Ally had discovered a new thing she hated.
“Mirror regeneration?” She wiped a trace of blood off her lips. “Seriously, how is that even a real thing?”
The bloody wound stung, but it was her injured pride that bothered her more. Granted she’d moved before Mava gave the warning not to hit the invaders directly, and granted Ally had proven able to survive one of her own blows, which was fortunate given how hard she hit, but getting dumped on her butt by something that looked like a cross between a pink elephant and a shaggy balloon was simply insulting.
The salt on the wound was that the creatures hadn’t sustained any damage at all from the exchange, and the real damage to Ally’s pride came from the fact that she hadn’t recognized that until Mava shouted it at her following the tenth time she’d been knocked to the ground by her own punches.
“Oh the Nightfolk have troops that are a lot worse than that,” Mava said, wiping her hands clean.
They were gathered in Ally’s barracks since Ally had run late in joining Mava and Renata in the throne room. Ally felt that “being ambushed by invaders from the Caverns of the Night” qualified as a legitimate reason for being late, even if the invaders had only managed to damage her when she struck at them.
Her barracks, where the troops directly under Aloka’s command had once been housed, had not turned out to be quite so durable though. To say they looked like a warzone was accurate in a variety of senses. From the blasted out walls and the collapsed ceiling to the scattered pockmarks on the streets outside and the floor within the buildings, it appeared as though an enemy force had directed a long series of explosives at the barracks to reduce them to their present, shattered state.
The truth however was slightly different.
“I’m curious,” Mava said. “Do you recall any of the lectures I gave about not using bombardment spells to target friendly installations?”
“There were a lot of them!” Ally said.
Mava sighed. She did that a lot Ally noticed and wondered if it was a mode of expression she was relearning or if after the centuries Mava had under her belt it was simply the only expression left that covered her feelings on most matters.
“You are the fastest of the Elites,” Mava said. “Did it not occur to you to run and get the rest of us?”
“I didn’t think I needed you all,” Ally said. “I was doing reasonably well.”
“Until then they turned and fled right?” Mava asked.
“Right, so, I won,” Ally said.
“It’s not a win if you do exactly what your foe wants you to,” Mava said.
“This was a trap?” Ally asked. “Or, no, a diversion. Where’s Gwen?”
Her post-fight fatigue vanished in a blink and despite the irrationality of the act, she started looking all around them as though Gwen would materialize from a hiding place nearby at the mention of her name.
“Calm down,” Mava said. “Gwen was always the sensible one of our little band. She’s probably late because she has her nose in an old book.”
“We have to go to her lab next,” Ally said.
“If only you could read my mind when it came to whether or not you should destroy parts of our ancient heritage too,” Mava said and started to walk them through the folds of Counter-Time that lead as a shortcut to Gwena’s lab.
“What did our enemy want?” Renata asked, stepping through a silver crystal face after Mava and winding up a step ahead of her on the other side.. “For all this destruction it doesn’t seem like they accomplished much here.”
“It’s a good question,” Mava said. “It would be nice if Nyka left us a note, but I’m willing to bet the Throne of Night would consider that out of bounds for one of its allies.”
“Did you find anything in the Throne room?” Ally asked, sliding down a hall that Mava and Renata had been required to climb up.
“Nothing,” Renata said.
“Great, that was a worthwhile trip then,” Ally said.
“It was,” Mava said. “When she says nothing, she means it. The Throne wasn’t there.”
“How can the Throne not be there? You went to the Throne Room, didn’t you?” Ally asked.
“The Throne we see, the one Queen Ulidine actually sat on? That was only a physical representation of our favorite little cosmic power,” Mava said. “The real Throne of Days, as much as you can call it real, resides in the conceptual realms of Counter-Time.”
“Where are those?” Ally asked.
“Above the sky,” Mava said.
“Above the what?” Ally asked.
“Space works differently here,” Mava said. “Dimensions like length and width and height are folded and unfolded in patterns that don’t or can’t exist on Earth. It’s not my area of expertise, Gwena was our resident scholar, but I absorbed enough from her to have a layman’s grasp of how it works.”
“So there is literally a place that’s above the sky and not in Outer Space?” Ally asked.
“From some angles, yes. From others, no. Like I said, I’m not a scholar and never wanted to be one. Usually I would just smile and nod when Gwena tried to explain things in depth,” Mava said.
“So is it bad that the Throne of Days is there and not in the Throne Room?” Ally asked.
“Probably,” Mava said. “At the very least it means that it’s hiding, which isn’t a great sign. It might also mean that Queen Ulidine is hiding too, or being hidden by it.”
“That should mean she’s safe though right?” Ally asked.
“Safety is a transitory state,” Mava said. “What’s worrying me is that the Throne seems to be hiding Ulidine from us as much as its hiding her from Nyka’s people.”
“Why would it be hiding her from us?” Renata asked. “It called us, we didn’t go looking for it.”
“That’s also an excellent question,” Mava said. “Without Ulidine here though it’s kind of hard to ask the Throne about it since she’s the only one can speak to it like that.”
“What if Nyka already has Ulidine?” Renata asked. “She got an assault force inside our defenses, can we be sure she didn’t grab our Queen away when we weren’t looking?”
“Getting attackers in, even ones as big as elephants, is a lot easier than getting a Queen out of her sanctuary,” Mava said. “If you thought Ally did a lot of damage, then you haven’t remembered the kind of havoc the queens can cause if their backs are against the wall.”
“That’s comforting, I guess,” Ally said. “But I’d still like to know why she sent another wave of enemies to attack us.”
They stepped through a looking glass in the wall that showed Gwena’s lab upside down and emerged into the workroom right side up.
Only silence greeted them. Gwen was nowhere to be seen.
“I should have stayed in the Throne Room,” Renata said. “She’s probably looking for us there now.”
“I don’t think so,” Mava said. “I can smell Night magic in the room.”
“What?” Ally asked, lightning playing over her body as she scanned the room for a sign of Gwen or any foes that remained.
The lab was undamaged though. Not a book out of place or a drop of candle wax spilled. It looked as though Gwen had never made it to the room.
Except for the lone piece of paper folded into the shape of a snowflake that was left resting on a shelf at eye level for Ally.
Wordlessly she walked over and unfolded the note.
In magically embossed script, she read the words “I have to leave but I’m not leaving you, the hot springs are still calling. Follow me!”.
“What did you find?” Mava asked.
“She was here,” Ally said fighting to keep her voice under control. “She was in this room and something happened and she’s gone now.”
“Nyka,” Mava said. “It has to her, but why would she do that?”
“I don’t care,” Ally said. “Gwen wants us to follow her.”
“Or someone does,” Mava said. “It could be a trap. No, let me rephrase that, it’s definitely a trap.”
“Gwen was the one who wrote the letter,” Ally said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s a trap.”
“Oh I’m not saying we’re not going,” Mava said. “But we’ll do Gwen a lot more good if we show up ready for whatever Nyka has in mind.”
“I don’t want to wait,” Ally said.
“You never do,” Mava said. “Think back though. Try to remember all the horrible things Nyka setup to take us down. Most of them put her hostage in peril and most of them made sure the hostage didn’t survive so that we would take her threats seriously in the future. Do you want to risk bungling Gwen’s rescue because we weren’t prepared?”
“I thought Nyka was trying to help us?” Ally said. “Why would she do this?”
“If I had a grain of sand for every time I wondered why Nyka was doing something, I would own the entire planet,” Mava said. “Maybe she had a good reason for kidnapping Gwen, but even if so, she wants us to come after her with all the fire we can bring to bear.”
“Doesn’t that mean we’ll be playing into her plans if we chase after Gwen?” Renata asked.
“We’ve played into them before,” Mava said. “The key is to bring more to the table than she’s bargained for.”
“Can we do that?” Ally asked.
“I think we can,” Mava said. “But we need to head to the stables.”
“What’s in the stables?” Renata asked.
“If they’ve been called back, some old friends,” Mava said. “And if not, then at least the doorway to find them.”