnid a message of our own.”
“Nor,” Zahn started, his voice pleading. “Not another speech? There have been a great many deaths since your reign began. The Unaffecteds are revolting. Rising up. Just imagine, if there were a band of them on this very planet, following the orders of Arachnid, in hopes that you would respond with a speech the moment his video overtook the feeds... They could be just waiting to attack.”
“I am surrounded by believers,” Nor said, though Zahn’s words rattled her very core. “Any of them would lay down their lives to see my plan succeed.” She reached out to cup his cheek. “But you need not fear, my love. Arachnid needs a demonstration of our power that’s far grander than any speech I could give.”
Nor turned back to the map, still illuminating the large office. She could practically feel the heat thrumming through her veins as she studied the projection of Sora and imagined what was soon to come.
For on Cyprian’s old desk, beside the holoscreen, was a scanner keyed to Arcardius’s leader, kept covered by a sheet of impenetrable varillium so that it was not engaged accidentally. Nor slid the covering open, placing her palm across the scanner to activate it. She typed in the access codes the late general’s team had given her, her body almost buzzing with delight as she entered the coordinates for Sora.
“We’ll see how the spider survives this,” Nor said as she typed in the final code to access the top secret arsenal carefully hidden on Arcardius. Every capital planet had one—a massive array of nuclear weapons that were created toward the end of the Cataclysm, ready to be sent out across the stars should the threat of another war ever resurface.