Children of the Lonely Stars: Part Eight
Subi went to the sunward control board, where a truly bewildering array of knobs, levers, and pulleys awaited her. She presumed that they were labeled, but the script was no version of Neopian Common that Subi had ever seen. She asked, "Uh..."
Laitri shouted, "Big gold lever up, turn the ratchet with the ask marked on it, stop it, then pull that cord with the star and tie it to the hook!"
Subi did as she was ordered – she had to jump up and hang on the cord to bring it down to the point where she could get the ring at the bottom around the hook. She took a few hair ties out of her pocket and used those to fasten it on – as she did, she looked up, watching screens begin to unfold and move over the glass. On the other side, Rin was doing his own acrobatics with his control panel, and little lines of light began to move over the unfolded screens.
Subi called, "Madame Ruska!"
"Just Ruska, child, we don't have time for titles!"
Subi repeated, "Ruska! Can't we make these panels go up faster? I assume they're to protect the crystal."
Laitri responded, "Exactly! But they're only a matrix for the magic, which we need to work down here – little Shoyru, take this bar right here, and Arabel, would you hold on to this? Help her – your control's always been so good."
There was another thud unto the crystal, and another web of cracks in the ceiling above them. Rin said carefully, "Don't want to rush you people, but them getting in here would be bad, right?"
Migradar growled, "Those two ratchets, right over the star symbol, boy! Subi, turn that big wheel right there – that'll give the gearwork a little more power!"
Subi took off the shawl she'd been wearing and wrapped it around her hands, then threw all her strength into turning the big wheel. It barely moved.
Then Migradar bounded up to her – the big Grundo leaned over her to bring all his massive strength to bear. He turned the wheel, easily as wide across as Subi was tall, as though it were a propeller on a beanie. Subi tried to get out of his way and nearly got an elbow to the head for her trouble – across the room, Rin was still doing the dance of the control panel, and seemed to understand his better than she did.
And then there was a crash above them as something came straight through one of the crystal panels, sending daggerlike shards down toward them. Subi didn't think – she leapt from the platform, grabbing Migradar's arm as she did and pulling him off balance and away from the wheel so he fell with her.
She could feel the breeze created by the warm air blowing out into the darkness of Filion as she hit the ground hard, nearly knocking the breath out of herself. For a terrified moment she thought she might have broken her arm, but an investigation showed that it moved normally.
Then she remembered the bit where she'd just knocked a large Mutant Grundo off a ten-foot platform. Which she rather doubted that he'd appreciate.
But when she pushed herself to her feet, he was already standing, and he actually bowed to her. "Lady Subi, consider me in your debt."
Subi wasn't entirely sure how to react to that, so she looked up at the place where a large, spiky ball was laying right where they'd stood on the catwalk. Ruska shouted something, and a rush of light came out of her hands to encircle the ball in a transparent dome. No sooner had she finished the spell than the spiky ball exploded into fragments inside its protective container.
If Ruska hadn't been as quick as she was, that could have been bad. And Subi doubted they only had one of those things out there. Why didn't those screens move more quickly?
Another thump as one of the bombs sailed in through the hole the first one had made. Ruska reached out again, but this time she didn't quite make it. The machinery was saved, as far as Subi could see, but the platform had been blown to splinters. And the air already felt a little colder in the room – could holes in the crystal above keep the Light from doing its job and warming the tower?
They were in trouble.
Then there was another explosion, a bright one that came accompanied with another shatter of crystal – this time, Migradar grabbed Subi and hurled them both underneath an intact catwalk as the remnants of the windows fell like deadly rain. They were accompanied by several more solid thunks. When Subi looked out and up, she saw that this bomb had blown a big hole in the ceiling's windows, knocking out several panels as well as twisting or destroying the lattice that held them in place. There was now a big enough hole for someone to come in – or several someones at once.
Ruska called, "Laitri! Paloma! Arabel! To me! Hildern, get up there – if we can keep them out long enough, I can create a shield!"
Migradar drew a long sword – Subi hadn't even noticed that he was bearing one underneath his voluminous cloak – and started running for the nearest stairs. There were two sets that spiraled up to the roof that looked fairly sturdy. Subi didn't want to just sit here, waiting, doing nothing when even Paloma was helping. She looked up at Hildern, whose staff was already glowing.
She looked at one long piece of metal from the latticework on the floor.
She grabbed the piece of metal – it was almost as tall as her, with some appealingly intimidating pointy bits on top – and ran for the stairs herself.
Rin called, "Subi! Subi!"
At first, she didn't look – she wasn't wanting to listen to him be Mister Cautious as he'd been so far. But when she did, he was following her, with a large wrench in one hand and the flare from the escape pod in the other. He panted as he caught up, "I think there's crazy in the air here, and you and I both got it."
Hildern frowned down at them. "You have no obligation to aid us in this."
Rin said, "I've got an obligation to keep bomb-throwing maniacs away from my little sister. And to keep Subi from deciding she's the next Captain Brynneth of Faerieland."
Subi blushed, and was glad that it wouldn't show against her dark pink cheeks. She wasn't trying to make herself out to be a knight in shining armor – was she? She was wearing a dress and wielding scrap metal!
Time for introspection later. When they weren't under attack. Probably better that way.
A black-armored figure attempted to leap through the hole, their wings spread – Hildern hit them with a bolt of energy from his staff, sending them shooting back into the night.
Migradar said, "That'll work perhaps two more times. Then they'll try to counteract it."
Hildern responded, "With all due respect, sir, we shall not win this fight. We must merely delay long enough for the mages to create a shield that will keep the Light intact. Ai!" He cut off as he aimed another energy-bolt at another attacker.
Then there came two in rapid succession. Hildern's blast got the first one, but the next one came down – and he came down right toward Subi! Panicked, she swung her improvised staff at him as hard as she could.
It actually worked better than she would have assumed – his wings were spread to lighten his fall, and the knock to his armored legs sent him spiraling to the side.
Then Migradar grabbed him. The massive Grundo pinned the black-armored warrior's arms to his sides with his hands and then hurled him back out the hole, where he collided with the next three warriors who were trying to get in. They all drifted back in a tangle of limbs and weapons, and Rin said, "Yes! I call the next one!"
Migradar chuckled, "That's the spirit, lad!"
They almost missed the next attack entirely – it was a small, dark sphere speeding along within a dark cloud. Migradar shouted, "Magic! Magic! It's magic! Ruska!"
Subi looked down – they were all so focused on the shield, already spreading across the gap like a soap bubble, that they didn't see the danger. And the shield had worked – the next warrior hit it and bounced right back off.
And then the little dark sphere made contact with the great Light.
There was a single, stunned moment, and then a bright light and a wave of force that knocked Subi clean from the steps. She landed hard, on her back, and she wasn't sure whether the next few moments were really full of exploding stars and a lack of air or whether that was merely from hitting her head and having the wind knocked out of her. But she was terrified, gasping for breath and reminding herself that this was Filion, not Virtupets – there was still enough air to breathe, enough warmth to live for a time.
And then there was the screaming. More than one person was screaming, but Subi recognized Paloma's voice among them – and she was hurting. Subi knew enough about kids to distinguish a scream of pain from any other kind. She realized that her eyes weren't clearing – that the room was still filled with a blinding light. And then above the screaming she heard Rin's voice crying, "Paloma! Paloma!" The desperation in his words was heartrending, but there was nothing Subi could do – she couldn't even tell where she was in the room.
Then, slowly, the light faded. Before she could see, though, Subi felt Migradar take her hand. "Come, Lady Subi, to your feet. Are you hurt?"
She shook her head as he helped her up, blinking to try and get her vision back. As she did, Migradar said, "What is the damage?"
Paloma said, voice still shaking with sobs, "The darkness shot all through it, tried to rip it apart, and it felt like I was in there!"
Subi could see enough now to realize with horror that Ruska and Laitri were both laying on the ground as well – both with their eyes closed, neither moving. Before she could say anything, Arabel said, "They gave all they could to keep the Light stabilized when it was attacked. They fainted with the effort. It was enough to keep it from dying entirely, and the shield held."
They looked up at the Light – Subi could tell that it wasn't as bright as before, and that it flickered more noticeably.
Migradar asked, "Will it continue to give us the light and warmth we need? Will our people be safe here?"
Arabel took a breath. "For now." It occurred to Subi, even amid her own fear, that Arabel was even younger than her, though right now was the first time she'd looked it. The Grundo princess continued softly, "I expect Ruska will support me when she wakes. But I believe that we only have days, if not hours – and without Almaril, we have not the strength for an intervention that would succeed.
"Unless Almaril is restored to us, the Light will die, and the Tower with it."
To be continued...