Children of the Lonely Stars: Part Ten
Subi gripped her staff so tightly that her hands hurt – they were creeping up a steep slope toward the edge of Diamal's encampment, and only the concealment spells that Ruska, Arabel, and Paloma were casting were keeping this whole venture from coming to an abrupt and messy end. They had to save Arabel's strength to work with Almaril later, and Ruska to deal with any problems quickly, so poor Paloma was acting as the battery for these spells, and it was so tiring that Migradar had to carry her.
Rin had wanted to, but Migradar had brushed him off, informing him that he was stronger and faster laden than Rin was free.
Rin hadn't really appreciated that.
Diamal's camp was at the top of a flat plateau – there were sentries stationed all around it, as well as pillars that anchored the spells that gave the place warmth. Subi would be glad of warmth, at least – Filion was cold, even if its air was breathable.
Hildern was in front, next to Ruska. Arabel was behind them, with Migradar next to her on one side and Subi on the other. Rin was hovering next to Migradar and Paloma, holding his staff in such a way that it was clear he was ready to use it.
Paloma was still hearing Almaril, but now there was more magical interference, as far as Subi understood it. They would probably need to get pretty close for Paloma to be able to zero in on her location. The trouble would be if she got too tired out from powering the spells that were keeping them undetected before then.
Migradar murmured, "Look at them. That one's slouching, and that one's leaning against the spell anchor. And that matte black armor is so they don't have to clean it regularly. Disgraceful. Even Sloth had more pride in the appearance of his soldiers."
Subi asked, "Is this the time for jokes?"
Migradar retorted, "First, I'm serious. Second, of course it is. We shall not escape alive unless Arabel and Almaril successfully fight Diamal. We may all have precious little time left in which to joke."
Rin patted Subi's shoulder. "I'll get us out of this, don't worry. Even if I have to go after the crazy sorceress myself, I'll do it. And maybe if we're lucky I'll get the chance to hit Strixa with this thing."
That was what still rankled – Strixa betraying them like that. She'd been nice. A little hyperactive, a little crazy, but nice. Subi was holding out hope that it had been mind control. She knew that Rin and Paloma were, too. Not the least because, without the Harmonia, who knew when they'd be getting back to Virtupets. People were probably worried about them by now, though at least Rin had told his parents... something. Subi thought he'd made up some excuse about chaperoning a trip for the school kids. Hopefully he'd accounted for how long they'd be gone.
As they reached the top of the plateau and the magical perimeter, it did warm up – though that might have been Subi sweating, certain that any moment one of the soldiers was going to see her. She looked around, to see if there was anyone who appeared to be looking at the empty air with too much scrutiny.
There were several ships landed around a spire sticking off the plateau – it looked like it had been natural, but now there was a gate in it and people swarming around it. The ships were tattered, with patchwork welded hulls, and clearly belonged to scavengers or pirates. There were also some buildings made of a mix of stone and scrap metal. Some of the people wandering around were wearing the frighteningly anonymous black spacesuit armor, whereas others wore mixed pieces of space suits, body armor, and work gear. All in all, it was a motley group that had gathered around Diamal, and not in a charming way.
Migradar sniffed. "Riffraff. They'll fight for anyone who pays. There's no cause they care for more than coin."
Subi asked, "Then what's she paying them?"
Hildern said, "Silverstone, we believe. It does something to the ships."
Rin's eyes widened. "Mirite! It's for hyper-travel space fuel. If there are mirite veins on Filion... sweet Fyora, you wouldn't have to worry about keeping the Light going with magic alone. You could buy yourselves a whole cadre of engineers to come out here and fix it up!"
Ruska asked, "Silverstone – mirite, as you call it – is truly that valuable?"
Rin nodded. "Ounce for ounce, worth more than gold. All the Alien Aishas want the mirite fuel for their ships, and the Space Station's starting to go over to it for efficiency's sake."
Arabel said, "It's something to be thought about, certainly – there's a silverstone vein quite close to the tower, but we never excavated it, as it's too soft to be used practically. But likely it's best to save that discussion for a more leisurely time."
That was something, at least. Something to do in the future – something that implied there would be a future, and that a crazy sorceress wasn't about to go entirely out of control.
Subi hummed the alto line of "The Asteroid's Call" to herself under her breath as they walked forward through the encampment unseen. Ruska was muttering constantly to herself now, casting and refining their spells, and Subi didn't think the long, slow melody would distract her. Plus, it also calmed her – that movement of the Nocturnes was a peaceful one. Subi wondered if the composer had ever pictured an asteroid split and endangered by war.
As she thought that, a brawl broke out between several of the fighters some distance away. That proved to be a loud, boisterous blessing, as most of the assembled riffraff ran over to watch or take part. Their spells prevented them being seen or heard, but they were still here, and could still be run into if someone was charging around and they didn't get out of the way fast enough – and that was even if bystanders didn't see someone becoming invisible for a few moments and realize something was up.
The spells were keeping them safe, but the danger was that Diamal might notice the magic being worked. Ruska had said she thought that particular risk was low, and that the spells were necessary. But that kept Subi on edge as they came closer and closer to Diamal's tower. Paloma whispered from her place on Migradar's back, "She's up high, up above us. I think that's why she can see the aurorae so well."
Hildern said, "I have my star-wings, as do you, Arabel, and Ruska and Paloma both have their own wings of flesh. Should we mount the rescue?"
Migradar bounced a few times. "Gravity is light – look, they climb the spire as well, without using their own star-wings." Star-wings were the magically-created wings of light that the Neopians without natural wings used to fly in Filion's light gravity. No one had offered Subi the chance to try any, probably presuming that she'd hurt herself. They were probably right, but she wanted the chance anyway. Migradar continued, "We must remain together. Subi, Rin, and I will do you little good waiting helplessly below."
Hildern took the lead, flaring his wings to allow him to make huge, bounding leaps up the side of Diamal's tower. Subi followed, using her legs and her strong Blumaroo tail for balance. Paloma said, "Up, up – to the right. Oh, she knows we're close! She knows we're coming!"
Arabel cried, "Oh, we're coming, Almaril! We're coming!" The Faerie Grundo's face lit up, and she charged ahead on her short legs, leaving everyone else struggling to keep up. Paloma shouted, "That door there!"
They entered the door, and ended up in a circular room. No one else was there, except for one Eventide Acara sitting by the wall.
She was the strangest-looking Neopian that Subi had ever seen. Her eventide fur was one thing, but her hair also seemed to have the light of stars and nebulae caught in it, and her golden eyes were almost – no, not almost, they were luminous in the dimness of the room. Arabel looked every inch the princess, but Almaril was both regal and unmistakably magical.
Then Subi realized that Almaril wasn't just sitting. She was chained hand and foot with some dark metal that had a sickly greenish sheen. This wasn't just any room. This was a prison cell.
Arabel ran to her and hugged her. "Almaril! Almaril!"
Paloma said, "I heard you calling, and I brought them here."
The luminous eyes fixed on Paloma. "Yes. Yes, you did. And I thank you for that." She continued, "Diamal told me of her attack on the Tower, and the pilot she had suborned. Others have been suborned by the same influence – the darkness that has possessed her can be spread to others. We must seek to strengthen the Light?"
Migradar said, "Firsts first, Almaril. How do we take these foul chains off you?"
Almaril looked around. "Quickly. There are layers upon layers of spells in this chamber, and your own magic may already have alerted her."
That voice came from the door that led to the inside of the fortress.
Subi nearly leaped out of her skin as she turned to see.
The speaker was a tall stealthy Ixi with long, dark hair, swathed in a dark robe, and a strange look in her wide eyes that appeared none too sane.
Diamal. The self-styled Lady of the Darkest Night. And Almaril was still chained-up and helpless. Diamal waved her hand, and Ruska doubled over as if she'd been punched in the stomach. It didn't take a genius to figure out that their stealth spells were gone as Diamal called, "Guards! Guards! Seize and bind these intruders!"
They came in through both doors of the room, far too many of them. And as they did, Diamal said, "Give any resistance, and the last two princesses of the Children of the Lonely Stars will be the ones to suffer for it."
What could they do in response to that? How could they fight back? They'd never even gotten a chance to try. Subi had known intellectually that this was a possibility, but she'd never truly believed it. She'd always thought that they were the heroes, that they'd come out on top.
But they were well and truly beaten.
To be continued...