She sat upon her throne, her braids like grand thoughts intertwining one into the other.(1)» Her face was blank; she appeared a faceless goddess. Her hands were upon her lap, at rest—those hands held the power to affirm and the power to deny. Her tiara of many jewels sparkled in the afternoon sunlight. Three Cria stood to her left and three to her right.
She was the Empress.
Before her, the Trio knelt, fine specimens of man, woman, and plant. They were embodiments of reverence, cast marble subjects.
“The blessing of the Kingdom I bestow upon you,” the Empress said, and her voice reflected the dignity of her position and the coldness of that dignity. “May it guide you in your quest.”
The Trio answered as one, and their varied voices were as the masses assenting: “So be it.”
“You may rise. Kali and Rina will escort you to the Generator Room.” The two Cria who stood nearest the Empress stepped forward in unison, but before they took their second step, the Empress raised her hand lightly, indicating “Stop” with the energy she might use to brush dust from the air. “No,” she said mildly, as if the words she spoke were of no consequence. “I shall accompany you as well. I desire to see you off.”
Keck Truenight bowed his head and touched his wide, muscled chest in humility. “We would be honored, Your Majesty.”
In a glass-encased corridor beneath the Crystalline Castle, Celina Ven hurried toward the Linking Generator. It hung toward the River Bann like a drop of water from an icicle, and the River Bann burned in flames of afternoon light. Celina’s face was painted with crimson rays and deep, pensive shadows. She stopped before a door.
The door was featureless and black, a slab of darkness against the wall, hard and unyielding. Celina stood uncertainly before it and took a deep breath. She placed her small hand against its smooth surface. Then, in her mind she heard a voice, both deep and pompous.
“Ah, Celina! What a pleasant surprise.”
Beneath her hand, the door began to dissolve. It faded away in streaks and lines, fissures of empty space eating through the solidity. There was nothing beneath her hand now; the door was gone. Celina entered the room, and behind her, the door reformed, splotches of blackness hanging in the air.
In the corner of the room was a large, thick rug, and a disarray of books, papers, and inexplicable magical paraphernalia surrounded it. A chair stood in the center of the rug, like a tower in the midst of some academic fortification.
Qwom Jelp, the magical engineer, stepped over a mound of thin wooden cases as he walked toward Celina. He was tall and straight, more like a tower than the chair he had been seated in, and handsomely built. A streak of white ran through his black hair. (2)»
Celina fumbled with her hands. She could not find a place to put them.
“The dissolve impressed you, I’m sure,” Qwom said. “My own tinkering job. No more of that flashing in and out of reality the way it used to do.”
“Yes.” She averted her eyes; she was too shy and he too confident. “Yes, it’s very nice.” She forced herself to look at him. “Qwom … I’ve a favor to ask.”
Elsewhere, beneath the Castle, Strin stood patiently, his long traveling coat hanging open and loose, modified quarterstaff held lightly. The expanse of the Grenhki foothills was behind him, the immutable black table of the Council Chambers before him. Celina had told them to wait; she had taken them past the guards at the lift and past the guards at the door. In the Crystalline Castle, there was never trouble and guards were little more than ceremonial ornaments.
Fred circled the table restlessly, twirling his cross-staff in his fingers— it was a small cross of metal with holes opening at each end. “You know, Strin … ” Fred pressed a hidden mechanism and a solid shaft sprang out with the sound of metal on metal. (3)» “I’ve been meaning to get a bladed weapon on one of these for a while now.” The shafts slid in and out as Fred manipulated the cross-staff. Leaving only one shaft out, he began to playfully thrust and parry at invisible creatures. “A sword, I think. I could handle that.” He struck the Empress’s chair, and laughed. “Yeah, I could handle that.”
Strin heard something then, a slight noise, and he turned his eyes toward the door. “Fred. Stop playing.”
The shaft flew back into the metal cross.
Strin walked to the door and opened it. Smiling at the guards, he looked down the hallway. The Empress was exiting the lift, followed by two Cria … and the Trio. Strin made an excuse to the guards and shut the door again.
Fred was at Strin’s side. “What?”
“The Empress is here.”
In the Generator Room, Qwom Jelp laughed. “You are a dangerous woman, Celina.”
“N-no, I just …” She tried to protest, but her argument remained a mystery, a collection of unspoken thoughts.
“If it was anyone but you, Celina, anyone but you.” Qwom shook his head mirthfully as he leaned against the wall. He grinned his only grin, a charming, disarming smile. “You can count me in, my dear, but this,” and with a triumphant sweep of the arm he motioned to the massive Generator. A wide, stair-height cylinder occupied the expanse of the room’s floor. Around it stood pinnacles of wire and crystal and throbbing lights of purple, blue, and green. There were six, and like children birthed close in age, they resembled one another in a way not quite identifiable, yet each was an entity unto itself. A subtle electric hum, like flies buzzing in the distance, drifted from the Generator, fading in and out, as if trapped and trying to escape. “But this,” Qwom repeated for the dramatic effect, turning to give Celina another charming smile, “this is the wild card, my dear.” He dropped his arm and thrust his hands into his pocket. “Do you mind if I call you ‘dear?’”
“I … I’d rather you wouldn’t.”
Qwom shrugged. “Of course. But if this holds,” he eyed the Generator, then Celina, both with the same careless, appraising eye, “you’ll have your insidious little heart’s desire.”
Celina nodded uncertainly, and her eyes drifted to the Generator, then beyond, into the thoughts and pondering of her own soul. Qwom walked to the control panel and leaned against it; he ran his hand through his hair, watching Celina.
“Celina, dear, your face isn’t much for comforting a man’s soul.” Celina’s eyes jerked to Qwom as if tugged by a wire. They were wide and fearful. “I … I’m sorry … I—”
“Wait!” Qwom tilted his head, listening to something Celina could not hear. “The Empress is here.”
“Let’s jump her!”
The suggestion was Fred’s as he lay on the floor, watching pairs of feet beneath the crack of the Council Chamber’s door as they moved into the distance. He spoke quietly—as quietly as he could manage in his excitable state—so that the guards outside would not hear him.
“Jump them, Fred? Like bandits?”
“Well … I guess, but not that. I mean she’s …”
Fred turned to look up at Strin, his mouth open. A single unintelligible syllable emerged, before he closed his mouth and muttered, “Why should that matter?”
The Generator door dissolved into nothingness. The Empress, regal and upright, stepped into the room like the sun into the morning sky. Qwom was at her side in an instant.
“Your Majesty! Welcome, welcome! I was just talking to my dear friend Celina about you. All good things, I assure you. There is nothing besides good things to say.” He took the Empress’s hand and kissed it lightly. “It is an honor, Your Majesty, as always.”
The Empress was unaffected by Qwom’s gallantry. “Is the Generator prepared?”
“But, of course, Your Majesty.” Qwom bowed low, and his hair brushed the floor. When he rose, he seemed to notice the rest of the company for the first time. His face brightened like a child’s at a surprise, and he slid toward the others. “The marvelous Trio of Wubbatub! Absolutely famous. I am delighted! Keck Truenight, Webi, and this … this must be Harmony Everpeace.”
He took Harmony’s hand in the same manner as he had the Empress’s, kissing it. “Utterly delighted, I assure you.” His gaze lingered for a second, but it seemed a natural pause—a second more and Keck might have had reason to draw his sword. Qwom turned suddenly, grandly, and proclaimed with open arms, “May I present the Linking Generator!”
At his side suddenly appeared the Cria Rina, and in a low and meaningful voice she whispered: “Get the thing started. Now. The Empress isn’t here to see you sing and dance.”
He stepped away from her, as if she had not spoken, and turned again to face the Empress and the Trio. “And now, if I may, I shall commence with the link.”The control panel before him was an array of buttons, crystals, wires, lights, symbols, and smooth surfaces. Celina stood beside the panel, silent and waiting. Her hands grasped each other tightly. Qwom, his hands hovering over the panel, breathed deeply, then began to chant, his fingers racing over the varied controls.
At the base of each of the six pinnacles, green fog seeped from the cracks in the floor and openings in the pinnacles’ bases. The fog rose, twisting about the pinnacles, wrapping them in shimmering, spectral smoke. At the pinnacle’s summit, at the tip of its point, the fog collected and grew, a ball of yarn being raveled. The spheres became thicker, fuller, darker.
Below, Qwom continued chanting, the words and rhythm reaching a crescendo. He leaned back, full of authority and anticipation of the link’s creation. His eyes were closed, his face calm, his stance rigid. Then his voice rose; it felt as though there should be thunder in the room.
The spheres snapped. Green bolts of lightning rushed from each of the six spheres and collided in the middle with an echoing crash. Above the Generator’s platform was a halo of writhing snakes. A wind rose and began to tear at the Empress’s dress, at Celina’s hair, at Qwom’s clothes, at Webi’s leaves. The plant hid behind Keck for protection.
The halo descended, creating an inverted green funnel, tearing the fabric of empty space. Sparks flew from the interface between link and reality, tossed by the wind, momentary flashes of brilliance.
“Go!” Qwom yelled over the din of wind and fissure. His hair billowed like a grassy field on a windy day. “Go now!”
Fred stopped before the Generator Room’s door. “What in Eternal Night?”(4)» His eyes darted across its surface. “There’s no handle!” He pushed against it with one hand, and then both. The door began to dissolve and Fred jerked his hands away.
From inside, a strong, noble voice was saying: “for we are the Warriors of Justice …”
Through the lattice of the door, Strin and Fred saw Keck step into the link.
And another spoke, her words like a song: “The Guardians of Peace …” Through the cobwebs of the door, Strin and Fred saw Harmony step into the link.
And finally, in a bird-like warble: “ … and the Seekers of—look!”
The Empress and the two Cria, Celina, and Qwom turned as one. Strin and Fred were framed in the open doorway, stunned for the second, and nearly as bewildered as the others. Celina hesitated, but then she ran to Webi and picked him up, holding him near her face.
“Sorry,” she said over the wind, her voice full of guilt, as she pitched him into the sparkling green.
The Cria ran at Strin and Fred. Strin sidestepped Rina easily and pushed her away with his quarterstaff. Fred dropped their bag and two shafts emerged from his cross-staff with a hiss. Fred motioned defiantly with his head as Kali approached.
“Just try and lay another fist on me!” he taunted. They stood off for a moment, then Kali lunged and Fred twisted to the side with a flourish and struck the Cria behind the knees. She fell to the floor.
“Turn the Generator off!” the Empress screamed. She had lost her sculpted, icy tone. Fire danced in her words now. She stood against the wall, her hands twitching into fists, but she did not move. “Now, Qwom! Turn it off!”
“Don’t.” The whispered word slid into Qwom’s ear. Celina stood beside him, her face like cracking glass.
“Distance loss will be inevitable in seconds anyway,” Qwom said calmly. His hand hovered over a button, and Celina’s small hand grabbed it, attempting to jerk it away. Qwom looked at her seriously, his charm disappearing. “The plan has failed.” He pulled her hand off and forced it away.
Qwom’s hand moved toward the panel; the Empress screamed; Fred wrestled Kali and Rina chased Strin; Strin ran for the Generator, calling for Fred—Celina stood silently, sadly, her mouth trembling as she forced out a single word: “Stop.”
Qwom’s hand froze above the button, his hair and clothes suspended in icy billows; the Empress was silent; Kali lay upon the floor like a squashed bug; Rina was stuck mid-stride—Strin was slowing, stunned. Fred stared at Kali in amazement.
“Go now.” Celina’s soft voice was carried like a whisper in the wind. “The link is losing distance as you wait. Go now.”
“Fred!” Strin’s voice dragged Fred from his amazement, and he retrieved their bag and ran to Strin’s side, staring at Celina with awe. The two heroes stood before the link. Sparks spun off the interface. Strin nodded to Celina. “Thank you.”
Her face shone with sweat. A single bead slid down her face, from her forehead, between the frightened eyes and down the nose hungry for air, to her trembling lips. She licked the lips, and the bead was gone. She nodded, then smiled faintly. “Go.”
Strin looked to Fred. Fred nodded, and together the two entered the link.
Celina touched the button beneath Qwom’s hand, and the green lights dimmed and faded into blackness. The wind slowed, died, and then there was only the hollow sound of machinery humming to inactivity and magic dissolving.